’The Last of the Tribe’ tells lone Indian’s tale

By Michael Astor
Associated Press Writer June 2010

“The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon” (Scribner, $26), by Monte Reel: Monte Reel gets right to the heart of the dilemma facing modern-day Brazil as its rush to develop the vast Amazon rain forest rapidly collides with the last vestiges of cultures whose way of life has changed little since the Stone Age.

“The Last of the Tribe” is the story of an extreme case: a lone Indian on the run from often-murderous ranchers with a handful of hapless government agents bent on saving him.

About the only thing the members of Brazil’s federal Indian agency, FUNAI, know about the Indian is that he digs a deep hole in each of the huts he builds then quickly abandons at the first sign of Western civilization’s approach.

No other tribe in the region is known to dig such holes, although agents uncover evidence of an entire village of such deep-holed huts wiped out in a massacre – most likely carried out by local ranchers seeking to avoid having a reservation declared on their land.

Relying mostly on video tapes and interviews, “The Last of the Tribe” does an excellent job of placing the reader in the heart of the Amazon as the FUNAI agents struggle with jungle thicket and the equally dense government bureaucracy as they try to protect the man they have dubbed the “Indian of the Hole.”

All the while, ranchers pull political strings in an attempt to thwart the operation, and they mount an aggressive public relations campaign questioning the Indian’s very existence.

When the FUNAI agents have their initial encounter with the Indian, the absurdity of the situation becomes glaringly apparent.

The Indian has no desire to make contact, and after about six hours in the sight of a drawn bow and arrow, the agents have little choice but to retreat, still knowing almost nothing about him.

Other attempts at contact are made and a host of problems arise, illustrating the difficulties and contradictions of trying to maintain Indian tribes isolated in the 21st century.

Reel, the South American correspondent for The Washington Post, convincingly lays out the concerns of both Brazil’s Indian defenders and the ranchers – though he doesn’t say, or even really bother to find out, what the other indigenous people in the region think about the matter.

He is especially good at explaining the widespread paranoia among Amazon ranchers that international money spent to preserve the rain forest and save the Indians is nothing less than a veiled attempt to wrestle the jungle from Brazil and thereby prevent the country from becoming a world power.

In the interests of balance, Reel does perhaps give the ranchers’ view a little too much weight, pointing out that the 31 square miles eventually set aside for the lone Indian would house 1 million people in Tokyo and 2.5 million in Manhattan.

While this is certainly true, it neglects vast stretches of the Earth that remain sparsely populated, including much of the Amazon where the bulldozers and buzz saws have yet to arrive.




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