A little story, easily overlooked

July 23, 2007

MANAUS, Brazil – Loredana Kotinski has the striking looks and easy charm of the TV journalist she was for more than a decade. That was before she moved into newspapers and before she came here to the capital of Amazonas, a city of 1.5 million 900 miles up the world’s mightiest river. At 34, she’s out of newsrooms now. She quit the region’s principal daily after six years to run a gorgeous, high-gloss fashion magazine.

The move frees her from relentless daily deadlines, and she hopes to make tough-minded documentaries on her own time. At the newspaper, she says over lunch, “You’re working in a system and you must work as the system tells you, and because of that you’re very limited.”

What does the system demand? Coverage of crime, politics, politicians and entertainment.

And the Amazonian environment? Coverage is scant, to her dismay. Goaded by the foreign media focus on ecological peril, Brazilian journalists agree attention must be paid. But in general, Kotinski says: “People want to see only the forest, the animals, the monkeys – as if it’s a big zoo.”

I thought of Kotinski two days later and six hours up the Rio Negro, which winds southeasterly from Colombia to where it joins the Amazon at Manaus. Our group of U.S. and Brazilian researchers and students – under a program funded by Petrobras, Brazil’s national oil company — had docked at a tiny village.

There we met Waldemiro Silva, leader of this settlement of Kambeba, or Omagua, Indians, once a major tribe, now nearly extinct.

Silva is a sturdy 48, perhaps 5-foot-3, with deep brown, unlined skin and a woven headband that pushes his straight black hair back so severely his head seems almost pointed. (Later, a colleague shows me a sketch made by Europeans in the 1780s showing a Kambeban wearing a nearly identical headpiece.) Silva, in T-shirt and shorts, leads us through the forest, showing crops, fish farm and medicinal plants – he is the village’s chief custodian of traditional healing arts.

His people are not from here. Until the 1970s they lived far to the west where the soil is richer and the river is “whitewater” — laced with nutrients and teeming with more life than the anemic, blackwater area we were visiting. But they had to leave. They were routinely cheated by middlemen in attempting to sell into the cash economy, and they were being ravaged by “white man’s diseases” such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.

So, in 1971, their journey began. From the intermittent translations as we cluster beneath a thatched shelter under the broiling equatorial sun, I gather that some Kambeba initially resettled way north on the Rio Negro near Venezuela, hundreds of miles from their homelands. Silva followed his father-in-law there.

After a time the elder fell ill and sought care in Manaus, where he was hospitalized. The three generations tried to make a go of it in the capital, but Silva’s beloved four-year-old daughter got sick and died. He meanwhile was selling ice cream on the streets of the grimy port city. “I’m an Indian,” he says. “This is not what I want to do.”

As fortune had it, relatives of his wife had been living at the place that was to become his new home, and one day a cousin arrived in Manaus. His brother had been killed by a falling tree, and the man could no longer bear to live there. Silva, bereaved by his daughter’s death, could no longer bear to live in Manaus, so in November 1991, he traveled upriver with his wife and five children to this then-uninhabited spot. They began clearing the riverbank, huddling around the fire at night for fear of jaguars, and he built a home for his family and his people.

His father-in-law visited from Manaus, liked what he saw, and convinced a second family to join them. Others followed. Sixteen years later the settlement has 15 families totaling 68 people, nearly a third 15 or younger.

The village, Aldeia Tres Unidos, has an artesian well and clean water. It benefits modestly from government aid to Indians, a fragile sliver of a once-vast Amazonian populace decimated in one of history’s most horrific genocides. One of Silva’s sons teaches 28 primary students, smiling and evidently well-fed, in a one-room schoolhouse. Another helps run a clinic; health services reassured non-indigenous neighbors the Indians wouldn’t eat them.

Its footings are precarious, but the village abides. And Waldemiro Silva’s tale is the sort of narrative of hardship, loss, determination and vision that strikes responsive chords deep within the foundational myths of our own culture.

Yet nobody tells his story. The most powerful story-telling mechanisms ever devised are busy propagating other myths, of beauty and self-absorption, celebrities and super-models. Courage and survival will have to wait.

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