By Carlos Garcia Rawlins
When I show him a photo I’ve just taken of a fellow tribe member, he smiles. He’s fascinated and can’t believe it. When I point the lens at him and then show him his own image on the screen, his body retracts. He frowns, confused.
In the depths of the Amazon jungle, just 19 km (12 miles) from the Brazilian border, is the village of Irotatheri of the Yanomami tribe, that still groups around a fire. They live barefoot, semi-naked, and free. Until last week they had not seen any humans that didn’t look like they do. Never had they seen any outsider, let alone a bearded one.
We had flown five hours from Caracas with the Venezuelan Army to accompany them as they investigated the alleged massacre of 80 members of the tribe by Brazilian miners. We landed at a small shapono, or Yanomami village, consisting of a ring of houses in a jungle clearing. I immediately recognized that nothing would be the same for them ever again. There was going to be something irreversible about this meeting.
“Wishak, wishak, wishak,” or “monkey, monkey, monkey,” they repeated as two bearded photographers approached. It was our facial hair that took them by surprise. They touched our faces. They touched their own. Then they lifted their hands to their chest and said, “noji,” or “friend.”
They revealed themselves, coming out from behind the branches, just minutes after our toko-toko, their word for the helicopter, took off again. They came holding bows and arrows as well as spears, as if they were approaching an enemy. But the Irotatheri villagers are friendly, almost always smiling, showing off the herbs they stuff between their gums. So as soon as the helicopter flew off, we were nojis.