Friday, August 10, 2007

Just a Little on Old Style Matses People Stealing

I got a letter this morning from someone I don't know who said he'd spent time on the Rio Galvez in Peru, which is home to several villages of ingigenous Matses. The fellow said he'd heard about a fierce group called the Boca Negras and wondered if I knew anything about them. I told him I'd often heard my friend, the amazing Matses headman Pablo, talk about them, and that there used to be at least one kidnapped Boca Negra woman living at the village of Remoyako on the Galvez. She had the same hash-mark tatoo from ear to ear and around her mouth as the Matses wore, but while the Matses tatoo is blueish and made from an extraction of huitochado, the Boca Negra woman's tatoo came from charcoal embedded under the skin,and so was a bit thicker than the Matses and very black. In addition, the woman had several nipples tatooed on each of her breasts, I think to ensure plenty of milk for her babies. Not having seen other Boca Negra women I can't say if that's standard for them.
But remembering that stolen woman--who was fully adapted to now being a Matses woman, I remembered by friend Wilfredo and his mom. Wilfredo, sporting a Matses facial tatoo was a great Matses headman and curandero. He was one of two--Pablo was the other--Matses with whom I collected medicinal plants for Shaman Pharmaceuticals in the early 1990s. He was extraordinary in the jungle.
But on my second or third trip to his camp--shared by two wives, his mother and brother and one or two other Matses families (though there were often visitors as his camp was very close to the Peruvian military post of Angamos which the Matses often frequented)--I discovered something interesting.
While I was out plant collecting with Wilfredo, Chepa, who would later be my wife and is now my estranged wife, spent the day speaking with Wilfredo's elderly mom. And she'd taped part of the conversation.
What the woman told her was that she'd grown up in the Iquitos area, and had married a fisherman. He grew tired of the city and moved them out to the Jivari river, the border between Peru and Brazil, and they'd carved fields out of the jungle, built a house and had three children. And one day while she and her husband and the youngsters were out in the chacra--their plantain and yucca field--they suddenly found themselves surrounded by several Matses men armed with bows and arrows. Her husband was killed, as were her two young daughters. But she and her son, Wilfredo, were taken captive.
She told Chepa the Matses ran her for 18 days, stopping only at night at camps to sleep. Her head was shaved with fish teeth, roughly, and she ate little. She described it as a sort of brainwashing. But she also said the man who took her, the headman it turned out, also bathed her in the river each night several times, and that by the end of the 18 days she'd fallen in love with him and once she had the running from camp-to-camp was over and they were able to settle down. She bore him at least one other son whom I know, Wilfredo's brother, who lives at the camp he started when their mother decided to run away from Buena Lomas, where they lived, following the death of her husband and the appearance of some bad anthropologists who were taking genetic samples at that camp.
Wilfredo was raised as a Matses man, tatoo and all, and became a wonderful headman.
The woman told the story very simply, the way a riverino would, as if it happens all the time. And I guess that in the old days, up until about 30- years ago, it did. I know that Pablo once asked me--just 15-years ago-- to go on a raid with him to get champi--young girls--so that he could add to his then-four wives.
I didn't take him up on the offer, though I've occasionally wished I had, just to see how they did it. At the time I didn't want to be party to the bloodshed that would probably be involved and that was the right choice.
Anyway, I thought it was interesting that a Matses headman wasn't a Matses at all. I also learned a great lesson that day: that the most important collection of the day wasn't my plant collecting, it was Chepa's collecting and recording of that story--one of the only modern day stories verifying Matses people-stealing. And it was a story I'd never have gotten out of Wilfredo's mother: it was only talking with Chepa about Iquitos that brought it up.
And since then I've always tried to bring others with me on any expedition: my sons once got some fantastic stories from some young kids that their father's were too embarassed to repeat to me. But the kids had gotten the stories--they involved a fossil bed and the bad dreams of dinosaurs that came to the people who sleep near the fossils they dig up--from their grandpa.
And I think that in the future if I get a chance to do some more real explorations, I'll try to bring out a whole team--a botanist, a geologist, an anthropologist, a woman from Iquitos and some sharp kids--so that we get as much information as we can all at once.

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