Wednesday, September 18, 2013

About the Indigenous Matses Stealing People

A friend of mine pointed me toward The Emerald Forrest, a movie about a kid who is abducted by a group of indigenous Brazilians and grows up with them. He asked if it was a true story. I told him there was a kernel of truth in it as the boy who was stolen was a real case, but that the rest of it was Hollywood doing what Hollywood does: making movies that start with a a kernel of truth and then go off on whatever trail they want to follow, so long as it will put fannies in the seats.
     My friend asked if I'd ever heard of people stealing in the Amazon--and he didn't mean the quite typical baby abductions for adoptions by unscrupulous people--he meant like people stolen and raised by an indigenous group to become members of that group.
     I told him yes. I know one whole small village that are the offspring of stolen missionaries, and I know three people, two women and one man who fit his description.
     Out on the river Javari, the border between Brazil and Peru, there is an entire small village where nearly every Matses is blond and many are blue eyes. It took some digging, but I found out that some female German missionaries had been abducted in the late 1960s--I presume the men were killed--and these are the grandkids of those people. The older ones have the regular Matses hashmark jaguar tattoo around their mouths and running up to their ear lobes, making them look like jaguars, and they call themselves Matses and think of themselves as Matses. No one speaks English or German, that's not something remembered at all.
    Elsewhere on that same river--which I love because it's really the middle of the middle of nowhere in the jungle--there is a woman who was locally famous for being an expert Matses hunter. I'd heard of her for years but never met her until maybe 1993, when she no longer lived with the Matses. She told me she'd been abducted as a young girl, maybe seven or nine years old, and had grown up with the Matses at Buenas Lomas, the largest Matses camp. She loved being one of them, forgot her family--who had all been killed at her abduction--and simply became a Matses. But she also became a hunter, something basically unheard of among the Matses. And she lived with them for maybe 40 years, until her husband died, and then she left and built a house on the Javari. She was still a Matses and still a hunter--she served me sahino-, the small peccary in that part of the world that she'd gotten a day earlier. She had no regrets, no hard feelings about having been abducted, it was all just life.
     Then there was--and I say was because she's since died--a woman who was abducted along with one of her young sons. She explained the abduction in a clear way. She'd been born and raised near Iquitos, Peru, the large city in Northwest Amazonia. But she was a chacarera--a woman who lived on the river, fished for food and raised crops to eat and sell when there was enough. I've known a lot of people called chacareros/chacareras and it's a good life but a hard-scrabble life, with food to eat so long as you fish every day and tend to your chacras, your gardens, which are cut out of the jungle by slash and burn.
      She'd fallen in love with a fisherman who thought there were too many people on the Amazon, so they moved hundreds of miles away to the upper Javari, where she had several kids. One day, she told Chepa--I knew her for years but she never opened up to me; it was only when I brought Chepa, to whom I was not yet married, that she told her story--she and her husband and kids were in a chacra of yucca when suddenly, unexpectedly, they were surrounded by Matses with bows and arrows. With little fanfare they fired on and killed everyone but her and a young, still nursing, son. She was grabbed and made to walk, She said she walked hard, long hours for 18 days. The first night one of the men cut her hair off with fish teeth. She bled, she said, because her scalp was cut. But the same man then took her to a creek and washed her head with leaves for hours.
    The next day they walked again and that night she was bathed again. Then the next day and the next, up and down the Javari, stopping at some Matses and Marubo camps but never for longer than a night before they started walking again. At some point, she said, her head stopped hurting and she forgot her recently killed husband and realized she'd fallen in love with the man who had cut her hair and then bathed her daily.
     At the end of 18 days the whole group returned to Buenas Lomas--the same place where the huntress lived--and she started her new life as the man's wife. He was a curaka--a warrior, a healer, a hunter who had several wives and she was quickly accepted by the others. He was a great hunter, able to support all of the children from all of the wives with fresh meat daily. She herself had one more son and then some daughters. She lived there for years, even after her husband died. As she told Chepa, there was no other home, no other place to go. Her sons were Matses men, fully tattooed; her daughters had married Matses men and born them children. Buenas Lomas was her home.
     Sometime in the 1970s, a group of three people alleging to be missionaries flew their float plane into the river in front of Buenas Lomas. They said they were there to help treat the Matses for pneumonia, which was killing some indigenous in the region. The woman said they made a separated area and would take the most ill Matses into it for treatment. But, she said, most often they died during the night. Sadness overcame the large village. And once a week or so, one of the "missionaries" took some large metal boxes, boarded the little sea plane and left, returning with new supplies and new metal containers a couple of days later.
     She said she grew suspicious because she thought too many Matses were dying--she said no one could fool her because she'd been to Iquitos and knew city ways--and so decided to look into what the three were doing. She peeked into their work area one night and saw a Matses with the grippe--pneumonia or the flu--on a cot. The three had put intravenous tubes in the Matses person's arms and bloow was being drawn into needles they kept changing. They emptied the blood into a small round metal canister, and then put the canister into one of the metal container. She said smoke came out of the container and she knew that it was dry ice because she had seen it when she was young in Iquitos.
     She said she realized that for some reason those people were stealing Matses blood and taking it in their airplane.
      They saw her, she said, spying on them, and told her she looked sick and they'd treat her the next night. She said she knew what that meant and that evening got her two grown sons and left Buenas Lomas, heading to Angamos, a Peruvian military outpost at the confluence of the Javari and Galvez rivers--and outpost built at that spot to monitor the Matses who lived on the two rivers.
      It took days to reach Angamos, and no one there believed her story, or even believed that she wasn't Matses, despite speaking fluent Spanish, unheard of among the Matses at that time--and even into the 1990s.
     But she was safe. The son who'd been stolen with her built a camp not far from Angamos. Her Matses son stayed there as well. She told Chepa the story, on tape, in 1993. I'd met her in 1986 but she never told me any of that story. I only knew her sons as Matses, and when I collected plants for Shaman Pharmaceutical, the son who was abducted was the plant maestro of the village, rather than the son she'd borne to the Matses curaka.
     The good that came out of excaping, she said, was that the three people pretending to help the Matses while draining their blood and stealing it, left shortly after her escape and never came back.
      Years later it came out that several anthropologists throughout the Amazon and into Central America were being paid by forces thought to be U.S. CIA to collect blood and other body parts for study in the U.S. so that people here could learn why the different indigenous were immune to certain physical diseases while very susceptible to others. Among those anthropologists caught in that scandal was Napolean Chagnon, famous for his work among the Yanomami of Venezuela.
      I have never been able to find out the identities of the Matses killers at Buenas Lomas, but there are records of a group of three people having been there for several weeks in the 1970s, flying from Iquitos to the upper Javari and back in a float plane regularly.
      And that's a true story of people stealing in the Amazon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said... great tale... thanks