The Awá Indians are the last nomadic hunter gatherer tribe to be discovered in the Brazilian Amazon.
Today, despite having survived many brutal massacres at the hands of settlers and illegal loggers over the course of centuries, the Awá now face pressing man-made threats and even the natural landscape itself is no longer able to sustain to their way of life. For this critically endangered tribe, extinction remains a very real possibility.
A year or so ago I travelled deep into the forests of Maranhão to meet some of the last remaining members of the Awá tribe.
This is their story.
Originally from Pará, a state to the west of Maranhão, the Awá were living in villages and farming crops when the Portuguese settlers arrived 500 years ago. Enslaved by the Portuguese, and with their numbers greatly reduced by the introduction of smallpox, the remaining Awá eventually fled east to Maranhão, perhaps prompted by the bloody revolt on the Portuguese plantations, the Rebelião da Cabanagem, which took place between 1835 and 1840, and claimed as many as 30,000 lives.
Fearful of their vulnerability as sedentary agriculturists, the Awá now became nomadic hunter-gathers, able to build a shelter within hours and abandon it only days later, melting back into the forest. In Maranhão, the Awá had moved into the territory of the Guajajara, the largest tribe in Brazil with more than 20,000 members, and they remained unable to secure or defend any land for growing crops.
By 1973, when the Awá were contacted by outsiders for the first time, they had fully adapted to living a nomadic lifestyle, and had lost all of their farming skills and even the knowledge of how to make fire.
Following the unwelcome invasion of the Portuguese, the Awá, and many other indigenous Indians, continued to suffer great atrocities at the hands of loggers, colonists, and ranchers. For instance, when Brazil’s military dictatorship took over in 1964, it implemented a policy of “assimilating” indigenous people to reach its goal of national unification, which included wiping out those peoples who refused to cooperate, by dropping bombs or feeding them sugar laced with arsenic.
In 1967, the 7,000-page Figueiredo report exposed the true extent of the criminal actions and genocide carried out against the indigenous population of Brazil, and the National Indian Foundation, or FUNAI, was established in response. This is the Brazilian government body that establishes and carries out policies relating to indigenous peoples. The report also triggered the founding of Survival International, a human rights organization that campaigns on behalf of indigenous tribal peoples, and who consider the Awá to be “Earth’s most threatened tribe”.
Recently Survival International helped the Awá people secure a landmark victory when unprecedented international pressure finally forced the Brazilian government to send in ground troops in January 2014 to expel illegal ranchers and loggers from what remains of Awá territory. Experts warn that it is now critical that a permanent land protection program be put into place to keep the invaders out of the Awá territory.
Though the government intervention in 2014 signals positive progress, for many of the Awá it came far too late. Thousands were brutally massacred during territorial conflicts in the 70s and 80s with the fazendeiros, or ranchers, and with illegal loggers. Most recently, in late 2011, illegal loggers tied an eight-year-old Awá girl to a tree after she wandered out of her village, and brutally burned her alive, reportedly as a warning to other native peoples living in the protected area.
The threat of deadly infection after contact with outsiders also continues to pose a significant threat to the Awá. For example, over the last five years, one in seven Awá has died of malaria. The disease was brought to Alto Turiaçu by the thousands garimpeiros, or gold seekers, who invaded the Awá lands and later made a fortune on the international market.
The centuries-long bloody conflict with their traditional enemies, the Ka’apor tribe, has also continued to claim many Awá lives, and elsewhere in Maranhão, trains come from Carajas, the world’s biggest iron mine, and cut through the Awá land multiple times per day.
Today FUNAI estimates that there are only 300 Awá left, with around 60 still living uncontacted in small groups of five or six in the forests.
In recent years, as they have suffered at the hands of violent invaders and from infectious diseases, the Awá have been forced to seek assistance from FUNAI. As a result, some of the Awá have now chosen to live in purpose-built shelters on protected reserves such as the Alto Turiaçu, but they struggle to embrace this new lifestyle.
The Alto Turiaçu is only a small part of the Awá’s traditional land and the diminishing natural fauna in this area is pushing the nomadic hunters to live more sedentary lifestyles — learning how to plant and grow crops like manioc to ensure a food supply, as their ancestors once did.
Yet some Awá still persist in living in their traditional nomadic groups of five or six people. Today in the Alto Turiaçu there is one small community of about 45 people who choose to live this way. FUNAI offers them real, but fragile, protection to continue their way of life.
“The Awá have been continuously threatened by attacks, invasion, and extermination, and even inside the reserve their survival is uncertain,” the people from FUNAI told me.
“We don’t have extra resources to protect them from the ranchers who continue to encroach on their land. Since the forest has been cut back and transformed into farming lands, small towns have sprouted up over the Awá lands. In the face of these changes, Awá numbers have been drastically decreased. We estimate that fewer than 360 Awá have survived the occupation of their land, and around 60 still live uncontacted in small nomadic groups.”
Today, in a world where they can no longer live as nomads, the Awá are struggling for survival and for their unique cultural identity. For the Awá, hunting is a way of life, and as the illegal loggers distort the forest habitat, the animals are disappearing. Despite their efforts to keep moving, they face the encroachment of the modern world at every turn, and remain threatened with extinction.
The Awá people need time to recover from the extreme brutality and humiliation they have suffered for centuries at the hands of the invaders. Yet we do not give them time. In our world, time is money. We cannot let the last of the Awá, or any other indigenous tribal people, disappear.
“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”
— WADE DAVIS
Learn more about uncontacted tribes in Brazil through Survival International as they work to protect the last Awá.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Domenico is an Italian photographer currently based in London. His long term project is working with the "Awa-Guaja" tribe in the Brazilian Amazon.