Echoes from a River

An Amazonian tribe on the cusp of change

Oro Win girls return to their village from the Paacas Novos River. ANDY RICHTER
Oro Win girls return to their village from the Paacas Novos River. ANDY RICHTER
01 November, 2013

HUNCHED OVER, the octogenarian Ti’omi asked Joshua Birchall when he would come back to the Oro Win tribe’s village in the Amazon Basin. Birchall, a linguistics researcher, responded that he would need to return to his native Netherlands for more than a year to write his doctoral dissertation.

Ti’omi sighed. The pair had been working together for the previous few years to create literacy materials that would help teach the disappearing Oro Win language in local schools. Ti’omi had grown accustomed to the reassuring scrape of Birchall’s feet shuffling up the path to his hamlet every morning. The young scholar had been working on documenting the history of the Oro Win and preserving their language, and Ti’omi had come to cherish his visits.

“Oh, well, you won’t see me then,” Ti’omi said, pointing to a pain in his back. “My eyes want to close.”

As one of the last six native speakers of the Oro Win who had grown up monolingual, the passing of Ti’omi’s generation will mark an inflection point for the tribe. Last recorded in 2010 as having 73 members, the tribe relies heavily on Ti’omi and a few other elders for their knowledge of the Oro Win’s past and language, as they increasingly abandon traditional agricultural practices for new technologies. While younger generations learn specific Oro Win phrases to communicate with relatives and practise their rituals, the recent arrival in the village of television, and motor boats that ease travel to the nearby town of Guajará-Mirim, and the tribe’s increased political involvement in the government agency FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation, which drafts policies for Brazil’s indigenous peoples), have all encouraged the dominance of Brazilian Portuguese and, with it, a creeping pan-Brazilian consciousness.

But while the influx of technologies and the slow but almost assured death of their language prove challenges for the Oro Win’s traditional way of life, the tribe has endured far worse. In the 1940s, the first rubber tappers arrived and started a seringal (a rubber tree plantation) in the Oro Win’s territory, leading to frequent violent confrontations. Later, in 1963, the rubber tapper Manoel Lucindo da Silva opened the São Luís Seringal directly on their land, massacring an estimated 31 Oro Win of a population of approximately 52 in the process. Ti’omi managed to lead the survivors away, but the group was eventually caught by the tappers and employed on Lucindo’s plantation in slave-like conditions. (The plantation was eventually shut down and a popular jury trial convicted Lucindo of genocide in 1994.)

When the Oro Win finally left the confines of the São Luís Seringal, the government resettled them in the Rio Negro-Ocaia reserve, the home of the Wari’ people, the Oro Win’s traditional regional rivals who speak one of two remaining languages closely related to the Oro Win’s. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the Oro Win finally reclaimed their land and established the village in which they live today, though some of the tribe still lives at the Rio Negro-Ocaia reserve.

And yet, despite the hardship, the Oro Win have successfully rebuilt their society in the last two decades. They continue much of their traditional way of life, from hunting and fishing for food to painting their bodies with black genipap and red annatto dyes for rituals. While the younger generation delight in the pop culture and modern gadgetry that trickles in from their communal television and the nearby town, the Oro Win remain a tightly knit community who are still quite isolated from the rapidly globalising Brazil that surrounds them.

Photographer Andy Richter accompanied Birchall when he visited the tribe in 2010. The photographs Richter made depict a village steeped in its own culture, yet eager to incorporate modern conveniences—skin dotted with genipap dye, metal spoons scooping local cuisine out of bright blue and green plastic bowls. Most of his photos rely on brilliant Amazonian sunlight, though a few feature faces illuminated by a television or the flame of a match, or a building basking in the dull light of two electric bulbs. All are documentary in nature, capturing day-to-day lives and highlighting the intimacy the photographer achieved with the Oro Win. Even his portraits seem extracted from quotidian activity, as though their subjects are only seconds away from returning to the tasks at hand.

In the course of their documentation, Richter and Birchall formed a bond with the tribe despite the linguistic and cultural barriers between them. This bond was especially evident between Birchall and Ti’omi. On the morning of Birchall’s most recent departure, Ti’omi insisted on accompanying his young friend to the main village. Normally a 20-minute trek through the jungle, the frail Ti’omi needed over an hour for the walk. One of his sons suggested that Ti’omi wait for a motorboat, but he refused. He wanted to make sure that he’d have enough time to properly say goodbye to his adopted wina (grandson), Joshua.