News & Politics » Feature

When Worlds Collide

Encounters with Anthropologist Terence Turner and other agents of modernity left the Kayapo of Brazil with something they'd never had before: power.



By David Moberg

University of Chicago anthropologist Terence Turner recalls a day that changed his life. He was working on his doctorate at Harvard nearly 40 years ago and planning to do his dissertation fieldwork in France. His adviser, David Maybury-Lewis, had recently finished a study of the Shavante, one of the Ge-speaking people of east central Brazil, and he told Turner that it had just become possible to study another isolated rainforest tribe: the Kayapo, proud and fierce Brazilian Indians whose raids on frontier settlements had earned them the nickname the Apaches of the Amazon.

"You can always go to France when you're old," Turner remembers the professor telling him. "Here's an opportunity to study a substantially intact, simple, primitive society and really do a global study." On what he now describes as an impulse, Turner thought, "Why the hell not?"

Back in 1962, when Turner first landed in the Amazon, the Kayapo still lived in traditional village communities. Thatched huts circled a ceremonial plaza and central men's shelter, and the people were sustained by products from the surrounding forest and garden plots. The Kayapo had only recently agreed to stop raiding frontier settlements, and in return the Brazilian Indian Service had promised to keep them well supplied with what had been their booty--metal tools, guns, and ammunition.

But contact with Brazilians had brought diseases, and inadequate medical care allowed these new illnesses to spread. As a result, within a relatively short period the Kayapo had become "dependent mendicants," Turner says, "wards not being well looked after. It was a period of cultural demoralization and economic misery."

Over the course of the past three decades, Turner has witnessed dramatic changes among the Kayapo, who have surprisingly emerged resurgent and wealthier (though not uniformly so). No longer distressed victims, they have become central and assertive players in the current global debate over the preservation of endangered ecosystems and the effect of today's all-consuming capitalist economies on the dwindling ranks of small tribal societies. Turner has not only been at the forefront of his profession on the newly hot topic of indigenous rights--a subject given an academic boost in recent years by concerns over multiculturalism--but he's also become one of the Kayapo's chief advocates in battles with the Brazilian government, the World Bank, and logging and mining interests. Turner's frequent visits to the Amazon have transformed his own vision of anthropology and his theories about how societies work. In the process he's moved from being a curious outsider recording what seemed destined to be a vanishing culture to being an active participant in the Kayapo's battle for control over their own fate.

Turner says indigenous societies pose a troubling question: when people everywhere drink Coca-Cola, watch identical TV programs, and work for the same transnational firms, can the diversity of mankind--represented by these long-established cultures--survive in any meaningful form? He's convinced that it's not hopeless. Strange as it may seem, Turner says, people in industrial societies like our own have a stake in the preservation of cultures such as the Kayapo's.

Lucky circumstances led Turner to the study of anthropology, just as they eventually led him to the Kayapo. He grew up outside of Washington, D.C., where for many years his father worked for the U.S. government, including the Agency for International Development on missions to Iraq and Thailand. After spending a year in England during high school, Turner went on to Harvard, earning a degree in modern European history in 1957. He served a brief and unhappy stint in the army, where he had to beat the rap of falling asleep while on guard duty; then he headed to the University of California at Berkeley for a master's degree in history. Prompted by his reading of French social theorists such as Claude Levi-Strauss and Emile Durkheim, he found himself increasingly drawn to the broader theoretical questions of what makes a society tick.

He returned to Harvard and enrolled in its famed department of social relations--which encompassed the study of anthropology, sociology, and psychology--and from there he went to live with the Kayapo. A professor at the University of Chicago since 1968, Turner has maintained a close relationship with the tribe ever since his first two-year stay, returning repeatedly for research, documentary filmmaking, and various collaborations on economic and political projects.

Turner says the Kayapo continue to be a treasure trove for traditional anthropological inquiries into the roles of kinship, ritual, and mythology in precapitalist societies. They still cut a dramatic figure, with their painted bodies, feather headdresses, shaved heads, lip plugs, and flamboyant weapons and masks. But in the eyes of Brazilians they've progressed from worthless savages to shrewd and powerful leaders of the frontier territory. Living in a vast region of forest and savanna on both sides of the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon, they control an area the size of Scotland, which they have defended against repeated commercial incursions (only to periodically surrender in the quest for money). A few have grown rich, but most remain poor. Until now all the roads to wealth have carried the price of destruction.

Though Turner was one of the first anthropologists to spend time with the Kayapo, they'd had intermittent contact with Europeans for nearly two centuries. The first recorded meeting came in the early 19th century, when Portuguese slave raiders drove Indians westward into the Amazon basin. Missionaries later set up camp at one of the largest settlements, which eventually died out from diseases brought on by contact with the missionaries. Occasionally Brazilians would attack and kill Kayapo. Starting early in this century, the Kayapo began to fight back, periodically plundering settlements. Gradually, however, they became dependent on the manufactured goods they captured. Peaceful visits by whites were rare, yet in 1938 one group of Kayapo made peace on its own initiative. The remaining groups didn't establish peaceful relations with the government until the 1950s.

When Turner, then 26 years old, and his first wife, Joan, a fellow anthropologist, arrived at the longest-pacified Kayapo village, Gorotire, a government agent and two missionaries were living on the outskirts of the community. Still, Gorotire was deep in the back country and could only be reached by a very long canoe trip and hike or a rare airplane flight. Outsiders faced a tough situation, but Turner, physically robust and intellectually assertive, discovered a charge-ahead disposition was well suited to dealing with the Kayapo, who were demanding when necessary. Even the women, Turner says, could brandish a machete and issue credible threats.

At first, he recalls, the Kayapo seemed "culturally very different" from us, though "there was kind of a thin veneer of Brazilian culture. For example, the men were wearing shorts for the most part rather than penis sheaths, and some women were wearing dresses by then. Others were walking around without anything." By and large, the Kayapo continued to adhere to traditions--they still painted their bodies, and the men continued to wear penis sheaths beneath their trousers.

"I thought of my project as getting beneath the veneer, and really getting to the essential Kayapo culture underneath," Turner says, "but it didn't occur to me then that Kayapo culture itself could be a viable basis for ongoing interaction with Brazilians. It seemed to me that the choice for the Kayapo was essentially to become Brazilians or somehow to remain as isolated as possible under their own communal authority far off in the jungle beyond Brazilian frontiers, as they then were."

Turner assumed that this real culture underneath the veneer was much like that described by earlier anthropologists studying related Ge tribes and that it had changed little in hundreds, or even thousands, of years. He began the standard round of fieldwork--learning the language, collecting information on kinship (the central social arrangements of such societies), observing ceremonies, recording different versions of myths, and joining the Kayapo on many day-to-day activities, like hunting.

Despite his own background in history, he shared the then-dominant view of anthropologists that saw history as largely irrelevant for "primitive" societies. Yet early on he noticed that the Kayapo lacked one of the distinctive features of most Ge, a feature that was crucial in earlier Kayapo villages. Most of these central Brazilian societies had what anthropologists call a moiety system, that is, a community divided into two parts whose relationship was central in many important ceremonies. But when Turner arrived in the Kayapo villages, that system had disintegrated. Solving the mystery of its disappearance eventually led him to a more historical view of Kayapo culture.

Turner discovered fairly quickly that politics flourished in the villages. He was sucked into the ferment, despite his desire to be a neutral observer. Though most of the Kayapo were "patient, friendly, and kind," he recalls, "the two Gorotire leaders were closely linked with and dependent on the Indian Service agent, who was hostile and wanted to get rid of me. So these chiefs were extremely ambivalent towards me." At first the agent, who feared Turner might undermine his authority, refused to accept his letter of introduction. Then he tried to get the new anthropologist's house built next to his own. But Turner built his hut as far away as he could and as close as possible to the central men's house. At the instigation of the agent, the two chiefs tried to disrupt construction of Turner's house and later organized some of the men to break in to steal things, a gambit that was foiled when one of the missionaries publicly confronted the chiefs.

Turner occupied an ill-defined position. He was briefly popular as a source of presents, and he was seen as some sort of scientific or technical person, a prestigious outside representative of the "white-skinned people," whom the Kayapo distinguished from Brazilians. He had no power over them and limited ability to supply the goods that they wanted, but he was an alternate link to powerful people in the outside world.

Yet just as they would befriend and respect him at one moment, they might try to rip him off the next. Once he left for a couple of days to help at a nearby village during a serious flu epidemic. When he returned, he discovered that someone had burglarized his house. In exasperation he stomped into the central plaza and delivered a Kayapo-style oration on how angry he was that someone took his possessions while he was off saving the life of one of the tribe's grandmothers. If they were going to act this way, he said, he was simply going to sit in his house with his shotgun across his knee, guarding his belongings and refusing to help them anymore. Bit by bit, the Kayapo sheepishly began returning various items, but not his razor blades, which he sorely wanted.

So Turner went to the house of a man identified as the prime suspect. He burst in and demanded the razor blades, but the man, who had just returned from a hunt, ardently denied that he had them. The hunter pointed his shotgun at Turner, nervously fingering the trigger, while his wife pleaded for him to give back the razor blades and not kill the anthropologist. Turner decided he had to defuse the situation. Remembering a scene from a story he was told in Sunday school (which actually didn't end so well), he ripped open his shirt, baring his chest. "Go ahead and shoot me," he challenged the man. "At least you won't ruin the shirt, which you can then steal from me as well." The hunter was dumbfounded by Turner's unexpected move, and his wife seized the moment, jumping in and wresting away the gun, leaving the two men facing each other unarmed. Turner walked out, and later the hunter's grandmother returned the razor blades, insisting that her grandson really liked him and never intended to kill him.

At times Turner liked the Kayapo very much. "They had these really grand, splendid moments," he said. "Fantastic rituals and flamboyant oratory. But also there was the constant begging, wheedling, and stealing. It also was hard for me to get over how they treated seriously ill and dying people, often just leaving them to die, letting their faces rot off with leishmaniasis, leaving the seriously ill person locked up in a room to die and then carrying him off. I would feel just disgusted." Later he realized this was not typical behavior but more of an indication of how demoralized their society had become.

At least the Kayapo were willing to share information about their lives and their culture, though they were reluctant to discuss past conflicts within the village. They loved to tell stories of outrageously mean acts. In one, a leader took his followers on a hunting trek, dug a drinking hole in the sandbank near a river, and then secretly urinated in it. After everyone had a drink, he announced, "Ha, you've drunk my piss!" Turner says, "They loved to tell stories like that. They were real connoisseurs of badness."

Turner returned to the United States in 1964, teaching first at Cornell University, then moving to Chicago in the fall of 1968. By then he had worked out his basic understanding of the core institutions of Kayapo culture. Unlike the dominant anthropological approaches of the time, Turner's own view focused on something other than the rarefied realm of cultural symbols or how various social institutions fit together and reproduce themselves. He thought that anthropologists had to start with people's actions, including their interactions with each other, and the ways in which they produce not just their means of sustaining life but also the values, power, and rituals that characterize their culture. The ceremonies and institutions of a society provide the ongoing means for creating personal identity--or, as Turner says, "the ways of feeling and thinking of yourself in relation to other people, as not completely separate from other people."

After his arrival at the University of Chicago, he began studying the writings of Karl Marx. He gradually came to realize that the production of goods in a market society differs from that in a relatively stable tribal society. "The difference for me and for cases like the Kayapo is that from the outset you had to recognize that 'production' means the production of human beings in their totality," Turner says. "The Kayapo didn't have an economic sphere. They didn't have commodity production. Production for them in an immediate sense is production of their lives, and of course then you realize--wow!--this is a society for which the complete human being through all stages of life, right up to death, is the supreme product. It's the most complex and demanding product, and the social order is the whole process of producing that product."

Through his study of Marx, Turner realized that the Kayapo produced values, but not the market or exchange values that Marx described in capitalist societies. The Kayapo produced values of beauty and of a particular kind of power that permitted the elders at the top of the hierarchy a great degree of freedom. These values were not equally distributed, though they could not be accumulated as wealth because they were not embodied in anything like money. A value like beauty had to be displayed, especially in ceremonies. "It's expressed in public performances, ritual performances, dance, song, oratory--chiefly chanting, women's keening, and all these specialized things that only older people could do perfectly well," Turner explains. Despite the way in which these older people might be seen as benefiting from, even expropriating the labor of, younger people, their wealth was shared in the performance. Eventually everyone would pass through the life cycle and claim this position. "In other words," Turner says, "today's workers are tomorrow's bosses."

The core institutions of the Kayapo are similar to those of other Ge-speaking Indians, who, on the basis of linguistic evidence, split into different tribal groups probably 3,000 years ago. Though the institutions vary from village to village, they share some similarities, suggesting a coherent system that has persisted for millennia. But, as Turner observed, these institutions "relied on the values of the society....That becomes threatened when the society no longer reproduces itself in importantly valued senses, like if it becomes reliant on commodities."

Even in the 1960s the Kayapo sold a few Brazil nuts to buy ammunition, clothing, and tools, yet they remained far from Brazilian frontier settlements, continuing to hunt and garden in shifting plots cut and burned out of the forest. They used the threat of raiding settlements to force the Indian Service to offer gifts as well as medicines to fight the growing number of epidemics. They also began to acquire technology--motorboats and radios in particular.

How did these products from the outside world affect the Kayapo's self-contained universe? Ingeniously, Turner says, they treated these "supercommodities"--shortwave radios, motorboats, and eventually airplanes--as communal property. These goods were all kept outside of the big circle of huts that defined the village. This central ring was soon surrounded by a new ring, which might include a radio hut, a medical dispensary, a school, a mechanic's shop, and in some cases a mission. "It's Brazilian on the outside, Kayapo on the inside," Turner says, just like some of the Indians themselves, with their penis sheaths and body paints underneath Brazilian shorts and shirts. In addition, wealth was not passed on within families. Certain valuables such as shotguns, which may have been claimed by one person, were either destroyed or given to others upon death. The Kayapo's ideal of communal property existed uneasily with the possessive individualism of the invading market society.

While the Kayapo became adept at such "Brazilian" jobs as repairing motors and operating radios, they typically gave everything a twist. When the Indian Service provided radios to facilitate communication between government officials and tribal villages, the Kayapo began communicating with each other in their own language, which the authorities couldn't understand. This ability to take advantage of new situations would prove crucial in their battle to control their own borders.

The Kayapo retained a strong sense of territory, and they were willing to fight for it. In 1969 the government established the Xingu National Park, protecting some Kayapo land and about one-tenth of their population of 4,000. It also granted rights to government aid for some of the Indians living there.

However, in a separate deal cut with private speculators, a feeder road for the Transamazonica Highway was set to slice through the northern fifth of the park, where the Kayapo lived. The tribe resisted vigorously and killed or drove off all the settlers who tried to move in. They seized a ferry that traveled across the Xingu and held Brazilian officials and construction workers until the government agreed to return the land.

Since then, in fits and starts, the government has set aside areas as collectively owned Indian reserves. Even so, settlers continue to flock to the area.

In the 1970s Turner began to speak out against abuses of the Kayapo's rights, and he was increasingly drawn into an advocacy position. After a long absence, he returned to the Amazon in 1976 with a BBC documentary crew and became convinced for the first time that the Kayapo were not doomed to succumb to disease, slaughter, or cultural assimilation. He also started to form new ideas about Kayapo history. He came to view the traditional moiety system, for example, as a ceremonial method for displacing conflicts between senior and junior men. But as the Kayapo undertook the routine raiding of Brazilian settlements, their villages were increasingly organized around these raids, leading, Turner says, to a "military relation" between villages and Brazilian settlers. This relationship "took over the function" of the opposing moieties. That's why he found Kayapo villages without the traditional moiety system.

Turner was struck by the way core structures survived, albeit in a transformed state: "The Kayapo had a future. They were adapting but in terms of their own culture."

Throughout the 1970s, Kayapo continued to attack the waves of Brazilian settlers moving deeper into the forest. In the early 1980s gold miners brought big changes--two large mines, employing about 3,000 people, were established inside Kayapo territory. In 1983 roughly 150 Kayapo men dressed in full battle regalia took over the airstrip of the larger mine, Maria Bonita. The miners were held hostage for ten days while the Kayapo negotiated with the government, which eventually granted the Indians ownership of the mines and a tiny share of all gold production. Later the land was declared a protected reserve.

While the elder chiefs gave their approval, the attack had been planned and led by a younger generation of leaders who could speak a bit of Portuguese and had some knowledge of Brazilian life, attributes that made them better able to negotiate with the authorities. Three of these younger men would go on to play major roles in Kayapo politics in the coming years--Payakan, Kuben'i, and Tapiet. Turner says the senior chiefs became figureheads while the youngsters took control of the new wealth flowing in from mines and logging. Though the new leaders often operated in the name of the community, they kept much of the bounty for themselves and their families and friends.

"The real decisions were being made by this young group based on their Brazilian know-how," Turner says. "They made themselves wealthy men, wealthy even by American standards. With communal funds, they established town houses [in Brazilian frontier cities like Redencao] complete with staffs of Brazilian servants, bodyguards, and chauffeurs. They acquired several cars apiece and airplanes. They established ranches outside the reserve as well as inside. In theory these were all communal resources, not their own, but they had complete control of them. The chiefs seemed to become puppets, rubber stamps for these younger guys."

The archetype for the new leader was, however, a traditional chief named Pombo. As a child Pombo survived a massacre of his village by invading Brazilians. He was then taken by gunmen to a nearby town, where a Brazilian family raised him. Consequently, Pombo grew up inhabiting two different worlds. As an adult he lost a bitter struggle with other chiefs in his home village, so he led 100 followers away to establish a new village. Soon he agreed to allow Brazilians to mine and log this territory. The self-titled "Colonel" Pombo became very wealthy, moved into town, and bought a hotel. Though Pombo provided gifts to supporters and thus shared some of his riches, the new wealth dramatically disrupted Kayapo life. "There was no overt exercise of communal control in what we think of as a democratic sense," says Turner, "which means it was very difficult for the community to exercise any meaningful control over people who dealt with this wealth."

Soon others were tempted. Tapiet and Kuben'i had a falling out with Payakan over the letting of timber contracts, which Payakan said should be kept under community control. Eventually even Payakan fell victim to the seductions of wealth and power. There were, however, other leaders who opposed any logging or mining. A chief named Ropni rejected the new wealth and wanted to preserve traditional Kayapo life.

"There was also, on the part of leaders like Ropni, a consciousness of ecological conservation," Turner says. "They didn't want to pollute the rivers or have the forest chopped down or game driven away, and they thought of preserving the Kayapo way of life as a cause synonymous with saving rivers and the environment." This "eclectic pragmatism" distinguished them from many environmentalists from industrial societies, who were concerned with protecting what they saw as wild and pristine nature.

But Ropni and the traditionalists lived on the border of the Xingu National Park. That gave them access to some state-supported services that were denied to the others, because by then the government had cut nearly all social programs from the Indian Service budget. "The argument was that all of us outside the Xingu Park can't get anything from [the government], so we need some basis for getting needed services for ourselves," Turner says. "At face value it's a pretty unanswerable argument." The Kayapo had come to depend on hunting and fishing equipment, and now they also required clothes, transportation, and medicines.

Despite the emerging tensions among leaders and villages, the Kayapo pulled together in the late 1980s to fight against a planned series of large dams that the Brazilian government wanted to build on the Xingu and its tributaries. The dams were supposed to supply electricity to the country's newly developing areas, and the project had already won financing from the World Bank. But the dams would have flooded huge swaths of the region, and many Indians stood to lose their traditional territories. Though most of their land would not have been affected, the Kayapo recognized that the project would indeed flood their region with settlers, who could gain political dominance over the area. "Brazilians would have imposed their political and economic dominion on the area without any consultation with the Kayapo or any role for the Kayapo," Turner says. "It was this, more than anything, that they objected to."

Payakan became the leader of the fight against the dams. He had previously led the 1983 seizure of mines at Maria Bonita and later organized a sit-in at the presidential palace in Brasilia to protest a radioactive-waste dump planned for an area west of Kayapo territory.

As a result of his new prominence, Payakan was invited to a tropical ecology conference in Florida, along with Kuben'i and an American anthropologist, Darryl Posey. At the conference he met people from the office of Congressman John Porter, the Republican from Chicago's North Shore suburbs. He was invited to visit Washington and meet with staff of the World Bank.

In Washington Payakan was given the plans for the dams, which until then had been kept secret in Brazil. Payakan brought the plans back and created a public furor that prompted the state prosecutor to charge him with assisting foreigners engaged in illegal political activity.

While still under the threat of arrest, Payakan organized a protest. He arranged for it to take place in the frontier town of Altamira, where he had studied at a Catholic missionary school. Then he embarked on a speaking tour of Europe, Canada, and the United States (including a stop in Chicago that Turner arranged). A gifted politician, Payakan soon sensed that the industrialized countries had a strong environmentalist constituency, so he increasingly spoke in ecological terms to his Western audiences.

Back in Brazil the Kayapo planned the demonstration to coincide with their green corn ceremony, the one major festival that occurred in all the villages at about the same time. While it celebrates the ripening of the corn crop, the event also marks the "ripening" of children into young adults. The ceremony involves the carrying of a large tree into the village. The tree symbolizes the original corn plant: its limbs stand not only for the proliferation of corn stalks but for the branching out of different Indian languages and tribes. By using the green corn ceremony, Turner argues, the Kayapo were asserting that preservation of nature was central to their culture, linking the cultivation of corn as food to the reproduction of its society through a new generation of children. Despite their combative history with surrounding tribes, whom they had often raided, the Kayapo also used the corn tree myth to underline the common ancestry and interests of all Indians. This provided a rationale for recruiting other tribes in defense of the Amazon.

Across the Americas there were attempts to forge alliances with other Indians, stretching as far north as the Cree, who were protesting the construction of a hydroelectric power plant at the southern end of James Bay in Canada. Ultimately, the 500 Kayapo at the 1989 Altamira demonstration were joined by about 100 Indians from 39 other tribal groups and nearly 600 environmentalists, journalists, and celebrity hangers-on--from Sting to Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop cosmetics company.

"The Kayapo emerged as eco-heroes," says Turner, who was also at Altamira. "It was successful as a world media event of 'noble savages' defending their environment and cultural way of life that's so intrinsically part of the Amazonian world. And through Payakan they were speaking the language of the world environmental movement. Payakan, brilliant politician, brilliant and very charismatic person that he is, had learned to push all the right buttons."

During the Altamira demonstration, the Brazilian government dropped its charges against Payakan. Ten days later the World Bank announced it was withdrawing the loan to build the dams. Within Brazil, Altamira and Payakan became touchstones: the action consolidated the goals of the environmental and indigenous-rights movements. But, Turner says, it also "unleashed an intense xenophobic reaction from many right-wing and nationalistic Brazilians against foreigners combining with the Indians to use ecological issues to take control of the Amazon and take its resources away from Brazilians."

Roddick had met Payakan once before in London; she had contributed money to bus Shavante to the demonstration at Altamira. But the drama of the protest inspired Roddick, and she hatched a plan to set up a business in Payakan's village to collect oil from Brazil nuts. Turner allows that Roddick may have "thought she could do well by doing good, to combine her two roles," but, he says, he's always considered the Body Shop project to be "totally public relations."

The Body Shop hired Saulo Petean, a former Indian Service worker, to head up the operation, and in 1991 and '92 it imported two hand-powered screw presses to extract the oil, which was more efficient to ship than the raw nuts. The presses were set up in two of the fourteen Kayapo villages, A'ukre and Pukanu. Though Payakan worked with Petean, the Brazilian controlled hiring, bookkeeping, and pay rates. Early on, Roddick had argued with Payakan over who would control the airplane she was providing. According to Turner, hefty amounts were deducted from the oil revenue to pay for the airplane and other administrative expenses. He says the costs were so great that the Kayapo sometimes received no pay for their work.

Resentment grew, and at one point the workers threatened to burn down the oil shed. The Kayapo claimed they hadn't been paid, but, Turner says, the threat arose from the fact that "they had no control....Saulo continued in an authoritarian and somewhat secretive way to run the project. There was also resentment that the lion's share of work and pay for the work went to Payakan's immediate kin, in-laws, and supporters, and a large part of the village was cut out of sharing in the work."

The project came under attack from other quarters as well. Stephen Correy, director of Survival International, a London-based advocate for indigenous people, launched a broadside against the plans of firms like the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry's to exploit the "rainforest harvest." Such projects--many promoted by a rival U.S. group called Cultural Survival--claimed to protect tropical environments and native people by marketing products collected in the wild by indigenous tribes. Correy attacked the schemes as misleading, because, he said, many of these "rainforest" ingredients--used in such products as Ben & Jerry's Rainforest Crunch or the Body Shop's Brazil nut hair conditioner--came not from tribal collectors but from commercial firms that blatantly exploited Brazilian forest workers. He argued that these products cash in on concerns for protecting the rainforest but use very little rainforest product (about 1.5 percent of the Body Shop conditioner is tropical oil). Furthermore, rather than "empower" the Kayapo, Correy claimed, the Body Shop scheme made them dependent on one buyer who controlled the price and how much they produced.

Correy accused rainforest-harvest advocates of promulgating a dangerous hype. "I don't know if the 'rainforest harvest' has helped conserve a single acre of rainforest," he charged. "Ninety-nine percent of the problem is that the outside world isn't respecting their rights. This fiddling about with Brazil nut oil is neither here nor there." Moreover, he said, rather than guaranteeing Indians unconditional rights to their land, the rainforest harvest approach makes preservation of their land dependent on how useful or productive it is. He felt this could eventually result in the removal of Indians as obstacles to development. If Indians like the Kayapo have secure rights, Correy said, they "can adapt and change as they have for generations without necessarily becoming depraved alcoholics on welfare or becoming like us."

Turner agrees with much of Correy's critique, yet he emphatically believes the Kayapo can sell products from their land without destroying their culture. Turner says the Kayapo liked the Body Shop project and wanted it to expand. They recognized that collecting Brazil nuts or making bracelets was another way of getting the goods they wanted from industrial societies. But even though the Kayapo were paid at slightly higher than the going rate for forest gathering, Turner says, they weren't paid for what they really provided--free publicity. He points to the Body Shop's sophisticated marketing stance, with Roddick positioning herself as a daring advocate for progressive causes, from saving whales to promoting AIDS awareness. In recent years, when customers entered Body Shop stores they often encountered large dramatic photos of Kayapo Indians, including Payakan. For some time they handed out copies of Fight for the Forest, a comic book that told the story of Roddick's support for the Kayapo. The Body Shop had a great "story" to go with its products, and it cleverly realized that it was this story, not the mundane contents of its products, that moved the merchandise. Customers could feel they were doing good while buying products that might otherwise seem frivolous. The Body Shop's association with "natural" ingredients, the rainforest, and noble savages also gave its products a "natural beauty" cachet that attracted cash--but very little of it went to the Kayapo.

Richard Adams of the British group New Consumer, which monitors many marketers of peasant and tribal goods, figured that despite its lavish publicity the Body Shop paid its indigenous producers about 0.165 percent of its sales income. The money was also unevenly divided, so, Turner says, it ended up fortifying only one leader and his faction, exacerbating tensions in Kayapo society.

Turner argues that Roddick did a great disservice by promoting the slogan "Trade, Not Aid." He says the Kayapo still require medical aid and education from the government, at the very least. Despite the company's claims, he says, "the income from this project is real but small and is not having the effect the Body Shop said it would, that is, [providing] an alternative to reliance on these bad, extractive projects [such as logging and mining]. It's no substitute for government aid. The message of the 'Trade, Not Aid' that 'green capitalism' is the way to go. But these projects don't bring in enough income to substitute for government services." Indeed, when former Brazilian president Fernando Collor cut off nearly all aid four years ago, many Kayapo villages--including A'ukre, where the Body Shop had one of its operations--permitted loggers and miners on their territory.

While logging greatly disrupts the forest ecology, gold mining is especially harmful to the population. Miners in small groups spread throughout the territory using high-powered hoses to wash away gold-bearing dirt. This process heavily pollutes the streams with mercury, which poisons the water and fish. These operations also leave stagnant pools that breed mosquitoes carrying a particularly deadly strain of malaria. There has been a growing incidence of disease and birth defects.

The new wealth has also created new inequities in a fairly egalitarian culture as it transformed the politics of the frontier. "When I started working," Turner says, "the Kayapo were like other poor Indians, regarded virtually as animals. Now these wealthy young Kayapo leaders who maintain Brazilian town houses have become prominent local citizens. Several of them have been elected to town councils by a Brazilian electorate. Often voters are economically dependent on them. These guys are bosses in a regional Brazilian style. They are recognized as wealthy citizens. They spend a lot of money in town, and they're important for the local economy.

"Now these young Kayapo chiefs who speak good Portuguese and are savvy in every sense--they wear Gucci clothes, have servants, good houses, and automobiles--are regarded as having become Brazilians. Brazilian young women really groove on having affairs with these young Kayapo leaders. They lifted themselves by their bootstraps from being monolingual forest savages about the same as monkeys, as far as Brazilians were concerned, to being cool dudes who are like local political and economic bosses, all in about 30 years." Brazilians also respected these leaders for their ability to command a disciplined army of men and women for anything from political protest to outright combat.

But the success of these leaders also caused many Brazilians to regard the Kayapo as corrupted, "spoiled savages," no longer deserving autonomy or special treatment under the law. The Body Shop was embarrassed not only by the reports of increased logging and mining but also by the wild living of the Kayapo's young leaders. Anita Roddick's husband, Gordon, flew to Brazil and told the Kayapo that the company would not expand its project if they didn't reform. But by that time it had become clear to the Kayapo that the money generated from the project could never equal the income gained from logging and mining.

Then in 1992 the market value of Roddick's star celebrity, Payakan, was suddenly threatened. After partying on the outskirts of the frontier town of Redencao, Payakan was driving home with his wife, his daughter, and a young Brazilian woman with whom he was having an affair. The three adults had been drinking, and a fight broke out between Payakan's wife and his girlfriend. The Brazilian woman tried to run away, but Payakan caught her, and during their struggle the woman was hurt on a barbed-wire fence. Payakan was later acquitted of a rape charge, but the Brazilian press still had a field day besmirching the reputation of the onetime eco-hero, despised by many powerful Brazilians.

The Payakan affair was simply a sensational manifestation of the Kayapo's larger problem. The pursuit of wealth had damaged the practice of tribal culture, and many Kayapo began to object to their leaders' headlong pursuit of Western-style wealth and their adoption of Brazilian lifestyles.

Ironically, the new wealth may have contributed to a resurgence of pride in the traditional rituals. In 1987 Turner arranged to provide video cameras and access to editing equipment for the Indians themselves. The cameras gave the Kayapo a chance to record and interpret their own way of life, pioneering a new form of documentary filmmaking. It also helped to engender a renewed sense of value in their rituals and ceremonies.

Turner says the Kayapo love to watch tapes of their ceremonies. "They think those are beautiful. For them, it's like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony." He had no idea that the cameras would also become political instruments. Kayapo cameramen recorded their protest demonstrations in Brasilia and elsewhere--in which traditional warrior behavior and ceremonial dances were adapted for contemporary political ends. They also learned to videotape nearly all their interactions with Brazilians in order to document their claims.

Turner had started to intervene more directly in Kayapo affairs. Inspired by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's "pedagogy of the oppressed," he taught a bilingual literacy course that included such politically charged and useful phrases as "This land is our land."

"I also tried to teach how their culture was essential to their reproduction," Turner says. "What's the use of Kayapo culture? They were saying, 'Hey, we've got all these ceremonies, but maybe we should work and make money and buy things and not mess around with naming ceremonies.' I tried to talk to them in metaphorical terms about how their culture was their way of making themselves. You can have a tapir in a zoo without a mate, and he could be extremely well fed, but eventually he dies. If you give up your ability to reproduce, you can get rich with commodities, but at the end of the day if you can't reproduce your culture you're going to be like the tapir....What's the way your community makes itself? It's by dancing these ceremonies. If you abandon them, you'll be like the fat tapir in a zoo, but your society won't go on."

Over the years, as the Kayapo grasped that lesson with growing conviction, Turner discovered his own relationship with their society had changed. "Now I was observing a culture making claims to a continuing relationship with a culture that involved me. It wasn't something hopelessly 'other' and different. In some ways the Kayapo culture made itself part of the same system that I lived in."

During his earliest fieldwork, Turner set out to strip the Indians of their Brazilian veneer. Now, he realized, "the point was not to strip away any superficial veneer to get down to a core system but to see how the dynamic process of culture...nevertheless adapted itself through a sense of politics, self-empowerment, and self-determination. I shifted my focus to that process of acquiring the veneer rather than trying to strip it away....I had for some years been part of that process myself, bringing a message of what having a culture was for. So their culture was part of something that I had helped create and not just studied. The Kayapo had modified my own fundamental theory of anthropology. The changes to my theory were partly their product, and the changes to their culture were partly mine."

Because of people like Turner, the Kayapo and other indigenous groups now have means to defend themselves that weren't available to the Apaches or Sioux in 19th-century America. For the past six years Turner has used his position at the American Anthropological Association's Committee on Human Rights to campaign against threats to the Kayapo and other Indians, such as the Yanomami in northern Brazil. International pressure has often proved effective in dealing with governments that wish to look good in the eyes of the world.

Yet the fight for self-determination is still unresolved. In the 1990s tensions among the Kayapo escalated as health problems increased, hunting and fishing declined, and the number of Brazilians living on Indian territory continued to grow. Early in 1994 a surprising intervention by the Brazilian government helped fan the flames of a smoldering rebellion. The federal prosecutor announced he was going to enforce a previously ignored provision of the 1988 constitution that prohibited any extractive activities--that is, mining, logging, and oil drilling--on indigenous reserves without approval of the Brazilian congress and the indigenous people themselves. The Kayapo leaders threatened armed resistance, and a stalemate persisted for most of the year. Surprisingly, the older tribal chiefs had united with a new generation of even younger Kayapo to change the status quo. Such generational alliances were not uncommon in traditional Kayapo politics, Turner notes, but this particular twist was quite remarkable. Many of the new generation were ordinary villagers with no special ties to any chiefs--and thus no privileged access to the extracted riches. They had learned Portuguese and enough about Brazilian society and business affairs to be very critical of the way the Payakan generation of leaders had managed Indian affairs. They saw how the Brazilians were robbing the tribal land of its wealth and how the middle-aged chiefs were keeping for themselves what little was returned.

Plans for the revolt were formulated by two young Kayapo who had worked in the gold mines alongside Brazilians. They went on a hunting trip in the fall of 1994, and upon their return to Gorotire they led an attack on the biggest nearby gold mine, destroying much of the equipment and burning the miners' shelters. They drove out most of the 3,000 Brazilian workers, forcing them to walk 50 miles to the nearest road. While the displaced miners threatened an insurrection against the Brazilian government in Redencao, the new alliance of commoners and old chiefs called for an end to all gold mining on Kayapo territory.

Last year, at a December 10 meeting of government officials and representatives from every Kayapo village, the middle-aged Indian leaders bowed to these demands. In February of this year a judge ruled that all the mahogany already cut into logs should be sold and that the proceeds should go to legitimate communal associations, not another group of greedy and ambitious leaders. Some Kayapo had already started to form such groups, but they'd met with limited success. In 1993 five of the villages west of the Xingu had formed the Associacao Iprenre, named after a Kayapo hero, to establish a video center and to harvest wild and domesticated forest products. In the spring of 1996 the association began work on an ecotourist lodge on the Xingu, financed in part with income from tolls charged at a river ferry crossing.

In August 1996 five communities on the east bank of the river had formed a similar cooperative association, which also hoped to cash in on ecotourism and the harvesting of both wild forest crops and such processed garden products as tapioca starch and dried bananas. In 1989 the village of Catete had permitted heavy logging; yet in the following year, with support and technical advice from Brazilian nongovernmental organizations, a group of Kayapo in their 20s became interested in forest management for the sustainable, selective harvests of trees. By 1992 they won the support of older chiefs to force an end to the logging contracts. Last year Turner traveled in Kayapo territory with a gold mining expert who was offering advice on how the Kayapo themselves might mine the gold from their territory without major environmental destruction--and with a potentially higher rate of gold recovery.

Now nearly all logging and mining has ended, and the Kayapo have started to turn their energies toward activities that will honor their culture. But Turner worries that these new projects may not get the financing or technical assistance they need to satisfy the still-divided Kayapo. If all efforts fail, some leaders may try to return to the bad old days. Relations with the Brazilians remain strained. The Kayapo are burdened by past debts to the government, run up with the approval of Indian Service agents. Recently a band of Kayapo seized a fishing lodge on the east bank of the Xingu that was frequented by wealthy Brazilian sportsmen and demanded that the land be included as official Indian territory. One day the Kayapo may find their daring raids are met with deadlier force from private armed forces or government officials determined to profit from their land.

For the time being, the Kayapo appear to have survived a unique revolution, creating a new, more democratic tribal enterprise aimed at the environmentally sound production of goods. They're practicing their traditional rituals with renewed vigor and self-assurance while at the same time charting their own way to adapt to the rapidly changing world around them.

This pleases Turner. He has long advocated giving indigenous people the tools to decide for themselves how to live in an alien world, letting them determine what to preserve and how to change their ways of life.

The unfolding saga of the Kayapo gives hope that they can, within limits, make their own history. Culture, the focus of anthropological study, is not a set pattern of life passed on from generation to generation, Turner says, but "a flexible capacity for collective adaptation and self-creation, and to have culture is to exercise this capacity."

If the past three decades serve as an example, the Kayapo are likely to see more changes in the next few years.

"Change is inevitable," Turner says. "The utopian alternative of somehow preserving these cultures in a permanent static, protected state is totally unrealistic. Given that change is going to come, three things are imperative.

"One, it is necessary to make people aware of the importance of their cultures, to make people self-conscious about what is changing. Many indigenous people who have had a relatively static existence for some time don't have any self-consciousness about what culture means. They don't have any way of thinking about why they should care about keeping or changing things other than 'we've always done it this way.' They don't know about the role of culture in supplying meaning and value to their own lives. Making people aware that culture is their creation, that it is the way they give meaning and value to their lives, is very important."

Secondly, Turner says, the Kayapo will have to grasp the possibilities for change, to understand the challenges they face, and to recruit potential supporters from the world beyond the Xingu. He says the Kayapo's earliest interactions with environmentalists, filmmakers, and anthropologists may actually have been beneficial because "they learned to regard their differences from Brazilians as something that was not wholly negative but was the basis for positive support from influential outsiders."

Finally, he argues, the Kayapo need help--money, goods, medicine, and education--to make it possible for them to change "and to defend their right and ability to make their own changes. The focus of defending culture shifts from preserving a particular set of customs to empowering people, their ability to make collective decisions about how they're going to go on, about the form of their own lives."

In a broad sense, Turner says, the needs of "commoners" in our own American tribe are remarkably similar to those of the Kayapo. In different ways, he says, people in the United States may be just as much in need of empowerment, of having the "ability to make collective decisions about how they're going to go on." With ever larger forces shaping the world, and a declining faith in democratic politics as a legitimate method to arrive at collective decisions, Joe Sixpack may have more in common with the Kayapo than he would care to imagine. At this point the Kayapo arguably have more control over shaping their culture than Joe does.

Yet, Turner argues, industrialized societies have a special obligation to people like the Kayapo. "We have to recognize that we play some role in their self-determination, because we've changed the context for their liberation." In the process of helping them, he says, we are providing the "tools to understand what we are." In return we stand to learn a bit more about ourselves and what we might become.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): tribe photo by Terrence Turner; Terence Turner photo by Doug Hicks; Turner with Kuben'i at a New York protest against a Canadian dam project photo by Catherine V. Howard; Kayapo child photo by Catherine V. Howard; two men photo by Catherine V. Howard.

Add a comment