One of the many beautiful photographs in this book might remind you of a triple-layered flag. We are shown the Amazonian village of Piyulaga. The top third is filled with a gentle blue sky, greenery occupies the middle, and toast-brown earth completes the bottom of the picture. With astonishingly elegant thatched houses and a few villagers thrown in for good measure, the scene is idyllic. It makes a dunce of anyone who regards the indigenous peoples of the region as out of date and in the way.
And that, in nutshell, is the purpose of the book. Sue and Patrick Cunningham embarked upon a journey of more than 2,000km along the Xingu River to report back on the workaday chores, beliefs, rituals and opinions of the locals. They are a diverse bunch, comprising many different tribal groups, and at least 14 distinct languages are spoken. The people all have one thing in common, however. They are increasingly hemmed in by the advance of industries that ruin landscapes and threaten ancient ways of living. This is old news, of course, but there is still great poignancy in the fact that one local dialect word translates ‘bank notes’ as ‘sad leaves’: these people know whereof they speak.
But please don’t condescend to them. Life can be hard here, and countless intrusions have been endured. But the vibrancy with which faces are painted and bodies decorated is echoed in the scenes of kids playing in and by the river. If you don’t wish you could be a bystander at the dance-filled hummingbird festivals then there’s something wrong with you. Better yet, these trampled-upon people have become experts at PR in order to garner much-needed support for their cause, and it’s a good one. They know their history, revere the natural world and are very careful about not offending the spirits of the dead. They aren’t perfect – who is? – but they sustain a world-view that can make ours seem rather impoverished.
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