The Magnificent Korubo: a Sebastião Salgado’s studio in the Amazon forest

19 JAN 2018
19 de Janeiro de 2018

Exchanging between Matis and Korubo: Binan Chapu Chunu Matis (left, with orange shorts) and Tumi Branco Matis, middle with a ceramic pot piece in his hands (Vitor Goes / Archive CGIIRC / Funai / 2014)  
The Javari Valley has always attracted cameras and documentarists. The beauty of the Indians living in this high forest is irresistible. As I learned from Txema Matis, such beauty is so exuberant that it can even kill, specially if  the indigenous persons are careless enough to show themselves in all their splendor. The photographs taken by Sebastião Salgado, and published by Folha de São Paulo, show the beauty and strength of the Korubo in a photographic studio set with a seamless background amid the magnificent canopy of samaúma, rubber and  pau-mulateiro trees among so many others. With their club sticks, dressed in palm leaf hats, painted with annatto, they look into the camera with their challenging and piercing look.

The pictures are stuning, inline with Salgado’s previous work and inline with the Korubo beauty. However, there is an essentialism and a romanticization of non-indigenous people. The famous photographer’s images are picturing the “other” in a way that belong to a long and lasting colonial imagery genealogy.

I met the Korubo in 2003 when working as a translator for a New Zealand journalist who ended up publishing an article that I considered sensationalist, the indigenists who met him were also very upset about what he printed. I was pleased to learn that the same New Zealander was sued years later by FUNAI (Federal Government’s Indigenous Affairs organ) for the prejudiced manner in which he treated the Suruhawa in another reportage.

The sertanista Sydney Possuelo organized what the Department of Isolated Indians (as it was called at that time) considered a “contact” expedition with this small group of the Korubo people in 1996 since they lived too near the place where the government planned to build the Base of the current Front of Ethno-Environmental Protection of the Javari Valley (FPEVJ), of FUNAI, in the Amazonan states. This first encounter was recorded by the eyes and talent of the photojournalist Ricardo Beliel, in images that circulated around the world.

The Indigenous Land was demarcated in 2000 and homologated in 2001. As part of the actions to control and protect the territory, Possuelo considered that the confluence of the Ituí and Itacoaí rivers offered a geographically strategic place to create a surveillance post, thanks to the meeting of the two rivers that give access to the villages of Matis, Marubo, Korubo and Kanamari peoples. The Mayoruna / Matsés occupy the area close to Peru with access via the rivers Curuçá and Javari and the river Jandiatuba ends downstream in the river Solimões.

The Korubo of the Mayá group have been living near FUNAI’s main surveillance post for several years and I had the pleasure of meeting them a few times when I was travelling the Ituí River, where I lived with the Matis for about 13 months in 2006 and 2009. In these brief meetings, the Korubo and I exchanged some words in Matis language when I finally learned to speak it, it is related to the Korubo’s language. In these occacions, the Korubo would always ask me and the Matis people for clothes, money, knives, flashlights.

During 2006 I listened attentively to the contact narratives that the Matis had experienced when they decided to accept the onslaughts of federal government officials who helped Petrobras to drill holes to check the potential for exploration of oil drilling in the area. There were also giant plans to build a road linking Tabatinga, in the Amazon, to the Cruzeiro do Sul, in Acre, which would have been called Perimetral Norte (a small transamazon) if ever built. I was also interested in knowing more about the Matis stories of their relationship with the Mayá’s group of Korubo people and how and why the Matis had agreed to work as translators and intermediaries between the Brazilian government and the Korubo, even though they had barely survived the trauma of having lost about two-thirds of its own population  to diseases brought on by the irresponsible contact that the Brazilian government had undertaken with the Matis in 1976/78.

I learned that Matis men and women considered themselves sons and daughters of two Korubo girls that their ancestors had stolen in the past, around the year 1920, according to my estimates. I have published texts about the Matis’ experiences with contact, my MSc  dissertation is interely dedicated to this subject.

When I lived in the Javari Valley, I saw how the Matis developed a creative economy to make money with any gringo who wanted to pay to photograph and to be with them. Some of them became experts in organizing trips for tourists or filmmakers whom the Matis called generically “journalists.” I wrote about this relationship with the cameras in my PhD thesis and in some other articles.

At the request of the NGOs Centro de Trabalho Indigenista (CTI) and Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), I wrote a medical-anthropological diagnosis together with the medic doctor Deise Francisco and the anthropologist Pedro Cesarino in order to recommend health care improvements in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land.

Among our suggestions, we wrote: “Faced with the information [of intermitent contacts that another group of Korubo people still considered as being ‘isolated’ had had with other indigenous people] and the concern that they raise regarding the health situation of this [second] group of Korubo people, we recommend to FPEVJ , CGIIRC, FUNAI and to the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (attached to the Ministry of Health) to be prepared to receive the Korubo from the Coari River (“isolates”) with adequate medical and sanitary facilities and to monitor their relationships with Matis and Kanamari, without necessarily impeding such movement, which may correspond to the dynamics and internal needs of the group “(Arisi, Cesarino, Francisco, 2011: 18).

In 2013 and 2014, I accompanied filmmaker Celine Cousteau as a volunteer for a documentary, still not officially released, on health care in indigenous land. On our  second trip, I was bitten by a snake and survived the poor health service, including the refusal by the Special Indigenous Sanitary District (DSEI) to send us a helicopter for my emergency removal in order to increase the chances of saving my life and preventing eventual amputation of my leg. Fortunately, I survived to tell the story.

The following year, in 2014, there was a violent confrontation between the Matis and the Korubo. The Matis asked me to write to help them, so that I would explain how they understood the tragedy that had occurred in Todorak village. I learned then that two Matis men had been clubbed to death by the Korubo relatives. The Matis considered that the Korubo killed Damë and Iva Xukurutá because a woman and children had disappeared and the isolated group of Korubo thought that the Matis could have kidnapped them.

Stealing women is part of the history of all the indigenous people that live in the Javari Valley. In the past, the Marubo have abducted women of the Mayoruna / Matsés, the Matis of the Korubo, the Mayoruna / Matsés have taken women from all the surrounding people, Peruvians, Brazilians, Marubo, Matis, and many others.

After the violent death of Damë and Iva Xukurutá, the Matis asked also FUNAI for help, they sent written documents to Brasilia, but all they received as an answer was a note against the Matis people, signed by the coordinator of the Isolated Indians and Recent Contact Deparment, Carlos Travassos. It was the first time in history that an indigenous affair defense institution published a note against an indigenous people. I got the message: “Barbara, you are our anthropologist, so now you write and explain our side of what happened at Javari”.

I was astonished because I knew there that 9 deaths took place among the Korubo  population, caused by the Matis reaction after FUNAI had done nothing even after so many calls. They asked me to write with Felipe Milanez, a journalist and university teacher at the Federal University of Recôncavo Baiano. Then, co-authoring with Milanez, we wrote a column for the Carta Capital news site, a book chapter, and finally an academic article to express our analysis about the colonialism of relations that many non-indigenous people maintain and / or seek to maintain with the indigenous populations hat live in the Javari Valley.

The pictures of the Korubo made by Sebastião Salgado cry for attention to the necessity to defend this territory, an area of socio-environmental protection. But the images, to a certain extent, reinforce the observation we have made in our texts. The photos show how a critique of a “certain Indian ideal [that] permeates the indigenist utopias of the Brazilian State is still necessary, and how the politics of isolation, influenced by these ideals, presents its idiosyncrasies and contradictions. In Brazil, the Korubo living in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land occupy this place of model Indians in the policy of isolation promoted by the federal government “(Arisi & Milanez 2017).

The pictures taken by Sebastião Salgado reinforce this ideal of naked Indians, out of time, as if they were living in those “Edenic origins” that white people cosmologies dream that had existed.

In fact, and obviously, the Korubo men and women are living in the present time, with all the consequences of our time, the same time as all other living beings on planet Earth live right now. With the same problems as non-indingeous and all other indigenous people, massacred by industrialism, the impoverishment and contamination of the planet and the shallow monoculturalism that blasted worldviews.

Among the people of the Javari Valley, payment in the form of gifts given by foreigners to photograph and to film the natives generally causes great jealousy. It generates an imbalance of wealth and, therefore, of power, every time gringos arrive willing to film and to pay to, for instance, buy a house for a new indigenous association or bringing different gifts.

From what I know from friends living in North Atalaia, Salgado only gave gifts directly to the Korubos and nothing to the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA), political association that represents all indigenous people inhabiting the Javari. To make matters worse, the Matis are afraid that with the presents and the perils unleashed, the escalation of violence in the region will go on. The fact that Salgado was accompanied by Carlos Travassos, the author of the note contrary to the Matis, also intensified local tension.

Finally, I will recall another forest dialogue. Once, when I was researching the Matis’ relationship with tourists and journalists who had filmed and photographed them in the past, I found a photo of the Matis women naked and the men wearing the traditional string holding up their penis, their necklaces and other ornaments. I asked Binan Tuku about the photo. Some days before, a FUNAI guy had seen the same picture with me and commented that tourists and journalists were exploiting the Matis, treating them as fools. I wanted to hear what Binan Tuku had to say about that picture and their ‘nudity’, as I had never seen them dressed before with their  penis string or the women without clothes except while bathing.

“Barbara, I was young at that time, when FUNAI came here in the forest to make contact with the Matis, back then I walked with my penis tied up that way in the envira string, to hunt / walk in the forest. Now, I am old enough to choose to whom I show or not my penis”, replied me Binan Tuku.

In 2003, I met the Korubo’s Mayá group still without wearing shorts but dressed with  their penis string, but since 2006 I have always met them with clothes. Nowadays, the Korubo wear shorts and other clothes daily (yes, because walking naked in the forest full of mosquitos and other animals is not very nice, as the same Binan Tuku has taught me as well).

I admire the beauty of these men and women who have lived avvoiding and running away from contact with the sick society created by non-indigenous people, but I still can not forget what I have learned from the Matis old men, that they are old enough to choose to who do they show their penises or not. The photos of Salgado well illuminate this notion of pristine Indians, its utopia and the cosmology of a Lost Eden, people living in isolation, but circulating in a high-ranking billionaire market that is international photography. The beauty of the Matis and Korubo Indians can kill us, we must be very careful when trying to look such splendors.

The photographs authored by Ricardo Beliel were assigned for the exclusive use of this article. The text can be republished and shared under the Creative Commons – Attribution 4.0 International License.


Barbara Arisi is a journalist (BA in Social Communication, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul) and an anthropologist (MSc and PhD, Federal University Santa Catarina, with an internship in the University of Oxford). As a reporter, she worked in Zero Hora newspaper. She was born in Porto Alegre (RS) and she lived in Foz do Iguaçu (PR), Florianópolis (SC), Sao Paulo (SP) and Manaus (AM), Amsterdam, Maastricht and Hoorn (The Netherlands) and in London (United Kingdom). She is associate professor in the Federal University for Latin American Integration, in Foz do Iguazu. Currently she is a visiting researcher in the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where she studies solid residue management (plastics and organic). She lives with her daughter in Hoorn. In Brazil, she had worked for the Greenpeace campaign for the creation of Extractive Reserves Porto de Moz and Verde para Sempre, in Pará in 2003. For 14 years, she researches in the Indigenous Territory Vale do Javari, in Amazonas, in 2006 and 2009 she was financed by CAPES and CNPq. In 2011, she produced a health diagnosis for the Vale do Javari, for Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) and Centro de Trabalho Indigenista (CTI). With Céline Cousteau’s team, she works for the documentary Tribes on the Edge since 2012.


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