Editor’s Note: Last year, John Allen Chau’s fatal mission to India’s North Sentinel Island, home to the world’s most isolated tribe, spurred new conversations about Christians making first contact with indigenous people. A majority of uncontacted and remote tribes remain in the Amazon jungles of Brazil, where for decades missionaries such as Braulia Ribeiro have stepped out to meet them and live among them—hoping to help improve their conditions while supporting their autonomy against the growing threat of government interventions. Here, she shares about her first mission to a remote tribe.
In the Paumarí tribe, in the Amazon region of Brazil, most of the Paumarí people hated to be Paumarí.
They thought the best thing on earth was to become a “Jará,” the term for all those who had the fortune of not having been born in that tiny indigenous tribe, not having been brought up in their “primitive” language.
The name Jará designated any non-Paumarí person, any outsider. For the Paumarí, the majority of the Jará they saw were Brazilians who lived along the river. The Jará image was especially personified by the Brazilians who lived in the micro-village a day and a half away from the Paumarí lake or the drunk merchants who sold them overpriced merchandise.
Most Brazilian river dwellers, themselves subsistence agriculturalists, were just as isolated and as impoverished as the Paumarí. They had no access to school, health care, or way of living for themselves or their offspring. Yet all the Jará the Paumarí knew had one thing in common: They considered themselves superior to the Indians, whom they saw as people of strange costumes who could not even speak an understandable language.
The name the Paumarí call themselves originally indicated the beauty and the perfection the group saw in themselves, and Jará used to be a derogatory word, a synonym for “non-Paumarí” that essentially came to mean “non-human.” After many decades of contact with other Brazilians, the meanings were inverted. To be called Jará became praise. The once-beautiful Paumarí started to see themselves as incapable and dirty, in the same way the outsiders did.
In 1983, I was part of a team of Brazilian young people going to plant a mission station among the Paumarí. There were four of us: José and Frances, a young couple born and raised in the Amazon, experienced in canoes and fishing; Eustáquio, a 20-something tall black guy with an afro; and me, just 19 years old. Both Eustáquio and I were from the same big city in the urban south, newcomers to the immense mystery of the Amazon.
It was our very first missionary expedition. I was chosen to be a part of this trip to help the team start learning the Paumarí language. I had gone through some training with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), where this tribe’s language had been analyzed by two female translators who spent more than 20 years in another very remote Paumarí village upriver.
From the city of Manaus in northwestern Brazil, we traveled for five days on a small transport-line boat to reach the last post, Lábrea, a little town situated in the middle of the jungle. From Lábrea to a small river where the Paumarí were, there were no transport boats available. We would have to hire a private boat to take us there. The trip was estimated to take up to another week by boat, plus one more day paddling a small canoe to reach Maniçoã Lake where the floating Paumarí village was. We would be the first missionaries to reach this particular village.
The only money our little team had left was a few hundred dollars we put aside to buy supplies and food to stay in the jungle for three months. It was not much. We would be able to buy some kerosene for lamps, batteries for flashlights, and some rice and beans—the Brazilian staple—to make sure we would not starve.
“What do we do, Lord? Should we just stay here waiting?” As good new-convert Pentecostals, we asked God for direction. I felt that I had received a verse from the Scriptures as an answer from God. When I looked the verse up, it said, “he went away and sold everything he had” (Matt. 13:46). What could that possibly mean? We all asked ourselves. I felt, however, a cold tinge in my spine. Is God saying that we have to use all our money to pay for the boat ride?
And that was exactly how things went.
We waited a few days before we commissioned the owner of the smallest boat we could find, a wooden boat with no walls, no bathroom, no kitchen—just a four-horsepower diesel engine. The price he charged to take us to that distant village and back to Lábrea amounted to the exact figure we’d saved.
As “good” missionaries we understood we had no excuse to reject the offer. We had to obey the exact order we had received. We hired the small boat and set off with food for only the short trip, no kerosene, a few batteries, and hooks for fishing. It was a five-day trip on the slow boat to the mouth of the Cunhuá River, and from there we found a man with a large canoe that was available to take us to Maniçoã Lake to find the floating village.
Arriving at the Paumarí lake was like a surreal dream. To reach to the lake from the river we had to go upstream on a little tributary to get to a várzea forest inundated by waters black like Coca-Cola. After several hours of paddling through the flooded jungle, we finally entered the vast expansion of water of the lake. It was like finding a magical world.
The Paumarí live half the year hiding on the lake margins at the foot of the “dry-land,” the non-floodable part of the forest, and the other half in shacks built on the top of giant floating trees. When we arrived, the afternoon sunlight reflected on the dried palm leaves of Paumarí huts, making everything look silver against the black waters and deep green trees. We felt like we had bought a treasure for a few hundred dollars. If everything went well, we were going to get to live in this paradise.
We got off of the canoe in front of the first hut, into a sort of wooden dock on the water. The Paumarí dry-land huts are tall, skinny structures made by palm tree trunks, rising 10 or 12 feet above the ground. They have no walls, only a palm tree floor and a thin thatch roof.
“Ivaniti?”—Is that you?—I shouted from the land. An old woman answered me from the top, “Ha’ã hovani!”—Yes, it’s me!—not even seeming to find it strange to see me speaking her language, trying out the basic phrases I acquired from the SIL linguists.
We all climbed up to the hut and sat ceremoniously on the shiny floor made of paxiúba, the palm tree used for most of their constructions. The old lady continued the conversation as if she knew me: “You came a long way. Are you tired? Have you eaten? There is fried fish,” etc. “Yes, we did. No, we haven’t. We’re fine. Happy to have arrived after the lengthy trip.” We felt like we were home.
After a good hour of conversation about the trip and our general well being, she asked who we were related to or what we were there to do, questions that are impolite to ask at the moment of arrival.
“We are missionaries,” I said in my broken Paumarí. “We want to help you to know Jesus, the Son of God, and if you want, we can also help to set up a school to teach everyone to read.” The lady looked at me with a puzzled expression and started shouting for her grandson, Danilo. “Come over, Danilo. The missionaries have arrived. Take them to their home.”
“Our home?” I asked. She pointed to an empty tall hut nearby. “Danilo and I built this hut two summers ago, preparing for your arrival. We heard in the radio about the Creator God, and how his Son, Jesus, wants to help us. I said, ‘If that is true, he will send us his people.’ So we built the hut for you.”
We were placed “home,” and from that day on, we were fed with abundant fish, manioc flour, and jungle fruits. For the whole six months we stayed with the Paumarí we were well taken care of, never needing a cent of the money we applied to renting the boat to get there. We had nothing to offer them except ourselves, and that was all they needed at that point in their history.
With the help of the village, we built a high-hanging hut like all the other ones at the foot of the dry-land to function as the school for the Paumarí children during the day and the adults at night, teaching them to read and write in their own language. We had brought medication, first-aid supplies, and the book Where There is No Doctor, so we also opened a sort of humble clinic to help meet basic health care needs and serve fellow families living along the river that needed malaria medication.
Eventually, the adults learned better mathematics and could avoid being swindled by merchants. Did we end up solving the systemic problems that kept the Paumarí and river people below the poverty line? I don’t think so. They are still poor. After a few years, we were able to buy some food, medication, and a boat, but the mission itself was inefficient at meeting their needs.
We did, however, transform the way the Paumarí looked at outsiders. They saw us as the missionaries they had built a hut for and sustained with daily fish rations. We became their very own Jará, smart city people who somehow depended on the “inferior” Paumarí for survival.
The fact that they had to support our group provided the entire village with a sense of dignity and value. They were not the poor receivers of aid; their relationship with us was equal, and the dependency was mutual.
They began to see being Paumarí as a point of pride again. Their language gained prestige because foreigners studied it, taught it in schools, preserved it in books. To this day, the Maniçoã Paumarí in the village we visited speak their mother tongue. And by God’s grace, they are a productive Christian community who escaped the toxic self-hatred that suffocates many other indigenous villages along the Purus River. After all, they had their own set of pet missionaries that they housed and fed, and no other village on the entire river had the same privilege.
Braulia Ribeiro is a Brazilian scholar and a married mom of three with an MA in ethnolinguistics from the Federal University of Rondônia and an MDiv from Yale Divinity School.
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