Published On: October 20, 2016

Language of the Amazon

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In the 1950s and 1960s, Brazil created the Xingu Indigenous Park, a roughly 2.64 million-hectare preserve that contains the Wauja tribe, among other tribes. The park is a green oasis surrounded by cleared land used mostly for crops and cattle.

Today, there are about 400 Wauja tribe members spread between two villages. When the Wauja people tell a story about their history and culture, the words they choose convey a deep meaning about the indigenous Brazilian tribe’s interconnectedness to its landscape.

American anthropologist Christopher Ball wants to delve into that relationship between language and place. Funded by an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship (ACLS), he’s exploring how the Wauja people use words to create an identity that ties their culture to a nearby river and chronicling that meaning for future generations.

A professor in Notre Dame’s Department of Anthropology, Christopher will spend part of a year with the Wauja people, documenting their language through the stories they tell for his project, “Language and Riverscape in Indigenous Brazil: Mapping, Cosmology and Politics of Place.”




Xingu Indigenous Park

Xingu Indigenous Park


“I’m finding out what these people think language is good for and documenting that,” Christopher said. He expects to write a book on the topic, as well as develop an interface — an interactive digital map — that will allow later generations of the Wauja people to interact with their ancestors.

The Wauja, much like other indigenous tribes, were negatively impacted by disease and deforestation in the early 20th century. Population dwindled, and at one point about a decade ago, there were fewer than 300 Wauja living in only one village.

Christopher Ball is a cultural and linguistic anthropologist who speaks Wauja. He said he’s particularly interested in understanding what Wauja means to its speakers. “The people are really interested in language related to place,” Ball said. “They are connected to natural places in the forest, especially on rivers, and they tell stories about those places, how their ancestors inhabited those places, how supernatural beings inhabit those places.”


Yagua girl with pet sloth

Yagua girl with pet sloth


The Xingu River, which filters into the Amazon, has been a key part of the Wauja way of life, providing not only food and transportation but also serving as a spiritual center for the tribe. While the Xingu Indigenous Park has helped stabilize and even grow the populations of some indigenous tribes, its boundaries were drawn without much regard for tribal histories. Many Wauja cultural sites, including a cave considered the birthplace of the tribe’s first chief, lie outside the preserve’s borders. And as forests are cleared, there is a real danger that some of those sites will be lost.

Christopher’s time with the Wauja will be spent collecting as many stories as possible via video, photographs, and audio recordings. “This is something that Wauja people are really keen on,” he said. “They’re aware of audio, video, and photo technology, and they’re really interested in generating maps where they can have this interactive experience. It’s something they can use in the community to engage in the stories, even years from now after the storytellers have passed away.”


Xingu River

Xingu River


In a related story regarding Amazon tribes even more remote than the Wauja, the Brazilian government has strongly rejected suggestions by two US anthropologists that the only way to protect the country’s most isolated tribes would be to establish contact with them.

Among the aims of Brazil’s Department of Indigenous Affairs (FUNAI) is the study and protection of approximately 50 to 100 remaining tribes in the Amazonian rainforest who have had no contact at all with the outside world. FUNAI released an open letter in July repudiating an article published by Robert Walker and Kim Hills in Science magazine last year. Walker and Hills argued that “controlled contact is better than no contact” and criticized the government’s “leave them alone policy.”

FUNAI’s letter was signed by 18 experts and said that contact with these groups would come with lethal risks to their health and autonomy. “There is never absolute control in contact situations,” the department wrote. It said that it had changed its position on forced contact in the 1980s after contact led to a number of deaths among indigenous groups.
[Research for this article comes from Reuters and Notre Dame University.]

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