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The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes Hardcover – October 18, 2011
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Guest Reviewer: Jon Lee Anderson on The Unconquered
In an age when there is little left in the world that can be said to be still "virgin," contemporary travel literature has come to seem increasingly derivative, even farcical. The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes is a rare exception, an original that works on several levels. Scott Wallace has sensitively documented the immensity, history, the terror, and the beauty of one of the world's last true wildernesses and the people who live within it. This is a wonderful book: deeply moving, riveting by turns, laced with finely wrought passages.
On the one hand, The Unconquered is the account of a nightmarish three-month expedition into the Amazon jungle in 2002 led by the irascible Brazilian wilderness explorer Sydney Possuelo, a legendary defender of the region's last uncontacted Indians. Rife through with moments of danger, loneliness, and hunger, as well as the testosterone-fuelled dramas that seem peculiar to groups of men undergoing hard times together, The Unconquered makes a spellbinding tale of real-life high-adventure.
This is also the account of an equally fascinating inward journey taken by its author, the American journalist Scott Wallace, who originally joined Possuelo on his trek in order to write about his journey for National Geographic. In this book, Wallace, who renders memorable portraits of his fellow expeditionaries (the cook, Mauro, haunted by nightmares about monkeys who castrate him; Soldado the backwoods scout, who refuses to return home and see his aging mother) is also brutally honest about himself. Recently divorced, Wallace sets off into the jungle just shy of his forty-eighth birthday; he is out-of-shape, guilt-ridden for not having said goodbye to his three young sons, and fretful about the implications of a prolonged separation with his new girlfriend.
The main character of The Unconquered, however, is Sydney Possuelo, a larger-than-life figure who emerges as a kind of Indian Jones- meets latter-day Bartolome de las Casas. Some years before Wallace met him, Possuelo, Brazil's best-known sertanista, or "agent of contact" with the Amazon's isolated indigenous people, had undergone a crisis of conscience about the destruction wrought by his life's work. He had become instead the main proponent of a no-contact policy for the Amazon's remaining "uncontacted" tribes. He had lobbied for and secured the designation of a vast Maine-sized tract of Amazonian wilderness called the Javari Valley Indigenous Land, to be closed off to all outsiders in perpetuity. It was the refuge of several uncontacted tribes hostile to outsiders, including the implacable flecheiros, the Arrow People, whose territory Possuelo planned to explore.
The motives behind Possuelo's 2002 expedition seemed nonetheless obscure, even contradictory. As Possuelo explained it to Wallace, he wished to gather vital information about the flecheiros and to ascertain their wellbeing, but could only do so by penetrating their sanctuary on foot and by dugout canoe with a band of armed men, while at the same time seeking to avoid contact with them. During the journey itself, the inescapable Catch-22 of Possuelo's logic became more and more apparent until the moment, retold dramatically by Wallace, when the expeditionaries blundered inevitably through a flecheiro settlement, spreading panic as they went.
In the end, The Unconquered is the unforgettable story of a troubled journey through a doomed landscape, its characters—the outsiders and the Indians—locked together in an ever-tightening fatal embrace by their respective needs and compulsions.
At one point in the book, Possuelo points to a path they have slashed out of the jungle with their machetes and tells Wallace: "Five years from now, you will never know we were here." But Wallace is unconvinced, and notes ruefully: "It was doubtful the Arrow People would forget us so easily."
Jon Lee Anderson is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. His books include: “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” “The Fall of Baghdad,” and “The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan.” Anderson began his reporting career in 1979, in Peru. In 2009, he won an Overseas Press Club Award for his reporting on Rio de Janeiro’s gangland.
"Wallace's foreboding is matched by his sense of wonder." – New York Times Book Review
"Astonishing." – The London Sunday Times
"A rousing adventure tale." – Wall Street Journal
"Wallace's gripping account takes us upriver to a place very few outsiders have ever seen." – The Boston Globe
"What a great book! An adventure story worthy of Joseph Conrad or Peter Matthiessen." – The Oregonian
“Rousing.” – TIME
"Startlingly novelistic." – Salon.com
“It’s easy to picture The Unconquered being made into a movie.” – Washington Post Express
"Masterful...positively cinematic." – Yale Alumni Magazine
“An eye-opening read…one of the most gripping pieces of non-fiction around…. You’ll swear you are reading a thriller novel.” – Guernica
“Dream assignment or nightmare? An editor from National Geographic asked journalist Scott Wallace to join an expedition into the deepest wilds of the Amazon jungle to find the mysterious ‘People of the Arrow.' While the experience was pretty much a nightmare, it’s a blessing for readers of Wallace's fascinating book.” — Associated Press
“Echoing Amazonia’s earliest European explorers, Wallace crafts a tale that is part gripping adventure story, part window into the unexpected complexities of a developing country where uncontacted tribes stand between a resource-hungry economy and an area abounding in natural wealth.” – Indian Country Today
“Rife with poachers, drug smugglers, illegal gold miners and violent tribes already acquainted with the dangers of modern life…Wallace describes the trek in vivid, if unsettling, terms.” – Maclean’s
“Wallace joins the tribe of jungle-besotted literary types led by Redmond O'Hanlon and David Grann and presents a credibly incredible tale about his voyage past the edge of modernity.” – Huffington Post
"A gripping tale of adventure." – Washingtonian
“While it’s hard to imagine that ‘stone-age’ tribes still persist in a world of cell phones, satellites and social media, it’s even harder to understand how difficult it is to police these isolated regions, to keep them free of outsiders who could endanger a way of life that has nearly disappeared…Wallace’s narrative is apt and penetrating.” – SEJournal
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The book is great on several levels: First and foremost, it is a jungle adventure book. Accessing these tribes is a harrowing process by foot, since they are so deep into the rainforest. Along with the author (who was there as a reporter for National Geographic), there was a photographer, Brazilian citizens working for Brazil's department of Isolated Indians, and members of several "contacted" indigenous tribesmen. The expedition itself was led by a bizarre man named Sydney Possuelo, who has made it his life's mission to protect indigenous tribes from deforestation and crippling exposure to new diseases. Possuelo is a weird man; I spent the entire book trying to figure him out. I alternated between being appalled by him and fascinated by him.
Interspersed throughout the jungle tale is a history of the white man's contact with indigenous Amazonian tribes, a history of the department of Isolated Indians, and a history of the evolving theories on how to approach indigenous tribes. Where previously the government sought to "tame" wild Indians, the policy is now to avoid contact, since contact with the white man inevitably brings about loss of native culture and crippling epidemics of disease. (FYI, phrases like "wild Indians" sound extremely derogatory when I write them here, but the author is actually quite sensitive in his use of language throughout the book - whenever he uses words like "wild," "tamed," or "civilized," he is quick to provide historical context to explain his choice in language). The author's discussion of the issue of contact versus no-contact is even-handed and at times philosophical. He raises some interesting questions that genuinely made me think about both sides of the issue. The plight of the so-called "contacted" tribes is eye-opening, with applications to our own tenuous relationship with Native Americans in the US.
I highly recommend this book. It is an adventure book, complete with monkeys and sloths and fire ants, but also a very eye-opening look at our culture of consumption and the havoc we have wreaked on all the inhabitants of the rainforest - plants, animals, humans.
The argument for protecting them is that contact with modernity (characterized by greed where the white man is the devil) introduces disease, makes the indios bravos dependent on modern contrivances, causes them to turn their backs on ancestral ways and leaves them in a state of poverty. Possuelo (and the author) posit that these people are not "primitive," that their ways are necessary and sufficient to their happy survival, so why disturb them? Plus, there is the added environmental benefit of leaving large tracts of Amazon forest intact as their habitat requires it to be left alone. But I wonder if this isn't just condescension in the same way that missionaries hell-bent on "civilizing" such people are so obviously guilty.
Set aside the disease problem (it is a problem, but it's incidental, solvable with enough effort) and look at the often tragic history of these contacted tribes: they become dependent on modern contrivances, they leave their traditional ways and they are ill-adapted to succeeding in the modern world, leaving them poverty-stricken. This tells us that: they like modernity and it's conveniences, they are perhaps not so interested in the old (arduous) ways, and that they have not been educated thoroughly enough to confront the challenges of modern life. Which way do you want to go with that? Should more effort be put into solving those problems or should more effort be put into preventing these problems from arising? Who should decide? Sydney Possuelo? Brazil's government? Brazil's government can't even take care of its own people. The intuitive answer is that the uncontacted people should decide, but how can an uncontacted group decide between two ways of living when the very act of learning enough to make a decision is, ipso facto, to obviate the decision in favor of selecting contact? I don't have the answers. I surely wish these people well.