NEW YORK - Karume Txicao Ikpeng, a leader of the Ikpeng Indians of the Amazon, ranked as one of the stars of the recent Native American Film and Video Festival at the National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center. He presented two impressive films, a charming video/letter from the children of his village in central Brazil and a darker record of the Ikpeng people's travails since their first contact with the outside world in 1964.
But he also plays a central role in the Ikpeng struggle for restitution, which is now entering a crucial phase. Just 28, he is president of the Ikpeng National Association, which is petitioning the Brazilian government for its return to ancestral lands. He is also deeply involved in the range of social services which the tribe receives on the Xingu Indigenous Park. His story encapsulates the Brazilian tribes' brush with extinction and their dramatic recovery.
''When I was a child, my grandfather told me the story of a noisy bird that changed our life forever,'' Karume' said to introduce his gripping documentary, ''My First Contact'' (''Meu primeiro contato''). Filmed with support of the Brazilian foundation Video in the Villages (Video nas Aldeias) and co-produced by that group's Mari Correa, the video gives the tribe's perspective on the fateful day when the famous Villa-Boas brothers flew overhead in a light plane. With some humor, naked elders re-enacted their terrified efforts to drive away the craft with their arrows and their reaction when it dropped an introductory parcel of foodstuffs. ''The bird just pooped,'' they shouted.
The Villa-Boas plane returned the next day, this time somewhat bizarrely dropping a bundle of fashion magazines. It landed in the clearing dominated by the Ikpengs' maloca, the huge thatched communal dwelling. Out step Claudio and Leonardo Villas-Boas, explorers and activists for indigenous rights. What follows was captured in archival footage. A shirtless bear of a man, Claudio Villas-Boas gave the diminutive Ikpeng great hugs and handed them lighted cigarettes. It's not a bad metaphor for the dubious benefits of even the best-intended first contact.
The Villas-Boas brothers, it turned out, were just two steps ahead of more malevolent intruders: European miners eager to exploit Ikpeng land and women. They soon persuaded the beleaguered band to relocate to the vast reserve they had persuaded the national government to set aside for the forest tribes of the Mata Grosso, the Xingu Indigenous Park. This reserve of about 6.5 million acres is now home to nearly 6,000 Natives from 14 peoples. More archival footage showed the river voyage of the band, so reduced in numbers that it fit into one scow. (In spite of the delayed formal contact, the Ikpeng were already
feeling outside pressure. Several years earlier they had suffered a devastating defeat in a war with a neighboring tribe wielding firearms.)
Western friends of the Ikpeng argue that the alternative to relocation was probably extermination, but the shock of the move was lethal enough. When the tribesmen landed in the middle of traditional enemies, only the personal intervention of the Villas-Boas brothers kept them safe. As it was, of the 57 Ikpeng crammed into the boat for the transfer, 27 died within the first month. Still, the indigenous reserves have not only stabilized the situation of the Ikpeng and other tribes, they have allowed a remarkable resurgence. The Ikpeng, Kumare' said in December, now number 399 and would soon be 400.
Kumare' himself was born in the Xingu Park, one of the first generation of Ikpeng to grow up under European influence. In an interview at the George Gustav Heye Center, long triangles of tribal tattoos marked his cheekbones and a heavy earring dangled from one lobe, but he also proudly wore a black windbreaker he had received as a participant in the Native American Film and Video Festival. Speaking Portuguese through an interpreter, he expressed regret that his age group had lost some tribal customs and survival skills. ''But the younger ones are learning them again,'' he said.
Instead of hunting and fishing by beating toxic vines into the water, Kumare' is representing the tribe in its dealings with the Brazilian government and the outside world. He sits on the health and education councils, and supervises the Ikpeng outpost of Funai, the Fundacao Nacional do Indio (the Brazilian equivalent of the BIA). ''I'm all the time running from meeting to meeting,'' he complained. ''I'm doing six different things all at one time.'' In addition to tribal duties, he has also produced four videos, two of which were featured at the festival.
Kumare' was educated to the equivalent of the eighth grade. (The tribe hopes to open a secondary school soon.) But he said he has learned much more through extensive travel through South American capitals; Paris, France; and three visits to the United States. He regretted the time spent away from home. ''But people in the tribe catch fish for my family,'' he said.
His top priority these days is the tribe's struggle through the courts and the federal bureaucracy for a return to at least some of its original land. It has help from lawyers for the Instituto Socioambiental, a leading Brazilian society for environmental and indigenous protection that succeeded in restoring the homeland of the Panara' people in 2003. The Ikpeng situation is more difficult, since a number of farms have encroached on the abandoned tribal land. But Kumare' said he hopes that at least a portion of the ancestral river valley can be annexed to the Xingu Park. He said he expects a preliminary decision on their petition by early next year.
His video documents a poignant visit by elders to their original clearing. Now wearing Western clothes, including a blue T-shirt from the New York Film Academy, they remember their past life with nostalgia but show a remarkable readiness to confront the modern world. ''We used to fight with bows and arrows,'' said Oiope' Ikpeng, ''but now we fight with paper, because paper hurts more.''
Jim Adams is a historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.