Our Mother Tongues Blog

A Whirlwind Trip Around Brazil with "We Still Live Here": A Luminous Visit with the Forest Tribe of Huni Kuin

December 15, 2012 - 8:56 PM | by Anne Makepeace

NOTE: This blog is part of Anne Makepeace’s American Film Showcase November 2012 Tour of Brazil with her documentary, We Still Live Here. Here are some wonderful links you may enjoy:

··· Check out many more amazing photographs on the Facebook Album ···

··· Read the entire blog of Anne’s tour of Brazil ···

··· Read more about the film We Still Live Here ···

On Monday, we set out on an expedition that would turn out to be the most moving and beautiful of the whole Brazilian experience.

After a four hour flight to the frontier town of Rio Branco, followed by six hours on rough road, we reached the town of Tarauacá to rest up for our visit to an indigenous tribe called the Huni Kuin, or True People, on the Pinuyá reserve. The trip was made much less arduous by the fact that I got to travel with Zezinho Yube, an accomplished filmmaker and a member of the Huni Kuin/Kaxinawa community we were setting out to visit.

On the long drive, we saw what had happened to most of the Huni Kuin’s territory — herds of cattle grazing on ranch land that settlers had burned out of the forest. Today there are approximately 10,000 Huni Kuin living on twelve reserves in the state of Acre, which borders on Bolivia and Peru. The Pinuyá reserve is the smallest of all.


We received a wonderful warm welcome from the tribal members. Alan and I were traveling with Marcos Afonso, Director  of the Library of the Forest in Rio Branco who had arranged the trip; two cultural attaches, John Matel and Angelina Smid, from the US Embassy in Brasilia; Amilton Matos, an anthropologist and linguist who works with the tribe; our enthusiastic translator Samuel Alves; and of course the wonderful Huni Kuin filmmaker, Zezinho Yube.

There were lots of speeches and oration, and then I was called upon to tell the group about We Still Live Here. It was odd to me not to be showing the film and letting it speak for itself, but I did my best and the tribal members were really moved by it’s wonderful story of cultural resilience. I asked the chief if the Huni Kuin had a message for the Wampanoag, and several members spoke for a long time about the importance of language and culture, of how impressed they were by the Wampanoags’ courage and persistence in bringing back the language. While the Huni Kuin still have many speakers, they know that they will have to fight for their language and culture to survive.


When the speeches were over, our US embassy host once again presented a gift of Sacred Legacy, a beautiful book of Edward Curtis photographs for which I had written the Afterword. Chief Assis Gomes and other Huni Kuin were interested in seeing Curtis’s images of their North American relatives.

I noticed that many of the Huni Kuin were recording the various speeches on their smart phones, a wonderful example of technology preserving traditional ways. I had permission to film and also recorded much of the day.

The medicine man gave us each a wonderful gift — eye drops that he extracted from a medicinal plant that felt lovely and clarifying.


The Huni Kuin have only had protected land since 1972, and they are trying hard to reforest the parts of their reserve that were burned down by ranchers. They asked Marcos, John Matel from the American Embassy, and me to each plant a tree. This was really the most moving moment of the day for me.


After lunch, the women gave a demonstration of their wonderful weaving techniques. After watching them, I looked closely at all the fabulously colorful designs they had woven into headbands, bracelets, necklaces, ankle bracelets, earrings, and clothing, all so intricate and beautiful.


The Huni Kuin went all out to welcome us with many long and eloquent speeches and gifts. They also received a huge Mercedes truck as a gift from an NGO to help them become more self-sustaining economically, a problem since much of their land base was burned out and taken over by ranchers. There was lots of ceremony around the receiving of the truck, and I think we were undeserving beneficiaries of their gratitude for this.


In the late afternoon, Angelina Smid and I joined in a fast-paced dance that was so much like the one that the Wampanoag do at the end of We Still Live Here — a line that snakes around and in on itself.


We were all exhausted at this point, which was around 6pm, the time we were scheduled to leave, but as it turned out the trucks had all disappeared — apparently the drivers had decided to give some of the Huni Kuin a ride somewhere. We waited and waited, nada. Finally Marcos reached one of them by cell phone, and it turned out they were stuck in the thick mire about half a mile away. We slogged through the mud, which caked our shoes about 2” thick, and got to the trucks around 7pm for our 6 hour drive back to Rio Branco.


It had been such an amazing and moving day that I didn’t mind the rough road or the long drive one bit.

A filmmaker cannot ask for more than this! Thanks so much to the American Film Showcase for choosing We Still Live Here, and to everyone at the American Embassy in Brazil for organizing such a magnificent, wide-ranging and enlightening journey.

For those of you who read this far, thank you for taking this wonderful trip with me!

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