Ora, o SENHOR disse a Abrão: Sai-te da tua terra, da tua parentela e da casa de teu pai, para a terra que eu te mostrarei.
E far-te-ei uma grande nação, e abençoar-te-ei e engrandecerei o teu nome; e tu serás uma bênção.
E abençoarei os que te abençoarem, e amaldiçoarei os que te amaldiçoarem; e em ti serão benditas todas as famílias da terra.
Immemorial inhabitants of Juruena river basin in the state of Mato Grosso in Brazil, Rikbaktsa people remained unknown to non-indigenous Brazilians’ until half of 20th century, when Brazilian government and rubber tappers from America and Europe invaded indigenous territories at the Amazon Basin, interested in rubber extraction, industrial processing and related activities.
The Rikbaktsa were seen as fierce warriors by other indigenous groups as they have been in war with all neighboring ethnicities such as Cinta Larga and Pareci. Latex companies decided to pay ex-prisoners from the region to work as rubber tappers and oriented them to kill indigenous ‘if necessary’. Many bloody encounters happened when the Rikbaktsa were in the jungle looking for animals to hunt and feathers to make their adornments.
Rubber tappers financed Catholic missionaries to enter Rikbaktsa’s lands in 1957 and 'pacify' them, which lead to a depopulation process that resulted in the extermination of 75% of their people due to diseases such as influenza and chicken pox.
In 2019, a group of 60 people, between elders and children, embarked on a seven day long expedition through the Juruena river to map important places inside the jungle who were only known by oral history, in an ethnomapping journey in 10 small boats. During seven days three generations could share special places and stories, while exploring the whole territory.
The photos shown in this essay were taken during many trips to Rikbaktsa lands in 2019, commissioned by an NGO which support the Rikabtksa and wanted to document their way of life as well as how they use art in a way to preserve their culture.
I kept contact with many families which have told me that now, during the pandemic, the Rikbaktsa closed their territory, not allowing non-indigenous to enter and expose the to the virus. Helena, a Rikabtksa elder, told me: “Last year, people were burning the forest, the lungs of the Earth. Now a disease affects people's lungs. Now people facing what indigenous peoples faced in the past: how to deal with a disease they've never seen before."
She says her father is one of the best Rikabtksa's headdress makers. Rikbaktsa's traditional crafts and artifacts are not only rich in beauty, but also in meaning. Headdresses, for example, can be an indicator of clan, as the ethnicity is subdivided in many clans. She shows me how to make a headdress in the photos below.
Other traditions, however, are faded to disappear. One of them is the "riscagem", a practice where children had their faces marked by their parents with 'needles' made of naimsl bones and tint made of natural herbs.
It used to be made as a rite of passage for boys and girls, but now these 'markings' are made with body paints that lasts no more than 2 weeks.
Helena is one of the very few women who still carry the "tattooes" on their faces. She says her faced was marked when she was around ten years old.