Are kanaka maoli indigenous to Hawai'i? Would the status of being indigenous give them special rights?

(c) Copyright 2000 - 2013 Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

Are kanaka maoli indigenous to Hawai'i? Do they have a special relationship to the land of Hawai'i that is different from any actual or possible relationship which non-kanaka maoli might have with the land?

Anthropological research suggests that the Polynesian islands were settled by people originating from Asia, spreading through the south Pacific, and arriving in Hawai'i very late in the process. Clearly Marquesas and Tahiti were settled long before Hawai'i. But China, Africa, and even the Americas had indigenous peoples living in those places for many thousands of years before anyone ventured into any of the Polynesian islands. So, among the peoples of the world, Polynesians have one of the shortest tenures in their so-called indigenous area. And within the Polynesian triangle, Hawai'i is one of the most recently settled island groups. The Hawaiian islands had no human population before the first Polynesian explorers arrived.

Whatever the year of first arrival, kanaka maoli clearly did not come forth from the lands of these islands. Until recently most scholars agreed there were two waves of Polynesian immigration. Some scientists say the first settlers came from Marquesas, sometime around the year 400. There are also stories of a group of people of particularly small stature, known as "Menehune." The final wave of Polynesian voyagers from Tahiti arrived around 1300 - 1400, conquering and largely destroying the original settlers. According to that theory, modern kanaka maoli would be local to these islands only from about 1300. The tenure of kanaka maoli in Hawai'i after the Tahitian invaders established their culture would be shorter than the tenure of Englishmen in England after the Norman invaders defeated the Saxons (starting AD 1066). Some might say that the issue of Tahitians vs. Marquesans is irrelevant, because all were Polynesians. But kanaka maoli in Hawai'i today do not recognize ethnic Samoans or Tahitians or other Pacific islanders as having any rights to sovereignty in Hawai'i. Even if kanaka maoli tenure in Hawai'i is considered to be the tenure of Polynesians as a whole, that would still be only since about 400 according to the theory until recently, or perhaps as late as 1000 -- which is shorter than the tenure of the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic race as a whole in England-Ireland. Yet, most people recognized as indigenous would think it very odd if English or Irish showed up at indigenous people's conferences claiming to have indigenous rights. Some sovereignty activists like to say that kanaka maoli have been in Hawai'i since time immemorial. But that is clearly false, as the memories contained in their own genealogies tracing through Tahiti can testify, along with the stories of the voyaging canoes.

However, research reported in March 2006 indicates that Polynesians did not arrive in Hawai'i until as recently as years 800-1000 AD. "Kirch and University of Hawai'i archaeology professor Barry Rolett agree that Hawai'i was probably first settled between 800 and 1000 A.D. — perhaps before the Marquesas." See:

More recent research was reported in a University of Hawaii press release dated January 3, 2011, which sets the date of first "discovery" of Hawaii at sometime in the 1200s. The following paragraph is a portion of the press release which remains available in full at
"The team of scholars describe their discoveries in a December 27 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition article ( titled "High-precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid colonization of East Polynesia." The study is co-authored by UH Mānoa professor of anthropology and director of the UH Mānoa Honors Program, Terry Hunt; team leader and paleoecologist Janet Wilmshurst of Landcare Research in Lincoln, New Zealand; Carl Lipo, associate professor of anthropology at California State University, Long Beach; and Atholl Anderson, professor of prehistory, archaeology and natural history at Australia National University's College of Asia and the Pacific in Canberra. The study was based on an analysis of the validity of more than 1,400 radiocarbon dates from 47 islands in the region collected from their own and other researchers' published studies. Polynesian ancestors settled in Samoa around 800 B.C., then much later moved to colonize the region in two distinct phases -- earliest in the central Society Islands between A.D. 1025 and 1120, four centuries later than previously assumed. Then, between 70 and 265 years later, dispersal continued in one major 'pulse' to all remaining islands including New Zealand, Hawai'i and Easter Island (Rapa Nui) between A.D. 1190 and 1290. The timing and sequence of this remarkable event has been highly debated and poorly resolved, precluding the understanding of cultural and ecological change that followed."

One argument often heard is that indigenous people have a special relationship to the land which entitles them to special rights. For example, some indigenous tribes in Africa and Asia are very remote from modern civilization, and continue to live on the land in a subsistence mode as they have for thousands of years. Indigenous people who have continuously maintained their cultural traditions as their primary and regular way of life clearly deserve special protection so they may continue doing so. Some African tribes continue hunting with bow and arrow; fishing with spear, net, and individual hook; planting and harvesting by hand or animal-drawn plow; speaking their traditional language from childhood as their main (and often only) way of communicating. That is quite different from what well-assimilated African-Americans sometimes do as a hobby when they learn traditional skills, or study Swahili in their spare time. It is quite different from what Makah Indians do when they reassert an almost-forgotten custom of hunting a whale, not because they need the food to survive but because it helps them revive a dormant cultural practice. Very few kanaka maoli live a traditional subsistence lifestyle, or have any desire to do so. Nor should they be expected to do so as a prerequisite for sovereignty. But kanaka maoli cannot claim that they need land to grow taro as a matter of physical survival, since poi is not their primary food item as it was 200 years ago. Kanaka maoli might want land to grow taro because it makes them feel closer to the land, helps them relearn an almost-forgotten lifestyle, and gives them a source of food free from dependence on the supermarket; but those reasons are more akin to voluntarily choosing to pursue a hobby. Almost all modern-day kanaka maoli live in houses with electricity, plumbing, computers, and food from supermarkets; unlike true indigenous tribes whose dependence upon the land is direct, immediate, and inescapable. Africans are indigenous on their tribal lands in Africa, but African-Americans are not indigenous in America, even though they may trace their genealogies, learn Swahili, and celebrate Kwanzaa. Polynesians may be indigenous in various Pacific islands where they have lived for thousands of years, but kanaka maoli are not indigenous in Hawai'i any more than Normans are indigenous in England. Most modern-day kanaka maoli have no more daily intimacy with the land of Hawai'i than the descendants of the Chinese and Japanese plantation workers who cultivated sugar or rice a century ago.

Kanaka maoli have ancestors whose bones have been in the land of Hawai'i for hundreds of years. But millions of Americans have ancestors whose bones have been in the land of England for many centuries, and that does not give those Americans political rights in England. Indeed, some kanaka maoli have more English blood than they have kanaka maoli blood, and more ancestral English bones in the land of England for more centuries than they have ancestral kanaka maoili bones in the land of Hawai'i. Where the bones are does not determine either indigenous status or political rights.

There is, however, a very special connection with the land which is spiritual more than material. In Hawaiian language the word for land is 'aina, which means "that which feeds" or "that which provides food." Like a mother's breast provides food. Like a man gives food to a dog, or a flower gives food to a honeybee. But it is not merely food for bodily survival, it is also food for spiritual sustenance. The land -- even a rock -- is a spiritual being of higher status than a person. An old Hawaiian proverb says that the land is a chief, and a person is its lowly servant. This is not stewardship, in the Christian sense of dominating the land to protect it and make it productive for God who owns it; it is rather a relationship of love, respect, awe, and service, as a child to parent, or a younger sibling to an older one. The land speaks to any who care to listen, and we owe it our prayers of respect, thanksgiving, and permission-seeking when we first tread upon it in the morning, each time we enter a new area, and before stepping off it to go to bed at night.

Kanaka maoli, in their traditional lifestyle, had a very intimate spiritual relationship with the land which was not shared by the Europeans who came here. Some modern kanaka maoli continue to have that special relationship, even while living in a high-rise condominium, because of the way their families raised them. Some modern kanaka maoli may have an advantage over non-kanaka maoli in spontaneously feeling that spiritual relationship with the land, or learning to feel it. But even if some kanaka maoli are more inclined to recognize a spiritual relationship with the land than some non-kanaka maoli, that does not mean that all kanaka maoli should have political sovereignty to the exclusion of all non-kanaka maoli. It only means that some kanaka maoli are fortunate to have a richer spiritual life than some non-kanaka maoli. But all persons can become attuned to this spirituality; and people who are so attuned, regardless of race, should be placed in positions of authority in land management.

Finally, it should be noted that kanaka maoli activists insist that all kanaka maoli are entitled to sovereignty even if they and their parents were neither born nor raised in Hawai'i. So connectedness with the land through life experiences is not what the activists are saying establishes a political claim to sovereign control of the land. And kanaka maoli insist that any person with even one drop of native blood is kanaka maoli, regardless of knowledge of the culture. So they seem to be saying that the connection with the land is genetic, even though quantum percentage is irrelevant. Is there a genetic predisposition toward spiritual connectedness with the specific lands of Hawai'i, so that people whose ancestors have lived in Hawai'i for 700 years would have undergone natural selection causing them to be more likely to have that connection, even if they have only a small percentage of kanaka maoli blood quantum? There is no evidence for such a genetic predisposition, and it seems unlikely that a mere 30-40 generations would be sufficient to encode it reliably. One thing we have learned from 20th century history is this: it causes great misery when any race claims that its genes give it superiority over other races in matters of intelligence, spirituality, or righteous behavior. The 20th century history of India/Pakistan, Jerusalem, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia shows the misery that can be caused when a racial or ethnic group claims that historical or spiritual connection to a specific area of land gives them the right to political sovereignty. For an in-depth discussion of how religious myths are used to support political claims for racial supremacy in Hawai'i, see:

In ancient times individuals had no rights except as members of a tribe. Tribes had rights to areas of the land or sea where they had lived for centuries, or which they had conquered from other tribes. In some parts of the world these tribal rights are still more important than individual rights. A person's status in his tribe is determined according to genealogy, gender, birth-order, astrology, and special skills valued by tribal leaders. Tribal leaders exercise absolute power over tribal members. If a nation-state includes such tribes with specific land-bases, special rights may be given to individuals living on tribal lands based solely on the fact that they are members of those tribes. But in Hawai'i the situation is very different. Kanaka maoli eagerly welcomed foreign culture beginnning with Captain Cook's arrival in 1778. Foreigners were given full and equal status as members of the Kingdom of Hawai'i, beginning with the Constitution of 1840 (right to vote) and the Mahele of 1848 (right to own property). See the section of this website that deals with whether non-kanaka maoli were guests or partners. The native kanaka maoli exercised their right to self-determination when their undisputed monarchs exercised their sovereign power to give voting rights and property rights to non-kanaka maoli. See the website section regarding self-determination. By the time of the overthrow and annexation, 74% of the residents of Hawai'i, and half of the citizens with voting rights, were non-kanaka maoli. And so it is that any tribal rights were given up in favor of a western system where only individuals have rights under the rule of written laws, under a constitution. Minority individuals have certain rights protected by the constitution even when 90% oppose them, including the right to speak freely, to vote, and to own property. But individuals do not receive special rights solely because of their membership in a racial group, as shown by the recent trend away from hiring quotas, racial gerrymandering of voting districts, and affirmative action.

Jocelyn Linnekin, a student of famed ethnohistorian Marshall Sahlins, spent a year (ending in 1975) living among the kanaka maoli on the isolated Keanae peninsula in windward Maui, along the picturesque road to Hana. She focused on the persistence of tradition. She studied whether traditional Hawaiian practices were still followed, including "exchange-in-kind" and mutual networks of informal obligation as the economic model. She notes that even in 1975, in this isolated community where almost every resident is kanaka maoli living on land passed down for generations, ancient rituals and cultural practices do not survive in ancient forms.

Cultural practices are often invented and then used for asserting political claims. For example, in the case of the 'awa ceremony, Kamakau (writing in the mid-1800s) stated that even in his time it was no longer practiced and only a dim memory. In modern times that ceremony has been reinvented by Hawaiians following Samoan style, and the ceremony is used on public occasions to impress people with the alleged indigenousness of kanaka maoli. The ancient Polynesian tradition of voyaging canoes navigating by the stars had been completely lost and forgotten throughout all of Polynesia, and was revived at the initiative of a white man who organized the construction of the Hokule'a canoe and located a traditional Micronesian navigator who taught the skill to a part-Hawaiian politically-connected man in the 1970's.

I personally have observed occasions when activist kanaka maoli want to perform some sort of ceremony for political purposes but do not know any appropriate ceremony from actual personal experience; so they look up the words of an ancient chant as written in Fornander's book and invent hula motions and music to accompany it. This was the procedure followed in 1999, when kanaka maoli wanted to assemble a welcoming party on a beach in Hilo for the World Indigenous People's Conference on Education. Numerous training sessions were held on several islands with printed instructions, prayers, and chants to be memorized (in traditional indigenous culture, these things would already be known to the participants from childhood and would be passed down through oral tradition and apprenticeship). The participants later got on airplanes and flew to Hilo, stayed in motels, drove by car to the beach, and performed their "indigenous" welcoming ceremony. Anyone would be able to do this sort of thing, regardless whether they have kanaka maoli blood, even without having cultural experiences of that sort in ordinary daily life. In that sense, most modern kanaka maoli are only "wannabe" indigenous, just the same as the white American hippies who sometimes come to Hawai'i and try to adopt an "indigenous" lifestyle.

This is not to disrespect the kanaka maoli or their ancient or modern reinvented culture -- it is only to recognize a cultural discontinuity that would not be present if the people were truly indigenous. Some individuals may be more attuned than others to the Cosmic Spirit that lives inside us all. Each culture has practices and rituals which evoke that spirit in ways unique to that culture. Individuals growing up in a culture experience those practices and rituals and become familiar with them. As adults, individuals may unthinkingly persist in following the cultural practices of their upbringing. Some individuals find that practices of other cultures more easily or profoundly evoke awareness of and communion with that inner spirit. But indigenous people do not choose their culture -- they are born into it, live it in everyday practice, and stay in it routinely. Indigenous people are either unaware of other possibilities, or reject and withdraw from those external forms when they intrude. When indigenous people embrace new cultural forms, language, religion, and lifestyle, they are no longer indigenous.

Genuinely indigenous people have a daily lifestyle filled with ancient customs, rituals, and prayers handed down from generation to generation through unbroken tradition. Some of those rituals in precontact Hawai'i are described in Valerio Valeri (trans. Paula Wissing), "Kingship and Sacrifice," Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Hawaiian culture until the early 1800s included frequent warfare, human sacrifice of innocent victims, and the death penalty for anyone who stepped on the shadow of a high-ranking chief or any woman who ate bananas or coconuts. There were very good reasons for these customs. They were accepted as the cultural norm by all kanaka maoli. There were very important reasons for these customs -- reasons which today would be called "religious."

The ancient culture cannot be practiced without these and other elements which today's kanaka maoli reject. Warfare was highly ritualized and was permitted only during certain seasons of the year when it would not insult the god Lono. Human sacrifice brought the mana (spiritual power) of the gods into a ceremony and into physical objects being blessed, such as temples, or the houses being constructed for important chiefs. Low-ranking people who stepped on the shadow of a high-ranking chief were robbing that chief of his mana, which would cause disaster for the community unless the mana was properly restored through sacrifice. Bananas and coconuts were the body-forms of the god of maleness, and could not be eaten by women without threatening male virility and insulting the god: a banana resembles a penis; and when looking at a palm tree, one can easily see the shaft of the tree penetrating the ground, with the coconuts at the top surrounded by foliage.

So it seems inauthentic when a modern kanaka maoli assembles his political supporters for an 'awa ceremony (reinvented from Samoan practices), describes the trade winds as the breath of the ancestor of all kanaka, passes around the 'awa bowl and some food and says that drinking and eating these things is a spiritual communion (hinting at the wine and wafers of the Catholic communion) -- and the food being passed to the mixed audience of men and women includes pieces of banana and coconut. Modern kanaka maoli pick and choose which portions of the ancient culture to honor, while dishonoring other elements that were inherently integrated with it. The new or reinvented cultural forms may be beautiful and inspiring, but are used for political purposes rather than spiritual ones. And they are not the authentic or spontaneous expressions of a continuously functioning indigenous people.

However beautiful and evocative an invented or reinvented culture may be, and however authentic the inner feelings of some practitioners may be, the people and culture have no rightful claim to be indigenous in the way some South American or African tribes are. If today's kanaka maoli reply by saying that they are descended from the indigenous people of Hawai'i, then the previous rebuttal is appropriate: the kanaka maoli are less indigenous to Hawai'i than the English people are indigenous to England. And, of course, every human being is descended from people who once were indigenous.

An example of invented tribes was shown on a popular television series in the summer of 2000. The program was called "Survivor." Sixteen middle-class American men and women of various ages were placed on a remote island in the South China Sea, and divided into two "tribes" called the Pagong and the Tagi. Each tribe had its own zone of jungle and beach, and was expected to survive through subsistence fishing and hunting. Competitions were held between the tribes, and the losing tribe had to vote one of its members off the island. The program's producers created a carved wooden totem that gave immunity from elimination to the tribe that possessed it. A torchlight ceremony was held when a tribe had to vote one of its members off the island. After the vote, the person chosen to be sacrificed had his torch snuffed out and had to leave. "Fire is the symbol of life. Your torch is now extinguished. It is time for you to leave." For a few weeks these contestants lived a lifestyle more indigenous than most modern kanaka maoli. They were living off the land, exchanging goods and services cooperatively in a moneyless economy, building their own shelters from local materials, engaging in torchlight ceremonies symbolic of life and death.


Here's an article describing some Indian tribes who live in the Amazon River basin. They are truly indigenous. Anyone who thinks ethnic Hawaiians are an indigenous people should compare the Hawaiians against these tribes.

Smithsonian magazine, March 2013

The Lost Tribes of the Amazon
Often described as “uncontacted,” isolated groups living deep in the South American forest resist the ways of the modern world—at least for now

By Joshua Hammer
Photographs by Dominic Bracco II
[** 18 photos in a slide show provided in a link at beginning of article.]

On a cloudless afternoon in the foothills of the Andes, Eliana Martínez took off for the Amazon jungle in a single-engine Cessna 172K from an airstrip near Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. Squeezed with her in the tiny four-seat compartment were Roberto Franco, a Colombian expert on Amazon Indians; Cristóbal von Rothkirch, a Colombian photographer; and a veteran pilot. Martínez and Franco carried a large topographical map of Río Puré National Park, 2.47 million acres of dense jungle intersected by muddy rivers and creeks and inhabited by jaguars and wild peccaries—and, they believed, several isolated groups of Indians. “We didn’t have a lot of expectation that we’d find anything,” Martínez, 44, told me, as thunder rumbled from the jungle. A deluge began to pound the tin roof of the headquarters of Amacayacu National Park, beside the Amazon River, where she now serves as administrator. “It was like searching for the needle in the haystack.”

Martínez and Franco had embarked that day on a rescue mission. For decades, adventurers and hunters had provided tantalizing reports that an “uncontacted tribe” was hidden in the rainforest between the Caquetá and Putumayo rivers in the heart of Colombia’s Amazon. Colombia had set up Río Puré National Park in 2002 partly as a means of safeguarding these Indians, but because their exact whereabouts were unknown, the protection that the government could offer was strictly theoretical. Gold miners, loggers, settlers, narcotics traffickers and Marxist guerrillas had been invading the territory with impunity, putting anyone dwelling in the jungle at risk. Now, after two years’ preparation, Martínez and Franco were venturing into the skies to confirm the tribe’s existence—and pinpoint its exact location. “You can’t protect their territory if you don’t know where they are,” said Martínez, an intense woman with fine lines around her eyes and long black hair pulled into a ponytail.

Descending from the Andes, the team reached the park’s western perimeter after four hours and flew low over primary rainforest. They ticked off a series of GPS points marking likely Indian habitation zones. Most of them were located at the headwaters for tributaries of the Caquetá and the Putumayo, flowing to the north and south, respectively, of the park. “It was just green, green, green. You didn’t see any clearing,” she recalled. They had covered 13 points without success, when, near a creek called the Río Bernardo, Franco shouted a single word: “Maloca!”

Martínez leaned over Franco.

"Donde? Donde?”—Where? Where? she yelled excitedly.

Directly below, Franco pointed out a traditional longhouse, constructed of palm leaves and open at one end, standing in a clearing deep in the jungle. Surrounding the house were plots of plantains and peach palms, a thin-trunked tree that produces a nutritious fruit. The vast wilderness seemed to press in on this island of human habitation, emphasizing its solitude. The pilot dipped the Cessna to just several hundred feet above the maloca in the hope of spotting its occupants. But nobody was visible. “We made two circles around, and then took off so as not to disturb them,” says Martínez. “We came back to earth very content.”

Back in Bogotá, the team employed advanced digital technology to enhance photos of the maloca. It was then that they got incontrovertible evidence of what they had been looking for. Standing near the maloca, looking up at the plane, was an Indian woman wearing a breechcloth, her face and upper body smeared with paint.

Franco and Martínez believe that the maloca they spotted, along with four more they discovered the next day, belong to two indigenous groups, the Yuri and the Passé—perhaps the last isolated tribes in the Colombian Amazon. Often described, misleadingly, as “uncontacted Indians,” these groups, in fact, retreated from major rivers and ventured deeper into the jungle at the height of the South American rubber boom a century ago. They were on the run from massacres, enslavement and infections against which their bodies had no defenses. For the past century, they have lived with an awareness—and fear—of the outside world, anthropologists say, and have made the choice to avoid contact. Vestiges of the Stone Age in the 21st century, these people serve as a living reminder of the resilience—and fragility—of ancient cultures in the face of a developmental onslaught.


For decades, the governments of Amazon nations showed little interest in protecting these groups; they often viewed them as unwanted remnants of backwardness. In the 1960s and ’70s Brazil tried, unsuccessfully, to assimilate, pacify and relocate Indians who stood in the way of commercial exploitation of the Amazon. Finally, in 1987, it set up the Department of Isolated Indians inside FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), Brazil’s Indian agency. The department’s visionary director, Sydney Possuelo, secured the creation of a Maine-size tract of Amazonian rainforest called the Javari Valley Indigenous Land, which would be sealed off to outsiders in perpetuity. In 2002, Possuelo led a three-month expedition by dugout canoe and on foot to verify the presence in the reserve of the Flecheiros, or Arrow People, known to repel intruders with a shower of curare-tipped arrows. The U.S. journalist Scott Wallace chronicled the expedition in his 2011 book, The Unconquered, which drew international attention to Possuelo’s efforts. Today, the Javari reserve, says FUNAI’s regional coordinator Fabricio Amorim, is home to “the greatest concentration of isolated groups in the Amazon and the world.”

Other Amazon nations, too, have taken measures to protect their indigenous peoples. Peru’s Manú National Park contains some of the greatest biodiversity of any nature reserve in the world; permanent human habitation is restricted to several tribes. Colombia has turned almost 82 million acres of Amazon jungle, nearly half its Amazon region, into 14.8 million acres of national parks, where all development is prohibited, and resguardos, 66.7 million acres of private reserves owned by indigenous peoples. In 2011 Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed legislation that guaranteed “the rights of uncontacted indigenous remain in that condition and live freely according to their cultures on their ancestral lands.”

The reality, however, has fallen short of the promises. Conservation groups have criticized Peru for winking at “ecotourism” companies that take visitors to gape at isolated Indians. Last year, timber companies working illegally inside Manú National Park drove a group of isolated Mashco-Piro Indians from their forest sanctuary.

Colombia, beset by cocaine traffickers and the hemisphere’s longest Marxist-Leninist insurgency, hasn’t always succeeded in policing its rainforests effectively either. Several groups of Indians have been forcibly assimilated and dispersed in recent years.

Today, however, Colombia continues to move into the vanguard of protecting indigenous peoples and their land. In December, the government announced a bold new plan to double the size of remote Chiribiquete Park, currently 3.2 million acres in southern Colombia; the biodiversity sanctuary is home to two isolated tribes.

Franco believes that governments must increase efforts to preserve indigenous cultures. “The Indians represent a special culture, and resistance to the world,” argues the historian, who has spent three decades researching isolated tribes in Colombia. Martínez says that the Indians have a unique view of the cosmos, stressing “the unity of human beings with nature, the interconnectedness of all things.” It is a philosophy that makes them natural environmentalists, since damage to the forest or to members of one tribe, the Indians believe, can reverberate across society and history with lasting consequences. “They are protecting the jungle by chasing off gold miners and whoever else goes in there,” Franco says. He adds: “We must respect their decision not to be our friends—even to hate us.”


Especially since the alternatives to isolation are often so bleak. This became clear to me one June morning, when I traveled up the Amazon River from the Colombian border town of Leticia. I climbed into a motorboat at the ramshackle harbor of this lively port city, founded by Peru in 1867 and ceded to Colombia following a border war in 1922. Joining me were Franco, Daniel Matapi—an activist from Colombia’s Matapi and Yukuna tribes—and Mark Plotkin, director of the Amazon Conservation Team, the Virginia-based nonprofit that sponsored Franco’s overflight. We chugged down a muddy channel and emerged into the mile-wide river. The sun beat down ferociously as we passed thick jungle hugging both banks. Pink dolphins followed in our wake, leaping from the water in perfect arcs.

After two hours, we docked at a pier at the Maloca Barú, a traditional longhouse belonging to the 30,000-strong Ticuna tribe, whose acculturation into the modern world has been fraught with difficulties. A dozen tourists sat on benches, while three elderly Indian women in traditional costume put on a desultory dance. “You have to sell yourself, make an exhibition of yourself. It’s not good,” Matapi muttered. Ticuna vendors beckoned us to tables covered with necklaces and other trinkets. In the 1960s, Colombia began luring the Ticuna from the jungle with schools and health clinics thrown up along the Amazon. But the population proved too large to sustain its subsistence agriculture-based economy, and “it was inevitable that they turned to tourism,” Franco said.

Not all Ticunas have embraced this way of life. In the nearby riverside settlement of Nazareth, the Ticuna voted in 2011 to ban tourism. Leaders cited the garbage left behind, the indignity of having cameras shoved in their faces, the prying questions of outsiders into the most secret aspects of Indian culture and heritage, and the uneven distribution of profits. “What we earn here is very little,” one Ticuna leader in Nazareth told the Agence France-Presse. “Tourists come here, they buy a few things, a few artisanal goods, and they go. It is the travel agencies that make the good money.” Foreigners can visit Nazareth on an invitation-only basis; guards armed with sticks chase away everyone else.


In contrast to the Ticuna, the Yuri and Passé tribes have been running from civilization since the first Europeans set foot in South America half a millennium ago. Franco theorizes that they originated near the Amazon River during pre-Columbian times. Spanish explorers in pursuit of El Dorado, such as Francisco de Orellana, recorded their encounters—sometimes hostile—with Yuri and Passé who dwelled in longhouses along the river. Later, most migrated 150 miles north to the Putumayo—the only fully navigable waterway in Colombia’s Amazon region—to escape Spanish and Portuguese slave traders.

Then, around 1900, came the rubber boom. Based in the port of Iquitos, a Peruvian company, Casa Arana, controlled much of what is now the Colombian Amazon region. Company representatives operating along the Putumayo press-ganged tens of thousands of Indians to gather rubber, or caucho, and flogged, starved and murdered those who resisted. Before the trade died out completely in the 1930s, the Uitoto tribe’s population fell from 40,000 to 10,000; the Andoke Indians dropped from 10,000 to 300. Other groups simply ceased to exist. “That was the time when most of the now-isolated groups opted for isolation,” says Franco. “The Yuri [and the Passé] moved a great distance to get away from the caucheros.” In 1905, Theodor Koch-Grünberg, a German ethnologist, traveled between the Caquetá and Putumayo rivers; he noted ominously the abandoned houses of Passé and Yuri along the Puré, a tributary of the Putumayo, evidence of a flight deeper into the rainforest to escape the depredations.

The Passé and Yuri peoples vanished, and many experts believed they had been driven into extinction. Then, in January 1969, a jaguar hunter and fur trader, Julian Gil, and his guide, Alberto Miraña, disappeared near the Río Bernardo, a tributary of the Caquetá. Two months later, the Colombian Navy organized a search party. Fifteen troops and 15 civilians traveled by canoes down the Caquetá, then hiked into the rainforest to the area where Gil and Miraña had last been seen.

Saul Polania was 17 when he participated in the search. As we ate river fish and drank açaí berry juice at an outdoor café in Leticia, the grizzled former soldier recalled stumbling upon “a huge longhouse” in a clearing. “I had never seen anything like it before. It was like a dream,” he told me. Soon, 100 Indian women and children emerged from the forest. “They were covered in body paint, like zebras,” Polania says.

The group spoke a language unknown to the search party’s Indian guides. Several Indian women wore buttons from Gil’s jacket on their necklaces; the hunter’s ax was found buried beneath a bed of leaves. “Once the Indians saw that, they began to cry, because they knew that they would be accused of killing him,” Polania told me. (No one knows the fate of Gil and Miraña. They may have been murdered by the Indians, although their bodies were never recovered.)

Afraid that the search party would be ambushed on its way back, the commander seized an Indian man and woman and four children as hostages and brought them back to the settlement of La Pedrera. The New York Times reported the discovery of a lost tribe in Colombia, and Robert Carneiro of the American Museum of Natural History in New York stated that based on a cursory study of the language spoken by the five hostages, the Indians could well be “survivors of the Yuri, a tribe thought to have become extinct for more than half a century.” The Indians were eventually escorted back home, and the tribe vanished into the mists of the forest—until Roberto Franco drew upon the memories of Polania in the months before his flyover in the jungle.


A couple of days after my boat journey, I’m hiking through the rainforest outside Leticia. I’m bound for a maloca belonging to the Uitoto tribe, one of many groups of Indians forced to abandon their territories in the Colombian Amazon during the rubber atrocities early in the past century. Unlike the Yuri and the Passé, however, who fled deeper into the forest, the Uitotos relocated to the Amazon River. Here, despite enormous pressure to give up their traditional ways or sell themselves as tourist attractions, a handful have managed, against the odds, to keep their ancient culture alive. They offer a glimpse of what life must look like deeper in the jungle, the domain of the isolated Yuri.

Half an hour from the main road, we reach a clearing. In front of us stands a handsome longhouse built of woven palm leaves. Four slender pillars in the center of the interior and a network of crossbeams support the A-frame roof. The house is empty, except for a middle-aged woman, peeling the fruits of the peach palm, and an elderly man wearing a soiled white shirt, ancient khaki pants and tattered Converse sneakers without shoelaces.

Jitoma Safiama, 70, is a shaman and chief of a small subtribe of Uitotos, descendants of those who were chased by the rubber barons from their original lands around 1925. Today, he and his wife eke out a living cultivating small plots of manioc, coca leaf and peach palms; Safiama also performs traditional healing ceremonies on locals who visit from Leticia. In the evenings, the family gathers inside the longhouse, with other Uitotos who live nearby, to chew coca and tell stories about the past. The aim is to conjure up a glorious time before the caucheros came, when 40,000 members of the tribe lived deep in the Colombian rainforest and the Uitotos believed that they dwelled at the center of the world. “After the big flooding of the world, the Indians who saved themselves built a maloca just like this one,” says Safiama. “The maloca symbolizes the warmth of the mother. Here we teach, we learn and we transmit our traditions.” Safiama claims that one isolated group of Uitotos remains in the forest near the former rubber outpost of El Encanto, on the Caraparaná River, a tributary of the Putumayo. “If an outsider sees them,” the shaman insists, “he will die.”

A torrential rain begins to fall, drumming on the roof and soaking the fields. Our guide from Leticia has equipped us with knee-high rubber boots, and Plotkin, Matapi and I embark on a hike deeper into the forest. We tread along the soggy path, balancing on splintered logs, sometimes slipping and plunging to our thighs in the muck. Plotkin and Matapi point out natural pharmaceuticals such as the golobi, a white fungus used to treat ear infections; er-re-ku-ku, a treelike herb that is the source of a snake-bite treatment; and a purple flower whose roots—soaked in water and drunk as a tea—induce powerful hallucinations. Aguaje palms sway above a second maloca tucked in a clearing about 45 minutes from the first one. Matapi says that the tree bark of the aguaje contains a female hormone to help certain males “go over to the other side.” The longhouse is deserted except for two napping children and a pair of scrawny dogs. We head back to the main road, trying to beat the advancing night, as vampire bats circle above our heads.


In the months before his reconnaissance mission over Río Puré National Park, Roberto Franco consulted diaries, indigenous oral histories, maps drawn by European adventurers from the 16th through 19th centuries, remote sensors, satellite photos, eyewitness accounts of threatening encounters with Indians, even a guerrilla from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who had seen the Indians while on a jungle patrol. The overflights, says Franco, engendered mixed emotions. “I felt happy and I also felt sad, maybe because of the lonely existence these Indians had,” he told me on our last morning in Leticia. “The feelings were complicated.”

Franco’s next step is to use the photographs and GPS coordinates gathered on his flights to lobby the Colombian government to strengthen protection around the national park. He envisions round-the-clock surveillance by both semi-assimilated Indians who live on the park perimeter and rangers within the park boundaries, and an early warning system to keep out intruders. “We are just at the beginning of the process,” he says.

Franco cites the tragic recent history of the Nukak tribe, 1,200 isolated Indians who inhabited the forests northwest of Río Puré National Park. In 1981, a U.S. evangelical group, New Tribes Mission, penetrated their territory without permission and, with gifts of machetes and axes, lured some Nukak families to their jungle camp. This contact drove other Nukak to seek similar gifts from settlers at the edge of their territory. The Indians’ emergence from decades of isolation set in motion a downward spiral leading to the deaths of hundreds of Nukak from respiratory infections, violent clashes with land grabbers and narco-traffickers, and dispersal of the survivors. “Hundreds were forcibly displaced to [the town of] San José del Guaviare, where they are living—and dying—in terrible conditions,” says Rodrigo Botero García, technical coordinator of the Andean Amazon Project, a program established by Colombia’s national parks department to protect indigenous peoples. “They get fed, receive government money, but they’re living in squalor.” (The government has said it wants to repatriate the Nukak to a reserve created for them to the east of San José del Guaviare. And in December, Colombia’s National Heritage Council approved an urgent plan, with input from the Nukak, to safeguard their culture and language.) The Yuri and Passé live in far more remote areas of the rainforest, but “they are vulnerable,” Franco says.

Some anthropologists, conservationists and Indian leaders argue that there is a middle way between the Stone Age isolation of the Yuri and the abject assimilation of the Ticuna. The members of Daniel Matapi’s Yukuna tribe continue to live in malocas in the rainforest—30 hours by motorboat from Leticia—while integrating somewhat with the modern world. The Yukuna, who number fewer than 2,000, have access to health care facilities, trade with nearby settlers, and send their kids to missionary and government schools in the vicinity. Yukuna elders, says Matapi, who left the forest at age 7 but returns home often, “want the children to have more chances to study, to have a better life.” Yet the Yukuna still pass down oral traditions, hunt, fish and live closely attuned to their rainforest environment. For far too many Amazon Indians, however, assimilation has brought only poverty, alcoholism, unemployment or utter dependence on tourism.

It is a fate, Franco suspects, that the Yuri and Passé are desperate to avoid. On the second day of his aerial reconnaissance, Franco and his team took off from La Pedrera, near the eastern edge of Río Puré National Park. Thick drifting clouds made it impossible to get a prolonged view of the rainforest floor. Though the team spotted four malocas within an area of about five square miles, the dwellings never stayed visible long enough to photograph them. “We would see a maloca, and then the clouds would close in quickly,” Eliana Martínez says. The cloud cover, and a storm that sprang up out of nowhere and buffeted the tiny plane, left the team with one conclusion: The tribe had called upon its shamans to send the intruders a message. “We thought, ‘They are making us pay for this,’” Franco says.


(c) Copyright 2000 - 2013 Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved