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Crank Call


Published May 17, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

A story in The New York Times last week drew my attention to the plight of the Nukak-Maku, a rapidly vanishing group of nomadic Indians from southern Colombia, who recently -- and "rather mysteriously," according to the Times -- wandered out of the jungle to the dusty frontier town of San Jose del Guaviare "and declared themselves ready to join the modern world."

"We do not want to go back," said a Nukak by the name of "Ma-be," speaking through an interpreter and surrounded by about 80 of his "malnourished and exhausted" compatriots. "We want to stay near town." A San Jose doctor, called in to attend to the tribe's immediate needs, told the Times matter-of-factly, "The Nukak don't know what they've gotten themselves into."

I should say not. "Since time immemorial," the Times reports, "the Nukak-Maku have lived a Stone-Age life, roaming across hundreds of miles of isolated and pristine Amazon jungle, killing monkeys with blowguns and scouring the forest floor for berries. [They] have no concept of money, of property, of the role of government, or even of the existence of a country called Colombia." Worse, they "have no government identification cards, making them nonentities to Colombia's bureaucracy" and leaving them effectively stateless, cut off from their traditional way of life and "wholly unprepared for the world they have just entered."

Asked about their future, the Nukak reply in bewilderment, "The future? What's that?" They want to know if the planes they see flying overhead "are moving on some sort of invisible road." They can't even say where they came from, exactly, except to call it "the bush." But they know they don't want to return.

Indeed, until 1988, the very existence of the Nukak-Maku was unknown to anyone but missionaries, drug lords and the various paramilitary factions, both "left" and "right," who are the main combatants in what's amounted to a 40-year "civil conflict" for control of Colombia's cocaine trade. Since then, however, according to United Nations relief agencies, more than 60 percent of the Nukak population has died, mainly from malaria, flu and the common cold -- diseases against which they have no immunity -- but also through random slaughter and forced labor in the coca fields. Their leaders have been shot and their women have been raped. Their children have been sold into bondage while their environment deteriorates, destroyed by "cultivation," climate change and war. There is, in fact, nothing "mysterious" about the Nukak's flight from the jungle or their urgent need for protection.

"Colombia is the worst humanitarian disaster in the western hemisphere," the United Nations affirms, "and the worst on the planet after Congo and Darfur. But the world is paying very little attention." Rather, the world is paying attention in just the wrong way, regarding the Nukak and other displaced "indigenous peoples" as cute little muffins, pre-modern cartoons, who, in an earlier era, would doubtless have been shanghaied by P. T. Barnum or Buffalo Bill and displayed in cages for a nickel a peep.

Out in civilization, of course, gawking at the natives is a form of entertainment. The Times even titled its report on the Nukak, "Leaving the Wild, and Rather Liking the Change," basing this assumption on a quick visit to a refugee camp in San Jose, where "dozens" of the same tribe pitched up several years ago. They have been idling ever since, leading "listless lives, lolling in their hammocks [and] awaiting food from the state." The paper of record notes little in this but fun and frolic:

Are they sad? "No!" cried a Nukak named Pia-pe, to howls of laughter. In fact, the Nukak said they could not be happier. Used to long marches in search of food, they are amazed that strangers would bring them sustenance -- free . . .

One young Nukak mother, Bachanede, breast-feeding her infant as she talked, said she was happy just to stay still. "When you walk in the jungle," she said, "your feet hurt a lot."

I've got a feeling the Nukaks' heads are going to hurt more than their feet before this is over. As I sat down to write this column, I wanted to make it funny. I was going to suggest that we bring the Nukak to the United States -- provided we can get them past the "Minutemen" at the border. I thought we should bring them right here to Vermont, where Burlington's mayor wants to establish a safe haven for "illegal immigrants," and where they could get jobs at Wal-Mart and processed cheese at the Food Shelf. Since they don't have health insurance, we could cover them under Vermont's new Catamount Health plan if they catch cold or malaria. We could give them all cellphones, if they don't mind their calls being monitored by the federal government. Hell, we could send them to a fundraiser for Republican Rich Tarrant, where they'd get not only a spaghetti supper but free computers for the kids. Somebody could write a Nukak version of the national anthem, etc.

But then I thought, "This isn't funny. This isn't funny at all." And the Times' editorial board evidently agrees. "In one sense, there has never been a better time for a people like the Nukak to leave the wild," the paper writes in a post-report mea culpa. "Yet the fact that they're leaving suggests how much their world -- and ours -- has been impaired . . . It's hard to escape the feeling that their self-sustaining existence was holding something open for us, something that has now been lost."

If I knew how to say "Amen" in Nukak, I'd say it now.

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