News & Politics

Following the Flecheiros

National Geographic's Scott Wallace tracks one of the Amazon's last remaining native tribes untouched by the outside world

An Indian scout who helped Scott Wallace on his Amazon trek. Photograph of Indian scout by Scott Wallace

With only five days’ notice, National Geographic photojournalist Scott Wallace was launched into the Amazon rainforest, accompanying Brazilian activist Sydney Possuelo on a potentially deadly expedition to research the flecheiros, one of the last remaining native tribes untouched by the outside world. Possuelo’s team hoped to learn as much as possible about the flecheiros without letting its presence be known, with the goal of helping prove to the Brazilian government that the tribe should be protected from outside contact. Wallace’s new book, The Unconquered, is a gripping tale of the adventure, a 2002 journey replete with dangers including drug traffickers, wildlife, disease, and those they were there to help—the flecheiros, whose way of life is glimpsed in the translation of their name: people of the arrow. Here’s a conversation with Wallace.

When did you grasp the scope of what you’d undertaken?
The Amazon is viewed alternately as a Garden of Eden and a “green hell.” There’s something incredibly raw about this place. All the things that combine to make it unforgiving—the insects, the heat, the snakes, the rain—are what give it its mystique. Alongside those dangers, surprisingly, you’ll find cuddly-looking animals like pink river dolphins and otters.

Your party picked up Indians along the way to accompany your trek into the jungle. How did being in daily contact with Amazon natives affect the way you saw the mission’s purpose?
Some of the Indians had only been contacted in the last couple decades. Several remembered what life was like before. They told us they used to think low-flying airplanes were monsters. And they thought the high-flying ones were their own ancestors.

Why is this mission important?
We can’t go back 200 years and right the wrongs of the westward expansion. But we can recognize now—having evolved a code of laws governing not only the treatment of indigenous cultures but human rights in general—that we can bring to bear a whole slew of values for the good of everyone. These people may not remain uncontacted forever, but I applaud Brazil’s and Sydney Possuelo’s efforts to give them the choice—to not barge in on their land and snatch their resources, which has always been the way that we’ve approached a frontier.

At what point were you conscious of the danger you were in?
I think you have to push it to the back of your mind to some degree, but it’s always lingering there in a subliminal way. There was one day when we were advancing through the rain forest and the lead scouts were cutting open the trail with their machetes, swiping saplings as they went and littering the trail with these punji, or sharp, sticks. They were like booby traps. I slipped, two feet went out from under me, and I came down on one of them. And if I had fallen just a little bit further back, I would’ve been completely impaled through the back by one of these things. There was no way I could’ve survived that out where we were. I couldn’t have gotten treatment on time.

After that happened, I was so thankful that it had only grazed me and was a pretty superficial wound. All these other discomforts—enduring the hunger, the sweat, the filth, the insects—everything took a backseat to just keeping myself from a serious injury. I’m not a particularly a religious person, but after that I started praying every morning when we left the campsite.

Werner Herzog, who’s done a number of movies in the Amazon, commented that there’s something about it that’s so inhospitable and so hostile, that even the birds cry. It’s true: you don’t hear songbirds in the Amazon- there are only shrieking parrots and toucans. They cry.

Where do you think this sense of adventurism in your life comes from?
I feel drawn to places where important things are happening but very few people from the outside world are seeing them, and to be the eyes and ears and witness for that outside world. I’m drawn out often to the periphery of the world to see the raw conflict over land and resources. There’s undoubtably also an adrenaline rush to it. But it just feels like an enormous space there that cries out to be filled by someone, and there are really not that many people who do it.

How your family life has been affected by your travels?
I think its one of the great dilemmas for anyone who chooses a line of work that takes them to far off places from home. How do you balance the need for that exploration, the curiosity, the drive to find and discover new things with the people who depend on you? It’s a constant worry and a source of sadness that I’m not always there for my kids in a way that I would be with a more traditional job. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have served them well to have an antsy, unhappy father coming home every night and grumbling. It’s a trade-off.

Is the role of an adventure journalist still viable in today’s world?
I think there’s always going to be a role for it. Will society make the resources available for those drawn to that kind of work? And will audiences still want to read that kind of thing? Does the whole enterprise have a future? I think as long as there are publications like National Geographic around, there will be. I can’t say enough about how the magazine has provided and been the gold-standard for this type of work, and I count myself incredible fortunate to be among those who contribute to that.

I hope that there will be a long life for this sort of thing, and there are other groups emerging as well, like NGOs who support journalists. I think it’s going to be more difficult, but it’s not the end of the story. It’s going to take enterprise, as it always has. Technology has revolutionized everything, and if you can use it, you can get out there and do some pretty amazing things. The pieces on the chessboard that one has to move around are different. It might be a little more complicated now, but there are still opportunities in the foreseeable future.

A truncated version of this article appears in the October 2011 issue of the Washingtonian.

Staff Writer

Michael J. Gaynor has written about fake Navy SEALs, a town without cell phones, his Russian spy landlord, and many more weird and fascinating stories for the Washingtonian. He lives in DC, where his landlord is no longer a Russian spy.