Itabira slipped through the forest, barefoot and naked but for the strings of beads that crossed his chest like bandoliers and the cap he’d made from the skin of a jaguar. His mouth was ringed in the deep-blue ink of wejoh, to honor the jaguar’s predatory maw, while the sides of his head and most of his body were drenched in the orange-red ink of noo.
If he were on a mission of peace, he’d have painted his face orange, and his body would be deep blue, while his head would be ringed by a crown of feathers, like a halo. But this was a mission of war, and 16-year-old Itabira, with the curly locks that identified him as a member of the Kaban clan, was one of 40 seasoned warriors on their way to kill the White invaders who shot Nema in the back, torched his hut, and slaughtered his family.
In his right hand, Itabira carried a bow he’d made from the wood of the pupunha tree, and in a quiver on his back he carried an array of arrows, the massive tips of which he’d carved into prongs so they’d dig into the flesh of his enemies, giving the poison time to work.
The year was 1967, and war was so prevalent and primary that he’d learned to make 20 different kinds of arrowhead for killing enemies – and five for hunting food. None of the arrows that he used for hunting had the poison in them, because it made meat taste bad. Those he reserved for enemies.
One week earlier, Itabira had found Nema and his family in the embers of the lap they shared with two other families. Nema’s shoulder had been shredded almost to the bone, and most of his children lay splattered on the ground beyond. The invaders had blasted them with shotguns, reducing their heads to bags of skin and skull and goo. The Labiway Esaga, or “overall chief”, was a man named Jiki-Boba, who assigned his ablest shaman, Pamaira, to care for Nema and his family while dispatching scouts to track the invaders. Pamaira picked scores of shotgun pellets from the flesh of the survivors, and he filled their wounds with the leaves of painkilling antiseptic herbs. Then he wrapped the dead in their hammocks for burial, and he nourished Nema with the meat of predators, like the jaguar.
Nema was in no condition to fight. His back was a matted mess of torn muscle, scabs, and embedded herbs; and his left arm dangled uselessly at his side; but he could walk, and when the scouts returned to announce they’d tracked the invaders to the encampment on the other of the Machado River, Nema was given the honor of leading the war party on its hundred-kilometer quest for vengeance.
“The route was well-marked, at least to us, because we’d snapped and twisted thousands of branches throughout the forest,” says Itabira, now in his 60s. “These were like road signs that told our warriors where to turn left, where to turn right, and how to get to the nearest village, but they were invisible to the invaders, and they were incomprehensible to our traditional enemies, the Cinta Larga, the Zoro, and the Gavião – just as their signs were incomprehensible to us.”
Nema knew the route well. He’d traversed it scores of times, and he could have walked it blindfolded. At roughly 35 years old, he was one of the older members of the war party. At his side was Jiki-Boba’s right-hand man, Nawara, who was also north of 30. Directly behind them were Itabira and Anine – each about 16 years old. Then came at least 35 other young warriors, snaking through the forest in loose formation.
Suddenly, Nema halted.
Directly in front of him, someone had built a latticework of tree branches, and on this structure, they’d hung ten machetes1 and some mirrors, which glittered in a shaft of sunlight that penetrated the canopy. The war party stopped as one, and stood silently in the forest, pondering the gifts. Were they a trap, as Itabira feared? Or were they an offering of restitution, as Nawara believed?
“It could have been either, given our traditions at the time,” says Itabira. “Our people didn’t make treaties with our enemies in those days, but instead practiced an informal system of justice.”
Under that system, a perceived injustice would spark a retaliation, which would spark a counter-retaliation, which would launch a series of tit-for-tat skirmishes that accelerated until one side or the other either capitulated or was annihilated. Capitulation came in the form of gifts, which the wronged party could either accept or reject. Nema was the wronged party, and all eyes turned to him. After a long silence, he stepped forward and took a machete, leaving in its place an arrow.
“This is a trade,” he said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
Nawara did the same, as did Itabira and Anine. Then each warrior followed in his turn until all the machetes were gone, each replaced by an arrow, and the party continued its trek to some nameless battle that led to another, and then to another, and then to another still, as individual skirmishes bled into a constant state of war with the Whites across the river.
But as fighting with the White invaders across the river increased, so did trade with the newfound White visitors close to home. On one occasion, the visitors left pans, scissors, and axes; and Itabira’s people – who call themselves “Paiter”, which means “real people” – again left arrows in their place. A week later, the visitors left more machetes, which the warriors again replaced with arrows – this time, leaving more than they took.
“We left all the arrows we had, and we returned to find machetes piled high,” Itabira says. “We left some baby monkeys in their place, and a day later, we found our first dogs. It became a ritual. We’d leave a bow and get a gun – but never bullets. We’d leave ceramic pots and get metal ones. One day, our women designed elaborately-painted pots, which we left for the visitors, and we received a small doll in return.”
The Paiter gradually developed a sense of kinship with these gift-giving Whites – and not just because of their generosity. Unlike the marauding Whites across the river, who were always getting lost in the woods, the gift-givers moved nimbly through the forest and even recognized the secret Paiter paths, leading Itabira to conclude that the gift-givers were a different tribe completely from those across the river.
“We should forge an alliance with these friendly Whites,” he said. “With their weapons and our know-how, we can eliminate the invaders across the river.”
But not everyone was convinced, and most felt that no Whites could be trusted. They pointed to the songs of their elders, which said the Whites would use their technology to enslave the people of the forest.
They weren’t songs of fantasy. They were history. It had already happened, about three centuries earlier.
 Itabira wasn’t sure of the number of warriors in the party, but he said there were definitely ten machetes, and that only a quarter of all warriors received them.