Have you ever had the opportunity to meet someone from a people declared extinct? That's exactly what happened to me during my trip to the Pantanal in November.
The Pantanal, encompassing the world's largest tropical wetland area, is located mostly within the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, thousands of species thrive there, including jaguars, anaconda, toucans, the imperilled hyacinth macaw, giant river otters and animals you've likely never heard of, caiman and capybara.
In addition to the animal population, indigenous tribes inhabit the region. Brazil's primary language is Portuguese. The indigenous tribes' languages have been studied and quantified. One concern with the Guató's extinct, now renewing tribe, is the loss of language. There were only two people identified in 2014 who spoke the Guató language fluently, including Vicente. Linguistically, it stands alone within the Macro-Ge Trunk, perhaps misidentified but at least recognized.
The Guató Indians, considered the great canoeists of the Pantanal, were first identified in Spanish Conquistador writings in the early 1500s. Decimated by smallpox and chickenpox during the following century, and then pushed from their native lands by ranchers in the 1800s, they migrated to other parts of the Pantanal or nearby towns. It's a tribe that doesn't generally interact with outsiders and nothing was heard from them. They were declared extinct by Brazil's government in the 1950s.
When a tribe is declared extinct in Brazil, they no longer have the rights afforded indigenous people, including social and ethnic assistance. But the people I met want to change that. In the Guató Indian's case, the indigenous rights included being allowed to hunt and fish on their native lands.
In 1976, some nuns noted an unusual language spoken at a coffee shop on the edges of Corumbá and the road from extinction began. Immediately thereafter, the struggle began in South West Pantanal to recover lands, culture and language. It wasn't until 1999 that a parallel campaign was initiated in the Northern Pantanal, where I visited.
The army wouldn't want the Guató to recover their rights, as they occupied Insua Island, deep in the Pantanal, part of the Guató's ancient lands. But the Guató Indians were willing to compromise, and a treaty was negotiated. They granted the use of half of the island to the military.
In April 2018, the Guató Bay Decree returned 49,000 acres to the Guatós of the Poconoe-Rio Cuiaba. There are now 600 Guató identified in the SW Pantanal's Insua island. The group I met, Alessandra's family, now number 100 with 28 branches of the family. They work to improve their lives in the Lake of the Guatós as sports fishermen with other seasonal work.
To access this remote tribe remains difficult. From Cuiaba, it requires a long ride by car or truck on rough roads and then an hour or more boat ride, long in good weather, but challenging or impossible during the rainy season.
The lady we met that instigated our journey, Alessandra Alves, just wanted to go home to see her mom. One of ten, she's in school. She used to get home once a week, but with finals and papers, it's much harder.
Our host in Jaguarland, Dr. Charles Munn, had invited an interpreter, and photographers from our expedition, to join her visit home. Despite torrential rains, we managed a brief visit to her ancestral home on our final day in the Pantanal.
Once there, as the others spoke, I received translation from Mr. Lailson M´årques da Silva.
The surviving Guató are active fishermen and have built their own school on the land they own in the Pantanal. They work diligently to improve their lives and those of their children. They are providers, stretched to their capacity. They're petitioning for more funds to improve their schools and allow their children to learn the Guató language before it's too late. They told me their goals were to improve their school and lives for their children. Sounds very much like any caring parents' dream for their child.
After being recognized as "not extinct," it took 20 years to have a portion of their native lands returned to them in 2018. Now they're looking to use the land to the fullest, in a way that is sustainable for future generations. I asked whether they retained any native arts and crafts. They showed their remaining pottery and small pipes, handmade by the elders. I asked if they'd be willing to fashion them again if tourists would come to purchase them. They said they may.
If you travel to the Pantanal, look them up. You may be surprised at what they're up to next.