British Universities Film & Video Council

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The Tribe that Hid from Man

Adrian Cowell’s award-winning 1970 documentary The Tribe That Hides From Man about the Kreen-Akrore Indians is now available on DVD. Dr Elizabeth Ewart of the University of Oxford has gone to Brazil to watch the film with the original tribe and examines its complex legacy.

EwartAbout the author: Dr Elizabeth Ewart is a lecturer in the anthropology of Lowland South America at at the University of Oxford. She obtained her PhD from the London School of Economics, University of London in 2000. Her research is with indigenous people in Central Brazil where she has lived and worked with Panará people. Her doctoral research focused on Panará concepts of self and other by examining the relationships between Panará people and other indigenous groups of the area as well as non-indigenous people. Her publications include: Body Arts and Modernity (2007) and Space and Society in Central Brazil: A Panará Ethnography (2013).

Throughout the mid to late 20th century the Government of Brazil pursued a policy of contacting isolated indigenous groups in Amazonia in order to access the resources of the vast Brazilian interior. In 1967 a road was being built linking the city of Cuiaba to the south of the Amazon rainforest with the port city of Santarem on the Amazon river to the north. It was known that this road would cut through territory inhabited by apparently hostile Indians who only six years before had killed an English man. The decision was therefore taken by the Brazilian government to establish peaceful contact with Indians known as Kreen-Akrore. Two remarkable brothers from São Paulo, Claudio and Orlando Villas Boas led this expedition to meet and pacify these people, rumoured by some to be giant Indians. They had previously founded the Xingú Indgenous Peoples’ park, a vast area along both sides of the upper and middle Xingú, inhabited by numerous indigenous groups which was to become home to several more, displaced from their original lands after contact with Brazilian national society.


Photo: Dr Elizabeth Ewart

The expedition and the Villas Boas’ vision of pacification of the Kreen-Akrore is the central focus of Adrian Cowell’s documentary film, The Tribe That Hides From Man (1970), yet it does much more than this. The film also documents the ideals behind the formation of the Xingú Indigenous Peoples Park and finally it also provides striking footage of indigenous family life, hunting skills and raiding practices.

Divided into three parts, the first part describes the Xingú Park and some of the people living there. For most indigenous groups contact with non-indigenous people has in the first instance meant disaster, since diseases such as measles and flu quickly killed vast numbers of people. And though the indigenous population in Brazil is now growing more rapidly than the overall Brazilian population, huge numbers of indigenous people within Central Brazil were to die in the years after their first sustained contacts with non-indigenous people.

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