Die If You Must: Brazilian Indians in the Twentieth Century|
by John Hemming
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|A Review of: Die If You Must
by Christopher Ondaatje
"Die if you must, but never kill" are the words Colonel
Rondon used in Brazil to instruct his new Indian Protection Service,
in 1910. It became the Service's motto. John Hemming has used
some of these words for the title of his recent brilliant book Die
If You Must which is the third volume of his trilogy-a historical
account of the Brazilian Indians and their fate as Europeans began
to invade and change their world.
John Hemming, the former director of the Royal Geographical Society
from 1975 to 1996, has been engaged with Brazilian indigenous people
for over forty years, ever since an expedition he was on in 1961
was ambushed by the then unknown Panar tribe, and his friend and
fellow adventurer Richard Mason was killed. That was the first time
he met the legendary Orlando Villas Boas, a passionate protector
of the Indians of the Xingu river. He was also one of the greatest
explorers of the twentieth century, honoured as such with a Royal
Geographical Society gold medal. Contacts with isolated tribes in
the vast Amazon rain forest involves very tough exploring and this
book is full of exciting adventures, including the first ill-fated
expedition. The author admits that by far the most thrilling moments
of his life were the four occasions when he has been with a tribe
at the time of its very first contact. Amazingly there are still
some thirty isolated tribes.
Over two hundred tribes survive in Brazil and-as intelligent human
beings with very democratic societies-they all react differently
to the traumas of contact and coexistence with the Brazilian frontier.
Die If You Must is all about these case studies and the people,
geography and politics behind them.
Indians have suffered terribly, dying from our alien diseases,
invaded by wildcat miners, loggers and settlers, and occasionally
massacred. But an extraordinary coalition of well-wishers, within
Brazil and in the rest of the world, has helped them fight back.
Fifty years ago their numbers had fallen to almost a hundred thousand,
and their total extinction was predicted. With coaching from their
friends, Indians themselves often learned to be shrewd politicians
and media manipulators. Their numbers quadrupled; and they have won
most struggles for land. Today they enjoy high esteem in public
opinion, particularly as good environmental custodians of the immense
forests they control.
Hemming's book ends in the present. Although there are still
daunting problems of cultural change, the situation is more optimistic
than he had ever dared to hope when he first became involved.
With detailed maps, photographs and no less than 160 pages devoted
to bibliography notes and references Die If You Must is a masterpiece
of non-fiction and will, without a doubt, be classed as the definitive
work on the Indians of Brazil. It is must reading for every