Die If You Must: Brazilian Indians in the Twentieth Century

by John Hemming
ISBN: 1405000953

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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 red-blooded adventurer.

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