The Zápara once ranged far across the western Amazon. By the 1970s, anthropologists concluded that their culture was extinct. But a handful of native speakers survived. Now they’re trying to resuscitate their language and culture. But a new danger looms.
Bartolo Ushigua, leader of Ecuador’s Zápara Indians, was terrified. Not of New York’s massive buildings that towered far beyond the tallest tree in his native Amazon, not of the oily urban stench and stupendous traffic, not of the Babel of people constantly snapping his picture as though he were some exotic zoo mammal. What shook him so deeply was that for the first time ever, he couldn’t dream.
To the Zápara, a dream is a rendezvous with guiding spirits. It was in a dream that Bartolo’s shaman father saw that his people, down to just a few dozen, weren’t supposed to vanish after all, as prophecy had foretold. It was in dreams that this same father, now dead, kept returning to instruct Bartolo how to lead. Bartolo Ushigua was barely twenty when he assumed his indigenous nation’s helm; within three years he had brought the Zápara practically from extinction to designation by UNESCO as a world cultural treasure.
The path to recognition had been treacherous, filled not just with old enemies but also new friends whose helpful intentions portended to be equally deadly, should the Zápara come to depend on them too much. Mostly, though, the path was strewn with cash – not a lot, but enough to be tempting and disruptive.
After a dreamless week at the UN, one afternoon an exhausted Bartolo Ushigua napped. Suddenly images formed in his sleeping mind. “In my dream,” he recalled, “there was a man with two faces, one bloody, one smiling. When the smile showed, people became happy. When the blood showed, their strength waned. Then the face said something intriguing: In time, money could gain a soul.”
When we met Bartolo, he admitted that he didn’t entirely understand this dream. From our perspective, with the hunter-gatherer Zápara paradoxically now needing money to defend a way of life in which money had never been necessary, it was easy to attribute the dream to wishful thinking.
After all, we were in Ecuador to document a community facing seemingly impossible odds. The Zápara, once the most numerous people of Ecuador’s Amazon region, had been all but wiped out. Then, in 1998, a 60-year border war ended, and a few Zápara were discovered living in Peru. All had lost their language, but one was a shaman. On the Ecuadoran side, the last shaman had recently died, but a handful of elderly native speakers remained. Each group had what the other lacked, yet could so few people possibly resuscitate a culture? Especially with a new threat hanging over their heads?
That new threat is oil. The surviving Zápara owe their existence in no small part to the fact that theirs was, until recently, the last sector of Ecuador’s jungle without an oil concession. Bartolo and his siblings and cousins, now responsible for their people’s future, told us that they have just a few years to learn to defend themselves before the road and the drilling rigs arrive.
It seems impossible – until you meet them. We came away from the Zápara recalling that there’s a name for those people who occasionally confound probability and accomplish the impossible.
They’re called dreamers.
– Alan Weisman and Nancy Hand