Matis Indians and the economy of culture media, tourism and anthropology in the Upper Amazon

Barbara Arisi (Anthropology PhD student, PPGAS/UFSC, Brazil)
Lévi-Strauss, in an interview with Viveiros de Castro, commented that as (the indigenous societies) are getting hotter, meanwhile ours get colder. In France, this is very clear: the increasing interest in patrimony, and the efforts to find roots (Viveiros de Castro 1998). The Matis are in a very hot phase of their relations with international markets of tourism and television. And they become hotter precisely by giving value to their cultural patrimony. They show increasing interest in making money and gaining prestige for their material (blowpipes and bracelets) and immaterial culture (showing their hunting and animal parties).
Binan Chapu Chunu and Txami show the mug produced by BBC.
“The gringos didn’t tell us they would glue our children in a mug!”

First Contact and the industrialized objects
The Matis established contact with the Brazilian government in 1978, before that, they had had just sporadic relations with outsiders, mainly rubber tappers and other Indians. The men and women who told me their memories from a time when they use to live basically among themselves, hunting, farming, gathering with tools made of wood and a few metal axes (Arisi 2007, Arisi 2010) are the same men and women who now I have observed negotiating to perform their monkey hunting and animal parties with foreigners from UK or South Korea. The Matis are establishing the bases for the economy of their culture, the exchange of goods, technology and knowledge with outsiders.
I wrote about indigenous contact and isolation in my MSc dissertation and now I am working out a PhD thesis on how the same people are dealing with gringos from the other side of the globe. To write more bluntly: those old men and women came from the hidden head of rivers to be stars in the showbiz of global portrayal of Amazonia. I hope I can show from close observation what kind of difficulties and worries but also easiness and pleasures these kind of fast track historical events had brought to them.
Objectification of culture
At the same time that many anthropologists started to doubt of everything that smells like the essentializationof culture, both indigenous and many other peoples are starting to reify culture for themselves and to makes claim for it for many reasons and in different ways.
The awareness and manipulation of the idea of culture that is taking place throughout lowland South America mirrors a similar self-conscious display of culture currently going on among indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, such as in Australia (Myers 1991, 1994), New Zealand (Hanson 1989; Linnekin 1991), Melanesia (Foster 1995; Thomas 1992), and Polynesia (Sahlins 2000), among other places. (Oakdale 2004: 60)
In Brazil, there are researchers studying Indigenous transformations where culture participates in exchange relationships that become more and more commercial, intermediated by money (Coelho de Souza, 2005; Gordon, 2006; Carneiro da Cunha 2009).
I am engaging in this effort. I want to understand how people like the Matis create an economy of their culture, how do they negotiate with tourists, documentarists and anthropologists. All of us, consumers of their culture.
Matis, touristic guides and anthropologist camping with German tourists
Media in the forest and the Matis in the forest of media
I consider that I had three key moments when I could participate and and observe the economic relation of the Matis with TV crews and with tourists. In July 2009, there was in the Javari a crew from MBC South Korea, the biggest communication company in that country). In August, three North Americans filmed for a pilot for Animal Planet/Discovery Channel, from the US, with a group of five Matis families in a Tikuna village, an indigenous community located in Colombia, by the Amazon river, close to the triple border Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Then, in October, I followed the Matis camping with four German tourists and three guides one from Yugoslavia, one Peruvian and one Venezuelan.
South Korean MBC TV crew shoots the Matis drinking “tatxik”, beverage made of a vine
The first documentarists appeared in the lives of the Matis just after the contact in 1978. The Matis also entered, timidly, into the universe of information and communication technologies. They now use mobiles, digital cameras, emails, virtual networks like Orkut. Their images and films made by outsiders have been available in the internet for much longer.
My research tries to follow those associations that form this assemblage that provisory we can call the culture market or exotic culture market in the Amazon. I am interested in the economy and in the trading of the immaterial and material culture to outsiders. We, anthropologists, like tourists and documentarists, are important actors in the relations of those people from whom we all consume culture and who we may or may not help to create a certain status for culture itself and thereby a certain economy.
Thesis goals
To write an ethnography and analysis which will reflect the indigenous practices related to the economy of their culture.
To contribute to the anthropological debate about indigenous transformations.
To contribute to Americanist and Amazonianist ethnology, in general, and the Panoan and Matis studies, in particular.
To question analytical and theoretical models regarding the Indianization of modernity (Sahlins 1997, Conklin 1997, Oakdale 2004), goods and objects taming/White people taming (Albert & Ramos 2000, Howard 2000) and post colonial (Appadurai 1986, Thomas 1991, Clifford 1997, Abu-Lughod 2002, Obeyesekere 2005).
[ed.: Any comments or input from materialworld readers would be more than welcome]

ABU-LUGHOD, Lila et alli (ed). 2002. Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain. Berkeley: University of California Press.
APPADURAI, Arjun (ed). 1986. The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective . New York: Cambridge University Press
ARISI, Barbara. 2007. Matis e Korubo: contato e ìndios isolados no Vale do Javari, Amazônia. Dissertação (Mestrado em Antropologia Social). Florianópolis: Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina.
Also available online:
ARISI, Barbara M. 2010. Matis y korubo, contacto y pueblos aislados: narrativas nativas y etnografìa en la Amazonia brasilera. Mundo Amazónico – versión impresa, v. 1, p. 41-64, 2010. Also avaiable online:
CLIFFORD, James. 1997. Routes: travel and translation in the late twentieth century. Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England: Harvard University Press.
COELHO DE SOUZA, Marcela; VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, Eduardo & CALAVIA SAEZ, Oscar. 2006. GT 14 – Os regimes de subjetivação amerìndios e a objetivação da cultura. Acessado em 02 de abril de 2007 no site:
CONKLIN, Beth. 1997. Body paint, feathers, and vcrs: aesthetics and authenticity in Amazonian activism. American Ethnologist. Vol. 24. No. 4. Pp. 711-737.
CONKLIN, Beth A. & GRAHAM, Laura R. 1995. The Shifting middle ground: Amazonian indians and eco-politics. American Anthropologist 97(4). Pp. 695-710.
GORDON, César. 2006. Economia Selvagem: ritual e mercadoria entre os ìndios Xikrin-Mebêngôkre. São Paulo: Unesp: ISA; Rio de Janeiro: NUTI.
HOWARD, Catherine. 2000. A domesticação das mercadorias: estratégias Waiwai. IN: Bruce Albert & Alcida Rita Ramos (orgs.). Pacificando o branco: cosmologias do contato no Norte-Amazônico. São Paulo: editora Unesp: Imprensa Oficial do Estado.
OAKDALE, Suzanne. 2004. The culture-conscious Brazilian Indian: Representing and reworking Indianness in Kayabi political discourse. American Ethnologist, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 60 – 75.
OBEYESEKERE, Gananath. 2005. Cannibal Talk: the man-eating myth and human sacrifice in the South Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pp. 320.
SAHLINS, Marshall. 1997. O ‘pessimismo sentimental’ e a experiência etnográfica: por que a cultura não é um ‘objeto’ em vias de extinção. Parte I. Revista Mana, 3 (1), abril. Parte II, revista Mana, 3 (2), outubro. Rio de Janeiro: PPGAS/MN-UFRJ.
THOMAS, Nicholas. 1991. Entangled Objects. Exhange, material culture, and colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England: Harvard University Press. Pp. 259.
VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, Eduardo. 1998. Lévi-Strauss nos 90 a antropologia de cabeça para baixo. Mana [online]. vol.4, n.2 [cited 2010-05-12], pp. 119-126 . Available from:

Download PDF

One Response to Matis Indians and the economy of culture media, tourism and anthropology in the Upper Amazon

  1. Catherine Shteynberg June 29, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    Sounds fascinating, and I’m so glad that someone is writing about this. In 2004, while in undergrad, I went to do “field work” at the Pinkaiti Research Station on the Kayapo Reserve in the Brazilian Amazon for about a month. The community had already been inviting outsiders in for some time, and set up a small area where villagers did not hunt, built a few concrete buildings, and had a small group of men from the village help serve as guides for a limited number of biologists and botanists coming through for research. This type of sustainable economic development seemed to work okay
    in my limited experience of the arrangement–many of the scientists had decades long positive relationships with the community, they brought money, medicine, radios, and help to the village where needed, and they weren’t
    generally interfering with everyday life in A’Ukre village, as they were some kilometers down river with their Kayapo guides and a Brazilian cook who helped out researchers.
    However, we were part of a pilot project looking into the feasibility of having student tourists come through the village as another type of sustainable income for the village. We paid our way and brought the meds desired, but when we hit the ground, it was clear that we were already changing relationships within the village. We stayed at the research
    station for most of our time, but spent a few days in the village, where the impact of our presence was felt. Women welcomed us with body and face painting, but then demanded money for their services (something they had never demanded of outsiders before). A ceremony was performed for us, but
    there seemed to be tension in the village about who would take part in the ceremony, where/how we would watch, etc. Items were taken without asking from students (nalgenes, headlamps–things you would expect people to find
    useful) and then argued over. At the end a “trade fair” was set up in the center of the village and folks competed with each other to try and sell crafts and small goods to us students.
    The whole experience felt strange and very mixed. It was good that A’Ukre village was looking into alternatives to logging, but clearly there were going to be repercussions if tourists were coming in and out of the village. I’ve always wished that I had the time, experience, wherewithal,
    and language skills to think through my time there more, but I didn’t.
    Though much has been written about politics, outsiders, and visual anthropology in the region of course, my searches never turned up much about tourism. I’ll be eager to read what you write, so keep us posted!

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes

%d bloggers like this: