Living deep in the Amazon Basin of Brazil, the Oro Win are an indigenous tribe on the cusp of change. Six native speakers of their traditional language remain while the next generation speaks only Portuguese. As the words of their ancestors fade away, so does much of the culture and knowledge embodied in them.
The Oro Win consist of 16 households, perhaps 70 people, spread around São Luís Indian Post on the bank of the Pacaas Novos River. Josh Birchall, a linguist and Fulbright scholar who studies the Oro Win language hopes to record and document as much as possible before it is too late.
Josh’s primary source, Ti'omi, a hunched over old man in his 80’s, is the only person alive who was a full grown adult at the time of first contact. His vocabulary is the most extensive of any Oro Win and his voice resonates in a way that takes the listener to a different time. Ti'omi knows the stories no one else knows, he laughs a lot and is very lighthearted and free in his manner. Before leaving São Luís, he asked Josh, “when will you be back to see me?”, to which Josh replied, “not for a year or more”, as he needed to return to Holland to work on his dissertation. Ti'omi replied, “Oh…well, you won’t see me then, my eyes want to close”, gesturing to the pain in his back, knowing that his time in body is limited. When that time comes, much will go with him, never to be heard again.
Living in modern times, with 2 hours of electricity in the evening via generator, the tribe’s primary outside influences are soap operas, which they watch with adoration, music videos, and soccer… unexpected given their remote location in the middle of the rainforest. As a people, the Oro Win are at a pivotal moment. They live with one foot in the past, one in the future; hunting, cooking monkey over a fire, weaving baskets, and working with feathers by day, then playing with cell phone cameras and watching booty shakin’ music and drama by night.
At present, there remains a purity to village life that is inspiring. The water of the Pacaas Novos is clean and the forest provides bountifully for the people. Time seems to not exist. How long it will be before the values they learn from afar morph their identity? How long will their environment sustain them? It may not be a conscious choice by members of the community, but rather a gradual transformation. It is happening now.