Letter from Nauta

Stephanie Boyd reports from the Peruvian Amazon, where Indigenous communities are fighting to save their language.
Illustration: Sarah John

Mama, ikiaka tá…a…Ah…AHHH,’ groans Miguel Angel as he stumbles over a phrase in Kukama Kukamiria, his grandmother’s maternal language. The lanky teen pulls at his short black hair in frustration.

‘I can’t do it,’ he says, glaring at the large studio microphone.

‘Breathe, son,’ says Leonardo, putting his hand on Miguel’s shoulder. ‘Inhale. Slowly. Exhale. Good. Try it again.’

We’re recording a voiceover for a film which my husband Miki and I are making with Leonardo’s Indigenous media outlet, Radio Ucamara, and with a Kukama women’s federation in Peru’s northern Amazon region.

Miguel, our 15-year-old narrator/victim, is interpreting for a young man who disappeared into the depths of a swirling whirlpool. His body was never found because he didn’t die: instead he transformed into a Karuara, which means ‘person of the river’ and lives with a silver-tongued mermaid in a spirit village beneath the lower Marañón River.

Karuara communicate with humans through dreams so Miguel Angel’s persona visits his mother while she’s asleep to reassure her he’s still alive.

‘Mama, Ikiaka tá, na ukriaitsi,’ he says – which translates as: ‘Mom, I’m here, in your dreams.’

This is not fiction. It’s based on countless stories that Ucamara has collected over the past 20 years.

Our hero shows his mother visions of life beneath the river. His new home is a mirror image of a Kukama village, a parallel world with a few colourful differences. Laughing children ride to school on a water snake and play football with an inflated blowfish. A male Karuara puffs on a piranha cigar, while a woman relaxes in a boa constrictor hammock.

Despite their playfulness, the spirits wield incredible power. They take care of the river and all its life forms and can even cure humans of physical and mental illnesses.

Indigenous communities depend on the river for food, water and transport, but the Marañón is also a sacred, living entity and the centre of the Kukama’s spiritual universe. Modern activities like natural resource extraction and proposed dams threaten the river’s fragile ecosystem. Eight years ago Leonardo asked Miki and I to make a film with Ucamara to help protect the river and spirit world below.

Miguel’s haunting voiceover accompanies an animation of a Karuara village, hand painted by Peruvian artists and based on hundreds of drawings by children from Nauta and seven Kukama communities.

Miguel was just seven years old when he took part in our first workshop. Now as I watch him wrestling with the narration, I see his round little boy face peering out from a thin adolescent body. He still has the same toothy grin that won me over, but he’s added a woolen tuque to his repertoire in spite of the jungle heat. ‘It’s my style,’ he says. During breaks he strums on an acoustic guitar or plays games on his mobile phone.

Doña Maria sits beside him, correcting his pronunciation. She’s a Kukama elder who used to teach at a free language school run by the radio station. Miguel attended classes, but the school closed five years ago due to lack of funds, before he could become fluent.

According to Peru’s last census, fewer than 1,200 people speak Kukama Kukamiria as their native tongue. The majority of them are over 65. If bilingual education fails, this rich language and all the knowledge it contains will be lost.

Our narration ends with a scream of terror as the protagonist flees ‘The Black Stain’ – an oil spill that envelops the spirit world, killing aquatic life and damaging the Karuaras’ eyesight.

Screams are universal, and Miguel finds this part a breeze. A scream can signal the coming apocalypse – or the frustration of a teenager struggling to master his ancestral language. Oil spills and the loss of Indigenous knowledge are two forms of destruction facing Miguel’s people, with no happy ending in sight.

But today our young hero has won his battle. We listen to the playback and Doña Maria smiles and nods her approval. The final noises in our studio are the celebratory whoops and hollers from a relieved teenager, his father and some crazy filmmakers.