A recent Brazilian national archery team qualifying tournament for the upcoming Rio Olympics featured an unlikely trio of youngsters with only a few years' training going head-to-head with the country's elite, attempting to become Brazil's first indigenous Olympic athletes.
While none of the three—Nelson Silva, 16, Graziela Paulino, 20, and Dream Braga, 18—made the cut for the Rio Games, their mere presence helped vindicate a pilot project that aims to capitalize on traditional indigenous skills to find new world-class athletes, while also helping to boost the image and self-confidence of Brazil's marginalized and neglected indigenous population.
"Few people recognize these results as very good results," said Aníbal Forte, who coaches the indigenous archers. "Few people acknowledge what it took to get to the possibility of qualifying for the Olympics. This is the start of the journey. It was a very intense work."
Started in 2013 by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS), a non-governmental organization that encourages sustainable development and works with small communities, the indigenous archery program initially was seen by some as, well, crazy.
Turn a group of native teenagers into Olympic hopefuls, swapping traditional wooden bows for carbon-fiber models, and do so in time for Rio? No chance.
"There were people who thought it was mad," said Virgílio Viana, chief executive of FAS. "There were coaches at the Vila Olimpica here who said there's no way, it'll take at least six years."
Viana was undaunted. The program was his brainchild, and unlike some within Brazil's archery establishment, he expected success.
"The logic is simple," he said. "A middle class child in Brazil or abroad, who learns to use a bow during the week in a club is totally different from those who are born with a bow in their hands."
Figuratively speaking, Silva falls into the second group. His journey from the forest to Brazilian Olympic team contention began on the tranquil banks of the Rio Negro, one of the two rivers that form the Amazon.
A native of the Kambeba tribe, Silva grew up in the tiny village of Três Unidos, roughly 90 minutes by motorboat from the Amazonian capital of Manaus. There, around 60 people live in simple wooden homes on stilts beside the river—and almost everyone learns to hunt birds and fish using a bow and arrow made from paxiúba, a Brazilian palm that grows atop wigwam-style roots.
At age 13, Silva placed first in the Amazonian schools archery championship and was selected, along with several other boys from his village, to take part in the FAS project.
After training at the Rio's Vila Olimpica sports complex with Brazilian champion archer Roberval Fernando dos Santos, Silva and others began competing. Since 2013, he and four of his teammates have combined to win 13 medals in national competitions.
In April, Silva participated in his first international event, winning a bronze medal in the recurve cadet bow category at the Arizona Cup in Phoenix.
"I'm pretty happy that the work with the coach is paying off," said Silva, whose tribal name is Inha. "Training every day is intense, and it's getting results.
"I shot well, I lost by a point in the semi-final. I was really annoyed, but I managed a bronze medal and I'm happy. It's encouraging me to win more international medals for Amazonas."
Silva's results at last year's Brazilian national championship were more impressive still. Paired in a doubles event with fellow indigenous archer Graziela Paulino, the duo won a gold medal by upsetting Brazilian Olympic team members Marcus Vinícius D'Almeida and Ane Marcelle dos Santos.
"It's very exciting to imagine you left your village and you're there, at the Brazilian Championship, shooting against the best in the country," said Paulino, a member of the Karapanã people. "Happily, we got the gold and now we're training for even better results."
According to Viana, some of the most important results have nothing to with archery.
"Everyone there was supporting Marcus Vinícius," he said. "It was Amazonas versus Rio de Janeiro. "And they reached the final. They arrived with the other athletes, all with R$1,000 ($300) training shoes, nice shirts, middle class. This was a very interesting victory because when you talk about raising self-esteem, these kids getting themselves respected."
According to United Nations and UNICEF reports, prejudice against indigenous people has hit Brazil's native population hard, with discrimination, social exclusion and poverty contributing to disproportionate levels of depression and suicide.
Government figures indicate that within two of Brazil's Guaraní communities, the suicide rate was 19 times higher than the national average between 2000 and 2005, and that young people suffered the most.
The Guaraní—the first indigenous people contacted by the Europeans who arrived in South America 500 years ago—have suffered huge land losses in recent years to loggers and farmers. Similarly, the Kambeba people—to which Silva belongs—once consisted of roughly 400 villages, each containing up to 3,000 people.
Recent estimates put the surviving total population somewhere around 300.
"The kind of discrimination and neglect that they suffer at the hands of the government is something that affects their mental health," said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur for indigenous rights, who recently reported on human rights abuses in Brazil.
In her report, she highlighted "extremely worrying regressions" in indigenous peoples' rights including the government's failure to protect tribes from illegal invasions of their land or from being violently evicted by landlords and farmers.
Tauli-Corpuz said she had met with an indigenous family leader who could not stop crying over the violence inflicted on her community.
"I think that the bigger issue really is the eviction that they are always threatened with," she said. "I think it is a common theme among many of the young people."
For Silva and Paulino, adapting to a new way of life at the archery project's training base in Rio was arguably more difficult than swapping traditional bows for modern ones. "It's not easy, as an adolescent, leaving the middle of the forest to go to a big city without their parents," Viana said. "They suffered bullying because there is discrimination against Indians."
Before he joined the archery project, Silva said, his life in Tres Unidos was simpler, with plenty of time to play after school. "I miss my family most when I'm away," he said. "Actually, I miss the village because they're all my family."
Graziela, whose village is five hours away from Manaus by boat, said her family supported her participation in the archery program because it gives her a chance to study and improve her professional prospects. "Moving to the city was different," she said. "In the village, it's calmer but here's there's a lot of noise, a lot of traffic and it's really hot."
The cultural exchange ran in reverse last October at the inaugural World Indigenous Games in Brazil, where archery was one of the showpiece events. D'Almeida, a 17-year-old prodigy who is Brazilian archery's answer to Neymar, was able to try out the indigenous bows of the Pataxó people from the northeastern state of Bahia.
"It serves to show the difference between bow and arrow, and archery," said D'Almeida, who receives Brazilian government funding via the Bolsa Pódio initiative for athletes. "My sport is professional, and the bow and arrow comes from indigenous culture.
"We have a lot to learn from these people. The Indians have practiced the art for a long time. It's interesting to see the range of bows that exist here."
Before this summer's Games, Dream, Graziela and Gustavo dos Santos will carry the Olympic torch in Amazonas during its 95-day relay to Rio. It's as close as Silva and his fellow teammates will get to the Games this time around—but Silva is confident that by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, an indigenous archer will be competing for Brazil.
"For me it would signify something similar to what happened in the Olympics in Sydney when the [Australian] aboriginal athlete, Cathy Freeman, did something that not only won a medal but also had the non-aborigines supporting her," Viana said. "I think we could have something symbolically similar. I want to see this. I want to see an indigenous athlete win a gold medal for the first time."