Piro - History and Cultural Relations

Early contacts between the Piro and Whites are mentioned by missionaries and travelers—E. Richter in 1685, Francisco Carrasco in 1846, and P. Agustín Alemany, 1879-1881. In the early twentieth century rubber dealers attempted to enslave the Piro, resulting in violence on both sides and a significant reduction in the Piro population. After that the Piro were virtually slaves because of debts incurred on receipt of trade goods from patrones until direct contact with the Peruvian government was established in 1953. Peruvian Seventh-Day Adventists maintained a school in Huau. There were also Franciscan and Dominican Catholic schools. In all, some twenty-four of the Piro had learned to read and write Spanish, although most of them understood little of what they read. By that time a scientific alphabet for the Piro language had been provided by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (a Protestant organization), and the New Testament was being translated. This provided strong motivation for literacy. In 1953 the government established a highly successful system of bilingual schools. In 1981 nearly all the village Piro old enough to read and up to about the age of 40 were included in the bilingual school system; they were literate in Piro and able to hold simple conversations in Spanish. One young Piro woman had graduated from the University of San Marcos with a degree in medicine. In 1989 the Piro reported that eighty-eight of their young people, their secondary education completed, were in Pucallpa seeking degrees.

Until at least 1950 there was continual fear of raids from surrounding tribes. The Piro themselves had taken children of their neighbors into slavery. No intertribal attacks have been reported during the past five decades, however, except that two young Piro men returned with arrow wounds after lumbering alone. Beginning in the late 1940s intertribal relationships became increasingly cordial, as did relationships with Whites. One factor was the training of teachers for the bilingual schools, which brought the Piro into close contact with other jungle communities and with educators and government officials. During the 1950s the Peruvian government established a penal colony on the Urubamba. Some former prisoners have married Piro women of downstream villages, and a mixed population is developing there.

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