The “cat people” of Mayoruna want to know: What is your ca’ah?

The “cat people” of Mayoruna want to know: What is your ca’ah? June 1, 2016

Indians via doctoranne at
via doctoranne at

There is a fairly obscure book by the name of The Encounter, Amazon Beaming in which the writer Petru Popescu tells the story of his good friend, National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, and how he made contact with the elusive Mayoruna tribe in the deepest jungles of Brazil.

In 1969, McIntyre was on assignment in the Amazon’s Javari Valley when he was separated from his companions and stumbled into the Mayoruna. Known as the “cat people”, they believe they’re descended from jaguars—and pierce their faces with thin wooden spikes that mimic whiskers (see images here). McIntyre spends several weeks with them living as a de facto member of the tribe.

In a strange twist, the tribal chief can speak to McIntyre telepathically, but to communicate with the others he must rely on a tribal member with a limited knowledge of Portuguese. The natives find McIntyre fascinating, this light-skinned man wearing clothing (they wear none), and they want to know one thing of him:

“What is your ca’ah?”

McIntyre does not know what the term “ca’ah” means so asks his interpreter for an explanation. He is told that a person’s ca’ah is his “direction in life”. It is “contained in his spirit”, yet it is “controlled and corrected by his conscious decisions”. McIntyre explains that his ca’ah is “to find things and photograph them” which the tribe finds a satisfying answer.

A good friend of mine passed away recently, and I wondered how he might have answered the question “what is your ca’ah?” His name is Terry Tomalin and he lived the fullest possible life, one that was abruptly cut short at the age of 55.

Terry’s passion was the outdoors, specifically in his adopted home state of Florida, but he did more than fish and dive, paddle and hike. As the long-time Outdoors Editor for the St. Petersburg Times, he shared his adventures, using his column as opportunities to teach, as well as tell. He was a strong advocate for the environment and educated his readers on how they could prepare for virtually any out in the wild situation.

Yet, to peg Terry as purely an outdoorsman is to only tell part of his story. He was a devoted and loving husband and father, which he understood was his most important role in life. He committed himself to causes and organizations that bettered his community. And he motivated those around him to become better people. (In my late-20s, I was living a sedentary life when he cajoled me into running. Almost three decades later, I still run 4-5 days a week.)

Terry gave his ALL to those around him, so to say Terry’s ca’ah was to teach us to love and respect the outdoors only covers one facet of his life–just as our own vocation is just one slice of our own lives. I believe Terry’s calling was a bit broader: to give 100% of himself—to his family, his friends and his community. A mission he accomplished.

So how do you find and nourish your own ca’ah? Some great advice comes from the poet Gary Snyder, courtesy of Ivon Prefonatine, which I think summarizes how Terry lived his own life in a few simple words:

Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.

It’s something we all can do. Find our own “home”, set down roots, and give to the people and community around us—in whatever way we can and with as much devotion and love as we can. We are only on this earth for a limited amount of time, so there is no better time to get started than now.


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