The Ese'Eja People of the Amazon

Category: Exhibitions

Exhibition Summary

Temporarily closed

All ages

Alert

Temporarily closed

All ages

Protecting the rainforest and preserving a way of life

The Ese'Eja (ess-ee-AY-ha) Nation are an Indigenous people that have lived in and cultivated the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years. Now, external forces like illegal mining, restrictive government policies, and slash-and-burn farming threaten their way of life. 

Learn about the Ese'Eja and their response to change in The Ese'Eja People of the Amazon. Read messages from the Ese'Eja Nation alongside photographs that illustrate their resilience. In spite of threats to their home and cultural identity, the Ese'Eja remain connected to the forest and work tirelessly to protect it. 

This exhibition was created in collaboration with the Ese'Eja Nation.

The rainforest sustains us; without the forest, there is no life...and no Ese'Eja.

Mateo Viaeja

Village elder Elisa Shatahua. Ese'Eja women have formed artisanal committees to weave purses and baskets and produce jewelry, which they use and also sell to support their community.

© Andrew Bale and Jon Cox

Mother and Child. Some Ese'Eja must travel long distances by boat to see doctors. Local clinics are poorly staffed or have closed, and there are no remaining Ese'Eja shamans who practice traditional medicine.

© Andrew Bale and Jon Cox

Visualize how land and livelihood are interconnected.

Exhibition highlights: 

  • Daguerreotype portraits of the Ese'Eja developed using mercury and gold, a reflection of the illegal mining that contaminates their environment

  • Platinum palladium prints on Japanese kozo paper, symbolizing outside influences like the arrival of Japanese refugees after World War II

  • Medicinal tree oils and barks that the Ese'Eja use for healing, drawing on their ancestral knowledge of Amazonian plants

  • A look at the Field’s Keller Science Action Center and their work in the Amazon

Looking downhill toward a river, where three boats are tied up at shore. Clouds and sky are reflected in the water.

The Madre de Dios River. The Ese'Eja’s ancestral territory spans 460 square miles of Amazon rainforest and grasslands. In their origin story, the Ese'Eja describe how they were shaped by their natural surroundings and intertwined with the skies, land, and waters.

© Andrew Bale and Jon Cox

Connected by a thread 

The Ese'Eja people’s origin story tells how their ancestors came to be in the Amazon: They are descendants of the sky, coming down to Earth on a cotton thread. 

This spiritual connection to the rainforest persists, though land and knowledge have been lost. “We no longer have access to this sacred site” where the Ese'Eja first descended, says Fermin Yojajé. It now lies within national park boundaries where they’re prohibited from living.

But the Ese'Eja maintain and pass down traditions like hunting, fishing, and gathering for survival. They’re also actively working to improve conservation practices with the government of Peru and others who live and work in the rainforest. In this exhibition, see how the livelihood of the Ese'Eja people and the fate of the Amazon rainforest are deeply interwoven.