Brazil’s Indigenous communities mourn elders’ deaths and the loss of their knowledge

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RIO DE JANEIRO – In January last year, Indigenous journalist Ihunovoti Terena interviewed elders from tribes across Brazil at an Indigenous gathering in Piaruçu, a village in Mato Grosso state.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Brazil two months later, and began claiming many Indigenous leaders, he realized he had recorded some of them for the last time — and that other knowledge not recorded or passed down was lost forever.

“Many … who were there lost their lives,” said Ihunovoti, 28.

About 970 Indigenous Brazilians have died since the COVID-19 pandemic began last March, according to a tally by APIB, Brazil’s largest Indigenous association, which represents many of the country’s 900,000 native people.

At least 223 of those who died were 60 or older – but that number could be higher, as APIB was unable to record the age of the majority of victims, the data shows.

The deaths represent a huge loss of culture for Indigenous communities, in which much traditional knowledge is passed down from generation to generation in conversations, Indigenous representatives said.

“Our elders are guardians of traditions, custodians of wisdom, advisors and holders of unique spiritual knowledge,” said Nara Baré, coordinator of COIAB, the largest umbrella group for Brazil’s Amazon Indigenous tribes. “To see them go is, in a way, to witness another aspect of the destruction of our people.”


Lost culture

Partial data collected by APIB indicates three Indigenous communities in Brazil were particularly badly affected by the pandemic: the Terena, Kokama and Xavante people. Each lost over 50 members to COVID-19.

In the first months of the pandemic, Lindomar Terena saw as many as four of his people die on the same day. At least 58 Terenas — who live in southern Brazil — lost their lives last year.

Lindomar, who is part of the council of the Terena people, now wishes he had recorded the stories and traditions the lost elders told.

“In several Terena villages there are … dances that our youth no longer know the meaning of,” he said.

Also lost, he said, were long-held traditional forecasting abilities.

Some of the dead Terena elders knew how to tell when it was going to rain, and how the phases of the moon influenced the growing of crops, Lindomar said.

In a society where older people effectively act as a “library” for knowledge and tradition, the virus has left gaping holes on the shelf, he said.

“The identity of (our) people is shattered. Our people saw our libraries break,” Lindomar said.

The Kokama Indigenous community, in the Amazon region, meanwhile, lost at least 59 people to the coronavirus, APIB’s data shows — though Glades Kokama, one of its leaders, said the figure is closer to 92.

Among the dead were elders versed in the community’s vanishing native language, and with knowledge of traditional medicines and foods, she said.

The majority of the Kokama pandemic deaths came last year, before vaccinations against the virus were available.

In Brazil, Indigenous people living in reserves now are listed as a priority for vaccination, and many communities are already being immunized.

Some, however, resist the vaccine — and older people can be among those most fiercely against it, Glades said.

“Some (elders) believe in the vaccine, but some don’t. We try to explain it to them, but we have to respect our elders,” she said.

That refusal to be vaccinated has accelerated efforts to try to record their knowledge and insights, in case the worst happens, Glades said. “We have to write down everything, because we are at risk.”


Digital history

Crisanto Rudz Tseremey’wa, president of Fepoimt – a federation of Indigenous people in Mato Grosso – and a representative of the Xavante people, said 68 in his Indigenous community had died, including both his parents.

His older son goes to college in Brasilia, and when the boy came home he was supposed to be taught the traditions of his people by the elders in the family.

Now Tseremey’wa is the only one left to do it.

“I’m with my son, who said this was an irreparable loss,” said Tseremey’wa. “This pandemic is not about the number (of dead), it’s about family. It’s about ancient knowledge.”

In some places, the COVID-19 deaths of elders have speeded up ongoing efforts by Indigenous youth to record more community wisdom, tradition and history to try to prevent its loss.

Some Terena youth, for instance, had already made video and audio recordings on the history and culture of their people after a fire earlier destroyed written records, Ihunovoti said.

Now they are stepping up their efforts.

“If the community starts promoting this, the recording of videos … it will be there forever. Not just in memories, but digitally,” he said.

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