How Health Protocols That Ignore Traditions Harm Indigenous Peoples’ Ancestry Leave a comment


A Xavante funeral. Photo: Hiparidi Xavante/Mongabay

“The body is here. We’re going to die!” That’s what Watatakalu Yawalapiti heard over the phone from her relatives after the death of an uncle from COVID-19 in June 2020. His was one of the first deaths from the pandemic in Xingu Indigenous Park in the Amazonian state of Mato Grosso, Brazil’s oldest and among its most iconic Indigenous territories.

Watatakalu Yawalapiti, 40, is one of her people’s leaders. Born and raised in the Xingu reserve, she speaks five different Indigenous tongues and is the niece of Chief Aritana, the historic Indigenous leader who died in August 2020 of COVID-19.

Chief Aritana was an icon for the 16 different nations living in the Xingu reserve, and part of a generation of leaders who were heavily affected by COVID-19. They were living treasuries of ancestral knowledge and the only people who had survived countless other epidemics, invasions and threats in their decades of defending Brazil’s Indigenous people. Since her uncle’s death, Watatakalu Yawalapiti has still not spoken his name out of respect, as she is grieving.

But she speaks proudly of her lineage. Today, the Xingu reserve is an island of preserved forest surrounded by deforested land. Watatakalu Yawalapiti is an artisan and coordinator of the women’s department of the Xingu Indigenous Park Association (ATIX). As the eldest daughter in her family, she tells me how the local communities had to face death and had a hard time adapting to the new normal that arrived unannounced and unwanted

“The pandemic showed us that caring for women means caring for the husbands, sons, brothers, grandparents and parents of these women. There is no separating them, the women are the ones who administer our villages,” Watatakalu Yawalapiti says.

Her village of 300, in the Upper Xingu watershed, tried to resist the pandemic. The Yawalapiti closed off their community to outsiders, as other Indigenous nations did, and managed to prevent local transmission of the virus until June 2020.

But everything changed when another of Watatakalu Yawalapiti’s uncles became sick in the nearby village of Canarana and died. Traditionally, the burial is carried out inside the village. Pandemic restrictions called for total isolation, with no contact with the body and burial in a separate area.

Traditional Indigenous communities have been hit hard by Brazil’s poor management of the worst pandemic in 100 years. First nations across the country have recorded more than 55,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,121 deaths, including of important leaders, across 163 communities, according to data from June 22, 2021.

While the family was discussing whether the burial should be held in the city or in the village, two younger brothers decided that the body should be transported to the village, and arranged for an airplane from SESAI, the Ministry of Health’s Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health Care.

“I called my cousins and they told me, ‘Too late, they already took off,’” Watatakalu Yawalapiti recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. We were desperate. He was buried in the village. From the moment the plane landed, it contaminated the entire village.” The whole incident, she says, was “very irresponsible on the part of SESAI.”

When Mongabay inquired about the incident and the assistance lent to the Indigenous people, SESAI denied that version of events. “We have no information about COVID-19 entering the Upper Xingu territory by means of transport of the body of a deceased Indigenous person,” the Ministry of Health said. According to SESAI, “all funerals were held in accordance with official protocols for handling dead bodies.”

SESAI said it “maintains permanent contact” with the district-level health boards for Indigenous communities, known as CONDISI, which also participated in drawing up the contingency plans for dealing with COVID-19 in Indigenous communities.

According to the Ministry of Health, the “burial and transport of bodies undergo all legal proceedings according to protocol adopted in confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19,” as specified in an ordinance from March 2020 from the National Justice Council.

But that’s not how Watatakalu Yawalapiti remembers it. The Indigenous leader says that because of contact with the body, 290 of the 300 people living in her village eventually contracted the virus. Dozens died.

Watatakalu Yawalapiti lost one uncle, Chief Aritana’s younger brother; then the chief himself. She lost a cousin, and a great-aunt. And more recently, she lost her mother, the shaman Yamoni Mehinaku.

Her village, like other Indigenous communities, is a cultural circle: what happens to one member of the community affects the others. Her sister was hospitalised with COVID-19 for two months and nearly died. “‘I think your sister is going to die today’ – that’s the message I would get from my relatives. Because 75% of her lungs were affected. It was terrifying.”

Bound in a spiral of fear, the Indigenous people in the Upper Xingu buried all their dead inside the village. At first, they forwent traditional burial preparations that include handling and painting the body. Over time, though, as they all became infected, they returned to their traditional burial methods.

Disrespecting tradition

For the Indigenous communities, another aggravating factor in their fight against the pandemic was the absence of public officials and difficulty defining acceptable protocols that respected Indigenous tradition. There was a lack of dialogue, says Antonio Guerreiro, an anthropologist who has worked with the Indigenous people in the Xingu reserve for years.

The Ministry of Health simply demanded that those who had died from COVID-19 be buried in a sealed coffin or cremated without a long wake or gathering of mourners so as to prevent spread of the virus – a blanket ban that failed to account for Indigenous traditions.

“It was very difficult to agree upon adequate sanitation procedures that took into consideration the Indigenous people’s need to care for these bodies with the dignity that they deserve,” Guerreiro says.

To bury a family member in a public cemetery in the city is a tremendous cultural violation for most Indigenous people, as in the case of the Xingu communities. “It is degrading not to be able to bury a family member in the village. This wasn’t really discussed and led to avoidable conflicts,” Guerreiro says. It was a fraught issue that often saw the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) intervene in a number of cases so that the most basic of Indigenous rights – that of a dignified burial – could be assured.

According to the MPF, the Ministry of Health’s protocol “did not deal with the peculiarities of traditional peoples and left no previsions ready to guarantee that their dead be buried according to their customs and traditions.” Preventing Indigenous people from exercising this right, the MPF said, “is a way of violating them and depriving them of their way of bidding farewell to their dear ones, which is promised in the Federal Constitution and by international norms for human rights.”

Yet dealing with their dead according to tradition continues to be a source of debate, division and conflict. “In the end, each nation inside the Xingu defined its own protocol. Some failed to define any method at all. So they decided to do what they thought was best considering the situation,” Guerreiro says.

Kuarup ritual suspended

The Kuarup funerary tradition is likely the best-known Indigenous ritual in Brazil. Celebrated by the different peoples across the entire Xingu River Basin to honor their illustrious dead, the Kuarup was suspended by most groups in 2020 because of the pandemic. Some, like the Kalapalo, insisted on holding it, but ended up holding restricted versions of what’s usually a large festival that requires months of preparation and brings together representatives from all the villages in the Xingu.

The rite involves the figure of Mawutzinin, the demiurge and first man in the world, according to Xingu mythology. Tree trunks represent each honored being. Around them, the family honors their dead for nights in a row, crying and praying for those who have departed. Each body is cleaned, prepared and painted with traditional symbols. Each person is buried in a specific place inside the village according to their age and social ranking. The chiefs are buried at the center of the village. Everything is usually carried out by relatives.

The length of the mourning period also varies. It is a complex process that can last for a long cycle beginning with the death and ending with Kuarup. It takes time to separate the soul from the body. The connection between those who have departed and those who stay must be undone so each can go on to seek their destiny. The Kuarup is a celebration of this cycle, the final passage.

In the past, the Kuarup was held whenever necessary. Today it is held annually or sometimes more often. In the 1990s, for instance, it was different, says Watatakalu Yawalapiti. “I only saw one Kuarup held in my village until I was 10 years old. These days, there are many every year. I’ve never seen so many Kuarups.”

While she is respectful of differences, Watatakalu Yawalapiti says she prefers to maintain traditions. “These things have changed and broken from the rules. Culture is always changing, but I’m the type to want to stick to the original,” she says.

In the case of her own village, her grandmother’s Kuarup was supposed to be held in 2020. But it has been postponed to this year to avoid an agglomeration. Others have maintained their ceremonies.

“I didn’t feel like it was the time to have a party. For the family, it’s not a party. It was neither the time for celebration nor renovation. It was a time to withdraw, to protect. Those who held it didn’t hold a normal Kuarup. All the ethnicities have to come together. You can’t do it just with the people from your village,” Watatakalu Yawalapiti says.

At the same time, the Kuarup has been influenced by the presence of non-Indigenous tourists who pay to watch the festival. Even though there is no end in sight for the pandemic in Brazil, tour packages for visits to Kuarups during July in the Xingu are on sale. The experience of grief, which is different for every individual, has been stripped of its dignity through commoditisation.

“Kuarup is work. It’s very expensive. The host pays for everything, including transportation and food for all the guests. It’s a six-month project, very tiring,” Watatakalu Yawalapiti says. “In the old days it was held every two or more years. These days, they happen all the time. It is because of the influence of tourist culture, which is very strong. My father would say, ‘The white people have a very powerful role; money is a poison that will contaminate our people someday. And you will see abnormal things happen.’ This is really what is happening.”

Guerreiro echoes that view, saying perceptions of time have changed. “The celebrations are happening with more frequency because of external influence. Today there is a great deal of interest on the part of politicians, media and celebrities,” he says. At the same time, he adds, having to cancel the 2020 Kuarup was not an easy process for the Indigenous people.

“The big problem, speaking from the point of view of the people with whom I spoke, is keeping the people in grief. Until the Kuarup is held, the family continues to grieve,” he says.

The communities are divided over the 2021 Kuarup. While some nations in the Xingu Basin are trying to organise themselves to hold the ceremony, others are still waiting.

Today, most of the Indigenous people living in the Xingu have been vaccinated: 84% of those over the age of 18 have already received both doses. But those living away from the village still have not. This is result of a recurring argument with SESAI, which is not vaccinating Indigenous people it considers “urban.”

This distinction between “urban” and “village” people has resulted in a gross underreporting of cases and deaths – some 50% below the real number – and as a consequence, fewer vaccinations. The dispute was taken to the Supreme Federal Court (STF) by the Articulation of Brazilian Indigenous Peoples (APIB), the country’s biggest Indigenous organisation, which demanded that the federal government change its plan.

Notwithstanding what Watatakalu Yawalapiti calls negligence on the part of SESAI, which she says provided support only for officially recognised health care workers, much of the support for Indigenous communities came from NGOs and Indigenous groups. Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, limited itself to distributing basic food packages. “Funai is who shows up the least in our lives,” Watatakalu Yawalapiti says.

Asked to comment, Funai denied any connection with SESAI in relation to the provision of health care or other support. It also said it had distributed nearly 650,000 food packages to more 200,000 Indigenous families across Brazil during the pandemic.

Funai also said it has invested some 17.2 million reais ($3.4 million) for patrols in Indigenous territories across the country. Since January 2020, the agency funded some 1,200 territory protection projects on 351 reservations, and more than 500 initiatives to fight the pandemic, it said.

In addition, Funai funded the installation of more than 300 barriers and access control stations across the country, and in March 2020 suspended authorisation for any access by outsiders into Indigenous territories, except for essential services. Funai also said it spent some 30 million reais ($5.9 million) on projects “aimed toward self-sufficiency for communities,” including purchasing fishing equipment, seeds, seedlings, supplies, tools and farm machinery.

A double invasion of COVID-19 and agribusiness

Funai’s “ethnodevelopment” policy, which includes financial, logistical and institutional support for Indigenous people who want to work in agribusiness, has met with resistance from most leaders. They see it as a threat to their traditional cultures, and have linked it directly with the pandemic and the deaths that have resulted.

That’s the case in the Sangradouro Indigenous Territory in Mato Grosso, Brazil’s leading soy-producing state. In Sangradouro, which is different in many ways from Xingu Indigenous Park, Funai president Marcelo Xavier, together with pro-agribusiness senators who have pushed for environmental deregulation in favor of the soy industry, met with Indigenous leaders in the middle of the pandemic to drum up support for soy farming within the reserve – an activity that, like mining, remains illegal.

Hiparidi Xavante is an Indigenous leader who lives in the Sangradouro reserve, which lies along the BR-070 highway and near the municipality of Primavera do Leste, one of the top soy-producing regions. He says the government showed no leadership during the pandemic, and that this contributed directly to the deaths of many elders.

“The government showed no concern from the beginning of the pandemic, even knowing that the disease was coming. We lost many old people, many women lost their husbands, many people lost their fathers. This affects the passing of knowledge to the new generations. As I see it, this policy was intentional,” Hiparidi Xavante says, adding the federal government is guilty of genocide.

Together with President Jair Bolsonaro, Funai’s Xavier has personally campaigned intensively to influence Indigenous communities to adopt mining and agribusiness on their lands.

The pandemic had no effect on the flow of people coming and going in and out of the Sangradouro reserve, mostly because of its proximity to the highway and the prevalence of land grabbing. The Xavante leaders are wary of alleged “partnerships” between soy growers and Indigenous people that favor agribusiness, and of the Funai president’s meddling in reservation politics. According to Hiparidi Xavante, there has never been prior consultation for any such initiative – again, a violation of Indigenous rights.

“Neither my village nor the other villages were ever asked. During the pandemic, even with Funai putting up barriers, a lot of people came in anyway. Our people got contaminated because of it, and a lot of people died,” Hiparidi Xavante says. “There were politicians campaigning. And the worst was that our land was being rented, even in the pandemic, with people dying.”

He says events like these “harvest inaugurations” are meant to intimidate the Indigenous people by the agribusiness sector. He says soy farming on Indigenous territories violates the rights enshrined in the 1988 Constitution and should be a warning to first nations to reject the risks it represents.

“It is an illusion set up by wealthy landowners. They have been doing this since Brazil was invaded,” Hiparidi Xavante says. “Few have ever made any money with it. During the pandemic, they didn’t respect any protocols. The wealthy farmers are filling our rivers with agrochemicals, poisoning our children and our food. It’s genocide.”

More than 70 members of the Xavante nation died from COVID-19. But Hiparidi Xavante says the real numbers are higher. Leaders told their people to not hold traditional funerals to avoid gatherings, and many complied. Many others, however, held the funerals anyway, Hiparidi Xavante says.

In the Xavante tradition, the family gathers inside the home and invites other families for a collective crying session to mourn the departed. After 15 days, the family gathers again for another crying session. Deceased Xavante leaders receive a sort of cross that is placed over the grave in an Indigenous graveyard.

Everyone paints their bodies with traditional symbols for the funeral and these days many bring merchandise for the dead person. “It is an ancient tradition of ours. The Xavante need to say goodbye in the right way to those who have departed,” Hiparidi Xavante says.

Given the situation, vaccination is moving at a snail’s pace, many feel. Indigenous communities are now organising themselves to try and maintain their rituals as well as report possible vaccine thefts, which are causing even more harm to those already heavily hit by the pandemic.

Suing for the right to grieve the dead

The Portugal-sized Yanomami Indigenous Territory, Brazil’s largest, is another whose fight against the pandemic has been compounded by invaders. Straddling the border between the states of Roraima and Amazonas, it has been extensively targeted for illegal gold mining, with more than 20,000 illegal miners thought to be operating inside its borders.

The death of three babies from COVID-19 in June 2020 and their subsequent burial in a civil cemetery in the city of Boa Vista enraged the Indigenous inhabitants. In the Yanomami tradition, this was inadmissible, says Dario Kopenawa, one of his people’s main leaders.

“When children die, we don’t bury them in the ground because it’s very disrespectful. Our culture is very different from that of the white people. It was a very painful event for the Yanomami people,” he says.

Tradition dictates that the family to say their goodbye through rituals that include a collective crying session in the village and cremation of the body. But the Yanomami have been obliged to respect the protocols enforced by non-indigenous society, and are now fighting in court for the right to give their dead the dignified farewell that tradition requires.

“This was a huge shock for us. Not to say goodbye, not to hold a funeral. This is totally foreign to us. The pandemic just erased it,” Dario Kopenawa says.

In Yanomami tradition, the dead must be cremated, not buried, he adds. “It can’t be done, it’s a terribly disrespectful thing to do. We are different. We have a different culture that is very traditional,” he says. “Our rights have to be respected. No matter how long it takes, we will collect the bodies and take them to the village.”

Dozens of Yanomami lives were lost in the pandemic, with the number of officially confirmed infections at more than 1,300.

Bruce Albert, an anthropologist who has worked with the Yanomami for decades, agrees. “Disposing of a dead body without traditional funeral rituals is, for the Yanomami or other peoples, an inhumane and therefore infamous act.”

Based on Albert’s historical research and the consequences of the pandemic among the Yanomami, anthropologists Carlos Estellita-Lins and Marcelo Moura Silva have written the first paper on this contentious issue. It gives a brief explanation of the Yanomami funeral rites.

The Yanomami dispose of their dead by wrapping the body in straw and hoisting it onto a structure placed high in the trees. There, it stays until the flesh has separated from the bones The bones are then cremated on a funeral pyre together with the deceased’s possessions until they become ashes that are then placed in gourds.

The gourds are sealed until it is time for the poraximu, or “disappearing of the ashes”. This is when the reahu, or collective crying session, is held for the deceased’s family, community peers and visitors. The ashes are then buried or diluted into a banana mash to be consumed during the ritual.

“The reahu is of vital importance to the living,” the researchers write, noting that the living are the ones who “administer the boundaries between the living and the dead, and distancing or approximation. Relatives and loved ones, allies and enemies alike do this in the work that is grief through collective crying where the dead’s life relationships are worked out.”

The anthropologists also write that the reahu is just as “fundamental for the dead, who can, finally, take the final path to the afterlife. The Yanomami say that at death the immaterial components of the person let go of the body to become the pore, or ghost-souls of the dead, whose destiny in the afterlife is a village in the forest above the back of the sky.”

Estellita-Lins and Silva write that “it is urgently necessary to acknowledge the singularity of indigenous experiences” within the context of the pandemic. “Because there is an unbearable abyss between the imposition of biosafety adaptations and the violence of completely blocking the appropriate care for the dead and the grief of the living,” they conclude.

But the persistent, and destructive, presence of the illegal miners on Yanomami land continues to plague the community. Despite meetings with the federal government throughout 2020, an international campaign, and complaints filed with the Federal Police and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, the illegal mining activities continue to bring COVID-19 into the villages and threaten Indigenous lives, says Dario Kopenawa.

“The federal government has no answer for us. The situation is getting worse. Nothing has changed. We are fighting to kick out the miners who are destroying Mother Earth,” he says.

Finding strength in tradition

Away from the Amazon, in the Atlantic states of Bahia and São Paulo, two first nations have been experiencing the pandemic in a different way.

Rosilene Tupinambá is an Indigenous leader and health adviser living in the Tupinambá de Olivença Indigenous Territory in the municipality of Ilhéus. The first cases of COVID-19 on the reserve appeared after one of its inhabitants was treated in a hospital.

From there, Rosilene Tupinambá says, the virus spread and caused deaths. Without effective support from the federal government, her people organised themselves to block entryways into the reserve and ensure food self-sufficiency. The chronic problems like basic sanitation and water supply, the domain of SESAI, the Indigenous health secretariat, became even more critical during the pandemic.

“Our greatest concern was that our leaders were at risk as infections in the villages increased substantially. So we had to organise ourselves, together with local partners, to try and contain the virus,” Rosilene Tupinambá says.

Because the reserve is a popular tourist destination, with highway access and high visitor numbers, the inhabitants were unable to control the situation. “But our elders helped us a lot, especially with knowledge about using plants,” she says.

In the end, the Tupinambá experience of using medicinal herbs and ancestral knowledge to fight and prevent COVID-19 was similar to that of the Guarani Mbya in São Paulo.

Cristine Takuá is a Guarani Mbya leader who lives in the Ribeirão Silveira Indigenous Territory, which straddles the municipalities of Bertioga and São Sebastião. She says their use of traditional medicine was the main defense used by the Guarani Mbya to fight the pandemic, inspired by dreams that came to her husband, Carlos Papa, one of the community’s spiritual leaders.

“Right at the beginning of the pandemic, an elder who had been dead for years appeared in his dream. This elder told him which plant he should use if a very big evil came close to the community,” Cristine Takuá says.

She says he went into the forest to find the plants, from which the community began making the medicine to use as a preventive measure. “Everyone who had the early cases were treated with these plants from the dream. And no one got seriously ill. Everyone stayed here in the village, isolated, and drinking the teas as preventive treatment,” Cristine Takuá says.

The Guarani Mbya also held discussions with health care providers, teachers and important community leaders to coordinate the entry and exit of people going into and out of the reserve, to restrict circulation as much as possible.

“We put ancestral knowledge – which is rare and valuable – into practice. And we are building our survival strategies in our day-to-day lives,” Cristine Takuá says.

Not a single serious case was reported inside the community: the Guarani Mbya managed to beat COVID-19.

Younger Tukano members revive ancient traditions

The Upper Rio Negro Indigenous Territory lies in northwestern Amazonas state, on Brazil’s border with Colombia and Venezuela in a region called the Dog’s Head because of its shape on the map.

It is one of Brazil’s most populous Indigenous reserves, home to more than 26,000 residents of 23 different ethnicities. This is where Francisco Sarmento Tukano was born before he left to earn his master’s degree, and now his PhD in anthropology, at the University of Brasília (UnB).

His doctoral work was interrupted by the pandemic; even though he spent a year in his native land, he was unable to speak with the elders, a fundamental part of his research. “Many even passed away. They held knowledge that is lost forever. This is a very difficult time for us,” Francisco Tukano says.

Already dealing with difficult issues related to climate change, his people, like others in the region, are spread out among different villages, rivers and communities. “And the pandemic came from many places – from Manaus [the state capital], from people invading our land. Even those who retreated deeper into the forest couldn’t escape it. COVID-19 struck down not only the Tukano people but many others as well,” he says.

In a region where most of the population is indigenous – some 90% – there also is no official data regarding which ethnicities and villages were hit. One study was carried out by Indigenous organisations like the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and APIB, but was disregarded by the government.

Francisco Tukano says his people are one among many first nations who suffered the influences of Salesian missionaries in the past and of evangelists today in terms of how they treat their dead. Still, the desire to preserve tradition remains.

The group’s funerary rituals involve preparation of the body, which is laid in a canoe. Personal belongings and objects like arrows and plumage also go into the boat. Later, the person is buried inside the home. A shaman resides over the ceremony, which involves the use of tobacco. The idea is for the dead person to bid a proper farewell to this world and return to the place from which they came in the Tukano cosmogony.

Today, however, it’s common for Tukano families not to bury their dead in a canoe inside the home, but rather in a cemetery, thanks to centuries of Christian influence. The pandemic has also meant an avoidance of communal practices such as sharing food and utensils.

The pandemic has changed everything, from communal living to burials, Francisco Tukano says. “This issue is really difficult for us. We try to practice social distancing and carry out our rituals in the safest manner possible. But in reality, it’s very complicated,” he says.

In the case of the Tukano people, the most difficult part is saying goodbye: A woman not being able to hug her husband, a son not being able to cry near his father. These traditional rituals, Francisco Tukano says, can be carried out after the burial, without the presence of the body. What can’t happen is to not hold the ritual at all.

The Tukano people have turned to their traditional knowledge about herbal medicine for protection against COVID-19. “Without this protection and the rituals we carried out, the situation would undoubtedly have been worse,” Francisco Tukano says.

He says his parents and grandparents told him that for decades, the missionaries forced the Tukano people to abandon their traditions. Christianity influenced everything, from teas and rituals to burial practices. “It was a very sad and difficult time for us. Many of our elders were very sad when they died because of it.”

But today, the young people are reviving the traditions, valuing history and seeking to understand the past so the same mistakes aren’t repeated and ancient Tukano knowledge is strengthened.

“We are trying to understand how things used to be. We know it wasn’t bad – it was beautiful, it was ours. If we become orphans of our traditions, it will be because we let it happen. And today we want to practice and live our roots once again,” says 33-year-old Francisco Tukano. He says the revival of Indigenous traditions and pride by the younger generations is winning over death and Christian prohibitions.

Between genocide, ignorance, violence, governmental disregard and reported threats, the Indigenous experience has shown that the path to surviving the pandemic has had to be carved out through self-organisation and reliance on their ancestry.

For the Tukano, the Yanomami, the Yawalapiti and other Indigenous groups throughout Brazil, this is not a new path; it guided them throughout history, before the arrival of COVID-19, through countless adversities, invisible or not. Those we spoke to all assured us of one thing: their ancestry and traditions will continue to guide their daily celebration of life.

This report was financed by the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists, and was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published on their Brazil site on June 24, 2021. It has been republished here under a Creative Commons license from the Mongabay website.



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