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  HOME | Brazil (Click here for more)

The Last of the Juma

By Carlos Meneses Sánchez

SAO PAULO -- Aruká Juma’s death from Covid-19 complications last week marked the end of a generational line for his indigenous group in the Brazilian Amazon.

The mantle for carrying the Juma tribe’s traditions into the future falls to his three daughters, the only surviving members of a community that in the 18th century had a population of between 12,000 to 15,000.

No-one knows exactly how old Aruká was at the time of his death. Official records have him down as 86, but his close associates insist he was over 100.

His daughters have married members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe, which is also native to an area of the Brazilian Amazon near the border with Bolivia.

“They are very much warrior people,” Ivaneide Bandeira, founder of the Kanindé Association of Ethno-Environmental Protection tells Efe. “A symbol of resistance, because they have been subject to many massacres, attacks and also epidemics. This is not the first, they had measles, tuberculosis.”

Constant attacks by white settlers and disease decimated the indigenous Juma people to the point of almost complete annihilation. The community had always tried to resist invaders and became renowned for its hostility — according to historical accounts, tribe members would parade around with the decapitated heads of their adversaries.

But, a harassment campaign at the beginning of the military dictatorship in Brazil in the early 1960s brought the Juma’s numbers down to a few dozen by the end of the decade. By the 21st century, the population was no more than 10 — among them was Aruká.

“He was very important for the group. He was very discreet and you could see in him all the suffering he had gone through over the course of his life,” Edmundo Peggion, a professor of Anthropology at Sao Paulo State University who knew Aruká personally, tells Efe.

“He was the last man, but his grandchildren could claim Juma identity in the future,” he adds.

Aruká spent time teaching his grandchildren the customs of the Juma people — although some rituals were made impossible by the tribe’s dwindling numbers.

Bandeira says: “He taught a lot to his grandchildren, he told the stories of the massacres, the importance of keeping the community alive. He taught them how to hunt, fish, he had that cultural concern.”

The Juma people continue to suffer the impact of illegal logging and poaching but in the last year it was coronavirus that severely threatened their livelihood.

When Aruká fell ill with Covid-19, the health system in the region of Rondonia was so collapsed that he was forced to wait for medical attention. He was eventually admitted to intensive care but died of complications resulting from the disease.

According to the indigenous peoples' platform in Brazil (ABIP), more than 50,000 indigenous people have contracted Covid-19 and at least 970 have died from it.
 

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