RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In January last year, indigenous journalist Ihunovoti Terena interviewed tribal elders 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 suing many indigenous leaders, he realized he had recorded some of them one last time – and that other knowledge that was not recorded or passed down was lost forever.
“Many … who were there lost their lives,” said Ihunovoti, 28.
Some 970 native 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 indigenous people.
At least 223 of those who died were aged 60 or older – but that figure could be higher, because the APIB cannot record the ages of most of the victims, the data show.
The deaths represent a huge cultural loss of indigenous peoples, where a lot of traditional knowledge is passed down from generation to generation in conversation, said adat representatives.
“Our elders are custodians of tradition, custodians of wisdom, advisors and holders of unique spiritual knowledge,” said Nara Baré, coordinator of COIAB, the largest umbrella group for Brazil’s Amazonian indigenous people.
“Seeing them leave is, on the one hand, witnessing another aspect of the destruction of our people.”
Partial data collected by APIB shows three indigenous communities in Brazil that have been hardest hit by the pandemic: the Terena, Kokama and Xavante. Each of them lost more than 50 members to COVID-19.
In the first months of the pandemic, Lindomar Terena saw as many as four of its citizens 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 hopes he has recorded the stories and traditions told by the lost elders.
“In some Terena villages there are … dances that our young people no longer understand,” he said.
Also missing, he says, are long-held traditional fortune-telling skills.
Some of Terena’s dead elders knew how to tell when it would rain, and how the moon’s phase affected plant growth, Lindomar said.
In a society where parents effectively act as “libraries” for knowledge and traditions, the virus has left gaping holes in shelves, he said.
“The identities of (our) people are destroyed. Our people see that our library is damaged. “
The indigenous Kokama community, in the Amazon region, lost at least 59 people to the coronavirus, APIB data shows – although Glades Kokama, one of its leaders, said the figure was close to 92.
Among the dead were elders fluent in the native language of the disappearing community, and with knowledge of traditional medicine and food, he said.
The majority of deaths from the Kokama pandemic occurred last year, before vaccinations against the virus became available.
In Brazil, indigenous peoples living in nature reserves are now listed as priority vaccinations, and many communities are already immunized.
Some, however, reject vaccines – and the elderly can be among those most strongly 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 the elders, “he said.
The refusal to be vaccinated is speeding up efforts to try to log their knowledge and insights, in case the worst happens, Glades said.
“We have to write everything down, because we are at risk.”
Crisanto Rudz Tseremey’wa, president of Fepoimt – a federation of indigenous peoples in Mato Grosso – and a representative of the Xavante tribe, said 68 in his indigenous community had died, including his parents.
The older son is studying in Brasilia, and when the boy returns home, he should be taught the traditions of the nation by the elders in the family.
Now Tseremey’wa is the only one left to do so.
“I was with my son, who said that this was an irreparable loss,” said Tseremey’wa. “This pandemic is not about numbers (who died), it’s about family. It’s about ancient knowledge. “
In some places, the deaths of elders due to COVID-19 have accelerated ongoing efforts by indigenous youth to record more of the community’s wisdom, traditions and history to try to prevent its loss.
Some of Terena’s youth, for example, have made video and audio recordings of the history and culture of their communities after fires that previously destroyed written records, Ihunovoti said.
Now they are increasing their efforts.
“If the community starts promoting this, the videotape… will be there forever. Not only in memory, but digitally, ”he said.
Reported by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Edited by Laurie Goering. Please acknowledge the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Thomson Reuters charity, covering the lives of people around the world who struggle to live free or fair. Visit news.trust.org