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In the Amazon, indigenous women save a small tribe from the brink of extinction


JUMA INDIGENOUS TERRITORY, Brazil (AP) — At night, in this village near Brazil’s Assua River, the rainforest echoes. The noise of the generators sometimes rivals that of the forest, a sign that there are people here. Until recently, the Juma people seemed doomed to disappear, like countless other Amazonian tribes decimated by European invasion.

By the late 1990s, the last remaining family consisted of three sisters, Boreá, Mandeí and Maytá, and their father, Aruká, in his fifties. In 2021, Aruká died of COVID-19, leading to obituaries like one in the New York Times that said the “last man of his tribe” had disappeared, pushing the Juma, a patriarchal society, closer to extinction. Or so it seemed.

The sisters and their father had another plan.

“I started trying to gather more strength,” Mandeí Juma said. “So, I began to take on the role of leader, the first woman to do so. My sisters and my father encouraged me to take this position.

In fact, she was the first woman to become a chief in this part of the Amazon. On his left arm is a tattoo of his father’s bow and arrows. The bow and arrows are in her home, proudly displayed to a visitor.

During a forced resettlement earlier in their lives, Mandeí and her sisters made the decision to marry men from other tribes, thus preserving the lineage of their people, despite a patrilineal tradition.

Today, against all expectations, the Juma are making their comeback. On their territory, two hours by boat from the nearest road, their village is teeming with life.

Children of varying ages play in the river. People fish with nets and rods, throwing back small fish. Women manually grind cassava into flour, saving what little fuel is available for the generators at night. Others are hunting.

Throughout the day, people gather in a maloca, or communal building, designed in the traditional Juma way, to eat, care for their macaws and parrots, and lounge on hammocks during the hottest hours. , pound cassava and check WhatsApp messages on their cell phones. connected to the Internet by a satellite dish.

Aruká, the father of women, is buried under the maloca.

Mandeí has ​​been leader of Juma for over a decade now, and recently resigned in favor of his older sister, Boreá. She has long left behind her initial adaptation to travel and leadership.

“Because there were few of us, people didn’t recognize us, didn’t respect us,” she said. “There had never been a female leader before, and then people came up to me and said, ‘You shouldn’t have assumed that because you’re a woman.'”

At first it hurt, she said. Then she stopped caring.

“I have adapted to seek solutions for our people,” she said.

The Juma indigenous territory, which is about the size of Las Vegas, is covered by ancient Amazon rainforest. One of the main priorities is to protect their territory, located in southern Amazonas state, a hotspot for land grabbing and illegal deforestation.

Mandeí fears they will be invaded in the same way as the village of Uru-eu-wao-wao where she grew up. Once immersed in forest, it is now surrounded by pastures planted illegally by non-native invaders.

“I went back for a visit, and the forest…” she interrupted herself, crying. ” It is very painful ; That’s what we don’t want to happen here.

The planned paving of a highway next to the territory increases the likelihood of being invaded by land grabbers. Cattle ranching and the expansion of soy farming throughout the region are visibly changing the environment and negatively impacting their traditional way of life.

“The river isn’t filling with water like it used to… The water shouldn’t dry up so much like this. It’s a lot warmer, it wasn’t like that before. Our concern is: why is this happening? Because of deforestation,” she said.

To protect against this, young men, including Puré, Mandeí’s nephew, patrol the territory by boat. They use drones donated by a local indigenous non-profit organization, Kaninde, to monitor the most remote areas against loggers, poachers and fishermen.

“I kind of broke the rules of anthropology and followed my mother’s lineage,” Puré, 22, proudly told the AP in an interview with Maloca. “If I don’t identify as Juma, who else will?

His mother, Boreá, married a man from Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau. Following a tradition among Brazilian natives, he was recorded with his tribal father’s name as his surname. But at the age of 15, he went to Brazil’s indigenous office, Funai, and asked to add his mother’s tribe. Now its full name is Puré Juma Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.

Two of his cousins ​​also adopted Juma as their last name: Ana Índia and Shakira, the latter named after the Colombian singer.

The Juma probably numbered a few thousand before contact, but they resisted the non-native invaders and suffered several massacres in retaliation. The last one happened in 1964, on the orders of a local trader, as described in a book by German missionary Günter Kroemer.

It is estimated that around sixty people were killed, including children. Aruká, one of the few survivors, lost his father. His mother died years later of malaria, a disease introduced into the Amazon by non-natives.

In 1998, as the six remaining Juma struggled to survive, Brazil’s indigenous office, Funai, transferred them to an Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau village a few hundred kilometers away.

Although they share the same language, Kawahíva, the elders have had difficulty adapting. A few months after their arrival, Aruká’s sister and her husband died of sadness, according to a story from the Amazonia Real news site.

Aruká, unhappy and restless, pressured Funai to return to his native village, with his first three daughters, the place that would eventually be officially recognized as Juma and return to life.

For Mandei, the language of his people was also key to this survival. She invited a linguist, Wesley dos Santos, to visit her in 2019. As part of this collaboration, a multimedia dictionary was created for mobile phones, as well as an online collection of digital archives containing traditional stories , monologues and songs in the Juma language.

Kawahiva is a critically endangered Amazonian language spoken by about 560 people with 8 variants, including Juma, says Santos, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

Despite all of these recent achievements, Mandeí remains concerned – a word she repeated ten times during the interview – about Juma’s future. The 24 inhabitants of their village are still very few in number and there are not enough Juma men to increase their population, she estimates. More than ever, the three women are wondering how to pass on the traditions of Juma to future generations.

“The biggest responsibility I share with my sisters is not to lose the Juma culture as taught by our father,” Mandeí said.


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