Memories of the Past, Fear of the Present: Being Indigenous in the Face of the Pandemic

by | May 12, 2020 | Indigenous people |

Author: Francineia Fontes Baniwa

(The photograph shows the author. Courtesy of Júlia Berstein.)


In difficult times, things become even more difficult. When we speak of Indigenous peoples and the current challenge of the pandemic, I think immediately of my Upper Negro River region in the northern part of Amazonas state. Just in the first months of the year, I lost my aunt, my father’s sister; my children lost their grandfather on their father’s side; a close relative lost her baby in childbirth, and today I received the news that the wife of my cousin Daniel passed away as she was giving birth, but the baby survived.

The Upper Negro River is one of Brazil’s most difficult regions to access. When we talk about health care, it’s always very worrisome. We have five immense areas, rivers with rocks and sand bars to navigate, waterfalls, creeks that are difficult to get through, days and days to arrive at a community [by boat]. Now, with this pandemic, the health situation has tended to worsen. I myself have had insomnia, I don’t sleep well, and I cry at night. All this because I’m very worried about COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

I’ve already heard so many accounts from my grandmothers, uncles, aunts, and parents about the measles, chickenpox, and whooping cough back in the time of the rubber plantations. As night fell and we ate dinner, they’d start to recount things that had happened in the past. I remember vividly how they’d say it had been the worst moment of their lives. They would make an enormous hole and put five, six, seven people in there, for they were tired of digging graves.

At first, there was wailing everywhere. Afterward, the days came when there was just silence because there were no more tears to cry. There were many losses, so many losses. Some people lost all their children, some lost husbands and children, others lost wives and children. And some by luck survived. And today they remember and say, “If it weren’t for that disease, our relatives would still be here with us.”

What does death mean at this moment? Why did they have to go through all that? Or rather, why are we going through all that again? Only those who’ve already lived through this know what collective murder means for us as Indigenous peoples.

It’s not our fault, but we live in one shared space. A long time ago, our house was invaded by people who only thought about riches and grandeur, about wanting to be master of everything, even of our territory. At no moment did the invader stop to wonder if we agreed with this situation. They never asked permission to enter our house, they were entering and taking possession of our place like savages. They were entering and killing us with diseases we’d never known. We died and they never bothered trying to remember our deaths, we were erased from history.

During these sleepless nights, filled with the fear that torments me from within, I remember my Baniwa relations, I remember the twenty-three Indigenous peoples who live in my region. If this pandemic arrives there, it will be another collective murder. The health care situation is already precarious. We lose our kin for simple reasons: lack of medication, lack of health care professionals, lack of transport, lack of communication [of information].

In this moment, I reflect every day on past epidemics, on the huge number of deaths that have already occurred because of innumerable illnesses from the non-Indigenous world. We don’t know how to cure them; to protect ourselves, we can only go to distant places. We have our own illnesses that we heal with the shaman’s tobacco and blessings. But this world of the whites (yalanawi) brings us other grave diseases. Our elders, our parents, and our children won’t be able to resist it, since it’s not part of our Indigenous world.

What would my father say about this? What would my grandmother shamans say about this moment? They would surely say: “We’re going to start with the blessings, with the story of the beginning of the world, with our narratives. We’re going to travel with the blessings, traveling the world through our thoughts, and understand what is happening.” My father, lying in the hammock, would say: “Grab a seat and sit down, because this conversation will be a long one.” And he’d remind us: “Respect the territory where you live, because there are many things the whites will never understand, neither the meaning of the collective, nor the importance of having our territory protected.” My father with his cigarette, each puff, a silence, always concerned about tomorrow, thinking about his grandchildren.

At the end of the conversation, I’d ask him to sing the adabi song, chanted and danced with the ceremonial lash in our initiation rituals. That’s the only way for us to understand how in the midst of the dance ritual the boys’ bodies shine before the eyes of the god Kowai, and we grow happy knowing that everything was worth it, simply by the boys respecting the rules of protection.

Now, we’re suffering the consequences of the yalanawi’s actions. We are the original owners of this land, known as “Indians” (or could it be that they call us this only to look down on us?). We are natives of this earth and we are proud to live alongside different peoples, peoples who are always fighting for survival, fighting to demarcate their territories, resisting in order to continue existing. With or without this pandemic, we will continue shouting, “Not one more drop of Indigenous blood,” “Demarcation now,” and “Respect Indigenous territories.”

Have the yalanawi really not heard us?

Take a seat, all of you, the conversation will be a long one.

Francineia Fontes Baniwa is from the Walipere-dakeenai clan of the Baniwa Indigenous people, and she lives in the Upper Negro River region in the northern part of Amazonas state. She’s currently studying for her doctorate in Social Anthropology in the National Museum program of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Her master’s thesis, also in Social Anthropology from the same institution, can be read here.

Translated from the Portuguese original by Tiffany Higgins

First published on: Amazônia Real