Indigenous leader Paulinho Paiakan takes part in an Occupy Funai protest that will shut down Funai offices throughout Brazil in Brasilia, July 13, 2016.

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Paulinho Paiakan is remembered as a hero to Indigenous Brazilians

As Brazil tops 1 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus, the country’s Indigenous peoples mourn the death of a historic leader.

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Indigenous leader Paulinho Paiakan takes part in an Occupy Funai protest that will shut down Funai offices throughout Brazil in Brasilia, July 13, 2016.

Credit:

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters 

Kayapó Bepkororoti, better known as Paulinho Paiakan, was a hero to Indigenous Brazilians across the country, not just those of his own Kayapó people.

Paiakan was seen as one of the first Kayapó to recognize the power of the media and of learning Portuguese, the language of Brazil’s majority. He also understood the importance of unifying Brazil’s Indigenous people.

Related: Police beating of Indigenous chief fuels Canadian anti-racism protests

“The only thing, brothers and sisters, is unity,” he said in a recent interview from an Indigenous gathering, which was posted after his death. “We all must unite in order to fight. That is the only way we will overcome any government.”

 
Partiu nesta manhã o grande líder Kayapó Bepkororoti, mais conhecido como Paulinho Payakan.

Partiu nesta manhã o grande líder Kayapó Bepkororoti, mais conhecido como Paulinho Payakan. Mais uma vida levada pela Covid-19! Para os povos indígenas, em especial os Kayapó, mais uma enciclopédia de conhecimento tradicional que se vai! Lembramos sua luta e trajetória com uma mensagem de união, gravada em janeiro de 2020, quando já reforçava a importância de somar esforços para combater os ataques sistemáticos que os povos indígenas vem sofrendo. O avanço da pandemia já vitimou 287 parentes e segue em ritmo acelerado nas aldeias e territórios indígenas. Confira a homenagem da @coiabamazonia para o líder Paulinho Payakan. #luto #vidasindígenasimportam #povosindigenas #quarentenaindigena

Posted by Mídia NINJA on Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Last week, he died from the coronavirus, and while his legacy lives on, some say his death is a sign of the times for Indigenous peoples across Brazil, as COVID-19 increasingly spreads into their territories.

“Paiakan will be missed,” said Adriano Jerozolimski from the Protected Forest Association, which represents roughly 30 Kayapó communities in southern Pará state.

“It’s difficult to predict the real impact that this new illness is going to have on the Kayapó and Indigenous peoples, in general. But it will be enormous. It’s already a catastrophe.”

Adriano Jerozolimski, Protected Forest Association

“It’s difficult to predict the real impact that this new illness is going to have on the Kayapó and Indigenous peoples, in general. But it will be enormous. It’s already a catastrophe.”

So far, 332 Indigenous people have died from the coronavirus, and 7,208 people are infected across 110 tribes, according to the Association of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil (APIB), a leading Indigenous organization.

Amid the pandemic, Indigenous peoples across Brazil are also facing increasingly racist and hostile attitudes from local officials and businesses. The mayor of Pau D’Arco, in the Amazonian state of Pará, banned Kayapó tribal members from the city, saying they are high-risk for infection.

“This is prejudice, discrimination — or racism,” said local Indigenous leader Takwyry Kayapó.

Related: Black Lives Matter protests renew parallel debates in Brazil, Colombia

Far to the south, 40 Kaingang tribal members living on the Serrinha Indigenous Territory were fired from their jobs at a local meatpacking plant run by JBS, the world’s largest meat-processing company, on the grounds that they, too, were high-risk for infection. A local Kaingang lawyer is fighting the mass firing.

Meanwhile, deaths continue to climb, and the number of Indigenous people infected with COVID-19 has doubled in just a week.

“We are losing our leaders. We are losing our libraries. That’s the feeling that we have about losing many of these community elders. That the communities are losing their knowledge and history.”

Sandro Luckmann, Missionary Council for Indigenous People, COMIN

“We are losing our leaders,” said Sandro Luckmann, the director of the Missionary Council for Indigenous People, COMIN

“We are losing our libraries. That’s the feeling that we have about losing many of these community elders. That the communities are losing their knowledge and history.”

Paiakan, who was about 65 years old, is survived by his wife and their three girls. There’s been an outpouring all over social media in Brazil honoring the late Indigenous leader.

Related: Brazil's government hid coronavirus stats. That's a problem.

In one 36-second video, roughly a dozen members of the Kaingang tribe, in southern Brazil, dance in face masks and feathered headdresses. 

“Today is a very sad day. A day of mourning for the Indigenous peoples of Brazil,” says a man in an accompanying video clip. “We are here to say that we will survive the pandemic and try to live life as Paiakan did, in defense of the environment and fighting for the Indigenous cause.”

Another, produced by the Indigenous filmmaker Kamikia Kisedje, features grainy news footage from 1989. Representatives of 24 different Brazilian Indigenous tribes and environmentalists march chanting into a stadium in the Amazon city of Altamira to fight government plans to build hydroelectric dams on their land.

Paiakan, the organizer, tells a government representative that dams would destroy their people. The crowd cheers.

Paiakan, who began to defend Indigenous land under Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, was instrumental in the demarcation of tribal territory and ensuring that Indigenous rights were enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 Constitution.

“Paiaka was one of the activists who was on the frontlines of making sure that clauses that guarantee Indigenous rights today are in the constitution.”

Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist and filmmaker who has lived and worked in the Amazon for decades

“Paiaka was one of the activists who was on the frontlines of making sure that clauses that guarantee Indigenous rights today are in the constitution,” said Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist and filmmaker who has lived and worked in the Amazon for decades.

Related: Women leaders eschew 'macho-man' politics in COVID-19 response

“He was in the room during the creation and signing of the constitution and he was translating. There was this huge Kayapó commission.” 

Paiakan and his uncle, Chief Raoni Metuktire became the faces of the international movement to defend the Amazon against deforestation, mining and development. With the help of rock star Sting and an international campaign, they successfully blocked the development of the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River for years before a modified project was eventually built over the last decade.

But his international image was tarnished in 1992 when a student accused him of rape. The news broke on the cover of the conservative magazine Veja the very week that the world’s environmental leaders were amassed in Rio de Janeiro for the historic Earth Summit.

The allegations were thrown out of court two years later. But a retrial in 1998 led to the conviction of both Paiakan and his wife. They were sentenced to six, and four years in jail, respectively, which they partially served under house arrest on their Indigenous territory.

Paiakan never regained his previous international rock star status. For his allies, the case was a tool to silence Paiakan and his prominent environmental activism.

“In order to push back against the demarcation of Indigenous lands and in order to be able to deforest and extract the resources from the land, and everything that Paulinho was against, they politically shot him — the greatest environmental icon on the planet at that time,” said Felipe Milanez, a humanities professor at the Federal University of Bahia, who knew Paiakan and his family well, having worked at Brazil’s National Indian Foundation.


 

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