This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
Aritana Yawalapiti was a living bulwark against the destruction of Indigenous culture in Brazil. Known for his quiet dignity, he was a master of peacefully resolving conflicts between different Indigenous tribes as well as conflicts with non-Indigenous people.
He worked to defend his peoples’ land in the Amazon against prospectors, loggers and ranchers. But he was powerless against the latest invader — Covid-19.
Mr. Yawalapiti died on Aug. 5 in a hospital in Goiania, Brazil, some 400 miles southeast of his home in the Xingu Indigenous Land. He was 71. The cause was Covid-19, said Kuiaiú Yawalapiti, his niece.
Mr. Yawalapiti’s brother Matariwá and his niece Nhapukalo also died of Covid-19 in recent weeks, and other relatives have tested positive. According to the Brazilian Indigenous People’s Association, 631 Indigenous people across Brazil have died of Covid-19 and 22,235 have tested positive to date.
As the grandson of two chiefs and the son of a master shaman, Mr. Yawalapiti was born to lead, but he commanded respect beyond his pedigree. Powerfully built, he distinguished himself as a huka-huka wrestling champion, with a reputation for never losing a match. He spoke at least four Indigenous languages, as well as Portuguese, and was considered the chief of chiefs among the tribes in the Upper Xingu.
The tribes in the region are famous for their kuarup — an elaborate ritual honoring the dead. Images of an elaborately painted and feathered Mr. Yawalapiti participating in the kuarup helped make him one of Brazil’s best known Indigenous leaders. In 1978, his life was the basis for the telenovela “Aritana.”
As a young man, Mr. Yawalapiti helped create the 6.5 million-acre Xingu Indigenous Land, partnering with the Villas-Boâs brothers, pioneering Indigenous defenders who had learned during a government expedition in the 1940s about the devastating impact that contact with modern society was having on remote Amazon tribes.
When the reservation was established in 1961, settlers were just starting to make their way into the region. Today, the Xingu, which is home to 7,000 Indigenous people from 16 tribes, is about the only swath of standing forest remaining in the state of Mato Grosso, Portuguese for “Thick Forest.”
Mr. Yawalapiti, who like many Indigenous Brazilians used his tribe’s name as his surname, was born on July 15, 1949. His father, Kanato Yawalapiti, was a master shaman, and his mother, Tepori Kaymura, was also a tribal leader.
After spending five years in reclusion receiving instruction from elders, Mr. Yawalapiti became a chief at age 19. He dedicated himself to protecting the land, the environment and promoting health and education among his people.
Mr. Yawalapiti’s survivors include three children from his first marriage, Tapi, Tepori and Walako; his wife, Sakassiru Yawalapiti; their eight children, Kamüshu, Tsümulu, Nawan, Thaís, Mira, Alí, Lumbé and Pablo; 24 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Mr. Yawalapiti’s death is a major blow to the tribe because he was one of only three elders to speak his native language fluently.
“He didn’t want the language to die. That’s why he sent his son Tapi to Brasília to study at the university, to preserve the language. That was his dream,” Ms. Yawalapiti said, adding that Tapi will now assume his place as chief.