Tribute For Bernaldina José Pedro, Repository of Indigenous Culture, Dies at 75

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Bernaldina José Pedro possessed a wealth of knowledge about the songs, dances, crafts, medicines and prayers of the Macuxi Indigenous people, who live in northernmost Brazil. And she was a respected voice in the successful struggle to establish a 4 million-acre Indigenous territory on the border with Guyana.

But what was especially satisfying to her was a 2018 trip to Rome to meet Pope Francis, because to her it showed the world that a woman could be an Indigenous leader.

“It made a great impression on her,” said her son, Jaider Esbell. “It was the first time she left Brazil, and she was proud to be performing what would usually be a man’s role, usually something a chief would do.”

Ms. Pedro died on June 24 at a hospital in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state in Brazil. She was 75. Mr. Esbell said the cause was Covid-19.

Better known as Vovó Bernaldina (Portuguese for Grandma Bernaldina), Ms. Pedro was Roman Catholic and a big fan of the Argentine-born pope, the first from Latin America, even without renouncing her traditional beliefs — a common practice in the region. During her short meeting with Francis, in a general audience in St. Peter’s Square, she gave him a letter warning that the Brazilian government might try to reclaim the Indigenous reservation on which her people lived. She asked for his help.

The meeting was captured in the 2020 documentary “Amazonian Cosmos,” by Daniel Schweizer, which recounted her son’s efforts to raise awareness about his people.

Ms. Pedro was born Koko Meriná Eremunkon on March 25, 1945, to Samuel José de Souza and Marina José in the Indigenous village of Pedra Preta, in Guyana, where they hunted, farmed and fished for a living. In her 20s she married Marcelo Pedro and moved to his village, Mataruca, just across the border in Brazil.

Her husband’s family were tribal leaders, and she rose in influence through marriage, but she also commanded respect for the wisdom, charisma and guidance she offered while the Macuxi fought off court challenges, squatters and often violent attacks until their reservation, the Raposa Serra do Sol, was officially established in 2009.

Ms. Pedro was the author of “Chants and Enchantment — Meriná Eremunkon,” a 2019 book written with Devair Fiorotti.

In addition to Mr. Esbell, she is survived by six other children, Marcilio, Benjamin, Aguinês, Jorge, Eldina and Charles; and 15 grandchildren. Her sons Jaime and Horacio died earlier.

When Covid-19 first appeared in her village, Ms. Pedro was the one whom people called on to fight the new disease. She would perform a shamanistic ritual that involved filling the hut of an ailing person with smoke, chanting and dance. That was how she may have become infected, her son said.

“She died doing what she liked to do,” Mr. Esbell added. He said his mother had imparted much of her cultural knowledge to her daughter Eldina, who will now assume Ms. Pedro’s role as a keeper of Macuxi traditions.

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