Tribute For Messias Kokama, Indigenous Leader in the Amazon, Dies at 53

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

Messias Kokama grew up in a village of Indigenous people in the Amazon region and traveled nearly a thousand miles down river to the nearest big city in search of opportunity. What he found instead was discrimination. As far as officials were concerned, he practically didn’t exist.

Mr. Kokama became an activist, devoting his life to defending Indigenous rights in a rapidly urbanizing Amazon. He was instrumental in founding Tribes Park, a rough-hewed collection of cinder block houses where some 700 families from 35 different Amazon tribes are able to maintain their culture inside Manaus, a sprawling industrial city of 1.7 million in the heart of the rainforest.

He died at 53 on May 13 at a hospital in the city. The cause was Covid-19, his daughter Mirian said.

Before Tribes Park, Indigenous people in Manaus were mostly relegated to the edge of town or sleeping on streets. Because Indigenous Brazilians are considered wards of the state, social services and other vestiges of officialdom are generally provided only on indigenous lands by the Federal Indian Bureau. That began to change when the city officially recognized Tribes Park in 2018 and paved the streets and provided electricity and basic health services.

Indigenous leaders had been planning the park for years, but when they elected Mr. Kokama as chief in 2012, work began in earnest. That meant navigating a grinding bureaucracy, fending off lawsuits, rebuffing violent eviction attempts and even battling drug gangs. What’s more, Mr. Kokama had to sort out internal disputes between tribes that were not traditional allies.

Messias Martins Moreira (who, like many Indigenous Brazilians, used his tribe’s name, Kokama, as his surname) was born on Sept. 19, 1966, in Taboca, near Brazil’s western border with Colombia and Peru. His father, Abelada Moreira, was a baker, and his mother, Nedina (Martins) Moreira, worked at home.

Mr. Kokama was 20 when he traveled to Manaus, finding work on a fish farm. He was shocked to discover the discrimination facing the Indigenous people there. When the fish farm failed, he went back to his village and made a living selling household goods, only to return to Manaus eight years later to press for urban Indigenous rights.

Mr. Kokama, who received his high school diploma at 40, was a strong advocate of education for Indigenous people and at his death was helping to build a school in the park. He also pushed for improved health care as Covid-19 began ravaging the tribes in April.

Along with his daughter, he is survived by his companion, Marilia Marinho; a son, Miqueias, who has replaced him as chief; another daughter, Vitoria; and a grandchild.

Mr. Kokama served as a Pentecostal pastor, without renouncing his Indigenous culture and beliefs.

“We Indigenous can be what we want without losing who we are,” he would often say.

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