Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites

·2-min read
Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS
Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS

When a big chief dies on the Xingu indigenous reservation in the Amazon, its tribes gather for a unique funeral ritual called the Kuarup. Wearing body paint and bird feathers, they join in ceremonial dances, combat and feasts to celebrate life, death and rebirth.

The loss of Chief Aritana of the Yawalapiti people to Covid-19 in August has shaken the Xingu, leaving its tribes without a strong leader and able negotiator to unite them against mounting pressures on Brazil's agricultural frontier, which has advanced across the Cerrado savanna and into the Amazon rainforest.

Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS
Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS

Besieged by illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, soy farmers and even gold miners, the Xingu communities face growing degradation of their natural habitat and the challenge of preserving its rich biodiversity for future generations, says Aritana's son and likely successor, Tapi Yawalapiti.

A Reuters photographer was the only journalist invited to the funeral celebrations last month, which lasted several days and gathered upwards of a thousand members of neighboring tribes.

Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS
Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS
Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS
Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS

Aritana was chosen to be the overall chief of the Xingu tribes by Orlando Villas-Boas because of his wisdom, leadership and diplomatic skills, Tapi said.

The fallen chief was one of 12 people in the community killed by Covid-19, most of them elders who took with them knowledge of the Yawalapiti's past, including the stories and songs that have kept their culture alive.

Women cried for days while mourning the death of Aritana and three other tribal elders. Men paraded across the earthen plaza of the village blowing long bamboo trumpets.

Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS
Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS
Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS
Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS

The spirits of the dead were honored with four painted tree trunks placed at the center of the circular village.

The men panted their bodies with black paint from the fruit of the jenipapo tree and a bright red dye made with urucum seed that is boiled to form a ball of paste.

Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS
Besieged Amazon tribes grant rare access to Xingu chief’s funeral rites - UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS

The Kuarup ritual builds to a climax with a martial arts competition between colorful warriors from nine tribes, who first stomp around the central area of the village in a war-like dance before wrestling begins.

"After hours of weeping and lamentation, before daybreak, the souls of the dead depart the tree trunks to join their ancestors in the underworld," said anthropologist Claudia Franco.

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