This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
Aruká Juma saw his Amazon tribe dwindle to just a handful of individuals during his lifetime.
Numbering an estimated 15,000 in the 18th century, disease and successive massacres by rubber tappers, loggers and miners ravaged his people. An estimated 100 remained in 1943; a massacre in 1964 left only six, including him.
In 1999, with the death of his brother-in-law, Mr. Juma, who like many Indigenous Brazilians used his tribe’s name as his surname, became the last remaining Juma male. The tribe’s extinction was assured.
Mr. Juma died on Feb. 17 in a hospital in Pôrto Velho, the capital of Rondônia state. He was believed to have been between 86 and 90. The cause was Covid-19, his granddaughter Puré Juma Uru Eu Wau Wau said.
As the last fluent speaker of the tribe’s language, Mr. Juma’s death means that much of the tribe’s language and many of its traditions and rituals will be forever lost.
While most Brazilians would be hard-pressed to recognize his name or even locate his nearly 100,000-acre jungle reservation on a map, Mr. Juma’s tribe achieved a certain degree of notoriety. Anti-indigenous interests often held it up as an example of how the government went too far in protecting native peoples, such as granting ancestral lands regardless of a tribe’s size. Indigenous groups countered that the dwindling numbers resulted from centuries of attacks and government neglect and that denying the tribes their traditional lands would only reward genocide.
In 1998, under murky circumstances, federal officials removed Mr. Juma and his family from their land and brought them to neighboring Rondônia state in hopes they would marry into the related Uru Eu Wau Wau tribe as a way to partially preserve their culture.
But Mr. Juma suspected the move was intended to deprive his family of their land and sued to be returned, a process that dragged on for 14 years.
In the meantime, all three of Mr. Juma’s daughters married Uru Eu Wau Wau men. Mr. Juma also had a daughter with a member of the tribe, Boropo Uru Eu Wau Wau, from whom he separated in 2007. Mr. Juma’s first wife, Mborehá, died in 1996.
The Juma returned to their land in 2012. Mr. Juma was pleased but some of his daughters’ husbands balked at living there. The grandchildren, who only speak Portuguese, had to return to Rondônia to attend school. Mr. Juma, who spoke no Portuguese, expressed frustration about being unable to communicate with his grandchildren and teach them the Juma traditions.
“These days, I feel alone and think a lot about back when there were many of us,” he told the photographer Gabriel Uchida, who spent time living among and photographing the Juma, in a 2016 article on the culture and lifestyle website Riscafaca.com. “We were many before the rubber tappers and the prospectors came to kill all the Juma people. Back then, the Juma were happy. Now there is only me.”
Mr. Juma was born in the 1930s in a jungle village on the Açuá River, near the town of Lábrea, in the southwestern part of Amazonas state. His father was Aguir Juma and his mother was Borea Juma.
His face was tattooed with lines extending from the ears to the mouth and around the lips, in the warrior tradition. He often wore the warrior’s thick belt made from vines, extending up from his waist to cover his lower ribs. In his later years, he kept busy hunting, fishing and farming manioc, fruits and nuts.
Along with his granddaughter Puré, Mr. Juma is survived by his daughters Mandeí, Maitá and Borehá from his first wife, and Juvy from his second wife. He also had 14 grandchildren.
To preserve the tribe’s memory, some of his grandchildren have included Juma in their surnames before Uru Eu Wau Wau, something anthropologists said was rare among patrilineal Amazon tribes.