Dying with dignity in the age of coronavirus
Edney da Cunha Samias is a proud Indigenous Kukami-Kukamiria man in his late 30s, living in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. The Kukami-Kukamiria people live in several regions of the Brazilian Amazon, from the upper Solimões River to the urban area of Manaus. They also have communities in Colombia and Peru.
Chosen to be the next leader of the Kukami-Kukamiria by his uncle, Edney learned cosmology from the older members of the community and was trained to preserve the culture, traditions and medicine of his people. Their region of the Amazon is today threatened by deforestation, illegal land seizures, and illegal mining.
One threat Edney couldn’t have anticipated was COVID-19.
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the Kukami-Kukamiria, who have one of the highest death tolls among indigenous groups in Brazil. In total, 58 members of his community have died so far, including his father, grandfather, uncles, aunt, cousins. “There is suffering everywhere,” he recently told Amnesty International.
For Indigenous peoples, the death of an older person means one less ‘library’ to consult, one less teacher to pass on the language, one less adviser to guide younger people through life. Part of the living memory of the ethnicity and identity of an Indigenous community is lost forever.
And when an older person is not recognized as Indigenous by the Brazilian health care and administrative systems, the pain is even more profound.
The burial of Guilherme Padilha Samias
Amnesty International is extremely concerned that Brazilian authorities have denied some Kukami-Kukamiria the recognition of their Indigenous identity on their last official document, the death certificate.
Instead of identifying the deceased person as Indigenous, some death certificates list them as pardo (literally, brown-skinned). The word pardo was first used to describe Indigenous peoples by the Portuguese conquistadors in the 16th Century. It effectively denies an individual their Indigenous identity.
Edney’s father Guilherme Padilha Samias was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this year. When Guilherme was first admitted to urgent care in Tabatinga in Amazonas State, he was identified as pardo.
It was only thanks to a doctor who knew Guilherme personally that it was possible to register him correctly. Edney thought the problem was solved.
However, when Guilherme passed away on 14 May, Edney discovered that his father was identified as pardo on the death declaration issued by the Hospital de Guarnição de Tabatinga. He said: “I was upset. I would not accept the document because my father is not pardo, my father is Indigenous. I stayed there from 7am until noon, arguing with the hospital employees.”
Edney finally managed to get his father identified as Indigenous, so when Guilherme – a brave leader of the Kukami-Kukamiria and bearer of their ancestral knowledge and traditions – was buried, his dark wooden coffin proudly read: “Guilherme Padilha Samias, Indigenous”.
“Our older members are sacred. It is not just a person who dies, it is our history and our culture.”
Milena Kokama, vice president of Kukami-Kukamiria Indigenous People’s Federation of Brazil, Peru and Colombia
Discrimination against Kukami-Kukamiria
Not all cases are resolved in this way. Otaviano Batista Samias was born at home in 1953 in the Canavial community, in the upper Solimões River region. Otaviano lived his life as Kukami-Kukamiria and had official documentation recognizing his Indigenous identity. In May, Otaviano contracted COVID-19 and passed away in the Hospital Delphina Aziz, in Manaus, aged 67.
His death certificate listed him as pardo, cruelly denying him formal recognition as an Indigenous Kukami-Kukamiria.
Between May and July 2020, the Kukami-Kukamiria community filed at least five complaints of discrimination with the Federal Prosecutor's Office in Tabatinga and Manaus. According to one complaint, “…there is a lack of knowledge in dealing with Indigenous peoples, denying our identity. In fact, the Hospital de Guarnição de Tabatinga has insisted on registering our people as pardo in the Death Declaration, which means a clear underreporting of cases.”
The Tabatinga Federal Public Prosecutor's Office published two recommendations in May calling for health care facilities to correctly identify Indigenous people. The public prosecutor's office is investigating and, in September, requested further information after the initial complaint.
International human rights standards and Brazilian law state that Indigenous identity is based on self-identification.
The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the Brazilian government body that oversees issues relating to Indigenous peoples, told Amnesty International in August that, "...it is not for the State to recognize who is or is not Indigenous, but ensure that the individual and social processes of construction and formation of ethnic identities are respected”.
FUNAI’s statement is similar to what Fernando Merloto Soave, federal prosecutor of Amazonas State, told Amnesty International: “In the Health System, simple self-identification would be enough. When the Indigenous identity is not recognized, this is unfavorable even for epidemiological records.”
The use of the term pardo instead of the specific Indigenous term not only erases Kukami-Kukamiria’s individual and collective identity, but also fails to accurately record the impact of COVID-19 on the community in official statistics, contributing to undercounting the toll of this pandemic on Brazil’s Indigenous people. According to official data (consulted on 2 September 2020), 392 Indigenous peoples have died from COVID-19, whereas according to APIB (consulted on 3 September 2020), 779 Indigenous people have died.
The discrepancy is also due to the fact that the federal government only monitors cases inside demarcated Indigenous territories and doesn’t include cities, where Indigenous people also live.
A Kukami-Kukamiria funeral in Tabatinga
Preparations are made for a Kukami-Kukamiria funeral in Tabatinga during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Edney, some Kukami-Kukamiria families have given up their Indigenous identity because their relatives were buried as pardos, preferring to leave their ethnicity so that their descendants would not suffer anymore. “The families were very, very angry because they never would have thought of having their own identity denied,” he explained.
Relinquishing their identity means the Kukami-Kukamiria leave behind their language, their cosmology and cosmovision, their culture and traditions, their ancient knowledge of building houses, cooking, hunting, and caring for their health using resources found in the forest. This is a painful separation that impacts not only the individuals but also the whole community, from this generation to the next.
By not allowing self-identification to determine the Indigenous status in official documents, Brazilian authorities are threatening to erase the identity of the Kukami-Kukamiria.
As Edney explains: “We just want to die with dignity; to die as a Kukami-Kukamiria Indigenous person.”