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 grandson 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.