This story is adapted from The Life and Death of a Minke Whale in the Amazon: Dispatches from the Brazilian Rainforest, by Fábio Zuker, translated by Ezra E. Fitz.

She died on March 19, 2020. The wake went on until dawn. Many people, including the elderly, came to spend the night watching over the body of Dona Lusia dos Santos Lobato. She was 87. The Indigenous leader, whose life story is inextricably linked with the struggle for the rights and recognition of the Borari people, was beloved in her village, Alter do Chão, Brazil, along the banks of the Tapajós River in the western state of Pará.

Dona Lusia died from Covid-19, which generated trepidation and fear. Relatives and others who’d been in close contact with her were quarantined, but the statement confirming the fact, by the Pará State Department of Public Health, also gave rise to a sense of mistrust among family members. They were reluctant to believe the state, that her death was the result of the new coronavirus.

Dona Lusia was the first Indigenous person to succumb to the disease in Brazil, but because she didn’t live in a village recognized by the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio, or FUNAI), the governmental body responsible for mapping and protecting land traditionally inhabited by Brazil’s Indigeonous people, her death is not included in the statistics collected by the Ministry of Health.

Courtesy of Milkweed Editions

Just as her death prompted uncertainties, Dona Lusia’s birth took place in a state of in-betweenness. Alter do Chão is known for its beautiful lakes and beaches, which have made it one of the most well-known, picturesque places in the Amazon region. Local families pretty much lived on fishing, hunting, and clearing land for cultivation until the mid-1970s, when a land route connecting the village with the urban area of Santarém was opened. Since then, tourism has taken over.

During the Amazonian summer, which runs from August to October, the Borari people have traditionally taken advantage of the dry season to move around. They would visit family in nearby communities or cities, or travel to lowland areas to plant crops where low river levels expose particularly fertile soil. It was during one of these seasonal trips in 1933 that Dona Lusia was born: in a canoe, on the way to Urucurituba, in Amazonas state, as her mother was going to visit relatives.

“Despite being a child of the waters, my mother didn’t know how to swim,” says Ludinea Lobato Gonçalves Dias, better known as Neca Borari, and one of Dona Lusia’s seven daughters. Neca is also an important Indigenous cacica, an indigenous chief, in Alter do Chão. For her, Dona Lusia is a source of inspiration.

“I praise God that my mother gave me a lot of strength to be an Indigenous person,” she says. Then, her voice trembling with emotion, she remembers Dona Lusia’s advice: “Just be careful, because lots of leaders end up getting killed, and I don’t want to see your body turn up somewhere. But always go with strength.”

“Alter do Chão has a history of being a matriarchal village,” Neca explains. “If you did a survey here, you’d see that 70 percent of households are run by women.” Dona Lusia never married. “She never let herself be subjugated by a man,” her daughter says. “She raised us all on her own.”

Dona Lusia occupied a position of importance when it came to communal ceremonies, cooking, rituals, craftwork, and storytelling. Neca says her mother was both festive and a fighter. Rituals are part of the intense life of these people, and the struggle to keep their rituals from vanishing is a struggle for their own unique way of life.

For Dona Lusia, the effort to save her community’s traditions was also a way of reclaiming the life of her childhood. When she was 10, the celebration of Sairé, the Borari’s yearly festival, was banned by the Catholic Church. “It wasn’t until 1960 that people started getting together and holding the Sairé ceremony again,” Neca says. “It was more about dances and rituals than prayer. There were maybe 20 people.” As one of the “comandos”—as her daughter puts it—Dona Lusia was instrumental in the effort to reclaim Sairé. “Our Indigenous rituals, our Amazonian carimbó dance. All the dances that we have here. She was all for prayer, but she was mostly concerned with the question of dancing. She always supported it. She danced. And she enjoyed it.”

Neca’s conversations with her mother were filled with stories of the ancient times. The one Dona Lusia most enjoyed telling was the myth of the Lago Verde do Muiraquitã, the community’s lake, which is central to the mythical and daily life of the Borari. As if in tribute to her mother, Neca Borari has assumed the role of storyteller, and when I talked to her at the end of March 2020, a few days after Dona Lusia’s death, she told me the myth of the green lake:

The Borari people of Alter do Chão have the moon as our intermediary with Tupã, the creator. We would not have counted nine months to give birth; we would have counted nine moons. If you need to cut some straw to thatch the roof of your house, you can’t do it under the moonlight. We only plant when the moon is strong. The fish are stronger under a full moon.

Many years ago, when our ancestors lived here, a young Indian woman went missing from the village. So the people got together, all of the Borari people, to ask the moon to show them where the Indian girl was. And during the ritual, the moon answered them, saying, Yes, she would show them. She would give the girl back.

They went to the lake, and that afternoon, a great storm began to build. And they saw a tree rise up from the middle of the lake, bearing colorful fruits that shone like lights. The tree moved, floating, along the river. After making a loop, it returned to the spot where it had begun. So the people went to see what was to be found.

Those bright fruits had been transformed. They had become green frogs, which together formed a large carpet stretching across the lake. Thus the name Lago Verde dos Muiraquitãs. The Indian girl’s name was Naiá, and the tree was named Zineira, the tree of frogs.

According to Neca, in the early 1970s, the opening of the road to Santarém created an unexpected situation for local residents. “Tourism brought something we weren’t prepared for: real estate speculation … After that, it was all fight, fight, fight,” she recalls, referencing the climate of fear and violence that dominated the village at the time. The Borari were forced to leave their houses near the river and Lago Verde to more distant uphill areas. In addition to the rise in housing prices, Borari people were being targeted and shot, she says. “Some even still have bullets lodged in their bodies.”

In 2003, the process for recognition by FUNAI began in some riverside communities near Alter do Chão. These communities had hopes of reaffirming their identity and their right to stand up for what was theirs. As the Indigenous people of the Lower Tapajós River Basin often say, it was like an awakening from a deep sleep. The movement spread throughout the region, influencing the Borari: meetings, trips to Brasília, and FUNAI conferences. “So we decided to create a council,” Neca explains. “But to us, as women, it didn’t feel right to be led by men. We had a different way of thinking. And as you know, when a group isn’t comfortable with the leadership it’s got, they’ll create a new one: Ours is a council of women only, and that council now represents the 180 families from Alter do Chão.” She’s referring to the Sapú Borari Women’s Center. Sapú, Neca explains, means “root.”

Today, the area around Lago Verde is still subject to high land and housing prices, driven by people from outside the community. The Borari people live in two locations in the Lower Tapajós River Basin. The Indigenous territory of Alter do Chão is composed of four villages: Curucuruí, Caranã, São Raimundo, and Alter do Chão. The other territory is the Maró Indigenous Land, an area the Borari share with the Indigenous Arapiuns people. Maró is recognized by the Brazilian state as an indigenous ancestral land, which in theory gives native dwellers the right to federal protection from invaders. But the reality on the ground is far from what the laws establish; the Maró land is constantly encroached upon by loggers. If the Alter do Chão region was recognized by FUNAI as an indigenous land, it would give the Borari nominal control of their land, and that would allow them to manage tourism to the area on their own terms.

The pandemic has been particularly brutal for Amazonian indigenous groups. The people who live in these areas generally lack health care resources, and tourism didn’t slow down enough to control the spread of the virus. By mid-2020, the rate of Covid deaths among them was 247 percent higher than the rest of Brazil. Had their lands been recognized by the Brazilian government, allowing them more power to decide who comes inside their territory, their experience of the pandemic likely would not have been so dire.

The myth of the Lago Verde is about loss and disappearance, but it’s also about the Borari people’s relationship with the moon and their belief in the transfiguration of beings. The retelling of the story carries with it the memory of Indigenous leaders like Dona Lusia. Now that she too has, in a sense, gone missing, the Borari may find her by harnessing her vitality and power in the community’s fight for self-determination.

Shortly before she died, Dona Lusia made a point of visiting Lago Verde, as if to bid it farewell.

A version of this story was originally published by the Brazilian media outlet Amazônia Real in April 2020.


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