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Xingu Indians Pay Homage to Pioneer

August 30, 1998

ALTO XINGU, Brazil (AP) _ It was a bittersweet moment for Orlando Villas Boas when he stepped off the small, propeller plane and onto the reservation where he lived among the Xingu Indians for three decades.

Indians, naked except for belts of brightly colored cotton and red body paint, rushed to greet him at the landing strip on the edge of the village, a ring of grass-thatched longhouses around a sandy circle carved out of the jungle.

Villas Boas hadn’t been back in 14 years and there was a lot of hugging and catching up to do. But it was a sad occasion.

The 84-year-old Indian rights activist was back, possibly for the last time, to attend a ``Kuarup,″ the highest tribute the Xingu Indians pay the dead.

``I couldn’t miss this homage to my brothers. Claudio and Alvaro were younger than me _ they shouldn’t have died before I did,″ Villas-Boas said, his faced smeared red from hugging so many painted Indians.

Orlando and Claudio Villas-Boas, the most famous of four Brazilian brothers who fought for Indian rights, first traveled to this region in 1943 as part of an expedition to seek out uncontacted Amazon tribes.

During that trip, the brothers witnessed the damage that roads and airstrips were causing the Indians, and they became outspoken advocates of protecting the tribes from contact with whites. Orlando and Claudio eventually moved in with Indians, staying for 32 years.

More than a thousand Indians from nine tribes attended the recent two-day Kuarup, the biggest festival still celebrated by indigenous peoples in Brazil.

It was only the second time white men had been honored with a Kuarup. The first was when Orlando’s brother Leonardo died in 1961.

At this Kuarup, Claudio, who died in March of heart failure, and Alvaro, who briefly ran the Federal Indian Bureau and who died in 1996, were honored alongside the Xingu warrior Marika, who died last year.

``The Kuarup is reserved for chiefs and warriors; this is what we consider Claudio,″ said Aritana, the chief of a neighboring village and a friend of the Villas Boas for 40 years.

In 1961, the brothers persuaded the government to create its first, and probably most successful, reservation _ Xingu National Park.

Seventeen Indian nations were transferred from ancestral lands to the 5.6 million-acre park in northern Mato Grosso state, 870 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.

Today, more than 3,000 Indians live in relative isolation from the influences of white culture.

But more than any governmental action, the park’s success stems from the brutal methods the Indians sometimes used to keep outsiders away.

``We tried to limit indiscriminate contact as much as possible. We taught them if they wanted to survive, if they wanted their children to survive, not to let anyone in,″ Orlando said. ``We told them if anyone came, to fight them.″

On at least one occasion, that advice led the Indians to kill 11 loggers who refused to leave, he said. ``No one even thought of coming here after that.″

For the Kuarup, three tree trunks decorated with paint and feathers representing the dead were placed in the middle of the village.

Women gathered at the foot of the trunks, chanting a plaintive lament while Orlando reminisced with the warriors and chiefs.

``Claudio told us the white man’s things were no good,″ recalled Tacuman, the village’s chief. ``He wouldn’t let us wear sandals. He told us about the civilization of the whites, and I perceived what was good and what wasn’t.″

Throughout the night, a shaman stoked fires burning by each of the trunks.

Sporadically, dozens of Indians, hooting like macaws, filed out of the longhouses and into the central area, then grabbed sticks from the fires and ran off.

Unfazed, the shaman rebuilt the fires over and over again.

In the morning there was a ``huka-huka,″ a wrestling competition between the young warriors.

To close the festival, a pair of men ran in tandem, with a young virgin trailing behind, visiting each longhouse and blowing 6-foot-long wooden flutes to welcome the good spirits.

The tree trunks were taken to the river and set afloat, sending their spirits to heaven.

``We don’t want to become like civilized whites, we want to be beautiful, decorated and all dancing,″ said Aywupu, a Kamayura warrior watching the logs float away.

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