Back to our cover


Indian's Old Dad

In 55 years—40 of them living inside the jungle—dedicated to the Brazilian Indians, Cláudio Villas-Boas amassed some impressive numbers. He helped to build more than 30 airfields in the middle of the jungle and opened more than 1,000 miles of trails under the Amazon canopy. Cláudio had also some 250 bouts of malaria, give or take a few fevers, and an unknown number of reports on his first-hand experience with the indigenous peoples.

The sertanista (backland expert) died from a stroke in his apartment in São Paulo. According to Luciana Soares Santos, his secretary and caretaker for the last four years, his last words were: "Luciana, Luciana, call Orlando". He was suffering from severe depression for a year, according to brother Orlando, due to his retirement and distance from his beloved Indians. "Since he was single, work was extremely important for him, " Orlando, who has two sons, Noel and Orlando, told the daily O Estado de S. Paulo. "I have a different temperament, I take care of my family and I am more agitated, holding conferences throughout Brazil."

Taciturn among the white men, he loved to spend hours talking to his Indian friends. After a period of seven years in which he lived among the Indians without ever leaving, he lost all his documents. He was forced to get them all again when he decided to travel.

The former president of Funai, Sidney Possuelo, also an indigenist and a friend of his, recalled a story of a chicken coop that Claudio built in the jungle to protect the birds from the bats. The shelter was so nicely done and the sertanista loved it so much that instead of placing the chickens there, he moved himself to the new quarters and stayed there until his retirement. Cláudio left unfinished A Arte dos Pajés (The Shamans' Art), a book he was writing. Orlando and Cláudio wrote 13 books together besides documenting all their fieldwork.

They were three brothers (from a total of 11 siblings) devoted to the same cause. The Villas-Boas—Orlando, Leonardo and Cláudio—became legendary in Brazil and around the world among environmentalists and human rights activists. Their names were constantly cited as candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1973 they were even nominated for the award, but they never got it.

Cláudio was born on December 8, 1916 in Botucatu, in the interior of the state of São Paulo. He was 27 years old when in 1943 he joined his two brothers in the Roncador-Xingu expedition also known as Marcha para o Oeste (March to the West), his first taste of the adventures lying ahead. At the time, Indians were not commanding quite the same respect as they get nowadays. The adventure continued until the mid-sixties and was told in detail in the book Marcha para o Oeste. The expedition perfectly suited President Getúlio Vargas' (1883-1954) desire to establish contacts with groups of Indians who were showing hostility against peasants trying to expand the agricultural frontier of the country as the incursions were presented at the time. In the wake of the Villas-Boas' effort, 34 cities and hundreds of villages were born.

Together with his brothers, Cláudio contacted some of the most feared tribes like the Kalapalos, Kayabi, Kamaiurás, Meinacos, and Txucarramães. In 1973 they were able to contact for the first time in the north of the state of Mato Grosso the Kreen-Akarore Indians also known as Panarás or the giant Indians. After his brother's death, Orlando talked about those heroic pioneer times: "At the beginning of the expedition we were admitted as manual workers because Flaviano de Mattos Vanique, the expedition chief, didn't hire but illiterate people. One day he found out we could read and Cláudio became chief of staff, Leonardo began to take care of the warehouse, and I became the secretary."

Orlando recalls several incidents with the Indians: "We started the expedition at Roncador do Xingu on the banks of the Araguaia River, marched to Rio das Mortes (River of Deaths) and from there on to Manaus. It was a hard walk. In the Xavante region alone we had 18 skirmishes with the Indians, and it took us 11 months to cross a 200-mile area. In the Xingu area we started to meet Indians who had never been in contact with white men. Some were very aggressive, but they are all our friends today. We found out that the Indians had an organized, stable, and peaceful society where everybody lived well."

Cláudio helped spread the notion that Indians should not be acculturated and civilized, but that they should be left alone and as isolated as possible from the rest of the Brazilians. The creation of Parque Nacional do Xingu-reservation was the fruit of this vision. The same with Funai (Fundação Nacional do Índio—National Foundation of the Indian), the organization that replaced the SPI (Serviço de Proteção ao Índio—Indian Protection Service).

He was the most intellectual of the three and the one who least liked to socialize, talk, and to give interviews. Orlando, much more talkative, is 84 years old. Leonardo died in 1961 at age 43, the same year when pressured by the Villas-Boas, president Jânio Quadros—he stayed in power a mere seven months before an abrupt and never-explained resignation from the presidency—created the Parque Nacional do Xingu. By 1994, the Xingu Park dreamed by the Villas-Boas as a "society of nations" had 6,000 Indians living in 18 settlements from different tribes.

Cláudio's last expedition in the jungle happened in 1976. At the time, he and Orlando tried without success to find an indigenous tribe. That same year he left his post a Diauarum, inside Parque do Xingu. He went then to São Paulo to live with his adopted son Tauarru, a 12-year-old Indian who would die ten years later in a car accident. In 1976 Cláudio talked about his fear for the future of the Indians: "Who, like myself, lived more than 30 years among the Indians, feels that they represent another humankind, with complex values that we are not able to grasp." He used to say that the haste to conquer the Amazon was destroying the Indians. He also feared the encroachment of garimpeiros (gold prospectors) over Indian territory and their diseases, bad habits like alcohol consumption and the poisoning of the waters with mercury.

In Almanaque do Sertão. (Backlands Almanac) it is registered how in 1947 the Villas-Boas reported by telegraph the reaction of the Indians to a solar eclipse: In order to reignite the sun, 200 warriors threw their arrows towards the sun while the children cried and the women painted their own bodies. Told about Claudio's death, chief Raoni, from the Kayapo tribe, reacted: "Now our father is gone. The Indians' father is dead. He used to tell us that everybody in the cities was crazy. He also taught us that the white man's life is not good for us."

Back to our cover