Decimated in the 1980s and living isolated in the northern Brazilian state of Rondônia the Akuntsu tribe in the Brazilian Amazon has lost its oldest member, Ururu, a woman, who died of old age, leaving the tribe with only five surviving members.
Ururu was about 85 years old and an integral part of this close-knit, tiny group. Altair Algayer, head of the FUNAI (Brazilian government Indian affairs department) team which protects the Akuntsu's land said, "She was a fighter, strong, and resisted until the last moment."
In addition, the oldest-surviving Akuntsu, Ururu's brother Konibu, is seriously ill.
Ururu witnessed the genocide of her people and the destruction of their rainforest home, as cattle ranchers and their gunmen moved on to indigenous lands in Rondônia state.
Rondônia was opened up by government colonization projects and the BR 364 highway in the 1960s and 70s during the Brazilian military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985.
With Ururu dies a large part of the historical memory of the Akuntsu. While we may never know the full horrors inflicted on these Indians in the last half century, today's survivors say their family members were killed when ranchers bulldozed their houses and opened fire on them. The two surviving men, Konibu and Pupak, have marks on their bodies where bullets entered as they fled.
FUNAI found the remains of houses which had been destroyed by ranchers who were clearing the forest for cattle pasture. The ranchers attempted to hide evidence of the crime, but wooden poles, arrows, axes and broken pottery were discovered.
When the Akuntsu were contacted by FUNAI in 1995 they numbered seven. The youngest, Konibu's daughter, died in January 2000.
Today they live in a territory officially recognized by the Brazilian government, where FUNAI protects their land from invasion by surrounding ranchers. They occupy a small patch of forest. It has been legally recognized and demarcated by the Brazilian government, but is surrounded by huge cattle ranches and soy plantations. These have replaced the once extensive rainforests of Rondônia, which were home to many tribes.
They live in one community, in two small malocas (communal houses) made of straw. They are keen hunters – wild pig, agoutis and tapir are all prized – and cultivate small gardens where they grow manioc and corn. They also gather forest fruits and sometimes catch small fish in the creeks.
The Akuntsu make wooden flutes which are used in dances and rituals. They wear arm bands and anklets made of palm fiber. Shell necklaces have been replaced by necklaces of bright plastic which the Akuntsu cut from the pesticide containers left as litter by the ranchers. They paint their bodies with urucum (annatto dye) for ceremonies.
Konibu, the elder of the two Akuntsu men, is a shaman. He makes snuff from tobacco leaves and inhales this to communicate with the spirit world, and blows it over his family and visitors to ward off bad spirits and cleanse the body.
Stephen Corry from the native rights organization Survival International stated, "With Ururu's death we are seeing the final stages of a 21st century genocide. Unlike mass killings in Nazi Germany or Rwanda, the genocides of indigenous people are played out in hidden corners of the world, and escape public scrutiny and condemnation. Although their numbers are small, the result is just as final. Only when this persecution is seen as akin to slavery or apartheid will tribal peoples begin to be safe."
The story of the Akuntsu, their neighbors the Kanoê, and the elusive "Man of the Hole" is graphically told in a new Brazilian film, Corumbiara. The Akuntsu also feature in Survival's short film, Uncontacted Tribes.