A hero and a legend for Brazilians and the Indians he protected
for decades, Orlando Villas-Bôas
has died. His legacy lives,
however. From a low of 97,000 in 1970 today there are more than
Brazilian Indians. They represent 0.4 percent of the Brazilian
population and occupy 12 percent of the
Elma Lia Nascimento
The party started in the Xingu reservation as soon as the Indians living there heard that Orlando Villas Bôas, the
man they used to call d’junuá (father), had died in São Paulo. And
for days they sang, and danced and also cried. Kayapo Chief Raoni with Megaron and Bepcom, two of his warriors, took a plane and made the trip to the wake at the São Paulo
Assembly House. "We lost our father," they would repeat while embracing Villas Bôas wife, Marina, and their two children Orlando Filho and Noel and crying copiously.
Raoni then began to stroke the face of the old friend while crying loudly. A little later he would tell people in a mix of
Portuguese and Kayapo about his experience with a man he lived for so many years in the Xingu Park: "Orlando taught me the
Portuguese language. When I had learned Portuguese he told me his history and I told him the Indians’ history. We’ve always
worked together for my people in Xingu."
Orlando Villas Bôas died December 12 at age 88 from an acute intestinal infection after being hospitalized on
November 14 at the Albert Einstein Hospital. The talkative, expansive, friendly indigenist was the last surviving brother of the
Villas Bôas (Orlando, Cláudio, Leonardo, and Álvaro) who dedicated their lives to the protection of the Brazilian Indians.
Leonardo, the youngest, died from a jungle disease when the Xingu reservation was being created in 1961. Álvaro didn’t go with
the expedition, but also worked with the Indians and became Funai’s (Fundação Nacional do ÍndioThe National Indian
Foundation) president in the 1980s.
Cláudio never married. Orlando married Marina in secret in a public notary’s office in Goiânia, state of Goiás, but
only after a lot of resistance and when he was already 55. Marina Lopes Dias was a Paulista like him and worked as a nurse
for the Xingu Indians. They were engaged for seven years and had two sons: Orlando Villas Boas Filho, 33 and Noel, 27.
Both share the father’s interest for Indians.
Zest for Adventure
Orlando was born on January 12, 1914, in Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo in the interior of São Paulo state, in his father
Agnello’s coffee plantation. A year older than Cláudio, Orlando was well versed in Brazilian history besides being a born raconteur
and a good writer. He had 10 other siblings.
Due to Agnello’s disease the Villas Bôas family moved to Alto do Pinheiros in São Paulo city. In 1941, both parents
died and the Villas Bôas were scattered around living in boarding houses and other crowded places. Orlando ended up
working as a clerk for multinational São Paulo Light and Power Co.the Anglo-Canadian company was in charge of electricity
and the streetcar system in the city and then as an accountant for Esso in a job that bored him immensely.
He was looking for a little more excitement in life when he and his brothers heard about the federal government’s
program to explore the unknown Amazon and open settlements in the area. They weren’t accepted though. The organizers of the
journey did not want city dwellers, but illiterate people as they used to say.
Orlando and his brothers did not take no for an answer, traveled to Goiás and for 22 days rowed their boat till they
reached the camp in Barra do Garças (state of Mato Grosso) where the expedition was leaving from. Disguised as
sertaneaw6kx (country folk), this time they were accepted and got their passport: a hoe. They soon would become the leaders of the expedition.
Orlando was 29 when he joined the government sponsored Roncador-Xingu expedition, inspired by idealist Marshall
Rondon (his motto: "Die, if necessary, kill never.") and whose main objective was to chart areas for future colonization and to
build makeshift airstrips. This was a different time. Brazilians feared the war and a possible invasion by foreign powers. It was
a time in which many voices started to urge that Brazil had to develop its interior to protect it.
The expedition lasted from 1943 to 1960, and during these years, the Villas Bôas brothers contacted many tribes who
had never before interacted with the white man.
Commented Orlando in his diary, "I lived 40 years among the Indians and I’ve never seen one slapping the face of
the other. In our expedition, however, the peon with the fewest crimes had killed eight people. And we were the ones who
were going to civilize the Indians."
The explorers also started 42 villages, opened close to two miles of trails in the jungle and built 36 airstrips. At least
18 times they were attacked by the Indians they were trying to contact. Their only defense was to shoot their guns in the
air. Orlando was hit by malaria, according to his own account "more than 200 times." The routes found and opened by the
expedition ended up also being used by loggers and
garimpeiros (precious metals prospectors), who became responsible for many
of the diseases and problems affecting the Indian population.
From 1943 to 1960, the Villas Boas brothers helped establish Western civilization’s first contact with several Indian
tribes. They met the Xavantes in 1948, the Jurunas in 1949, the Kayabis in 1951, the Txucarramães in 1953 and the Suyas in 1959.
There is one funny anecdote about the Villas Bôas’s contact with the Txucarramães told by Orlando. To show their
friendliness to those Indians, the indigenists took as gifts to the men in the tribe knives, axes and other tools, but didn’t bring
anything to the women. They became very angry for not getting any gift and abandoned the village. The Villas Boas suggested
then that the men throw a banquet to appease the women and bring them back.
The party was prepared, but the women didn’t budge. The Indians then turned their ire against the three brothers
threatening to kill them. To protect their lives, Cláudio hugged an old female Indian who had stayed in the village and
wouldn’t let her go. It was the old lady who ended up convincing the Indians to forgive the brothers. There was no other way for
her to get rid of Cláudio.
It was this close contact with the indigenous peoples and the finding that this exchange between the white man and
the Indians was not beneficial to the latter that prompted the Villas Bôas to become outspoken defenders of reservations
and other ways to protect the indigenous culture. In 1961 they convinced the federal government to create the 5.6
million-acre Xingu National Park, an Indian reservation. More than 3,000 Indians from 17 different nations live there today. The main
rule at the reservations: white man, get out.
Orlando and Cláudio eventually decided to live with the Indians and moved to the jungle. For 48 years, Orlando lived
with the Indians, on the border of the Xingu river in the states of Mato Grosso and Pará. He once listed the four basic points
for an effective protection of the Indian’s way of living: 1. Keep Brazilians and tourists out. 2. Do not impose `white man’s
logic.’ 3. Keep your hands off village affairs. 4. Prevent Indian healers’ medicinal knowledge from falling into "biotech pirates” hands.
Orlando was 61 when he left Posto Leonardo, the place named for his brother, with the intention of retiring. It didn’t
work this way and he commented at the time: "In Brazilian for an indigenist to retire, he needs to get 250 malarias." By then he
only had some 200. Finally, he moved with Marina and the children to the middle-class Lapa neighborhood in São Paulo. In
1971 and then again in 1975, brothers Orlando and Cláudio were nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize.
Nation Without Memory
Talking about the conditions in which the Indians live today, Orlando, in an interview in April 2001 to the magazine
Com Ciência, said, "For too many people, and this includes our authorities, the Indian is still a folkloric figure. Indians are on
the way to their end. It would be good if they could have our protection. It seems that we don’t take into account that they
gave us a continent so that we could become a nation. It’s not enough to guarantee that the Indians have a land, we have to
protect them from an indiscriminate contact with people who want to exploit the riches of their land and culture."
"We live in a country without memory. If it weren’t for that, the old Marshall Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon
would be considered by all the most important man of the
20th century. It was he who, well ahead of his time, created the SPI
(Serviço de Proteção ao ÍndioIndian Protection Service) in 1910. His concern with the Indians was decisive for the history of
our country. We had the privilege to know him and became his friends in the mid ’40s, when we joined the March to the
West, which had been created by Getúlio Vargas. I’d like to note that at the start of the Roncador-Xingu expedition,
Rondon’s intervention was decisive in a way that the Xavantes weren’t massacred by a military front, which intended to "clean the
way" for the Brazilian expansion. When we alerted the Marshall to this danger, he ordered that the military front be suspended
and that we assume the leadership of the Expedition.
"We’ve never became Indians ourselves, but we learned a lesson on how to live in society. We have never seen two
Indians discussing or an Indian couple fighting. I’ve never seen a mother pulling her daughter’s ear or a father hitting a son.
Among Indians, elders are the history’s owners, men are the village’s owners and children are the world’s owners. We’ve lost
this notion. Children in our society are a bothersome reality. Not for the Indian. During ceremonies all participate, there are
no privileges. They give us a lesson of social behavior, something we’ve lost and will never get back again."
The details of the Villas Bôas’s adventures were finally revealed to the world in 1995 when Orlando decided to
publish the diary he wrote during the Roncador-Xingu expedition. The vivid reports became the 615-page book
A Marcha para o Oeste – A Epopéia da Expedição do Roncador-Xingu
(The March to the West _ The Epic of the Roncador-Xingu
Expedition) published by Editora Globo. The work was awarded that year’s Prêmio Jabuti, Brazil’s most important literary prize,
which is given by the Brazilian Chamber of Books. The book was just one of the 14 that he wrote and published. In the year
2000 he started to write an autobiography that was left unfinished.
The Kayapo people believe that the land they were born and live on belong to them by divine right. They see
themselves as celestial creatures who came to earth in a light beacon and were able to witness the creation of the world and life.
They can be extremely forceful defending their territory. They almost killed the Villas Bôas in 1953. That year, Cláudio Villas
Bôas wrote in his diary, about a meeting with the Kayapo: "They appeared very agitated, confused, making sweeping
gestures and talking ceaselessly. This direct contact with the Txukarramãe [Mentuktire] proved to us that they were definitely Jê
Indians, with the same characteristics of the other hordes generally called Kayapo. They almost all had their lower lips
exaggeratedly deformed with enormous wooden discs, their heads shaven above their foreheads, and their ears pierced."
Raoni, the Kayapo chief, with the help of British rock star Sting, has made the Kayapo cause known worldwide. No
one will forget him after seeing him once: his lower lips protruding due to a wooden disk known as
acocacô and he is generally adorned with colorful feathers.
Orlando reminded in his candid style in an interview with
Globo Rural, March 1996: "The expedition at the
beginning had nothing to do with Indians. We were workhorses, it was hard work. To open trails, to select areas for settling and to
build airfields for civilian and military refueling. At the time, airplanes had little flight autonomy and the government wanted
to consolidate the North-South air connection through the center of the country. A question of national security."
On January 25, 2000, the president of Funai, Carlos Marés de Souza fired Orlando Villas Boas from his Funai job, by
fax. Souza argued that the indigenist could not present himself for work in Brasília everyday because he lived in São Paulo
and that he should be ashamed of receiving money without working.
Funai was created in 1965 at the insistence of the Villas Bôas brothers. In 1999, the foundation had hired Orlando as
a special adviser (superior consulting, they called it) for a little over 500 dollars a month. Orlando didn’t complain about
losing the paycheck, but complained. "I don’t dispute the firing, but the way it was done," he told reporters at the time. Then
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso invited him then to cooperate with the Indigenist Council and told the national hero on the
phone, "It was a bureaucratic misunderstanding." Orlando accepted the half-hearted apology and told the President, "It looked
like something from an underdeveloped, marginalized country."
For his work in favor of the Indians, Orlando, since 1974, had a pension granted him by President General Ernesto
Geisel. He also received another pension from Social Security. These two pensions together represented approximately 600 dollars.
The Indian Nation
The number is disputed, but it’s commonly accepted that Brazil’s original Indian population was between 4 and 5
million. This number had dwindled to 250,000 in 1789 and to 97,000 in 1970. It’s believed that since 1500 when Brazil was
discovered, an average of one million Indians were killed every century. Ninety two tribes were extinct from 1900 to 1995 alone,
almost one tribe every year of the last century.
Only recently Brazil was able to revert this trend and since the 1980s the Indian tribes from the Xingu area, in the
Amazon, started to grow again and now at a yearly average rate of 3.5 percent. Today there are more than 700,000 Brazilian
Indians. They speak at least 150 different languages and are divided into 210 different ethnic groups. While 30,000 speak Guarani,
more than 100 languages have a total of 400 Indians who speak it. Today, Brazilian Indians represent a little over 0.4 percent
of the Brazilian population and occupy 104.367.993 hectares (12.26 percent) of the 851.196.500 hectares of the national territory.
Life is not the same for all Indians. While the tribes from the Amazon can live in demarcated and ample areas, the
Guaranis from Mato Grosso, for example, have very little space for themselves. Their situation became a national scandal a few
years ago when Guarani Caiovás started to kill themselves. Recent studies made by NGOs and government agencies show that
12 Indian ethnic groups need help in order to not become extinct.
According to data released in December by the IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e EstatísticaBrazilian
Institute for Geography and Statistics), the indigenous population in Brazil grew considerably more than the general population
since 1991, the year of the previous census. They grew 10.8 percent a year in the last ten years. While Indians represented 0.2
percent of the Brazilian population in 1991 their numbers doubled and now they are 734,127 individuals. Living conditions for
indigenous people, however, are far from promising. In the age bracket of those 15 years old or older, Indians have the
highest illiteracy rate in the population (26.1 percent)in 1991, this rate was 50.8 percent followed by blacks (21.5 percent).
The Jungle Mystique
In 1884, German anthropologist Karl von den Steinen, who was also a doctor and a philosopher, became the first
white man to visit and study the tribes of the upper Xingu. Steinen described and photographed tribal ceremonies like the
inter-tribal moitará (barter) and the
huka-huka wrestling, among others. In the ensuing 50 years some twenty other
expeditions repeated Steinen’s experience.
There were missionaries, filmmakers and other foreign anthropologists. Most were well received, but there were a
few exceptions. In 1899, five Americans were killed by the Suyá. In 1925, English Colonel Percy Fawcett also lost his life
while looking for ancient Atlantean cities. Twelve Italians were massacred possibly by the Jurunas in the late 1930s.
These were all short visits, though. American anthropologist Buell Quain, in 1938, spent the longest time in fieldwork
among the Trumai Indians. Quain, still 27, committed suicide in 1939, while living with the Krahô Indians. The Villas Bôas
brothers were the first outsiders to take permanent residence among the Xingu natives. They arrived in November 1945, leading
the Central Brazil Foundation’s Roncador-Xingu Expedition.
While highly praised by most, the Villas Bôas also had their critics. Some anthropologists have accused them of
forcing the migration of many tribes to the Xingu and opening the way for the destruction of the Indian culture. Others have
also complained about the way the Xingu Park was used by the military governments as a well dressed window of a respect
for human rights that did not exist in other areas of society.
In their defense it has been said that the changes would have come with or without them. Without them, the
adjustment would probably have been much more painful and bloody. More than 15 indigenous groups might have disappeared
without their intervention.
A Son’s Letter
Chief Raoni was a teen when he met the Villas Bôas brothers in 1953. In 1995 he dictated the following letter in
Portuguese, which was then sent to Orlando and Cláudio Villas Bôas:
Carta do cacique Raoni aos Villas Bôas
Eu estou aqui na tua espera. Como você era eu não esqueço. Você conheceu meu pai, meu irmão. Eu era rapaz novo.
Eu sempre lembro você e Claudio. Nós trabalhamos junto no Leonardo e no Diaurum. Quando encontrei você eu não
entendia ainda sua língua. Aprendi o português com você. Você sempre contava história de gente ruim para índio.
Você falou que ia acontecer muito problema com meu povo. Muito problema… Lembrei disso quando fazendeiro fez
hotel no rio Liberdade. Pescador tava acabando com peixe no rio. Índio ia pescar na boca do Liberdade, não tinha mais peixe.
Por isso eu briguei com dono… mandei tudo embora. Eu não machuquei. Peguei assim e falei: vão embora! Eu fui com cinco
guerreiros. Peguei barco, peguei motor… Agora tô fazendo aldeia lá. Tiravam mato onde era cemitério de meu pai; eu não gostei
disso. Fazendeiro quando entra aqui eu prendo, amarro e mando embora. Não quero aqui! Vão embora! Eu falei. Aqui não é de
fazendeiro, não é de Funai, não é de Ibama.
O Xingu é meu! Xingu é do meu povo.
Orlando, Claudio: eu estou aqui segurando a terra. Não quero fazendeiro, não quero garimpeiro, nem madeireiro aqui.
Não quero que acabe mato, bicho, o peixe. Você é inteligente, você explica tudo para nós. Quando deixou nós, Orlando, você
falou prá nós ficar de olho aberto. Ficar forte para defender a terra. Nunca esqueci. É só isso. Eu estou mandando abraço
muito grande para você, prá Claudio, prá seu filho e prá Marina".
Letter from Chief Raoni to the Villas Bôas
I’m here waiting for you. I don’t forget the way you were. You knew my father, my brother. I was a young lad. I
always remember you and Claudio. We worked together in the Funai agencies Leonardo and Diaurum. When I first met you I
still couldn’t understand your language. I learned Portuguese with you. You always told stories about people who were
mean to Indians.
You said that my people would face lots of problems. Lots of problems
I remembered that when a farmer built a
hotel at Liberdade river. Fishermen were finishing all fish in the river. Indians went to fish in the Liberdade’s mouth, but there
was no more fish. That’s why I argued with the owner sent everyone away. I didn’t hurt. Just went there and said: go
away! I went with five warriors. Took a boat, took engine Now I’m building a village there. They were cutting where my
father’s cemetery was; I didn’t like that. When a farmer gets in here I seize him, tie him up and send him away. Don’t want them
here! Go away! Here’s not from farmer, not from Funai [Indian National Foundation], not from Ibama [Brazilian Institute for
the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources].
Xingu is mine. Xingu is from my people
Orlando, Claudio: I’m here holding on to the land. I don’t want farmers, I don’t want gold prospectors or loggers
here. I don’t want brush, animals and fish to end. You are smart, you explain everything to us. When you left us, Orlando, you
told us to keep the eye open, to stay strong and defend the land. I never forgot. That’s all. I’m sending you a very big hug,
to Claudio, to your son and to Marina."