Yupuri – an organic intellectual from the upper Rio Negro

Image: Sergio Souza
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By SAMUEL KILSZTAJN*

Yupuri is committed to preserving the culture and self-esteem of indigenous peoples and fighting for their rights and survival.

In 1951, Unesco financed a project on race relations in Brazil, with the aim of using “Brazilian racial democracy” as propaganda material for overcoming racism at an international level. The Brazilian sociologist Luiz Aguiar da Costa Pinto, who participated in the Unesco Project, in response to a criticism of his work by black intellectuals, declared in the Rio newspaper The newspaper of July 10, 1954 that microbes shouldn't write nonsense about a study in which they participated only as laboratory material.

In the introduction to the dissertation Wai-Mahsã: fish and humans, an essay on Indigenous Anthropology, João Paulo Lima Barreto tells that, before starting the master's degree in Social Anthropology, he asked his future advisor if he could “study white people”.

In 2022, Capes chose Kumuã na kahtiroti-ukuse: a “theory” about the body and practical knowledge of indigenous specialists from the Upper Rio Negro the best doctoral thesis in the country in Anthropology and Archeology in 2021. Defended at the Federal University of Amazonas – UFAM, his thesis was published by Editora Mil Folhas with the title The world in me, an indigenous theory and body care in the Upper Rio Negro.

Yupuri-ʉremiri-sararo-buberaporã, indigenous Yepamahsã (Tukano), born and raised in Corredeira do Rouxinol, philosopher with a master's and doctorate in Social Anthropology, is a professor and researcher at UFAM. Yupuri, who manages to translate the indigenous world into the white world and vice versa, has survived the arrogant whites without losing her integrity. And it was based on his strength of character that he was able to defend and affirm the indigenous culture in the midst of the dominant Western culture.

In an interview, he declared that the fundamental difference between indigenous people and white people is that indigenous people are orally speaking people; and white people are the people of writing. For the natives, the word is sacred; for whites, paper does the talking. For indigenous people, the word is concrete and has the power to build, destroy, transform, organize, disorganize, cure or kill. I would say that the indigenous people are authentic, with integrity, and that the white man's truth is his gift of deception. White people, in addition to being talkative and disingenuous, are treacherous. He is always seeking something, he is always restless and knows no rest. He begins by wanting to annihilate the animals, the plants, the rivers, the land, other peoples, his neighbors, his relatives, to end up fighting with his own shadow.

In the introduction to the thesis, the anthropologist presents his trajectory, from the indigenous community to the university, because his academic production is intertwined with his life story. He spent his childhood immersed in the culture of his people, guided mainly by his paternal grandfather, who was a renowned specialist in Indigenous Medicine. At the age of seven he began attending school, catechism and Catholic church services. At the age of eleven he was transferred to the Salesian school, on a boarding basis, where he was prohibited from speaking his mother tongue. “The priest threatened to put a sign saying 'I'm stupid' around our necks if he found out anyone was communicating in their mother tongue.”

João Paulo Lima Barreto left his community for the first time at the age of 16, to attend high school in Manaus, where he faced language difficulties and discrimination, only escaping despair and madness due to the guidance and herbs that his father, a specialist in Indigenous Medicine, had given him before the trip. After completing high school, for three years he served as a boarding school teacher in his community.

Later, he went to the Salesian Seminary and studied Seminary Philosophy. In 2000, he gave up his career as a priest and returned to study Philosophy at UFAM and Law at the University of the State of Amazonas. Along the way, he recognized the teachings of his grandfather in Greek philosophy, but he was repressed when he tried to draw a parallel between Greek and indigenous cultures, “the teachers soon said that this was a myth”, it was not philosophy. In the Law course he asked the professor why Indigenous Rights were within the legal framework of Environmental Law.

Shortly before graduating in Philosophy at UFAM, the twelve-year-old daughter of João Paulo's brother was bitten by a poisonous snake and ended up being taken to a hospital in Manaus, where the doctors decided to amputate her foot. The social worker and medical staff pressured her brother to authorize the amputation of the girl's foot, saying that otherwise she would die within three days. Yupuri's father and uncles, who were all specialists in Indigenous Medicine, assured that it was not necessary to amputate the girl's foot and that they could treat her according to Indigenous Medicine.

In a meeting, the head of the hospital's medical staff, angry, arrogant and visibly irritated, said to his father, pounding the table, "I studied eight years to have the authority to decide what is best for a patient, while you, with much respect, he never attended medicine for a single day”; and he left the room, taking the entire medical team with him. The Federal Public Ministry and the media were mobilized and the girl managed to be removed from the hospital. Treated by specialists in Indigenous Medicine, the girl reacted, her foot disappeared and she was discharged.

After graduating in Philosophy, Yupuri dropped out of law school, enrolled in a post-graduate course in Social Anthropology and joined the Nucleus for Indigenous Amazon Studies – NEAI, at UFAM, which has the participation of indigenous students and researchers. NEAI is dedicated to the production of knowledge for a better understanding of native concepts and the complex cultural reality of the Amazon. In 2017, she founded the Bahserikowi Indigenous Medicine Center, based in Manaus. Indigenous Medicine considers that human beings are made up of animal, vegetable (forest), water, earth (mineral), air and light elements; the human body is the synthesis of all these elements – the world in me. It is in this sense that caring for nature is caring for the human body.

The doctoral thesis was developed in the midst of his work with NEAI colleagues and from the daily interaction and monitoring of the practice of specialists in Indigenous Medicine who worked at the Bahserikowi Center, which referred him to his childhood learning with his grandfather. Specialists in Indigenous Medicine used to say that João Paulo's mind “was more focused on learning things from the 'whites'”; he did not graduate to be a specialist in Indigenous Medicine, he trained to be an anthropologist, an organic intellectual or, in the words of Yupuri Lima Barreto, a native anthropologist. In the construction of an Indigenous Anthropology, he seeks “a more symmetrical dialogue between Western-scientific knowledge models, constructed through writing, and indigenous knowledge, based on orality.”

Alongside Ailton Krenak, Davi Kopenawa, Jaider Esbell, Raoni Metuktire and Sonia Guajajara, Yupuri is committed to preserving the culture and self-esteem of indigenous peoples and fighting for their rights and survival.

*Samuel Kilsztajn Samuel Kilsztajn is a full professor at PUC-SP. Author, among other books, of Shulem, Returnees and Yiddish (https://amzn.to/3ZkegH7).


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