Losing elders to COVID-19 endangers Indigenous languages

Eliézer Puruborá, one of the last people to grow up speaking the Puruborá language, died of COVID-19 in Brazil earlier this year. His death at the age of 92 weakened the fragile hold his people have on their language.

Indigenous languages in Brazil have been threatened since the Europeans arrived. Only 181 or so of the 1,500 languages that once existed are still spoken—each mostly by fewer than a thousand people. Some Indigenous groups, especially those with larger populations, such as the Guarani Mbya, have managed to maintain their mother tongue. But the languages of smaller groups, such as the Puruborá, who now number only 220, are on the verge of dying out.

The pandemic is making this tenuous situation worse. There are estimated to be more than 39,000 cases of coronavirus among Indigenous Brazilians, including six among the Puruborá, and as many as 877 deaths. COVID-19 is taking the lives of elders such as Eliézer, who are often the language keepers. The coronavirus also forces isolation on community members, prevents the cultural events that keep languages alive, and undermines the slow progress of language stewardship. (The coronavirus gets dangerously close to the isolated “Arrow People.”)

For the Puruborá, preserving their language and culture has been a long struggle. More than a century ago, rubber tappers acting under the auspices of the Indian Protection Services, a federal agency that administered Indigenous affairs, arrived on their land in the Amazonian state of Rondônia. They put Indigenous men and boys, including Eliézer, to work collecting latex from rubber trees and doled out women and girls to non-Indigenous rubber tappers as prizes. Portuguese was the only language allowed to be spoken. (In Brazil, Indigenous people are fighting to keep their children.)

“Everything to do with our culture was forbidden,” says Hozana Puruborá, who became the leader of the Puruborá after her mother Emília died. Emília was Eliézer’s cousin; when they were children, the two cousins, both orphans, whispered to each other in Puruborá when no one else could hear. “They kept their language alive in hiding.”

In 1949, Indian Protection Services declared there were no more Indigenous people in the region because they’d been “mixed” and “civilized.” Officially, the Puruborá had disappeared.

Read more: National Geographic

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