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A house builded by Tanaru. Photo: Acervo OPI

The indigenous man with the strongest claim to the disputed Tanaru Indigenous Territory can no longer defend himself. Yet the brave fight of Tanaru, nicknamed the “Man of the Hole” whose death was confirmed in August, lives on in a court case that has included evidence of the genocide perpetrated against him and his people. Tanaru was the sole survivor, defying the ranchers and land grabbers who waited for his death to claim, through the justice system of white Brazil, the more than eight thousand hectares of forest protected by his existence. After his death, Tanaru achieved his first victory – albeit one that for now remains provisional.

Although this isolated indigenous man is no longer with us, the forest’s non-human people bear witness to the fact his ancestral land is home to native peoples who choose not to have contact with whites. The Tanaru Indigenous Territory is located in southern Rondônia, in the Brazilian Amazon, and is one of the few enclaves of the forest where rivers continue to follow their natural course, birds still sing freely and wild pigs, tapirs and armadillos live unthreatened by extinction.

This area of forest has been a safe haven for 26 years because Tanaru preserved not only his own life, but the lives of all those who inhabit the region, named after the river that flows through his ancestral land. By living on this land, as a survivor of genocide, he was protected by an order from Brazil’s federal agency of Indigenous affairs, known as Funai, that restricted its use, and respected his wish not to contact others. The restriction remains in effect until 2025. With his death, however, those who defend the forest and its peoples fear the protected status of the region will end.

Tanaru, whose mustache made him a recognizable figure (few of Brazil’s indigenous people have facial hair), remained strong and active almost until his death – tending to his crops, building his own homes, and walking great distances over the course of his life. Despite the daily company of non-human people, he chose to keep his distance from other indigenous peoples and especially from whites.

There is some uncertainty over how many of Tanaru’s people were still alive by the 1990s, in part because indigenous peoples only began to be perceived as beings endowed with rights following the enacting of the Brazilian constitution of 1988. During the business-military dictatorship which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, the extermination of indigenous people was normalized in the name of economic development, or, as it was described, “progress”. Data from the National Truth Commission reveal at least 8,350 indigenous people were killed in massacres, forced removals from their territories, the spread of infectious and contagious diseases, arrests, torture and extermination – all victims of the military governments. There are signs, however, that the real number is much greater.

Although we do not know when or how Tanaru’s relatives died, the discovery of evidence of houses, gardens and utensils in 1995, and their decline in number after that date, suggest that, according to researchers, he may have lived amongst a small group of up to five indigenous people of the same ethnic group. In 1995, employees of the Guaporé Ethno-environmental Protection Front, part of Funai, accompanied by the filmmaker Vincent Carelli, director of the documentary Corumbiara, found fresh evidence of deforestation in an area of Rondônia threatened by land grabbing. In the middle of the 100 hectare site, there was a banana plantation which had been destroyed, and a large house measuring around 16 feet by 13 feet, containing a deep hole.

Surrounding the plantation, which appeared to be between three and four years old, were a number of other holes, many hidden by dry foliage or tree trunks. In the area that had been destroyed, burnt wood and other fragments from the lives of those who had lived there remained as evidence of a crime.

Everyday utensils were found, as well as a flute left behind by people who had been forced to flee from the place where they had planted, slept, loved and sang. After the discovery, Funai officials spent years searching for the indigenous people, but found only Tanaru, while the only record he had not been alone was the large house mentioned above. All the others were smaller, demonstrating that only one of such people remained.

While suspicions exist that some of these indigenous people were poisoned with a mixture of lead pellets and sugar, it has been impossible to prove that Tanaru’s direct relatives were victims of such an atrocity. Tanaru himself may have remembered how the whites destroyed his home, which made him decide to live alongside only those he trusted: the non-human people who, like him, were nature.

Tanaru’s initial contact with the Funai team, filmed as part of the Corumbiara documentary, was tense, with the indigenous man trying to protect himself with a bow and arrow, and refusing to make contact. In one side view shot he can be seen clearly signaling he does not want the Funai team to come closer – understandable, given he had seen his entire people wiped out.

The hole that Tanaru dug in his houses, and which would give him his nickname, was the center of the space, from which the rest of his home was constructed, and which was made even before the walls or the doors. Over the years, Funai officials have rejected theories that this hole, or center, had a practical purpose, such as protection from enemies, or storage, while another hypothesis suggests it may have had spiritual or religious significance. We have no way of knowing, as Tanaru refused to describe what he felt, believed and lived to those who were responsible for the genocide of his people.

During the 26 years in which he was under observation, Funai officials believe Tanaru built 53 houses, though he may have constructed many more. In addition to the hole, these buildings had a single door and were made of straw and wood. In general, he lived in them for up to three years, before they would begin to deteriorate. In periods of conflict with the land grabbers who threatened his life, Tanaru kept up to three houses simultaneously. He would build a new house and, when finished, move in with his few possessions, among them his tools, a hammock, two pots, and his bow and arrow. In recent years, he had started to carry a pestle.

He planted papaya, corn and sometimes cassava, yams and even peanuts. And he would hunt, mainly small animals such as the peccary (wild pig), the armadillo and birds such as curassow and guan. To quench his thirst, the river granted him its water, and he would sometimes make a juice from the seed and pulp of the jatobá (or West Indian Locust) tree, which on average grows to around 130 feet (40 metres) high, but which, in the Brazilian Amazon, can reach 300 feet or more.

Living without the company of his people, Tanaru was forced to reinvent himself, and over the years, learnt a number of techniques to survive alone. Among many indigenous peoples, hammocks are usually woven by women, from fibers of various types. Tanaru’s hammock, however, was made of embira, a tough material obtained from the bark of certain trees. Once extracted, the bark is shredded to form fine threads and then woven into either thick or thin ropes that, intertwined, can be used for various purposes, including the making of hammocks.

In the first dwellings analyzed by the Funai team, Tanaru’s limited abilities with the material were evident. At first, he simply extracted the embira, and without making it into ropes, spread the fibers out and slept on them. Later, he started to weave them together, before finally laying down to die in a hammock he had woven himself.

While he lived, Tanaru managed to escape the violence of the whites. In the forest of his ancestors, he resisted. And now the legal dispute for the Tanaru Indigenous Territory has reached as far as Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court and encompassed the country’s past genocide against its original peoples.

Since the European invasion of the lands the colonizers would call Brazil, hundreds of indigenous peoples have disappeared, victims of genocide practiced by the Brazilian State and by invaders, especially land grabbers, loggers and miners. Between 1500 and 1957, 97% of the indigenous people living in this usurped territory were exterminated. Today the more than 300 peoples who remain, and who speak over 270 different languages, have become a constant target of attacks, from enemies ranging from predatory agribusiness to the Funai during the periods when it has been run by anti-indigenous figures, as has been the case under the Bolsonaro government.

Tanaru and his people were victims of this process which, over the last 500 years, has oscillated between policies of assimilation and those of physical extermination. By dying on his own terms rather than being killed like the rest of his people, Tanaru became a symbol of resistance.

Photos from Funai observation cameras reveal how Tanaru’s strength failed towards the end, perhaps as the result of illness. For two months, this energetic man changed his habits: his bow, used for hunting, was found covered with soot. Some of his arrows had already been put away, and in his last days, he hunted only with traps.

The last time he was seen alive was in April 2020, during a Funai monitoring expedition, when he was observed building a house and appeared to be in good health. More than two years later, in August 2022, Funai officials returned to inspect the area and noticed tall weeds in his growing area, a sign it hadn’t been worked on for at least a month. As they followed, then crossed a creek, they found an area where papaya had been planted and an axe tossed to the ground. Tanaru had never left a tool behind. The intense movement of flies and bees near the door to the house made the Funai team investigate further.

Tanaru knew that death was coming, and he awaited it with his hat fastened with embira ropes, and his body adorned with a simple bundle of macaw feathers. He knew he was being observed, and that he would inevitably be found. From the state of decomposition of the body, it is estimated he had been dead for almost 40 days when he was discovered.

Tanaru was discovered just over a month before the most important presidential election in history for the future of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. The news of his death reverberated around the world. The fate of his body becoming the center of a dispute over his land. His burial, initially arranged for October 2022, was postponed on the orders of Funai coordinator Marcelo Xavier. Xavier, who is notorious for favoring the interests of Brazil’s agricultural sector over those of indigenous peoples, offered no plausible justification for his actions.

One supposed reason for delaying Tanaru’s burial was the need to collect genetic material, such as a lock of hair, to allow an analysis of his ethnic group. Ultimately, however, Tanaru’s ethnicity could not be identified, due to the limited genetic records of indigenous people held by Brazil’s Federal Police. There are suspicions that Xavier intended to delay Tanaru’s burial so his ancestral land could be invaded by the land grabbers and farmers who seek to claim it. At time of writing, the Funai coordinator had not responded to SUMAUMA’S requests for further information, made through his press office.

Swift action was required to expose Xavier’s plan and ensure that Tanaru’s body could be embraced by the land he helped keep alive. His desire to be buried in the space where he lived, demonstrated by the manner in which he prepared to die, was finally honored more than three months later, following a ruling from the Federal Justice Department. During these three months, his remains were piled in two boxes held by the Federal Police in Brasilia, violating the funeral ritual of indigenous peoples.

Tanaru’s burial, when finally allowed to take place, was planned by indigenous people from the different ethnic groups who had accompanied him from afar while he was alive, such as the Kanoé, the Sabanê, the Aikanã, the Tupari and the Akuntsu, from the Rio Omerê Indigenous Territory, and also by Funai officials. The form of the burial was decided after much debate, as, despite possible similarities, funeral rituals are highly specific to each indigenous people, and are generally conducted by those close to the deceased.

Tanaru was honored in accordance with the traditional rites of people in the region. There was, however, an impasse over which objects belonged to him. For the Kanoé, objects must be buried next to the body. For the Akuntsu, however, a single item of the dead is kept by their relatives, and the rest are burned before burial. In the end, it was agreed that Tanaru’s objects should go to a museum, as proof that he existed – and that his people were brought to extinction by white violence.

Purá Kanoé, an indigenous man, was chosen to lead the ceremony. He has been part of many Funai expectations over the last 26 years, and had initially even suggested that Tanaru should be “rescued”, until realizing he wanted to live without the presence of humans, something respected by all peoples. Finally, in early November, a grave was dug in Tanaru’s house and his body, facing upwards as it was found, was covered with earth. A fire was lit on his grave. The funeral ritual was completed exactly 74 days after he was found dead in his home.

Later in November there was another victory for Tanaru in the white justice system, when Supreme Court judge Edson Fachin ruled the restrictions over access to the Tanaru Indigenous Territory should remain, along with protection for other territories where isolated indigenous people live throughout Brazil. Fachin was ruling over the lawsuit filed by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, which had been challenged by the Bolsonaro government. The minister sided with the indigenous people, the forest and justice.

The decision is not yet final. But it is a victory, albeit belated, after a massacre that brought about the extinction of a people. Tanaru, the last man, has become a symbol of the capacity for destruction that has placed the planet in a state of climactic collapse. What happens to Tanaru’s forest will determine the future of all of us.

Translated by James Young

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