This story from Brazil has been contributed by Bishop Marinez Bassotto, the Anglican bishop of the Diocese of Amazon in the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil – the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil. Bishop Marinez tells the story of Deolinda, an indigenous woman whose life has been shaped by the environmental destruction of the Amazon. Forced to leave her family and forest home in childhood, Deolinda has made a new life and family, fighting to retain and preserve her heritage.
Deolinda Freitas Prado was born in the Turi Garapé Santa Cruz Indigenous Village (Santa Cruz Community), Yaueretê District, São Gabriel da Cachoeira Municipality, Amazonas State, on May 15, 1950. From the Dessana Ethnicity, Deolinda has had to leave and return to her home community many times.
The first time she left she was 10 years old. Like many other girls her age, she was forced to leave because of the lack of subsistence in her community, caused by deforestation and the predatory use of natural resources. The presence of mining companies in the region and the consequences of climate change were some of the causative factors for her to leave the home territory. For indigenous people land, territory is their life not a means to survive.
The first time she left, she went to live in a boarding school in a convent of nuns in the district of Yaueretê, where she lived for 3 years. At 13 Deolinda wanted to return to her village and to her home because she was home sick and missing her family, especially her parents. However, although she wished to stay with the family, living conditions were precarious and in 1972 she returned to the convent to learn domestic chores and work.
In 1974 Deolinda moved to São Gabriel da Cachoeira, to work as an artisan making rugs, bags and other objects. Since that time the life in the forest was no longer viable for her. In 1976, she moved to Issana Community to teach crafts to indigenous girls. Soon after she thought about returning home to take care of her very sick father, but ended up working as a nanny in Manaus. The work was hard, the conditions precarious and the pay was very low, but she needed to stay in Manaus to be able to help her family financially. After that she worked in several other houses. During this time, she became pregnant and had to work in some houses just to get her daughter’s milk.
Deolinda was not alone. Many indigenous women came to Manaus in search of better living conditions, just as she had. Many indigenous women had to leave their homes, their families and their villages because loggers, prospectors and ranchers destroyed the woods, killed the rivers and made hunting scarce, fishing impossible and survival almost impossible. The women faced many difficulties including prejudice, unpaid work, exploitation and violence of all kinds.
In 1984, Deolinda learned that there was a person named Janete Jernela, who was a North American Anthropologist and was researching the Upper Rio Negro region. Janete had accumulated much knowledge of the reality of indigenous women living in Manaus. From this Janete had the idea of bringing these women together in order to create an association of artisans, to contribute to family income and also to be a place of reference for the indigenous women of the Upper Rio Negro, living in Manaus. At first, they met in a rented house.
And that was the beginning of the Upper Rio Negro Indigenous Women’s Association, a story of the many challenges, struggles, and achievements for these warrior women, proud that even in the face of many difficulties they do not give up fighting for their dreams and for keeping their identity and customs alive. Deolinda became part of the founding group of the Association, and since then has been one of the main leaders of this venture. The anthropologist later bought the house where the Association’s current headquarters is located.
To this day these women meet periodically and make crafts to survive.
From 1985 Janet gave in to two indigenous women living in the house to care. In 1986 Janete got a project for women to start working as artisans. It was women’s first work as an Association. From then on the women’s organization began again, they began to meet. They began to think of the name for the Association and its legal organization.
In 1987, indigenous women defined the name of the Association as the Upper Rio Negro Indigenous Women Association, the Tukano-speaking name is NUMIÁ KURÁ, which means women’s group. Deolinda is among the pioneers in this trajectory of much struggle and conquest and to this day continues to fight for the guarantee and conquest of their rights and their space in a society that historically destined indigenous women a peripheral place. Today, at age 69, Deolinda remains active in the Association’s work. In the current management is as deputy coordinator. She is therefore one of the main leaders of the Association she helped to create, thus passing her knowledge to the new generations. Every day from Monday to Saturday, she is working in an exemplary way on the activities of the Association. A born activist, a fine example of life, struggle and hope. A woman who puts her life at the service of the cause of indigenous peoples.
Deolinda, despite her longing and desire to return, never returned to her home village. She married an indigenous man from the Iauaretê ethnic group, has a couple of children and also has grandchildren, her entire family still living on the outskirts of the large city of Manaus.