"Please help us survive covid-19" — THE WAUJA PEOPLE OF BRAZIL

The Wauja are an Indigenous people who live at the edge of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. This area has been continuously occupied by Indigenous people for over a thousand years.
The Xingu Indigenous Territory, where the Wauja live, is surrounded on three sides by land that has suffered severe deforestation by local settlers. As a result, even from space, it's easy to trace the boundaries of the Indigenous territory.
The land under Indigenous control is a healthy dark green, while everything else is the pale color of deforestation, speckled with patches of trees still standing.
The Wauja have done their best to protect their territory from being overtaken and destroyed by outsiders. Now, however, they are confronted by a new danger that threatens their very lives: covid-19. When the virus began making its way from Brazil's major cities to the rural interior, the Wauja decided to go into lockdown, with everyone isolating in their villages, and not visiting nearby towns or other Indigenous communities.
Here you see the main village, Piyulaga, surrounded by family garden plots, orchards, and forest. The path at left leads to Lake Piyulaga. At right is the ceremonial road between the Wauja and their neighbors.
The men's house sits in the central plaza, surrounded by traditional longhouses where extended families live.
The Wauja are doing all they can to protect their community. They are learning about the disease, and have translated into their language posters explaining covid-19. When medical doctors visit to provide training on how to avoid the virus, everyone wears a mask.
Top: Nurse Fábio Henrique Lustosa and nursing student Kutewe Waurá provide information about the virus. Bottom, front row: Ayuwelu, Ukupiru and Kuyamaru Waurá attend with their families. Photos: Piratá Waurá
The visiting medical team tested the community for covid-19. Everyone tested negative.
Visiting medical team Dr. Raissa Cardoso and Nurse Fábio Lustosa, assisted by Indigenous health agents Kutewe Waurá (left) and Apaiyupi Waurá (standing), test Kanairú Waurá.
The Wauja hold daily group chats online to share information and encourage safe practices. These group chats are attended by dozens of younger Wauja (including village health workers), as well as volunteers in Brazilian cities and the U.S. The Wauja have received masks and learned how to use them. There is no problem here of people refusing to wear a mask.
Top: Wauja shaman Talakumai passes out masks in the men's house. Bottom: Even rugged individuals proudly wear masks. Photos: Piratá Waurá
The Wauja are intent on producing a large supply of food this summer, to avoid having to bring in food from the cities and to ensure food security. The women already have produced a surplus of their main food staple, manioc flour, and are helping to supply food for neighboring communities.
Clockwise, from left: Usixuwi toasts manioc flour to make flatbread. Wauja elder Yakakumalu expertly unearths manioc tubers with her machete, and a group of women scrape the skins off the tubers prior to grating them. Right-hand photos: Piratá
The men have been busy fishing and harvesting crops.
Clockwise, from top left: Amuré quietly guides his boat along the margins of Lake Piyulaga. Men in motorboats and dugout canoes set out on a communal fishing expedition. Kaji and his brothers show off their banana harvest. Chief Atakaho roasts a catch of fish.
Thanks to their early decision to maintain strict physical isolation, the Wauja are one of the few groups in the region that have not yet had a single case of the virus.
Meanwhile, as Indigenous people observe quarantine in their villages, illegal loggers, poachers, miners and others are taking advantage of the opportunity to sneak into the Indigenous reserve and wreak havoc.
Illegal loggers invaded this forest and cut wide gashes in order to rip out huge old-growth hardwood trees and get their trucks out quickly before they were caught.
Despite all the challenges they face, the Wauja are determined to keep the virus out, if possible. In the horrific measles epidemic of 1954, the Wauja community was decimated, with only 78 survivors. Since then, their population has rebounded to nearly 600.
An inspiring example of their determination to avoid covid-19 is seen in their demands to exercise their right to vote in safety. Recently, they sent an official letter to local election authorities, demanding to have ballots and a ballot box delivered to their main village, in order to protect Wauja voters from exposure to the virus. The Wauja point out that the virus is rampant at the customary polling location, located about 25 km away. For people in the U.S., the dozens of expressive, carefully drawn signatures may bring to mind some of our own founding documents. One major difference — women’s names appear in roughly equal number on this document.
A team of volunteers (researchers, artists, and medical personnel) are collaborating with the Wauja during the pandemic to help them stay isolated in their villages. Some of the volunteers purchase and bring in supplies that are dropped off periodically. Some participate in the daily online chat group with the Wauja, providing information and encouragement, and countering dangerous disinformation about the virus that, unfortunately, is as common in Brazil as in the U.S.
Despite all the Wauja have done to protect and sustain their community during lockdown, they need your help. Their livelihoods have been affected because they can no longer trade their pottery and other handcrafts with the outside world. In addition, they now need expensive medical supplies, such as personal protective equipment, oxygens tanks, and much more.
Because of covid-19, just about all the routine supplies they need — except food — can be restocked only via a very expensive transportation process. Normally, they would simply travel to town and pick up supplies, but because of lockdown, they cannot. To restock supplies, such as soap, toothpaste, work clothes, agricultural tools, and fishing equipment, they must arrange for a member of our logistics team to bring the supplies to the village from the nearest town, about 125 miles away.
Supplies are driven over dirt roads to the river port where they are loaded on a boat that takes them to the village.
Families wait patiently as the supplies are sorted for distribution.
Bringing in supplies to the Wauja requires hiring a driver who is willing to drive for hours on punishing dirt roads. The driver must bring the supplies to the river port, where he is met by a boatman who must make a five-hour round trip. All of this requires funds, and the Wauja are running out. Your help, no matter how small, will make a huge difference to the Wauja community.
Our fundraising goal for the remaining months of this year is $32,000 (U.S. dollars). This will allow nearly 600 people in 5 villages to maintain quarantine for 4 months, through December 2020.

Please help keep the Wauja strong!

The Pennywise Foundation, a US-based 501(c)(3) public charity, has generously agreed to help cover the bank fees for processing your donations. On the donation form, you can choose to either cover the processing fees yourself, or have Pennywise cover them. Either way, 100% of your donation amount goes directly to help the Wauja community fight covid-19. Thank you!

The Wauja in their own words

  • See a short video of Wauja women giving a master class in the demanding art of spinning cotton by hand. The video was recorded by a team of young Wauja women. PASSWORD: cotton2020 (2018, 10 min.)

Our Team Fighting COVID

This logistically challenging initiative has been set up in collaboration with the Wauja, with support from an international team of anthropologists, artists and other volunteers. All the team members below are volunteers with the exception of the truck and motorboat operators.

  • Wauja project coordinators in 5 villages: Piyulaga village: Prof. Amutu Waurá (Tulukai Asso. Pres.), Apaiyupi Waurá (Indigenous health agent); Ulupuwene village: Yaukuma Oncinha Waurá (Indigenous health agent), assisted by Apaja Paho Waurá, Yuuku Waurá (Indigenous health agent); Piyulewene village: Tukupe Wauja (Sapukuyawá Arakuni Asso. Pres.), Profa. Yakuwipu Wauja; Topepeweke village: Akari Waurá, Ayakanukala Waurá; Batovi village: Katuwai Waurá, Márcia Waurá
  • Other village-based coordination and support: Chief Atakaho Waurá, Prof. Kaji Waurá, Kareca Waurá (Indigenous health agent), Kutewe Robertinho Waurá (Indigenous health agent)
  • Project coordinators: Patricia Rodrigues Niu (University of Notre Dame), Apaiyupi Waurá (Indigenous health agent, Piyulaga), Baruzzi Waurá (Canarana), Prof. Piratá Waurá (Piyulaga)
  • Supply procurement and delivery team in Cuiabá, Brazil: Jovanca Rodrigues, coordination; Lautaro Actis, Gabriele Viega Garcia, Natalia Ramalho, Juliana Rosa, Michael Silva (all with Instituto Homem Brasileiro)
  • Documentation and content production: Prof. Autaki Waurá, Prof. Piratá Waurá; Emilienne Ireland, Nathaniel Mann, Patricia R. Niu, Mafalda Ramos
  • Wauja covid-19 education resources (development and translation): Ari Waurá, Kaji Waurá, Piratá Waurá; Nathaniel Mann, Patricia R. Niu, Mafalda Ramos, Mariana Queiroz
  • U.S. Fundraising and Communications: Emilienne Ireland (The Americas Research Network), Phil Tajitsu Nash (University of Maryland)
  • Bookkeeping: Jovanka Rodrigues
  • Delivery truck drivers: Sr. Osias de Avila (Sinop), Sr. Vando Lima (Canarana)
  • Motorboat operators: Peti Waurá, Tapiyuwá Waurá, Turusa Waurá, and others
  • Other coordination and support: Aristóteles Barcelos Neto (University of East Anglia)


We sincerely thank the team of volunteers in Europe: Nathaniel Mann and Ferdinand Saumarez (Factum Foundation, Madrid) and Thiago Jesus (Peoples Palace Project, London) who set up a successful crowdfunding campaign that financed the critical first three months of Wauja quarantine. We also thank Prof. Chris Ball (University of Notre Dame), who generously contributed a much-needed solar panel for the covid-19 clinic. We are grateful to the Association of the Xingu Indigenous Territory (ATIX); to Dr. Douglas Rodrigues, Dr. Sofia Mendonça, and others at the Projeto Xingu at the Escola Paulista de Medicina (UNIFESP); to the Instituto Socio-Ambiental (ISA); to the Distrito Sanitário Especial Indígena do Xingu (DSEI-Canarana), and to the Coordenação Regional da FUNAI (CR-Xingu), whose medical personnel have worked tirelessly to provide accurate medical information about covid-19.

Created By
Emilienne Ireland


Photos: Wauja youth on page banner by Kutenapu Freire Waurá. Aerial shot of Piyulaga village from plane, Peti Yewé Waurá. All other Wauja photos by Piratá Waurá, Jeffrey David Ehrenreich, Emilienne Ireland, and Phil Tajitsu Nash, Copyright © 2015-2020, All Rights Reserved.