This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
Bernaldina José Pedro possessed a wealth of knowledge about the songs, dances, crafts, medicines and prayers of the Macuxi Indigenous people who live in northernmost Brazil. She was also considered a respected voice in the struggle to establish a 4 million-acre Indigenous territory, where her people live, on the border with Guyana.
But what was especially satisfying to her was a 2018 trip to Rome to meet Pope Francis, because it showed the world a woman could be an Indigenous leader.
“It made a great impression on her,” said her son, Jaider Esbell. “It was the first time she left Brazil and she was proud to be performing what would usually be a man’s role, usually something a chief would do.”
Ms. Pedro died on June 24 at a hospital in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state in Brazil. She was 75. Mr. Esbell said the cause was Covid-19.
Better known as Vovó Bernaldina (Grandma Bernaldina, her Portuguese name), Ms. Pedro was Catholic and a big fan of the pope even without renouncing her traditional beliefs — a common practice in the region. During the short meeting, in a general audience in St. Peter’s Square, she gave Francis a letter warning that the government might try to reclaim the reservation and asking for his help.
The meeting was captured in the 2020 documentary “Amazonian Cosmos,” by Daniel Schweizer, which recounted her son’s efforts to raise awareness about his people.
Ms. Pedro was born Koko Meriná Eremunkon on March 25, 1945 to Samuel José de Souza and Marina José in the Indigenous village of Pedra Preta, in Guyana, where they hunted, farmed and fished for a living. In her 20s, she married Marcelo Pedro and moved to his village, Mataruca, just across the border in Brazil.
Her husband’s family were tribal leaders and she rose through marriage but she commanded respect on her own for the traditional wisdom, charisma and the guidance she offered while the Macuxi fought off court challenges, squatters and often violent attacks, until the reservation where they live, the Raposa Serra do Sol, was officially established in 2009.
In 2019, she published a book, “Chants and Enchantment — Meriná Eremunkon,” with Devair Fiorotti.
Aside from Mr. Esbell, Ms. Pedro is survived by her children Marcilio, Benjamin, Aguinês, Jorge, Eldina and Charles. Her sons Jaime and Horacio died earlier. She had 15 grandchildren.
When Covid-19 first appeared in her village, Ms. Pedro was the one whom people called on to fight the new disease. She would perform a shamanistic ritual which involved filling the hut of an ailing person with smoke, chanting and dance. That was how she may have become infected, her son said.
“She died doing what she liked to do,” Mr. Esbell explained, adding that Ms. Pedro imparted much of her traditional knowledge to her daughter Eldina, who will now assume her role