CARACARAÍ — When a 21-year-old indigenous woman gave birth to her fourth son in this small settlement in northern Brazil, she noticed that the newborn was suffering from a malformation in his leg. She knew what that meant, but still consulted with the leaders of her Yanomami tribe in a desperate hope for an exception.

It was not to be: the baby was burned alive as part of a ritual, and the ashes were used to prepare a sort of gruel that was offered to all members of the tribe. Though the mother shared her grief with her immediate family, she said she understood that this was the tradition.

The death of infants, usually until six days of life, is said to be common practice among Yanomami tribes, which have only recently come into contact with the rest of society. It occurs, in most cases, when the child is born with some physical deficiency. But there are also cases of infanticide among twins, or when the mother is suspected of having committed adultery or when she was raped.

For sociologist Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, author of a study titled Violence Maps, the deaths of indigenous babies, although linked to cultural traditions, is no less than murder. “We shouldn't criminalize Indians, but we have to do something to save these lives,” Waiselfisz says.

Practice and practicality

Ozélio Macuxi, the 49-year-old official secretary for Indian affairs for the Brazilian state of Roraima, disagrees. He says the infanticide practice is mostly a survival technique for these often nomadic tribes. “How are they supposed to carry somebody who is physically disabled through the forest? They'd rather eliminate them straight away," he says. "That's how I understand this ritual."

Yanomami children — Photo: regnskogfondet via Instagram

In some tribes, the infants are smothered to death. “It's the mother's decision,” explains Jonas Yanomami, 41, who lives in a settlement in Barcelos, in the Amazonas state. In two years, 96 deaths have been registered among indigenous babies up to six days old in three settlements (Barcelos, Caracaraí and Alto Alegre), according to the 2015 Violence Map. But Waiselfisz says it's impossible to know whether the number has been higher in the past, because no such statistics were ever collected.

For Jonas and Ozélio, the death of babies is part of the cultural identity of these indigenous populations, and white people don't have to understand it. But the issue has nonetheless finally made it before the Brazilian Senate, with a draft bill that would make it a crime for anyone, including NGOs and Indian protection groups, who fails to report infanticides or indeed any other act that affects the health and well-being of members of these tribes.

Suely Campos, the governor of the Roraima state, says that she often isn't even informed about the deaths. “This is a matter that begins and ends in their village.” The draft bill — known as the Muwaji Law, in memory of a mother from a Suruwaha tribe who refused to let her crippled daughter be killed — has already taken eight years to be approved by the lower house of the Brazilian Congress.

The Brazilian Anthropology Association and NGOs close to the Indians have been denouncing the project as one that removes a long-held guarantee that their identity would be preserved. They're also critical of the fact that those in favor of the legislation haven't asked those concerned for their opinion. “Why is it that Congressmen are discussing this without even consulting the indigenous?,” asks Maurício Yekuana from the NGO Hutukara, which protects the rights of the indigenous.

Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima, president of the Brazilian Anthropology Association, says the anti-infanticide bill is part of a broader plan to strip native people of their rights and culture. “The infanticide accusation has to do with the fact that childhood is a morally burning topic," he says. "It polarizes public opinion and treats Indians as if they were barbaric savages, thus giving the idea that this has to end, that they must become what white men want, and give away their land and resources.”