Villas Boas brothers
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The Villas Bôas brothers

Orlando Villas Boas (1914-2002) and his brothers Cláudio Villas Boas (1916-1998) and Leonardo Villas Boas (1918-1961) were Brazilian activists regarding indigenous peoples. In 1961 they succeeded in getting the entire upper Xingu legally protected – the first huge indigenous area in all South America, and the prototype for dozens of similar reserves all over the continent. Two of the Villas Boas brothers, Orlando and Cláudio, were jointly awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s gold medal, as much for their geographical explorations as for their humanitarian work. They also received the GEO prize, delivered by the president of Germany, Richard von Weizsäcker, and the Chancellor of West Germany Willy Brandt, in 1984, as a recognition for their humanitarian work

The British historian, John Hemming, wrote that the Villas Boas were pioneers in many ways. They were almost the first non-missionaries to live permanently with the Indians; and they treated them as their equals and friends. They persuaded tribes to end internecine feuds and unite to confront the encroaching settlement frontier. They were the first to empower indigenous people to run their own affairs. The Villas Boas were the first to appreciate the value of politics and the media in furthering the indigenous cause. They also devised a policy of “change, but only at the speed the Indians want”.

Robin Hanbury-Tenison, from Survival International, wrote that “The Xingu is the only closed park in Brazil, which means that it is the only area in which Indians are safe from deliberate or accidental contact with undesirable representantives of Western civilization. This is due entirely to the Villas Boas brothers and the total dedication of their lifes to this work over the last 25 years.” (Robin Hanbury-Tenison. Report of a visit to the Indians of Brazil on behalf of the Primitive People Fund/Survival International. London: Quintrell & Co. Ltd., Printers, Wadebridge, 1971, p. 9.)

The anthropologist Shelton Davis wrote that “The Villas Boas brothers further argued that it was the responsibility of the federal government to provide a secure protective buffer, in the form of closed Indian parks and reserves, between Indians and the frontiers of national society. In time, the three brothers believed, Indians would integrate into Brazilian national society. This process of integration, however, should be a gradual one and should guarantee the Indians’s survival, ethnic identities and ways of life.” (Shelton Davis. Victims of the miracle: development and the Indians of Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 50.)

In the foreword of the book "Xingu: the Indians, their myths" the anthropologist Kenneth S. Brecher wrote that “It is now almost thirty years since the Villas Boas brothers (…) led the expedition known as ‘Brazil’s march to the West’ which was intended to open up the heart of the interior for colonization. They were overwhelmed by the beauty and cultural richness of the network of Xingu tribes which they discovered , and when the expedition disbanded they remained in the jungle to protect the xinguanos from the land speculators, state senators, diamond prospectors, skin hunters, and rubber gatherers who had followed in their wake. (…) That the Xingu tribes continue to exist, in fact to thrive, is due largely to the extreme dedication, intelligence, cunning, and physical strength of these brothers.” Kenneth S. Brecher. Foreword. In: Villas Bôas, Orlando; Villas Bôas, Cláudio. Xingu: the Indians, their myths. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.

Orlando Villas Boas died in 2002. When one of their major chief dies, the Xingu Indians hold a great funerary festival (the Kuarup) in his honour. They did this for Orlando even though he was white.