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Indigenous refugees part of a newly discovered people

BRASILIA, Brazil - Fleeing gunfire and further pursuit by ''white men,'' a group of previously unknown indigenous people arrived in a small western Brazilian town in the last week of May, according to press reports and statements issued by the country's National Foundation of the Indian, or FUNAI as it's known in Brazil.

The 87 men, women and children are members of an isolated group of indigenous people who are part of the Metykire ethnicity, and are related to the better-known Kayapo people. The Metykire refugees told officials that they were being fired upon and then further pursued by white men who had recently arrived in their region, an area that is under federal protection and not open to commercial exploitation. Local officials speculated that the assailants were probably either illegal gold miners or loggers.

According to one of the Metykire men, it was after 15 of their people were killed and one wounded - one man was treated for a gunshot wound upon arrival in the village - that the group fled through the dense Amazonian forest, trekking for five days before finding the indigenous Kayapo village of Peixoto de Azevedo.

Local Kayapo leaders contacted FUNAI officials who took steps to protect the Metykire from possible infection or contagion, as the refugees had never been in contact with the larger mainstream society and lived in a remote forest area in the northern part of the state of Masso Grosso which borders Bolivia to the southwest and is part of the immense Amazon River basin.

The Metykire were relocated to the nearby village of Kapot, where they are residing with 500 other Kayapos who have decided to stay in that community. Officials from Brazil's National Health Foundation have been contacted and are going to bring medications as well as vaccines for flu, hepatitis, diphtheria, tetanus and other possible contagious diseases. Health officials have requested that the Metykire should not have further contact with the local population for the short term to protect them from infections. The vice president of the region's Missionary Indigenista Council, Saulo Feitosa, urged officials to administer the medications and vaccines ''with great care'' to do everything possible to avoid the ''risk of imminent contagion.''

FUNAI President Marcio Meira noted that he had never heard of the new Metykire and that he did not know if there were more people of that ethnicity in the interior of the country. It is presumed that there are 60 groups of isolated people in Brazil's interior. Meira characterized the appearance of the refugees as being ''very unusual.''

''It's as if a family of Jews who survived the Holocaust, 30 or 40 years later discovered that a large part of their family had survived,'' Meira asserted, adding that the newcomers' presence had ''caused excitement'' in the village of Kapot. He also stated that the other Kayapos had assumed that this group had disappeared and had probably died from an epidemic of some sort.

''The fact that we had no knowledge of this population or had contact with them shows that Brazil is rich in cultural diversity,'' Meira opined.

The Metykire refugees were dressed in traditional attire, according to various accounts, with some having their faces painted red and black, carrying bows and arrows, and that some of the men had a wooden disk in their lower lips. It was also reported that a few days after their arrival, a Metykire woman gave birth to a healthy child. (No information on the child's gender or condition was available at press time.)

Other Kayapo peoples live in scattered villages near the Iriri, Bacaja and Fresco rivers, tributaries of the great Xingu River in a region the size of the country of Austria that is covered almost completely by equatorial forests.

Government officials have not yet commented on whether they intended to investigate the possible illegal mining or logging operations in the northern forest.