Excerpt: Native and National in Brazil, by Tracy Devine Guzman

Native and National in Brazil: Indigeneity after Independence, by Tracy Devine Guzman

[This article is crossposted at FirstPeoplesNewDirections.org.]

In Native and National in Brazil: Indigeneity after Independence Tracy Devine Guzmán examines the contested process of constructing Indianness from Brazil’s independence to the present. Engaging issues ranging from citizenship and national security to the revolutionary potential of art and sustainable development, Devine Guzmán argues that the tensions between popular renderings of Indianness and lived Indigenous experiences are critical to the unfolding of Brazilian nationalism, on the one hand, and the growth of a Brazilian Indigenous movement, on the other. In the following excerpt from the epilogue, she discusses contemporary Indigenous assertions of sovereignty and self-representation, especially in the context of opposition to the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam.

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Although much work remains to educate nonindigenous peoples about Brazil’s indigenous past, present, and future, and to offset the ever-popular lore of benevolent colonialism, racial democracy, and Indian grandmothers “caught with lassos,”[1] many indigenous scholars and teachers choose to prioritize first the educational needs of their own communities. This impetus has inspired national-level conferences aimed at improving the content and delivery of indigenous education and the intensified production of pedagogical materials in Native languages authored by or in collaboration with Native speakers of those languages.[2] Likewise, university-level programs offering specialized training in bilingual and intercultural pedagogies for indigenous teachers exist in at least nine states, and research centers for the study of indigenous languages, cultures, histories, and philosophies are expanding beyond the domain of state-backed indigenist institutions like FUNAI and the Museu do Índio.[3] Vital changes are taking place, for example, among Terena communities in Mato Grosso do Sul, where instruction in the Terena language is offered to Terena children and adolescents, as well as to Terena adults who may have never had an opportunity to read or write in their Native tongue.[4]

Notwithstanding such positive initiatives, the broader configuration of political, social, economic, and cultural power in which they take place reveals a steep road ahead. As a result of the intensified and institutionalized disempowerment of indigenous peoples and interests during the first decade of the twenty-first century, which culminates in state sponsorship of Belo Monte, it seems unlikely that a substantial number of nonindigenous politicians or citizens will in the near future embrace or even begin to consider the ideas and projects of indigenous intellectuals and communities seriously enough to assess their practical and theoretical implications for the future of national development policy, educational reform, environmental protection, governance, or international relations.

Ysani Kalapalo leads the protest against Belo Monte

Founder of the Movimento Indígenas em Ação (MIA), Ysani Kalapalo (fourth from the left) leads a demonstration against the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in downtown São Paulo, 20 August 2011. Also pictured (from left to right): Yamuni Barbosa, Samantha Aweti Kalapalo, Mariana Aweti Kalapalo, India Tikuna Weena Miguel, Guayra Wassu, I. Wassu, and Tayla Kalapalo. Photo by the author; reproduced with the permission of Ysani Kalapalo.

Native Brazilians’ efforts to counter the privatization of the indigenist bureaucracy and the deleterious effects of contemporary indigenist policy through intensified demands for land demarcation, ethnodevelopment, intercultural education, and other empowering social programs, as well as through heightened cultural activism and political participation at all levels of government indicate, indeed, that the struggle for indigenous self-representation has in some ways just begun. Nonetheless, the viral proliferation of indigenous political commentary and cultural production via the Internet in the form of journalism, fiction, film, video, blogging, and election campaigning (for example) continues to revolutionize the relationship between Native peoples and visual representation, on the one hand, and Native peoples and the written word, on the other. [ . . . ]

Rethinking how the representation of indigenous needs and interests works in local, national, and international politics, and reconfiguring the problematic relationship between indigeneity and dominant sovereignty, means more than Native peoples’ being inserted, or even inserting themselves, into existing political structures and institutions—however crucial and challenging that feat continues to be. At the very least, it must also mean rethinking sovereignty in collaboration with indigenous peoples and not for them, while taking into account their interests, values, renderings of the past, and policy proposals with regard to development, education, social welfare, environmental protection, land tenure, governance, and freedom. As Marcos Terena suggested more than two decades ago, reforming politics and rethinking the political to the collective benefit of Native peoples means building and strengthening interindigenous connections and collaboration across national borders, as well as nationally, while at the same time restructuring the colonialist configurations of power that have shaped relations between Native and non-Native peoples since the Conquest. Seeking to explain his own political trajectory in the context of the Brazilian indigenous movement, he conceded: “After seeing so many of our brothers decimated over the course of four centuries, we discovered that we could not walk alone. It [was] necessary to discover allies for our cause and for the survival of our . . . peoples among the [then] 140 million [nonindigenous] members of Brazilian society.”[5]

"We Are Xingu."

“We Are Xingu.” Demonstration against the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in downtown São Paulo, 20 August 2011. Photo by the author.

The population numbers have changed dramatically over the past two decades, but the urgency of forming such alliances across the dividing lines between indigenous and nonindigenous peoples, and among individuals and groups working within the parameters of other socially and historically formed notions of ethnicity, “race,” class, and geography (for example), most certainly has not. Shared and increasing interest among indigenous and nonindigenous Brazilians in preventing the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam—because of the social and economic ills it will engender, the environmental destruction it will wreak, and the human rights it will violate—is surely the most significant example of our day. National and transnational opposition to the initiative articulates these issues as ultimately inseparable from one another, thus resonating with the traditional indigenous belief in the inexorable interconnectedness of all human experience, and an increasingly widespread questioning of dominant notions of progress.[6] “The hurt of one is the hurt of all,” Phil Lane Jr. has long argued, “and the honor of one is the honor of all. . . . Unless justice animates all that we do in human and community work, what we are doing is not development.”[7]

Reflecting on his many years of political activism and the culmination of that experience in his candidacy for public office, Marcos Terena expressed optimism about Native participation in the selection of Brazil’s national self-government despite the growing improbability of success for his own bid: “An indigenous candidacy is an odd human feat, but one that manifests democracy—democracy that inspires us to throw off the discrimination that has until now placed us at the margins of the decisions that affect us, and that every four years gives us hope for a voice in a representative body like the National Congress.”[8] That dozens of Native candidates chosen by mainstream political parties to defend mainstream political platforms sought in nationwide elections to represent indigenous interests in concert with the interests of their nonindigenous constituencies destabilizes the colonialist foundations of twentieth-century indigenism. The fact that they continue to work toward this goal in the wake of defeat, and the fact that at least part of the coalition against Belo Monte has come to articulate its opposition in resonance with Native conceptions of sovereignty, give us cautious hope that despite—and perhaps also, because of—the great challenges that together we face, a new political order may be on the horizon.

From Native and National in Brazil: Indigeneity after Independence, by Tracy Devine Guzmán. Copyright © 2013 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Tracy Devine Guzmán is associate professor of Latin American studies, Portuguese, and Spanish at the University of Miami.

“Lucid, intelligent, and thoroughly researched, this book tracks 150 years of public policy and official imaginings around Indigenous peoples in Brazil and the continuing contestatory work of Indigenous leaders and thinkers. Native and National in Brazil offers students of global indigeneity indispensable access to the Brazilian scenario, whose unfolding will shape the future of Indigenous peoples worldwide.”
—Mary Louise Pratt, New York University

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  1. [1] On the circulation of ideas about Native peoples in nonindigenous classrooms and curricula, see A. Lopes da Silva and Grupioni, A temática indígena.
  2. [2] On such initiatives across Brazil, see Nincao, “Kóho Yoko Hovôvo”; “Primeiro Encontro Nacional de Educação Indígena”; Professores de Pataxó, Uma história; and Troncarelli, Kaiabi, and Instituto Socioambiental, Brasil e África.
  3. [3] As of late 2011, such programs are in place at the Universidade Federal de Roraima (UFRR); Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG); Universidade Federal do Amazonas (UFAM); Universidade Federal do Tocantins (UFT); Universidade Federal de Campina Grande (UFCG); Universidade Federal de Bahia (UFBA); Universidade Estadual do Mato Grosso (UNEMAT); Universidade Estadual de Londrina (UEL); Universidade Estadual do Amazonas (UEA); Universidade Estadual da Bahia (UNEB); Universidade Estadual do Mato Grosso do Sul (UEMS); and Universidade Estadual do Oeste do Paraná (UNIOESTE). See Rede, “Conheça a REDE.”
  4. [4] Recent initiatives also exist to offer classes in indigenous languages to nonindigenous students, teachers, and researchers (Paulo Baltazar, personal communication; “Base de Estudos Indígenas”).
  5. [5] Terena, “Vôo do índio.”
  6. [6] And yet the problem of popular perception and media representation remains. The day following the 20 August 2011 manifestation against Belo Monte in São Paulo, the print version of the Folha de São Paulo included not a word about the protest. Instead, it highlighted a new Globo TV reality show called Expedição Xingu, in which eight (nonindigenous) university students would “leave the comforts of the city” and head to the forest, suffering various hardships of the 1950s and otherwise following in the footsteps of the Villas-Bôas brothers. Their adventure “even included participating in indigenous celebrations and fighting with them [sic].” See Castro Torres, “jovens refazem expedição.”
  7. [7] Lane, “Indigenous Guiding Principles.”
  8. [8] Terena, “Uma candidatura indígena.”

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