Today, April 19, is celebrated annually in Brazil as Dia do Índio (Day of the Indian). The date was first established in 1943 by President Getúlio Vargas to honor the many contributions that indigenous people have made to the history of Brazil. In recent times, the commemoration’s significance has increased for these indigenous groups in light of their continuing struggle to assert their civil rights in Brazilian society, and to have their collective voice heard.
Though it’s common to think that, prior to 1500, the povos indígenas (indigenous peoples) were haphazardly banded into semi-nomadic groups — fishing, hunting, gathering, and living in an edenic state — this is a crude distortion that obscures a more nuanced understanding. In truth, many native peoples formed large, complex societies that were rooted in place by agriculture, where they consciously tended and improved the land.
For example, the island of Marajó — in the Amazon River delta — was home to a large civilization of over 100,000 inhabitants. According to Anna C. Roosevelt, the curator of archaeology at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, the Marajóara people created and maintained “one of the outstanding indigenous cultural achievements of the New World.”
Sprawled across thousands of square miles (the size of New Jersey), the Marajóara cultivated an immense garden-city that endured for over a thousand years. In the words of Charles Mann, author of 1491, which explores the pre-Columbian world of the Americas:
Rather than damaging the forest, Marajó’s ‘earth construction’ and ‘large, dense populations’ had improved it: the most luxuriant and diverse growth was on the mounds formerly occupied by the Marajóara.
the Indigenous after Colonization
At the time of first contact with Europeans, the povos indígenas of Brazil were composed of a tremendous variety of ethnic groups numbering well over six million people. It’s estimated that 2,000 separate tribes and nations inhabited the Brazilian land mass — most of whom lived near the Atlantic Ocean or beside its abundant river inlets.
The Tupí people — a ‘mega-group’ who occupied the resource-rich coastline — were the first community that the Portuguese encountered. Though fractured into many smaller sub-tribes geographically, the Tupí spoke the same language and maintained a similar culture. This consistency benefitted the Portuguese as they expanded their exploration of the continent.
A high proportion of the settlers to Brazil were young, unattached men. Thus, contrary to most conquering powers within the New World, Portugal essentially condoned the activity of miscegenation with the native population. However, after settlement, the numbers of indigenous began to dwindle dramatically. The main reasons for this decimation were the scourge of infectious diseases inadvertently brought from Europe, and, frankly, the brutality of slavery.
Today there are roughly 200 distinct tribes remaining among a population of maybe 350,000. Though, the actual number could be higher, since many of the indigenous have been assimilated into cities. In the most recent census, almost 900,000 Brazilians self-identified as indigenous, but millions probably have some type of blood ancestry with the first people of Brazil.
An Open Letter on Dia do Índio
Today I read a moving piece by Laís Eduarda. She’s a member of the Tupinambá de Olivença, an indigenous group that traditionally has occupied the southern coast of the state of Bahia. In recognition of “nosso dia” (our day), she wrote a heart-felt appeal to all non-indigenous to see her people, not as some historical artifact, but as a vital participant in the modern world:
I want people to have a new vision about us indigenous. I want people to look at our true reality, not what the media often shows.
I want them to see that today, the Indian also uses a cell phone, a computer, uses a camera, watches television. That people see the Indian is not only one who lives in the woods hunting and fishing, or walking naked.
The world today is rapidly evolving, and just because we are Indians we don’t have to live ‘in the Stone Age’. The simple fact that today we use technology, does not mean that we cease to be Indian, who have forgotten our culture.
the Indigenous ‘Paradise’
Laís knows first-hand about about the tools of information technology. She participated in the Oca Digital project, which provides workshops in digital content production for indigenous teens near Ilhéus, Bahia. She writes regularly online under her indigenous name, Ninhã Gwarini (which means ‘Warrior Heart’), in a voice that is wise beyond her years:
When they say that the indigenous live in ‘paradise’, for me it depends upon what sense they want to use that phrase. On the one hand, yes, we live in ‘paradise’, because we have the opportunity to breathe cleaner air, we have more contact with nature, and although many animals are endangered, we have the opportunity (that not many have) to still see some species.
But, on the other hand, at times, we live in an area of difficult access because of poor roads — often living in precarious housing. The fact is we do not have good wood, and don’t want to deforest our Mother Nature. We want to protect and take care of nature, because she needs this!
Activities on Dia do Índio
The arrival of Dia do Índio is honored each year with special events at museums and other institutions, depending upon the community. Local indigenous groups often hold ceremonies and informative gatherings to help the broader public understand the importance of preserving their cultural traditions and connection to the land.
In schools across the country, children often study the history of indigenous tribes. This year, in Maceió, students at Colégio Cristo Rei had the opportunity to meet members, both young and old, of the ethnic group Kariri-Xocó who live the nearby village of Dzubucuá. The elders engaged the students in conversation: answering questions and dispelling myths. One indigenous artisan, Rya Koná, spoke from the heart about the survival of her people:
Before the invasion of 1500, my people had homes, fruits. Mother Nature did not leave anything lacking. Today we have devastation: few animals, very little land, very little food. Sometimes the suffering leaves us speechless.
As with many native groups around the world, struggles remain for the Brazilian indigenous community. They are a diverse collection of peoples, who speak over 180 different languages. But they’re finding a common voice and a common cause together — demanding social justice and equal opportunity for the original inhabitants and caretakers of Brazil.
Photos: Daniel Zanini, Jean Marconi, Edson Franco, Valter Campanato, and Wilson Dias