The original inhabitants of Brazil have been continuously attacked and decimated since the Discovery. The most dramatic violations of Indian rights undoubtedly occurred during the period of the military dictatorship.

By Maria Rita Kehl

In the last years of the 1964-85 military dictatorship, urban activists for the return of democracy also became involved in the campaign for the demarcation of indigenous lands. Only much later, during the period in which I participated in the National Truth Commission as head of the group that investigated Serious Violations of Human Rights against peasants and indigenous people, did I understand the full scope of that claim.

If the original inhabitants of Brazil were continuously attacked and decimated, from the Discovery until at least the 1988 Constitution (who does not remember the performative intervention of the great Airton Krenak in the Assembly, who slowly covered his face with black grease as he denounced the atrocities committed against indigenous peoples?), the most dramatic violations of indigenous rights occurred during the period of the so-called “great works of development” (cruz credo!) in the Amazon.

Under the pretext that the original peoples who inhabited those lands represented backwardness, the dictatorial government promoted/authorized the invasion of territories and the decimation of indigenous populations. At the opening of the Transamazônica highway, for example, military planes dropped a powder similar to the agent orange used against the Viet Cong by the US army in the territory of the Waimiri-Atroari. “That dust fell from the sky… we rolled on the ground, it seemed that the body was burning from the inside…”.

In Roraima, BR 174 was opened inside Yanomami territory to give access to miners and loggers. The Indians, without immunity, died of the flu, measles, chickenpox. “Marcados”, a series of photos by Cláudia Andujar taken during that period, reveals adults and children who survived, fragile and hungry, with small plaques around their necks with a number that indicated the vaccination undertaken by the government, almost too late. The resemblance to photos of concentration camp survivors is startling.

The south and southeast regions are the lands of the resilient Guarani. These, since the Empire, when Pedro Segundo granted his lands to the company Mate Laranjeira, got used to being expelled and coming back. They were expelled to Paraguay. They came back. As? “On foot… by the river…through the bush…”. Many died. Like the Yanomami, they died more from the flu and measles ("white people's diseases") than from shooting. In the 1970s it was already known that the Indians had no resistance to our banal diseases – but the State did not vaccinate sertanista agents or send vaccines to save the indigenous people. We interviewed Antonio Cotrim, from Alagoas, who resigned from a stable job at FUNAI and gave an interview to the magazine Veja (at the time, progressive) where he explained his resignation: "I don't want to be a gravedigger for Indians".

Today I read in the newspapers that Babau, the charismatic Tupinambá chief of the Pau Brasil region, in southern Bahia, has just left – once again! - the prison. Those who studied up to the third year of primary school should know that the Tupinambá were the first Indians sighted by Cabral's squadron upon arriving in the lands of Pau Brasil. The handsome chief in the First Mass painting is a Tupinambá.

When I went, with researcher Inimá Simões and filmmaker Vincent Carelli, from Video in the villages, interviewing Pataxó and Tupinambá leaders, we met Chief Babau. Charismatic, cheerful, solar. He had just returned from another episode of prison. His crime: defending the territory of his people and his ancestors. I reproduce a small excerpt of the recommendations that he forwarded, on behalf of his people, to the CNV.

“Since 2000, we have started to recover land, but the “violations” have returned with full force. In 2008, 180 Federal Police men with helicopters surrounded the village, they were shooting all day, throwing tear gas bombs. We managed to denounce it to the Lula government. Judges in the region focused the cases on me. I was arrested in 2010, I went through several prisons, including a maximum security one in Mossoró (RN). There was pressure from the Human Rights people in Brasilia, from the press, so they let us go. The Tupinambá land is beautiful, sacred. For three years now, a minister (José Eduardo Cardoso) has had the papers to demarcate our land, but the landowners have objected. They've already lost, but they keep pushing, and they won't sign. There are only 47.350 hectares for 10 Indians”.

“The Tupinambá live well in the forest because they know how to hunt, fish and cultivate. Today we are the only Indians in the region that produce cassava flour, but our flour, they say, is produced by small farmers. We were the first to plant cocoa in the forest, now they want the forest to produce cocoa. White people bought things for us from the city and sold them to us, but they robbed us. The enchanted ones (the dead) guided us to study so they wouldn't rob us. Then these merchants turned against us”.

“We are a highly proud people. Our grandparents raised us not to depend on anyone. We don't accept Funai's basic basket, we want to eat what we plant. Hunger was instituted since Getúlio Vargas, when they surrounded us and didn't let us go”.

“We preserve forests, animals, water, we don't do big projects. We don't have to kill ourselves to get rich; it is enough to have where to live and what to eat, to have our culture, to pray, to respect our enchanted ones”.

“Now here we have jaguar, susuarana, Açu cat, monkey, fish, collared peccary, deer, all fish, waters have improved. We sue the municipality of São José Vitória to treat sewage and we demand that it clean the Uma river, which crosses our territory”.

“When he is hungry, the Indian surrenders. Then he accepts a basic basket, the child grows up seeing his father out of work and seeing food given as alms; when the basic food basket is missing, he doesn't know how to work to eat, he's starving. You have to learn to work watching your parents work. When this tradition is cut, the Indian becomes poor, begging, without dignity. Here he has dignity, no alcoholism, drugs. The Indian without their culture, without space to plant and hunt, receiving only aid from the government – ​​this destroys the Indian. Without space, there is no freedom or dignity”.

While researching the indigenous chapter, I had access to an excellent statement by the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. I couldn't write it down, but I know it ends like this: “Many people think that the Indian wants to leave the forest and live in the city. Mistake. The Indian in the city is sad. Far from his village, he will live in a cramped shack; he will exchange his free and sovereign life for a sedentary lifestyle, processed food, drink soda, spend his days in front of the television. Depressed".

Or also like in the movie Former shaman, of Luiz Bolognesi, will join an evangelical sect. Who knows, with this sad outcome, the “Christian” president (poor Jesus Christ, how many evils were committed in his name…!) will think that the Indians have become civilized after all.

Maria Rita Kehl, a psychoanalyst, is the author, among others, of Torture and social symptom (Boitempo, 2019)


*Quick ability to adapt and recover (Michaelis Dictionary).

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