Brazil's Resurgent Indians

Brazil's Resurgent Indians

“Tribal Preservation” by John Hemming, in Prospect (Jan. 2005), 2 Bloomsbury Pl., London WC1A 2QA, England.

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A half-century ago, Brazil’s Indians appeared headed for extinction. Reduced in number to 100,000, they were fast losing their land, their culture, and their will to survive. But they have made a remarkable comeback, reports anthropologist Hemming, former director of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society and author of a trilogy on the history of Brazilian Indians.

Improvements in health are part of the story. The deadly toll of measles, influenza, and other alien diseases slowed as indigenous peoples developed immunity and received vaccines. “Traditional practices that kept village numbers low—late marriage, infanticide of babies with any defect, and years of breast-feeding that inhibit new pregnancies—are now discouraged. In many villages there is now a relative baby boom.” The Indian population has climbed to more than 350,000.

“The catalyst for these improvements [has been] territorial security,” according to Hemming. For decades, many of the 218 tribes retreated before loggers, mining prospectors, ranchers, farmers, and other settlers, particularly along the Atlantic sea­board, in the cattle country of the south and northeast, and along the navigable parts of the Amazon River and its tributaries. It took a crusade for indigenous land rights—often led by white activists in the early days—to turn the tide.  

For example, Orlando and Cláudio Villas Boas, the sons of a failed São Paulo coffee planter, worked for 30 years among the Xinguanos, the inhabitants of an area drained by a southern Amazon tributary, to persuade the various tribes to abandon ancient feuds and unite in common cause. Victory came in 1961, with the creation of the 10,000-square-mile Xingu Indigenous Park, the prototype for a score of huge protected areas in South America.

For some of these pre-Stone Age tribes, contact with modern society has brought devastation, followed by adaptation. In 1972, Hemming was among the first outsiders to make contact with the Suruí of central Brazil, a warrior tribe whose fighters went about naked, and he saw half of the tribe die of measles and other diseases in the space of a few horrifying months. But 13 years later, some young Suruí had acquired clothing, picked up Portuguese, grasped the concepts of ownership and law—and were lobbying in Brasília for legal protection of their lands.

After 21 years of military rule in Brazil (1964–85), the Indians and their allies succeeded in 1988 in getting indigenous rights written into the new democratic constitution. Legally, Indians are classified as minors. “This seems demeaning,” says Hemming, “but it exempts them from legal liability for actions carried out under tribal custom, frees them from military service or taxation, and allows tribes to hold their land communally and inalienably.”

Brazil’s Indians—including 30 or 40 groups that remain completely isolated—continue for the most part to live as hunter-gatherers, though education, radios, and technological conveniences such as outboard motors are bringing change in some places. Most Brazilians seem to agree on the need to protect the Indians’ way of life and their land. While indigenous peoples make up less than one percent of Brazil’s population of 170 million, 11 percent of the country’s land has been set aside for indigenous reserves, an area equal in size to France, Germany, and the Benelux countries combined. In a recent public-opinion survey, more than two-thirds of Brazilians said that was “about right” or “too little.” Will the Indians, living in the midst of a vibrant modern nation, be able to maintain their traditions? Hemming is “guardedly optimistic.”

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