Brazilian Indians Fighting to Become Visible and Be Counted

Xingu Indians doing the huka-huka

“The word ‘Indian’ doesn’t mean anything. Indians in Brazil – once called
Xavantes, Guaranis, etc. – ended up assimilating this denomination in order to
get some space,” says Lucia Rangel, anthropologist and professor at Pontifícia
Universidade Católica de São Paulo.

According to the researcher, indigenous people suffer from prejudice more than blacks. The discrimination, she says, starts with the images of Indians we see in the press.

“The media sees Indians as if all of them lived in the Xingu Indigenous Park and if you fail to follow this stereotype, you are excluded,” says Benedito Prezia, coordinator of Pastoral Indigenista in São Paulo. As a matter of fact, 500 years of miscegenation did little to change the concept of Indian propagated for the first time in the famous letter of Pero Vaz de Caminha to the Portuguese King.

With straight black hair, dark skin and slit eyes, Alísio Guarani fits the well-known Indian pattern except for one detail: Alísio lives in São Paulo, not far from Pico do Jaraguá. Illiterate, he lives with 40 other families in a reservation the size of a soccer field.

This representative of the Tekoa Pyau tribe also had his problems with newspapers. “Many journalists write stuff on paper with a different feeling about history,” says the Guarani who grew accustomed to visits from reporters when April 19th (Native-Brazilian Day in Brazil) comes along.

Alísio, however, believes in the press as the best way to change the present situation of Brazilian Indians. “We would like to have more contact with journalists because since discovery times we have never heard any Indian telling his own history”.

Even when newspapers do remember to approach the issue, there is no guarantee that Indians will be brought in to give their version of the facts. A review of all stories published in the Brazilian printed media during last April showed that it is very rare for an Indian to be interviewed. 
Verena Glass, a journalist with the Carta Maior agency, justifies: “There is no leadership in Brazil, someone to speak for the indigenous movement. There are also language barriers. It is very difficult to interview an Indian.” 
For Professor Lucia Rangel, society finds it difficult to see Indians as individuals with their own identity. “Everything they say needs to be confirmed by an anthropologist, who is invested with the power to grant a population their identity,” she says. Benedito Prezia agrees: “Indians are hostages of April 19th at schools, and of anthropology at the universities”. 
For the researcher, the major problem of Indians is that they only appear in 16th century Brazilian history, then disappear, then come back on stage only when they cause trouble.

Vultures Over Carnage
“In Pernambuco the press likes bloodshed and they fly like vultures over carnage. But they know nothing about the culture, the customs, many don’t even know that their state has an Indian population or how many peoples there are,” denounces Marcos Xukuru, cacique (chief) of the Xukuru people, one of the ethnicities of the northeastern state.

Newspaper readership and research studies confirm this preference of the press for publishing crimes. In the opinion of Rinaldo Arruda, anthropologist and professor at PUC-SP, one of the big claims of Indians these days is visibility, because they have always been invisible.

“The press often errs by omission. It only shows up when people die, preferable lots of them. The fact that they only report deaths and with very little reflection is a disfavor to the indigenous cause,” Rinaldo believes. 
“In the states where most of the conflicts (for land) take place, discrimination is rampant. (In those places) the treatment of the stories by the press is frightening,” says journalist Verena Glass.

Wilson Matos, son of a Terena mother and a Guarani-Kaiowáa father, is the president of the Special Committee for Indigenous Rights of OAB-MS (Brazilian Bar Association – Mato Grosso do Sul Chapter). He denounces the way that the media in his state depend on politicians and farm owners. He believes that this dependency creates bias in the media’s approach to the news.

“Many indigenous leaders have been killed in the name of land occupation without any mention of it in the news. When the opposite happens and somebody dies on the side of the farm owners, the press exploits the news to the last drop,” says the criminal lawyer.

Wilson, a former sugar cane cutter and radio man, handles approximately one hundred cases filed against Indians, free of charge.

The lawyer does not blame reporters directly, though. “Journalists actually do their job well, but they don’t own the newspaper,” he says. According to him, the problem is in the agendas of the newsrooms; they give the orders for the people who go out in the field to report.
“They have to search for what the owners want to publish, what meets the interests of the power groups. When a photographer arrives in the village, he has orders: ‘I need to photograph a drunk Indian, down in the gutter,’ accuses Wilson.

For Verena Glass, journalists need to be more open to the realities they encounter. “It doesn’t mean that we are now going to defend Indians only because they are Indians. We should not be sanctifying Native Brazilians, but they are a fragile sector of the population and we need to protect them.”

According to the journalist, one way to avoid prejudice is to include Indians in the national debates and treat them as citizens. “The indigenous issue is present in our daily lives, it’s in the PAC (Federal Plan for Growth Acceleration) and it’s in issues such as energy. We must stop treating it like an isolated or folkloric fact and bring this discussion into our daily lives.”

Gisele Lobato writes for Observatório da Imprensa where this article appeared originally.

Translated by Tereza Braga. Braga is a freelance Portuguese translator and interpreter based in Dallas. She is a certified member of the American Translators Association. Contact:


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