The Rio Grande do Norte Legislative Assembly held a public hearing June 15 to address the grievances of indigenous people of that Brazilian state.
After more than a century of official silence concerning the existence of indigenous peoples in Rio Grande do Norte, three ethnic groups have publicly asserted their right (before the State and society) to recognition.
In spite of being locally recognized by their non-indigenous neighbors as clearly being socially differentiated groups, these peoples had not yet politically brought their existence to the knowledge of society at large.
Leaders of the three indigenous peoples handed over petitions asserting the right of their communities to be included in the official public protection and welfare programs.
The peoples are known as the Catu community (that lives in the municipalities of Goianinha and Canguaretama), the Mendonça do Amarelão (from the municipality of João Câmara) and the Caboclos do Assu (from the municipality of Assu).
At meeting, they were supported by leaders of the Potiguara from the state of Paraíba, representing the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Northeast, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo (Apoinme).
The Funai representative who took part in the hearing asked for the studies that have already been carried out by the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) on these peoples to be sent to the Foundation’s Department of Land Affairs, which would then include the lands being claimed in the list of lands to be identified.
Nevertheless, he pointed out that there were another 120 lands that were still waiting for Funai to take measures with respect to their identification.
Some classical scholars from Rio Grande do Norte, including Câmara Cascudo and Nestor Lima, had already mentioned the existence of these communities of descendants of indigenous people several decades ago.
These references have sparked the interest of a number of researchers, whose investigations have ended up motivating more detailed studies by the Anthropology Department of UFRN.
Ethnographic studies, involving life histories and social memory reconstruction, have also stimulated members of these communities to search for “their roots” – as the indigenous people themselves say – in a movement which is positive for finding the reference points of their social boundaries.
Based on the ILO (International Labor Organization) Convention 169, which lays down that ethnic self identification is the only valid criterion for the recognition of the rights of indigenous people, at the Public Hearing the indigenous people of Rio Grande do Norte positioned themselves as collective political subjects, demanding the immediate incorporation of their legal rights as set out in the Federal Constitution.
To do this, they took the reinterpretation of their past as discriminated groups as a basis and positioned themselves as the bearers of collective future projects, whose main aims are to recover their ethnic territories and to make their social and cultural reproduction situations feasible by focusing attention on differentiated health services, indigenous school education and sustainable economic production projects.
Cimi – Indianist Missionary Council – www.cimi.org.br