Indigenous Studies as a topic of scholarly inquiry in modern-day Brazil comprise over five hundred years of colonial and national history, nearly three hundred distinct peoples with a collective populace of approximately 900,000, and some 270 languages or dialects, many of which approach extinction. Official estimates of indigenous populations have varied tremendously ever since officials began making such assessments during the late 19th century, in large part because a host of political and material interests have always informed and mediated the counting process. Who is indigenous, under what circumstances, with what conditions, and according to whom, are legal and philosophical queries—unresolved and likely unresolvable—that shape not only indigenous-centered scholarship and activism, but also, most importantly, the lived experiences of Native peoples across the country and the region.
Political crises and catastrophic environmental disasters since the early 2000s have brought renewed international attention to the critical situation of indigenous Brazil. While non-indigenous peoples, beyond a doubt, also suffered tremendously from the impact of these events, the situation of Native Brazilians has been exceptional for two reasons: First, their miniscule numbers vis-à-vis the general population render them, their collective interests, and their political voices invisible or easily ignorable for the holders of power. Second, legal contradictions render their juridical condition vis-à-vis the Brazilian state unclear, resulting in a long-standing dynamic through which purported indigenous interests are represented not only by non-indigenous entities, but also by non-indigenous entities that are overtly hostile to collective indigenous interests. While distinct state mechanisms for “Indian protection” have been in place since the beginning of the 20th century, they have consistently lacked indigenous leadership or significant indigenous participation and have functioned, more often than not, to the detriment of the purportedly protected population.
Indigenous peoples from radically distinct realities have responded to this dire situation in correspondingly distinct ways. Over the past two years, for example, Brazilians saw an indigenous woman (Sonia Guajajara) run for vice-president of their country, at the same time isolated Native communities in the Amazon fled from the National Indian Foundation’s highly controversial efforts to bring them into contact with dominant society for the very first time. In light of these radical differences, any effort to generalize the interests, needs, or lived experiences of Native peoples in Brazil is inherently flawed, resulting in overly simplified renderings of the past and a flattening of diverse Native subjectivities into idealized or demonized “Indianness.” Lauded or reviled, generic “Indians” and their Indianness are time-honored staples of Brazilian national identity and popular culture.
To recognize the profound heterogeneity of indigenous Brazil is not to say that Native Brazilians do not share many of the same experiences, interests, and goals. Indeed, the very articulation of an “indigenous movement” requires a strategic suspension of, and extrapolation from diverse histories and present-day circumstances so that many voices, sometimes representing conflicting perspectives and priorities, can articulate their goals as a collectivity. Brazil’s so-called indigenous movement took root during the 1970s. With a focus on creating favorable (or at least, less prejudicial) national legislation, the first wave of that movement culminated in indigenous participation in crafting the 1988 post-dictatorship Constitution of Brazil, which represented, in theory, a profound change in the way the Brazilian state would engage with indigenous peoples. It is precisely the failure of dominant society to enforce those changes that has inspired the majority of subsequent work by indigenous intellectuals, scholars, writers, artists, and other activists.
Acknowledging the profoundly antidemocratic political reality in which their voices are either muffled or ignored, indigenous peoples have not given up on politics. On the contrary, they have redoubled their political work by taking their struggles to diverse social organizations and expressing them through forms of cultural production that allow them to articulate their needs and interests to a broader audience, oftentimes with the support of social media. Demands for land rights and environmental protection measures often lie at the heart of these efforts, placing the well-being of indigenous peoples into direct conflict with multinational development interests (such as mining, agribusiness, and tourism) that operate with insufficient oversight, or even with the outright support of the Brazilian government. This dynamic has pushed indigenous peoples and organizations to seek national, regional, and global backing from Native and non-Native allies who mirror their critique of unchecked developmentalism and their concern for the shared ecological future of humanity.