What Is Happening to Brazil’s Indians?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Brazil
THE opening up of Brazil’s vast interior by a network of highways has moved the Indian population into the limelight. Living deep in the jungles, most of the surviving Indians have, somehow, managed to escape much contact with civilization.
However, present government policy is designed to integrate them into the Brazilian commonwealth. Efforts are being made to attract the tribes to nearby reservations. It is hoped that the new highways will aid in the program of integration. The workers on the new highways are accompanied by special groups whose job is to befriend the Indians and to try to avert clashes.
Among Brazil’s Indians are four main linguistic groups: Tupi, Aruak, Karib and Je. As to their languages, Egon Schaden, noted Brazilian anthropologist, says that they are in general rather complicated and serve to express every human thought.
But what is happening to Brazil’s Indians?
On the Brink of Extinction
“The frightening speed at which our indigenous populations disappear,” warned the daily O Estado de São Paulo, “should weigh on the conscience of our generation.” Little more than fifty years ago the Indian population was calculated to be one million. The government agency FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio, or National Foundation of the Indian) sets the present number at 100,000 to 120,000. Other sources suggest a figure as low as 50,000.
Of nearly five hundred tribes or groups in the year 1500 C.E., there have survived perhaps one hundred and forty-three. Of these, fifty-seven are on the brink of extinction. In the last fifty years alone, eighty-seven tribes died off.
Illustrating the dramatic decline are the Xetas, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul. They are now made up of just four men and two barren women. The Akuawaasurini, on the Tocantins River, are down to thirty-four.
Why the decline? Some have left their tribes and married into the rural population. But the reductions in numbers are mainly due to contact with civilized man and his illnesses, which have played havoc among the Indians. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever, poliomyelitis, measles and influenza have all taken their toll.
Two years ago an investigation into the decline was made. It pointed out that white man’s greed is also a major cause. For example, O Estado reported that the Federal Government discovered illegal confiscation and sale of Indian lands. Deeds were illegally issued to cattle breeders and landowners that resulted in the ousting of the Indians. Despite intervention by the Federal Government to return the lands to their rightful owners, this latest report gives but ten years of survival for some Brazilian Indians.
Efforts at Integration
Previous efforts to integrate the Indians have brought this result: Only about 15 percent of the classified tribes are integrated. Many other tribes have contact with civilization in varying degrees. But the tribes that are isolated come to 49 percent.
Obviously much needs to be done, if the Indians are to be fully integrated. Something to help in this regard is the proposed Statute of the Indian, drafted in October 1970, awaiting approval. It is to protect the Indian from incursions and attract him into the mainstream of the nation. Therein are outlined some basic rights, such as the Indian being considered as a citizen.
What is the prospect for integration of Brazil’s dwindling Indian population? According to Humberto Costa Ferreira, the odds seem to be against substantial success. He writes: “If in 471 years . . . neither Portuguese, Jesuits, pioneers, emperors nor our presidents were successful in integrating the Indian, it seems surprisingly naive to have the goal of civilizing them in a matter of some months.” He also points out disadvantages of integration. For example, “civilized” tribes-people soon acquire the vices of “civilization”: drunkenness, prostitution, laziness, leading to destruction of the tribal structure.
What some Indians think about the matter of integration was seen at the opening ceremonies of the highway that will cross the Xingu National Park. Some Tchucarramãe Indians listened to the Minister of the Interior hailing the road as a milestone in the integration of the national territory. But they opined that the road would change their way of life and so they preferred to move downriver, far away from civilization.
Some former nomadic tribes, it is true, have settled in certain areas, where they live on fishing, tend plots of land, grow corn and manioc, make bows and arrows and necklaces of fruit stones for tourists. They eke out a meager existence.
But other groups show no interest in adapting to modern life. Said A Fôlha de São Paulo: “Many still live in the Stone Age.” Some use only bow and arrows, stone weapons and knives, and crude earthenware. They walk about naked, and paint their bodies for celebrations and feast days. Others, such as the Botocudos, deform the skin of lips and ears with disks. The Erigpactsá admit to eating human flesh, and the Purukotó eat their dead. Obviously efforts at integration will run into problems.
Moral and Religious Views
Among the problems that confront integration are many of the Indian moral and religious views. Among many tribes, for instance, there are polygamy, ancestor worship, animism and various practices of spiritism or demonism. The witch doctor or pajé is priest, doctor and counselor for a tribe.
As to moral habits, O Glôbo commented about the tribes of the central and northern regions: “The Indian is in general promiscuous.” Among the Kaiapós and others, a couple are considered really married only when the woman bears a child. If, one year after marriage, she still has no child, the couple are obliged by tribal law to separate. It may be, however, that the husband is sterile. So arrangements are made whereby the wife can have sex relations with other men. If the woman gets pregnant, she may stay with her husband. Children born with physical defects, children of unmarried mothers, and twins, are usually killed. Abortion is practiced too.
However, as integration efforts proceed, will Christendom’s civilization, which also suffers from immorality and promiscuity, really be able to help the Indians to better moral habits?
As to religion, one explorer declared that most Indians do not conceive of the existence of one almighty Creator. They are mainly concerned with where they get their food. Yet they believe in the existence of a great number of supernatural spirits, some good, others bad. The witch doctor claims powers to appease these spirits.
Much indeed needs to be done to help the Indians to overcome false religious views and unscriptural moral habits. Can integration with Christendom’s civilization really help them in this regard? What have been the results thus far?
Christendom’s Missionary Activity
Various authorities have commented on the results of Christendom’s missions among the Indians. Says W. Hohenthal in his Notes on the Shucuru Indians: “The modern Shucuru are nominally Catholics, but they have only superficial knowledge of the faith.” Similarly, ethnologist Darcy Ribeiro writes that the efforts of the Catholic and Protestant missions “never really resulted in true conversion . . . They retained, side by side with some Christian allegories, their essential tribal beliefs.”
In a lecture at an anthropological convention, L. B. Horta Barbosa commented on the efforts of the Jesuits: “History has no record of the name of one Brazilian tribe that embraced the Catholic faith and by means of it came into the bosom of civilization.”
Nowadays the government agency FUNAI does not permit new missions to work just anywhere among the Indians. In the Xingu National Park, for instance, only students, researchers and, in small numbers, journalists are admitted. Neither Brazilian nor foreign missionaries are allowed to enter.
Preaching the Good News of God’s Kingdom
Full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Christian witnesses have conducted home Bible studies with civilized Indians in Macapá, near the equator, and in other areas. Some Guarani Indians, living in civilization, are dedicated Christian witnesses of Jehovah. In Autazes, Amazonas, several civilized Indians have accepted the Bible’s truth and have made true Christianity their way of life.
Formerly, these Indians belonged to Christendom’s religions, but that had not changed their basic moral habits. For example, they did not take seriously the need for honesty and morality, as the Bible requires. “But now that they study the Bible,” a Witness was told by the mayor, “you can leave everything by the riverside; nobody steals anymore.” Further, those that once lived in “consensual marriage” are now legally married. Bible truth has really changed their moral and religious habits and brought them into conformity with the high standards that the true God Jehovah requires.
In their preaching work, Jehovah’s witnesses have also tried to get in touch with tribesmen in the jungles. And the good news of God’s kingdom is reaching into the interior of the country, as some of those Indians who have learned God’s truth visit their tribes. So it is hoped that more may break loose from their superstitions and accept the Bible’s truth that leads to eternal life in God’s righteous new order.