Old Tribe, New World
Brazilian Indians Seek Own Way of Modern Life
By Stephen Buckley
Washington Post Foreign Service
ILHA DO BANANAL, Brazil—As the dance of the Spirit Who Lives in
the Water begins under a pale yellow sunset, 10-year-old Nahuria Karaja
buries her face in her mother's lap.
She does not want to watch another 10-year-old girl, nearly naked with
decorative black lines across her smooth coppery skin, dance with two
men in straw masks in the center of this Indian village of Santa Isabel. But
the dance--a ritual at the heart of the identity of Nahuria's father and his
ancestors--proceeds nonetheless. The men in the straw masks, shaking
maracas and chanting, meet the girl, all black hair and downcast eyes, in
the center of the path. They dance, separated by only a few inches.
"This is very much ours," says Idjarruri Karaja, Nahuria's father. "This
beyond 300 years of contact" with the outside world.
As the men dance with the girl, Adais Karaja whispers to her daughter
that, no, "You won't have to do it."
After the 20-minute dance, Nahuria walks away. She is quiet for a long
time. She is a modern girl who has been told that this faraway place is to
be her home.
This disconnect between a tradition-loving father and his citified, globalized
daughter has complicated Idjarruri Karaja's dramatic attempt to restore
simplicity and tradition to his modern life.
Five years ago, Idjarruri, 36, and his wife, Adais, 37, left Brasilia,
capital, for this 180-mile-long, blade-shaped chunk of land, bounded by
two rivers, in the heart of Brazil. The island had 3,000 people, 12 villages
(known as aldeias), few phones, little electricity, no computers.
Idjarruri's children had grown up in big cities around Brazil. Their lives
were saturated with the latest in technology. Could they possibly thrive
where their father and his six siblings had grown up--here, in a high-roofed
hut in a village with a handful of cars, no shopping mall and no movie
In 1993, Idjarruri returned to the land of his tribe, the Karaja, to build
new village he called Txuiri. His sons and daughter felt little connection to
the island. They knew neither the tribe's central myths nor its language.
But Idjarruri wanted them to know their land, the possession the Karaja
cherish above all else. The land where thousands of their ancestors had
shed blood, fighting colonists and other tribes. The land that holds
everything you need, Idjarruri told his children repeatedly. The patrimony,
he called it.
Idjarruri wasn't suddenly anti-globalization. He spoke of computers and
faxes and television as "exchanges," a return favor for what the Indians had
taught the Portuguese about taking regular baths and hammocks and
But in his gut he knew that such exchanges could be dangerous. The glare
and chatter of television, the easy grasp of commercial goods, the
ubiquitous sweep of technology could whittle away a person's sense of
He also had a name to uphold. His late grandfather, Uatau Karaja, had
been a fierce guardian of Indian rights. Idjarruri didn't want to admit it, but
the Karaja saw him as an extension of his grandfather, a leader of his
people. What kind of leader would he be if his own children rejected the
ways of the tribe?
His mantra today is "Neither isolation nor integration." Yet, as a new
millennium dawns, what does that mean? Does it mean his children can
watch "Independence Day" and "Dead Poets Society" over and over, as
long as they also view videotapes of tribal ceremonies? That they can
marry outside the tribe as long as they rear their children in the culture of
the Karaja? That they can reject tribal mythology and language as long as
they're committed to the land?
Ultimately, for the Karaja and other indigenous groups around the world,
the question is this: Having survived four centuries of neglect and
oppression at the hands of colonizers and their own leaders, how will they
negotiate a more subtle but no less critical challenge--the amorphous,
unrelenting force known as globalization?
Brazil's Indians already have waged a 500-year war against globalization.
So it's no wonder that they have become an international symbol of native
peoples' struggle to stave off change. Images of startled, isolated, naked
Indians with shiny black-haired bowl-cuts and primitive weapons have
become a late-20th century cliche.
The Karaja are among the poorest of Brazil's tribes; their island is among
the least developed of the nation's 187 indigenous territories. The Karaja,
who lived across north-central Brazil, saw their numbers tumble from
45,000 earlier this century to roughly 3,000 today.
"The Karaja were absolutely devastated by contact," said John Hemming,
an expert on Brazil's Indians. From campaigns of enslavement to the
stripping of their land, the Indians saw their culture shredded by colonizing
Portuguese and Brazilian adventurers.
There are an estimated 6,000 indigenous groups around the world. Their
histories are tragically similar: Outside group discovers land awash in
natural resources. Outsiders decide that indigenous people stand in their
way. Indigenous group gamely fights back, but is overwhelmed and pushed
to society's margins.
The Brazilian Indians became so despised that some academics blamed the
country's chronic social and economic underachievement on the high
percentage of Brazilians--perhaps one-third--who are at least part Indian.
Over the years--through Brazil's rubber boom, the discovery of gold and
diamonds, and the construction of a road network through the
Amazon--the Indians' yearning to retain their land and values has
repeatedly collided with the development blueprints of multinational
corporations and Brazilian regimes. "In every confrontation between
'progress' and the interests of the Indians," notes Joseph Page in his book,
"The Brazilians," "the latter have had to yield."
Numerous groups remain isolated or semi-isolated, and Sydney Possuelo,
the famed discoverer of Indian tribes, keeps finding new ones. Yet far
more Indians have meshed into Brazilian society. Today many Indians
speak Portuguese, sometimes at the expense of their tribal tongue. More
wear oxfords and khakis than grass skirts and loincloths.
What is new at the end of the 20th century is that Brazilian Indians want
change--on their terms. They're grappling with how to use globalization to
affirm their values, rather than be enslaved all over again.
Defying the Stereotype
Idjarruri Karaja embodies that struggle. By the time he returned to the
do Bananal, his serious demeanor, his blazing dark brown eyes, his
glistening black hair, had become well known among Indians. In the early
1980s, they chose him to present to the government a report on the pitiful
state of Indian education. He toiled for Indian rights to education, land and
work. In the early 1990s, he helped organize a meeting in Rio de Janeiro
of indigenous peoples from around the world.
When he came to Txuiri, he wanted the village to defy the stereotype of
backward Indian. It took more than two years of cajoling and negotiating,
but he got both electricity and telephone lines in February 1997.
Today in Idjarruri's house, a computer with a 200-megahertz Pentium
processor sits on a tablecloth decorated with renderings of Christmas
elves. A printer, phone and old gray telephone-fax machine also rest on the
Nearby, in front of a dingy, cracking vinyl couch, sits a color television
a 15-inch screen. On a shelf above, movies: "Anastasia," "Mad Max 2,"
Seventeen-year-old Idjarrina, whose bedroom door sports the typical
teenager's "Don't Enter" sign under a skull and crossbones, has a stereo
system. His brother Idjawala, 15, has one too.
One Sunday morning, Nahuria, all bright eyes, giggles and flowing brown
hair, stretches out on the couch, watching TV. She loves cartoons. She
loves TV. She is embarrassed to admit that she watches it a good three
hours a day. This morning, she watches "Ghostbusters" while she
absent-mindedly cradles a video game on her lap.
Her father always tells his children that they as individuals and the Karaja
as a people must become economically viable. Computers, TV and fax
machines must be just a beginning.
"The people in the world who get respect are those who are economically
strong," he says. "I've tried to prepare my children for this. It's hard to tell
someone that their culture is important if they don't know if they're going to
By culture, Idjarruri does not mean the ballet. He means land. Language
and myth may be critical parts of any culture, but it is land, including the
rivers that ripple through it, that has always bound indigenous people
together. Language disconnected from land loses much of its unifying
power, and eventually dies. Myths that explain who the Karaja are would
lose their meaning without a sense of place.
In Brazil, the land brought them food--through hunting, gathering and
fishing. The land was their source of healing--through its plants and herbs.
That land, on the eastern edge of the Amazon rain forest, is a place
bursting with mango trees and palms. Thousands of cattle wander about.
Stretches of forest are full of wildcats. Rivers teem with fish--from the tiny,
fierce piranha to the gargantuan pirarucu, one of which can feed a whole
Txuiri is a little less than an hour's drive from the nearest town (drive--or
canoe--across a river, then head straight on a long red-clay road). But
most of the villages are at least two or three hours from towns.
Someday soon, Idjarruri's sons will leave this land. Idjarrina plans to
law degree. Idjawala plans to become a veterinarian. The question is
whether they will return.
It is hard to overstate how badly Idjarruri wants his children to stay
island. He says he might even prevent them from marrying the women they
love--if they are not of the Karaja.
But many years ago, the father did just that. When Idjarruri asked his
parents for permission to wed Adais, who has both European and Indian
blood, he explained that so few Karaja women had a secondary
education, he would never meet a woman who could match his intellectual
curiosity. They said yes.
Today, Idjarruri says that since anyone who marries his children would
thus have a claim to tribal land--and since the land must remain in the
hands of the Karaja--he expects his sons to honor his wishes. "It's not
racism," he says. "It's protecting our patrimony."
His sons say they're open to marrying outside the tribe. "I'm going to
whomever I fall in love with," Idjawala says.
A few seconds later, Idjarrina says: "I'm going to marry whomever God
has chosen for me."
Idjarruri's determination to maintain his tribal land is far from unusual.
Whether it is the Melanesian in West Papua, the Innu in eastern Canada or
the Masai in Kenya, the struggle for sovereignty over territory remains
Activists and indigenous peoples often protest against companies that are
mining or building dams. Yet more and more, they fear not bulldozers, but
a small box with wires that has the potential to do as much damage as
colonizers and adventurers ever did.
"TV imposes on people a perspective," says Rudolph Ryser, chairman of
the Center for World Indigenous Studies in Olympia, Wash. "It sells
products that to the kids are new, modern, mysterious. So the kid looks
around and says, 'Why don't we have these things? Is something wrong
with us?' So they don't want to stay in the village."
Television has so dazzled some tribal communities in Brazil that leaders
have had to set limits. In one tribe, "people would just sit around and
watch it all day," says Saulo Feitosa, vice president of the Indigenous
Missionary Council, a Roman Catholic organization. "Now they can only
watch at night--and only the news or soap operas."
Idjarruri's boys seem firm in their commitment to the land, which heartens
their father. After earning his law degree, Idjarrina plans to raise
cattle--"money that's alive," he calls the animals--on the island, a place that
he says "is big enough for my dreams."
Idjawala says he would never flee the island. In fact, last July, during
six-week computer course in Brasilia, Idjawala grew ill. His gorgeous
black hair fell out. He lost 19 1/2 pounds. He survived the course only by
coming home on weekends. "He missed home so much," Adais Karaja
Nahuria is aghast at her brothers' expressions of kinship with the land.
"Can you imagine that?" she says. "When I grow up, I'm going to travel
around the world."
Encounters With Globalization
By the time Nahuria grows up, perhaps more of Brazil's indigenous
communities will have connected to the global economy. Her father dreams
that by then the Ilha do Bananal will have fashioned prosperous agricultural
and fishing export projects. He foresees the remote island, with its
astonishing array of birds and 38 species of mammals, emerging as a
magnet for eco-tourism.
On many fronts, the lives of Brazil's Indians, while still impoverished,
improved. Health workers reach even the most isolated villagers to provide
regular vaccinations. More Indians go to school, although as a group they
remain far behind the rest of the population. Young, sophisticated Indian
politicians have started to find their voices. Indian population numbers are
easing upward again.
Still, few native groups have wholly embraced globalization. An exception
is the Kayapo tribe, believed to be the country's wealthiest indigenous
group, which has used profits from lumber and gold extracted from its
territories to purchase fancy cars and fine homes.
For now, however, Indian encounters with globalization tend to occur at
the shallowest levels. The village of Wari-Wari, about 60 miles south of
Txuiri, is typical. Its 180 residents--members of the Javae, a tribe with
close ties to the Karaja--have a generator that, when they can gather the
money to buy diesel fuel for it, runs three hours a day.
When the generator isn't working, a suffocating darkness falls on the
village. The only light comes from the steady, tiny flashing of fireflies and
distant bolts of lighting knifing through the sky.
Wari-Wari has no running water, no telephones, three radios and, of
course, a 12-inch television. The TV, cloaked in a dusty, cracking brown
tarp, sits atop an old wooden table in Nilton Javae's hut. On the same table
lie a machete and small calculator. The room also contains a hammock, a
small transformer and a second TV that does not work.
The people of Wari-Wari take enormous pride in these connections to a
faster world. Their thirst to be a part of the outside is almost palpable.
During several days of interviews, Walter Wassure, the village spokesman,
smiled only twice. Once, when he sees a U.S. dollar bill--a 20--for the first
time. And again when he is asked if he has heard of Mike Tyson.
"He's brutal," Wassure says. "We saw him bite the ear," meaning he
watched Tyson chomp Evander Holyfield's ears during their last
They have heard of the Internet--and would like to use it. But they have
never heard of Bill Gates.
They know who Bill Clinton is. And Monica Lewinsky. "We heard about
her when Mr. Clinton was having those troubles with Iraq," Wassure says.
They adore American-made films. Asked to name their favorite actors and
movies, they spit out a list.
"Rambo One," Wassure says.
"Arnold Schwartz," says Wilson Hariana, referring to Schwarzenegger.
"Van Damme," says Nilton Javae.
"Movies that show American Indians killing the whites," Hariana says.
"Rambo Two and Three."
Back in Txuiri, one evening just before 9, Adais stands in front of her
and lets out a whoop, something like a rooster's cock-a-doodle-doo.
Within moments, dozens of villagers--mothers with suckling babies, young
men on their bicycles, old women--gather in front of Idjarruri's home.
For more than an hour, they sigh, laugh and gape at the videotaped images
of their tribesmen chanting deep-throated chants and dancing in circles,
wearing headdresses of gold and red and purple feathers, their legs, arms,
chests and backs marked with lines of jenipapo fruit blended with
"We could show it 10,000 times," Idjarruri says, "and they would watch
When the videotape whines to its end, the contented viewers spill out into
the village, their shadows spreading under the lights along the main dirt path
as they shuffle home.
History of the Brazilian Indians
After the Europeans arrived in 1500, the number of Brazilian Indians
nosedived from between 2 million and 6 million to roughly 300,000. From
1900 to the end of the 1960s, an estimated 90 indigenous tribes became
extinct in Brazil alone.
More than 1,000 indigenous groups once lived all over the country; today,
that number has slid to 210.
The Indians' numbers were reduced by enslavement, removal from their
lands, the sometimes-intentional planting of deadly disease in their midst,
and the stoking of inter-tribal warfare. In 1967, a government report found
that Brazil's Society for the Protection of Indians -- aided by groups that
wanted to scoop up indigenous lands -- had been giving the Indians clothes
exposed to diseases such as smallpox and measles.
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