- Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1937–1988
In the early 1970s, Brazilian political exiles and other opponents of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 appealed to world public opinion in their criticism of the government’s construction of the Transamazonian highway. Oppositionists alleged that the road construction seriously threatened the indigenous populations scattered throughout the Amazon River basin. A decade later international environmental activists in conjunction with Brazilian ecologists and anthropologists coupled the defense of Brazil’s indigenous people with dire predictions about the imminent destruction of the Amazonian rainforest and the resultant diminishing of the world’s supply of oxygen. In both [End Page 809] cases, the indigenous populations were the subjects of intense debates, yet to the casual outside observer they seemed to remain on the sidelines of the political disputes that pitted Brazilian government policies against their critics.
In this masterful study of the Xavante Indians of Central Brazil, historian Seth Garfield uncovers the agency of Brazilian indigenous groups in the life-and-death disputes over land, resources, notions of nationhood, and the fate of the ancestors of Brazil’s first human inhabitants. Indigenous Struggle is much more than a social and cultural history of the Xanante. Garfield deftly draws theoretical and analytical approaches from his thorough readings in anthropology, cultural studies, and post-colonial studies to create a carefully crafted, eloquently written, and subtly argued examination of the tensions among multiple forces: “Indians” and “Brazilians,” the state and its agencies, missionaries and anthropologists, and landowners, small farmers, and landless peasants. This work will certainly become a yardstick to measure future studies of indigenous struggles in Brazil and beyond.
Getúlio Vargas’s authoritarian Estado Novo (New State), inaugurated in 1937 and lasting until the end of World War II, marks the beginning of this study. In an attempt to promote the industrialization of Brazil and the national integration of outlying regions far from the coastal concentration of the country’s population, Vargas’s regime utilized nineteenth century (and earlier) romantic notions of the childlike and innocent “noble savages” to promote a configuration of the nation that exalted its indigenous roots while at the same time enacting a policy to contact and “pacify” intractable native sons and daughters. Nationalist development projects meant harnessing people and resources. Although new state initiatives encouraged settlements in the frontier regions as a means of bringing indigenous people into the national fold, conflicting interests of missionaries and homesteaders and the fierce resistance of the Xavante, destabilized these plans. In the process, those favoring the integration of the indigenous population into the modernizing nation clashed with those defending the isolation and protection of recently contacted indigenous groups. State planners imposed policies that ignored (or misunderstood) indigenous cultural, social, and economic patterns. Fixed settlements and paternal governmental assistance transformed the indigenous people’s lives, as state resources ended up serving indigenous internal factional disputes rather than providing assistance for survival on the new terms established by the state. Here as throughout this study, Garfield carefully demonstrates how indigenous leaders were not passive recipients of government policies, programs, and material assistance, but appropriated and reshaped resources for their own cultural, social, and economic interests.
Preservationist policies to mark territories reserved for the Xavante (and other indigenous groups throughout Brazil) provoked stiff opposition from local elites who lusted after land for agricultural and cattle production. In the end, the government offered uneven and inadequate defense of the indigenous people, especially in post-World War II Brazil. During this period of increased subjugation and disruption, indigenous leaders began to master both the symbolic Brazilian codes regarding the indigenous populations and the economic and political system that was decimating its population. As intense capitalist accumulation promoted by the military dictatorship, especially in the late 1960s and [End Page 810] 1970s, encouraged foreign capital investment and export-driven agrobusiness, “national security” considerations added to the pressure...