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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 765-766
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Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1937-1988. By Seth Garfield. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. Photographs. Maps. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xii, 316 pp. Cloth, $59.95. Paper, $19.95.
It is both enlightening and encouraging to read a well-documented study of an Indian group on the Brazilian frontier that successfully contested pressures to give up their traditional lands and become rural workers. Seth Garfield's Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil isa revealing study of the strategies that Xavante Indians adapted from the dominant political culture of Brazil in their struggle to retain their land against encroaching development in the western state of Mato Grosso.
Garfield's central thesis is perfectly illustrated by the cover photograph of a Xavante Indian in war paint, carrying both his club and an attaché case as he exits the futuristic Indian Protection Agency building in Brasilia. Garfield examines the interplay between Xavante communities and the emerging Brazilian nation-state, beginning with the Estado Novo under President Getúlio Vargas and ending with the attainment of legal guarantees of indigenous rights under the democratic constitution of 1988. Contrary to the pessimism of earlier scholars concerning the viability of Indian societies in modern Brazil, Garfield found that Xavante communities survived the ravages of pacification and "civilization" by selective adaptation to the dominant political culture. Rather than remaining isolated and apart from the concept of the Brazilian nation, the Xavante asserted their identity as native Brazilians with rights of citizenship and social entitlement.
Garfield analyzes the political opening created by Vargas's construction of Brazilian Indians as symbols of a united multiracial nation-state at the same time the government was committed to frontier development and Indian pacification. Government officials, Indianists, missionaries, miners, ranchers, farmers, and local officials employed varying approaches to pacify, control, and displace the Xavante in the interests of civilization, capitalist development, and mainstream society. The Xavante, however, took advantage of opportunities to use changing cultural constructions of Brazilian identity, race, and national society to improve their status within it. Having learned that their traditional strategies against the onslaughts of "civilization" were no longer viable, the Xavante adapted what was most helpful to their interests, such as Portuguese-language education and material goods, and used them to defend the most essential requirement for their hunter-gatherer lifestyle—access to suitable land. Garfield explores the dynamic interplay between the many agents of the developmentalist nation-state and the Xavante. The Xavante were adept at forming alliances with Indian Protection Agency officials, missionaries, and pro-Indian interest groups in order to negotiate greater space and autonomy than the state had intended to grant.
The main showdown was over land. After the military coup of 1964, the government embarked on a major program to develop the entire Amazon region. To [End Page 765] make room for agribusiness, the Xavante were displaced from much of their land and concentrated in several smaller reserves. Even during repressive military rule, the Xavante were able to make their case to the media, civil society, and the international community, using communication tools learned from their missionary education. At first, it was a lonely struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds: a repressive military government committed to expanding ranching, mining, and farming in the Amazon, and local authorities representing the interests of the frontier settlers. As the military government sought to improve its image abroad, however, the Xavante lobbied federal and state officials and used a combination of public threats and moral appeals in front of the media. Xavante leaders learned to be effective lobbyists both in Brazil and at international indigenous rights and environmental conferences, building coalitions to pressure state and local authorities for their rights. The Xavante reinvented themselves as patriotic "Brazilindians" without giving up their Xavante roots. Confronted with these modern tools of resistance, even the powerful the Brazilian state had to accommodate and reform its Indian policies.