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  • History, Memory, and Utopia in the Missionaries’ Creation of the Indigenous Movement in Brazil (1967–1988)
  • Jean Philippe-Belleau (bio)

On April 17, 1974, and the two days following, a gathering of 16 indigenous participants from nine different indigenous societies was held in Diamantino, Mato Grosso, Brazil. During the three days, vernacular narratives, trivial announcements, and critiques of the government and local ranchers were presented—without any of the participants significantly engaging with one another. Only one primary source on this event, a short, typed document, is available today.1 The historicity of this “Assembly of Indigenous Chiefs” is granted by both the anthropological and the historical situations of the participating communities. For the first time, individuals from indigenous societies that did not share ethnic borders or history met to advance indigenous rights; for the first time also, these individuals were granted political representation (of their groups), a notion largely foreign to indigenous political traditions. There was a conscious effort to draw chiefs from as many communities as possible and to establish a large, pan-Indian movement.

Yet, the real impact of this meeting remains difficult to appraise. There seems to be a paradoxical discrepancy between what happened—the small size of the event, its near-obscurity, and the lack of both media coverage and repercussions [End Page 707] in the indigenous world—and how it is now remembered: as the founding moment of the indigenous movement in Brazil. The French scholar Michel de Certeau called it “the great Indian awakening,” and Jesuit historian José Moura e Silva compared it to the sixteenth-century Tamoyo Confederation, which united several enemy tribes against European colonizers, a reference widely adopted by both students and activists of the indigenous movement in Brazil.2

There are today more than 200 indigenous organizations in Brazil; in the 1990s, large indigenous mobilizations defeated World Bank-supported development projects in the Amazonian basin and for the past 20 years, indigenous actors have developed alliances with many transnational NGOs.3 Indigenous leaders representing national, regional, and local organizations are received by Brazilian presidents and travel around the world to defend their cause. All this is supposed to have started with that single, small assembly attended by just 16 participants.

Three more such Assemblies of Chiefs followed in 1975, two more in 1976, four in 1977, one in 1978, two in 1979, and two more in 1980. In total, from 1974 to 1988, the year of the new Brazilian constitution, about three dozen such assemblies were held. What is rarely acknowledged is that the Assemblies of Chiefs were entirely conceived, organized, and financed by a non-indigenous organization, the Indigenist Missionary Council (Conselho Indigenísta [End Page 708] Missionario, or CIMI), an official branch of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB).4 CIMI selected most of the participants by relying on a network of sympathetic field missionaries, and the assemblies were, without exception, convened at locations associated with the Catholic Church: on mission grounds, in indigenous villages at the periphery of missions, or in urban locations owned by a Catholic congregation.5 If the idea that micro-societies without financial means, expertise, or intellectuals (at the time) could organize such events and conceive a common project is appealing, it remains improbable and factually incorrect: the historical involvement and instrumentality of missionaries is undeniable. Yet, the master narrative on the subject presents the assemblies as the effort of some indigenous ex machina. Because those who conceived and organized the assemblies were those who shaped and produced this narrative, there is little in the scholarly literature on the key role played by CIMI in the creation of the indigenous movement.

In this article, I will first clarify the missionary role in the launching of the indigenous movement in Brazil and its early form. I will briefly describe a double causal link, between inculturation-theology Jesuits and the indigenous movement and between CIMI and pan-Indian collective action. In the central part of the article, I will explore three effects of this link: the production of history, with the naming, numbering, and listing of the assemblies designed to impose and legitimize the indigenous movement; the concealment (or, for lack of a...


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pp. 707-730
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