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  • Mediation Through Militarization:Indigenous Soldiers and Transcultural Middlemen of the Rio Doce Divisions, Minas Gerais, Brazil, 1808–1850
  • Judy Bieber (bio)

In 1825, a Maxakali Indian and soldier named Inocêncio walked several hundred miles from northeastern Minas Gerais to the royal court in Rio de Janeiro, seeking an audience with Emperor Dom Pedro I. Accompanying him were 14 Indians from the vicinity of Belmonte, a town located on the border of Bahia and Minas Gerais. The journey, requiring several weeks, took Inocêncio through thickly forested hilly terrain with few established roads.

Inocêncio, as “captain of the Maxakali Indians” claimed to represent the interests of the aldeia of Pinhaibas. He sought from the monarch many useful items, most notably a smithy so his people might repair damaged farm implements.1 Having only recently substituted settled farming for hunting and gathering, the Maxakali needed resources to sustain their new form of subsistence. For centuries, Portuguese officials and priests had advocated settled agriculture as the primary means through which Brazil’s native peoples might be acculturated and converted to Christianity. In framing his request, Inocêncio demonstrated familiarity with the discursive strategies most likely to win favor with the Portuguese crown.

If the gifts the emperor gave Inocêncio are any indication, he was very favorably impressed with his indigenous subject. Dom Pedro I authorized delivery of the materials for the smithy, an expensive and logistically daunting proposition involving the arduous transport of heavy equipment over several hundred [End Page 227] overland miles.2 He also gave Inocêncio and his delegation a variety of utilitarian, symbolic, and luxury items, including 40 axes, hoes, and sickles; 16 files, 100 flints, four axles, and 10 saws; four steel pots and two copper kettles; 16 hunting rifles; lead, gunpowder, and iron bars; and one arroba (32 pounds) of fine steel from Milan.3 Additionally, the two brothers received shirts, jackets, trousers, stockings, blue pantaloons, neck scarves, a police uniform, a cocked hat with a gold buckle, and a sewing kit. Inocêncio, as befitted the rank of Maxakali captain, also received a portrait of Dom Pedro in a gilt frame, a chain, a baldric with gold trim, a black silk scarf, a large white hat from Braga, gold braid, an English saddle, a pair of high-laced shoes, and two hampers to transport his goods. His brother, of lower rank, had to content himself with a plain neck scarf, leather baldric, and a sword with an iron scabbard. Their companions, equally divided among men and women, got clothing and trinkets in keeping with Portuguese gender norms. The men received ordinary neck scarves, pants, shirts, calico jackets, short socks, black hats, blankets, “English shoes,” pocket knives, and notions. The women received dresses, shirts, stockings, shawls, scarves, hats, green and yellow shoes, and blankets. They also got a dozen pairs of large scissors, 400 assorted needles, two dozen mirrors, and 16 necklaces of colored crystal.4

The choice of gifts is telling. The trinkets and clothing were typical gifts but nonetheless items that would have been time-consuming, if not impossible, for traditionally semi-nomadic Indians to produce by hand. Also, the clothing was crucial as an external marker of Portuguese identity; it would permit the performance of that identity, if nothing more. The inclusion of metal tools—axes for clearing forest cover, farm tools for the men, and needles and scissors for the women—reinforced the dominant modes of economic production and the gendered labor norms sanctioned by Portuguese society. The monarch also provided weapons and materials to fabricate ammunition, an unusual choice given that the crown had declared war against the native peoples of Minas Gerais in 1808. Indeed, it had invested heavily in militarizing the frontier through the creation of seven army divisions spread thinly throughout the mineiro east and northeast. By the time of Inocêncio’s journey, the government had shifted to a policy that favored voluntary settlement in state-supervised aldeias over the use of force. However, the Rio Doce divisions and the war against the native populations of Minas Gerais officially remained in effect through 1831. [End Page 228]

This essay will examine individuals like Inocêncio...


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