Demystifying Indigenous Peoples In Contemporary Culture

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Creatives design mass culture products to spread awareness of the existence and rights of people who have long been considered exotic or extinct

by Mayra Fonseca cover Claudia Andujar translated by Pronoia Tradutória

Indigenous voices echo through the corridors of art and culture departments in Brazil. In truth, they have always done, even if indirectly, at times; it is impossible to talk about Brazilian culture without talking about indigenous cultures. Today, despite the ground gained by this movement, the narratives of various Brazilian indigenous peoples—who should be recognized as one of the key groups of the national population—are constantly disrespected, marginalized, or erased by disinformation and prejudice.

Behind the profusion of cultural products related to indigenous peoples in Brazil, there is a constant critical restlessness: how can we demystify the vast range of cultures unknown to most Brazilians and bring them closer together?

The #MenosPreconceitoMaisÍndio (#LessPrejudiceMoreIndian) campaign, run by Instituto SocioAmbiental, shows the daily lives of indigenous people in Brazil, without romanticizing them.

Aware of the low level of information available in relation to the Brazilian indigenous peoples of today, some media outlets report on these groups and their ways of life. The Nexo Jornal website, for example, published a poll on Brazil’s Indian Day (April 21), asking “How much do you know about Brazilian indigenous peoples?”.

“Today, Brazil’s urban population, which has always been ashamed of the existence of indigenous peoples in the country, is in a position to begin treating them with a little more respect, because everyone here is an indigenous person, except those who are not.” – Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, anthropologist

Anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro describes an “indigenous person” as any member of an indigenous community that recognizes them as such. An “indigenous community” is any community that is founded on the affinity or family relationships of its members and maintains historical and cultural ties with pre-Columbian indigenous society.

But what does it actually mean to be indigenous in Brazil in 2017?

Those who learn very little about this topic from Brazilian history books may be surprised to find out the true size of current indigenous lands on a map of Brazil, or that 274 indigenous languages have been recorded as currently in use in the country.

A recent initiative #EuSouAmazônia (#IAmAmazonian) has helped to demonstrate that all Brazilians have a connection with the cultures and peoples of the largest rainforest on Earth. Google Earth, in partnership with the Sustainable Amazon Foundation, shows all the indigenous land in Brazil and lets users see and feel the way of life of these native peoples. But why is a company at the forefront of technology and innovation interested in mapping indigenous territories in the Amazon? “Google Earth’s satellite imagery shows that the areas surrounding indigenous territories usually have shorter vegetation cover than within them—whether due to logging, urbanization, or land clearing for livestock or agriculture. This is how the company justifies the venture: it is a way of demonstrating the decisive role indigenous communities play in environmental preservation around the world, especially in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest and a region with a huge variety of plant and animal species,” Nexo reports.

There are almost one million indigenous people, who mostly live in houses, not huts, in the states of Amazonas, Bahia, and Mato Grosso do Sul. There are more than 300 ethnic groups in an area the size of 14% of the country; 40% of them live in urban areas, some in urban communities within cities such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, or Porto Alegre, living a similar lifestyle to non-indigenous people. They have internet connections, use public transport, visit artistic and cultural events, graduate from university, and some will even be reading this article.

“While some minorities struggle for their very survival, we need to prove our existence to make sure we survive.” — Pedro Macena, of the Guarani Mbyá people, resident of an urban community in São Paulo

The first indigenous students are graduating from Brazilian higher education institutions, and doctors and shamans are exchanging knowledge in the search for cures to diseases, showing that the two worlds are growing closer and learning to coexist. For the prejudiced, however, because of the mass ignorance regarding indigenous culture, it is still difficult to dissociate the truth from the stereotypical image of the indigenous tribesmen shown in pre-colonial history book illustrations. Some artists have made efforts to break this mold.

Contemporary Reverence of Indigenous Culture

Those interested in emerging Brazilian art and culture movements have probably already noticed various projects based on indigenous issues in recent years. It was, for example, one of the central themes of the 32nd São Paulo Arts Biennial (with installations such as Vídeo nas Aldeias and Ágora: OcaTaperaTerreiro). At the Rio Art Museum, the Dja Guata Porã, Indigenous Rio de Janeiro exhibition was the result of an extensive project involving indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

Image from the “Dja Guata Porã” exhibition at the Rio Art Museum

In Histórias Mestiças (Mestizo Stories) , artist Ernesto Neto fostered an interaction between the rainforest, spirituality, and the artistic space using ayahuasca tea, an Amazonian hallucinogenic drink used in rituals and ceremonies by indigenous peoples, associated not only with practices of faith, but also with the search for inner knowledge.

Histórias Mestiças, by Ernesto Neto

Indigenous names, drinks, and dishes take center stage in establishments aimed at those seeking contemporary appeal, such as food with feeling and sustainability. The success of restaurants like the small and charming Caxiri in São Paulo, and Ponto de Cultura Iacitatá, in Belém do Pará, run by respected food activist Tainá Marajoara, is based on their clear research into and respect for the indigenous culture.

In literature, a book co-authored by a Yanomami shaman has evoked curiosity and debate in recent years: called The Falling Sky, by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, it is on the best-seller list in France. It touches on topics such as rainforests, global warming, and sustainable life in the world view of the Yanomami people from northern Brazil.

With seven awards, Brazilian film Martírio (Martyrdom) by Vincent Carelli, Ernesto de Carvalho, and Tita, courageously addresses one of the reasons why the indigenous population is still so widely disregarded in Brazil, while at the same time they are so often talked about. Considered “a film to outrage Brasília,” the indigenous people featured in the documentary give credence to the fact that “capitalism is reaching the indigenous peoples.”

Martírio (Martyrdom)

Moved by the fight to stop the genocide of so many indigenous peoples, creators and producers are dedicated to strengthening relationships with this group, living alongside them, and giving them a voice. This is the foundation of many of the mass culture narratives and products that we see today: to make the general public aware of the existence and rights of those who have long been regarded as exotic or extinct. These assumptions distract us from the current threats to sustainability and territory, and limit our capacity for inventiveness and reinvention of the world.

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Eliane Brum interviews anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and philosopher Déborah Danowski about the end of the world and modern arrogance. The article includes many forays into the teachings of indigenous peoples and their place in modern society: "[Indigenous people] can teach us how to live in a world that has been invaded, plundered, and devastated by man. In other words, ironically, a world we have ourselves destroyed [...]".

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