Indigenous initiative

White People's Institutions

By Marcos Pereira Rufino

 Elections in Brazil - like any other multi-faced event, a mixture of celebration, agreement, combat and ritual - mobilize the media also because of the anecdotes they produce. Curiously, the growing presence of Indians in the electoral dispute is transmitted to us exactly under such focus. In a way, the participation of Indians in the dispute for office positions in the Legislative and Executive is presented in the same tone of surprise with which the Brazilian press describe Xingu Indians wearing rubber sandals and Adidas shorts. It is as if Indigenous candidacies demonstrated solemnly the inexorability of the acculturation process.

Beyond such folkloric view, however, there is indeed much to ponder regarding this topic. The fact is that Indians of different ethnic groups are dealing with the great institutions of the white society and with political processes that belong to a social and symbolic grammar that is absolutely strange to them, at least in the way we are used to think.

Beginning with political representation, this much-hailed Western institution whose origins are traced to the Athenians of Antiquity Greece and, in its most contemporary form, to the French Revolution. Representation involves, to say the least, mental premises and categories very different from the native ways of doing politics. The idea of delegating to an individual the power to act in the name of the group in questions that are vital to it have deep implications, such as, for example, the need for the creation of a mediator who interposes himself between the Indians and decision-making.

Politics, which in many native formulations intersects extensively in social life, being linked simultaneously to the rules of kinship, to the religious and ritual complex, and to the cosmological discourse, starts to circulate within a specific order, the political order, governed by a bureaucratic rationality and based on values that are assumed to be universally valid. Traditional forms of political leadership - such as, for example, that of the elder, with his sensitive discourse, his zeal for the permanent updating of the mythological legacy and of tradition, his warrior prestige - give way to a new form of leadership, centered around talented young people, who went to school and speak Portuguese, and who are at least minimally familiar with the codices and peculiarities of the white man's world.

As if all this were not enough, Indigenous candidacies must necessarily deal with the mechanics of party operation. As it is known, political parties are in themselves the result of compromises, interests and complex arrangements. Often a candidacy cannot avoid but to promote a political project that goes way beyond it, referring not only to the interests of the local society as well as the great national questions. Caught in this situation, the Indian candidate gains still other identities: he becomes a liberal or a socialist; and even other places to be - he is on the left, on the right, or in the center.

To some observers, Indigenous candidacies reproduce arrangements we are familiar with. Some of them are considered to be 'legitimate' representatives of their people, indicated to run in the elections by direct decision of their communities or of their respective Indigenous organization. Others, on the other hand, are isolated candidates, who are involved in a personal political project and are determined to act in public life. The first ones would belong to parties that are traditionally situated on the left; the latter to parties of the right.

Gender relations also reflect such transformations. If within the Indigenous movement the participation of women is increasingly frequent - and there are even cases of Indigenous women organizations -, local politics in a few municipalities witness the appearance of the new social actor. In the 2000 municipal elections there was even a female Kaingang running for vice-mayor in a municipality of the Western part of the State of Santa Catarina.

These and many other questions certainly do not make Indians ecstatic in contemplation, nor take them into philosophical discussions about their new conditions of subjects of the 'higher' politics of whites. In fact, it looks like many of them are in a hurry. The 1996 elections, for instance, had a little over 80 Indian candidates for city council and city mayor. In 1998, in addition to the increase in the number of candidates, David Terena ran for governor of the Federal District. In the 2000 elections, more than 350 ran for office - 13 of them for city mayor - and 80 were elected. In the condition of voters, the performance of Indians can be quite impressive as well. In voting simulations carried out in the State of Roraima, the president of the Superior Electoral Tribunal was surprised to see how fast Indians used the electronic ballot: they averaged 22 seconds, as opposed to the minute-plus of many white voters. (Marcos Pereira Rufino - September/ 2000).