Indigenous ethnogeneses

José Maurício Arruti, historian (UFF), anthropologist (Museu Nacional) and associate researcher with CEBRAP, analyzes the processes of indigenous ethnogeneses that gained momentum in Brazil from the 1970s onwards.

 

Understanding the phenomenon

Since the 1970s, but especially over the last five years, these ethnogeneses have been multiplying in a way surprising to any observer, whether lay or specialist. In an initial and undoubtedly rough survey we were able to locate the registration of more than 50 new groups with demands to be recognized as indigenous. These are spread across 15 federal states from the north to the south of Brazil, but are especially concentrated in the country’s Northeast (22 in Ceará and five in Alagoas) and the North (seven in Pará). We know very little about these groups, aside from the demands themselves.

What is Ethnogenesis?

A The legalist tradition and the strong common sense idea of what an Indian should be (naturalness and timelessness) have functioned as serious obstacles to the implementation of theoretical and juridical advances in the recognition of resistant indigenous peoples.

‘Emergences,’ ‘resurfacings’ or ‘return journeys’ are alternative designations, each with its advantages and disadvantages, for what anthropology in a more classical and established form designates as ethnogenesis. This is the term – albeit conceptually controversial – used to describe the constitution of new ethnic groups..

 

However it is important to emphasize that, in speaking of ethnogeneses, we are referring to a social process and not a specific and distinct type of indigenous group. After being recognized and fully established vis-à-vis the indigenous movement, regional society and official public bodies, these groups cease to be counted in the lists of emergent groups, precisely because they have completed a more or less lengthy process of ethnogenesis. The tendency to classify them separately as ‘emergent,’ ‘resurgent,’ ‘resurfaced’ or even ‘remnant’ groups has, therefore, the unfortunate effect of converting categories created to describe social and historical processes into categories of identification, which thus lose their dynamism and historicity in order to denote a quality or substance.

The next, equally unfortunate step would be to consider that this distinct quality places them in a second category of Indians, precisely secondary Indians – Indians who are less Indian. This happens because popular opinion takes ‘ethnic group’ as a simple derivative of an ‘ethnicity,’ relating the latter, due to its more usual acceptation (“a group of people of the same race or nationality who present a common and distinct culture”), both to cultural (national) and natural (racial) attributes. As a result, the commonplace frequent use of the expression ends up dissolving the fragile semantic boundaries between these terms in order to figure as a simple euphemism for race, especially when the latter is taken as a political expression of differences.

In the anthropological acceptation, on the contrary, ethnic groups are not defined by any attribute (cultural or otherwise) but as social units that emerge from social mechanisms of structural differentiation between interacting groups. In other words, their particular modes of constructing oppositions and classifying persons puts them at the centre of the definition of the ‘boundaries’ that delimit and separate groups rather than the cultural specificities contained by them. While not disappearing from analysis as such, culture therefore ceases to be theoretically relevant to the definition of ethnic groups, since it becomes a variable and not the constant of the definition: it no longer explains, but is explained by the mechanisms and motives that delimit and define the groups.

Accompanying this interpretative shift, the term ethnogenesis should not focus our attention on the ‘invention of traditions’ in themselves, as generally happens, but to the social mechanisms that allow a particular social group to establish the discontinuous where apparently only continuity existed. As in the definition of ethnic group, ‘cultural invention’ is not unimportant to the analysis of ethnogenesis, it is just not the most relevant element in theoretical terms. In its place, we need to comprehend the reasons, means and processes that allow a particular population to institute itself as a group by demanding recognition of a difference amid a field of non-differentiation – by instituting a boundary where only contiguity and homogeneity were presumed. If ethnocide is the systematic extermination of a lifestyle, ethnogenesis, on the contrary, is the construction of a self-awareness and a collective identity in response to an act of disrespect (usually produced by the national State) for the purposes of recognition and the conquest of collective goals.