From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

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.

The situation in the Brazilian Northeast

Though not the only region where the phenomenon occurs, Brazil’s Northeast was where the first and largest movements relating to ethnogenesis were concentrated. As well as being colonized relatively early on and having all of its indigenous villages officially declared extinct in a period of less than 10 years between the 1860s and 70s, this was where the first cases surfaced of groups of ‘caboclos’ (a Brazilian term describing people of mixed Amerindian and European ethnicity) demanding to be recognized as indigenous peoples.

These demands began in the 1920s and continued for two decades, when they were interrupted for a long period until resuming in the 1970s. This chronology can be divided into two cycles, each with its own characteristics, which I describe in a highly simplified form below.

First cycle: 1920s to 1940s

In the 18th century, the region was home to more than 60 villages occupied by around 27 indigenous nations, all officially declared extinct by the start of the 1880s. Despite the violence and antiquity of the process of expropriating the land of these groups, this last blow establishing their official extinction was essentially a classificatory and juridical measure. In accordance with a technical judgment (1) that proposed their reclassification from ‘índios’ to ‘caboclos,’ they ceased to have the legal prerogative of being under the administration of missionaries and possessing lands for common use of the village settlements.

Converted into a mass population of national workers, their lands were incorporated as ‘national assets,’ divided up into lots and sold. Meanwhile those in the villages were dispersed or confined to small tracts of their ancient territories and prohibited from performing some of the practices that distinguished them. These practices especially included Toré, which – like African religious practices – was criminalized and persecuted. A little less than half a century later, a lengthy period but one experienced by a single generation, these groups began to claim official recognition as indigenous peoples, their main objective being to recover the lands of the former village settlements. This represented an inversion not only in the expectations generated by an evolutionist view of the process of civilizing the country’s interior, but also in the practices and strategies of the government indigenist agency.

In the mid 1920s, the official indigenist agency began to work in the Northeast following the recognition – then considered exceptional – of the Carnijó Indians of Águas Bellas (Pernambuco), renamed as the Fulni-ô and presented, at that time, as the only group in the region to maintain clear signs of difference from the rest of the population: they spoke Iatê, performed rituals prohibited to outsiders and maintained rules limiting interethnic marriages. This exceptionality was used to justify the agency’s deviation from its declared objective of expanding the frontiers to Brazil’s north and west by providing assistance and ‘protection’ to groups from a region colonized at a much earlier date.

The most prominent feature of this first cycle of ethnogenesis was its configuration around a network of relations pre-existing between groups of ‘caboclos’ and based on a calendar of religious festivals and indigenous rituals. The latter, for their part, centred on the São Francisco river and the trips between former village settlements.

It was this network that allowed outside agents – in succession: the church, academy and state – to achieve contact with these groups. Firstly it was through his visits to the Fulni-ô (Alagoas), following the invitation of Father Damaso, that the anthropologist Carlos Estevão came into contact with the Pankararu (Pernambuco) and the Xukuru-Kariri (Alagoas). The Pankararu, for their part, took it upon themselves to mediate the contact between the SPI (Indian Protection Service) and the Kambiwá (Serra Negra - Pernambuco, a place of refuge from the ‘just wars’) and the ‘outskirt Indians’ (recognized as the Tuxá - Bahia), who would then themselves provide the link between the SPI and the Trucá (Pernambuco).

‘Official protection,’ in this case, implied an interruption to the violence suffered by the group at the hands of land grabbers, as well as the access to material goods such as tools, seeds and infrastructural improvements. These interventions had a knock-on effect throughout the entire region, awakening the interest of a series of other ‘caboclo’ communities who lived in a situation similar to that of the Fulni-ô and who maintained ritual and kinship relations with them. This triggered the first cycle of ethnogeneses in the region. A growing number of communities descending from former mission village populations began to present their own demands for official recognition as indigenous groups as a means of obtaining the same ‘protection.’ As a result, in the 1930s the indigenist agency recognized another three groups as ‘remnant indigenous peoples’ and another eight in the following decade.

In the next decade, the mediation of Father Damaso once again enabled the SPI to establish a base in Porto Real do Colégio (Alagoas), gathering the surviving population from the mission village Ilha de São Pedro de Porto da Folha (Sergipe) who had migrated to the ancient Cariri settlement, as well as the survivors of the latter mission village who occupied some of the mission’s former lands, giving rise to a mixed ethnic group, the Kariri-Xocó (Alagoas). All the federal indigenist agency’s passages from one group to another were made possible by the relations previously existing between the populations concerned.

Ethnogeneses therefore operate as a kind of superimposition of these social circuits and networks. Precisely for this reason, perhaps, this first cycle had run out of steam by the beginning of the 1940s, as if the network of ethnogenesis had covered all the relations traced by the prior circuit of exchanges sustaining it.

Second cycle: post-1970

From the mid 1970s a new wave of indigenous ethnogeneses began. Between 1977 and 1979 five groups emerged demanding official identification as remnant indigenous populations. Another ten emerged between 1980 and 1989, and another nine between 1990 and 1998, with information too on a large number of claims in the state of Ceará.

In this new version of the phenomenon, almost three decades after the first cycle, not only the volume but the pace of these ethnogeneses had altered. The pattern delineated by these cases is very different. They were no longer necessarily linked to the lands of the former mission settlements, nor were they superimposed on a prior network of ritual and kinship exchanges. On the contrary, they seem to be linked to the constitution of an indigenist field in Brazil, with reverberations in the Northeast region, and involving the Catholic Church as one of the main protagonists.

The Declaration of Barbados (1971) had a strong impact within the Catholic Church, leading to a different approach to indigenous issues from its dioceses, the founding of the Missionary Indigenist Council (CIMI) and the holding of the various Indigenous Assemblies that marked the period and served as a basis for the political training of indigenous leaders. The 1970s (and the institutionalization of the academic discipline of anthropology in Brazil) also saw a new sensibility grow in relation to indigenous issues. This was also the period during which non-governmental and non-religious indigenous entities were created, such as the Indian Support Association (ANAI) and the Pro-Indian Commission (CPI), in 1977 and 1978 respectively, as nationwide entities operating in various Brazilian states.

While the demands in the first cycle were based on ethnohistorical and territorial continuity with groups settled in missions or linked to regions historically associated with the migrations and refuges of fleeing groups, only two of the thirteen more recent groups in the Northeast for which we have information repeat this pattern. The others can be divided into three types depending on the source of legitimacy for their claims.

The first set involves groups initially based on parthogeneses rather than ethnogeneses. After their lands were flooded in the 1940s by the Itaparica Hydroelectric Plant and their territorial needs were only partially considered at the moment of resettlement, the original Tuxá split into another two groups scattered across very different regions. While, on one hand, the three nucleuses formed in the process continued to be recognized as part of the same ethnic group, their fragmentation had political consequences (the fragmentation of leadership based on divisions within the original group) and ritual consequences (the creation of variations in the reproduction of their tradition), which ended up producing autonomous ethnic groups.

At least three other new groups of this first type emerged from factional splits (two of them through transferences sponsored by FUNAI itself). These splits led to the constitution of new sociopolitical units, which in turn led to new territorial demands and a new official structure with new leaders recognized by FUNAI, a new Indigenous Post with specific resources, though with ever fewer funds coming from the government agency. It is important to note that in these cases the critical point of the factional splits involved the limitations to the internal negotiations arising from their processes of territorialization. The territorial framework of the indigenous areas, linked to the requirement of a political-administrative unit to which a branch of the state agency was associated, the main channel for accessing outside resources, means that kinship and ritual networks assume a territorial and political dimension that would be impossible outside this context.

In the second set we find groups whose emergence does not involve the claim of an originality and distinctiveness linked to territorial connections with historically re-discovered groups, but a genealogical and ritual continuity with pre-existing and fully legitimized groups. In these cases the population claims its own identity and ethnonym, but these are considered to be a detached and autonomized part of broader units caused by the migrations in search of new land or water, extremely common among the historical indigenous populations of the interior. This situation applies to at least 10 of the 33 groups that emerged between 1970 and 1995, all linked to the Pankararu.

The third group is formed by those who, lacking the characteristics identified in the previous two groups, seek to legitimize their demands firstly by claiming traditional occupation of a particular collective territory, but also and more importantly by sharing a series of substantive traces that enable them to be classified as indigenous. They resort to ‘indices of Indianness’ (2), so to speak, among which we can highlight the Toré, identified by official indigenism as the Northeast’s indigenous dance-religion-ritual-festival par excellence.

Since the year 2000, the state of Ceará has been the most prominent in the area of ethnogeneses. In a meeting (22/01/2006) of representatives of the state's indigenous peoples, a list of more than 20 indigenous groups was compiled, only four of which are officially recognized by FUNAI while six are in the process of being recognized. Here we can also highlight the reciprocal implications of this phenomenon in relation to the organization of indigenist activism in the state, especially the area based around Christian organizations.

2002 - A new legal framework

The changes introduced to the national legal framework from 2002 onwards following the Brazilian government’s ratification of Convention 169 on “Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries,” established by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1989, had important consequences for the social dynamics involved in the processes of ethnogenesis. Since most of these processes were and still are aimed at obtaining resources, and a significant proportion of these resources originate from the state and are regulated by state laws, policies or agencies, an important element of these processes involves recognition of these groups by the Brazilian state in accordance with the labels or ethnonyms through which they identify themselves.

From the outset, though, the Brazilian state has sought to impose restrictions on this kind of recognition. Firstly through procedures internal to the state indigenist agency, FUNAI, based on a informal understanding of what indigenous groups are (which resulted in the importance historically attributed to the Toré ritual in the Northeast), but after the 1970s through formal recourse to official anthropological reports. As agents possessing formal and legitimized knowledge about indigenous groups, anthropologists were frequently asked to produce reports responding to the official demand to verify indigenous identities.

However, following ratification of ILO Convention 169, the Brazilian state formally and theoretically abdicated its prerogative over classification of the country’s population. The Convention opens by “Recognising the aspirations of these peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life and economic development and to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions, within the framework of the States in which they live.” It goes on to establish (Article 1, Paragraph 2) that the “Self-identification as indigenous or tribal shall be regarded as a fundamental criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of this Convention apply.” From this point on, the mechanisms for legitimizing ethnogeneses cease to be determined by the start and become subject to a more complex social dynamic.

The first response to this change came the year after ratification. In May 2003, Olinda (Pernambuco) hosted the 1st National Gathering of Indigenous Peoples Fighting for Ethnic and Territorial Recognition, attended by 90 representatives from 47 indigenous peoples, 26 of them self-identified as indigenous recently and still without official recognition of their ethnicity. FUNAI’s list contains just 36 groups in the same situation.

One of the demands contained in the event’s final text, as well as the inevitable demand for the demarcation, official approval and eviction of intruders from the areas, was precisely to remove “the need for ethnic identification reports, recognizing the affirmation of our ethnic and territorial identity in line with Convention 169 of the ILO” (3). The assembled groups reached “the conclusion that we must be recognized for our history of resistance and no longer for our supposed resurgence or emergence.” Consequently, they demanded to be designated not by one of these forms but as ‘resistant Indians.’ Here we return, therefore, to the difficulty and yet apparent necessity of designating these groups in a different form, as mentioned at the start of this text. Now the solution pursued by the groups themselves involves the attempt to invert the potentially substantializing and stigmatizing effect of earlier labels by assuming another designation that looks to overturn any such stigma.

As we can observe in other Latin American states, the Convention has had a significant influence on the definition of national policies and programs, as well as (or indeed due to) supporting the formulation of directives and policies of various multilateral development agencies. However its practical applicability still faces innumerable obstacles. Throughout Latin America there are constant complaints from indigenous movements and specialists from the Convention’s signatory countries concerning the failure to recognize its existence or indeed the open opposition of the judicial and administrative authorities to its application. The legalist, formalist and especially colonialist tradition of these functionaries, combined with strong preconceived notions of what an Indian should be like (naturalness and timelessness), have acted as a serious obstacle to implementing these theoretical and juridical advances. But even so, if the willingness of the Brazilian state to apply this precept through the practice of its indigenist agency becomes consolidated, we could be witness to a new moment in these processes of ethnogenesis. (July, 2006)


(1) As a result of the 1850 Land Law, the federation’s states were obliged to catalogue all the unoccupied lands existing in their territories. Measurement and Demarcation Commissions were instituted for this purpose, made up of engineers and cartographers who had the responsibility of assessing, based on a narrow set of items (incorporation into the local work market, the existence of marriages with whites, and profession of the Christian faith), whether the people in the settlements were still indigenous or whether they had already become civilized. The conclusion reached from the Commissions was, invariably, that the population had indeed become civilized.

(2) ‘Indianness’ here designates a particular form of being and conceiving oneself as ‘Indian,’ in the generic sense of the term, constructed in the interaction with the state indigenist agency and based on a particular image of what an ‘Indian’ should be. Thus ‘Indianness’ is a representation and a type of behaviour generated by the interaction of indigenous peoples with the state apparatus and its standardizing procedures, which imposes a single model on a large diversity of cultures and social organizations – a model that ends up being effectively assumed by these peoples. (3) Representatives of FUNAI present at the event confirmed the same interpretation relating to Convention 169 of the ILO and claimed that the agency’s presidency had already decided to put an end to the practice of “ethnic identification reports.”