Emerging identities

In the past few years, the number of populations that demand publicly and officially their condition of Indigenous has been on the rise in Brazil. The demands usually come from families which, miscegenated and territorially plundered, dislocated and concentrated along the years, have re-encountered today political and historical contexts favorable to the rescue of Indigenous collective identities (a people, a name).

This process, of course, is not exclusive of Brazil; similar cases take place in other contemporary national States, such as Bolivia and India. In our country, this has been happening in recent decades, when regional histories began to be re-studied, Indigenous rights started to become more widely recognized and respected, and the organizations of support of the Indians were consolidated.

Researchers use various expressions to refer to this phenomenon: ‘emerging identities’, ‘emerging Indians’, ‘ethnogenesis’, ‘return trip’, ‘revived Indian communities’. Three elements can be pointed out as characteristic of it:

(1) it almost always appears in connection with territorial disputes;

(2) it usually results from complex regional historical processes of relationship between Indians and non-Indians; and

(3) the peoples who adopt these identities show very little differentiation vis-à-vis the non-Indigenous populations of the regions where they live (both in cultural and ‘physical appearance’ terms).

For these reasons, this is a complex and controversial subject. Often it leads to a posture that is the result of ignorance, prejudice and/or dispute for the possession of land: ‘these guys say they are Indians but they are not’.


Understanding the phenomenon

When talking of ‘emerging identities’, the idea that confers sense and legitimacy to the Indigenous condition in Brazil (pre-Columbian origin) is a bit more complicated than what we usually think. The identities of these peoples are based on proven memories and stories that do not go so far as the early colonial times, but rather to more recent contexts.

In the majority of cases, even the names these peoples use today as an indication of their difference vis-à-vis the non-Indigenous regional population are not found in the written documents left by the first colonial travelers and chroniclers. Such names, as well as the genealogical chains (identified ancestors who link the present with the past) and the myths of creation, frequently go back only to historical situations that took place after the so-called ‘first contacts’.

Such is the case of the missionary settlements of the States of Northeastern Brazil, where, between the end of the 17th Century and the beginning of the 18th, families of natives of different languages and cultures were put together and, through indoctrination and work discipline, were subjected to homogenization.

When demanding the condition of Indigenous based upon such contexts, present-day collectivities are recalling certain striking – and, up to a certain point, contradictory – characteristics of the history of colonization: practices that, on one hand, were aimed at preserving the Indians by concentrating them territorially, and, on the other, at assimilating them into a national society that was being formed.

Even when the historical result of those practices was a great ‘mix’ (genealogical and cultural, among Indians of various traditions and between Indians and non-Indians), complete assimilation has not been reached.

The development of colonial practices towards the Indians is something contradictory and still unfinished: if it caused demographic reduction and the extinction of entire Indigenous peoples, it also resulted in the formation of new ones. When and how the memory of those other collective identities will appear publicly is something that depends on the particular characteristics of historical and political contexts, both regional and national, very much linked to land questions in the country.



New Cases

The best known cases of such demands are taking place in the States of Northeastern Brazil. But there are others in other parts of the country as well. In 2000 alone, Cimi (Conselho Indigenista Missionário – Missionary Indian Council), an organization for the support of Indians that belongs to the Catholic Church, registered the following new cases:


  • In the Serra do Divisor National Park, State of Acre, the Náua people; In the region of the Upper Tapajós River (State of Pará), the Tupinambá, Maitapu, Apium and a Munduruku group unknown until then;

  • In Minas Gerais, the Kaxixó, in the region of Martinho Campos and Pompeu, and the Aranã, in the Jequitinhonha River Valley;

  • In Bahia, another Tupinambá community, in the municipality of Olivença, and the Tumbalalá, in Abaré and Curaçá;

  • In Alagoas, the Kalankó, in the municipality of Pariconha, and the Karuazu, in Água Branca; In Pernambuco, municipality of Ibimirim, the Pipipã.