Contact with non-Indians

Many Indigenous peoples in Brazil continue to use, in their daily activities, ways of life inherited from their ancestors as well as objects, institutions and social relations acquired after the intensification of their contact with 'whites'. In this respect, they are no different from 'us', non-Indian Brazilians. Who would say that today we live like our great-grandparents? This very site, or, say, the fast-food chains that can be found all over our country: aren't they proofs that our language and our culture are influenced by others?


Changes in the way of living 

Contact with our society certainly brings about changes on the way of living of Indigenous peoples. In this regard, one must have in mind two things.


  • First of all, Indigenous cultures are not static. Like all cultures, they change with time, whether affected by outside influence or not. Because of that, those who intend to be a ‘friend’ of the Indians do not have necessarily to defend that ‘they are kept like they are now’. On the other hand, it is undeniable that some of the changes brought about by contact with our society may cause concern. Such is the case, for example, of those peoples who have lost their maternal language and today speak only Portuguese. Our role, as allies of the Indians, must be to make sure that they have social, economic and political conditions to absorb the novelties that come along with contact in the way they deem most convenient.
  • In the second place, it must be said that, behind the changes, with different rhythm and nature depending on the case, there is something crucial: even while relating to non-Indians, Indigenous peoples maintain their identities and assert themselves as differentiated ethnic groups and holders of their own traditions. And that is valid even for situations of intense changes.

Ethnic identity, that is, the consciousness of belonging to a given people, is the result of a complex interplay between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’, the ‘own’ and the ‘outsider’s’, that takes place each time different populations have contact. That must be taken into account before making a statement such as ‘he is no longer an Indian’ because he wears clothes, goes to mass, watches TV, works with computers, plays football, drives a car.


Different experiences of contact

The diversity that exists among Indians does not come just from their different languages, cultures and ways of living and thinking. It also comes from factors connected to the quality of the relationship they have with non-Indians: if reasonably peaceful or violent, if old or recent, if direct with the population of the region (farmers, posseiros – illegal settlers –, lumbers, fishermen, etc.) or mediated by an institution, be it governmental, non-governmental, lay or religious.

Several peoples were victims of violence when they had their first contacts with the non-Indigenous population. Such is the case, for example, of the Rikbatsa, who live in the State of Mato Grosso. From the 1950’s until the early 1960’s, this group was faced with the armed opposition of the region’s rubber planters, lumbers, miners and farmers, and 75% of its population were decimated. Fortunately, other peoples have a friendlier remembrance of the first contacts. The Kadiwéu, for example, recall with pride their participation on the Brazilian side in the Paraguayan War, a landmark in the history of their contact with national society.

It is often the case that a hostile initial relationship between Indians and non-Indians develop into fairly friendly and even desirable relations. Currently several Indigenous peoples have established partnerships with support organizations of the Brazilian civil society. The various peoples of the Xingu Indigenous Park, for example, are benefited by health programs carried out by Unifesp (formerly Escola Paulista de Medicina), and of education, economic alternatives, monitoring and surveillance promoted by the ISA.

Cohabitation with Catholic or Protestant missions are common, such as with the Makuxi and the Taurepang of the mining region of the State of Roraima. Relations between Indians and missionaries vary, especially in regards to the forms of transmission of Christian values.

The manner in which each people is incorporated within Brazilian society also differs considerably. The members of some peoples work in the regional market and are wage earners, like the Guarani-Kaiowá, who are involved in harvesting sugarcane for the alcohol distilleries of the State of Mato Grosso do Sul.


There are others who live in urban centers, such as Sateré-Mawé families, who are established in the outskirts of Manaus (State of Amazonas), and the Pankararu, migrants from the State of Pernambuco who live today in the Real Parque slum, in the city of São Paulo. A remarkable fact is the growing number of Indians in the Brazilian political scene: in 2000, 80 Indians were elected city councilmen and vice-mayors – and one mayor.

On the opposite extreme of those who participate intensely in the various spheres of Brazilian society are those Indigenous groups or individuals that refuse contact with the non-Indian society. Among them are some of the inhabitants of the TI Javari River Valley.