About the names of the peoples

Because they did not write at the time of their ‘attraction and pacification’, the Indians who lived in Brazil were (and continue to be) ‘baptized’ in writing by ‘whites’, in a process that has given (and still gives) margin to a lot of confusion in terms of:


There is great variety in the manner in which the names of Indigenous peoples are spelled in Brazil. Different patterns co-exist side by side, sometimes created by the staff of the Federal Government’s organ for Indian affairs, Fundação Nacional do Índio – National Foundation for the Indian – (Funai), sometimes by anthropologists and, more recently, even by Writing Manuals of the main titles of the Brazilian press. The name of a group that today lives in the State of Acre, Kaxinawá.  for example, may be written in at least four different ways: caxinauá, cashinaua, kaxinawá and kaxináua.

The main reason for anthropologists to choose a spelling for name in a given way has to do with the adoption of an alphabet in which the words of the language of that people will be written. Because Indigenous languages frequently have sounds that have no direct representation in the letters of the Brazilian Portuguese alphabet, anthropologists are forced to resort to other letters and combinations of letters. They try, in such case, to use letters whose sound interpretation are close to the international phonetic alphabet, used by linguists all over the world, instead of the Portuguese alphabet.

Besides, why should Indigenous names be reduced to the Brazilian form when there are several peoples that do not live exclusively in Brazil? Let’s not forget that the borders between the national States in South America were superimposed on Indigenous societies in such a way that some of them live under the political and administrative jurisdiction of two, three and even four different countries.

The disagreements on the orthography of the names of Indigenous peoples often place anthropologists against the Writing Manuals of large newspapers. But in this topic there is no consensus even among anthropologists themselves. Most controversies are related to the use of capital letters and plurals. But in that regard there is no consensus even among anthropologists themselves. Most controversies are related to the use (or not) of capital letters and the plural form for the names of the ethnic groups (both of which are possible in Portuguese).

For some people, when the name of a people is used as an adjective, there is no reason for using capital letters (Guarani language, for example, can be written as guarani language, which, unlike English, can be used in Portuguese). When it is used as a noun, it would be more adequate to use capital letters, since it designates a single collectivity, a society, a people, instead of just a group of individuals. Thus Kaingang is correctly written in Portuguese when it is a noun.

Those who defend that the plural form is unnecessary (which is generally required in Portuguese) justify their opinion by saying that adding an ‘s’ to a word of an Indigenous language results in a hybrid.. In addition, there is the possibility that the words may already be plural or, perhaps, that the plural form does not exist in the Indigenous language.

Writing Manuals, in turn, impose the use of the Portuguese orthography for the names of the tribes, not allowing the use of the ‘w’, ‘y’ and ‘k’ (!) and of groups of letters that do not exist in Portuguese, such as ‘sh’. This criterion is inconsistent, just as writing names always in small letters or use singular and plural but not masculine/feminine is. Thus if krahô has to be written craô, then Kubitscheck should be written Cubicheque, and Geisel, Gáisel.



The confusion becomes worse when self-denominations – i.e., the verbal forms with which a people names itself – enter the scene. In many cases, research made by anthropologists and linguists find out that self-denominations have nothing to do with the names given to Indigenous groups by ‘whites’. A good part of the current names used today – and in the past too – to designate Indigenous peoples in Brazil are not self-denominations. Many of them were given by other peoples, frequently enemies, and for that reason have inadequate connotations.

Such is the case, for example, of the Araweté, named as such for the first time by a sertanista (expert on Indians) of Funai who, just after the ‘first contacts’, established in the mid-1970’s, believed he could understand their language. Thus the name, written for the first time by a federal employee in a report, ended up becoming the official public identity of this people. But an anthropologist who studied the Araweté a few years later and learned their language found out that the members of this people originally do not call themselves by a noun; instead, when referring to the collective to which they belong they use the word bïdé, a pronoun that means ‘we, the human beings’.

The word bïdé does not refer to a substance (like ‘Brazilian’, for example, refers to ‘Brazil’), but to a perspective (human, as opposed to animal, divine, enemy...). Depending on the context in which it is said, it might refer to human collectivities more or less extensive: to the Araweté themselves (as opposed to other groups, enemies); to all the Indians (as opposed to non-Indians); to all human beings (as opposed to animals and gods)...

Citizens of national States like us think that every society must have a name. As the case of the Araweté clearly shows, that is not necessarily so: even though the Araweté use the word bïdé to refer to themselves, it is not a noun; and the ‘we’ which it refers to is not always the same.

In other cases, the connotations of the names of Indigenous ethnic groups can be pejorative. Kayapó, for example, is a generic designation given to these Indians by peoples of the Tupi language, with whom they made war until recently, and means ‘monkeylike’. Other names were given by sertanistas of the old SPI (Serviço de Proteção aos Índios – Service of Protection of the Indian, the first government agency for Indian affairs) or of Funai, often right after the first contacts had been made by the so-called expedições de atração (attraction expeditions). In such conditions, without knowledge of the language, misunderstandings were frequent, and certain peoples ended up being known by names that were given to them arbitrarily.

In those times of initial contacts and of precarious communications with ‘unknown tribes’, some peoples became known by the name of one of their members or fractions. There are also cases of names in Portuguese that were imposed on others, such as the Beiço-de-Pau – Wooden Lip – (referring to the Tapayúna, of the State of Mato Grosso) or the Cinta-Larga – Wide Belt – from the State of Rondônia, called so by Funai sertanistas because they wore wide belts made of bark when they were contacted in the end of the 1960’s.

‘Attracting and pacifying’ the Indians, and arbitrarily imposing names on them, has to do with colonial practices of social control: spatial concentration of the population (with the consequent contamination of natives by diseases and post-contact depopulation), implementation of precarious, paternalistic systems of social assistance, territorial confinement, and exploitation of natural resources. All this in the name of the ‘integration of the Indians to national society’. On the contrary, recognizing and respecting their specific identities, learning their languages and understanding their traditional forms of social organization, of occupation of the land and of use of their natural resources has to do with diplomatic gestures of cultural exchange and respect to special collective rights.

In order to know more about the orthography of the names of Indigenous peoples in Brazil (all the bibliography below is in Portuguese), see:

ABA (Associação Brasileira de Antropologia)
Convenção para a grafia dos nomes tribais.
Revista de antropologia, São Paulo: USP, ano 2, número 2, 1954.

Julio Cezar Melatti
Como escrever palavras indígenas

Revista de atualidade indígena, Brasília: Funai, ano 3, número 16, 1979.

Julio Cezar Melatti
Nomes de tribos
Ciência hoje, Rio de Janeiro: SBPC (Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência), volume 10, número 56, 1989.

Folha de S. Paulo
Novo manual de redação, São Paulo, verbete "indígena/ índio", página 81.

Eduardo Lopes Martins Filho

Anual de redação e estilo de O Estado de S. Paulo. São Paulo

O Estado de S. Paulo
1997, 3ª. edição, revista e ampliada, verbete "Índios", página 145.