Foto: Vladmir Kojak, 1988

Xavante

  • Autodenominação
    A´uwe
  • Where they are How many

    MT18.380 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

History of contact

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At the beginnng of the 18th century, the discovery of gold in the then province of Goiás led to the arrival of miners, explorers, settlers and misionaries, causing  conflicts with the local indigeous populations.  The indians reacted in different ways to the outsiders' invasions. Some resisted, with surprise attacks and warfare, others stayed put or migrated.  In the second half of the century several groups, including some identifed as "Xavante", were living in settlements sponsored by the government, where they suffered the devastating effects of epidemics of disease.   

Later, sometime at the end of the 18th or the beginning of 19th century, the forebears of the Xavante crossed the river Araguaia. This displacement towards the west definitively separated  the Xavantes from the Xerentes, who remained on the east bank of the river.  The old Xavante told dramatic stories about the separation of their people from the Xerente.  In one of these versions, a huge dolphin reared up in the middle of the Araguaia, blocking the river and terrifying the "relatives" who had not yet crossed over.  Another version talked of a large number of dolphins who carried the Xavante across the turbulent waters of the Araguaia.  In both stories those who remained behind on the east bank of the river were abandoned for ever. They were, according to the old people, the ancestors of the people who are today known as the Xerente.

Once they had crossed the Araguaia, the Xavante established themselves in the region of the Roncador mountains, in what is today the state of Mato Grosso. Their original community,Tsõrepre, went through various cisions over the years. During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, different groups migrated further west, either following the banks of the Rio das Mortes, or heading towards the Suiá-Missu river and the headwaters of the Kuluene river.  Up until the 1930s, all of them were relatively free of problems caused by white society. When the government of Getulio Vargas began the famous 'March to the West', once again they began to come under pressure from the advancing groups and their conditions worsened.

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Together with the state campaign in favour of opening up the interior of the country to colonization, Brazilian newspapers and magazines published government propaganda articles that portrayed the Xavante as a symbol of the "noble savage". They became the first indians to be made famous by the mass media. The articles showed the Xavante as a brave and heroic primitive people, who after being "pacified" and joining the 'march of progress' which accompanied the move to open up the west, had been empowered by the embrace of Brazilian society.  State rhetoric equated the "taming" of the region's indians, personified by the Xavante, with the taming of Brazil's wild interior. After all, according to the state narrative, the heroic primitive qualities of the Xavante contributed to national character, and they would be incorporated into the productive social and economic structure of the country.

To document the heroic activities of the domesticating mission for publicity  purposes, photographers and journalists were chosen to join the SPI team which was charged with "pacifying" the hostile Xavante. Two Salesian priests  who had tried to make contact with the Xavante in 1932, and a SPI "pacification team" led by Pimental Barbosa in 1941, had been killed by local Xavante groups angry at the invasion of their territory. These facts led the media to stress the impressive bravery of the Xavante and their ferocious resistance to outsiders. In 1946, when a SPI team led by Francisco Meirelles finally achieved their aim and exchanged goods with members of the Xavante group led by Apoena, there were intense celebrations in some of the media and in the government.

The publicity around the "pacification of the Xavante" practically made  Meirelles and Apoena into national heroes. The media coverage, with positive images of the Xavantes and their noble qualities, remained in the national memory for decades after this first peaceful contact.

However it was only in the mid 1960s that the "contact" with the Xavante was completed. By then, all the Xavante groups had established or admitted peaceful relations with representatives of Brazilian society, in different ways and at different times.  Some groups, exhausted by disease, hunger and conflicts with settlers,  had sought out SPI posts; others had sought refuge at Salesian or Protestant missions.

As the Xavante groups gave way to the pressures of advancing white society, the territory which had been theirs for over 100 years and had guaranteed the continuity of their traditional way of life, was now accessible to to colonization and especially to capitalist production.

In the 1960s and 1970s, encouraged by tax incentives, designed to stimulate colonization and large scale economic development, settlers and farmers arrived   in the region. Their access to portions of the traditional lands of the Xavante often involved fraud. Cases are known of authorities altering maps and certifying to the absence of indians, in order to offer land to agribusiness.  Farmers planted immense areas of monoculture, first of all rice on the higher grounds, and more recently, soy. They also cleared huge areas of the cerrado land for cattle raising. 

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The end of the 1970s and beginning of the 80s was marked by intense struggles to recover the ancestral lands as well as efforts to demarcate the land which they still occupied, and in some cases, to enlarge its limits.  From the mid-1970s, many of the families who had left the lands they inhabited in pre-contact times to seek refuge in missions or SPI posts began to return to their original territories. On doing so, they found them occupied by settlers or farmers engaged in large scale agribusiness. In some places the non-indian colonizers had established entire towns. When Xavante leaders began to demand the return of their land, the reply in many places was violence, both real and threatened.

The Xavante faced powerful enemies when they began to put pressure on the government to demarcate their land, especially the large farmers who had political power and huge properties.  One of them was the Suiá-Missu Ranching Company,which had driven the Xavante out of an area they called Marãiwatsede. In the 1970s the company was one of the biggest landowners in Brazil, with over 1,5 million hectares. Another giant company, installed in the area between the Kuluene and Couto Magalhães rivers, was the Xavantina Farm. Its infrastructure included  300 kms of internal roads and 400 kms of fencing.  During the height of the busy season it employed 200 workers who lived there with their families.  There were 10,000 head of cattle and each harvest produced an average of 16,000 sacks of rice. 

The Xavante are politically astute and persistent in the fight for their rights.
At the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, they developed efficient tactics for putting pressure on the state to recover their lands and obtain assistance in other questions.

They won the recognition of their rights over relatively extensive areas of land.  At the end of 1981, six Xavante areas had been demarcated: Areões, Pimentel Barbosa, São Marcos, Sangradouro, Marechal Rondon and Parabubure. Inspite of these victories,  conflicts have continued in  some places up until today. In the 1990s, the Xavante won the right to extend the limits of several areas, and, after a long battle, they managed to get the demarcation and official recognition of the Marawãitsede area in the Suiá-Missu region.  Yet inspite of the completion of the process for official recognition, a large part of the indigenous area is still occupied by hundreds of non-indians. Just one small group of Xavante have managed to occupy a small part of the Marawãitsede area.