De Povos Indígenas no Brasil


Brazil's urban Indians confront city life head on, with headdress off


Autor: James Young

Fonte: Al Jazzera America -

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil - The bow and arrow, recipes for plant-based medicines and traditional headdress hanging on the walls contrast sharply with the jumble of office blocks visible through an open window and the industrial clank of a nearby train transporting iron ore from a mine outside the city. The Center for Urban Indians, a resource center and meeting space, is housed in a cramped room in a drab two-story building on one of the busiest streets of this sprawling city in the southeast of Brazil.

"Everything changed when we arrived in the city," said Paulinho Aranã, 54, who along with 14 family members moved to Belo Horizonte from the Jequitinhonha Valley in the north of the state of Minas Gerais in 1979. "We had grown up in the forest. The only thing we knew was animals, not cars or planes."

"The first time I had an electric shower, I was terrified that the water would be electrified," remembered Juliana Pataxó, 35. "So I'd fill a bucket with water and take it into the bathroom and use that instead. When my cousins asked me what I was doing, I'd lie and say it was to clean the bathroom afterward."

Araña and Pataxó - both leaders at the center - are two of more than 315,000 of Brazil's approximately 817,900 indigenous people who live in urban areas.

"Many come for work or for health care," said Pablo Camargo, a historian and representative of the Minas Gerais branch of FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation of the Brazilian Government. "Also, life on Indian territories can be difficult. Many are small, and old ways of life such as hunting and fishing are no longer practical. Social problems such as alcoholism and unemployment are common. And today younger indigenous people have access to technology and so are becoming more and more interested in what the cities have to offer."

The profile of urban Indian populations can vary greatly from city to city, with indigenous culture enjoying greater visibility in the more remote north and west of Brazil. In the vast cities of the prosperous south and southeast of the country, such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, however, urban Indians often struggle to be seen and heard.

"In cities like Manaus [in the north of Brazil], where the indigenous population is greater, people are more used to the situation," said Mario Fundaro, a director of GVC, an Italian nongovernmental organization that produced a study of urban Indians in 2012 in partnership with Belo Horizonte's federal university. "But in other cities, Indians can suffer a form of triple discrimination - from the nonindigenous Brazilians around them, from public institutions and from the communities they left behind, who feel that they have abandoned the struggle for rights and land."

According to the 2010 Brazilian census, only 6 percent of self-declared indigenous people in Belo Horizonte have a university degree, and the majority of those with jobs are employed in low-paid or informal positions.

Pataxó, a secretary, and Aranã, a security guard, have experienced the discrimination Brazil's urban Indians face.

"Once I had an interview for a receptionist job," said Pataxó. "I'd taken a course in office administration, and after the interview, they told me I could start the next day. But when I got home, they called me, and the guy asked me if I was of Indian descent. When I said yes, he said he was sorry but the position had already been filled. They thought that because I'm indigenous I can't think properly and I'm lazy and that I wouldn't know how to deal with clients or speak well."

Another problem the country's urban indigenous face is preserving their culture amid the pressures of city life, surrounded by fellow Brazilians who may have little awareness of their traditions.

"Once we were going by bus to take part in an event dressed in traditional costume," said Pataxó. "The men were bare-chested, and the driver said we couldn't get on because on buses in Belo Horizonte you have to wear a shirt. I think he only let us on because there were 10 of us and we had bows and arrows."

"Indians are further behind than Afro-Brazilians," said Aranã. "If you discriminate against an Afro-Brazilian today, you know he or she will react, but the Indian generally ignores it. But these days, there are more indigenous lawyers, more of us at university, more doctors. It's a big step forward for us. They can represent us. Otherwise, we're invisible."

Bartolomeu Pankararu, 23, is one such step forward. He is from the village of Brejo dos Padres in the Pankararu Terra Indígena, or indigenous territory, near the town of Petrolina in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, and went to Belo Horizonte to study social sciences at the federal university. He won his place after taking a special entrance exam for indigenous people offered by Brazilian federal universities along with a quota of places reserved for indigenous students. He does not, however, intend to stay in the city any longer than necessary.

"When I graduate, I intend to go back to my village and make a contribution. I have a close bond with my family and my home, and they need doctors and nurses and teachers," he said. "Everything here is strange for me in the city - the food, the way the weather changes. I feel like a visitor."

In an attempt to preserve their culture and traditions, Araña, Pataxó and other indigenous leaders organize monthly meetings in Belo Horizonte. "People come from all over," said Aranã. "We eat traditional food, make biscuits in a wood oven and cakes with different spices and flavors. Everything is homemade. Nothing is industrialized or made with chemicals. If we didn't have our monthly meetings, we wouldn't have anything. They are how we maintain our culture. Without them, everything would end. No one would have any knowledge of who they are."

The need to preserve and pass on their traditions is of vital importance to Brazil's urban Indians. In a small house in the shabby outer suburb of Castanheira, Paulinho Araña's sister Maria Luzia Araña explained some of their customs.

"We use urucum [fruit] as a food dye and make our own soap and drink lemongrass tea," she said, before describing how to make a hot, sweet drink from milk and ground jatobá fruit. In her bedroom hang headdresses and jewelry alongside photos of two younger relatives dressed in, of all things, cowboy outfits.

Many urban Indians dream of having a plot of land in the city where they can grow fruit and vegetables, and the small, sunless courtyard outside Maria Luzia Araña's kitchen is crowded with slightly bedraggled plants.

"The council gave us some land," she said, "but there's no water supply, so we can't grow anything, and we don't know how long we can keep it for."

Not everyone, however, is as keen to maintain the old traditions. "I have 13 brothers and sisters," she said, "but only Paulinho, José Pedro and João [two other brothers] and I are interested in plants and the old way of life. The rest can't even find the names of the fruits and nuts on the Internet."

Language is another aspect of indigenous life threatened by the pull of urban centers, population aging and the dwindling numbers of many indigenous groups. Last year the director of the Museum of the Indian in Rio de Janeiro, José Carlos Levinho, told Brazilian media he expects a third of the 150 to 200 indigenous tongues spoken in the country to die out by 2030. The Aranã tongue disappeared many years ago, and while the Pataxó use both their native language and Portuguese, Juliana Pataxó speaks only the latter.

Recently, the Folha de São Paulo newspaper reported the story of Luciano Ariabo Quezo, a literature student at São Carlos federal university in the state of São Paulo, who had written a Portuguese-Umutina textbook in order to preserve the tongue of the native community where he was born. Today only 600 people speak the Umutina language, and the influence of Portuguese in the area is growing. "When a village elder died in 2004, I saw that the language would die if nothing was done," he told the paper.

"The concept of urban indigenous peoples is new for Brazil, even though there have been Indians in cities ever since there have been cities," said Camargo. "But as a population, they are invisible. They hide themselves to avoid discrimination. They would never admit to being indigenous in a job interview or similar situation."

Soraia Feliciana Mercês of the racial equality commission of Belo Horizonte's City Council, said that Brazil still has a lot to learn about how to protect the rights of Indians living in urban areas and that the city has no specific policy for its indigenous population.

"We don't have a diagnosis of the numbers of indigenous people living in the city. But Belo Horizonte is part of the national system of promoting racial equality. Its policies incorporate the whole city, not just one group or another," she said.

Meanwhile, the struggle of Brazil's urban Indians to protect their culture and overcome prejudice continues. "My son is 16, and he works at McDonald's. He's saving R$100 a month so that he can go to university in the USA, because he doesn't want to live in Brazil," said Pataxó as she and Araña posed proudly, if rather forlornly, for photos with a bow and arrow at the Center for Urban Indians.

"I think it's because of the prejudice he suffered," she continued. "Last month they called him a black Indian because he's dark skinned. He came home crying, and for two days he didn't want to go to school."

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