Killing off the Indians

Die If You Must

February 27, 2004

How long will indigenous Amazonians survive, asks William Milliken.

In 1961, while surveying the forested headwaters of a little-known river in the southern Amazon, John Hemming had his first brush with Brazilian Indians. His team of young explorers, assured that there were no people in the region, were naturally shocked when a hunting party from an uncontacted tribe ambushed and killed their leader. From the arrows and clubs found with Richard Mason's body, it was later determined that his attackers were Panar Indians.

To comprehend this tragic encounter, one must understand the history of the Brazilian Indians and their turbulent relationship with neo-Brazilian society. Hemming has spent much of his life trying to do just that, and this book is one of the choicest fruits of his labour. Die If You Must , the final part of an impressive trilogy, relates the history of Brazil's Indians over the past century. It takes its title from the idealistic motto of the SPI, the agency founded in 1910 to champion the rights and welfare of the country's indigenous peoples: "Die if you must, but never kill."

Hemming sets the scene by describing the establishment of the SPI within its political and historical context. This was a tremendously important event, representing a policy shift from suppression towards positive engagement of the Indians with national society and recognition of their right to land. Its approach was enlightened for the time, placing heavy emphasis on the promotion of Indians' welfare. Its ultimate objective, however, was their "integration" and eventual "productivity".

The organisation's founder, a charismatic young army officer named Cândido Rondon, gained his first Indian experience while pushing telegraph lines through to the western Amazon, across the ancestral lands of the Bororo, Terena and Paresi. He was shocked by the way these people were being treated and became moved to champion their cause. Tireless, fervent and tough as old boots, he spent years leading arduous and often-dangerous expeditions across the vastness of the interior, establishing contact with hidden tribes and attempting to cushion the impact of the outside world.

The first chapters of the book describe the early successes and failures of the SPI, from the Kaingang in the south to the Xavante in the Xingu. Here, as in the rest of the book, Hemming draws primarily on detailed and authoritative case studies. Wherever possible, he presents both sides of the picture, providing fascinating insights into the Indians' perspective.

Thus, while many Brazilians thought they were "taming savages", Indians often saw themselves as doing the same thing with the whites.

The SPI's task was primarily one of damage limitation, mitigating the catastrophic consequences of contact between isolated tribes and the rougher elements of Brazilian society. These were brutal rubber barons hunting for slave labour, loggers for timber, miners for gold and diamonds, missionaries for souls, and ranchers and smallholders for land. The details varied with time and place but the essence remained the same: a lethal cocktail of misunderstanding, mistrust, violence, greed, deception and injustice.

Remarkable and sometimes heroic figures emerge from Hemming's narrative.

Enlightened anthropologists such as Kurt Nimendajú, dedicated SPI sertanistas (backwoodsmen) and skilled doctors. These and many others committed large parts of their lives, and sometimes their lives themselves, to supporting indigenous peoples. And, while pursuing this work, many accomplished feats of exploration that were remarkable by any standards, yet barely known outside (or even within) Brazil.

Orlando and Claudio Villas Boas stand out among these extraordinary characters. In the face of huge obstacles, these brothers spent decades exploring, befriending and supporting the once-feared tribes of the Xingu basin.

In 1961, overcoming strong opposition from most quarters, they succeeded in establishing the Xingu Indian Park. This 22,000km² reserve, harbouring numerous indigenous groups among some of the most unspoiled forests and rivers of the Amazon, was a massively important legacy for the Indians. One of the great ironies was that, almost without exception, even the most well-meaning intruders brought disaster in their wake. The countless massacres and murders were drops in the ocean compared with the havoc wreaked by diseases, and reading Hemming's numerous accounts of first contact one begins to develop a sense of deja vu. SPI officials and missionaries alike were hopelessly ill supplied with medical backup, and each hard-won success was followed by a catastrophic population crash. By the middle of the century, Brazil's Indians were thought to be down to 100,000 souls.

The book goes on to chart the downfall of the SPI, the activities of the missionaries and the time of the generals. Corrupt, lazy officials, commonly turning a blind eye to (or even conniving in) atrocities and injustice, gradually came to outnumber the SPI idealists. In 1967, after years of denunciations, matters finally came to a head when the SPI was dissolved and replaced by a new (and equally troubled) organisation, FUNAI.

Secularism had been fundamental to the original ethos of the SPI, partly reflecting the positivist beliefs of Rondon and his colleagues, and partly in response to the horrendous damage caused by missionaries during previous centuries. This was initially a source of great anger among the Catholics, but it soon became apparent that the SPI had neither the will nor the resources to stall them. Meanwhile, American fundamentalist Protestants such as the New Tribes Missions and SIL launched their own offensives. Between them, these rabid proselytisers were responsible for the systematic dismemberment of innumerable cultures.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when Brazil was under a military dictatorship, the opening up of the country accelerated. Extraordinary roads were pushed across the Amazon to liberate the region's resources, and a new series of traumatic contacts was initiated. The Panará, hard pressed by the construction of the Cuiabá - Santerém highway, were reduced to a population of fewer than 70. Eventually, they were airlifted to the Xingu Park: a drastic measure that was seen as the only means of preventing their annihilation.

Rousseau's vision of the "noble savage" is no longer in vogue, and Hemming scrupulously avoids such romanticising, yet reading his often-harrowing narrative, one cannot avoid a sense of paradise lost. Fortunately, however, the second half of his book focuses on some of the more heartening aspects of the Indians' story, and these are more than enough to kindle hope for the future.

Hemming's concern for the plight of the Indians goes beyond the academic.

In the 1970s, he was one of the founders of Survival International, a non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. This and other such bodies and individuals have done much to support Brazil's Indians, as described in the book's middle chapters. In the northern Amazon, for example, years of controversial lobbying by CCPY (a Brazilian non-governmental organisation) and other organisations resulted in the successful establishment of the Yanomami reserve. Meanwhile, most missionaries shifted their focus from destructive catechism to vigorous promotion of indigenous rights and welfare.

But it is the Indians themselves who have ultimately been responsible for turning the tables, as Hemming acknowledges. In the 1970s, the no-nonsense Je-speaking tribes of the central Brazilian plateau started to take matters into their own hands, and tribes such as the Kayapo and the Xavante, through a combination of political mobilisation and direct action, started righting wrongs. Similar movements erupted elsewhere in the country, and indigenous councils were established.

The growing recognition of a common cause among Brazil's Indians has been tremendously important in their empowerment. Some of the most encouraging tales of recent years have emerged from unlikely parts of the country. The Indians of southern and northeast Brazil have suffered centuries (rather than decades) of oppression and cultural destabilisation, and many have disappeared. Yet there has been a remarkable resurgence of indigenous groups in these areas, and tattered remnants of tribes once thought extinct have been re-emerging from the wilderness and struggling to reclaim their lands, cultural identities and languages.

There are now some 350,000 Indians in Brazil, and the painfully slow process of land demarcation is progressing. At the end of last year I received an email joyfully announcing the birth of the 1,000th Waimiri Atroari, a tribe whose population had plummeted to little more than 300 in the 1980s. The Panar have finally returned to the lands of their ancestors after 20 years of absence and appear to be thriving.

Things have definitely improved. Yet there is still a long road to travel, and serious threats such as mining interests hang like swords of Damocles over many lands and peoples. As I write, the Makuxi and Wapixana of Roraima, the northernmost Amazonian state, are still struggling to wrest their lands from ranchers in the face of injustice and intimidation.

Meanwhile, tension is mounting in southern Brazil, where the beleaguered Kaiowá have invaded ranches on their ancestral lands. There are still some 40 uncontacted groups in the country and it is hard to know what the new century holds for these and the rest of Brazil's Indians.

Hemming's book is an astonishingly meticulous and comprehensive piece of research, but it does not require a historian or anthropologist to appreciate it. In spite of its remarkable level of detail, Hemming carries the reader effortlessly through exciting tales of encounters with hostile tribes, insightful political and historical analysis and fascinating anthropological detail.

This informative, gripping and at times profoundly shocking volume is a must-read for anybody with an interest in Brazil, indigenous peoples, anthropology, history or indeed humanity in general. Together with its predecessors, Red Gold and Amazon Frontier , Hemming has created a masterful and monumental testimony to the courage and tenacity of the Indians of Brazil.

William Milliken is research associate, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, and an ethnobotanist with experience among the indigenous peoples of the Brazilian Amazon.

Die If You Must

Author - John Hemming
Publisher - Macmillan
Pages - 855
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 1 4050 0095 3

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