A glimpse at the Xavante
This is the story of one afternoon’s visit to an Indian Aldeia in Mato Grosso, Brazil. While on holiday there, I had the opportunity to visit a Xavante Indian reservation. Normally visiting the Indians is tricky, because FUNAI (The Foundation for the Indian, the government agency which looks after Indian Affairs), requires a heavy bureaucratic procedure for you to get approval to see the Indians.
I know that FUNAI is protecting the Indians from would be exploitation by foreigners, and to preserve the indigenous culture, but I also feel that the Indians are kind of ring-fenced off from citizens and tourists – they are the perpetual ‘other’, and ‘we’ don’t know anything of the Indian’s plight.
Anyway, our guide knew the local Cacique – Jaako – personally, and agreed to take us there.
TWe were told that Xavante are funny with visitors and need lots of presents, and that these presents should be dispersed slowly, not at the beginning of the visit, because after the Indians have received everything they lose interest, and get bored and irritated with the visitor. It is normal that a present exchange takes place with the Indians giving handicrafts and the visitors giving sacks of food sweeties, and other bits and piece.
We drove to the nearby town of Barra de Garcas, went to an electronics shop and bought an antenna that you can plug into a mobile phone and therefore get service. This is what Jaako had requested on a previous visit our guide Mauro explained , as there is no phone signal in the Aldeia.
Aldeia Sanguedouro lies off of the BR 70 between Primavera del Este and Barra do Garca, an arterial highway that runs through Mato Grosso and the central states of Brazil.
The Sanguedouro reserve is quite big, and is next to industrial soya farms on one side, and cattle grazing ranches on the other. On the highway Toyota Hiluxes and Lorries full of Soya whizz past us. As the BR 70 actually runs through the middle of the reserve, the Indians are involved in a fight with the motorway agency, because they want compensation for the highway and some structural reforms to let pedestrian passage happen easier. Through frustration and a sense of ownership, the Indians have been known to set up check point tolls, on the highway demanding money from motorists and trucks. The Indians have also been known to hold up lorries too.
We roll off the highway and drive down to the reserve, the first thing we see is an old colonial set of buildings – not very indigenous – we are told its the offices of the Salesian Missionaries, who are either: (a) educating the Indians; (b) bringing the Indians to God; (c) staying at the reserve because there is Catholic development money earmarked for the area; (d) a main cause of the dependence of the Indians, maintaining them docile through free food, undermining the Indians way of life.
We round a corner drive a bit more and come to a settlement; it is like social housing for Indians, concrete huts with metal windows and big satellite dishes arranged in a big horseshoe shape with an open field in the middle. Lots of kids, lots of girls with babies, and the kids are playing an Indian cricket game between two empty coke bottles for wickets. The Indian huts all have satelite dishes and the TVs are on blaring out Globo telenovelas andfootball. Most of the huts also have a car parked outside. The Indians wear clothes and look like nondescript Brazilians, except for the little sticks that they all have through their ears.
The place looks reminded me of a sad favela in Rio, the mangy dogs lying around, the kids, the expressions on some of the Indians faces made me reflect that perhaps this was the reason that FUNAI prefers that ordinary non specialists not come here.
We drive to hut number 39, Jaako’s hut, and meet a smiley Indian Jaako, he works at the local Indian school teaching in the Xavante language, and his dad is a Chief. Our guide’s nephew is immediately given a bow and arrow and strings with feathers by Jaako’s dad. Elizeu, Mauro’s nephew is a kind of favourite of the old Indian. He receives a big slab of rapadurra (a Brazilian Sweet) in return.
We get back in the car, with Jaako, and drive to Aldeia de Sao Jeronimo. This is much smaller than the previous one and all the huts look like Indian ones. The place has a view of a big soya field. I observe Jaako’s fathers, a strong backed 96 year old looking at the Soya field. It is perhaps a bit too close, and the agro toxins from their pesticides probably run off into the Indians water supply there. The village is small, empty like a frontier outpost.
We present the Indians with our antenna, which they seem genuinely pleased with. One of the little kids even had a quick wash and put on his red paint to look Indian for us. Judging by the state of the public telephone we could see why they needed it.
We walked down to the local stream to have a look at the water pump which an Italian NGO had put in, a nice shiny waterwheel, but which didn’t work because it hadn’t been oiled or greased.
The Xavante Indians are a warrior tribe, and were enslaved as the portuguese arrived in Brazil in the 17th century, for this reason they avoided contact with the whites for as long as possible, and then suffered mass relocations in the last half of the 20th century following contact with them in the 1940s, with the implementation of government policies to open up Brazil’s hinterlands to development. Where we were for example was a relocation project of a Xavante original location 600 km away, however a deal had been made between the Brazilian Air Force, Brazil an Government and the Indians to ‘loan’ the land to the Vatican for 50 years. Thus some 600 Indians were put on Brazilian Airforce plains and landed in the middle of the Cerrado, a very different more arid territory than the lush one that the Vatican had its eyes on. The Vatican turned the land into the biggest cattle ranch in Brazil, ‘The Pope’s Farm’. When the Xavante were due to return, the best land had been taken over by illegal squatters, one of whom I am told was Jose Alencar, Lula’s vice president. This legal battle is ongoing, with the Governor of Mato Grosso alleging that the Indians made the story up, while the Federal Government says the land should be returned.
We drive back to the first settlement to drop Jaako off and buy some ‘authentic’ necklaces (twice the price of the gift shop in town). The Indians were distributing big cardboard boxes of meat with the Sadia logo on it. Earlier in the day the Indians had crashed and robbed the truck, and were distributing and selling the meat boxes. We think we saw an exchange of meat for bear and drugs taking place coincidentally while we were there.
Alcohol is a big enemy of the Indians, together with cannabis and crack. The Indians are quite integrated with the nearby town of Primavera, a town built on selling combine harvesters, pesticides, four wheel drive trucks and the industrial processing of soya and cotton. The Indians have jobs, and work there, mixing with the more marginalised elements of the town.
Indians drive cars – black market cars acquired through a system called Finan, where cars that other people have bought on credit, are then sold on to third parties who stay with the cars until or if the car is re-appropropriated by the owner. As the Indians are protected, they cannot be stopped by the State Police , only by the Federal Police, who are few and far between, so in a way the Indians are untouchable, hence the links with crime, if the Indians do the crime they can get away with it, as they are considered legally as on a par with minors.
I left the Indian reservation with more questions than answers. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the FUNAI administrators, to try and think how to approach the Indian question.