The Search for the “True Indian”: A reflection on insidious narratives and call for a rights-based future
Guest Post by Maria Gabriela Fink Salgado and Eduardo Rafael Galvão
Visiting Scholars, Department of Anthropology, Purdue University
During a traditional ceremony Motere Kayapó and other Indigenous People record the event in the Moikarakô village, Kayapó Indigenous Territory, Pará, Brazil. Photo: Beprot Kayapó.
In 2002, Dr. José Ribamar Bessa Freire, a Brazilian sociologist, identified critical insights on the perception and treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil. Speaking specifically to the non-indigenous majority in Brazil, he identified many of the mistakes and misconceptions of Indigenous Peoples that persist today. These insights are revelatory. They show the ongoing prejudices against Indigenous Peoples, and how these perceptions and attitudes continue to obscure the rights and freedom of Indigenous Peoples.
We reproduce his list here:
We think this is a critical moment to revive these insights. From our experience, these misconceptions have not gone away, and in fact, we are seeing a resurgence of these discourses and narratives in popular culture. If we are going to move ahead with supporting indigenous rights in Brazil, as guaranteed by the constitution, and Indigenous Rights as outlined by the United Nations Declaration for Indigenous Rights, we need to continually recognize the negative impact these narratives have on Indigenous well-being and self-determination.
We still do not know who we are as a Brazilian society. A reflection of such relevance in the current situation in Brazil, taken by innumerable aggressions mainly to the rights of indigenous peoples, and which unfortunately should not be exclusive to the South American continent. For this reason, we provide a discussion here on how these misconceptions are insidious, pervasive, and persistent.
The first mistake
The first mistake is the idea that all Indigenous Peoples are homogenous. In Brazil more than 305 Indigenous Peoples thrive and speak more than 274 different languages. And each Indigenous Peoples are unique in their language, lifeways, and worldviews, which are reflected in religious, culinary, artistic, literary and aesthetic diversity. Cultural diversity does not fit into a single representative generic category. To say "He is Indigenous" is an aggregating discourse that dismisses this heterogeneity. Furthermore, it fails to recognize Indigenous Peoples by their self-designation or their diverse ways of being.
The second mistake
The second mistake is to consider Indigenous Peoples and their cultural expressions as backward and primitive. This fails to recognize Indigenous knowledge systems and furthermore wrongly places Indigenous Peoples on an nonexistent cultural evolutionary scale. Indigenous Peoples are resilient and innovative, and have been subjugated to and still are influenced by over five hundred years of colonialization. As recognized by the Declaration of Belém, The Convention of Biological Diversity, for example, Indigenous knowledge systems are longitudinal and rich, and knowledge holders steward plants, soil ecologies, domestication of species, fauna and flora and even invisible beings (who protect human-environmental relations). Indigenous health systems and healers, such as shamans, provide diverse insights on ways to care for communities and support indigenous well-being. This ranges from specific knowledge about natural resources to care-based practices. Orally and musically transmitted, narratives and historical events are transmitted to diverse generations in communicative norms that are often not recognized by outsiders.
In the eight years I worked with the Mebêngôkre-Kayapó Indigenous Peoples who steward their homeland in the south of Pará in the Brazilian Amazon, I had the good fortune to observe the sophisticated knowledge they have about caring for their communities through diverse practices, including medicinal knowledge based on Forest and Cerrado resources and healing practices across communities. These communities are working within both Mebêngôkre-Kayapó and Brazilian health systems. For example, community members to differentiate if the patient presents a "Kuben's disease (white)", being taken for treatment in the city or if he is affected by some "Mebêngôkre disease” (Kayapó indigenous). Therefore, to consider the Indigenous Peoples as primitive, is first and foremost false, but secondly ignores the complexity of this indigenous universe and the wealth of knowledge.
The third mistake
The third mistake is considering Indigenous Peoples and their cultures as frozen in time. According to Dr. José Ribamar Bessa Freire, this mistake is most visible when someone imposes the imaginary of Indigenous Peoples during colonization as a representation of what it means to be "the true Indian". For example, if an indigenous person no longer is naked, using technologies such as bows and arrows, many no longer consider that individual as indigenous. On the contrary, they startsto be categorized by Brazilian Society as an "ex-indigenous person." This not only misrepresents indigenous identity but also has political implications for the rights of Indigenous Peoples today.
It is remarkable that these outdated visions persist, which do not accept Indigenous Peoples as citizens of Brazil and who have the free will to choose their own individual and collective expression. The prejudice that we often see, is that owning a watch, cell phone, computer, clothes or even speaking a language different from their mother tongue can be used to negate their identity. Yet, this is, as proposed by José Bessa, interculturality, or the capacity to weave together diverse realities and build new meanings that will be added to diverse cultural traditions.
A practical example of interculturality can be seen in the illustrative photograph of this text (Figure 1) where the traditional ceremony (Metoro) of the Mebêngôkre people is being recorded by indigenous filmmakers. In focus is the indigenous filmmaker Motere Kayapó who films the traditional cremony. The camera in Mebêngôkrê language (Jê) is Mekaron which also means soul, ghost. However, today they have no fear of using this tool and instead are becoming more experts and producing their own documentaries. This is a clear demonstration of the ability that they have to re-signify the objects who they have interest, naming them and learning to use them, when believed this is useful for their Peoples, such as for protection and monitoring of their territory, record of their traditional practices, dances, music, stories, and other practices.
Therefore, to freeze the indigenous culture is to take away the freedom of Indigenous Peoples to innovate through other cultures - a privilege only granted to non-indigenous society - without ceasing to be who they are, or having the right to transform themselves.
The fourth mistake
The fourth mistake is to consider that Indigenous Peoples are part of the past. Most Latin American countries have gone through a colonization process marked by massacres, exploitation and slavery, which have led to the ethnocide of thousands of Indigenous Peoples with countless cultural losses (traditions, languages, customs, for example). Although Indigenous Peoples make up this history, it is wrong to still consider Indigenous Peoples as only occupying the past. By seeking to preserve their traditions, Indigenous Peoples are celebrating their cultural wealth and histories in the current moment.
For example, art produced by different Indigenous Peoples, such as body painting techniques are important immaterial cultural heritage. Body painting is traditionally present in the daily life of different indigenous groups, with varied and complex meanings, representing the cultural identity of these peoples. Today, the same designs used in body painting are now used in different arts made by them, such as bracelets, earrings, and paintings on canvas. Just a Google search with the keyword “ethnic style” reveals, while perhaps wrongly labelled, Indigenous Peoples continue to explore diverse ways of transmission of their cultural practices in varied marketplaces and visual economies.
The fifth mistake
The last mistake we find is the denial of our society in relation to the role colonization and programs for “miscegenation” has played in the formation of our Brazilian society. As the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro said, "In Brazil everyone is Indian, except those who are not".
However, unfortunately, in the Global South, especially as a strategy of their political and economic elite, they rely on the tendency to only recognize the history of the winner and/or colonizer (in our case - European) denying other peoples who were also important in this construction of "Who we are". In Brazil, for example, the colonization and ethnocide of Indigenous Peoples, the participation in the transatlantic slave trade, and the role of colonizers all formulate our roots.
In conclusion, we hope that readers will reflect on these five mistakes and consider how these persistent and false narratives about Indigenous Peoples still influence outcomes today. We hope that the search for the "true Indian" be stopped, giving way for a true respect to the Indigenous Peoples rights and self-determination as well as for cultural diversity to thrive.
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Dr. Kimberly R. Marion Suiseeya, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University
Dr. Laura Zanotti, Department of Anthropology, Purdue University
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