What is the Place of Indigenous People?

Published

TRANSLATED FROM PORTUGUESE BY TÚLIO ROSA

In March-April 2022, we published an issue dedicated to the question of landback. Absent from it was the notion of retomada practiced by Indigenous people reclaiming their land from the Brazilian state. We are blessed to publish the words of Glicéria Tupinambá, who describes her commitment to such reclaiming in this piece commissioned and translated by Túlio Rosa.

Notes from the translator ///

1.                “Indigenous territory” is a political term that refers to the rights of Indigenous people over the lands traditionally occupied by them, and guaranteed in the Brazilian Constitution since 1988. Recognition of this right is the result of an intense mobilization by Indigenous populations during the Constitutional Assembly that took place in the years after the fall of the Brazilian military dictatorship in 1985. According to the Constitution, the delimitation and protection of all Indigenous lands had to be implemented by the government in a period of maximum five years. Until this day, only a small percentage of these territories are officially recognized, and the right to the land is still at the center of the Indigenous struggle.

2.                Retomada means to take back, redeem or regain possession of something. It is the word Indigenous people from Brazil use to describe the processes of direct occupation and delimitation of their territories, independent from the support and recognition of the State. Throughout time, it has also become a way of describing the revitalization of their cultures, languages, practices, and religious beliefs.

3.                Made of natural fibers and scarlet ibis feathers, the Tupinambá Mantles are a type of cape used in religious rituals of the Tupinambá community until the 17th century. Many of them were taken from Brazil during the colonial period and the ones that still exist today are held by museum collections in Europe. Since the early 2000s, Glicéria Tupinambá has been working to recover the production of mantles through the knowledge still present in the community. One of her mantles is a part of the National Museum of Brazil’s collection, and her practice has been at the center of the exhibition Kwá yepé turusú yuiri Assojaba Tupinambá (The Great Return of the Tupinambá Mantle) that toured different cities in Brazil in 2021 and 2022.

My name is Glicéria de Jesus da Silva, also known as Glicéria Tupinambá or Célia Tupinambá. I speak from the Tupinambá village of Serra do Padeiro, Indigenous Territory of Olivença, in the northeast state of Bahia in Brazil. (cf. note 1)

Tupinamba Funambulist 1
Glicéria, photographed on Tupinambá Territory, using one of the mantles she created. / Photo by Fernanda Liberti (2021).

I was born and raised in the territory. My parents were born on this land; my grandparents were born on this land; my great-grandparents were born on this land. We have always been here, but the fences have also arrived here. Fences, barbed wire, gates, chains… In order to fight all the violence that the environment and our territory have been subject to, we needed first to understand that we have the right to resist, to resist no matter the cost. This is something we learned from the Elders, sitting in a circle around the fire. One day, they told us that judges have the power of the pen, but we have our own power, and from that moment on we had to prove our courage and we had to resist. And so we did.

We stepped on the land and we made the retomada, not only of the territory but of our identity, our nation, and our way of living, in trying to understand what is our place in this world.

To speak of retomada is to make an analysis of a timeline and to observe the extent of indigenous resistance. We Indigenous people have never stopped fighting. Despite the huge number of our people that have been slaughtered, excluded, or pushed to the margins, we continue to fight for our place, and against the erasure of our memory, our identity, and our belonging to the land. (cf. note 2)

The first retomadas began in the 1980s. During that time, the areas that were previously allocated to Indigenous populations by the state were passed onto farmers through land titles, for the expansion of cattle and monoculture. There was a superimposition of territories over Indigenous lands, and Indigenous people started to challenge it by demarcating their territories themselves. They began to map and occupy the lands that belonged to the Federal Union, while organizing themselves in groups and associations that helped to strengthen and sustain their actions. This process then expanded to other states until it created a groundswell of national consciousness and mobilization. Every area that was identified by Indigenous people, where the memory of the territory was kept alive, became an area of retomada.

In 2000, we, Tupinambás of Serra do Padeiro, started to take back our identity and to fight for recognition. Our people have been declared extinct. In the past, because of religious and political persecution, we had to abandon our practices, our medicinal knowledge, our language. It was necessary for us to disappear in order to protect ourselves. In that year, the Tupinambá Mantle came from Denmark to be exhibited in São Paulo. The leaders from the community were invited to see the exhibition and decided to reclaim the Mantle, asking for its repatriation. This was a very important political gesture because it gave us visibility. Immediately after, several researchers and anthropologists came to see us and hear our stories. They made several studies that confirmed the truth of what we were saying. Once we had this recognition, we started to fight for our right to the territory. According to our stories, we had the right to an area of 71,000 hectares. After a long negotiation with governmental institutions, land and business owners, we reached an agreement on an area of 47,000 hectares. But the juridical process is very slow, and despite being granted, the demarcation of the territory was never executed by the federal government as it would come at the expense of many people. (cf. note 3)