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the akwe-xavante in history at

the end of the 20th century

The Akwe-Xavante of Central Brazil became well known to anthropolo-
gists in the sixties as the result of the early work and inspiring research of
David Maybury-Lewis (1967). The analysis of their social structure became a
key reference for comparative studies of the Je-speaking peoples, which was
subsequently car-
ried out by differ-
ent researchers.
Those studies, in
turn, represented a
major contribution
to a new era of
South American
This careful re-examination of historical informa-
tionboth written and oralon the Xavante people
of Central Brazil, demonstrates how the complex re-
lations between national-global economics and
politics and local autonomous indigenous projects
are intertwined in different historical contexts. The
author focuses on territorial mobility, the rights of In-
dian peoples to land, the problems of government
indigenous and developmental policies, interethnic
conflicts, and the organization process of the Indian
movement in Brazil to offer a positioned reading of
Xavante history.
ethnological re-
search in Brazil,
characterized by
high academic
standards. They fo-
cused mainly on
social structural is-
sues, although his-
torical data were
always present as background information. During the eighties, anew trend of
ethnological research developed in Brazil that focused on understanding in-
digenous history and indigenous perceptions of time. The proposal of
Manuela Cameiro da Cunha (1992) encouraged field research on the history
j o u r n a l o l l a t i n a m e r i c a n a n t h r o p o l o g y 4 ( 2 ) -5 ( 1 ) : 2 1 2 -2 3 7 . copyright 2000 american anthropological association.
212 journal of latin american anthropology
Journal of Latin American Anthropology
Volume 4, Issue 2, p. 212237, March 1999
aracy lopes da silva
state university of campinas
and university of sao paulo
of indigenous peoples and prompted thorough, in-depth research in Brazilian
archives. This had a major scientific and political impact. Brazilian historiog-
raphy was viewed through a new lens. New research questions were raised.
And, finally, politically important data were made available to indigenous
peoples as they
engaged in the
5 5
. . resumen
process or claim-
E st e cu
j d
reexamen de informacion historica
ing their land oral y escritasobre los xavantes del Brasil central, de-
muestra como las complejas relaciones entre una
economia y politico nacional-global y los proyectos
indigenas independientes estan entremezclados en
contextos historicos diferentes. La autora se concen-
tra en la mobilidad territorial, los derechos de los
indigenas a su tierra, los problemas de las pofiticas
gubernamentales de desarrollo indigena, los
conflictos interetnicos, y el proceso de organi-
zacion del movimiento indigena en Brasil, para
ofrecer una lectura posicional de la historia
Among the
publications on the
Xavante, none has
been dedicated to
their history.
goal here is to
provide an under-
standing of the
historical ordering
of movements in
time and in space
and to provide a
more thorough understanding of the complexities of Xavante history. The in-
tent is to offer a guide for future research by systematizing the information in
existing bibliographies that are extensive but, in most cases, relatively inac-
cessible to scholars outside of Brazilfor much of it remains unpublished
academic work.
The knowledge accumulated to date still leaves room, how-
ever, for documentary research as well as for studies that seek oral records and
the akwe-xavante in history 213
the interpretation of the historical experience of the Xavante themselves. This
type of research is also appreciated and valued by a large segment of the
Xavante population today, whether it is conducted by Indian or non-Indian re-
xavante history: an overview
The history of the Xavante people (known in the literature as Akwe-
Xavante on account of their self-denomination as A'uwe and to differentiate
them from the Oti and the Ofaie) has certain peculiarities that are worth high-
lighting. On the one hand, the Xavante were always changing territory. That
is, they were in continuous migration, according to existing records. On the
other hand, while they lived with non-Indians since (at least) the 18th century,
they limited their contact (by the end of the 19th century), distancing them-
selves from the colonized regions of the State of Goias in Central Brazil, and
migrated westward. They set out in search of a safe refuge, which they found
in the region of the Roncador mountain range, located beyond the Rio das
Mortes. There, in the heart of what is today the State of Mato Grosso and part
of Brazil's Legal Amazon Region, the Xavante were, once again, contacted
by the whites in the 1940s. By this time, however, the savanna lands where the
Xavante preferred to live had already been settled by others. Finally, as recent
as the seventies and the eighties, their political and economic destiny was in-
fluenced by state intervention in the form of the government body in charge of
the indigenous populations. This intervention has made contemporary
Xavante history an exemplary case for the description and analysis of Brazil's
official indigenous policy.
The Xavante's great territorial mobility has hindered them from consoli-
dating their tenure over a permanent territory. Furthermore, their constant mi-
grations, generally in a northeast-southwest direction, caused frequent con-
frontations with other indigenous groups. Thus, the history of the Xavante is
marked by one conquest after another. Whenever they would pass through the
territories of other groups, they would dislodge some groups or escape from
others. As a result, these groups would often become enemies. Wars appear to
have occurred on a significant scale. Oral narratives register this pattern, and
their past is anchored by a warrior ethos that characterizes the Xavante.
Limited contact with the Brazilian society was affected, but it was not
the result of unanimous decision making, nor were decisions about this made
at a single time. Available information indicates the existence of internal
schisms within Xavante groups which led to differing destinies for the sub-
groups. Their recent history, which covers the period from the middle of the
214 journal of latin american anthropology
Figure 1: Xavante historical region.
last century to the present, concerns those groups that crossed the Tocantins,
Araguaia, and das Mortes Rivers. It is their descendants that constitute the
present Akwe-Xavante.
During the 1930s they were described as "bellicose" by the white press.
From the middle of the forties, there were reports of the first "victories" over
the Xavante by federal agents, by private groups of ntobandeirantes from the
State of Sao Paulo, and by missionaries.
The surrender of the first village on
the margin of the Rio das Mortes was celebrated as the "pacification of the
the akwe-xavante in history 215
Localizagao atual das terras Xavante
Figure 2: Present location of Xavante land.
Xavante." The reasons stated were that the region was opened to colonization
and to "progress" after all, and the dauntless "savages" had finally been
"tamed." The battlefield then widened. The decade of the fifties brought news
of punitive expeditions, massacres, transfers of territory, and epidemics that
decimated over half of the Xavante population, according to reasonable esti-
mates. During the sixties, the press fell silent; the Xavante were no longer
news. For their part, the Indians tried to survive, searching for ways to
216 journal of latin american anthropology
Rotas das novas bandeiras
Isfirepre ate 1 92 0
| Ete'raura wawe
| Wabdzerawaprt-1 930
| Maraiwasede
Forte PovosindigenasnoBrasJ 1 99T95 INSTITUTOSOCOAMBIENTALB Hist6nados ndosno Brasri
Figure 3: Routes of the 20th-century bandeiras.
reorganize themselves in light of the new order, accommodating themselves,
as if it were possible, to their loss of autonomy and the problems it brought.
By the seventies, they were back in the headlines. They were shown with
more efficient weapons for the defense of their interests, weapons developed
through careful and attentive observation of the ways of the "whites." The
most outstanding figure, and one who is the best synthesis of this period, is
Dzuru'ra, or "Juruna" as he came to be known among the non-Xavante. He
wielded a tape recorder, which he used to record the promises and the
the akwe-xavante in history 217
speeches of the authorities responsible for the government's actions related to
the Indian peoples. He attained the position of a federal representative for the
State of Rio de Janeiro. His prominence was due, in large part, to what his
people had accomplished by that time. News from the early to mid-seventies
regarding the Xavante of Mato Grosso indicated they were determined to face
the difficulties that hindered the process of the demarcation of their reserves. It
also pointed out their disputes with homesteaders and with the large farming
and ranching operations over land. During that period, the press would portray
the Xavante as "conscientious" Indians, as claimants, as aware of the value of
their own cultural universe and eager to defend it. The press also represented
them as knowledgeable about their rights, as well as prepared to preserve and
recover them. The Xavante also put forward new perspectives on their own
indigenous policies by demonstrating the possibility that a minority could
make itself heard.
In 1977, the National Indian Foundation (Fundagao Nacional do Indio,
FUNAI), the Brazilian federal Indian agency, elaborated the "Plan for the De-
velopment of the Xavante Nation." Its main goal was to implement mecha-
nized fields for commercial rice. The project involved major investments. In
practice, the venture combined two dominant tendencies of national indigenist
policies under the 1964-85 military regime. The first was the developmental-
ist agenda, which saw FUNAI as the coordinator of profitable businesses; the
Indian reserves were to be transformed into these businesses. The second was
the political manipulation of indigenous groups. This relied on a game be-
tween their needs for survival and insufficient information about Brazilian so-
ciety, the national government and its economy, and the financial and human
resources that were theirs by right in all cases. During the eighties it became
evident that the end result of this process would be the exact opposite of the
economic autonomy and self-determination that had been promised to the In-
During the eighties the Xavante needed governmental benefits in health
care, education, and land rights. The financial crisis that struck the Brazilian
state had a broad impact, as did the growing presence of nongovernmental or-
ganizations and the new Federal Constitution of 1988. These were some of the
factors that led the Xavante to redefine their relationships with the national
government. In the nineties they created local indigenous organizations and
used them to establish and develop their own projects of sustained develop-
ment, medical assistance, education, and so forth.
218 journal of latin american anthropology
in the "old days": the xavante in goias
According to the oral tradition of the Xavante, their first contact with
non-Indians occurred in areas located "near the sea." However, it is difficult to
determine, with any precision, the period and the locale where such an event
would have taken place, given the lack of research on that period of history as
recorded by the Xavante themselves. The information available, and already
systematically collected, pertains to written historical documents.
The oldest records that mention the Xavante date back to the second half
of the 18th century. They locate them in the then Province of Goias. Starting
from the end of the 16th century and during the entire 17th century, that region
was traversed by expeditions known as entradas and bandeiras. Marked by
great violence, these expeditions aimed at seizing Indians. The Indians who
were captured would be led to the gold fields and diamond beds of the State of
Minas Gerais or used for the colonization of the coastal lands of Rio de Ja-
neiro, Bahia, Pernambuco, and Sao Paulo. During that period, missionaries
from Para arrived in Goias and sought to capture Indians in order to populate
their missions (Ravagnani 1977:1).
By the end of the 17th century, small quantities of alluvium gold had
already been found in the region of the Tocantins and Araguaia Rivers
(Ravagnani 1977). This initiated a new period for the Xavante, one marked by
a transitory condition in relation to inhabited territories. Escapes were docu-
mented, and forced displacements were imposed by the ever encroaching
presence of white colonizers. The latter marked the entire period between the
middle of the 18th century and the middle of the 20th century.
With the discovery of gold in 1722, mining in Goias became an estab-
lishment of the regional economy that lasted throughout the entire 18th cen-
tury. It fostered changes in the population and the proliferation of small, tem-
porary villages (arraiais) in various parts of the territory. There was an
intensification of expeditions (bandeiras) searching for precious metals and
stones. Attacks on the Indians were used to open up trails to the mines; their
annihilation or expulsion liberated new areas for non-Indians in their search
for gold.
The first documented report on the Xavante is found in the map drawn
up by Francisco Tossi Colombina, dated April 6,1751 (Chaim 1983:39^2).
They were located to the east and the northeast of the island of Ban anal, be-
tween the right bank of Araguaia River and the left bank of the Tocantins
River. Nimuendaju mentions the founding of Pontal in 1738 in the middle of
Akwe (Xavante and Sherente) territory. The mines of Matancas lay nearby,
and their "inhabitants were destroyed four times by the Xavante" (1942:6).
The author, however, does not offer precise dates. What can be ascertained is
the akwe-xavante in history 219
the occurrence of Xavante attacks starting from 1762. In retaliation, the popu-
lation organized pursuing bandeiras that were both punitive and exploratory.
That period was characterized by a desperate need to discover new mines; the
production of gold in Gois had already entered into decline.
The decade of the 1770s was characterized by the official organization of
various bandeiras promoted by the provincial administration. The stated ob-
jective was to discover new veins of gold, and, in accordance with the instruc-
tions of the Marquis of Pombal, bandeiras were also used to curtail and pacify
the Indians.
From the point of view of the colonizers, the most significant re-
sult of that new policy was the liberation of the Araguaia River for navigation.
For the indigenous peoples of the region, this phase meant relinquishing their
territories and yielding to the bitter experience of life inside the official al-
deamentos. This signaled a change in the official treatment of the Indians. It
occurred at the same time that the productivity of the mines declined, and ag-
riculture and animal husbandry, as well as commerce, were to be developed.
Between 1740 and 1750, the Indian aldeamentos were, in reality, indige-
nous prisons into which the survivors of the attacks of the bandeirantes were
forced to live (Ravagnani 1977:39). They were administered by an extremely
rigid order enforced by a military convoy and a Jesuit priest. Starting in 1774,
the policy of aldeamentos affected thousands of Indians including the Javae,
Karaja, Acroa, Xacriaba, Kayapo, and finally, Xavante (Chaim 1983:99-152;
Ravagnani 1977:36). The Xavante stayed in the aldeamentos only a short
time. This is explained by the fact that they entered into "a pacific co-habita-
tion with the world of the whites at a moment when the economy of the latter
was in full decline" (Ravagnani 1977:72). As a consequence of the drastic fall
in gold production, the region suffered a demographic decline and in some
cases a complete abandonment of many arraiais by their inhabitants (Chaim
The abandonment of the aldeamentos at the beginning of the 19th cen-
tury is described (albeit in the prejudiced tradition of the chroniclers) by the
impressions of Cunha Mattos, who visited them in Carretao in 1823:
The Indians who inhabit this place add up to two hundred instead of the five
thousand that used to be here. There is a capitdo-mor who is indigenous and
almost all of his subjects belong to the Xavante nation while very few are
Kayap6.... These Indians are pacific, speak Portuguese badly, are baptized,
lazy and drunkards and, for the time being, are of no use to anyone. [Souza
Not all of the Xavante entered the aldeamentos. Some groups kept their
distance. They were later joined by those who had remained in the aldeamentos
220 journal of latin american anthropology
during the period when they were inhabited. (This is especially true of those
coming from Carretao, who, starting from 183CM0, were fleeing mistreat-
ment, forced labor, epidemics, and complete official abandonment.) In 1842,
the Xavante attacked the north of the province, and the attacks continued up to
the end of the 19th century.
the xavante in the roncador
Throughout the 19th century, as armed conflict was initiated again, inter-
nal schisms opened within Xavante groups. The Araguaia River was crossed
The Xavante rebelled against living with non-Indians. Economic, politi-
cal, and demographic factors explain this rebellion to a considerable degree.
At the time, the region specialized primarily in agriculture on the banks of the
Araguaia River, while animal husbandry was the primary economic activity
along the Tocantins River. The latter prompted the non-Indian population to
spread out over a vast area of indigenous territory. Conflicts were inevitable
between Indians who formerly lived in aldeamentos and then took refuge in
territories that were not completely controlled by the whites. These areas were
inhabited by a few non-Indian families who were involved in commerce,
agriculture, and ranching yet lived great distances from each other. When
mining declined, there was a drastic decrease in the population of Goias. This
meant that this large territory was sparsely populated. In addition, the small
population of the arraiais made them easy targets for Indian attacks (Ravag-
nani 1977:88).
Early in the 19th century, legislation that supported non-Indians was
passed. The Carta Regia of September 1811, for example, authorized the war
against the Xavante, the Karaja, the Apinaye, and the Canoeiros. The
"offensive war" was carried out by bandeiras that were privately organized
with incentives and favors from the government (Ravagnani 1977:90). It is
calculated that between 1820 and 1840, the nonviolent separation between the
people today known as the "Xavante" and the "Sherente" took place (May-
bury-Lewis 1967:2; Orestes Abtsire Xavante, Gustavo Pariowa Wa'aiho
Xavante, and Mario Dzuru'ra Xavante, personal communications). The con-
temporary Sherente occupy the right bank of the Tocantins River in the state
that carries the same name. Their history of continuous contact dates back
over 200 years.
The Xavante formed the group that would reject living with whites. It
apparently suffered a new internal schism with a more "orthodox" (Ravagnani
1977:132) group that detached itself from the group that revered contact with
the akwe-xavante in history 221
the whites and headed toward and crossed the Rio das Mortes. On the way, the
group clashed with the Karaja\
For the Xavante, their contemporary history begins in the eastern part of
the present State of Mato Grosso, at a time when it still belonged administra-
tively to Goias. The group that crossed the Araguaia River was probably an
agglomerate of small factions that were temporarily united in order to increase
their chances of conquering new territory (Ravagnani 1977:132). Concentrat-
ing themselves in the region of the Rio das Mortes, and without losing unity,
they lived in three localities, most likely during the first ten or 15 years of this
century (Gustavo Pariowa Wa'aiho, personal communication, 1991).
The first locality was known as Etetsiwate (Distant Stone), where an un-
usually large Xavante village was established. It was "there that they started a
fight, killing sorcerers, and everybody moved on to establish another village"
(Giaccaria and Heide 1972:37). Wede'ii and Isorepre were two old important
villages. The Xavante lived in Isorepre (Red Stone; the Xavante name for the
Roncador mountain range) for approximately 30 years. Descriptions of their
social life at the time correspond to an ideal of harmony characteristic of pre-
sent-day Xavante descriptions of the period. Diseases and accusations of sor-
cery led to political schisms, the fragmentation of the original group, and the
formation of new villages that spread out over their territory.
Isorepre was the "mother-village," the oldest in the region of the Ron-
cador mountain range. Based on the available data, it can be dated, tentatively,
as having existed since the end of the 19th century and perhaps up to the end
of the 1920s. Dissident factions moved out of that village at various times to
form new villages that would later split up and migrate in different directions.
In some cases, they would regroup partially or completely, expelling some
members and receiving new ones, effectively constituting new political and
territorial entities. The relations that these varied entities maintained with non-
Indians were not uniform.
The moves were numerous and rapid. Political arrangements and re-
arrangements among the Xavante, as well as between them and the "whites,"
were short-lived, in some cases almost ephemeral. They could be recom-
posed, reaffirmed, and then once again severed. According to Maybury-Lewis
(1967:2), during the last 30 years of the 19th century the Xavante apparently
were not frequently disturbed. They managed to attain the isolation they
sought in the region of the Rio das Mortes as well as in others, such as the Sete
de Setembro and Couto Magalhaes Rivers. In Mato Grosso, they defended
their territory from colonizers and intruders while launching constant attacks
on pioneers and the exploration or "civilizing" expeditions that invaded their
lands. Among the expeditions, one commanded by Frei S. Taggia in 1854
222 journal of latin american anthropology
(Ravagnani 1977:127) and one headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tupi
Caldas in 1887 (Souza 1953:17) were driven out by the strong reaction of the
Xavante. A similar fate was dealt to neighboring indigenous groups (the
Bororo in the south and the Karaj in the northeast), against whom the
Xavante fought for the conquest and defense of territory.
expeditions, colonization, and
catechism: the mid-20th century
In the 1930s, Salesian missionaries established a base at Santa There-
zinha from which they set out to attract and convert the Xavante (Duroure and
Carletti 1936). The A'uwe reacted to this insistence: on November 1, 1934,
Fathers Pedro Sacilotti and Joao Baptista Fuchs were killed by the Xavante of
Maraiwasede in the area of the Suia-Missu River (Giaccaria and Heide
1972:29). In 1935, all the Xavante members of an unidentified village were
killed at the hands of a punitive expedition organized by Bento Costa in re-
venge for the death of an 11-year-old boy from the Salesian colony of Meruri
(Duroure and Carletti 1936:30-36; Souza 1953:22). Two years later, and once
again in 1938, two other expeditions were organized: "Bandeira Anhanguera"
and "Bandeira Piratininga," departing from Sao Paulo; they were promoted
by lay parties.
Since the previous decade, this region had already felt the presence of
fronts of expansion (ranching and mining) coming from the east and from the
south (Lopes 1988:47). According to Lopes, during the 1940s, the Roncador-
Xingu Expedition initiated the opening up of trails. The expedition set up an
outpost called Xavantina. Private initiatives were scarce, but the actions of the
state were sufficient to undermine the capacity of resistance of the Xavante of
Arobonipo. The colonization of that territory was one of the principal fronts of
the nationalist program of Brazil's President Genilio Vargas. It was named the
"March to the West" (Marcha para o Oeste) (Menezes 1982:84).
In 1941, the Indian Protection Service (SPI) designated a front for the at-
traction of Indians under the command of Genesio Pimentel Barbosa. Having
invaded the territory of an unarmed village, all its members were killed, ex-
cept for two who had momentarily distanced themselves from the group.
Later on, government policies aimed at "the development of agricultural
production, the reclaiming of flood plains and the advancement of research
(geographical, natural, technological and social, among others)" (see Lopes
1988:46-81). The goal of the federal government at the time was to conquer
the interior of Mato Grosso by settling a nomadic population of colonists and
by attracting new inhabitants. The Xavante were an impediment to the success
the akwe-xavante in history 223
of such a venture. Their conquest was indispensable. This was effectively ac-
complished by a powerful onslaught that included attacks by airplanes. Their
sweeping flights would terrify the Xavante, who tried in vain to hit them using
arrows and clubs.
By the end of the 1930s, the Xavante were
corralled, with no possibility for new migrations, encircled by ranchers and
their territory invaded from all the sides; their rivers were being navigated by
powerful motorized boats, their camps were crossed by various expeditions,
their villages taken by surprise and attacked with efficient weapons, their
homes ransacked and robbed, and large farms and settlements were flourishing
in their lands. [Ravagnani 1977:162-163]
The scene was set for their surrender.
1946 and the 1950s: the unfolding of the
first surrender
On June 6, 1946, at the confluence of the Rio das Mortes and the Pin-
daiba River, in a location called Sao Domingos, initial contact with the
Xavante of Arobonipo village was established. This was completed by the
"attraction front," headed by Francisco (Chico) Meireles, which had installed
the Xavante Attraction Outpost in 1944. The following year, another friendly
contact was made. Yet, throughout this period, non-Indian inhabitants of the
region and other outlying areas were attacked by the Xavante. And the rela-
tions between the Indians and the team of the attraction outpost were also not
always friendly (Motta 1979:146-148). In 1949, the Xavante were visiting the
outpost but were still attacking Sao Felix and its surroundings. Some time
later, they would start to visit the homes of inhabitants of the interior, taking
what they wanted and leaving bows and arrows in exchange (cf. Ravagnani
1977:5). In 1953, according to Maybury-Lewis, they "agreed to change their
village to a location so close to Sao Domingos that they could get there on
foot" (1967:5). The Xavante of Arobonipo continue to this day to live in that
same region.
During the 1950s, the opening up of the first highways by the federal
government would result in an increasing number of homesteaders (possei-
ros) and ranchers (fazendeiros) in the eastern part of Mato Grosso. The terri-
tory was considered to be an economic and demographic vacuum; there was
no precise assessment regarding its mineral and agricultural potential. At the
same time, the Brazilian federal government was concerned with the "old
224 journal of latin american anthropology
international greed for the Amazon" (Lopes 1988:47). Nevertheless, during
that time the Xavante groups were moving about freely within that "vacuum."
The 1950 legislation concerning the indigenous lands created expecta-
tions: the land occupied by the Xavante in the county of Barra do Garc.as was
reserved for their own use (Lopes 1988:31). The Xavante groups located to
the north of Xavantina were the only ones who retained control over strips of
land on the left bank and to the north of the Rio das Mortes, a location that had
not, as yet, been occupied by non-Indians. While the Xavante kept their dis-
tance in 1962 (Maybury-Lewis 1967:29), it is likely that, at the beginning of
that decade, non-Indians began to occupy Xavante lands.
In 1966, following constant conflicts with whites, sick and acutely mal-
nourished Xavante survivors were transferred by Brazilian Air Force air-
planes from Maraiwasede on the Suia-Missu River to a mission operated by
the Salesian Fathers. From there they were flown to the nearby Salesian mis-
sion of Sao Marcos. Xavante lands had been taken by non-Indians and had
been incorporated into a farm, regionally known as "fazenda Suia-Missu"
(Liquifarm Agropecuaria Suia-Missu), controlled by an Italian economic
group (Davis 1978:148; Lopes 1988:42, 67-68; Menezes 1982:66). Though
the lands would eventually become unoccupied, the Xavante still have not re-
covered them. By the end of the 1980s, however, an Italian proposal sought
justice for the Indians. Negotiations started. They were aimed at the future
devolution of at least part of the territory the Xavante had originally occupied
which had been usurped from them during one of the last "pacification" inci-
dents (Iara Ferraz, personal communication).
Ten years later, negotiations are still under way. Even though the lands
are officially recognized as indigenous, the Xavante have not regained the
right to live in that territory. A group of these Xavante and their descendants
currently living in Pimentel Barbosa expect to return soon, in 1999, under
Damiao Pa'ridzane's leadership. It will all depend on the federal govern-
ment's political will to support them in their claim and on this journey. Time
will tell.
As a matter of fact, the term pacification, as the data presented here illus-
trate, conceals the role played by the Xavante in the process. It presents the
Xavante as passive recipients of the actions of the enveloping society. The
term, moreover, obscures information about deliberations and Xavante initia-
tives. It leaves unclear the Xavante definition of strategies for confronting
these issues and their acceptance of the terms. It does not clarify the circum-
stances surrounding their decision to surrender or their careful assessments of
the conditions in which they found themselves. There were deliberations.
There were also disagreements among groups with diverse assessments of and
perspectives on the whole process of their insertion into Brazilian society,
the akwe-xavante in history 225
even within the narrow limits of liberty permitted to them by the violence
practiced against the Indian surrender. They are, however, fully registered in
Xavante memory.
"incommodious" accommodation:
the 1960s
In 1962, "the margins of the Rio das Mortes, between Xavantina and
Areoes, were dotted with small fazendas. Further down the river, there were
few settlers, but the land had already been bought, largely by businesses with
headquarters in Sao Paulo" (Lopes 1988:32-33). From the perspective of the
Xavante groups, the end of the 1950s and all of the 1960s was a period when
they absorbed the impact of contact. This was the time that they observed a
world enveloping them. It was also the time of great epidemics that brought
about innumerable deaths. It was a time when they began to experience living
with daily catechization in the missions and industrialized goods. But above
all, it represented a reprieve, a moment of protection, from government and
religious institutions and from the systematic and growing pressures they had
felt for at least 30 years.
In the 1960s, fission and fusion among political factions and villages still
provoked migrations. But the people moved within a restricted area, disputed
inch by inch with non-Indians. In the last years of the decade, the localization
(which would turn practically guaranteed) of the different Xavante subgroups
was already well defined. It took the form of "pockets of land" controlled by
specific subgroups that constituted political units.
Between the pockets of land that were effectively occupied by the
Xavante were lands that had been intensely sought and occupied by the
whites. They included homesteaders, large landowners, colonization
schemes, agricultural and ranching operations, highways, small villages, and
the embryos of cities that would flourish in the following decades. The legal
recognition of the Xavante lands encountered strong opposition from large
landowners who held property titles issued by the State of Mato Grosso,
against federal legal dispositions.
Meanwhile, there were some new trends in Mato Grosso. The state was
gradually changing. In addition to the presence of businesses encouraged by
the fiscal and credit policies of the post-1964 military governments, the region
started to receive the first sporadic contingents of migrants, who came primar-
ily from the southern states of the country. For the moment, the issue was the
"spontaneous" influxes, which were sponsored neither by the government nor
by private initiatives linked to colonization companies. Those came some
226 journal of latin american anthropology
years later. At this time, new areas were starting to be occupied by these small
producers, who developed subsistence agriculture and some cattle ranching.
While the scenario around them would rapidly transform itself in politi-
cal, social, and land ownership terms, the world of the Xavante and their his-
tory of contact began to close in during that period. All of the accommoda-
tions and pressures (catechizing, "moralizing," "civilizing" controllers of the
work force, of sex, of beliefs, and of A'uwe proper knowledge and wisdom)
were exercised "intramurally." Within those islands there were conflicts, con-
tradictions, and alliances that were, to some degree, related to the new social
and political contexts and processes that the indigenous groups would experi-
ence in the coming years.
expansion of the agricultural
frontier and indigenous policy
under military dictatorship
Under the dictatorship of Genilio Vargas (1930-45), the Xavante terri-
tory had been subject to the planned action of the state. The objective was to
occupy the "vacant lands" and to foster development. Both represented ele-
ments of national integration sought by the Estado Novo (New State). Again
in the 1970s, the military government's policies brought about profound
changes in the regional socioeconomic panorama and the relations between
Indians and whites in Mato Grosso. Once again, the changes were subsidized
and implemented according to the developmentalist policy of a dictatorship.
The life and the history of the Xavante would be conditioned by the reality of
their insertion in Brazilian economy and politics, to an increasing degree.
The occupation of Amazonia was officially defined in terms of the geo-
politics of national security. Government plans for development were aimed
at fighting inflation and adjusting the trade deficit. This was to be fostered
through the growth of the agricultural and ranching sectors, which, through
modern agribusinesses, would provide products for both national and export
markets. This economic policy favored the internationalization of the econ-
omy along with a high income concentration (Lopes 1988:47^19).
The immediate consequence of that economic policy for the region in-
habited by the Xavante was an intensification of spontaneous migration, re-
sulting in the installation of cooperatives by homesteaders and businessmen.
The demographic jump is visible: Mato Grosso grew from 330,610 inhabi-
tants in 1960, to 612,887 in 1970, and finally to 1,169,812 in 1980 (Lopes
1988:50-52). An illustrative example is found in the official documents in
which 64 ranching projects were registered in the municipalities of Barra do
the akwe-xavante in history 227
Garc.as and Luciara in Mato Grosso (Davis 1978:145-147) and were ap-
proved by the Superintendency for the Development of Amazonia (Superin-
tendencia para o Desenvolvimento da Amazonia) in 1970. Major government
investments were also made. According to Menezes (1982:64), beginning in
the 1970s, agriculture and ranching enterprises and landowning projects trans-
formed this region into one of the largest rice producers in the country.
In response to these factors, private businesses of colonization prolifer-
ated rapidly in the region (Lopes 1988:58-60). There were 24 officially regis-
tered projects of private colonization in Barra do Garc.as by 1980. Those in
charge of landownership projects would move to the region and settle large
numbers of people. The spontaneous migrations continued but were not com-
pletely absorbed by the above-mentioned projects (Menezes 1982:65-70). At
the same time during the 1970s, government economic policy made wide use
of fiscal benefits to encourage the development of the region. The result was
the intensification of the concentration of landownership, a process that had
already begun. Land speculation became common. This fact helps explain the
low productivity of these enterprises (Menezes 1982:66).
It is within this definitively transformed context that the Xavante would
publicly reappear. The entire decade of the 1970s was marked by their
determined efforts to guarantee their control over the lands that they occupied
at the time and to recover parcels of their original territory in eastern Mato
Grosso. Their actions worked on various fronts and included open, localized,
and direct conflicts with homesteaders, large landlords, and businesses settled
on lands where there were many old Xavante village sites and cemeteries. In-
digenous actions also included political pressures on the authorities in
Brasilia, culminating in a set of alliances with individuals and urban-based
Brazilian Indian rights advocacy groups, formed by non-Indian professionals
and anthropologists at the end of the decade. Indian leaders were also present
in international forums and became aware of wider political arenas and of
transnational networks supportive of Indian claims for their specific rights.
It is during the same period that Xavante lands were officially recog-
nized. This resulted in a decree and/or the demarcation of six of them.
process was marked by an intense mobilization, generating strongly negative
reactions on the part of businessmen and large landowners, and, in some
cases, a genuine climate of war was in place between Indians and whites (for
detailed descriptions, see Lopes 1988:71-79,96-97; Menezes 1982:73).
The struggle for guaranteeing control over the territory, and the victories
achieved, had consequences for the internal politics of the Xavante. Certain
leaders strengthened their relative positions. This was a result of their par-
ticipation in the process, the demands of mastering Portuguese, and
228 journal of latin american anthropology
their familiarity with the ways of the non-Indians. This opened up opportuni-
ties for political prominence for men who would have been considered too
young to attain it in previous times (for more on the subject, see Brown 1993
and Ramos 1998). Another consequence was the broadening of the political
arena of Xavante chiefs. Today it goes beyond the boundaries of the village,
redefining the requirements, prerogatives, and dimensions of exercising po-
litical leadership. There has also been a process of diversifying and multiply-
ing the number of political roles, as compared with the situation analyzed by
Maybury-Lewis (1967: ch. 5). Menezes (1985:522) rightly emphasizes the
fact that the Xavante case reveals how societies where the political practice is
lived as a continuous exercise of reflection are well equipped to confront new
historical trends and pressures.
The Xavante designed a strategy to guarantee control over their lands
and to protect them from invasions by non-Indians. Starting approximately in
1976, the Xavante would purposefully dismember their villages, according to
the existing political factions. The new villages would be located inside the
area of each reserve but at distant points. This would allow them constantly to
monitor the boundaries of these areas. So, if one village existed in a region oc-
cupied by the Xavante up to the beginning of the seventies, by the end of the
decade, there were more: six in Parabubure, two in Sangradouro, and five in
Sao Marcos (Lopes da Silva 1986:50). This process was strongly enhanced in
the late 1970s and continued throughout the 1980s. At the end of the 1990s,
the number of villages was close to 60. Additional factors influenced the pro-
cess and will be briefly described now.
The most important action for the Xavante of the military government's
indigenous policy was the development plan mentioned earlier. It required the
use of Indian labor and lands in order to implement large-scale mechanized
rice production for market. This implied making indigenous lands "produc-
tive" and "profitable" through the introduction of "modern technology,"
"capital investments," "scientific knowledge," and "economic development."
This was all in line with the policies of the post-1964 Brazilian governments.
The officially declared goal was to provide the Indians with special health and
education programs, but it was stated to be principally concerned with creat-
ing "economic self-sufficiency" through the creation of a rotating capital
fund, especially for them. This fund was supposed to allow indigenous "com-
munities" to cover their own costs and thus allow these expenditures to be cut
from the federal budget. The project was planned in Brasilia. The Indians
found out about it only when it was implemented.
Inside the central offices of FUNAI in Brasilia, however, other facets of
the project predominated. First, there was express concern for the "modern-
izing" capacity of productively utilizing Xavante lands and labor and
the akwe-xavante in history 229
subsequently integrating them into the regional economy. Second, but equally
if not more relevant, the plan provided a useful means for exercising some po-
litical control over the Xavante, who had gained access to the press and would
insistently gather at FUNAI headquarters to place the agency's directors un-
der constant and public pressure. The plan, therefore, represented something
more than just an economic expedient: it had a clear political dimension.
In the press, the denouncements and declarations of the Indians chal-
lenged and defamed the image of the military government just as this was be-
ing done by other sectors of civil society. This had a more important effect
abroad, where the Brazilian government was seeking funds for the economic
plan that would promote the "Brazilian miracle." The project plan justified the
very high investments in the Xavante area (when compared with what FUNAI
used to spend up to then in assistance to the Indians). The funds would thus
bring both economic and political dividends, at the local level in the relations
between the government and the Indians and at the macrolevel as defined by
Brazilian economic policy and its role in the world scene.
During this period, the Xavante's perspective was one that recognized
that they were facing a series of difficulties. These were brought about by (1)
the reduction of their territories; (2) the impossibility of fully and vigorously
maintaining their own patterns of environmental resource use and their tradi-
tional subsistence activities based in seminomadism, hunting and gathering,
and itinerant agriculture; and (3) their need for manufactured goods (ranging
from medicines and clothes to soap, equipment, etc.). To the Indians, the proj-
ect appeared to be a conquest of their own, made possible through their con-
stant watchfulness and their active effort to use pressures and present claims
to FUNAI. They made numerous demands on the federal authorities
concerning the rights of the Indians, and they demanded the fulfillment of the
constitutional obligations of the state to provide assistance and protection to
indigenous peoples in order to guarantee them a dignified life. Graham
(1990:64) registers the initial enthusiasm of the Xavante with the rice-grow-
ing projects in Pimentel Barbosa, their pride in possessing and using agricul-
tural equipment such as tractors and trucks in Kuluene, and their generalized
expectations for meeting their material needs.
Around 1985, when the ominous consequences of the project for the so-
cial, economic, and political conditions of the Xavante were clearly mani-
fested, FUNAI started to withdraw from the scene. It began to hold back sig-
nificant amounts of funding for agricultural production on Xavante lands,
which were still not self-financed (see Graham 1990:72-75 for an account of
the Pimentel Barbosa area). The social consequences of the project were
grave. The introduction of new work relations, including wage employment,
230 journal of latin american anthropology
disrupted the Xavante economy and their nutritional and health conditions
(Graham 1990:71; Lopes da Silva 1986:51, 119). And the emphasis on
monoculture in agriculture, and the associated deforestation, further de-
creased opportunities for hunting and gathering. So meat and other essential
items in the Xavante diet were replaced, basically, with rice (i.e., a substitution
of animal or plant protein with carbohydrates).
The project established
"forms of organizing labor and distributing produce in the 'community' work
fields [of the project] which were strange and destructive in relation to the pat-
terns of the Xavante" (Menezes 1982:84).
The excessive fragmentation of the villages temporarily weakened the
Xavante's capacity to pressure the governmental Indian agency. It also
changed certain social practices. On this matter, Graham (1990:71) rightly re-
minds us that a greatly reduced population hinders the operationalization of
certain social institutions and practices.
During the 1990s, however, various indigenous peoples have proposed
autonomy as a result of their own evaluation of their historical experiences
with the "community development plans" of which the "Xavante Project" is a
typical example. Federal government indigenous policy goals, favoring self-
sufficiency and self-determination, were lost in the shuffle. And there is a
question of if, indeed, they ever truly existed. On the other hand, official assis-
tance programs were deeply affected by the administrative and political crisis
that struck FTJNAI in subsequent years. The idea of the "projects" capable of
leading indigenous local groups toward self-controlled economic gains and to
political self-determination would flourish later under the guidance of the in-
digenous groups themselves, preferably financed and advised by nongovern-
mental agencies.
globalization, development, and
education: challenges and
perspectives at the end of
the millennium
Today, new challenges face Xavante and the other indigenous peoples
living in Brazil. Macrofactors such as the globalization of the economy and
the presence of new technologies of communication open up possibilities for
new political and economic alliances, new projects, and new patterns of ethnic
relations. On the microlevel (local as well as regional), new trends have
brought a multiplicity of social actors to the indigenous scene. These trends
include the transnational funding of specific actions; the increasing complexity
the akwe-xavante in history 231
of social, political, and economic relations; the advent of new information, al-
liances, and partners; the related broadening of the indigenous social universe;
and new and diversified forms of organization and new strategies of symbolic
and identity construction and reconstruction by social actors that foster a
change in the perspectives of indigenous peoples.
In this context, the notion of "national society" as an "enveloping soci-
ety," previously incontrovertibly accepted in studies of situations of contact
between Indians and non-Indians, is open to critical consideration. The notion
loses its efficacy as an analytical instrument inasmuch as it is based on the
conception of "indigenous societies" as monadic, with clearly and perma-
nently defined limits. It effectively masks the fact that homogenizing and
standardizing social pressures are fragmented, hybrid, varied, and multiple.
Through circumstances such as these, indigenous peoples have dynamically
related to others in constructing their specific historical experiences.
The Xavante history narrated in this article is also the history of the growing
involvement of this indigenous group in numerous and varied sectors of Brazilian
society, economy, and politics. As mutual familiarity grows and the fields of re-
ciprocal interactions are amplified, it will be possible to understand the principles
and the components of a certain "philosophy of contact," one that is defined by
the Xavante from within their own sociocultural universe and their own his-
torical memory. For now it is possible to highlight their investment (often clearly
deliberate) in certain processes and strategies. These constitute innovations that
can be considered historically and culturally constructed by the Xavante. These
innovations involve their evaluation of their experiences, past and current, the
elaboration of future projects, and, finally, the political meaning of specific actors
and actions in contexts of dialogue and conflict
On the other hand, factionalism continues to be the base of the A'uwe
style of experiencing a world that is globalized and in rapid transformation.
Their action constructs multisited objectives: tense and temporary alliances of
distinct local Xavante groups with non-Indian sectors, among which there ex-
ist clear contradictions. The processes and the exercise of autonomy are car-
ried out more or less independently by specific villages or factions. At the
same time, the Xavante also maintain and refine a communication system
among them, one that is intense, efficient, and capable of guaranteeing joint
actions when necessary.
An overview of recent Xavante history must include the great value
placed on formal education and on the training (under the guidance of the
older members) of young people, intellectually prepared to enter into dialogue
with non-Indians. In the 1990s, the Xavante are making great efforts to get
their children into schoolin- and outside their territoriesand to have their
232 journal of latin american anthropology
own schools staffed by well-trained Xavante teachers.
They are also seeking
and so valuing access to implements and to scientific or technological knowl-
edge. They value self-sustained management and development projects. They
have developed for future generations nine local indigenous associations as
well as documentation (in CD form as well as in a book manuscript) of elders'
oral history and A'uwe cultural practices. They remain concerned with the
production of cultural goods for the consumption of (urban) national, as well
as international, markets (compact discs aimed at the world music market, for
instance). In addition, it is worth stressing other innovative processes such as
political alliances with diverse groups and in variable moments and levels of
reality that could be established with the state or against it. They are also look-
ing to develop working partnerships with specific sectors of Brazilian or for-
eign societies, and with international groups or organizations, to elaborate and
implement projects in distinct areas.
There are several projects currently under way in different Indian vil-
lages or territories in Brazil, many of which were originally proposed by in-
digenous peoples themselves. In the Xavante case, the projects' authors sought
official and nonofficial expert advice from nonindigenous professionals and
institutions to develop the projects and then sought funding from state and
nonstate, national, or foreign organizations to implement these projects. In ad-
dition to the assistance received from FUNAIa federal agency on which
they continue to make demandsthe Xavante have increasingly discussed
and accepted projects from nongovernmental organizations, researchers, and
universities. Because of the changes introduced by the Brazilian Constitution
of 1988, particularly in regard to education, health, and ecology, there is a
greater diversity of organizations and situations in which indigenous peoples
relate to the state. Public policies regarding indigenous peoples are no longer
elaborated within the boundaries of an indigenist agency but, rather, inside
different ministries of the federal government.
This does not exhaust the list of the resources that the Xavante have cre-
ated, used, and managed. But this list obscures the fact that such initiatives and
procedures are not used equally by all of the Xavante villages or "communi-
ties." Nor do they all act as autonomous political units. Nor can we be assured
that the Xavante will act together to articulate their actions within the frame-
work of a common objective. Many problems remain to be solved. These in-
clude infant and general mortality rates that are increasing. They also include
the fact that portions of the original Xavante territory are still out of their rec-
ognized control and that economic autonomy has yet to be attained. Environ-
mental and nutritional issues demand attention, and formal education could be
much improved. Local Xavante groups continue to seek alliances and partner-
ships in specific programs for action. And they are based on a wide array of
the akwe-xavante in history 233
strategies and have multiple and diverse objectives. There are many actions,
and they reveal a dynamic framework that is simultaneously innovative and
reminiscent of the paths tread by the older generations of the Xavante; at the
same time they express their own style of making history. Hopefully, this arti-
cle will become another important step in understanding the indigenous his-
torical processes in lowland South America.
Translated from the Portuguese by Muna Odeh
Acknowledgments. A different version of this article (Lopes da Silva 1992) was originally pub-
lished in Cameiro da Cunha (1992:357-378). The present version has been updated to reflect new
knowledge regarding the Xavante at the end of the century. I am thankful to Orestes Abtsire" Xavante,
Mario Dzu'ru'ra, and Gustavo Pariowa Wa'aiho for precious and original information that provided me
with new perspectives on their people's history; to O. Ravagnani and A. V. Lopes Macedo for their
comments on a previous version of this article; to M. M. Lopes for providing me with important data; to
M. Odeh for translating this article; and to G. L. Ribeiro for kindly inviting me to participate in this
volume. Research on which this article was based was financed by Conselho National de Desen-
volvimento Cientffico e Tecnoldgico and Fundacao de Amparo a Pesquisa do Estado de Sao Paulo, to
which I express my gratitude.
1. For an analytical overview of the anthropological debate on the Je, see Cameiro da Cunha 1993.
2. The theme is dealt with in introductions to monographs devoted to the study of their society and
culture (Giaccaria and Heide 1972; Lopes da Silva 1986; Maybury-Lewis 1967) which cover with great
detail divergent periods of Xavante history. Concerning the 18th and 19th centuries, Chaim's book
(1983) is an obligatory reference, albeit written from a dominant perspective. Menezes (1982) examines
the impact, in the seventies of the 20th century, of developmentalist and colonization policies on regional
structure and on indigenous groups. Garfield (1996) analyses Xavante history in respect to government
policy between 1937 and 1988.
3. Research on the Xavante includes, among others, the works by Ravagnani (1977), Menezes
(1985), Lopes (1988), Motta (1979), Muller (1976), Graham (1990, 1995), Giaccaria and Heide (1972),
Nunes (1997), Carrara (1997), Gugelmin (1995), Ianelli (1997), Coimbraet al. (1992, 19%), Santos etal.
(1994, 1996), and Flowers (1983, 1994). The Xavante of Pimentel Barbosa have edited a book of myths
and history (Serebura et al. 1998).
4. The term bandeirante refers to a member of armed bands of early explorers in colonial Brazil
historically responsible for the expansion of Portuguese dominions beyond the line fixed by the Tordesil-
las Treaty and to the enslavement and killing of Indian populations.
5. Concerning Pombalian legislation, consult Cameiro da Cunha 1987:58-63 and Chaim
1983:75-95 and the studies Perrone-Moises 1992 and Karrasch 1992.
6. Capitao Mor was a military officer who formerly commanded the local militia.
7. At the moment, these are the Xavante lands officially recognized in Brazil: (1) Terra Indigena
(TI) Marechal Rondon (formerly known as Batovi), State Decree 929 of 5/4/1965, physical demarcation
by FUNAI in 1972, 98,500 hectares (ha.), population in 19%: 376; (2) TI Pimentel Barbosa (formerly
known as Sao Domingos and Rio das Mortes), decreed in 1%9, demarcation conducted by FUNAI
during the seventies, ratified by the Edict/Regulation 93147 of 8/20/1986, 328,966 ha., population in
19%: 1,068; (3) TI Areoes, decreed in 1%9. Edict 1104 of 9/19/1972 defines and fixes the limits of the
reserve, 218,515 ha., population in 19%: 759; (4) TI Sangradouro/Volta Grande, Decree 71105 of
9/14/1972 declares the area reserved for the Xavante, physical demarcation in 1973, 100,280 ha., popula-
tion in 19%: 807; (5) RI Sao Marcos, Decree 71106 of 9/14/1972 declares the area reserved to the
Xavante, Decree 76215 of 5/9/1975 fixes definitive limits, 188,478 ha., population in 19%: 1813; (6) TI
Parabubure (including formerly known areas of Couto de MagaJhaes, Lagoa, and "'Xavante"), Decree
64337 of 12/21/1979, physical demarcation by FUNAI in 1981, 224,447 ha., population in 19%: 3,162
(FUNAI, Regional Administration Offices of Barra do Garcas and Nova Xavantina, see Carrara 1998).
Some important and just Xavante claims on lands they occupied in older times have not yet been
234 journal of latin american anthropology
successfully solved. These include expansion of the actual limits of Sangradouro/Volta Grande, Sao
Marcos, Pimentel Barbosa, Areoes, Batovi, and Parabubure.
8. For further information, see Vieira Filho 1981, Flowers 1983 and 1994, Gugelmin 1995, and
Ianelli 1997, among others.
9. The studies of that period emphasize the contradictions between "indigenous society" and the
dominant national society, which envelops and puts pressure on the first one. Indian society is understood
as intrinsically fragile and only capable of change up to a certain point, beyond which it would risk
structural breakdown.
10. This is visible during negotiations over Maraiwasede lands, for instance, or to construct a
common position against current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's plans to build the "Hidrovia
Araguaia-Tocantins-Rio das Mortes."
11. Further information on Xavante educational experiences and on intercultural bilingual educa-
tion as a growing demand of the Brazilian Indian Movement can be found in Ferreira 1992 and 1997 and
in Silva and Azevedo 1995.
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