Indian Policy, Brazil

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Indian Policy, Brazil

Brazil Indian Policy. The Indian Protection Service (Serviço de Proteçao dos Indios—SPI) was founded in 1910 as a government institution specifically dedicated to the tutelage of Brazil's native peoples. In accordance with the positivist philosophy of its founder, Colonel Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, its mission was to bring the descendants of Brazil's original inhabitants into contact with civilization by peaceful means, protect their lands and lives, and gradually, by education and example, assist their development as farmers and cattle raisers who, as Brazilians, would help to integrate the frontier regions with the rest of the country.

As a young army officer, Rondon had become acquainted with unacculturated indigenous peoples when he led expeditions to lay telegraph lines in remote regions of northwest Brazil. With a perspective common to many intellectuals of the time, he saw "Indian" societies as arrested at an early stage of cultural development, but capable of progressing when aided. At that time tribes were resisting the advance of German farmers who were opening up new lands for settlement in the south, and reports of these hostilities placed in jeopardy the government's plan to attract European immigrants. Many argued that any means necessary, including force, should be used to prevent the indigenous from standing in the way of this process. However, the legislation that established the SPI embodied Rondon's liberal ideas for acculturation and, while self-determination for tribal groups was not a consideration, Brazil's Indian policy was perhaps the most enlightened of that of any nation in the early twentieth century.

Over the years, the SPI gained prestige for its success in attracting, pacifying, and eventually settling resistant groups. Typically, a camp would be set up near the territory of the hostile group and "gifts" left along trails; these offerings consisted of knives, steel tools, aluminum pots, and other articles designated to impress the Indians with white technology. At the same time, the members of the expedition would attempt to assure the indigenous of their friendly intentions. Even when their advances were met with arrows, the men of the Indian Protection Service were not to retaliate but to follow their motto, "Die if need be, but never kill." Eventually the Indians' curiosity would overcome their fears, and unarmed groups would venture out of the forest and accept face to face the gifts offered.

Once the acculturating peoples had become dependent on manufactured goods, they tended to settle near the government Indian post. Unfortunately, these new relations with the outside world were often fatal. Commonly 50 to 80 percent of the members of a newly contacted tribe succumbed within the first year to introduced infectious diseases. According to a 1970 text by Darcy Ribeiro, eighty-eight Indian groups disappeared in the Brazilian Amazon between 1900 and 1957.

Although in principle one aim of the SPI was to preserve for the natives the lands they occupied, in practice much of it was claimed by settlers once hostilities were no longer a threat. Government resources, which were freely expended for pacification, tended to dry up after resettlement. As a result, the government agent assigned to an Indian post had little power to assist the people he had been assigned to protect.

As Rondon aged, the influence of his humanistic philosophy on the SPI grew weaker. The dedicated workers that Rondon had trained were replaced by military administrators for whom economic rather than humanitarian considerations were primary. The agency became increasingly corrupt and demoralized. In 1967 the Brazilian minister of the interior ordered an investigation of SPI practices, which resulted in a 20-volume report detailing crimes committed against native people by SPI personnel at all levels, and painting a shocking picture of corruption, greed, and sadism. When the results of the investigation were made public, they were widely reported in both the foreign and Brazilian press. After the scandal broke, the SPI was disbanded and replaced by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). However, the policy in defense of indigenous rights initiated by the first governing board of FUNAI lasted only two years.

In 1970 the civilian president of FUNAI was succeeded by General Oscar Jerônimo Bandeira de Melo, a military man dedicated to carrying out the aggressive development policies of the authoritarian military regime headed by President Emílio Garrastazú Medici. The policy instituted at this time was directed toward the rapid integration of native groups into the national economy and class structure of Brazil. The government saw FUNAI's mission as that of a buffer organization, providing limited assistance and protection to Indians, while at the same time making sure they did not impede the government's development plans.

The legal status of tribal peoples in Brazil is that of minors under tutelage. Reservations are not communal tribal property but federal lands held in trust for the Indians, with FUNAI acting as administrator. During the last decades of the twentieth century, a network of roads opened up the interior of Brazil to settlement and economic development, putting great pressure on Indian lands whose owners have resisted these incursions, which has sometimes led to violent confrontations. The weak and ambiguous role of FUNAI made it distrusted by the Indians and probably led directly to increased indigenous efforts, assisted by nongovernmental organizations, to organize in defense of their own interests.

By the early 1980s some indigenous groups were growing in political sophistication as well as determination to preserve their distinct identity and traditions. As international concern about deforestation and environmental destruction in the Amazon increased, the indigenous found allies in organizations supporting conservation and the rights of tribal peoples. FUNAI came under pressure to expedite the official demarcation of the reservations, even as some powerful groups within the country, including the military, contended that setting aside large territories undermined Brazil's need to develop its resources and constituted a threat to national security. The 1988 constitution stated that indigenous groups had rights to land and their own unique culture. As of 2006 the federal government had designated 12.5 percent of national land as indigenous territory. However, mining companies and large landowners still argue that this is too high a percentage of land, considering the size of the indigenous population.

FUNAI has neither the resources nor prestige to arbitrate these positions. Indeed, in 2006 the president of FUNAI stated that Indians had too much land. When Sydney Possuelo, a prestigious anthropologist in the agency, criticized these statements, FUNAI promptly dismissed him. FUNAI, moreover, organized the first National Conference of Indigenous Peoples in 2006 but many native groups complained it did little to push for pro-indigenous policies. Essentially the question is whether Brazil as a society is willing to accept the rights of its Indians, which make up less than 1 percent of the population, to maintain their cultural distinctiveness and to determine the course of their development.

See alsoBrazil, Organizations: Indian Protection Service (IPS); Brazil, Organizations: National Indian Foundation (FUNAI); Positivism; Rondon, Cândido Mariano de Silva.


David Stauffer, "The Origin and Establishment of Brazil's Indian Service: 1889–1910 (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1955).

Darcy Ribeiro, A política indigenista brasileira (1962), and Os Índios e a civilização (1970).

Shelton H. Davis, Victims of the Miracle: Development and the Indians of Brazil (1977).

Roberto Cardozo De Oliveira, "'Plural Society' and Cultural Pluralism in Brazil," in The Prospects for Plural Societies, edited by David Maybury-Lewis (1982).

David Price, "Overtures to the Nambiquara," in Natural History 93 (October 1984), and Before the Bulldozer: The Nambiquara Indians and the World Bank (1989).

David Maybury-Lewis, "Brazil's Significant Minority," in The Wilson Quarterly 14 (Summer 1990): 33-42.

Antônio Carlos De Sousa Lima, "On Indigenism and Nationality in Brazil," and David Maybury-Lewis, "Becoming Indian in Lowland South America," in Nation States and Indians in Latin America, edited by Greg Urban and Joel Sherzer (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Almeida, Rita Heloísa de. O diretório dos índios: Um projeto de "civilização" no Brasil do século XVIII. Brasília, D.F.: Editora UnB, 1997.

Garfield, Seth. Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1937–1988. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

Rocha, Leandro. A política indigenista no Brasil, 1930–1967. Goiânia: Editora UFG, 2003.

                                      Nancy M. Flowers

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Indian Policy, Brazil

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