Left: Bird-shaped food turner
Mehinaku (Xingú Indigenous Reserve, Mato Grosso State)
Wood, pigments
7 x 21 x 1/4 inches

Right: Circular serving baskets
Piaroa (Amazonas State)
2 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches; 3 x 12 x 12 inches

Left: Pendant
Armadillo claw, fiber, feathers
Bororo (Mato Grosso State)
3 1/2 x 8 inches

Right: Contrast-woven, twill-weave basket with feather danglers
Waiwai (Amazonas State)
7 x 12 x 3 inches

Left: Cane-wrapped comb
Karajá (Ilha do Bananal, Tocantins State)
4 x 5 1/2 inches

Right: Man's necklace
Kayapó (Mato Grosso State)
Freshwater mother-of-pearl necklace with seed and bead danglers
11 x 11 inches


MARCH 20 - APRIL 21, 2002


This exhibit of Indian arts of the Amazon represents only a fraction of the riches possessed by the many diverse Native peoples living in Brazil. The exhibit was designed to emphasize the beauty of the objects displayed, even though the pieces were not made as "art for art's sake." Some are everyday utensils, some are ritual objects; some were produced for use within native communities, some for external markets. They include basketry, jewelry, feathered headdresses, and other body adornments generally made of perishable organic materials.

Although this is not an anthropological or historical exhibit, we cannot ignore the various peoples who produced these objects. The collection of ethnographic arts from which they are drawn was begun in the late 1960s, when the brilliantly colored feather objects displayed here first claimed my attention. I admired them esthetically, became interested in the peoples who produced them, and began buying other Brazilian Indian pieces as I pursued my professional interests: research and publication on nineteenth-century Brazilian history. During that time, Brazilian intellectuals were beginning to pay increasing attention to the patrimony of their nation's Native peoples, and FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Indio, or National Indian Foundation, from which most of the pieces in this collection were acquired) was established as a Brazilian government agency intended to protect indigenous peoples as well as promote Indian arts. The growth of the collection, therefore, accompanied changing attitudes and actions in Brazil, ranging from the semi-romantic view of a forever-lost Indian past and Indians as a disappearing minority to a recognition of the numerical growth of certain indigenous groups who had "come back" with their own voice. Hence the collection is also testimony to an important phase in Brazilian history.

While it is not the purpose of this essay to enter into the current debate about the ways in which Amerindian culture and societies should be conceived and presented, I should note some of the issues involved. The first of these is terminology. The term "Indian" continues to be used as a generic modern term for Native South Americans, although some find its predominant function is to impute racial inferiority. "Native American," "Amerindian," "indigenous," and "aboriginal" are broad terms that are generally intended non-prejudicially. The many uses of the word "tribe" also produce confusion. In both old and some recent writing about lowland peoples of South America, the Spanish "tribú" and the Portuguese "tribu" are widely used as terms for any group of people who seem to possess a culture and a language and who live within a particular territory. But neither the Iberian empires nor their successor states officially recognized such groups as corporations with separate territorial treaty rights, such as occurred in North America. Hence the vernacular North American usages of "tribe" are not useful here; the modern North American term "nation," like the Brazilian term "nação," is preferable. The labeling of particular peoples also involves other problems. Several names are often attached to each seemingly discrete "tribe" and to its subgroups, including names which may be distasteful to the recipients, thus making the standardization of names, let alone their spellings, a recognizable but virtually insoluble problem.

Over 300,000 Indians from more than 200 ethnic groups currently live within the political boundaries of Brazil, comprising just .2% of the nation's total population of approximately 170 million. This is a smaller percentage of indigenes than is found in other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Although concentrated in the Amazon region, Brazil's indigenes are spread across the country's vast geography. Their societies have not been frozen in time, but rather exhibit continuous change, and the people's enduring activism and individualism go beyond colonization. Today we have not just histories of Indians, but Indian histories, as some Indian groups have gradually overcome their longstanding marginalization from Portuguese literacy. Certainly the supposition that modern indigenous South Americans embody archetypes of changeless culture--an idea still found in popular and semi-scholarly literature--should no longer be accepted. Brazil's indigenes cannot be considered people outside of time, or people without history.

Although the issues of how long humans have lived in South America, and how soon they domesticated its plants and animals, continue to be hotly debated, it is evident that the vast tropical lowlands lying east of the Andes have been home to diverse peoples for thousands of years. Those who settled along the area's major waterways developed some of the earliest pottery and root crop cultivation in the New World. Recent archaeological discoveries indicate that complex South American highland society draws its origins from lowland antiquity. Although scholars had once considered the greater Amazon region as lacking locally evolved, politically complex societies, we now know that the history of political complexity in this area goes back at least to the beginning of the first millennium A.D.

In the sixteenth century in all areas of what is now Brazil, early European explorers were astonished at the density and diversity of Native populations. Peoples of the densely settled Amazon flood plain, with its rich soil and abundant fish, were sedentary horticulturalists living in complex societies with permanent, centralized political hierarchies headed by hereditary chiefs. Sixteenth-century European chroniclers reported on these societies' stratified political and economic organization, complex territorial arrangements, intensive cultivation, some animal domestication, and surplus economies with large networks of commercial and trade relations. In contrast, much of eastern Brazil--from the forests of what is now Mato Grosso State to the arid highlands and savannas that separate the southern Amazon basin from the Atlantic coast--was inhabited by nomadic hunters and foragers. These peoples were organized in small, highly mobile bands and ranged through huge areas of the interior to hunt, forage, trade, and make war on enemy groups. To the south were swidden agriculturalists who cultivated maize and who periodically moved their multi-family villages throughout a large region of tropical and subtropical coastal forests along the major rivers of the Paraná-Paraguay River system.


Throughout the Americas, contact with Europeans and the cataclysm of conquest had a tremendous biological and demographic impact on Native peoples. On the coast of Brazil, where the Portuguese encountered cultural diversity and political fragmentation, the patterns of mutual trade and alliance shifted to warfare, enslavement, and conversion, eventually leading to demographic collapse and cultural disruption of the Native population. In the Amazon basin, complex flood plain societies collapsed very quickly, experiencing catastrophic depopulation as a result of increasing inter-tribal warfare, slavery, and the introduction of European epidemic diseases. In contrast to these riverine societies, however, the more mobile hunting and foraging peoples presented the most consistent and longstanding obstacles to colonial expansion, although they remained vulnerable to continued assaults by Europeans. Many surviving peoples were driven into the least accessible parts of the continent.


After some three hundred years of contact, demographic decline, and ethnic transformation, by the early twentieth century the once populous and culturally rich Native populations of Brazil were reduced to pockets of isolated communities. Even though nineteenth-century contacts with outsiders had not been as intense as in other countries in the hemisphere, Indians were marginal to Brazilian life. Although they did form part of the national self-image, Natives were regarded as exotic, and were either subject to sentimentalizing by some intellectuals or treated harshly by frontiersmen. But Brazil's Indians became a national issue when their cause was championed by a young army officer, Cândido Rondon, himself of indigenous heritage, who became head of Brazil's Service for the Protection of Indians (SPI), created in 1911. Although this poorly funded agency lacked the necessary resources and political influence, it succeeded in protecting some indigenous lives and lands. Exposure of SPI's shortcomings in the 1960s, during a military regime that encouraged development at all costs, led to its replacement in 1967 by FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, which attempted to exercise tutelary control over the Indians and to facilitate their absorption into mainstream Brazilian culture. The lifestyles of some groups were certainly transformed, but the indigenes' struggle to survive, as well as to preserve and re-create their identities, continued.

By the early 1970s, scholars and activists were calling attention to the injustices suffered by indigenous peoples. Movements for ethnic affirmation and self-assertion arose, as different groups expressed their desire for land rights and local autonomy as a way to safeguard their own cultures. Charismatic Indian leaders appeared on the national political scene. As the process of negotiation and struggle continued, some indigenous groups sought to adapt to dominant society while honoring ancestral customs, although others pursued different paths, even seeking access to Brazilian accoutrements of power.


Today, indigenous populations are on the increase in Brazil, although the question of "who is an Indian" remains controversial. Census figures are unreliable, because the Native peoples of lowland South America are at a great distance from the lives and concerns of government officials. Census figures may also be minimized, to purportedly show that people once considered Indians have now passed into the mainstream. In addition, people who might have once accepted their designation as Indians may now reject it; conversely, those who were once reluctant to be termed Indians may now desire the designation, as a result of the growing indigenous movements. In fact, if the number of individuals who self-identify as Indians in Brazil--not just those who live in federally recognized indigenous territories or are officially viewed as Indians--were included in population counts, the total Indian population would be much greater than national census figures indicate.

The surviving Indian peoples in Brazil-those members of groups that have not perished but are growing in number- currently range from the very acculturated Portuguese-speaking Indians of Brazil's Northeast, who are active in the regional socio-economic system, to autonomous Indian groups living apart from the dominant cultural and economic system. The objects in this exhibit, all produced during the second half of the twentieth century, come from such different groups as the Guarajara, who record almost 400 years of acquaintance with Luso-Brazilian civilization; the Urubu-Kaapor, first contacted in 1928; the Kayapó, whose lands rich with timber and alluvial gold were opened to mining in the 1980s and whose rivers are now contaminated with mercury from that mining (they have linked their cause with international ecological concerns); the Waiwai, who converted to a strict form of Christianity; and the Pataxó, who produce wooden objects such as spoons for sale across Brazil. While we may admire and enjoy the beautiful objects in the exhibit, we must not forget their makers--the people and their struggles for existential, as well as physical, survival.

Albany, New York
February, 2002



I wish to thank Dr. Laila Williamson of the American Museum of Natural History for information concerning some of the objects in this exhibition; and Dr. Mary C. Karasch of Oakland University and Dr. Roberta Marx Delson of the American Museum of Natural History for suggestions concerning this essay.



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