Our partner Plus55 tell us more about the birth of an indigenous Avá-Canoeiro baby – in a tribe consisting of 20 people – brings more hope to the fight against their extinction
In the early hours of April 4, Niwatima Avá-Canoeiro gave birth to a little boy with a head full of black, spiky hair – her third son with Kapitomy’i Tapirapé. With his brother Panxt’o, 4, and his sister Mareapatyre, 1, the newborn is the only hope of survival for an indigenous ethnic group in Brazil close to extinction – that is, if they choose to remain in their indigenous culture. The whole Avá-Canoeiro nation has been reduced to 20 people, geographically divided into two groups. They were once 2,000 – but extreme poverty, massacres, and neglect from authorities have decimated this nation.
Just five years ago, the smaller Avá-Canoeiro group, living in Minaçu (in the state of Goiás), was doomed to complete extinction. There were only five of them: Niwatima, her mother, brother, and grandparents. Avá-Canoeiros don’t usually mix with other tribes or crave contact with so-called “civilized” settlements. The union between Niwatima and Kapitomy’I – who is originally from the Tapirapé tribe – was possible thanks to the mediation of an officer from the National Indian Foundation (Funai), a government institution, and was only accepted because the Tapirapé are a tribe from the same Tupi-Guarani ethnic branch as the Avá-Canoeiros. The couple’s children were the first members of the tribe to be born since 1990.
An estimated 900 indigenous groups have already vanished from Brazil since the arrival of the Portuguese five centuries ago. In 2013, a 7,000-page document called the Figueiredo Report was released to the public after 45 years spent missing. It was an investigative report describing slaughters of entire tribes, as well as tortures perpetrated by farmers and members of the Indian Protection Service, a public institution operating in Brazil from 1910 to 1967.
The new-born Avá-Canoeiro. Photo: Funai
Brutality and neglect
Nowadays there are around 897,000 indige
nous persons in Brazil, according to the latest Census. They are divided into 305 different ethnic groups, and speak 271 languages. The biggest group is called Tikúna, and represents 6.8% of the total indigenous population – its language is spoken by roughly 35,000 individuals. The last Census also shows that 12.5% of Brazil’s terrain is labeled “Indigenous Territory,” totaling 505 different regions. Only six of those are populated by more than 10,000 people, and 83 of them are home to no more than 100 people.
But the marking of indigenous reserves is commonly disrespected. Illegal occupation of land for agriculture, cattle breeding, hunting or mining are common activities by invaders. Sometimes, the Brazilian government arbitrarily relocates populations standing in the way of a dam or energy plant. Indigenous populations have historically been subject to neglect and ridicule by Brazilian society. Their situation is generally precarious. Not by coincidence, the suicide rate among indigenous peoples is six times higher than the global rate in Brazil (30 suicides for each 100,000 people).
The invisible people
Like many other tribes, the Avá-Canoeiros suffered in the hands of “civilization.” Their history began to be recorded in the 18th century, when they were captured by colonizers in the region of São Paulo and forcibly taken to central areas, to help explore new land and also to serve as slave labor. The tribe eventually evaded their captors and settled in northern regions of Brazil. Since then, the Avá-Canoeiros have lived a history of resistance.
In an article from 1992, Brazilian anthropologist Dulce Pedroso – who conducted extensive research on the tribe – described the Avá-Canoeiros as warriors. They likely had to fight other tribes for ownership of their land, and thanks to this, they proved a threat to Portuguese colonizers. Conflicts between the indigenous tribe and colonizers caused a great reduction in the Avá-Canoeiro population and forced them to split into smaller nomadic groups to escape total extermination.
Art: Marcelo Anache/plus55
For 12 years, the Minaçu group – back then formed of four people only – lived in caves, trying to fight starvation. They gave up in 1983 and decided to seek help from Funai, when the construction of dams flooded the region in which their caves were located. Since then, they have received recognition of their right to their land, as well as $2 million from the 1980s until the early 2000s in royalties for the land where the dam is located.
But their lives continue to be spent in borderline poverty. They depend on monthly food donations from the local Funai office, but part of their ration, especially the meat, is lost due to lack of proper conditioning. The Ava-Canoeiro were nicknamed the invisible people, some say for their skill in hiding from white men. But the reality is that many white men would want them to remain invisible forever, to just disappear.
Their struggle is not unique. There are approximately 105 isolated groups living in Brazil. Many of them have cut contact with urban groups after bad experiences – diseases, violence and illegal appropriation of land are the top reasons. We know little about most of them, other than the fact that they live in the Amazon forest.
But how can such small groups still endure surviving against all odds? Certainly, they’ve had no help from authorities. Human Rights groups have labeled Dilma Rousseff’s administration as one of the worst governments in recent memory with respect to its treatment of indigenous peoples. Her first term finished with the shameful mark of having the smallest amount of indigenous land demarcation in democratic times. Twenty-one cases have been waiting for her signature for years to grant indigenous groups the right to their land.
The neglect is also apparent by the way Funai has been handled by this administration. Since 2013, an interim director has run the institution because no one was appointed to take over.
But even more worrisome is a proposal to amend the Constitution and transfer the power of deciding what is, and is not, an indigenous land to Congress. A Congress dominated by representatives of the agribusiness, sworn enemies of indigenous people since the Portuguese first arrived on our shores.