Allegories Of Wildness ~ The Cartography Of War And Peace: Worlds In Collision

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For the glory of labor, country and liberty: the recurrence of the intrusion of civilization in the republic

The previous chapter discussed the documentary sources about the Southern Nambikwara mostly from the conquering society’s perspective. On a few occasions the other point of view, coming from the contemporary Sararé oral tradition, brought out some contrasts and coincidences. One such coincidence worth remembering concerns the new tactic developed by Nambikwara local groups when pressures built up within their own territory. By the 20th century they adapted by concealing villages and gardens in remote places or even may have abandoned horticulture for some time and reverted to a hunting and gathering mode of production. The Nambikwara peoples or local groups may have been temporarily forced to be nomadic and, even when they were not, they appeared to be. Thus the imagery projected to the national society of being nomadic hunters without a fixed abode may simultaneously be a partial truth and a tactical deception. The result of partial conquest (as documentary sources indicate areas not occupied) and the active ruse of the conquered combine in the image of the nomadic and elusive Indians disappearing when pursued. From the early years of the century until the end of the empire, this image must have contributed to relinquishing the conquered territory to the warfare practiced by the formally and formerly vanquished. The Nambikwara probably adapted to the presence of the mining villages and the quilombos by creatively designing a new form of occupancy and a new mode of war. The war of conquest waged before provoked a reflexive response from the Indian peoples, and in the end they prevailed. To clarify, the lack of strong economic interest, the attention diverted to more urgent Indian problems, the dearth of government resources, and the diminished general strategic and political importance of a peripheral region all contributed to the relenting attitude taken by the provincial government and the lack of commitment to stronger local initiative. In the meantime, the re-conquest fueled the hatred and humiliation, at least on the part of the local society of Vila Bela, a fact even expressed in writing. The Cabixi offended the sense of natural supremacy of the locals but support in the wider provincial and national context failed to come forward with respect to the necessary investment to resist the continuous and persistent Indian campaign to recover the lost ground. The town of Vila Bela itself probably could not be reconquered by the new modality of Indian warfare[i].

A blank spot on the map and the absence of the state in a very large region it purportedly owns, is in itself a symbolically forceful reason to expand its tentacles into the unknown and savage land and its people. On the other hand, it is with good reason that FUNAI’s policy towards the uncontacted or groups uninterested in contact now is to let them be and not to subject them to a pacification campaign (unless the encroachment of the regional society endangers them)[ii]. At first, after the initial years of the republic commenced and dominated by the positivist military, hardly a change occurred with respect to the treatment of Indians and their placement in the scheme of things. Another head of the new state of Mato Grosso explained that the Indians should be treated humanely but that the more recalcitrant Indians might need to brought into line forcibly and then learn the principles of civilization. The Cabixi posed such a savage threat to the civilized presence in the region of Vila Bela, that they would have qualified perfectly for such a overt domination to transform their “miserable and degrading life” by “the fear of punishment” and “a regime of order and discipline” (Costa 1897: 31)[iii]. The formal change of the institutional framework of the state hardly made any difference in the beginning of what is now generally known as the Old Republic. The Southern Nambikwara of the Valley, therefore, did not enjoy any new privilege in the beginning of the century before the SPI came into existence in the wake of making a limited contact with some of the Nambikwara do Campo groups. Only after the Nambikwara experience of Rondon, when the rules set out by the military positivists began to produce amicable contacts on the Parecis Plateau with the Northern Nambikwara, did some change occur. After SPI’s inauguration, the province president of Mato Grosso mentioned that the task of this federal organization would be to care for these unfortunate uncivilized fellow citizens. Old habits die hard, and many political and general interests were involved, so the governors of Mato Grosso always tried to interfere with such a sensitive subject[iv].

The territory in question was larger than Argentina and had an estimated population of two million. With a figure of this size, even a large margin of error leaves a number larger than many of our provinces and should be conquered for civilization. In 1899, the less harsh current of thought that conceived the Indians as being in the childhood of mankind that reminds us of the first signs of our own society in the evolutionary framework took firmer hold. The Salesians’ attempt to subdue the Bororo was rejected as it tried to mould the Indians into “a passive, obedient and suffering labor machine as in colonial times” (Figueredo 1899: 35). The author proposed “(…) to accept the adult savage as he is, without aiming at changing him except if useful for his own activities; educate the children, but educate him very well in order to return to the villages to live with the savages and dominate them by superiority of education” (ib.: 35). It is vain to try to modify Indian customs and religious beliefs when the nomadic life is the manifestation of an atavist law, a second nature. But the territory and its useful hands can be transformed into powerful elements for progress and civilization by directly intervening in the education of the children. Expectably, the author is a colonel and was no doubt affiliated with the positivist faction that dominated the army and, although they were limited in number, they exercised a large influence in national politics long after the regime change. The arguments now were fixed, the unfortunate Indians left behind by progress and previously subjected to inhuman processes by civilized conquerors foster the compassionate and economic duty to intervene. A humane evangelization must incorporate them, their labor, and their ecological knowledge in the march towards progress (Costa 1909: 10).

A year later, the same colonel wrote of the secular usurpation of their rights to be corrected (Costa 1910: 9). Notwithstanding the partial recognition of rights, the right to humane interaction is the right to be pacified. By this time the Rondon’s Mission crossed Nambikwara territory and had acquired fame in the distant coastal states where the federal policy was being decided in favor of what may be called the relative superiority variant of Indian policy. In 1911 this colonel spoke at the opening of the state parliament and mentioned the new charge the federal government had adopted, possibly hastening their incorporation into national society[v]. Yet he also noticed that that a few indigenous tribes showed peaceful intentions with rubber tappers and the Telegraph Line personnel only to betray them later (suggesting a trick to murder the civilized; Costa 1911: 21).The Indian Protection Service and the Bureau of Worker Relocation (Instalação de Trabalhadores Nacionais) did not, however, win an easy victory (Lima 1995). In fact mentioning in the same breath the rubber tappers and the telegraph personnel mixes exactly the locally prevalent proponents of absolute superiority with the supposed executors of Rondon’s approach. Documents from the next year refer to SPI’s establishment in Cuiabá (very appropriately on the national independence day) and under the general direction of Rondon, who was born in this state. His success was eulogized,
The great tribe of Nhambiquaras and others that until recently create terror amongst our people in the backlands recently entered amicable relations with the personnel of the telegraph commission due to our illustrious compatriot and his dignified and self-effacing auxiliaries. It is expected that they do not return to the life of hostilities and persecutions which they were leading and, on the contrary, will transform themselves into peaceful inhabitants of these backlands and join the civilized in order to make use of the riches that exist over there and conserve the telegraph line now under construction” (Campos 1912: 46).

The fame of the Nambikwara rested firmly on the reputation of terror, as the quintessential fierceness of wild savage Indians. Rondon’s fame is founded on that of the Nambikwara.

The immediate relation between the opening up of the land’s riches, the integration of the labor force, and the use of the Indian’s knowledge is an all too familiar refrain that also recurred in Rondon’s arguments. The major difference voiced by Rondon concerns the sensibility to allow an inverted perspective. As he said once after his contact with the peoples near the line: “They evaded us; they did not allow us to meet them, by virtue of a natural mistrust which they had of the first invaders and violators of their homes. Perhaps they hated us, too, because, from the viewpoint of their civilization, we were all members of that warlike tribe which had caused them so many misfortunes since time immemorial” (apud, translated in Price 1972: 29). Although the aggression in a few rare instances had been acknowledged before, the recognition of their civilization and us being like a warlike tribe constitutes a quite rare empathy to put evolution between brackets and to invert the perspectival stance. In the end, Rondon did not overcome the basic tenets of natural evolution and superiority. After all, he firmly promoted interning the young Indians (mostly Paresi and a few Nambikwara) in a boarding school in order to actualize the indigenous education plan developed by the previously mentioned province president. Rondon’s efforts to solve the Indian Problem garnered prestige. In this period the two major configurations of attitudes and values towards the Indian Problem disputed the hegemony of government policy. The nature of his approach to the Nambikwara figured prominently as to prove its practical feasibility. To that aim the rhetorical style emphasized exactly the terror and the fierceness of this tribe. Incidentally, this relates to the major point of contention with respect to the treatment of the Kaingang in São Paulo, a people who mounted a strong resistance to the invasion. The foremost issue revolved around the question of whether peaceful contact could be established or if the only language applicable was violence. The Nambikwara thus became a prime example in the symbolic definition of the humanity or racial inferiority of the Indians and the very possibility of perfecting this rebellious and evolutionary left behind people. The argument came down to the affirmation that if they could be pacified, any people could be treated thus.

The pacification operated in this case merits attention. In two articles, Price discussed three perspectives on what was supposedly the same first contact made with the Nambikwara by Rondon’s people. The juxtaposition of two civilized accounts and one Indian narrative show not only how the Indians differed in their rendering of the events, but also how the process was fraught with guesswork, misunderstandings, and projections from each one’s unique perspective. First, I will approach the representation portrayed on the national scene. One of Rondon’s men published an article in a newspaper in the capital to show how even the most stubborn savages should be treated humanely, and not like animals. Alípio Bandeira wrote:
The Nambiquara are a nation native to Mato Grosso held and considered to be intractable – a timorous species of barbarians who, like sentinels in the forest, cunning and vigilant, stood steadfast on their post, as indomitable in their ferocity as inflexible in their hatred for civilization. Mistrustful in the face of continued treachery, suspicious after innumerable disloyalties, fleeing from the whites as from wild beasts, they interned themselves ever more into the distant center, and only when the echo of an unknown voice, some noise or foreign signal reached the door of their huts – only then did they venture forth to defend their frontiers” (apud Price 1984: 41)[vi].

Therefore, the did not Nambiquara people revolt but, vigilant of their land and in defense of their families, they reacted to the penetration” [in the same artistic style the author fancifully continued to describe how the Indians followed the expedition in order to choose the moment of attack; my translation Price 1983a: 612]

“Thus was the Rondon commission received when it first stepped on the lands of this fearless tribe” (Price 1984: 41).

The commission did not plan to plan to do any harm, but countless adventurers came before them and did not bring the “generous peace of civilization but the miserable war of avarice” (ib.: id.). The self-image of the Rondon Commission as the vanguard of real civilization, and not the rubber tappers reported to have attempted earlier incursions shortly before, agrees with the general civilizing mission entrusted to the positivist military. In the same sentence, Rondon’s positivist idiom drew the opposition between the fraternal embrace and a betraying attitude. This was a precursor to the fraternal protection the officers planned for SPI. It is no shock that, “The Nambiquara took vengeance and, as it is, vengeance is the nectar of gods and savages” (Price 1983a: 612). The savages just like the pagan gods are without the civilized restraint exercised by the Commission’s military participants. Bandeira does not yet use the famous commandment “to die, if necessary, but not to kill”. However, the next scene firmly established the difference between the sweet taste of revenge and the exceptional peace of Colonel Rondon compared to other Whites. “Well, colonel Rondon was an exception, he really was at peace with his spirit, as well as with his heart and his actions” (Price 1983a: 613). This was an exception in more than one way; only a man at peace with his thoughts, sentiments and actions, his whole being engaged in this venture would react so civilized to the next incident. Rondon changed directions after the first bellicose contact when the Indians defended their lands. The Indians obstinately followed his tracks, and when they thought the expedition penetrated too far in their territories, they attacked again. This time Rondon escaped miraculously and famously nearly took an arrow in the heart. This is the incident when the arrow was deflected by a bandolier that caused his fame among Sabanê and Northern Nambikwara. Nevertheless, the valiant colonel Rondon did not allow any reprisal against the Nambikwara. For all the justification of the reaction of the Indians, the attitude of the colonel is impressive. Then, he changed directions again. Note, incidentally, the epithet valiant applied to Rondon above. This usage preempted any weakness or cowardice on Rondon’s part. After all, according to the more general mores, a man must react to an attack on his physical integrity.

In fact, the position of the savage reads like the inverse, the mirror image of the predicates attributed to one’s civilized characteristics. In that sense, as shown by the future of the Nhambiquara, the evident superiority so obviously displayed tends to shift the fraternal embrace towards a fatal embrace[vii]; or, perhaps more aptly, from encirclement to entrapment. The article continued in the rhetorical style characteristic of the time with all sorts of embellishments regarding details of the events the writer did not verify but supposed he can safely get away with in an article for the educated public in the large city. Take as an example the adjective fearless applied to the Indians. This could not possibly have been objectively verified by December 1910. In reality, this reflected projections by the author and his colleagues, rather than information revealed by ethnographic examination. While the nudity, sleeping in the sand, or stone axes are not imagined, they are interpreted in a pre-conceived framework of evaluating the actions and objects of the savages. This rhetoric agrees with hawkish hard-liners advocates of the legitimacy of violence to subdue the fierce tribes. Both camps concur on these distinguishing traits and the advocate of the notion of all peoples being of ‘one single humanity’ even stresses them to cast the making of contact into a favorable light. Thus, the strong emphasis on fearless warriors is relevant. On the other hand, by laying the blame on the intruders and justifying the violent response as the defense of their home and land, the savages acquire a different character that is understandable to westerners. They are, after all, not so distinct in their ways. If the strange Indians are human, then a common ground must exist. The commonality of humanity apparently justified the free interpretation of the sentiments and thoughts of this strange people. Therefore, the Indians comprehend Rondon’s actions and adopt an attitude of expectation allowing the Commission to work in peace. These observations were only the prelude to the main episode Bandeira wants “to call to the attention of reader” (Price 1983a: 613).

The initial events set the stage and provide the major notions which will be applied to the events that lead to contact. The example and leadership of Rondon must be established beforehand as he did not play the role of the protagonist of first contact himself. One day two military men rode out too far away from the main body of the expedition and ended up severely wounded by arrows. One arrow pierced the graduated officer Lt. Bueno Horta Barbosa in his lungs. Another one stuck in a tree, just as was the bullet fired by the lieutenant to frighten away the assailants. Some workers nearby rushed to their aid, but the wounded officer forbade any retaliation. The tree remained there as the monument testifying to the situation, an arrow and a bullet – the two potentially mortal objects of the opposing sides – lodged in its trunk. The very place for a “touching scene of reconciliation” (Price 1984: 42). Then “(…) the loveliest passage of this sylvan epic, in which the generous sentiments of a truly civilized man and the ingenuous affection of the uncultured sons of the forest will swiftly meet in a moving exchange of tender friendship – as soon as he managed to recover” (ib.42). When the gravely injured officer recuperated, he acted gallantly, in a way worthy of his rank. He returned, cleared all of the vegetation around the sacred tree of his martyrdom and left gifts for the irresponsible malefactors. Then he emphasized what he thought was a corresponding Indian action, and stressed that they fully comprehended the nobility of his act, swapping the delicacies under the tree with food. At first sight both the reference to aristocratic values and religious simile may seem out of place but, the positivist influence in the army aside, the vast majority of the elite were Catholics and the country recently emerged from an empire with a politically dominant nobility. The non-converted elite needed convincing, at least partly in its own terms. Rondon’s prestige needed to be couched in a symbolic language accessible to the intellectuals and to the powerful in the federal capital who shared in the shaping of federal policy.

Lt. Barbosa believed that the Indians’ countergift demonstrated that they understood his gallant intentions. He left unexplained how he could be so sure of his interpretation of this gesture. This Indian behavior resembles closely the delayed reciprocity prevailing between allied groups or the commencement of the process of alliance. One party proposing to reach an amicable relation with the foreign group leaves gifts and waits for the opposite side to act. If the strangers return the gift likewise, then this is considered a first move to alter the prevalent state of actual or potential violence. Notably in the initial gift of the delicacies the question of the interpretation by the Indians is resumed to his own standard of evaluating food. The Indians, on the other hand, left manioc, a staple that was not considered specially valued food. They also deposed arrows, probably a medium of stating both good intentions and the wish to exchange the non-food goods habitually traded between allies. It seems possible that part of the interpretation correctly assumed the action to be the first overture to a non-hostile relationship even when exaggerating the Indian’s positive attitude. The notion of the noble savage underscores the idea that the generous sentiment of the truly civilized man was recognized, as only the noble correctly infer and could recognize this generous sentiment, exchange gifts and accept contact. This was not just an example to the Indians, but to everybody. Rondon’s men were the paradigm of civilized men even in national society. The savages, on the other hand, corresponded as the junior partners in this sylvan epic with the ingenuous affection of uncultured sons of the forest. Good savages are simple, sentimental people without real culture and close to nature. Implicitly their position resembles the civilized child, a natural product to be transformed by education into a son of civilization of which the other protagonist is the icon. Therefore, ‘the sons of nature’ demonstrate comprehensible behavior to the ‘bearers of culture’ and still are to be classified as irresponsible, just like immature ‘sons of civilization’. The foreshadowed implication about the status of evolutionary rebellious children to be coaxed to civilization is obvious. Nature is always to be transformed by the civilized action of culture. This applies to children and savages, as both need tutelage.

The lieutenant collected the tokens and left new gifts. “The natives similarly returned, and on this occasion they left – for there is nothing else which adventurers require in their dominions – balls of smoked latex, they naively thought that this was the best gift they could make” (Price 1984: 42). In effect, this exchange is quite remarkable. Firstly, by virtue of the evident knowledge the Indians display of the frontier closing up on them. They knew what interested the Whites and, more significantly, knew how to smoke rubber. In this epoch the milk gathered had to be smoked for storage and transported in the form of rubber balls. If this was the gift, the Indians learned the tapper’s way of producing rubber, a notable feat for a supposedly isolated and totally uncontacted tribe. The gift eloquently demonstrates the extent of their knowledge. There are certainly not as naïve as the author presumes, and this act is almost premonitory. The SPI later promoted rubber production and later, corresponding to American demand, even founded the Espirro Indian Post with a contract to secure the collection of this resource. This offer leads to the reasonable implication that the previous contact with rubber gatherers somehow earned the Indians metal tools. The Indians took the initiative and invested in the demand for economic material exchange of particular goods to obtain more. Around this time it was written that from a hidden vantage point the Indians observed, the fraternal maneuvers of their friend. Surely though, the Indians did not consider the fraternal movements as more than a phase in the construction of friendship. Then they entered into the second phase of this process:
“(…) they appeared and confidently approached speaking. Unfortunately the language of the Nambiquara is excessively strange, wherefore the two sides could only trade gestures intelligible as affectionate and reciprocal comradeship.

Well, these beginnings, beyond being sufficiently promising in their own right, prove magnificently that the Nambiquara are not, as was believed, indomitable. It is already realistic to expect from them not only loyal friendship, but more, their full cooperation, which is of incomparable use in these remote localities, as in the case of the