Allegories of Wildness ~ The Name, Fame And Fate Of The Nambikwara ~ Three Nambikwara Ethnohistories Of Sociocultural And Linguistic Change And Continuity ~ Contents

A ‘primitive wild people’ that only Rondon could ‘pacify’, that was the reputation of wildness of these ‘savages’ around 1910. Not only that, Rondon also renamed them as the “Nambiquara” and hence, a few years later, this people acquiered its first fame in Brazil with a new name. Actually, colonial expansion and war had been part of their history since the seventeenth century. The crossing of the enormous Nambikwara territories by the telegraph line constructed by Rondon’s Mission produced, as far as known, the first real pacific contact. For those local groups most affected it proved as disastrous as all ‘first contacts’ without any preparation and substantial medical assistance. When Lévi-Strauss travelled through the region the so-called civilization had receded again. His research was very severely hampered by the historical consequences and by the fact the Indians still retained their political autonomy. Yet he has remarked they were the most interesting people he met and regarded this journey as his initiation in anthropological fieldwork. Tristes Tropiques made this people famous to a very large public and fixed another particular image of the Nambikwara. And then, in the seventies and eighties of the last century, the final assault took place by their being “before the bulldozer” (as written by the best known Nambikwara expert David Price). Only after a demographic catastrophy, permanent encirclement and great losses of territory, several Nambikwara local groups coalesced and emerged as peoples while many other local groups perished in this genocide. In effect, the so-called Nambikwara never were ‘one people’. This study explores the ethnohistory of the name, fame and fate of three of these peoples — the Latundê, Sabanê and Sararé — and dedicates some special attention to language loss and maintenance.

© Edwin Reesink, 2010, 2019 – Cover picture: Mísia Lins Reesink – Illustrations: Edgar Roquette-Pinto
© Rozenberg Quarterly 2010, 2019 – Amsterdam – ISBN 978 90 3610 173 8

Contents

Prologue
Part One – Name
Chapter I – Documentary ethnohistory: the convolutions of the right to territory
Chapter II – Latundê ethnohistory and their contemporary situation

Part Two – Fame
Chapter I – The string of events
Chapter II – Converging histories: Rondon, myth, ideology and petty domination

Part Three – Fate
Chapter I – Refractions of wildness: the choreography of war
Chapter 2 – The cartography of war and peace: worlds in collision

A final summation
Bibliography

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Allegories Of Wildness ~ Prologue

“It is singular to come so far and to see so infinitely little” [i].

The above passage is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s diary, which he kept during his sea voyage to Polynesia. The principle behind this quote has some general truth that holds for all voyages. Upon seeing the Polynesian islands, Stevenson was enchanted not just by the landscape, but by the inhabitants as well. He treated the Polynesians with respect and kept an open mind despite their strange practices. Although he denounced cannibalism when he visited the altar on which the native Marquesan people sacrificed prisoners for their own consumption, Stevenson claimed to have felt “infinitely distant”, as “in the cold perspective and dry light of history.” In part because of Western diseases and in part because of the cultural values of European conquerors, the Marquesans gradually abandoned their ceremonies, many of which the colonial government considered repugnant and savage. Stevenson deplored the consequences of contact, a term that the literature uses to describe the interaction between indigenous peoples and outsiders, and went so far as to demonstrate his respect for the imposing cannibal chief. Stevenson even questioned the moral basis for the European rejection of cannibalism; after all, he notes, the slaughter and eating of animals would cause a similar revulsion amongst Buddhists. Stevenson’s strong egalitarian views are evident in his suggestion that “(…) to cut a man’s flesh after he is dead is far less hateful than to oppress him while he lives.”

These observations serve as a reminder of a deplorable and all-to-popular story of the effects of colonialist expansion on all indigenous peoples. Unsurprisingly, the history of Brazil’s Nambikwara is not unique. “History” always engulfs these people and in so doing destroys not only sociocultural and political autonomy, but often much of the population. The name “Nambikwara” evokes such battles, some of which are quite well known. First, there are the ‘indomitable warriors’ that Rondon succeeded in pacifying, despite their initial rejection of civilization and contact. The model of making contact with wild tribes that Rondon established endures even now. Second, there is Lévi-Strauss’ field study as described in Tristes Tropiques, a work that made the Nambikwara one of the most famous tribal peoples in the world. The lasting impact of this book is clear, it continues to be cited in a variety of scientific and non-scientific books and papers. Lastly, there is the prime example of victims of so-called development forcefully promoted by the Brazilian government. Such “progress” typically manifests as road construction and the interference of bureaucratic agencies in a certain region. Many of these projects involve financing from the World Bank. David Price exposes the negative impact of such national and international organizations. He notes a near complete lack of consideration and respect for those “before the bulldozer” suffering the regional consequences of globalization (Price 1977a; 1989). Such peoples, and, in particular, the Nambikwara, were about to be pushed aside in favor of a different civilization. Rondon was a man who believed that he represented this society benevolently. He remarks often on the compassion and kindness of the Nambikwara civilization. Lévi-Strauss, by comparison, wanted to avoid discussing it, even as he treaded through the devastation caused by contact with the Nambikwara. Price (1977) denounced continued contact as being strongly detrimental to the surviving members of what was once a large group of peoples, known for their strength and heartiness.

The goal of this work is to explore relevant aspects of the history and the modern sociocultural situation of three Indian peoples, the Latundê, Sabanê, and Sararé [ii] . The fact that these names are not well known demonstrate the unique fame associated with the Nambikwara. This project involves three case studies of individuals and peoples. Of particular interest are specific historical narrations about contact, the individual pasts of the Indians along with their contemporary situation and their unique modes of interaction with Brazilian society. Note that all three peoples are related not only to one another, but to variety of other peoples and groups. For simplicity, I refer to all these people as members of the Nambikwara language family. A considerable amount of dialects and languages make up this language family. Read more

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Allegories Of Wildness ~ Documentary Ethnohistory: The Convolutions Of The Right To Territory

Preliminary general framework
This Part is founded on field research completed among the Latundê as well as archived documents available at the headquarters of the Brazilian government’s Indian affairs bureau, FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), in Brasília[i]. FUNAI is the nominal institutional caretaker and protector of Indian peoples and their legal rights. It is the successor to the corrupt Indian Protection Service (known as SPI, Serviço de Proteção ao Índio). The new institution renewed the Indian policy[ii] previously in practice. Despite the good intentions of many of its employees, the official policy towards the Indian peoples has always been profoundly ethnocentric. Essentially, it views the Indians as being early evolutionary remnants and so is justified in civilizing them. Thus, aside from similarities in the bureaucratic structure and even the staff, FUNAI maintains significant ideological similarities with SPI. Moreover, in its role as the legal ward of the Indians, the organization has always been involved in a structural quagmire; it must perform its legal duties in favor of the protected while diplomatically dealing with the many opposing local and regional interests with strong political influence. Juggling these two rival concerns characterize FUNAI’s unique place in the bureaucracy within the Interior Ministry and, even today, after relocation within the Ministry of Justice.

From the beginning FUNAI’s general and wide-ranging subordination to government policies is noteworthy. During the 1970s, the legal problems of the crooked SPI and a public image tainted with massacres (such as that suffered by the Cinta Larga, northern neighbors to the Northern Nambikwara) resulted in a new legal precedent, Law 6001, known more generally as the Estatuto do Índio (1973). In the zenith of the military dictatorship, the political and civil elite pretended to demonstrate a degree of civilization and respect for certain human rights with a relatively advanced law. The government sought to exhibit its pretensions of being the defense to Western Christian civilization in a world polarized by the cold war and plagued by various armed leftist movements, contending for what they thought was a historic possibility to liberate the Brazilian people. Of course, the ‘humanistic’ or humane treatment proposed depended largely on this self image that had been particularly debated in regards to the Indian question by civil movements in the Western countries. The image projected abroad was fundamental in drawing up the terms of the law that contained the expected principles regarding the relentless course of the evolution of mankind, a philosophy supported by a number of culturalist and assimilationist anthro-pological concepts in the 1950s, theories that emphasized culture over domination and accordingly tended to predict that the Indian peoples assimilate. Ironically this movement employed some of the ideas of Darcy Ribeiro, a famous anthropologist persecuted for his political activities by the same military regime. Even so, the law extended some measure of legal protection to Indian peoples and their respective rights to land, culture and language.

In Brazil, as in many other countries, the existence of written legal rights does not guarantee their practice. On paper the law appears as a perfectly reasonable protection for peoples absolutely unequipped to deal with the scale and manner of assault they were about to suffer. In practice, however, the unofficial ideology of the vast majority of military and civil servant elite considered the Indian problem a minor and generally insignificant issue when compared to the countries’ social and economic problems. Consequently, Indian interests were habitually completely subordinated to the state, sacrificed to the higher aims of socioeconomic development. In addition, there was the menace they represented as autonomous peoples, termed ethnic enclaves in the military national security doctrine prevalent at the time [iii]. In a sense there was a shift in one of the key issues at hand; the Indian problem is not the Indian’s problem. Actually, in a way it is an issue for the ethnic majority, a White problem. This problem was brought to the Indians by the intrusive expansion of Brazilian society, an expansion that claimed their land and bodies as a natural eternal part of the state. This expansion sought to dissolve their ethnic difference with the common nation-state mantra of “one state, one nation, one people and one language”. The state symbolically expropriated their autonomy, and consequently, especially their political independence. It is no coincidence that even the progressive 1988 Constitution has no mention of indigenous peoples but opts for terms like indigenous communities. By means of laws originally totally irrelevant to native peoples, those designated as Indians became Brazilian via the encompassing state. They were and are subject to state action that would transform them in accordance with the nationalist imagination. In this sense, the conquest that begun in 1500 still continues forcefully in the persistence of the process of symbolic violence, subordination and exploitation of Indian peoples and their natural resources. Read more

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Allegories Of Wildness ~ Latundê Ethnohistory And Their Contemporary Situation

First times: another view of Latundê history

The prior history reconstitutes the trajectory of observations, research and intervention materialized in the paperwork of a file generated to constitute a bureaucratic dossier that documents the way to the final legal act of creating an Indigenous Territory in accordance with presidential decree. It becomes obvious that it concerns a legal, bureaucratic, and social fiction that presupposed the recognition of concepts and objects – of people and materials – postulated pre-existing. In effect, the history examined so far grounds and socioculturally fabricates the people and their land as a reified object. This corresponds to a dialectal process of what evidence really exists and what was thought to exist or should exist. From this examination of the file, two major points are especially salient. Historical contingencies of context play an important role in the specific structure of conjuncture (in the words of Sahlins) where local time and place are relevant and national and international factors prevail. In current fashion, the local and the global, and between (unsurprisingly this is not always very well represented in the case itself and a point not fully dealt with in this chapter). A small and hardly known group of people, even in specialist circles, suffers immensely from the process of internal conquest. The result is the formally named and grounded Latundê, a distant appendage in the bureaucratic dominant and dominating structure put into place to exert state control over a land and people previously uncontrolled. The state delegates to FUNAI the function of the authorized mentor of land and population management of previously uncontrolled people. In turn, FUNAI occupies a subordinated place within the state when conceived of as an arena of competition between different federal agencies. It is noteworthy that the process so far had very little to do with consultation of the group directly concerned, even the anthropological reports rarely succeed in gaining some insight in the conceptions and opinions of the Indians. As said, this derives from the restriction and subordination of anthropological work within the bureaucracy[i]. Overall, the dossier reflects bureaucratic inconsequential attention, inefficiency, negligence, and sometimes criminal collective and individual behavior and responsibilities.

The Indians were more object than subject of these constitutive processes. They are not just victims, but are the foremost interpreters and, in their own way, agents of their history. What is apparent from the reports aligned before is that the impact of the euphemistically labeled contact was devastating in its population effects. From 1977 to 1981, the absolute lack of medical assistance caused the death of nearly 60% of the entire group, diminishing it from about 23 Indians to 9 at the lowest point, not counting Mané. It was only with marriage and new children that the population began to approach a number closer to pre-contact times. The damage done was tremendous in these first years of pacified relations as most of the older generation perished, particularly after the measles epidemic. I emphasized the example of the Latundê captain’s death and the Mané’s ascent to command. Doubtlessly, the measles epidemic was avoidable, especially so long after contact and considering that the effects of contagious diseases on indigenous populations are notorious. The havoc caused by this small scale genocidal tendency of non interference after primary contact left a strong imprint on the survivors. The only anthropologist to pass four days in the village commented on the distinct difficulty among members to speak about the dead and to take stock of the ravages of population decimation. This difficulty persists even today. Stella Telles, the linguist working with the Latundê language started her visits in 1997 and established a firm rapport and empathy with the group and some of its members in particular (Telles 2002). Impressed by the plight suffered by this people she tried to gather some data about their history. One of these efforts concerned the reconstruction of the group’s history at the time of contact. The result was a painstaking, but especially painful, exercise with the most senior woman, Terezinha, of one of two households, a woman who is still the most senior Latundê[ii]:

Telles describes the living situation as follows:
House 1: Terezinha, the oldest sister in her sibling set, an adolescent man José and his younger sister Madalena;
House 2: Terezinha’s father Davi, her mother Madalena, and her siblings Fatima, Sebastião, João and Francisco;
House 3: Terezinha’s older brother Cinzeiro, husband of José’s and Madalena’s mother (as José is the major surviving Latundê man, he is the reference point for children);
House 4: Chico, José’s older brother;
House 5: the father of José and his siblings;
House 6: Batatá’s mother;
House 7: Sebastião, José’s brother, and his wife, Terezinha’s aunt;
House 8: Batatá and her husband (older adults) and Terezinha’s younger sister Lourdes, living in a place somewhat detached from the other houses; Read more

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Allegories Of Wildness ~ The String Of Events

Before and after Rondon
The common impression of Rondon is of an intrepid man who explored the pristine wilderness and made contact with unknown wild Indians. An image, that is, of someone with a penchant and talent to subdue wildness in its diverse modes. The reality though may not be so simple, the Nambikwara congeries and other indigenous peoples inhabiting the southern fringe of the Amazon basin had a long history of previous contacts. The Latundê played a role in the fabric of the Northern Nambikwara cluster before retreating into isolation, living on the edge of a region of rapidly changing peoples and places. At some time they separated from the main body of the Northern Nambikwara peoples, and more specifically from the Lakondê, most likely a consequence of the construction of the Telegraph Line lead by Rondon. It is unclear whether they or Indians from another related component of the Northern cluster ever had peaceful contact with the Whites before Rondon. The occupation of areas in Rondônia and the documented rubber gatherers’ penetration from rivers throughout the region north of the Nambikwara do Campo, preceding and coinciding with the Mission, certainly do indicate the possibility that the Northern Nambikwara and the Sabanê were affected by the movements of the rubber frontier. In contrast with previous possible historical relations, Rondon and his Mission accomplished two major feats. They crossed the heartland of the Northern Nambikwara peoples, established a fixed occupation and made contact with numerous Nambikwara villages. In this sense, Rondon’s efforts represent the first real contact. He constructed base camps and extended the Telegraph Line right through the middle of the northern territory. This represented the materialization of the Brazilian state’s claim to the land. It would not be for several more years that the Sabanê, Lakondê and other members of the cluster would learn about the State, the nation and its claims that Rondon and his achievements exemplified. The Indians reinterpreted their understanding of Rondon in light of the newly created social space of intersocietal interaction and interethnic situations. In this manner Rondon assumes an importance from the external point of view of Nambikwara history and a salient significance in the Sabanê and Nambikwara interpretation of the Whites and their own conception of the same history. As a central figure in these chronicles, it is worthwhile to examine Rondon carefully.

Rondon’s heroic image relates to his famous mission to construct the Telegraph Line from Cuiabá into the Amazon in order to integrate Amazonia into the national framework envisioned by the recently constituted Republic of Brazil. Rondon seems to have fully adhered to the military ideology and the justification of their intervention. The aim of the republic and the military was to extend the authority of the nation, in effect seen as the benign and civilizing power of the state, to all its borders and to include all major regions of the country within the reach of the central government. Several efforts were made. During the previous successful construction of a Telegraph Line within the state of Mato Grosso, Rondon participated and made friends with some of the employees, a group of Bororo Indians. Here Rondon learned his way around and later proved perfectly suited for the task of leading this major project of geopolitical state building. Rondon, then a major, was a native of Mato Grosso. He came from a rural background, and was a qualified engineer. Ideologically a firm positivist, Rondon was dedicated to the country’s progress. His abilities and skills made him the most suitable candidate to lead what became known as The Rondon Commission. Although the characteristically lengthy and cumbersome official title did not feature his name, it was also commonly referred to as The Rondon Mission. The use of the word mission in this name may have given participants a religious analogy to their project and helped put this political mission on par with those of religious missionaries, who were usually in the front lines of the conquest and sociopolitical domination of Indian peoples. As if they too found themselves on a kind of sacred mission. Read more

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Allegories Of Wildness ~ Converging Histories: Rondon, Myth, Ideology And Petty Domination

Myth and history
Before I return to Rondon as the major figure in Sabanê and Northern Nambikwara history viewed from both sides of the ethnic divide, I would like to discuss an interesting and, from an outside point of view, curious aspect of Sabanê ethnohistory. During a conversation with Manézinho about the Sabanê view of their own history, the elder asked me and my colleague if we were American. Ideas and beliefs about Americans arose mostly from contact with the people from the Summer Institute of Linguistics[i] (SIL) who operated in the region as early as the later 1950s. Prior to this there was an American Protestant mission, the South American Mission in the region. Some of its members in Utiarity were killed by Nambikwara only a few years before Levi-Strauss’s visit to Nambikwara land. The Indians’ motivation for killing the unprepared and rigid Protestant missionaries is unclear and the details of incident are not quite clear. Perhaps it has to do with the conviction that disease and death are often caused by nefarious human intervention. Lévi-Strauss supposes that a missionary gave a sick Indian medicine and when that Indian died, the others took the medicine to be poison and believed the missionaries to be murderers (1984: 342-3). Hence the notion of Americans may even date as far back as the thirties or possibly earlier with Roosevelt’s expedition. Lévi-Strauss discussed the situation and the events of the killing with the Indian perpetrators on the Parecis Plateau, so the participants in this drama were unlikely to be Sabanê. Yet, somehow the fame of the so-called Americans reached this people too. Manézinho related the following story as told to him by his great-grandfather, a man who lived at a time before the introduction of clothing[ii] (this account is edited for the present purpose):
After the Sabanê left the stone/hill in which they had taken refuge when the primordial sky threatened to fall on them, the cosmos was slowly transformed into pre-contact world in which they lived in their own land on their own terms, in their own “style”. Every people has its own thoughts and conceptions about the world, as for example seen in the differences of the Sabanê myth with the myth of the origin of domesticated plants of the Nambikwara. This period ended when the “American” emerged on the scene. His great-grandfather and his father told him about it. His great-grandfather walked about naked. The American lived in a large fortified house made of the white man’s material that could not be penetrated by the Indians. He also chased the Indians through the bush in order to cut their heads off and he killed many Indians. Some succeeded to run to the bushes where escape was possible because when passing through this vegetation the American’s height slowed him down. The Sabanê decided to take revenge. They lied in ambush, waiting for the American to go out. Many people on both sides died and the Sabanê decided to leave in search of a more tranquil place to live. This was the first time they moved. Only later they were harassed by other Indians and decided to move again.

Thus, after the cosmos gained its definite shape and inhabitants populated the earth, the first time the Sabanê entered into a conflict their enemy was an apparently non-Indian American. The American lodged in a fortified house and, although a human person, the narrative shows him as a monstrous anti-social entity who inflicted heavy losses on the Indians. The murderous conduct of the American reminds one of the general behaviour of the evil spirits that permanently display a disposition to persecute humans with illness and death. The entire Nambikwara ensemble seems to share the conviction of the permanent dangerousness of the spirits and may allow a comparison with myths from the Nambikwara do Campo. In their myths human encounters with the evil spirits are common and are fraught with danger (as illustrated in several myths, see Pereira 1983)[iii]. The fact that the Americans are seen as the impetus that first moved the Sabanê out of their homeland is surprising, but still makes sense. Real American missionaries generally tended to be thoroughly repulsed by Sabanê and Nambikwara cultures which they deeply misunderstood. One may say that some pursued the Indian’s salvation and, let us say, take their spiritual heads around with the same gusto as the mythological American sought the decapitation of their real heads. Lévi-Strauss thought, in effect, that the missionaries in Utiarity were utterly unprepared to deal with such savages and in their straightforward self-righteousness created serious conflicts. Even if this is an educated guess, the basic premise that strangers bring death and endanger survival is certainly substantiated by history. Read more

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