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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Allegories Of Wildness ~ Refractions Of Wildness: The Choreography Of War

Peoples with histories[i]
To best understand the situation with the Latundê, it is essential to have as much historical understanding as possible to comprehend the basis of the present and to more clearly see these people as but one thread in the myriad of local groups and peoples that comprise the Nambikwara fabric. The documentary history of the Latundê showed the contingencies that amounted to a tragic destiny. The field research discussed afterwards demonstrated that the destiny and viability of their social group, ethnic identity, and language is unclear. For the small group of people now called Latundê, we have can only get a fleeting glimpse of their history and only of a short amount of time. This is in part because of communication difficulties, but owes also to the Indians’ reticence to discuss the past. It is quite obvious that they parted ways with the main body of the Northern Nambikwara not too long ago. Linguistically, the Lakondê dialect is very similar, aside from a number of syntactic and lexical differences. The major leader of the latter group, the one who was responsible for contact, and who is the brother of Dona Tereza, claimed that the two languages were the same. Therefore the small group of Latundê must have participated in the northern network described for the history of the Sabanê. As to the Sabanê, they were documented to be in the Roosevelt/Tenente Marques area at the time of Rondon’s incursion and initial expropriation. Additionally, they have stories about prior migrations. Thus, the historical time depth has gradually been extended and now with the Sararé comes to include an even larger time frame. The Sararé, as the group is most commonly known currently, inhabit the southernmost part of all the region once pertaining to the Nambikwara ensemble. Similar to the Latundê they only made contact in the sixties and live in an area separate from the main Nambikwara Indigenous Territory occupied by the bulk of the surviving groups of the Guaporé Valley. Like the Sabanê, the information about their history includes much more depth than that of the Latundê.

The Sararé form a sub-set of the sub-cluster of the branch of the Nambikwara linguistic family that is best known because of the linguistic missionary work among the Nambikwara do Campo. The Southern Nambikwara cluster includes the Campo and Valley sets within which one distinguishes the southernmost Sararé as a sub-set. The Nambikwara do Campo have a different historical record because of the Telegraph Line, the concomitant penetration by others this Line permitted, and the rubber expansion from lower rivers reaching out up to the high rivers of their heartland on the Parecis Plateau[ii]. The Guaporé valley was mostly spared from the expropriating effects the incursion of the Telegraph Line was to have, but by the time of the Second World War the renewed impulse of the regional encroaching society attained some peoples in the Valley too. The western border of the Valley Nambikwara was the Guaporé River, a river that had historical importance as early as the seventeenth century. By coincidence the river marks the expansion of the Portuguese beyond the original treaty of Tordesillas that pre-established the dividing line with the Spanish. At the time of the treaty no one actually knew the extension of the territories which each state was allowed to “legitimately” conquer in the so-called New World. The so-called Paulistas (from the state and capital of São Paulo that at one time formally comprised an enormous territory of various other contemporary states), also known as the bandeirantes (after the expeditions, bandeira, from São Paulo organized by the Paulistas, roamed ever further into the vast hinterland in search of Indians to be enslaved, gold, precious metals and diamonds. “Red gold” (Hemming 1995) constituted one of the mainstays of the labor force in São Paulo during a large part of the seventeenth century (see Monteiro 1994). Easy riches were supposed for the largely unknown interior and very much coveted as a fast way to wealth. In Brazilian historical mythology the bandeirantes figure prominently as those principally responsible for the territorial expansion of Brazil. In the process they depleted enormous areas of their inhabitants, also displacing and exterminating Indians. In the end, in the middle of the eighteenth century, the Guaporé River became a major frontier with Spanish America, nowadays called Bolivia, consisting of the major part of the actual exterior border of Rondônia. Read more

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

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]. Read more

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Allegories Of Wildness ~ A Final Summation

The awful unfolding scene of the future
It is difficult to predict the future. After completing work on the three Nambikwara peoples above I decided to try to establish a few parameters and attempt to limit the scope of what future scenarios may come into play. This brings to mind the volumes of memoirs written by Sir Winston Churchill on his participation in the tremendous and costly events of WWII. Here, only a few years after the appalling events that left so many dead and engendered the reality of the very word genocide, Churchill pondered what way, exactly, his experience could aid in avoiding human tragedy. He believed that he did not write history, that was the work of a future generation, instead his goal was to make “(…) a contribution to history which will be of service for the future” (Churchill 1964a: preface; orig. 1948).His account offers a fascinating inside view of a war that brought entire nations into servitude and threatened the existence of a sovereign Great Britain. Many European countries suffered from the Nazi occupation and domination of their lands and, in reality, their attendant transformation into German colonies. Churchill, and according to his account, the entire British people, were determined even at the most difficult time of the War in the mid-1940s to continue the fight and never to surrender and accept the loss of freedom. This utter resolve, he clearly affirmed, is a matter of sentiment and values, not merely the expression of any kind of material interests. The feelings of the subjugated peoples and the indomitable spirit for their liberty as a free British people of these times show the force of ideas and values related to ethnic self-determination. I suggest that simply by transposing this historical experience, the author and these European peoples should appreciate the longing for autonomy and admire the resistance and resilience of the Nambikwara peoples whose histories are discussed in this book. The fact is, many people do appreciate this and these are the people who pressured governments to act in accordance with their professed values and insure that laws are obeyed. Of course, the ethnocentric values of civilization and progress in the pre-eminent evolutionary framework conflict with other values and by attributing primitiveness and backwardness to indigenous peoples that, for many people and all governments, justify the suspension of their own pre-eminent notion of self-determination. The Nambikwara congeries and other subjugated peoples think otherwise. These peoples have their own goals and plans for the future.

History is shaped by the unfolding of intersecting multiple causalities and the permanent, simultaneous occurrence of a multifold contingencies and accidents. Human history is both determined and indeterminate by structural causes and open to human agency. The present shapes the future but the scene of the future remains fundamentally open-ended and obscured, especially for the embedded participant. “The veils of the future are lifted one by one, and mortals must live from day to day” (Churchill 1964b: 209). In prospective, science, the main crux that needs to be ascertained is the weight to be attached to the diverse factors contributing to permanence (structural continuity), or transformation (structural change). The larger issue at stake here can hardly be addressed and the particular prospects for the different Nambikwara peoples have already been outlined above. Still a few additional remarks are required. Continuing along the lines of Churchill’s experience, he recounted that before the War, in 1932, he had an opportunity to meet Hitler in Germany, an encounter suggested by a man who was likely the German leader’s emissary. During Churchill’s conversations with this man, he expressed his astonishment about Hitler’s policy towards the Jews. He said he understood such posture if any Jew had done wrong, committed treason, or wanted “(…) to monopolize power in any walk of life; but what is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?’”(Churchill 1964a: 71). True enough, this issue addresses the fundamental question of deprecating and hating all people of a certain social category owing purely to their classification and identification as a certain people. The intermediary must have relayed this doubt, and Hitler apparently considered this sufficient reason to cancel the appointment. In this way the two future enemies never met face-to-face. Read more

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Allegories of Wildness ~ Bibliography

Abrams, Daniel and Steven Strogatz – 2003 “Modelling the dynamics of language death.” In Nature Vol. 424, 21 August 2003.
Abreu, Regina – 1996 A Fabricação do Imortal. Memória, História a Estratégias de consagração no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: LAPA/Rocco.
Agostinho, Pedro – 1996 “Os Nambikwara en 1975: transferências e situação.” In S. B. Magalhães, R. de C. Britto and E. R. de Castro (eds.), Energia na Amazônia, vol.II, Belém: MPEG/UFPA/AUA.
Ahearn, Laura, – 2001 “Language and Agency.” In Annual Review of Anthropology, vol.30.
Albert, Bruce and Alcida Ramos (eds.) – 2002 “Pacificando o branco.” São Paulo: UNESP.
Almeida, Alfredo Wagner B. de – 1991 “O intransitividade da transição. O Estado, os conflitos agrários e a violência na Amazônia”. In P. Léna and A. de Oliveira (eds.), Amazônia, a fronteira agrícola 20 andos depois. Belém: MPEG and ORSTOM.
Almeida, Alfredo Wagner B. de e João P. de Oliveira – 1998 “Demarcação e reafirmação étnica: um ensaio sobre a Funai.” In J.P. de Oliveira (ed.), Indigenismo e territorialização. Poderes, rotinas e saberes coloniais no Brasil comntemporâneo. Contracapa: Rio de Janeiro.
Almeida, Marli Auxiliadora de – 2005 ““Pacificação” dos Bororo Coroado na Província de Mato Grosso. “Guerras e Alianças” (1845-1887).” Paper presented at the XXIII Simpósio Nacional de História, July 2005.
Anzia, L. Caselli – 2005 “Demarcação de Fronteiras na América Meridional no Setecentos, Exploração do Trabalho Indígena e Doenças.” In M. Salomon, J. F. Silva, L. M. Rocha (eds.), Processos de territorialização: Entre a História e a Antropologia. Goiânia: Ed da UCG.
Arruda, Rinaldo – 1998 “Rikbatsa.” In Encyclopedia of Indian Peoples. Instituto Socioambiental:
Aspelin,P. – 1975 “External articulation and domestic production: the artifact trade of the Mamaindê of northwestern Mato Grosso, Brazil.” Cornell University dissertation series no. 58.
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– 1979b “Food distribution and social bonding among the Mamaindê of Mato Grosso, Brazil.” In Journal of Anthropological Research vol. 35, nr. 3.
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Avery, Thomas – 1977 “Mamaindê vocal music.” In Ethnomusicology Vol. XXI, nr. 3.
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– 1981 “Apontamentos sobre o dualismo econômico dos índios Nambikuara.” In Publicações do Museu Municipal de Paulínia, vol.3, no.15.

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