RIO DE JANEIRO – She carries the weight of her people on her shoulders and that makes her beautiful. With her seashell and pearl necklace around the neck, her tanned tattooed skin, her feathers of different sizes and her bright and vividly colored skeins, Vangri Kaingang is a proud native and she’s not afraid to show it.
Descended from the Kaingang tribe from the south of Brazil, this urban indigenous woman lives in Rio de Janeiro. Vangri, 31, works as a bilingual Portuguese-Kaingang youth worker – which is just another way to claim and share her background. “The state has always ignored us, as if we did not exist,” she says.
Vangri is quite representative of this new generation of Brazilian indigenous people who refuse to be left out by history and have started to speak out. A recent census carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010 and published on Aug. 10 shows that 896,000 indigenous people live in Brazil – equivalent to 0.47 percent of the total population.
There are 305 ethnic groups speaking 271 languages. This is 278 percent more than in 1991 when only 294,100 people said they were indigenous when asked about their race or color. The census shows a 25 percent increase since 2000. It is also more than the previous estimations made by anthropologists, who generally believed that there were only 220 indigenous ethnic groups and 180 languages in Brazil.
Marta Maria do Amaral Azevedo from the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI- a Brazilian governmental protection agency for Indian interests and their culture), was quick to specify that this spectacular figure has nothing to do with a baby boom amongst Indians. According to her, it is most likely related to the increase in people who have come to recognize themselves as Indians in recent decades, whereas before they might have had negative preconceptions about their indigenous roots.
This negative image is widespread in Brazilian society, as Spensy Pimentel, researcher at the Center for Amerindian Studies at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), explains in a column published in Folha de S. Paulo: “The fact that more people identify themselves as Indian is due to the fact that this cultural heritage has now become a factor of pride. It is no longer associated with shame and fear as it was the case during the previous decades and during the dictatorship (1964-1985).”
According to the "Indian status" established during the dictatorship, people who descended from those who had survived the Portuguese colonization and its massacres were considered wards of the state and had no rights. It was only with the new constitution of 1988 that their situation improved, as indigenous Brazilians were granted cultural and territorial rights – most notably the right to permanently live on their ancestral land.
In terms of statistics, the IBGE shows that 63.8 percent of indigenous people live in rural areas while 36.2 percent live in urban areas. 59.2 percent of them have no income. In rural areas, 34.4 percent of indigenous children do not have birth certificates. The national average for this is 0.5 percent.
The census lists out 505 Indian territories, which represent 12.5 percent of Brazil’s total surface, on which 517,400 Indians live. Most of them live in the State of Amazonas (183,514), followed by Mato Grosso do Sul (77,025) and Pernambuco (60,995). The State of Sao Paulo - and its megalopolis - ranks 8th (41,981) while Rio de Janeiro ranks 18th (15,894).
Marginalized and vulnerable
A closer look at the statistics published by the IBGE clearly shows that Indians are still the most marginalized and vulnerable community in Brazil. Only 76.7 percent of indigenous people are able to read and write, while the national average is 90.4 percent.
According to the census, their average age is 22.1-years-old. The age pyramid reflects high birth and mortality rates. The IBGE census also shows that in six Indian territories, there are no Indians over 50-years-old.
According to Nilza Pereira, who coordinated the census, the growing number of very young Indians is another striking result, Globo reports. Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of indigenous people under 14 went from 32.6 percent to 36.2 percent while every other age group decreased in the meantime from 61.6 percent to 58.2 percent. “This census shows how much Brazil has to rethink the way it considers indigenous people,” says Spensy Pimental.
This is not going to be easy, according to Vangri Kaingang. “People don’t know us. Our way of life and our culture scare them. Getting to know us is like reading a scary and shameful chapter of our country’s history. People should start respecting us. We are still a long way from that.”
In 1935, Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was still a young ethnologist, had been struck by the social decomposition of a small group of Kaingang in the State of Parana after his first encounter with Amerindians: "they are savages on whom civilization was abruptly forced," he wrote in Tristes Tropiques in 1955. "As soon as they were no longer perceived as a threat, civilization took no further interest in them.” Cautious, he also learnt from this experience with the Kaingang that appearances could be deceptive.