Reclaiming Indigenous sovereignty under the threat of genocide in Brazil

Despite tremendous colonial violence from the state and settler society, Indigenous leaders in contemporary Brazil perform the authority inherited from their peoples, write João Urt and Tchella Maso. It is time to recognise their diplomatic roles as sovereign mediators between their cosmologies and the Westernised world

What's at stake in Brazil's indigenous struggles

'Brazil is indigenous land,' proclaims the indigenous movement. Despite the fact that great swathes of it have been expropriated through a violent colonial system, all of Brazil was inhabited by native peoples before colonisation. Nevertheless, indigenous movements in the fifth-largest country in the world do not seek to evict the entire settler population.

They do, however, intend to guarantee the territories presently claimed by indigenous communities who have resisted five centuries of massacre. They want to secure the land 'necessary for their well-being and their physical and cultural reproduction', as per Brazil's Constitution.

To affirm that Brazil is indigenous land is to demand respect for the living peoples and their lifeworlds, in the face of immense force from settler society

Regrettably, indigenous struggles face opposition from sectors of settler society – landowners, military and other so-called 'patriots', each filled with supposed zeal for national sovereignty. These groups use immense physical, symbolic, and discursive force to block the advancement of any territorial or political right for indigenous peoples. For this reason, it is taboo to speak of Indigenous sovereignty in Brazil.

Alain GiA - Davi Kopenawa Yanomami and Claudia Andujar and Dario Kopenawa Yanomami 2020
Alain GiA - Davi Kopenawa Yanomami and Claudia Andujar and Dario Kopenawa Yanomami, 2020

Why speak of Indigenous sovereignty?

The Brazilian state – like other settler states – has been careful in its official manifestations to assert its right to territorial integrity against supposed risks of secession. Yet Brazilian society refuses to understand in good faith indigenous demands for self-determination and land rights. Indigenous peoples pose no threat to national unity. In fact, they have never asserted the right to establish states.

To affirm that Brazil is indigenous land is to demand respect for the living peoples and their lifeworlds. This has been advanced by indigenous movements elsewhere for decades. We therefore believe it is time to bring the debate on Indigenous sovereignties to Brazil.

Reclaiming sovereignty

Indigenous movements in Brazil seldom employ the lexicon of sovereignty. If we do, though, it is to fray the political-philosophic fabric of a decrepit colonial order. Because sovereignty is central to the European system of states, we explore the possibilities of recovering sovereignty from its strict Westphalian understanding. Reclaiming sovereignty should make possible the recognition of indigenous peoples' authority over their lives and territories.

Reclaiming sovereignty should make possible the recognition of indigenous peoples' authority over their lives and territories

Our approach to indigenous sovereignties began with a search for indigenous leaders who manifest and exercise the autonomy of their peoples. We started where we considered the exercise of political authority most obvious: the trajectories of distinguished indigenous leaders. Among many, we chose those about whom there were available written sources. We thus arrived at the names of Davi Kopenawa, Ailton Krenak and Valdelice Veron.

Davi Kopenawa: a voice from the forest

A Yanomami leader, Davi Kopenawa built his political engagement upon his shamanic knowledge. His spiritual journey shaped the way he affirmed Yanomami cosmology as the foundation of his people's authority over their territory. In the 1980s, the Yanomami land was invaded by thousands of gold miners. Kopenawa then started visiting State authorities in Brazil and abroad, in a campaign for the rights of his people.

In 1992, Yanomami land in Brazil was officially demarcated. This established its boundaries and granted exclusive land rights to the Yanomami people. Since then, Davi has spread the word about his people and his world, in alliances with anthropologists, photographers, movie makers, as well as with other Indigenous leaders.

His leading message is that 'we are the sons of Omama'. The forest he created is alive. Its spiritual guardians, the xapiri, are also responsible for keeping the sky over our heads. Yanomani believe that if the forest dies, the sky will fall. That would be the end of the world, for the Yanomami as well as for other peoples.

Ailton Krenak: convenor and ambassador

From a young age, Ailton Krenak travelled to Indigenous communities all over Brazil. He taught Indigenous rights and engaged in alliances with the traditional worlds he was visiting. Based upon the respect he gained, in 1984 Ailton promoted the creation of the first nationwide Indigenous organisation in Brazil, the Union of Indigenous Nations.

In 1987, he performed a memorable scene in the Constituent Assembly as a representative of Indigenous movements. Covering his face in black jenipapo paint, Krenak pronounced a victorious address in defence of the Indian Chapter in the Constitution. His actions have guaranteed Indigenous rights to this day.

In the following decades, Krenak has also dedicated himself to providing an intellectual grammar for settler-Indigenous relations in Brazil. He has published a series of books deploying traditional wisdom as a part of his willingness to mediate between Indigenous worlds and those of Brazilian settler societies.

Valdelice Veron: an heiress with a mandate

We call Valdelice Veron an heiress because she was educated as a Kaiowá woman, skilled in the sacred knowledge of Kaiowá tradition. But she was also entrusted by her father, Cacique Marcos Veron, with the mission to make paper speak. He meant that she should learn written knowledge from the White world and employ it for the Kaiowá people's own good.

Years later, Cacique Marcos Veron was killed in front of his family because he had annoyed rural oligarchs. Since then, Valdelice has struggled ever more fiercely for the recognition of Kaiowá traditional lands. She has taken part in the Kaiowá strategy of retomadas (reoccupation camps). And she has also gone on an intercultural quest, across universities and human rights organisations, aiming to ‘make paper speak’ in defence of Kaiowá land rights.

Until when?

These three indigenous leaders perform the authorities they inherit from their peoples in contexts of extreme settler violence. The Krenak lands suffered a spill of toxic mud in 2015. Yanomami land is still under invasion by thousands of gold miners. The Kaiowá have not yet obtained the demarcation of their ancestral lands.

Humanitarian crises continue and Indigenous worlds are endangered. In the frontline of the battle for a sustainable Planet Earth, their struggles remain unfulfilled. It is time to reclaim Indigenous sovereignty.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of João Urt João Urt Associate Professor of International Relations, Universidade Federal de Roraima More by this author
photograph of Tchella Maso Tchella Maso Associate Professor of International Relations at Universidade Federal de Roraima, PhD candidate in Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of the Basque Country More by this author

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