Twenty-five years ago, Brazilian scholars came together to publish História dos Índios no Brasil. The book consolidated the work of a generation trained in the post-graduate anthropology programs established in the late sixties. While facing the repression of the military regime (1964-1985) these scholars established anthropological and historical methods, valid to this day, that are at the same time theoretically robust and legally effective in securing the rights of Indigenous people to their land and their histories in Brazil. This paradigm was the product of an implicated anthropology (Albert 1995), where scholars and Indigenous peoples fight a common struggle against the deep-seated colonial dynamics of economic expansion.[1]

Fifty years ago, the number of post-graduates studying anthropology in Brazil increased dramatically. This generation of anthropologists would be the most active in facing the military regime (1964-1985) and in laying the groundwork for redemocratization.[2] The radical transformation of the terms by which anthropology has been—and still is—practiced in Brazil is a product of this generation’s efforts along with those of their many research collaborators. A major aspect of this transformation has been the progressive inclusion of minorities in Brazilian universities and the development of permanent efforts to establish more symmetrical knowledge practices.

In this essay, I argue that the documenting practices developed by this generation—and their organization in the context of virtually limitless reproduction and circulation of digital copies—offers not only a new approach to the history of anthropology, but also a number of tactical and strategic resources for managing other collections concerned with Indigenous peoples and minorities. Two issues in particular—first, the terms by which documentation concerning Indigenous peoples in Brazil is made and circulated including the effects of those choices, and secondly, the methodological and practical problems of how to organize and make available the so-called “personal archives” of this generation—make these collections useful to think with.[3]

My scholarship draws on work on the role of memory, knowledge and property among Indigenous peoples in the South American Lowlands, who are the key stakeholders in the organization of these document collections, as well work with professionals in memory institutions—museums and archives, and other guardians of collections—who negotiate the terms and conditions for establishing scientific, cultural, and personal document collections.

I have found a useful approach in what archival and information sciences in Brazil call characterization, as a way to fully analyze the different perspectives and problems implied in the organization of such collections. Characterization refers to a systematic consideration not only of material aspects of collections, but also of the practices and activities that led to the collections. It accounts for both the material realities and the history of production of the collection, considering these as the basis for access, disposal, conservation, rights and evidentiary regimes concerning specific documental corpora (Camargo 2009; Santos 2012). The description of the practices and activities of knowledge production and transmission and their various connotations and effects can be easily undertaken with regard to anthropological modes of research and display. Hence they are useful approaches for collaborating with the different actors necessarily involved in such projects.

This essay consists of a preliminary systematization of two foci of characterization.[4] Organized around the themes of “sense” and “sentiment,” they offer a picture of sensitive issues and risks posed in the present as perceived from the perspectives of Indigenous peoples, anthropologists, and professionals in memory institutions, while taking into account their differences, affinities, and complementarities.


Focus 1. Document collections for local use and the idiosyncrasies of digital memory: senses of urgency

The widespread use of cheaper and more portable digital gadgets, along with the growth of “social networks,” has resulted in a general intensification of self-documentation practices. More specifically, this has facilitated the documentation of Indigenous peoples by themselves and for themselves, as opposed to by outside ethnographers or other state and media experts. The practice of Indigenous self-documentation in Brazil is now standard in formalized cultural projects, political claims and articulation, and also in daily, private use, such as family pictures. Among Indigenous leaders, researchers of Indigenous populations, and other visitors, the ease of reproduction and the multi-localization of digital collections has elicited the imagination of locally available digitized documental collections whose maintenance and organization of which would be far more expensive and labor-intensive in paper and other media.

Sets of documents are usually gathered by keen individuals in different ways, and may or may not be formalized in collective projects for maintenance and activation of these documents.[5] Irrespective of the degree of formalization, these collections are usually seen as part of a broader set of initiatives—most commonly grouped under the headings of “education,” “culture,” and “environment”—which address what is perceived by the groups themselves to be a weakening of youngsters’ adhesion to local ways of life. The difficulties in engaging the young in the performance of traditional life are presented as a strong sign of the destruction caused by the diverse but concurrent realities of contact experienced by Indigenous peoples in Brazil.

Although they have different histories and time scales of grappling with non-Indigenous logics, ways of life, and possibilities, many groups share common discourses on the paradox of the attractiveness and the danger of non-Indigenous colonizers and their lifestyle (see Albert and Ramos 2002). Members of Indigenous communities debate perceptions of the destruction of the environment, the capture and dependency triggered by money and industrial commodities, and the concurrent abandonment of local livelihood practices. They also experiment with reclaiming, recovering, and strengthening local practices and knowledge.

One general strain of commentary, primarily articulated within Indigenous communities, emphasizes the extension of a network of knowledge transmission that is usually more restricted and controlled and discusses the risks posed by these kinds of knowledge beyond the local context of regular and carefully kept relations. These concerns are often accompanied by recurrent doubts regarding the true efficacy of these artifacts of memory in the production of new generations of potent and capable Indigenous persons according to the expectations of each group, contrasting these materials and mediations with local forms of learning through practice, conviviality, listening, ritual, and bodily techniques.

The handling of artifacts that retain pieces of times past pose specific sets of risks. One such risk concerns the ontological and agentive capacities of artifacts themselves, not only the ones made and conceived by the Indigenous groups, but also those of foreign origin. Of particular concern are materials (e.g. photos, audio recordings) that reproduce parts of human and non-human persons. Caution, wariness, and fear are thus not uncommon in situations where documentary material is examined. These affective responses seem to concentrate on broader themes, articulated in an idiom of corporality—translated to Portuguese as sickness, madness, laziness, which all may lead to death—and have long been discussed by anthropologists.[6]

In many Indigenous cultures, the transformation implied in death typically necessitates methods of dispatching, obliviating, and thus controlling the risks posed by longing, mourning, and other manners of interacting with the dead. The sense of cultural loss that motivates the gathering of documentation, on the other hand, presents itself as a specific mode of longing, which must be locally managed.

The ambivalence this entails regarding documents as resources for cultural “revitalization” is aggravated by the establishment of Federal and State Truth Commissions, which are now examining the cases of severe and systematic violence enacted by the state or others involved in the colonization of Brazilian territory in the twentieth century. Significant care is needed to document and convey the scale of genocide, ethnocide, and other unspeakable violences committed to Indigenous populations in ways that are considerate of the local arts and ethics of sentiment, in which sadness is often regarded as life threatening.

The issue concerning the conservation and organization of digital collections in village conditions led me to study the technical aspects of archiving in digital media. A point of contact with the themes posed by Indigenous assessments of the effects of these documents is the risk posed by their excessive circulation. The operation of digital devices requires copying as a means of data preservation, which multiplies the opportunities for circulating sensitive or personal memory artifacts—a debate that Euro-Americans articulate in terms of privacy.

Another set of concerns resonates with the Indigenous ambivalence between cultural propitiation and risk management: digital artifacts are constantly updated. This requires complex conditions for maintaining their legibility over periods as short as five years, rendering them less reliable than their paper counterparts. Copying and converting documents as a means of preservation similarly prompts an unexpected escalation of investment in data maintenance routines. This motivates great concern among professionals in the memory and information fields, since a significant portion of information now circulates solely through digital media. It also poses risks for future historical consideration of our present moment, and raises the danger of wasting the work that has gone into countless digitization initiatives. Dependence on foreign corporations for servers that store digital materials poses further problems.

These lines of commentary combine to create a sense of urgency: very quick and potentially severe effects are expected from these new practices of documentation.  The problems of how not to make mistakes in the present, and how to make sure that short-term solutions don’t have disastrous effects in the future seem to be more important now than in the past. Ironically, those working with these collections still face the traditional—not to say unfashionable—concerns of historians and archivists for preserving memory and establishing the historic depth of cultures.


Focus 2. Preservation of research documents, returns, and ethics—senses of relation

In the beginning of my research, colleagues and professors asked me for advice about the conservation, organization, and circulation of their own research materials. The recurrence of these questions brought to the fore the responsibility of anthropologists in documenting the recent history of minorities and subaltern groups in Brazil. These questions also marked a transformation of old anthropological problems regarding the telling the histories of people deemed without history and of salvaging cultures under imminent risk of disappearance.

The generation of Brazilian anthropologists that completed graduate education in the 1960s worked systematically to establish adequate fieldwork conditions, build an academic system of research, and contribute to non-governmental organizations and civil society networks. They were influential in the formulation and implementation of minorities’ rights in the Constitution. In addition to their defense of consistent research practices that would support Indigenous rights, this generation of ethnologists undertook different practices to ensure that their research products circulated back to their interlocutors: returning successive batches of fieldwork photographs to the communities they documented; providing publications to village schools and libraries; and sending documentation of grandparents back to grandchildren.

Recently, many members of this generation and their students have initiated a more systematic process of gathering and conveying documental collections—whether for local cultural centers, memory or advocacy institutions, or universities—so that they become available for a wider public. The current moment of reflection about how documents are produced and accumulated is an opportunity to examine the potential modalities of organization and activation of these collections for new relations. For example, anthropologists’ accumulation of materials that document their daily activities provide an interesting starting point for considering their work in teaching, establishing collective laboratories, organizations, as well as research. These materials tell stories about their own trajectories and networks of collaboration, revealing paths traced by papers, reports, publications, training and evaluation materials, and correspondence.

The issues raised by the specific configurations of research archives are, however, as diverse as the spaces, trajectories and practices of the scientific community. They include, for instance, the necessity to individually characterize the modes of acquaintance and of knowledge-making led by each researcher, providing adequate reasons for keeping process materials. In the case of anthropology, field notes are well-known sources that record the observation of past events and procedures in the making of knowledge and existential strategies for demanding circumstances.

However, engaging with field notes also requires addressing discarded hypotheses, as well as long forgotten stories and misunderstandings. The necessity of guaranteeing the rights to privacy, to image and voice, to intellectual property—not only for the keepers of documents, but also for research interlocutors—should not be trivialized. Recent efforts of formalization of research ethics in the Brazilian humanities may add retrospective scrutiny over collections produced under previous ethical regimes of research. Prior practices might be deemed not necessarily reproachable but insufficient, particularly in the present state of mutual acquaintance with Indigenous counterparts. These dynamics are intensified and subjected to further critical assessment with the increasing number of Indigenous students enrolled in universities.

The institutional custody of these kinds of documents thus prompts multiple perspectives on ethical, legal and procedural matters. Adjustments also inevitably come up with respect to the limitations faced by custodian institutions. In addition to the progressively constraining budgets for project development, there are significant limitations of personnel, space, and particularly of legal support to assure the rights of all involved parties and to protect documents subject to specific restrictions. These limitations lead many institutions to condition the deposit of collections on the donor’s acceptance of a free-access regime. In the case of collections concerning Indigenous peoples, this kind of solution undermines the terms established by instruments such as the ILO Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (ILO 169) for participation and informed consent; it impedes ongoing efforts to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into the processes of description and activation of memory collections.

The characterization of documentary collections concerning Indigenous peoples aims to define the terms for their access by taking account of the particular histories of relations through which the materials were produced. These definitions emerge through various modalities of communication and exchange, central not only to research and its ethics, but also to anthropological knowledge in an epistemic sense. Relations, mutual knowledge, and a shared sense of ethics are built not only through scientific methods but through hospitality, conviviality, involvement in daily activities, insertion in kinship networks, travelling together, and sharing speculations, stories, and meals, conceiving projects, and, in many cases, in adopting stances. These are all inextricable from nurturing relationships of trust. Adequate translation and understanding of local logics depend upon them.

These relational forms are documented in diverse manners in personal files, but they are also publicly conveyed in various forms of acknowledgements and methodological descriptions. For example, we find them in ethnographic texts, as well as in the promotion of new ways of marking Indigenous intellectual property in research activities and cultural projects. In Brazil, the political potency of these relations in a context where researchers and their interlocutors are co-citizens in a common struggle for human rights in the same nation-state has led increasingly to attacks from the lobbies of agroindustry, mining, and energy, which wish to open up Indigenous lands for deforestation and extraction.

In the present context of dismantlement of the Constitution, the fact that ethnologists are regularly involved in producing technical reports with legal status has made anthropology a target of accusations of partiality, subjectivity, and excessive proximity to their interlocutors. Industry lobbyists established a Federal Commission for Parliamentary Inquiry in 2015 that targeted the federal agencies in charge of land demarcation for Indigenous and traditional Afro-Brazilian populations (Quilombolas). The Commission’s sessions disqualified technical reports concerning land demarcation in areas subject to intense land speculation and threatened to frame certain forms of anthropological practice as a crime.

Among other tactics, the Commission used the citation of specific individuals in acknowledgements in theses and books and other textual demonstrations of localization and methodological rigor to intimidate and harass Indigenous leadership and anthropological researchers, and to further propagate anti-Indigenous, anti-environment and anti-rights discourses in Brazil. Though certainly not epistemologically solid, this use of anthropological work must also be considered in decisions about releasing anthropological materials and other sorts of documents that are strategic—and dangerous—for our research interlocutors.

Indigenous peoples and ethnologists challenging the systematic assassination of their people, landscapes, and cultures is not new in Brazil. What is new are the ways documentation of these knowledge relations may be activated. This requires not only a careful characterization of document collections, but of the present in which they act and the future they hope to bring about. The approach Isabelle Stengers (2015) suggests for a characterization procedure may complement the archivists’ methodological guidelines. It expresses an inherent sense of caution as well as an openness to different perspectives and contributions:

to envisage this situation in a pragmatic way: at one and the same time to start from what we think can be known but without giving to this knowledge the power of a definition … not so as to deduce this present from the past, but so as to give the present its thickness. (34)

Brazilian anthropologists have always been very careful to defend consistent theoretical and methodological approaches to match the scale of their civic responsibility. Our case seems now more than ever to require a history of anthropology that does not leave the making and management of collections in the background. We require a history that contemplates the multiple evidentiary and affective effects of assembled documents. In other words, as in other fields of the discipline, our history of anthropology will have to assert itself in new ways as an implicated anthropology (Albert 1995).

Read another piece in this series.


Works Cited

Albert, Bruce. 1995. “Anthropologie appliquée ou “anthropologie impliquée” ? Ethnographie, minorités et développement.” In Les applications de l’anthropologie: un essai de réflexion collective depuis la France, edited by Jean-François Baré, 87-118. Paris: Karthala.

Albert, Bruce and Alcida Rita Ramos, eds. 2002. Pacificando o branco: Cosmologias do contato no Norte Amazônico. São Paulo: UNESP.

Barcelos Neto, Aristóteles. 2006. “Des villages indigènes aux musées d’anthropologie.” Gradhiva 4.

Camargo, Ana Maria de Almeida. 2009. “Arquivos pessoais são arquivos.”Revista do Arquivo Público Mineiro 45.

da Cunha, Manuela Carneiro, Ruben Caixeta, Jeremy M. Campbell, Carlos Fausto, José Antonio Kelly, Claudio Lomnitz, Carlos D. Londoño Sulkin, Caio Pompeia, and Aparecida Vilaça. 2017. “Indigenous Peoples Boxed in by Brazil’s Political Crisis.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory  7 (2): 403-426. DOI:

Santos, Paulo Roberto Elian. 2012. Arquivos de cientistas: Gênese documental e procedimentos de organização. São Paulo: ARQ-SP.

Stengers, Isabelle. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press and meson press, 2015.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2015. Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere. Manchester: HAU.



[1] The Constitution foresees the right to difference and to land for Indigenous peoples. The Instituto Socioambiental offers an informed and useful comment on the specific terms. See da Cunha et al. (2017) for a consideration of the present challenges.

[2] The main efforts in producing a history or an anthropology of anthropology in Brazil have concentrated on the first half of the 20th century. See the works of Mariza Corrêa, Mariza Peirano, Lilia Schwarcz, and Fernanda Peixoto. Work concerning the second part of the century has been mostly done through bibliographical revision, commemorative reflection, interviews and situation analysis. Peirano offers important considerations for the 1950s onwards.

[3] This study was financed in part by the Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior – Brasil (CAPES) – Finance Code 001.

[4] These have been worked out from bibliography and from a number of exchange situations with colleagues and professionals in the field of information. I should mention Elisabete Marin Ribas, the technical supervisor of an important custodian of personal archives of intellectuals in Brazil: the Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros at Universidade de São Paulo. My thesis’ descriptive focus will be on the questions arising from research documents assembled by professors Lux Vidal (Universidade de São Paulo), Rafael Menezes Bastos (Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina) and Pedro Agostinho da Silva (Universidade Federal da Bahia).

[5] Local schools, cultural centers/houses are also home to documental collections. See Casa de Cultura Mawo, organized by the Ikpeng people, at The Rede Indígena de Memória e Museologia Social (Indigenous Network of Social Memory and Museology) promotes exchange among different initiatives across Brazil. The ProgDoc (Documentation Project) organized by the Museu do Índio, part of the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI, National Indian Foundation), stimulates collaborative documentation work according to each group’s terms and purposes.

[6] The ethnic diversity and extension of present ethnography makes it utterly unfair to single out cases and citations in this exposition. I suggest examining the extensive work of Dominique Gallois with the Wajãpi and of Aristóteles Barcelos Neto with the Wauja. For recurring themes and idioms of person, body, and time, Viveiros de Castro (2015).

Luísa Valentini: contributions / / Universidade de São Paulo