The volume História dos Índios no Brasil (da Cunha 1992) is the hallmark of a theoretical and methodological renewal in the historiography of Indigenous peoples in Brazil, a momentum which we are glad to be part of as authors and contributors. It is also iconic of Brazilian scholars’ commitment to the official acknowledgment of the political and land rights of Indigenous peoples. In circumstances very similar to the birth of ethnohistory in the United States during the 1940s (see Trigger 1982), the academic field of Indigenous history in Brazil consolidated in the 1980s as an answer to the political challenge of proving the historical basis for Indigenous land rights.[1] In those years, the military dictatorship took steps towards a restricted and controversial land demarcation process, which aimed to liberate lands for economic exploration, notably in opening areas of Amazonia. This meant a potential blow to Indigenous land rights claims. In reaction, Indigenous peoples established political organizations and activist movements in the 1980s. Many land demarcation cases were then taken to court, and historical evidence was crucial to guarantee constitutional Indigenous land rights (for a detailed account, see da Cunha and Barbosa 2018).

Led by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, the field of Indigenous history gained its own, singular profile in Brazil. Indeed, even the concept “Indigenous history” was coined by Carneiro da Cunha in response to our dissatisfaction with the rather loose use of the term “ethnohistory” in the literature consolidated in the North and Meso-American academic contexts (e.g. Wachtel 1971; Murra 1956-1970). In our debate, the term “ethnohistory” was limited to works that took into account the historicities of the peoples studied as well as their own regimes of expression and transmission. In its turn, Indigenous history sometimes contemplated extinct peoples or very early times, and had to reveal Indigenous thought and action on the basis of written sources.

In this vein, as Brazilian researchers, we construed Indigenous history as differing theoretically and methodologically from the historical ethnography of the time, which sought to isolate ethnographical data from the colonial situation (e.g. the classic A função da guerra na sociedade Tupinambá, Fernandes 1952), and from contemporary sociological approaches, which generalized the effects of capitalist expansion on Indigenous peoples irrespective of their different cultural responses (e.g. the classic work by Ribeiro 1970).

We were interested in the colonial situation as much as in the structural transformations that evolved from it. Such a theoretical position was part, of course, of the internal movements of the disciplines of anthropology and history in the 1980s. In the case of anthropology, there was a clear effort to reconcile history within structuralism—the seminal works in this regard being those of Marshall Sahlins (1981, 1985). Concurrently, the dialogue of the French new history (nouvelle histoire) with the conceptual apparatus of anthropology had a vivid impact on both disciplines (see, among other works, Le Goff, Chartier and Revel 1978).

The history of the volume História dos Índios no Brasil began ten years before its publication in 1992, during the struggle for Indigenous land demarcation at the end of the military dictatorship in the 1980s. In this framework, we—both graduate students then—were invited by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha to develop our research on the Indigenous peoples on the Rio Branco Valley, the present border between Brazil and Guyana. Supervised by Professor da Cunha, the two of us constituted a small research team on Indigenous history at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas.

The Brazilian state of Roraima, bordering Venezuela and Guyana.

Later, the team integrated colleagues at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and the Universidade Estadual de São Paulo (UNESP) and eventually brought in scholars from different parts of the country who were engaged in a larger project on Indigenous History and History of Indigenism, funded by the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP, São Paulo Research Foundation). This collective effort ultimately resulted in the book História dos Índios no Brasil.

Our joint contribution to the book focused on the seizure of Indigenous lands between the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Rio Branco Valley came to be colonized by civilians, after a colonial history of military and diplomatic disputes among Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands for possession of the region. Ours was a deliberate choice: we had in view a specific contribution to present land demarcation in the state of Roraima (the Brazilian border to Guiana and Venezuela), which was reassessed with the re-democratization of the country and the promulgation of the Constitution in 1988.

This meant the possibility of a fair revision of the demarcation of Wapishana territory and part of Makushi territory—brutally fragmented into small pockets around villages during the dictatorship—as well as the demarcation of the lands of the Taurepáng and Makushi, known as São Marcos and Raposa/Serra do Sol, respectively. In the last instance, a tough dispute over demarcation raged until 2008, aligning organized civil society, including us scholars, with the Indigenous peoples and their associations against the interests of agribusiness in their land.

For a historical approach to the plunder of Indigenous lands in Roraima, we primarily relied on documentation of land requisitions made between 1893 and 1900 in the Rio Branco valley.[2] We verified that the majority of requisitions targeted the right margin of the Rio Branco and its tributaries, Uraricoera and Amajari. This clearly indicated the westward direction of the colonization, thus affecting Wapishana plains territory and the border areas of Taurepáng and Makushi territories.

To the north, the mountains were relatively safe from settler incursions until the 1940s. This was due, on the one hand, to the upstream location of the regional administrative center of the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI, Indian Protective Service) on the São Marcos farm, at the source of the Rio Branco, closer to the mountains. On the other hand, settlers’ expansion into the area was prevented by its classification as neutral territory, the result of border litigation between Brazil and Great Britain (for British Guiana) from 1840 to 1904. As we pointed out, in the course of the judicial dispute around Raposa/Serra do Sol territory in 2008 (Farage and Santilli 2009), the overlap between the neutral territory and the larger part of the Makushi territory precluded its invasion until mid-twentieth century.

Raposa/Serra do Sol and the neutral territory

The middle Rio Branco and its tributaries were the stage for an overwhelming land occupation from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards: 85 land requisitions were made between 1893 and 1900. The number is confirmed by French traveler Henri Coudreau (1887 II: 406ss) and, thereafter, by Ermano Stradelli ((1889) 1991: 31).

It is worth noting that land title deeds issued in that period constituted the bulk of documents presented by the non-Indigenous occupants of Indigenous lands. We were able to verify this in 1996, when non-Indigenous occupants could justify their claims on Indigenous lands by virtue of Federal Decree 1775/96, which extended the constitutional principle of audi alteram partem—the right to be heard—to the land demarcation process. We effectively countered such claims on the land by uncovering the secret history of the controversial title deeds issued by the Government of the State of Amazonas, as encapsulated in the old requisitions.[3]

Farms at the Rio Branco Valley, by E. Stradelli, 1902

By the turn of twentieth century, the land invasions provoked flights of the Taurepáng population to the north and to the west, up into the mountains. In the east, the Makushi and Wapishana population fled in the direction of then British Guiana. They fled not only because their homeland was being occupied, but also to evade forced recruitment into agricultural labor, an adjunct to the establishment of farms (Andrello 1993; Santilli 1994).

Despite the withdrawal of part of the Indigenous population from the margin of the rivers—land disputed by the colonists—the majority remained in their territory. In contrast to other areas in Brazil (like Piauí or Mato Grosso do Sul), raising cattle on the plains of the middle and upper Rio Branco did not initially demand the expulsion or annihilation of the Indigenous peoples; on the contrary, settlers needed Indigenous labor. So, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the ambiguities of the land situation resulted in an imbricated picture, where national properties, Indigenous lands, and settler intrusions conflated and overlapped.

Indigenous Territories in the Rio Branco Valley, by E. Stradelli, 1903

Within this larger political context of land seizure, our 1992 article sought to piece together the fragments of the trajectory of a Taurepáng headman, Antonio Grande, who in 1893 tried to follow the rules of land entitlement then promoted by the state of Amazonas. As far as the dry and bureaucratic language of the requisition allows us to surmise, Antonio Grande seemed to join together—and make himself the leader of—one or more kindreds, vaguely referred to as “dependents.” It is plausible that he was trying to protect the territory of more than one village, codifying them as a “private property.” Two other similar cases are recorded in the same set of documents. Thus, Antonio Grande’s requisition is significant evidence that the Indigenous population tried, pragmatically, to transact within the terms of administrative language, in order to secure their lands and cope with the new reality of occupation.

Following Sahlins’ theoretical propositions on the relationship between structure and history (Sahlins 1981, 1985), our previous work demonstrated how headmen involved themselves in the colonial process as middlemen in charge of the difficult task of making sense of, and acting upon, the colonial political impacts (Farage 1991; Santilli 1994).

Indeed, negotiations, pacts, and other strategies facing the state or regional social interactions have been exploited by Amazonian historiography, with fruitful results for understanding Indigenous politics and history (the trend was set with the seminal work by Sweet 1976; see, for instance, Harris 1996). Land was a crucial point for the Makushi, Wapishana and Taurepáng, who conceptualized the fields and mountains where they live as an open space where villages move depending on alliances or conflicts among kindreds. Facing this Guianese pattern, Rivière (1984) stated that village movements were the spatial inscriptions of political history. The immobility brought by farms, herds, and kraals allows us to measure the immense violence of colonization.

Ultimately, Antonio Grande’s request for the title to his land was denied, though, based on two fallacies: firstly, Grande could not read or write and did not sign his requisition for land. Although many colonial examples show literacy operating in favor of the oppressed (see, for instance, Harris 1996), for Antonio Grande writing accomplished its old and conventional role, as an appendage to power. More importantly, Grande’s requisition was denied on the basis that he was a herdless, small-scale planter and thus could not justify owning such a large plot of land.

Such an argument epitomizes colonization of the northernmost Brazil and highlights the long-lasting connection between cattle and land as wealth in the area. Indeed, the ownership of a herd was the functional equivalent of land ownership in remote and economically peripheral areas of the country until the 1970s, when a land market was actually formed in Brazil. Although the local elite like Grande lacked literacy and capital throughout the twentieth century, herds, equated to land, differentiated the local elite. For the Indigenous population, ethnicity, equated to class position, delimited their place as laborers.

This framework would change in the 1980s, however, with the establishment of agribusiness based on capital from the south of Brazil. From this period, agribusiness aggravated violence and demanded the expulsion of the Indigenous population. It was not by chance that the structure of land ownership, broadly in place by the end of the nineteenth century, was consolidated by the end of the military dictatorship when the state took effective measures to demarcate Indigenous lands in Roraima. Clearly, the main goal was to liberate land for agribusiness rather than to assure justice for the historical rights of Indigenous peoples.

Also, it was not by chance that the target of such demarcation was the plains, which stretched out longitudinally on an east-west axis, at the basis of the Pacaraima mountain chain; this was the place where the Makushi and notably the Wapishana villages had a secular conviviality with the intrusive farms. Demarcation by the military regime resulted in the fragmentation of Wapishana territory, and also affected Makushi villages in the transition area up to their main land in the mountains.

Although the state has tried to fragment Makushi territory more than once since the 1980s, the attempts have not succeeded, mainly due to the growing pressure from organized civil society. It was only following administrative action in 2008, during the period of a democratic government, that the issue of demarcation of Makushi land—known as Raposa/Serra do Sol—was taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Indigenous rights.

To the reader unfamiliar with the Brazilian Indigenous cause, we must observe that this famous trial of Raposa/Serra do Sol had side effects on the demarcation of Indigenous lands in the country as a whole, as the Court, unexpectedly, imposed “conditional terms”[4] on the demarcation, which were never in the letter of the Constitution, greatly restricting the possibility of Indigenous groups to make claims. However, due to the fact that the Court accepted a continuous territory of 1,747,464 hectares for the Makushi, Taurepáng, Akawaio and Wapishana, this decision was considered a victory at the time. With its modest contribution, Indigenous history sought to fulfill what Walter Benjamin (2006, 4:391) said to be the historian’s craft,  “fanning the spark of hope in the past.”

Read another piece in this series.


Works Cited

Andrello, Geraldo. 1993. “Rumo norte: Migrações e profetismo Taurepáng no século XX.” Ciências Sociais Hoje, (93): 244-265.

Benjamin, Walter. 2006. Selected Writings, volume 4: 1938-1940. Edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press.

Coudreau, Henri. 1887. La France Équinoxiale. 2 vols. Paris: Chalanell-Ainé.

da Cunha, Manuela Carneiro, ed. 1992. História dos Índios no Brasil. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

da Cunha, Manuela Carneiro, and Barbosa, Samuel Rodrigues, eds. 2018. Direitos dos povos indígenas em disputa. São Paulo: Editora Unesp.

Dantas, Beatriz G., and Dalmo de A. Dallari. 1980. Terra dos Índios Xocó: Estudos e documentos. São Paulo: Comissão Pró-Índio de São Paulo.

Farage, Nádia. 1991. As muralhas dos sertões: Os povos indígenas no Rio Branco e a colonização. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra and ANPOCS.

Farage, Nádia, and Paulo Santilli. 2009. “TI Raposa/Serra do Sol: Fundamentos históricos”. In Makunaima grita: Terra Indígena Raposa/Serra do Sol e os direitos constitucionais no Brasil, edited by Julia Trujillo Miras and Beto Ricardo, 21-30. Rio de Janeiro: Beco do Azougue.

Fernandes, Florestan. (1952) 1970. A função social da guerra na sociedade Tupinambá.São Paulo: Editora USP and Pioneira.

Harris, Mark. 2010. Rebellion in the Amazon: The Cabanagem, Race and Popular Culture in the North of Brazil, 1798-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Le Goff, Jacques. 1978. La nouvelle histoire. Paris: Retz.

Nabuco, Joaquim. 1941. O direito do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nacional.

Murra, John Victor. 1956. The Economic Organization of the Inca State. Chicago: University of Chicago.

———. 1970. Current Research and Prospects in Andean Ethnohistory. Ithaca: Cornell University.

Ribeiro, Darcy. 1982. Os índios e a civilização: A integração das populações indígenas no Brasil moderno. Petrópolis: Vozes.

Rivière, Peter. 1984. Individual and Society in Guiana: A Comparative Study of Amerindian Social Organisation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1981. Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

———.1985. Islands of History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Santilli, Paulo. 1994. As fronteiras da República: História e política entre os Macuxi no Vale do Rio Branco. São Paulo: NHII-USP & FAPESP.

Stradelli, Ermanno. 1991. “O Rio Negro, o Rio Branco, o Uaupés, 1889”. In Naturalistas italianos no Brasil, edited by Teresa Isenburg. São Paulo: Ícone.

Sweet, David. 1976. A Rich Realm of Nature Destroyed: the Middle Amazon Valley, 1640-1750. 2 vols. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms Int.

Trigger, Bruce G. 1982. “Ethnohistory: Problems and Prospects.” Ethnohistory29 (1): 1–19.

Wachtel, Nathan. 1971. La vision des vaincus – Les Indiens du Pérou devant la Conquête Espagnole (1530-1570). Paris: Gallimard.


[1] As in the US, anthropologists, then, went to the archives in search of documentary evidence. In this regard, a pioneering work is the valuable Terra dos Índios Xocó, by Góis Dantas and Dallari (1980), made at the request of the Comissão Pró-Índio de São Paulo (Pro-Amerindian Commission of São Paulo), which had Manuela Carneiro da Cunha as its president.

[2] These documents were kept in the then Institute of Lands of the State of Amazonas. Land requisitions were made possible in the period due to the arrival of the Republic. In an attempt to regulate de facto possession in the country, the first Republican Constitution ruled (article 64) that the states would have the supplementary administration of vacant lands (“terras devolutas”), excepting the frontier areas and national properties. However, besides its status as Indigenous territory, the land in the Rio Branco valley did not fit the category of “vacant” precisely because it was a frontier area and had constituted national properties–“fazendas da Coroa”–since colonial times. Even so, the state government distributed contested land titles.

[3] The land requisitions also proved to be valuable evidence in showing the duplicitous manner in which attempts were made to take Indigenous lands. We both presented expert written testimony to the courts in twelve cases, all of which were decided in favor of Indigenous claims.

[4] Among other conditions, the Court ruled that Indigenous territories should be defined by the permanent presence of the Indigenous population up to 1988, the date of the Constitution. This unprecedented and highly disputable decision has been affecting gravely other Indigenous peoples in Brazil, such as the Guarani, who were previously expelled from their traditional places.

Nádia Farage: contributions / / CECULT – IFCH – UNICAMP
Paulo Santilli: contributions / / FCLAR – UNESP