The 1992 publication of the volume História dos Índios no Brasil edited by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha marked a turning point in scholarship on Indigenous peoples in Brazilian history and anthropology. Featuring works by twenty-seven leading scholars across the fields of social and cultural anthropology, linguistics, archeology, and genetics, it established a new baseline in the rapidly expanding field of Indigenous history.[1]

The volume is a compelling artifact in and of itself. With over six hundred lavishly illustrated, glossy pages, it introduced rare images and historic photographs that pointed to previously unexplored collections and sources. The margins feature sketches of graphic designs from diverse Indigenous peoplesThe dimensions of the book were fitting for its radical intervention into the historiography of Indigenous peoples in the geographical region currently known as Brazil.

In December 2017, a group of scholars came together at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) to celebrate and reflect on the volume, the scholarly and political work that led to its publication, and the directions that Indigenous history has taken in the subsequent twenty-five years. Two of the organizers,  Marta Amoroso and Camila Dias, proposed sharing perspectives from the event with The History of Anthropology Newsletter through this special guest-edited dossier. We jumped at the chance, as História dos Índios no Brasil and the scholarship that it fostered have profoundly shaped the recent history of anthropology in Brazil as well as offering important points for comparison and reflection for Indigenous studies worldwide. Here I offer some reflections to introduce our readers to the volume and the broader context of Brazilian anthropology in the late twentieth century.

Contexts of Complicity and Resistance

Few scholars debate anthropologist Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima’s contention that “the origins and growth of anthropology in Brazil are synonymous with the study of … Indigenous peoples [in Brazil],” or that the field has been profoundly shaped by “efforts to expose ethical issues and help defend against actions that compromise the rights of Indigenous peoples” (Souza Lima 2004,11). Although there is no single unified Brazilian anthropology, political engagement and advocacy work are common and even expected for scholars in the discipline, particularly in ethnology (Ramos 1990).[2]

This emphasis on political action as a norm emerged from a confluence of factors, equally essential for setting the terms of debate for História dos Índios no Brasil. Anthropology, like other social sciences in Brazil, was institutionalized with the expansion of the university system and federal funding initiatives for science and technical training in the 1950s, and continued to gain steam under military rule from 1964-1985 (Motta 2014).[3]

The enmeshment between academic anthropology and government institutions in this process is exemplified by the careers of Darcy Ribeiro and Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira, two key figures in the growth of the field. Both were trained in the social sciences at the Universidade de São Paulo, but were also deeply influenced by their experiences working for the government agency in charge of Indigenous affairs, the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI, Indian Protective Services) (Melatti 1983, 14; Ramos 1990, 453). Like the generations of students that would follow them, their experiences as ethnologists both informed and were influenced by state priorities regarding Indigenous lands and rights.

The first generations of students trained by Ribeiro, Cardoso de Oliveira, and their colleagues came of age during the politically volatile 1960s and 1970s. Following the suicide of populist dictator-turned-elected-president Getúlio Vargas in 1954, Brazilian politics tumultuously tacked between right and left until, with the civilian-military deposition of the leftist government of João Goulart in 1964, the country entered what would be two decades of rule by military junta.

The developmentalist policies of the 1940s-1950s, followed by their acceleration under military rule, meant that Brazilian settlers advanced into Indigenous lands at ever-increasing rates. Indigenous communities, some of whom had moved west and north to escape colonial and neocolonial expansions of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, faced new waves of violence, dispossession, epidemic disease, and other threats to their continued existence. It was in this context that Brazilian anthropologists developed a self-styled militância—militancy or activism—that has become a defining feature of the public and intellectual roles of the field in Brazil.

The emerging antropologia militante included newly minted scholars who worked variously with and against agencies of the military government, sometimes alternating between engagement and disavowal in rough parallel with the waxing and waning of political repression. The 1960s-1980s were key decades for the institutionalization of Brazilian anthropology (Corrêa 1995) in large part because of the relational nexus formed among state agencies, Indigenous peoples and leaders, and anthropologists.

As scholarship on the military dictatorship has often emphasized, the Brazilian regime went to some lengths to maintain premises of legality for its rule—what Thomas Skidmore called “legal acrobatics” for legitimacy (Skidmore 2009, 156). High-ranking members of the administration consistently claimed that military rule was temporary, and would only persist long enough to establish economic and national security. This interest in maintaining legitimacy also meant the regime was sensitive to international pressure, and Indigenous issues became a key point of criticism.

In the most restrictive periods of military rule, especially from 1968 to 1974, Brazilian anthropologists worked with colleagues from abroad to publicize and condemn abuses.[4] Journalists, social scientists, and politicians accused the military regime of atrocities against Native groups (Garfield 2001, 143; Warren 2001, 83-85). Within the the heterogeneous group that made up Brazilian anthropologists, some worked for the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI, National Indian Foundation), the federal agency charged with addressing Indigenous issues. Others consulted on road-building projects or agricultural development initiatives, attempting to leverage their expertise to mitigate the harm these initiatives would do to Indigenous communities.

As the regime shifted towards a softening of repression and made the first moves toward redemocratization, Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and colleagues began consolidating the work that would lead to História dos Índios no Brasil. As the authors featured here highlight, this happened in a political moment when investigation into Indigenous history was of immediate use for the pressing issue of official land recognition. It was also moment when Indigenous activists and politicians were working ferociously for their rights to be recognized, with anthropologists playing roles as allies on the political stage.

Brazil returned to democratic rule in 1985, and in 1988 a constituent assembly ratified a new constitution that is still in place today. The 1988 Constitution granted Indigenous people national citizenship, where the state had previously recognized them only as subjects of tutela, or tutelage.[5] Due to the activism of Indigenous leaders and their hard work with allies, the constituent assembly guaranteed Indigenous communities’ right to differentiated identity, education, and “originary rights” to traditional land.

It was in this political context of the 1980s and 1990s that anthropologists emerged as the predominant authors of scholarly works of Indigenous history—more than sociologists, historians, legal scholars, or experts from other disciplines. As many of the pieces collected here demonstrate, Indigenous history was essential to the creative legal projects of Indigenous activists and anthropologists whose expertise often proved crucial in Brazilian courts. Anthropologists were often called on, both by government agencies and by the Indigenous communities that had hosted them for their research, to consult on the official government demarcation of Terras Indígenas, i.e. Indigenous territories or lands. Documenting the history of contact, land use, migration, and displacement became a moral imperative for those practicing anthropology in Indigenous territory. The History of Anthropology Newsletter is thrilled to bring a portion of this conversation to our readers.

Overview of the Dossiê

The pieces that Amoroso and Dias have brought together here raise a number of interesting questions for historians of anthropology.

First, as readers will see, the current political situation is of utmost concern to the authors of this special focus section. Much as the earlier project of História dos Índios no Brasil was shaped by the lead up to and aftermath of the 1988 Constitution, the 2018 political rise of far right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro raises urgent issues regarding the use and misuse of anthropological research, both past and present. His election brings new visibility and dominance to a long-forming alliance of the agricultural, evangelical, and gun lobbies in the Brazilian Congress. While the bancada ruralista or Rural Caucus has long advocated the weakening of FUNAI and other indigenist institutions and policies, the risk of this political agenda coming to fruition is acute; Bolsonaro’s campaign platform included the dissolution of Indigenous land rights.

These pieces offer a potent reminder of the present political stakes of interpreting the past, and of both the power and the vulnerability of these interpretations.

Nádia Farage and Paulo Santilli reflect on their intention to contribute to the reassessment of Wapishana, Taurepáng, and Makushi land demarcations in the wake of the ratification of the 1988 Constitution, and how this purpose gave shape to both their 1992 contribution to História dos Índios no Brasil and to their subsequent research. It led them to uncover the histories of nineteenth century figures like Taurepáng leader Antonio Grande whose attempts to secure his community’s land by engaging state bureaucracies left a trail of dispossession in the colonial archive. Their work emphasizes the potential of Indigenous history to remediate settler arrogation of land in Brazilian Courts, but even these victories, they suggest, are partial and increasingly subjected to constitutionally questionable limitation.

Structuring her contribution around the twin foci of urgency and relationality, Luísa Valentini reflects on the important and challenging work of preserving and protecting the documentation produced by the generation of anthropologists that contributed to História dos Índios no Brasil. She argues for the necessity of robust conversations about the present and future of collections in the history of anthropology and the exploration of the ethical binds that arise from the growing accessibility of Indigenous archives, including the misuse of anthropological publications by those actively opposing Indigenous rights, the sensitivity of materials that document genocide and dispossession, and the difficulty of controlling digital reproduction and circulation.

In the History of Anthropology Newsletter’s first bilingual publication—the text of her 2017 presentation from the meeting’s closing session—Joziléia Daniza Kaingang emphasizes the deep connections between ancestors and lands that animate ongoing Kaingang political struggles. She emphasizes the work that young Indigenous scholars in Brazil are doing to bring these kinds of knowledges into the academy and to deconstruct history as it has been told until recently. The urgency of this work is clear: both to respond to the intensification of the assault on Indigenous rights in the present and to make possible new futures.

Kaingang’s emphasis on the work of Indigenous scholars in recasting histories speaks to another contribution of the scholarship presented here. Pushing back against a long tradition that rendered Indigenous action and history invisible, História dos Índios no Brasil and the intellectual tradition that grew out of it have emphasized “Indigenous protagonism,” the foregrounding of Indigenous strength and action in historical accounts. These pieces underscore how some Indigenous communities reconstruct anthropological and bureaucratic categories and historical accounts to reflect their own telling of history.

In a critical historiographic intervention, Camila Loureiro Dias argues for the re-integration of labor studies into Indigenous history in Brazil. While Indigenous histories assembled primarily by those with anthropological training have created a literature rich in attention to memory, identity, and ethnogenisis, Dias contends it is time for scholars of Indigenous history to refocus their attention on the processes that Native peoples have participated in and survived.[6]

Marta Amoroso explores Mura documentation of history through territory, examining how memory and mobility are linked. Her Mura interlocutors reconceptualize bureaucratic categories of “community” and aldeia or “village,” responding to long histories of dispossession to reshape the knowing and telling of history.

Focusing on links between shamans and revolutionaries of the past and Indigenous anthropologists of the present, Leandro Mahalem de Lima explores how deep histories of colonial conflicts and the migrations they forced have conditioned contemporary histories of ethnogenesis and identity recovery in the Amazon valley. Encouraged by interlocutors in the Lower Rio Tapajos and Rio Arapiuns region to look into the history of an influential leader, Merandolino, de Lima followed colonial documentation into a curious historical case with implications for the people and the landscape that hosted him in his research.

Manuela Carneiro da Cunha reflects on the reasons that led her and other members of the Núcleo de História Indígena e do Indigenismo to embark on the project of História dos Índios no Brasil. The deceptively simple and yet radical fact of the volume is that prior to its publication, mainstream history in Brazil had failed to recognize that Indigenous peoples have a history that is both documented and worth documenting.

The editorial staff at the History of Anthropology Newsletter is proud to publish this collection (or dossiê, in Portuguese) of works by scholars new to our pages. It will be of interest to researchers in and of Brazil, and to those working in Indigenous studies in other regions and contexts. The dossiê will introduce English-language readers to a relatively recent but hugely influential anthropological work, História dos Índios no Brasil, and the pressing, politically salient work of the Brazilian anthropologists associated with it. It tells a history of scholars struggling to do ethical, responsible work under a regime of state recognition that profoundly limits the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. This is a history that will continue to shape direction of Indigenous history and anthropology in Brazil, and one that will increasingly be determined—as the pieces here signal—by Indigenous scholars taking charge of how histories are written in the Brazilian academy. We hope that historians of anthropology, as well as scholars of Native studies, settler and other colonialisms, Indigenous representation, and those with an interest in politically engaged research, will find this collection as revealing as we do of the dynamism, complexity, and serious consequences of anthropology and its histories.

Read another piece in this series.


Works Cited

Corrêa, Mariza. 1995. “A antropologia no Brasil 1960–1980.” In História das ciências sociais no Brasil: Volume 2, edited by Sergio Miceli, 91-98. São Paulo: IDESP.

Garfield, Seth. 2001. Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1937-1988. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lima, Antonio Carlos de Souza. 2004. “Anthropology and Indigenous People in Brazil: Ethical Engagement and Social Intervention.” Practicing Anthropology 26 (3): 11-15. doi:10.17730/praa.26.3.j57t15251538660m.

Lima, Antonio Carlos de Souza. “Sobre tutela e participação: Povos índigenas e formas de governo no Brasil, séculos XX/XXI.” Mana 21 (2): 425–57.

Melatti, Julio Cezar. (1983) 2007. “A antropologia no Brasil: Um roteiro.” Série Antropologia 38: 1-50.

Motta,Rodrigo Patto Sá. 2014. As universidades e o regime militar: Cultura política brasileira e modernização autoritária.Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.

Peixoto, Fernanda. 1998. “Lévi-Strauss no Brasil: A formação do etnólogo.” Mana 4 (1): 79–107. doi:10.1590/S0104-93131998000100004.

Ramos, Alcida Rita. 1990. “Ethnology Brazilian Style.” Cultural Anthropology 5 (4): 452-472.

Skidmore, Thomas E. 2009. Brazil: Five Centuries of Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2014. “R-Words: Refusing Research.” In Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities, edited by Django Paris and Maisha T. Winn, 223–48. Thousand Oakes, CA: SAGE Publications.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1992. “O campo na selva, visto da praia.” Revista Estudos Históricos5 (10): 170-190.

Vizenor, Gerald. Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Vizenor, Gerald. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Warren, Jonathan W. 2001. Racial Revolutions: Antiracism and Indian Resurgence in BrazilDurham: Duke University Press.



[1] Following Native and Indigenous studies scholars in the North American tradition, in this series we capitalize the terms Indigenous and Native as a reminder that these are terms that stand in for the many nations of the Americas that predate European colonialism. When possible, we prioritize the use of specific nation’s names (e.g. Mura, Makushi, Kaingang) over the general term, Indigenous.

[2] Etnólogo,or “ethnologist” in English, has a different connotation in Brazil than in some other national traditions. Although technically it refers broadly to the comparative study of cultures, in Brazil it is used specifically to describe anthropologists who study Indigenous groups (Viveiros de Castro 1992, 170).

[3] The foundations had been laid by the French Mission, which taught at the Universidade de São Paulo in the 1930s, as well as figures such as Herbert Baldus, Donald Pierson, and Emílio Willems. Of particular influence as part of the French Mission were Roger Bastide, Jean Magüé, and Pierre Monbeig. Claude Lévi-Struass and Fernand Braudel, although present and soon to become towering figures in French intellectual circles, were not—apparently—such dynamic teachers (Peixoto 1998).

[4] At a moment when national criticism was sharply censured, a series of non-Brazilian publications sparked international outrage. See, for example, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, A Question of Survival for the Indians of Brazil (London: Angus and Robertson, 1973); Edwin Brooks, René Fuerst, John Hemming, and Francis Huxley, Tribes of the Amazon Basin in Brazil: Report by the Aborigines Protection Society (London: C. Knight, 1973); Robert J. A. Goodland and Howard Samuel Irwin, Amazon Jungle: Green Hell to Red Desert?: An Ecological Discussion of the Environmental Impact of the Highway Construction Program in the Amazon Basin (Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publishing, 1975).

[5] Tutela was a positivist, assimilationist, hierarchical legal system that from 1928 on classified Indigenous people as subject to the “guardianship” of the state, on a path to “adaptation to civilization.” It characterized them as “relatively incapable” along with 16-21yr old minors and married women. See Lima 2015, 433-436.

[6] Dias cites historian John Manuel Monteiro’s rejection of historical studies of “the dilapidation of native societies in the process of conquest” (Monteiro 2001, 62). This re-evaluation of historical scholarship has productive resonances with Native studies scholarship emerging from North American contexts, particularly Gerald Vizenor’s concept of survivance (1999, 2008) and the critiques of Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2018) of what they call “damage-centered research” in the social sciences.

Rosanna Dent: contributions / website / / Federated Department of History / NJIT - Rutgers Newark