Indigenous labor and Indigenous slavery have occupied a minor place in analyses of Brazilian colonial history. Despite the fact that labor is omnipresent in social relations and is the material basis of the reproduction of societies, historians of Brazilian colonialism abandoned it as an analytic category decades ago in favor of themes such as memory and identity. This phenomenon is neither restricted to Brazil, nor to Indigenous studies, although this essay will focus on examples of Brazilian colonial and Native history.[1] Recent developments in studies of Native history were made possible by the opening of a dialogue between history and anthropology. However, Native history became a field apart and closed in on itself, with practitioners abandoning the analysis of broader historical processes and limiting their aims to the affirmation of Indigenous peoples’ agency. This affirmation fulfilled an important function, but the field should now broaden the range of questions it addresses, seeking a larger dialogue with history to attend to a new political context.

Since the 1930s, the field of Brazilian colonial history has applied the category of labor primarily to African slavery. Several currents, proposals, counter-proposals, and theoretical renewals have associated labor with the transatlantic slave trade, treating African slavery as a structural feature of Brazilian colonial society. In this historiographic paradigm, however, scholars fail to connect African slave labor and Indigenous labor. From theories of Indians’ inability to withstand heavy labor—first mobilized to explain the introduction of African slaves—to accounts which use the transatlantic slave trade as the sole example of slavery in modern colonial societies, Indigenous slavery has been figured in many histories as a mere predecessor for African slavery (Novais 1979).[2]

Recognition of the importance of black slavery and the transatlantic slave trade for colonial relations has grown in the last twenty years, reaching beyond the national territory into the Atlantic zone (including the joint analysis of social formations in Brazil and Africa), and beyond the Atlantic, in studies of the Portuguese ​​colonial empire reaching to Asia. However, associating slavery exclusively with black Africans fuels a distorted view of Portuguese America and, more importantly, it limits the very concept of slavery.

This is not to say that Indigenous labor has not been considered in Brazilian colonial history. A few studies published in the 1990s argued Indigenous labor played a more important and extensive role in social and economic processes than typically imagined. John Monteiro’s Negros da terra (1994) first added the Indigenous component to the question of slavery. His study widened the analysis of Portuguese America, making a broader economic and social focus on slave experiences in colonial societies possible; it included times and spaces that had been overlooked by historians where Indigenous work was more important than that of African slaves.

It is also necessary to mention the long tradition of historical studies that indirectly approach Indigenous labor through examinations of Portuguese legislation concerning Indigenous peoples. For a long time these analyses were based on a dichotomy which explained colonial laws in terms of two political forces—settlers versus missionaries—who fought respectively for Indians’ slavery and Indians’ freedom (Leite 1938-50; Beozzo 1983). These studies advanced the idea that this legislation was always oscillating and contradictory and that the Portuguese Crown, caught between these two political actors, was unable to impose its own goals (Prado 1942).

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, scholars have refuted such simplistic dichotomies. Authors like Carlos Zeron (2011) found that the bone of contention between settlers and missionaries was not slavery, but the question of who would exercise control over the Indigenous labor force. Portuguese laws governing Indigenous peoples were informed by previous experiences with the Moors and the Thomist theories of natural law taken up by the so-called Second Scholasticism; they held that there were rightful ways of reducing others to slaves and were shaped by Jesuit efforts in Brazil to monopolize the regulation of labor relations.

However, a study that has influenced the prevailing perception of Indigenous legislation and native history in Brazil is anthropologist Beatriz-Perrone Moisés’s chapter in História do Índios no Brasil (1992). Examining a cross-section of the laws concerning Indigenous peoples from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Moisés identifies two Portuguese legal frameworks: one for friendly Indians, the other for enemies, corresponding respectively to the recognition of freedom and the imposition of slavery. In other words, the laws anticipated two possible reactions among the Indians to colonization: for those who did not oppose colonial power, “freedom” would be guaranteed; those who resisted were destined for slavery. Therefore, the apparent contradictions in the laws were due to the fact that they did not apply to the same Indigenous groups. Reversing the direction of causality, Moisés proposed that the Portuguese policy concerning Indigenous peoples was actually defined not by the Crown rules but by “Native policies”—that is to say, the policies Indigenous peoples developed for interfacing with non-Native people.

From the idea of​​ “Native policies” (in keeping with the spirit of the book in which her article was published), many studies in the field of Native history advocate the agency of Indians and the idea that they were able to take part in their own history. Hence, from two different angles (Monteiro’s book and Perrone-Moisé’s chapter), we find that by the beginning of the 1990s, Indians had emerged as historical subjects in academic narratives. Yet this affirmation of Native agency, paradoxically, led to a diminished interest in the processes in which they acted as agents. John Monteiro’s approach, associating an emerging Indian history with colonial history, never became widespread. Rather, under his leadership, Native history developed as a separate field, closer to anthropology than to history. Broadening its concept of culture, the field focused its attention on ethnogenesis, identity, and memory, becoming an “anthropological history.”[3]

According to Monteiro, “New Indigenous History” (Nova história indígena) arose in the mid-1970s, and shifted analytic focus away from chronicling the extinction of Indian groups to examining their reemergence (Monteiro 2001). In the early 2000s, Monteiro maintained that both Brazilian historians and members of Brazilian society continued to assume that the place of Indian people was in the past. At the turn of the century, the census reported that Indians represented 0.2% of the population and, according to Monteiro, they were treated by official statistics as “remnants.” Monteiro notes,

[A]lthough based on some truths, the chronicle of destruction and depopulation is no longer acceptable to explain the trajectory of Indigenous peoples in these lands. What is omitted from such an approach are the multiple experiences of elaboration and reformulation of identities that have presented themselves as creative responses to the historically new heavy situations of contact, contagion, and subordination (Monteiro 2001, 78).


“Elaboration and reformulation of identities,” and “creative responses to historical situations,” have become the two guiding aphorisms of scholarship on Native history. Borrowing the concept of the “colonial Indian” from Karen Spalding, Monteiro no longer advocated the study of “the dilapidation of native societies in the process of conquest,” but instead encouraged historians to focus on “the emergence of different forms of native societies” and strategies aimed at forging spaces for survival (Monteiro 2001, 62).

This agenda flourished, encouraged by the Brazilian political moment of re-democratization (after more than twenty years of military dictatorship), accomplishing the aims outlined in História dos Índios no Brasil. In the wake of the 1988 Constitution, which recognized the different social organizations and cultural traditions of Indigenous peoples and guaranteed originary rights to traditionally occupied lands, Indigenous groups reconstructed memories and stories to support their now-recognized historical rights. The population growth of 150 percent among self-declared Indigenous people between 1991 and 2000 cannot be explained by demographic effects alone; it was bound up with a political context favorable to the legal protection of identities that had previously been erased.

Lead by a group of militant anthropologists associated with an emerging Indigenous movement, the nascent Native history in Brazil aimed to recover the historicity of Indians, and to rethink the very meaning of history based on the experience and memory of the Indigenous populations. The new field distanced itself from issues that evoked colonial submission and, instead, emphasized Indigenous political power. Labor ceased to be an important analytic category; labor studies were left behind.

Yet, when we emphasize Indians’ agency alone, as an abstract affirmation, we lose sight of the very processes in which they were agents; their actions seem less important than the fact that they were actors, and we neglect contexts and historical processes. Today, there remains a dichotomous vision of freedom and slavery, as if the two always engender distinct forms of work practices. Thus, the opposition between Native and African labor, and the association of slave labor with Africans and free labor with Indians, encourages the idea that there was a great difference between the situation of free Indians and that of enslaved Indians. If we look carefully at historical sources, however, we see that this does not correspond to social reality.

Considering forms of work and experience that exceed the parameters of African slavery may be a path for analysis of Indigenous labor, and a way of combining Native history with colonial history in order to clarify poorly understood colonial processes. Measuring the dimensions of this labor force, studying the profile of these workers, and describing their organization and practices might allow us to overcome the overly neat opposition between slavery and freedom. It may also shed new light on social relations in colonial society, foregrounding the agency, choices and capacity to act intentionally among these populations. Moreover, work and labor exploitation have not disappeared from contemporary social relations in Brazil; disputes over the definition of contemporary slave labor—or work analogous to slavery—is an important subject on the Brazilian political agenda. Reviewing the concept of slavery by examining Indigenous labor is important not only for Indigenous studies, but for Brazilian society as a whole.

Although research starting from the 1970s on Indigenous issues created a new agenda—linked directly to Indigenous victories in 1988 that assured the Constitution’s guarantee of historical rights—today, these gains are being aggressively undermined by economic interests linked to agroindustry, mineral extraction and large infrastructure projects. A new jurisprudence has been established from interpretations of the Constitution that contradict its spirit and hamper the defense of land claims. These setbacks make it necessary for scholars to direct new questions to the past. People make history under constrained conditions and, as E. P. Thompson recalls, history is a discipline of context and process: all meaning is “meaning in context.” If by now there is no doubt that Indians are historical agents in the past and present, it may be time to return to the analysis of historical and political processes. Without falling into paralyzing narratives of victimization, we must also denounce brutally unjust economic models, whether in the colonial period or today, which weigh on the Indigenous peoples and on each one of us as historical subjects.

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Works cited

Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de. 2000. O trato dos viventes: Formação do Brasil no Atlântico Sul. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Almeida, Maria Regina Celestino de. 2003. Metamorfoses indígenas: Identidade e cultura nas aldeias coloniais do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Arquivo Nacional.

Beozzo, José Oscar. 1983. Leis e regimentos das missões: Política indigenista no Brasil. São Paulo: Loyola.

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

Hartog, François. 2014. Croire en l’histoire. Paris: Flammarion.

Leite, Antonio Serafim S.J. 1938-1950. História da Companhia de Jesus no Brasil, 10 vols. Lisboa: Portugália.

Monteiro, John. 1994. Negros da terra: Índios e bandeirantes nas origens de São Paulo. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Monteiro, John. 2001. “Tupis, tapuias e historiadores: Estudos de história indígena e do indigenismo.” Tese de Livre-Docência, Universidade Estadual de Campinas.

Novais, Fernando. 1979. Portugal e o Brasil na crise do Antigo Sistema Colonial, 1777-1808. São Paulo: Hucitec.

Perrone-Moisés, Beatriz. 1992. “Índios livres e índios escravos. Os princípios da Legislação indigenista do período colonial” In História dosÍndios no Brasil, edited by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, 115-132. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Prado, Caio. 1942. Formação do Brasil contemporâneo. São Paulo: Brasiliense.

Zeron, Carlos. 2011. Linha de fé: A Companhia de Jesus e a escravidão no processo de formação da sociedade colonial (Brasil, séculos XVI e XVII). São Paulo: Editora USP.

[1] For an analysis of how history itself has lost its power to make modern societies intelligible, to the detriment of notions such as memory and identity, see François Hartog, Croire en l’histoire, Paris, Flammarion, 2014.

[2] More recently, Alencastro (2000) proposed that imperial policy barred colonists’ access to Indigenous labor in order to force settlers to import Africans slaves, thus allowing the Portuguese crown to consolidate its imperial domain.

[3] Maria Almeida’s thesis (published as Almeida 2003) is an example of research directed by John Monteiro that became an important reference. In her book’s introduction, she explains her historiographic assumptions about the close relationship between anthropology and history, quoting authors such as Sidney Mintz, Eric Wolf and E. P. Thompson, all of whom who postulated the dynamic, historical nature of culture.

Camila Loureiro Dias: contributions / / Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp)