There are many ways to answer that question. A simple if not simplistic one is to recall that Indigenous history had been largely ignored in Brazil, based on a mishmash of half-cooked ideas. The Brazilian historian, Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen, dismissed its very possibility in 1854 on the grounds that Indigenous peoples were stuck in an inescapable infancy: hence they had no history and were to be left to the care of ethnography. A century later, it was argued that, having no writing systems, they had produced no historical documents. Then, widespread and gross misinterpretations of the notion of “cold societies” led many to position Indigenous peoples against history.
A more immediate reason for the effort in 1992 was that history became quite prominent in the defense of Indigenous land rights. The 1988 Brazilian Constitution recovered and enshrined the concept of “originary rights.” It followed that land rights were historical rights.
Since 1978, the experiences in courts of activist lawyers and anthropologists working with NGOs had already shown the importance of historical evidence for asserting and defending Indigenous land rights. When the twenty years’ long military dictatorship ended in 1985, and research on human rights was able to resume in an academic setting rather than being confined to NGOs, a group of anthropologists and historians founded a research center at the University of São Paulo dedicated to Indigenous history and the history of indigenismo—that is, state policy towards Indigenous peoples. Generously funded by FAPESP, the São Paulo State Research Fund, it became the Núcleo de História Indígena e do Indigenismo (NHII), which later morphed into CEstA (Centro de Estudos Ameríndios, the Center for Amerindian Studies).
Two main products were sought by NHII, of which Historia dos Índios no Brasil was one. Published in 1992, on the fifth centennial of the New World Encounter, the book was meant to bring attention to a huge part of the history of Brazil that had been consistently neglected. Until 2008, history books in Brazilian schools started their narratives in 1500, with the first Portuguese caravel that landed. Just two, sometimes three, Indigenous peoples were mentioned, and only to celebrate their heritage and lament their disappearance. When in 1934, Lévi-Strauss told the Brazilian ambassador to France that he intended to get to know Indigenous people, the ambassador imparted him the news that there were no longer any Indigenous peoples in Brazil. To the pious lament that the course of “evolution” or “development” had “unfortunately” and impersonally erased Indigenous presence, we intended our book to show that concrete and specific people, institutions, and actions combined with an epidemiological handicap, led to Indigenous decimation. And yet, many were still among us. The book aimed to show their presence not only in the past but also in the present, and their relevance in the future of the country.
We were fully aware of the poverty of historical material then available on Indigenous peoples in Brazil. Hence, the second objective of NHII’s project was the identification of sources to produce better knowledge. This effort was led by the late historian John Monteiro, and involved a number of quite remarkable researchers who scoured local administrative and ecclesiastical archives. These complemented in a very novel way and for a more recent past the central official papers of the Portuguese state and the Church that had been until then been the main sources for Indigenous peoples’ history. A general national guide and several guides to provincial and local archives were published, and I believe that they were instrumental to the growth in complexity and variety of Indigenous peoples’ history in the last twenty-five years.
Read another piece in this series.