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BRAZIL: Indigenous Resistance Movement Defends Traditional Beliefs

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 23 2007 (IPS) - Twenty indigenous people have been occupying the abandoned building of the Museu do Indio in Rio de Janeiro since October, to call attention to “500 years of resistance to genocide,” a view of their history that has acquired new relevance in the light of the Vatican’s latest position on Christian evangelisation during the colonial era.

The walls of the museum, which is located opposite Gate 13 of the Maracaná football stadium, are entangled with the roots of centuries-old trees and the ruins of what was, 20 years ago, an imposing art deco building dating from the early 1900s.

Smoke is rising from a fire under an earthenware pot where an indigenous woman is cooking rice and beans in the middle of the main hall, and spirals upwards to the numerous cracks that let light in between the wooden beams and broken tiles of the roof.

Some of the occupants sleep in hammocks, and others in makeshift tents which are not at all like the “ocas” (straw huts) in the villages many of them have come from.

The activists, who are Baraja, Yanomami, Guaraní and Pataxó Indians, want the federal government to grant them the use of this building as an institute for the preservation and transmission of indigenous culture.

“History has been written by the victors, from the conquerors’ point of view. The version we have paints a picture of indigenous people as if they were frozen back in the 16th century,” Marize de Oliveira, a public school history teacher, told IPS.

“Schoolchildren today think that we live in the middle of the jungle, or that we are extinct,” added the teacher, a member of the Tamoio Movement which takes its name from the earliest resistance of the Tupinambá people against Portuguese colonists in the 16th century.

Oliveira is a descendant of the Guaraní people, who used to live in an extensive area of South America, and whose language is officially recognised by the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) bloc, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.

As she spoke, a fellow occupier belonging to the Pataxó ethnic group from the northeastern state of Bahía was painting his body with the figurative drawings and ideograms typical of his village. Another, at an easel, was drawing his memories of the rainforest his parents left behind.

The Tamoio Movement has a new cause to fight for now, or rather an old one which they had thought had been won but which has taken on a fresh dimension, according to the movement’s members, since Pope Benedict XVI’s statements during his May 9-13 visit to Brazil.

At the inauguration of the Fifth Latin American and Caribbean Episcopal Conference in the southern city of Aparecida, the pontiff said that Roman Catholic evangelisation of the Americas at the time of the European conquest “purified” indigenous people, and that for them to return to their ancestral religions would be a step backwards.

Joseph Ratzinger, who before his elevation to the papacy in 2005 was prefect of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also said that Christianity was not imposed on indigenous peoples but welcomed by them gladly, because “Christ was the saviour they had been silently waiting for.”

“In actual fact, for a long time the Catholic Church, throughout the Middle Ages, tried to impose its hegemony over what people thought,” Oliveira commented.

“To say that indigenous people were not subjected to any coercion by the conquistadors is a lie. How many of them lost their historic languages, or were taken by force from their homes, obliged to abandon their cultural roots and be baptised as Catholics? How many ‘pajes’ (indigenous religious leaders) were condemned as demons?” the history teacher asked.

Another member of the Tamoio Movement, Wera Djekaupe, a Guaraní, arrived back at the museum. He repeated what he had just broadcast on a Brazilian television programme, as part of his activism in the press, media, academic circles and schools.

“The indigenous people of Brazil, long before the arrival of the Portuguese and other colonialists, already knew who had created the Earth. The great creator of all nature, of the sea, of the moon, of everything, was Ñanderú,” he said.

“The pope said that the Church purified the Indians. I refute that. Indigenous people were already pure; we were purified by the great Ñanderú,” Djekaupe said.

Indigenous organisations and Catholic priests working with indigenous communities in Latin America said that the pope’s declarations were a retreat from the position taken by John Paul II (1979-2005), who asked indigenous peoples’ forgiveness for the crimes committed against them in the name of Christianity, in Santo Domingo in 1992.

Flavio Wiik, an expert on indigenous religions at the Institute of Religious Studies, is convinced on the other hand that there is nothing new under the Vatican sun.

“These declarations merely add to the position of the Church over the last 10 to 15 years, as it attempts to restrict the action of missionaries identified with Liberation Theology,” like the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) and pastoral movements that “have approached the relationship between Christianity and indigenous religions in a non-hierarchical way,” Wiik said in an interview with IPS.

The pope’s “statements are part of a strategy of establishing a hierarchy in which Christianity exerts sovereignty over indigenous religions,” as he has already done in relation to Islam, the anthropologist said.

It was difficult to obtain an official response from the Catholic Church to balance these opinions. A spokesman said that interviews can no longer be given without authorisation from the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and indigenous people’s evangelisation was an even more sensitive topic.

Eventually a priest, Jorge Luiz Neves Pereira da Silva, known as “Father Jorjao” within the Catholic Church’s charismatic movement, talked about the pope’s speeches. He said Benedict XVI “fully recognised and respected the wealth of anthropological value among indigenous peoples.”

“Jesus Christ is priceless, invaluable. He is the way and the truth. He is such a precious treasure that it would be unthinkable to deny him to any human being. Therefore, announcing Christ to indigenous people was an incomparable gain for them. It showed them that they are loved and that nature is not made up of God, but that God himself created nature,” Pereira da Silva said.

If creation were a symphony, say, or a painting, “we introduced the indigenous people to the composer of the symphony, to the artist who painted that great work of art that is creation,” he added.

Phe Kamen, a Yanomami wise man from a village on the border between Brazil and Venezuela, has lived in Rio de Janeiro for eight years. He came to the city so that his wife could receive treatment at the Cancer Hospital.

Now that he is widowed, Phe Kamen would have no reason to stay in Rio, but before his wife died she asked him to remain and communicate their culture through the Tamoio Movement. He is now living with other members of the movement in the abandoned museum.

“My religion is that of my ethnic group. My god is Manu, who is nature,” he told IPS. “Love is within everything, human beings should love one another,” he said, raising his bow towards the ceiling of the derelict building.

Phe Kamen asked that this report reach out with “an alarm cry to humanity because of the brutal crimes they are committing.”

“Human beings lost their essence through seeking money, now the rivers are dry, the animals are dying. Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, they are all paths that lead to Manu God, and we should unite without competing violently with each other, in order to save the planet,” he said, in a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish known as Portuñol.

This is the religion that this “old Indian,” as he refers to himself, says his ancestors have passed down the generations for over 500 years. And against all odds, this religion is still alive.

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