A Brazilian journalist on her government's inability to hear Indigenous voices

Indigenous Munduruku men occupy the Belo Monte Dam. Para, Brazil. 2013. Photograph by Taylor Weidman/ZUMA Press.

The region of the Middle Xingu alone, where I came to reside and belong, is home to nine original peoples, each with their own language, and then there are all the variations of Portuguese spoken by beiradeiros and even by Altamirans, who are from all over. My lifetime wouldn’t be enough for me to learn all these tongues; even if it were possible to speak all of them reasonably well, I would never encompass all of their forms of language. Good anthropologists live with an Indigenous people for years, or decades, not so they can understand the people, but so that, in the little they do understand, they betray them less. The same holds true for journalists like me. All we can manage to do is narrate another experience, after it has journeyed our body—always after journeying our body.

At first, I refused to write about the original peoples at all, because I felt my ignorance barred me from it. I allowed myself to tell only about the beiradeiros, with whom I share a common linguistic base and with whom I’ve shared experiences for nearly 20 years. I don’t regret that I did write about the Indigenous in the past, but I’m ashamed of what I wrote. Only in recent years did I come to understand that I do indeed need to write about them, but while emphasizing my ignorance. I realized it would be omissive not to write about the violence they suffer. And also some Indigenous groups asked me to write. However, it still leaves me quite uncomfortable. I try to rely on knowledge gleaned by anthropologists, yet there is very little available.

In the Mebêngôkre language—spoken by the peoples who call themselves by this name but are known in the white world as Kayapó and Xikrin—it is common for speakers to use the expression “Gamá?” when talking over the radio. This translates something like: “Was your ear able to hear to understand?” The interlocutor then replies: “Arup ba kumá.” Which means: “Yes, I was able to understand what I heard in my ear.”

As an escutadeira, a listener, I try to understand what I hear with my ear. And with all my other senses, intuition included. I suspect this is what “ear” means in the Mebêngôkre tongue— it is a more-than-body-part. When I listen to the Indigenous, “hear in my ear” is about hearing what I understand them to say, when they say it in my own tongue. But what tells me more is what I can grasp from their words when they are spoken in a tongue I don’t understand.

My foundational experience with listening, the one that changed my way of coping with my ignorance about the bodies of Indigenous peoples, occurred at one of countless hearings that the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office held in Altamira to listen to those hit by the impact of the Belo Monte Dam. When I write “Indigenous peoples” here, now, I feel coarse, because I’m grouping into one adjective-noun pair all these bodies that have nothing or little in common with each other, other than having been assaulted by the dominant human minority. I think the Indigenous should perhaps be called “extra-human” or “beyond-human.” Jair Bolsonaro, it’s worth remembering, considers them “almost-human-like-us.” At this “hearing” (another of those untranslatable words for the Indigenous), I was captured by a scene where I couldn’t do anything other than hear in my ear what I couldn’t understand.

He was an elder. His people, Araweté. His body was red from annatto, his hair in a bowl cut. And he sat up straight, hands embracing the bow and arrows in front of him. He sat like that for nearly 12 hours. Without eating. Without bending. In front of him, taking turns at the microphone, were Indigenous leaders from several of the peoples hit by Belo Monte, demanding that Norte Energia make good on its agreements. Like others, he didn’t understand the Portuguese language. Forty years earlier, neither he nor his people even knew something called Brazil existed, and it is possible this still didn’t make any sense. But the Araweté elder was there, under the lights, sitting in a red plastic chair, waiting for his fate to be decided, in Portuguese, in a place they called Brazil. What did he see?

I don’t know what he saw. I know what I saw. And what I saw allowed me to grasp a dimension not of him but of myself. Or of ourselves, “whites.” The language of justice, like the language of bureaucracy, with all its acronyms, was designed to make illiterates even out of those who hold doctorates in literature. But what is left for the Indigenous, who try to express themselves in the language of those who are destroying them—and who try to do so even while being destroyed by that language? What was left for the Araweté elder, sitting there for nearly 12 hours?

The leaders of various original peoples hit by Belo Monte, the ones who can speak Portuguese, had decried the impossibility of life after the hydropower plant was inflicted on the Xingu. They reported hunger, they reported disease. The dam had altered the river, endangering Indigenous survival further still. In Volta Grande do Xingu, the river is drying up, and the fish are dying. Norte Energia controls the river water. Pressure is on to build another mammoth project in the same region, a project that the Canadian mining company Belo Sun has touted as the biggest open-pit gold mine in Brazil.

Painted with annatto, clutching his bow and arrows, sitting in a red plastic chair, not understanding the language in which his fate is decided and his hunger decreed, there is the Araweté elder. How did he get to the convention center? What paths took him to this moment, to this chair, this setting so exposed by lights and at the same time so obscured by negotiations, subterfuges and erasures?

The Araweté have known about us whites for a long time. Whites are present in their mythology. But “official” contact occurred only in the twentieth century, in the 1970s, when the Trans-Amazonian Highway was forced on the region. It was then that the business-military dictatorship began what they portrayed as the “attraction and pacification” of Indigenous peoples. (But in the understanding of the Araweté, let me stress, what happened was the opposite: they were the ones who tamed the whites.)

In 1976, Brazil’s federal agency of Indigenous affairs, FUNAI, found the Araweté camped alongside peasant fields. They were starving and sick from this first contact. In July of that same year, agency staff decided to take the Araweté on a 62 mile, 17 day walk to a FUNAI post. Adults and children died along the way. Even worse, with their eyes glued shut by infectious conjunctivitis, the Araweté couldn’t even see their way. They got lost in the woods and starved to death. Small children, suddenly orphaned, were sacrificed by desperate adults: many grew too weak to walk and asked to be left to die in peace. By journey’s end, 73 people had ceased to exist, killed by the contact and the march. FUNAI’s first census of them registered 120 survivors. At that point, these 120 people were the sum total of Arawetés on the planet.

Leaping forward. It is no longer the Trans-Amazonian slashing through the homes and lives of the original peoples of the Xingu. It is Belo Monte. In 2013, the anthropologist Guilherme Heurich, with Brazil’s Museu Nacional, submitted a trenchant text to the Federal Attorney General’s office in Brasília:

“What Norte Energia did, during the Emergency Plan [which would supposedly protect the Indigenous from the impact of dam construction], was provide a constant influx of goods to the villages. Norte Energia posed as the big donor of non-Indigenous products, universal and infinite, with the only intermediaries between them and the Indigenous people being the lists [of products offered as part of so-called impact mitigation measures].”

Once again, government administrations abstained from fulfilling their constitutional obligation to protect the original peoples, leaving them at the mercy of negotiations with the Company (yes, with a capital C, as if it were God) and of its unlimited power, since part of the state was actively omissive.

FUNAI at first rejected requests for things such as luxury mattresses. Then caciques, or Indigenous leaders, began negotiating the product lists directly. It was like a sales counter where the classic allegory of the 1500s, when European invaders traded the lives of the original peoples for little mirrors, was being replayed. Five hundred years later, the mirrors became motor canoes, fuel, television sets, junk food, soda. Indigenous people who didn’t eat sugar began consuming it daily.

During a conversation with an Araweté, Heurich discovered how they interpreted the influx of commodities into their village. The commodities were pepikã, reparation for everyone’s future death. Like compensation paid out in life for a decreed death, a shabby last supper for the condemned, consisting of ultraprocessed food that would also poison them, hastening their end.

“And what will kill you?” the anthropologist asked them. “The water.” “The water?” “Yes, the water from the dam.” The Araweté analysis of this influx of commodities into the village, as Heurich points out, couldn’t be clearer or more precise: “Everything the Emergency Plan has unloaded is an advanced payment for the death that will occur when the village is flooded by the waters of Belo Monte.” Declining this future, another Araweté created a different one: “We’re going to build a really big canoe . . . so everyone can live in the middle of the river.”

The Xingu and its peoples are no longer the same. On the banks of the Ipixuna, the Araweté feel the rivers and their branches sicken day after day. First, the water was transformed into a commodity, now it is the gold. Other peoples take the microphone to tell how Belo Monte has crushed Volta Grande do Xingu, drying up its present and sending its future up in smoke. If the Belo Sun Mining project is approved, they warn, today’s world will end. The Yudjá are one of these peoples. Called Juruna by whites, they are now relearning their own tongue from their relatives in the Upper Xingu and recouping their right to name themselves: Yudjá. “What does our name mean? Our name, Yudjá, we have it because we are of this river.” Of this river that now kills. The cacique who is speaking at the microphone has just lost his brother, who drowned in the river where he was born but could no longer recognize.

These violations are denounced, but nothing happens. The violence is announced but not impeded. The law, like the river, has been dammed up on the Xingu.

We call them the Araweté, but this name doesn’t make sense in their tongue, which is part of the Tupi-Guarani trunk. The name was given by someone from FUNAI, but there is no such reference in the language of the Araweté, who don’t know why they’re called that. They call themselves bïde, which means “us,” “us folks,” “human beings.” Whites are kamarã. And also awi—“enemies,” “foreigners.” And there is the elder, sitting with his bow and arrows, and not even the word used to summon his people to the microphone makes any sense to him. Called by a name that isn’t theirs, they have to respond in a tongue they don’t speak about a violence they don’t understand.

Tension advances, and time feels like a fabric about to tear. The microphone is dominated by leaders from other peoples, who are good at speaking the whites’ tongue. Little is left for the Araweté, their ancestral knowledge reduced to half a dozen faltering words in the murderer’s language. The Indigenous raise their clubs, their words harsh because life is turning toward death. “What you all do is create conflict, you put nation against nation to fight. This is a crime,” says one leader. “Thereare miners and loggers looting our lands and you do nothing,” another shouts. “You have to respect us, respect our elders, respect our tongue. The river is dry, the river is dirty. We’re suffering. You have to hear!”

They don’t. The president of FUNAI asks for a “vote of confidence,” pointing out that he has just taken office (he won’t last long at his post, but he doesn’t know that yet). He promises everything will be different. When an Indigenous man interrupts him, he says: “I heard you out, now I ask you to please let me speak. That’s democracy.” Democracy.

Expressions such as “income generation,” “productive activities,” and “mobilization logistics” come up often over the hours. How can we understand this raping of the ears? Sitting there, what does the Araweté elder see?

A disembodied tongue is much worse than a ghost because it can’t even haunt. If a word disincarnates, if the one who speaks and the one who listens can’t see the blood in the word genocide, in sounds or in writing, they can only write lost letters. And what about the Araweté elder who dies slowly at the meeting, without even knowing the word that names his extinction?

It is already the middle of the night when the meeting ends, and the leaders gather to sign yet another document in which Norte Energia and FUNAI pledge to keep promises they’ve failed to keep so many times. The Araweté elder finally moves.

He moves like a cat, threading his way across the room as if in foreign territory, which in fact he is. Very slowly, he goes over to a computer keyboard and cautiously stretches out an annatto-covered finger. He touches a key, then quickly withdraws his hand.

He waits. Nothing happens.

Then he says a few words in his language, says them to no one. He presses his body against the white wall, protecting his back in a hostile environment, while he ponders the scene. Then he returns to hazarding his catlike steps. He approaches the table where the authorities sat, now empty. He picks up the microphone and taps it a few times, cautiously. Nothing. It is off now. Not a word comes out of it. The president of FUNAI signs off with a routine goodbye: “God bless.”

We are still, in large part, the same people who prompted the first genocide, in 1500. The Brazilian Constitution of 1988, which guarantees the protection of original peoples, has been suffering attacks on all flanks. And it suffers the worst of assaults every day: the assault of not being enforced. Whites do not keep their word. They have words to write the law but do not keep them.

I don’t know what the Araweté elder sees. I know what I see. Before me is someone who is a world unto himself. Someone who should not need to be here. And all we have to offer are red plastic chairs and disincarnate words.

He takes out a kind of long cigar. Lights it. The Araweté elder descends the convention center stairs with difficulty. And vanishes into the city that smells like sewage.

I leave there a monster.


Eliane Brum

Eliane Brum is an award-winning Brazilian journalist, writer and documentarist. Brum is the author of a novel, Uma Duas (One Two), and the forthcoming Banzeiro Okoto: The Amazon as the Center of the World, from which her essay in this issue is excerpted. She is a co-founder of SUMAÚMA, a trilingual journalism platform, which aims to place the Amazon rainforest at the center of global journalism. 

The Amazon is famous for its biodiversity, as a home to innumerable types of animals and plants. Less frequently extolled is the extraordinary human ecosystem that’s grown around the river and its surrounding jungle. Indigenous tribes, missionaries, loggers, miners, soldiers, ...

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