- Contrary to popular belief, Brazil’s Indigenous people aren’t confined to the Amazon Rainforest, with more than a third of them, or about 315,000 individuals, living in urban areas.
- Over the past year, we dived into the census and related databases to produce unique maps and infographics showing not only how the Indigenous residents are distributed in six cities and in Brazil overall, but also showcasing their access to education, sewage and other amenities, and their ethnic diversity.
- Access to higher education is a milestone: The number of Indigenous people enrolled in universities jumped from 10,000 to about 81,000 between 2010 and 2019, giving them a higher college education rate than the general population.
- This data-driven reporting project received funding support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s data journalism and property rights grant.
During a presentation for Indigenous People’s Week, celebrated in April in Brazil, at his son’s elementary school in Rio de Janeiro, the first thing sociologist José Carlos Matos Pereira did was to show a photo of several individuals and ask the children, “What do you think, are they Indigenous?” The children immediately answered in unison: “No.” He asked why, and they responded, “They are not naked; they do not have a bow and arrow and they are not in the forest; so, they are not Indigenous.”
The episode, centering on a picture of Indigenous people from the city of Altamira in the Amazonian state of Pará, is just a snapshot of the reality faced by Indigenous people living in urban areas throughout Brazil. “This marks a perception since a child as one thinks of Indigenous people [as being] outside the city and in conditions of, shall we say, ‘natural,’” Pereira, a researcher at the Social Movements Memory Program, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), told Mongabay.
“The Indigenous hunt, fish, live in the forest, have their way of life, their rituals. But he also comes to the city … And when he comes, he brings with him a way of life.”
In fact, contrary to popular belief, Indigenous people are scattered all over Brazil and not just in the Amazon Rainforest and remote rural areas. More than a third of Brazil’s Indigenous population, or about 315,000 individuals, live in urban areas, according to the country’s latest census.
But while in rural and remote areas Indigenous people are threatened by land invasions, mining and a wide range of development projects, in the cities they constantly face invisibilization and prejudice.
Having lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years, Michael Oliveira Baré Tikuna can list countless incidents of apparent prejudice that he faced for being Indigenous since moving to the city. These range from the time he used to live on the streets selling his craftworks, through to his time in university. Baré was the first Indigenous person to enter the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) through the quota system.
“A black guy told me that my place wasn’t at the university, that my place was inside the forest,” said Baré, a shiatsu therapist and freelance professor of Indigenous history. “This was the thing that shocked me the most because he was reproducing in me what the white men do to him [when they say] to send him back to Africa.”
Born in Manaus, in the Amazon region, Baré’s Indigenous name in the Nheengatu language — derived from the Tupi-Guarani language — is Anaje Sucurijú Mangará Ibytyra, which means Sucurijú Hawk Mountain Heart. His name on his birth certificate is Michael Júnior Queiroz de Oliveira but he adopted the Indigenous ethnicities Baré and Tikuna from his parents after rescuing his Indigenous roots, he said.
The Tikuna people are the most numerous Indigenous ethnic group in the Brazilian Amazon. The first reference to the Tikuna people dates back to the mid-17th century, in the Solimões River region, in Amazonas state. With history marked by the violent entry of rubber tappers, fishermen and loggers, the Tikuna only achieved official recognition of most of their lands in the 1990s. They speak the Tikuna language.
The Baré people live mainly along the Xié River and the upper Negro River, to where the majority migrated compulsorily due to violence and exploitation of their extractive work by non-Indigenous. Their first contact with non-Indigenous occurred in the early 18th century, according to documents from that century. Originally from the Arawak linguistic family, today they speak Nheengatu, which was disseminated by the Carmelites in the colonial period.
“We are made invisible in the university, in social movements, we are made invisible in everything. But I realized that this is a historic construction,” he said, one that “I struggle to deconstruct, which I ended up calling … ‘the ideological discourse of the slave colonizer,’ which is the discourse that introjected into the collective unconscious the notion … that miscegenation is not good.”
Historian Ana Paula da Silva, a PhD in social memory, highlights the importance of a revisionism movement of Indigenous history that several researchers are carrying out today, given the lack of a prominent place for Indigenous people in Brazilian history.
“They were part of our history, our culture and they were fundamental in the colonization process and this is something that should be taught in schools, disseminated in the media and, certainly, from the moment that the Brazilian society understands that Indigenous people are part of Brazil, of our history, certainly many prejudices, a lot of discrimination in relation to this population will be deconstructed,” said da Silva, a researcher at the Program of Studies of Indigenous Peoples (Pro Índio), from the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ).
The intrinsic presence of Indigenous people in Brazilian culture, from words to habits, was also highlighted by the historian, who is also a member of a network of university researchers focused on promoting the Indigenous knowledge at schools throughout Brazil. Called Saberes Indígenas (Indigenous Knowledge), the program has been promoted by the Ministry of Education since 2013.
A diaspora of Indigenous people to the cities, da Silva said, is a consequence of their displacement in the past during the colonial period from the places where cities were built. Many of them also come to urban areas seeking better living conditions, she added.
Hidden stories like Baré’s will be framed in a series of data-driven multimedia stories that Mongabay starts publishing today, focused on the six Brazilian municipalities with the highest absolute numbers of Indigenous people living in urban areas, showing that Indigenous people are much closer to other Brazilians than they imagine.
Although some experts argue that the best way to highlight the Indigenous presence in Brazilian cities is by their proportion of the population in each city, Mongabay has decided to focus on the absolute numbers. The figures may come as a surprise to many, as the six cities with the highest number of Indigenous people include the country’s most famous metropoles, where the Indigenous presence is even more invisible.
According to the 2010 census, the latest released by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the municipalities with the highest number of Indigenous people living in urban areas are, in descending order: São Paulo, São Gabriel da Cachoeira (in Amazonas state), Salvador (in Bahia state), Rio de Janeiro, Boa Vista (in Roraima state), and Brasília, the national capital — IBGE considered data for the whole Federal District. Only two of these, São Gabriel da Cachoeira and Boa Vista, are in states that comprise part of the Brazilian Amazon.
Over the past year, we dived into the 2010 census (new data only will be available in 2022) and related databases to produce unique maps and infographics showing not only how the Indigenous residents are distributed in the urban areas of these six cities but also showcasing their access to education, sewage and other amenities, as well as their ethnic diversity. Mongabay will publish one story for each city, starting with the biggest cities and followed by the Amazonian ones.
The project, which received funding support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, will close with an in-depth analysis of the Indigenous presence in Brazil’s urban areas as a whole, including the cities with the highest percentage of Indigenous residents and other municipalities that don’t appear in the ranks but are very relevant in representing the Indigenous way of living in the urban areas.
Pereira, the sociologist, who has a postdoctoral degree in social anthropology, highlights the importance of the 2010 census, as it is the first to recognize, through a self-declaration process, the Indigenous presence in population compacts in reserves, rural and urban areas, as well as their 300 ethnicities speaking multiple languages.
“For a long time, the Indigenous people were removed from the population count. They only appeared in the 1990s through the question of color and race. And this was repeated in the early 2000s. Only in 2010 we had Brazil’s first Indigenous census,” Pereira said. “So it is an important fact that you can’t deny anymore: the Indigenous presence in Brazilian cities.”
He said the census began during the colonization period, with an aim of counting the population for taxation purposes and army conscription. “So, all the diversity of language, of people, of customs, they were erased because this information did not matter to the metropole; it aimed to standardize and reorder the data according to the interests of the metropolitan power,” Pereira said.
Censuses carried out by the Brazilian government date from the end of the 19th century. But it largely excluded the Indigenous population, Pereira noted; only those who had been evangelized by missionaries appear in the statistics under the race categories of caboclo and pardo, both of which refer to mixed-race individuals.
Education as a weapon
One of the highlights of our coverage is how access to higher education has helped Indigenous people fight against this prejudice and has improved their living conditions in urban areas. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of Indigenous people enrolled in universities through the quota system, launched in 2012, spiked from 10,219 to 80,652.
Given that about 81,000 Indigenous people from a population of about 900,000 were attending university in 2019, this gives a much better rate of higher education than the average for Brazilian citizens in general in the same year (9% compared to 5.8%, respectively), said anthropologist João Pacheco de Oliveira, a professor and curator of the ethnographic collections at the National Museum — a member of the Science and Culture Forum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), which completed 200 years in 2018.
Oliveira pointed to the enormous potential of Indigenous peoples in universities. “From this group, the brains of the movement will be formed: lawyers, anthropologists, doctors, teachers,” he said. “The Indigenous project in relation to being a Brazilian citizen, it is not a project to become simply a repository from the past. It is to have and gain citizenship, to be prominent people, to exercise science, to hold positions.
“Those who go to the city didn’t become white people,” he added. “They continue to be Indigenous, and will be very important for those that are within the villages, and this junction between one thing and the other is essential for the Indigenous project.”
Oliveira added that most of the international public “would take it by surprise to see the real face of the Brazilian Indigenous,” which doesn’t match with the stereotypical image of a person dressed in traditional clothing.
Baré said that entering Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) through the quota system was his biggest achievement in life. “I am the first of my family who entered university, who achieved this feat. And I was very happy and proud to be able to give [this] pride to my mother,” he said.
Education, he said, has helped him overcome the prejudice he felt against his Indigenous identity, citing the concept of autophobia from Domenico Losurdo, an Italian Marxist philosopher and historian. “Autophobia is when the victims introject the point of view of their oppressor. It’s when one hates oneself. I realized that this happens to all Indigenous people, from South to North America [due to the colonization process],” Baré said.
But from the moment he started gathering academic knowledge of racial democracy and ancestral culture, he said, citing Brazilian anthropologists Darcy Ribeiro and Berta Ribeiro, he realized that education is the only effective “weapon” to end the prejudice.
“I realized that education is not only … a shield to defend myself against prejudice and racism,” he said, “it is also a weapon … and the only weapon that we can use, as Indigenous people, that will not generate a genocidal reaction [from non-Indigenous people].
“It was thought of by the Brazilian people that if you were placed in the city, you are no longer an Indigenous,” Baré said. “If you wear shorts, you wear a watch, you wear a cellphone, you wear sneakers, you are no longer an Indigenous. But that’s a big lie, a big mistake.”
He said his dream is to free the Brazilian people from the ideological discourse game of the slave colonizer, which keeps Indigenous people subdued. “My dream … is that Brazilians instead of saying ‘Ah, they are the Indigenous,’ they say, ‘They are our ancestors.’”
This project received funding support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s data journalism and property rights grant.
Infographics: Ambiental Media/Laura Kurtzberg
Data research and analysis: Yuli Santana, Rafael Dupim and Ambiental Media
Banner image: Silhouette of Indigenous leader Tereza Arapium in the famous Copacabana Beach sidewalk in Rio de Janeiro. November 26, 2020. Image by Mongabay .
Karla Mendes is a staff contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes