To visit indigenous people requires humility

I recently returned from a trip to the Xavante Etenhiritipá village, which was one of the most beautiful and special experiences of my life. Keeping in mind that I have had the privilege to go to many amazing places. I spent a few days (enough to lose track of time and days, without a clock, cell phone or internet) near the city of Canarana (Mato Grosso).

I traveled there from Goiânia by bus, which took a little bit more than 12 hours. Once there, we formed a very special group, led by Israel and Tadeu, and continued the journey in a very old school bus that effortlessly drove through rocky roads during almost 2 hours before we reached the village (it may be a little more or less, but for me time doesn’t really matter on trips like these).

As a professional in tourism, since I left São Paulo I have worried about how we could enjoy more comfortable logistics from a tourist’s point of view, without even having started the journey. Arriving there and after the whole experience, I realized how much the long journey makes sense, the long waits, loading and unloading suitcases and taking on and off your jacket.

All these apparent discomforts for us urban citizens, accustomed to total control of everything, prepare us for this peculiar experience: a true undressing of stigmas, prejudices, ingrained values and meanings. I am still writing without knowing if I will be able to convey the depth of the experience, which, of course, is as unique and personal as the soul of each individual present there.

 

STRENGTH AND RESISTANCE

We were welcomed by Jurandir Siridiwe, chief and main village leader. Jurandir is one of those who speak good Portuguese, as he was part of a group of Xavante boys who in the 70s, were sent out of the village to study and learn about the culture of the “invading whites”.

Apparently, the Xavante surrendered in the 1940s, when they gave up fighting with weapons and accepted the white man’s “civilizing” contact. In fact, this initiative was part of a strategy they felt was necessary, that is, they needed to pacify the invading white and, for that, it was necessary to dominate their culture. As a first result, in 1988 they had the legalization of the reserve, one of the villages in the Pimentel Barbosa indigenous territory, where 3,200 people currently live.

Xavantes are traditionally warriors. They speak and live by the motto of strength and resistance among men, women and children. Definitely no whining going on here. Their strength and courage can be seen in every detail of their daily activities and stories. Even pet dogs are extremely brave, excellent guard dogs and loyal to their owners and the homes they protect.

Jurandir started by explaining to us that tourist visitation is part of the Xavante strategy. They are resistant people, real warriors are always at war and in war, each one fights with the weapons they have. And warriors have a strategy. The Xavante people are fighting for their survival, for the guarantee of their right to land and life.

The main enemy of the Xavantes today is agribusiness and the illegal expansion of the agricultural frontier through invasion and illegal occupation of indigenous lands. Ignorant Indian? Excuse me, but ignorant are those who think that Indians are stupid, lazy, don’t work and other absurd things that we often hear.

Let us recall a little bit about the history of indigenous peoples: “Since the world is the world, the Indians were already here in this territory called Brazil”. Living and surviving in society, nomadic or permanent, with its own customs, culture and language. Now whose legitimate right to land is it really? Theirs or the invaders, in this case, the white Westerners?

They realized that they cannot fight alone. Therefore, they needed to open up to Brazil, to the world. According to Jurandir, “visitation is like the window to our house. You come here and decide whether you continue to honor academics and textbook authors who stereotype our culture and call us Indian.”

Therefore: “Your presence here is a way for you to have another idea, another perspective. Our philosophy is to welcome Brazilians and extinguish this stereotype”. With this, I feel not only the duty and obligation to tell the world what I saw and experienced there, in a simple and objective way, but also to embrace the indigenous cause.

From their daily life, I want to highlight:

  • Xavantes are very hardworking. The day in the village started between 3 – 4 am with circular dance rituals that was followed by a cold bath in the river. It was very cold, after all, in the cerrado the temperature can range 25 degrees in one day;
  • Xavantes are very smart and bright. In addition to knowing their traditions, rites of passage, arts of war, natural medicine, agriculture, hunting, bio-construction techniques, handicrafts and artifacts, they also know about the laws of the “whites” and, consequently, their rights, didactics, political articulation, leadership and distinctions between forms of social interaction. We got diplomacy and resistance classes;
  • Xavantes are dreamers and dreams for them are very serious. It is through dreams that they communicate with the other plane, with spirituality. It is from dreams that the guidelines for life come, for the decisions that will influence everyday life. This is how they balance the physical and spiritual planes. Xavantes don’t have shamans, they have dreamers;
  • Xavantes are strategists. They receive us in their lands, tell their stories, pass on their messages, but they don’t reveal their secrets, they hardly invite us to their homes and they are suspicious, for a good reason;
  • Xavantes are collective. There is no room for individualism there. Leaders are always thinking about how to divide and aggregate. In a real class on how to build a just society, I heard a phrase that struck me from the elder Paulo (one of the leaders) that sums up this spirit well: “Europeans are oriented to multiply, you Brazilians only think about adding, of accumulating and we, Xavantes, are oriented to share”.

SCHOOL AND DIVERSITY

We met other leaders, such as Eurico and Caime, teachers at the local school that gives classes up to the 9th grade of elementary school. And Paulo, Jurandir’s uncle, one of the boys who also lived abroad, who speaks excellent Portuguese and is a great storyteller 

We could spend hours and hours listening to them telling about their lives, past and present struggles for the right to land, education, survival. Stories that inspire and make us rethink how much and for what we have had to fight until today.

For teachers, the current struggle is for the maintenance and adaptation of teaching in the Xavante language and culture in the formal school, which insists on traditional and standardized teaching materials throughout Brazil. How to teach a Xavante child that Brazil was discovered in 1500 by a Portuguese man, knowing that his people had already been there for previous generations? How to explain the seasons of the year in a definite way and with snow for those who live and grew up in the heart of the Brazilian cerrado?

The Xavantes continue their struggle, joining other indigenous peoples’ leaders to show that, just as there are 254 indigenous peoples in Brazil alone, with more than 150 different languages being spoken, there are at least 255 versions of this story and on all other subjects “taught” at school.

THE NONI RITUAL

We had the privilege of witnessing a part of the boys’ initiation ritual. Xavantes believe in the cycle of life and respect its phases. The boys, during their adolescence, spend five years living in what they call the Casa dos Solteiros. After this time, they will spend months in an initiation ritual that involves various tests of strength and endurance.

We arrived exactly in the month of the races. Every day they run, betting on each other. Some days the girls run too. The entire ritual is accompanied by older and married godmothers and godparents, who also have their moments during the ritual months.

On the days we were there, we were able to follow the daily routine of a beautiful circular dance, accompanied by Xavante chants, which took place daily around 4am and 3pm (again, approximate times for those who did not look at the clock at any time).

On the first day we were invited to observe and learn but from the second day onwards we got invited to participate in the activities. Everything happened normally, without any alteration or interference by our presence. Nobody was putting on a show, which made our experience very natural.

THE XAVANTE WOMEN

Our daily life in the village involved very little contact with women. In addition to the cultural issue (I don’t know if shy would be the word, but they didn’t usually look us in the eye), the language barrier is certainly a limiting factor. Despite learning Portuguese at school, most of them do not understand or speak the language.

We were again privileged, and got to talk to Professor Eurico about the daily lives of women and girls, educating us about our curiosities such as why almost no one had eyebrows and why they wore the clothes they wore.

He confessed to us that they were also very curious about us: why we wore earrings (in the Xavante culture, only men pierce their ears) or why we dyed our hair. The teacher had the idea of proposing a conversation round between the women in the group and the Xavante girls. And it was under a pequi tree that we made a circle of chairs and got to know eachother better. 

Unfortunately, with the translation of a man, Professor Eurico, but we knew he had good intentions in proposing this approach. It was a unique experience to be able to look into their eyes, have a good laugh together about habits like makeup, waxing, sunglasses and pants. Yes, Xavante women don’t wear long pants.

There was something that struck me: they don’t have the habit of looking in the mirror. Most did not even seem to have a mirror and it was clear that they were content with the reflection of their own image in the waters of the river. I found it beautiful, poetic. And that day I realized that I hadn’t looked in the mirror either since I got there. I reflected on how to look at myself in the mirror in that context in which appearance was so secondary and I didn’t miss it at all. 

As a society, I came to the conclusion how unhealthy we are, the sacrifices we make, the money we invest and the value we give to appearance. We take care of our exterior so much that we let what’s within get sick.

And it was there, in this metaphorical mirror, that I realized one of the secrets of vitality, strength and the Xavante resistance: their interior is strong and healthy because they look within when they dream, when they make their decisions, when they follow the cycle of life.

THE VISITATION

To participate in an experience like this, it is certainly necessary to give up comfort in exchange for depth in the experience. In my case, the fatigue of the long journey soon dissipated and gave way to excitement and curiosity for the new, for the unknown.

My ever-present and even exaggerated desire to talk sometimes gave way to a lot of silence. Recognizing that this was not my moment to speak was my greatest exercise in practising active listening. I was not there to speak, I was there to listen. Listening with your ears and also with your heart. Hear the words spoken, but especially the unspoken ones.

It’s amazing how the excess of technology, lights and noise of the so-called developed big city quickly consumes our energy and dissipates our attention and our true presence. That’s how I felt the presence there. The sense and meaning of being present, something that only an experience like this reveals, as it cannot be translated into words.

I could feel how it has been a long time since I felt other people present and myself present, with them and with me. Wow, how much I missed being with real people and myself!

Some slept in hammocks, others in tents. As it was my second experience in an indigenous land, I soon chose my hammock, one of the best discoveries I made in my travels. The people of the North and Northeast know: sleeping in a hammock is so good. The back curves perfectly, the hammock hugs you and finally that swing lulls you into a sleep that I had no memory of experiencing for a long time.

The cold night, the clear starry sky and the pure air that in recent days had been colored with the fine dust of the red clay scattered with the strong wind. We stayed at the school. We could not visit or enter anyone’s house uninvited. The dogs would remind anyone who happened to forget.

We took baths in the river. Women on one side, men on the other, just as it always has been and always will be. The cold was already coming as the sun was going away, and it felt good to be here briefly.

On the first day, that longing for a hot shower quickly passed. It’s amazing how fast we get used to what’s good and realize that these little luxuries in our day life really make us forget what we left behind by embracing a chaotic, noisy, polluted, cold and distant urban life. 

My first and greatest lesson from this trip: visiting indigenous people requires humility.

Recognizing our insignificance in the universe, our privileges as white men and women, who need little effort to survive, is at the very least, an exercise.

They are rich without having money. They are happy without using drugs. They are wise without relying on the media or the internet. They are supportive without fussiness. They are spiritualized without religious institutions. They are faithful to friends.

Witnessing this ancestral wisdom of a people that lives and survives (despite the adversities for generations and generations), that passes their valuable knowledge from father to son acquired about nature, the Earth and beyond it, the cycle of life, death, survival and that only recently had access to what we call technology such as books, audiovisual, computer, is a unique experience. Yes, that’s really impressive. 

I had other lessons, some of them very personal. But I would like to leave you with an invitation. Get out of your comfort zone on your next trip. Allow yourself and try to surrender, to meet your true self through this experience. If it’s going to be the first or one of your first times. You don’t have to start visiting indigenous people right away. Start with a traditional community near you.

Among the traditional peoples and communities of Brazil are Quilombolas, Gypsies, Rubber tappers, Chestnut workers, Coconut breakers, Artisanal fishermen, Shellfish catchers, Riverside communities, Caiçaras, Praieiros, Sertanejos, Jangadeiros, Azoreans, Campeiros, Varzanteiros, Pantaneiros, Caatingueiros and more. 

But only do this if you are open and willing to exercise humility. Because, I can tell you through my privileged experience of being in traditional communities several times a year as a result of my work, that the benefit and positive impact will be even greater for you than for those who will welcome you with open arms and with a heart full of love.

You can learn more on Vivejar’s website

By Marianne Costa for Folha de São Paulo on August 6, 2018.

Access the original article here.

 

 

© 2020, Marianne Costa. All Rights Reserved.