Brazil's Indigenous Indians Find The Courage To Stand Up And Be Counted

 Festival XynaBena
Festival XynaBena
Nicolas Boursier

RIO DE JANEIRO – She carries the weight of her people on her shoulders and that makes her beautiful. With her seashell and pearl necklace around the neck, her tanned tattooed skin, her feathers of different sizes and her bright and vividly colored skeins, Vangri Kaingang is a proud native and she’s not afraid to show it.

Descended from the Kaingang tribe from the south of Brazil, this urban indigenous woman lives in Rio de Janeiro. Vangri, 31, works as a bilingual Portuguese-Kaingang youth worker – which is just another way to claim and share her background. “The state has always ignored us, as if we did not exist,” she says.

Vangri is quite representative of this new generation of Brazilian indigenous people who refuse to be left out by history and have started to speak out. A recent census carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010 and published on Aug. 10 shows that 896,000 indigenous people live in Brazil – equivalent to 0.47 percent of the total population.

There are 305 ethnic groups speaking 271 languages. This is 278 percent more than in 1991 when only 294,100 people said they were indigenous when asked about their race or color. The census shows a 25 percent increase since 2000. It is also more than the previous estimations made by anthropologists, who generally believed that there were only 220 indigenous ethnic groups and 180 languages in Brazil.

Marta Maria do Amaral Azevedo from the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI- a Brazilian governmental protection agency for Indian interests and their culture), was quick to specify that this spectacular figure has nothing to do with a baby boom amongst Indians. According to her, it is most likely related to the increase in people who have come to recognize themselves as Indians in recent decades, whereas before they might have had negative preconceptions about their indigenous roots.

Newfound pride

This negative image is widespread in Brazilian society, as Spensy Pimentel, researcher at the Center for Amerindian Studies at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), explains in a column published in Folha de S. Paulo: “The fact that more people identify themselves as Indian is due to the fact that this cultural heritage has now become a factor of pride. It is no longer associated with shame and fear as it was the case during the previous decades and during the dictatorship (1964-1985).”

According to the "Indian status" established during the dictatorship, people who descended from those who had survived the Portuguese colonization and its massacres were considered wards of the state and had no rights. It was only with the new constitution of 1988 that their situation improved, as indigenous Brazilians were granted cultural and territorial rights – most notably the right to permanently live on their ancestral land.

In terms of statistics, the IBGE shows that 63.8 percent of indigenous people live in rural areas while 36.2 percent live in urban areas. 59.2 percent of them have no income. In rural areas, 34.4 percent of indigenous children do not have birth certificates. The national average for this is 0.5 percent.

The census lists out 505 Indian territories, which represent 12.5 percent of Brazil’s total surface, on which 517,400 Indians live. Most of them live in the State of Amazonas (183,514), followed by Mato Grosso do Sul (77,025) and Pernambuco (60,995). The State of Sao Paulo - and its megalopolis - ranks 8th (41,981) while Rio de Janeiro ranks 18th (15,894).

Marginalized and vulnerable

A closer look at the statistics published by the IBGE clearly shows that Indians are still the most marginalized and vulnerable community in Brazil. Only 76.7 percent of indigenous people are able to read and write, while the national average is 90.4 percent.

According to the census, their average age is 22.1-years-old. The age pyramid reflects high birth and mortality rates. The IBGE census also shows that in six Indian territories, there are no Indians over 50-years-old.

According to Nilza Pereira, who coordinated the census, the growing number of very young Indians is another striking result, Globo reports. Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of indigenous people under 14 went from 32.6 percent to 36.2 percent while every other age group decreased in the meantime from 61.6 percent to 58.2 percent. “This census shows how much Brazil has to rethink the way it considers indigenous people,” says Spensy Pimental.

This is not going to be easy, according to Vangri Kaingang. “People don’t know us. Our way of life and our culture scare them. Getting to know us is like reading a scary and shameful chapter of our country’s history. People should start respecting us. We are still a long way from that.”

In 1935, Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was still a young ethnologist, had been struck by the social decomposition of a small group of Kaingang in the State of Parana after his first encounter with Amerindians: "they are savages on whom civilization was abruptly forced," he wrote in Tristes Tropiques in 1955. "As soon as they were no longer perceived as a threat, civilization took no further interest in them.” Cautious, he also learnt from this experience with the Kaingang that appearances could be deceptive.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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