On Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples and the Military Dictatorship of 1964-1985

On Monday, I alluded to Brazilian indigenous peoples’ historical struggles against governmental actions (or inaction), and a recent story on indigenous peoples and the Brazilian military dictatorship reinforces the fact that, even when there were organizations like FUNAI designed to ostensibly protect indigenous peoples’ interests and rights, other governmental organizations actively impeded indigenous rights in the 20th century.

The story focuses on the creation of the Guarda Rural Indígena (Rural Indigenous Guard, GRIN) in 1969, just as the military regime was entering its most repressive phase. GRIN was intended to be an indigenous police force established to provide a security apparatus of natives to monitor natives. Those who joined GRIN, which included 84 indigenous men in the first graduating class of 1970, received training in military presentation, physical education, “moral and civic education” (a euphemism for a broad set of ideals that included heteronormativity and anti-communism), weapons training, and other military functions.

While this may seem like it opened avenues for native peoples, it wasn’t exactly a humanitarian effort. Indeed, if anything, it exacerbated some social problems even while adding new ones. Among the items the GRIN were trained in  were torture methods that the regime was increasingly using by 1969. From there, the new officials were sent into their communities, effectively serving as collaborating agents within a government that sought to remove native peoples from their lands and force their acculturation. By the time the program was ended in 1973, the military acknowledged the program had been a massive failure, with GRIN agents using torture against others and generally abusing their power. At least one GRIN agent used his income to open a brothel. According to the report, the agents’ abuses were so grotesque that at least one indigenous leader asked the Brazilian Air Force to abolish the GRIN program and its agents.

And GRIN wasn’t the only governmental institution during the military regime that negatively affected indigenous communities. Manuel dos Santos Pinheiro, one of the key figures in the operation of GRIN, also created a special “reformatory” for indigenous peoples, where indigenous people who refused to leave their traditional lands were “reeducated,” effectively serving as what one human rights researcher called an “ethnic concentration camp.” According to the article, at least 94 indigenous people who were imprisoned at the “reformatory” between 1969 and 1972 were charged with miscellaneous and unproven charges of theft, drug use, “undue” sexual relations, “pederasty,” and “mental problems.”

Certainly, these actions and institutions reveal the extreme ways in which indigenous peoples and communities suffered under military policies. Yet they also dealt with assaults on their livelihood in less grotesque ways. Racist accounts of indigenous peoples typical of the sixteenth century were still common in the twentieth century, as in the case of a newspaper report from 1973 on “GIANT INDIANS” encountered in remote parts of Brazil. The rhetoric of indigenous peoples as “giant” echoed the rhetoric and portrayal of indigenous peoples as inhumane others that frequently characterized European exploration accounts in the sixteenth century, narratives whose purpose was very much to define Europe as “civilized” by drawing indigneous peoples as inhuman and uncivilized foils to European society. Such accounts came in the wake of the military trying to further extend its reach into the country’s peripheral interior areas; indeed, such efforts were part of an attempt to “modernize” and develop, something the regime attempted to fulfill via expansion of the Brazilian highway system in remote areas, including the famous (but never fully completed) Trans-Amazonian highway. As the regime, as well as illegal miners, invaded indigenous peoples, the communities were forcibly relocated, all so the regime could build the infrastructure. Once again, indigenous peoples were seen as (literal) roadblocks to symbols of development and modernity in Brazil.

And that doesn’t even address the issue of the disappeared in Brazil. Certainly, it’s well known that the regime disappeared hundreds who opposed the regime, from guerrilla movements to student leaders. However, as the Truth Commission does its work, a new report suggests that investigations into the regime’s treatment of indigenous peoples could quintuple the total number of disappeared during military rule, pointing to the 2000 Waimiri-Atroari peoples who vanished from their territory between 1968 and 1983. While not all of them may not have been disappeared by the military regime, the fact that the regime targeted peoples whose land stood in their way of “development” is not a secret, and it’s worth investigating. Ultimately, I think the number may be lower, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the regime still used systematic murder and the concealment and/or destruction of bodies to enforce its particular vision of nation and development. And the fact that the disappearance of these peoples is so often overlooked and excluded from narratives of the military regime’s repression is just another reminder of the ways in which indigenous peoples and their rights as citizens remain marginalized or completely ignored in Brazil. Certainly, elements of these stories on indigenous-governmental relations during the military regime may be new, but they sadly are not abnormal or unexpected for Brazil’s dictatorship. These forms of repression, be it directly through institutions like GRIN and indigenous prison systems, more subtly through forced removal in the name of “development,” or even the forced disappearance of entire peoples, are but a part of  centuries-long narratives of the denial of basic rights and access to citizenship for Brazil’s indigenous groups.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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