Reflections of Native-American Indigenous Culture in Brazilian Indigenous Authors


As Brazilian Indigenous people are not geographically close to the Native American ones, it is common to perceive such individuals as being different from each other. Notwithstanding, this idea has been growing weaker with the works of Daniel Munduruku and Maurício Negro due to their remarks regarding The Speech of The Great Chief1, an adaptation of the famous Chief Seattle’s speech during treaty negotiations in 1854. Not only did the speech cast light on issues that many Brazilian Indigenous groups had been experiencing, but it also gave them a ground to identify with Native-Americans due to similar cultures. The bond established between Brazilian Indigenous Peoples and Native Americans could be witnessed by the many references to the speech from Indigenous leaders such as Ailton Krenak and others in various media. To corroborate this qualitative research, we will engage with some of these examples to illustrate the recurrence of the speech quotations alongside a brief bibliographical review.

The original speech answered to the president of the United States Franklin Pierce’s offer to buy the Duwamish and Suquamish land in exchange for a reserve elsewhere. Noah Sealth, or Chief Seattle, replied brilliantly in a speech which has been reproduced countless times. What is also important regarding this speech, as pointed by Denise Low, is that “many questions remain about the authenticity of what has been credited as Seattle’s speech. Was Seattle an actual, historical figure, or is he the latest incarnation of the noble savage: ‘simple,’ ‘eloquent,’ and uncivilized but with ‘feelings for nature’?” (1995: 407). Denise Low advocates for the latter, since for her “Seattle’s revised speech, now embellished with stereotypes and romanticized tropes of nature, more accurately reflect the projected hegemonic mythology rather than an accurate record of historical events. The speech becomes a rhetorical instrument of domination” (Ibid.: 418). We acknowledge its origin and how romantic it may sound. However, what concerns us is its usage and applications, for they may serve different purposes for plenty of cultures, such as the Brazilian one. The full-translated speech in Portuguese first appeared in Leonardo Boff’s (1995) book Ecologia: grito da terra, grito dos pobres, although excerpts from the speech were already well known. However, the repercussions of the speech have not yet been fully ascertained, especially in the case of Brazilian Indigenous people2. In this regard, we propose, based on the changes that have been happening in the political scenario, that Brazilian Indigenous groups have repurposed the original speech to fit it into their political context and needs given that it was uttered again and again by different Indigenous leaders3.

Sharing Political Plights – Kinship, Society, and Literature

Even though centuries have passed between Seattle’s speech and Munduruku’s adaptation, the relentless fight for land experienced by many Indigenous groups is still on. Aílton Krenak, an Indigenous leader and Indigenous rights activist, states that contrary to popular belief, “we are at war […] your world and mine are at odds […] the ideological falsification that suggests that we are at peace, does so to convince us to maintain the system. There’s no peace anywhere” (Bolognesi, 2018)4. This is a justified feeling given the fact that massacres still happen, the Indigenous people’s land is still coveted and a dire, eerie sensation still revolves around this subject. There are so many reasons that lead to the latter: in 2019, more than 1000 km2 were deforested from the Amazonian region, on 27th of July 2019 another invasion took place at the Wajâpi land5 and in 2017 a constitutional amendment project was proposed to stop the demarcation of Indigenous lands and forest reserves. Unfortunately, the list goes on. As a response, the spirit of the original speech has reached the media through the Indigenous groups or by non-governmental agencies6. The writer Cristino Wapichana (2018), at the Mekukradjá conference, gathers other Indigenous people’s opinion. He asserts: “There is a letter that many have read. I read once in a while this letter from a Native-American kin. The Chief Seattle’s letter. He wrote Indigenous people thoughts! Where are the indigenous teachers to write about it?” (Wapichana, 2018: online)7

One of these responses took place at the Mato Grosso Indigenous Groups Book Fair by the teacher and writer Daniel Munduruku. The book was read to many Indigenous leaders as a performative choice that worked as a reenactment of the original text. After the reading, many other Brazilian authors felt inspired by the severity of the lessons learned from their Native American relatives. In this paper, we intend to analyze how Daniel Munduruku and Mauricio Negro adapted the context of the original speech to the Brazilian reality and how it has shaped the contemporary discourse of other Brazilian Indigenous writers, such as Eliane Potiguara and Olivio Jekupé. We also propose that learning about the Native American experience strengthened the kinship ties between these Indigenous groups because of the educational aspects it has brought to Brazilian Indigenous movements and the impact it has had on their Indigenous identity. Such statement is clearly reflected by Daniel Munduruku’s works. He asserts that one of the main goals of Brazilian Indigenous movements is educational as education “is a legitimate instrument for the defense of the Indigenous people’ rights, structured in a process of self-formation and also serving on another strand of this same educational aspect, to change the Brazilian society perspective, and even of the State, about the Indigenous people » (Munduruku, 2012: 12)8.

To be able to raise awareness about a given subject, such, for instance, how the Brazilian Indigenous groups live, what are their beliefs, customs and culture, one has to negotiate with the government. Munduruku is not the first to try to do so. He learnt this from a Native American book whose title he did not mention. In this book, governmental leaders offered to create a boarding school for Native Americans. The offer was refused “because the school they had been going to didn’t teach them what was needed to be learnt” (Munduruku 2004: 100)[[“Porque a escola que eles frequentavam não lhes ensinava o que era realmente necessário aprender.”]]. Instead, they offered to teach their ways so that a healthier relationship could be nurtured between groups, a proposal which was also promptly declined. The attitude displayed by them resonated well with Brazilian Indigenous groups, for they believed their country needed to learn about their ways of living, their history, and respect their educational choices. It is more important to raise a respectful human being, to become Munduruku, than to learn the multiplication table.

Marcos Terena, one of the creators of World Indigenous Games, criticizes the way in which Brazilians are educated about their own cultural background in an interview with Munduruku: “When I was at high school, I knew a lot about the history of the United States, of France, about Napoleon Bonaparte, Frank Roosevelt and such issues. Who was to talk about Sitting Bull? Who was to tell the story of Mário Juruna? So, we, as part of the Indigenous peoples, have to bring up these aspects up so that the Indigenous Movement is ‘recycled’ and also that it does not to lose its achievements.” (Munduruku, 2012: 201)9. The constant renewal and reappraisal of Indigenous history echoes what Eliane Potiguara, who also contributed to the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights, states: “the paths and the answers to a new world lie in the acquisition and in the recognition of the traditional knowledge of the first nations of this vast and luminous blue asteroid against the internal and external enemy” (2018: 93)10. With the previous statement, Potiguara sums up what creates a bridge between the Brazilian and the Native Americans since what she says ends up being part of many shared experiences and common goals. These entail a kinship relation between them even though no genetic relationship can be found, for kinship “can be also be about extra – or even non-biological cultural and community relationships, chosen connections and commitments, as well as political, spiritual, and ceremonial processes that bring people into deep and meaningful affiliation” (Justice, 2018: 75). Furthermore, for Indigenous peoples,

imagination has always been vital to resist, counter, and undo the ravages of colonialism, especially given how relentless the attacks to our kinship networks and connections have been. Settlers have invariably sought and gained control over our lands by targeting the kinship bonds that have connected Indigenous peoples to those territories, while simultaneously attacking the imaginative capacity that strengthens those connections (Ibid.: 86).

Therefore, the sense of kinship brought through literature empowers connections once lost or weakened. The works analyzed fosters a connection with others of similar plights and develops collective solutions.

Literary Connections

In this section, we analyze the ties that are present in Brazilian books. The references have been gathered by Daniel Munduruku (2009: 100) probably from T.C McLuhan’s book, Touch the Earth: a self portrait of Indian existence, as he indicates in a note of the book “The Gods feast: a conversation about the origins and the Brazilian culture” (Munduruku, 2009: 100; our translation)11. In this book, the chapter “Voices of tradition” includes many experiences from Native Americans such as the Seattle Speech, the Ecological Manifesto from Arizona Indianas, written by Harvey Lloyd, from the Hopi people in Arizona, and a prayer from the Sioux Indigenous group. However, Munduruku’s contact with Chief Seattle’s letter content comes from ECO-92 gathering.

And what does literature have to do with all this? It has a connection with everything. The ECO-92 taught us that we are part of a Great Web that joins the infinite not yet unveiled. It reminded us that we are responsible for what can happen to this little planet of ours and that each person can contribute – even the least – so that the thing does not degrade once and for all. We have already started to assume a new environmental posture that involves a change in behavior and the acceptance that « we do not own the web of life, but only one of its threads » (Chief Seattle). This understanding has led to the emergence of many books that indicate healthier behaviors for our children and young people; it has generated a national legislation on the environment; it has created in educational institutions the obligation to work on the environmental issue which is no longer separated from other disciplines, and has legally ordered the modus operandi for the protection of the environment, common to all of us. I say, with some certainty, that this universal event was also responsible for the emergence of Indigenous literature, since it motivated young natives to put on paper their own understanding of the world, of nature, of commitment to a universe that does not belong to anyone, because it belongs to everyone and is for everyone. (Munduruku, 2012b)12

This is the spirit that led Munduruku to adapt the speech in The Word of the Great Chief, which does not strive for a literal translation. Firstly, there are several elements pertaining to Latin American nature and cultures. One example is the constant use of pictures with typical paintings, lines, clothes, tattoos, symbols, and references. Furthermore, Munduruku includes himself as a member of the audience, that is: he is the author, but he also is the reader for he is part of those who enjoy and have been influenced by the original text. The panoply of elements within his adaptation functions as a reenactment of the original act: “I slipped my eyes over the crowd and noticed the great emotion and enchantment that those words provoked. The governor seemed very upset. And the Great Chief continued” (Munduruku, 2008: 19)13. In addition to the adaptation of the speech, the iconography of Suquamish and Duwamish people is mixed to Munduruku icons, resulting in an amalgamation of both cultures, strengthening the idea of kinship and union amongst Indigenous groups.

Munduruku 2008: cover

The closed eyes imply the Indigenous spirit resting, but not for long since the governor disturbs it. The next picture shows the reactions elicited from the speech:

Munduruku, 2008: 18‑20

The governor, relaying the President’s message, opens his case, disclosing his true identity: a train, from where Bisons were shot, with fingers in his ears, of course, since it had stopped listening to the true words of the Big Chief.

Munduruku 2008: 01

Mirroring the organization of Brazilian Indigenous groups, the picture above depicts their willingness to fight and their consciousness. It reminds us that citizenship is to be reconstructed so as to respect their ethnic group in addition to casting light on the reasons why many of her Indigenous brothers and sisters, even after cultural, political and religious massacres, keep on reasserting their identity: “Because their collective unconscious, that is, their soul, their essence, their quintessence yells louder than their ego, I repeat. Their soul is bound to the ancestors, to their history pseudo-forgotten” (Potiguara, 2018: 100)14. In that light, Eliana Potiguara’s poem “Indigenous Identity”, asserts ties and pays homage to other groups around the world. The poem is made of 93 lines:

It is not only me
We are not ten, nor a hundred nor a thousand
That will shine in the stage light of History
We will be millions, united in a shoal
And we will not need to roam the world
Drunken by the suffocation of the massacre
Crying and shedding precious tears
For those that don’t respect us
Migration knocks at our door
Contradictions revolve around us
Shortages face us
As if they knocked on our face at all times
But consciousness rises again at each punch
And we become as dry as the wasteland
but we don’t restrain from loving (Potiguara 2018, lines 14-28, p. 115)15

Potiguara’s poem recalls a historical process. It was conceived through the works of various politically-organized Indigenous activists. Such display of kinship leads us to contemplate the relationships established by a diverse range of groups. In this case, the ties asserted between Brazilians and Chief Seattle’s speech cannot be described by words like “influence”, or “guidance”, for they do not portray the real proportions of the change. This speech did not only shape a discourse Brazilian Indigenous groups had been struggling to legitimize, to make it their own; it reenacted and repurposed it in order to foster connections with the wisdom of those who had come before them.

Reprisal Without Repentance

It is a fact that literature is one of many conduits which can be used to expand the sense of kinship among Indigenous people. However, not only literature is responsible for bringing together such actions, hope and despair are also part of it. Many movements have been appearing because of the recent surge of massive deforestation taking place in Brazil. Alongside this tragedy, the government refrains from taking emphatic actions. This lack of initiative leads to more acts of violence against the environment, which went from deforestation, plowing, and slaying animals to the flaying of Indigenous people for wealth and riches beyond the understanding of the deceased. This sort of aggression is not new since relentless pursuits for land have always been an issue that concerns Indigenous groups. It comes from a long tradition of exploitation, ranging from the very first contact between native Brazilians and colonizers until this very recent day. It is ironic to think, nevertheless, that the colonizers who arrived in Brazil, famished, sick and on the verge of death, would most likely have passed away had it not been for the kindness and natural sense of kinship provided by the Indigenous people. Begging for a change among many similar conflicts, the 20th century brings a different fight on the table.

Because we have a beating heart
With blood gushing through the four corners of the universe
I will live 200 years, 500 or 700 years
And I will tell my aches to thee
Oh! Identity
And between one fact and another
I will bite your head
As one who seeks the source of thy strength
Of thy youth
Of the power of thy people
The power of the time that has already passed
But we will recover
And we will take by moral assault
The houses, the temples, the palaces
And we will transform it in a village of love
In glances of affection
As yours are, bright, of lulling identity
And we will transform the indigenous sex
In organs of beautiful future baby fighter producers
And we will not crave food anymore
Crave soul, crave land, crave green
Crave history
And we will not commit suicide
At every century, every era, every minute
And we, the indigenous people from all around the planet,
We will only feel the natural cravings
And the lushness of our ancestrality
Will feed us forever
And ulcers, anemias, tuberculosis, and hunger will be no more
that will not take us
because we will be stronger that all of
cancerous cells together. (Potiguara 2018, lines 29-62, page 116)16

As Potiguara defends in her poem, the collective struggles of Indigenous people is “like a mine on forbidden land. At any time, a minimal movement drills like a thread of water and explodes like an ocean. You can’t silence, there’s the tradition of the warrior people” (Ibid.: 100)17. One of the first to answer the same call and to officially take part into political endeavors was Mário Juruna from the Xavante group in 1982. The trigger that made Juruna fight was the Brazilian constitution. Even though there were legal instances to protect Indigenous people, such as the SPI (Indigenous Protection Service), there was no respect whatsoever for their native territory, nor worries regarding the preservation of the environment. Safety was always at stake since the government had total authority and power to explore the Indigenous’ lands at will. This paradigm shift was only possible through the writing/reformulation of the Brazilian Magna Carta in 1988, in which Juruna, Eliane Potiguara and Ailton Krenak, Indigenous Brazilian journalists and activists, had great impact by taking part in congress meetings and decisions to grant their people rights that had not been present in the previous version of the constitution.

Since then, the number of Brazilian Indigenous people acting against the destruction of their homeland and the death of the people in official political positions has been swelling, coinciding with the end of the dictatorship period. The exact amount of candidates enrolling for such political positions, however, was only published in 2014. Not surprisingly, the percentage of Indigenous candidates was around 0.35% (Consultor Jurídico, 2015). We speculate that these numbers were even lower in the previous elections, although the exact number is uncertain. The sense of kinship which has brought them together was the same one that inspired the speech of the great chief: surviving, protecting their kin, preserving their land. Even under the light of this evidence, what is a fact regarding this subject is that a significant growth of more than 50% in comparison to the numbers of 2014 has been accounted for by the Brazilian government. This number is abundant in peripheral positions, that is, the majority of the candidates run where chances of being elected are feasible, which are either as city, or county councilors (Codato; Lobato; Castro, 2018: online). Even if these positions are not as influential as the highest ones, this gradual insertion into this political sphere grants them power and authority not only among their own people, but also among others.

We believe that this change has come through intellectual works, such as Munduruku’s, regarding the importance of understanding this conflict through the eyes of their nemesis: to be able to defend themselves this people has gone beyond its tradition to fight a different battle. The adaptation of the speech of the great chief and its presentation at the Mato Grosso Indigenous Book Fair brought together a myriad of aspects: different periods in time, different people, different languages, but still, one common goal. Kinship grows outside the boundaries of their action and affects those whose understanding of the situation is dim, and while mistakes keep being repeated without repentance, the Indigenous people fight back with new tools.

  1. 1In portuguese, A palavra do grande chefe. Translations in this paper are referred with the original passages as footnotes.
  2. 2Nonetheless, few comparisons have been made between Brazilian Indigenous groups and Native-Americans. See for example Janice Thiel (2012) and Flávia Carpes Westhalen (2007). Furthermore, for a comparatist overview, the works from Zilá Bernd (2009) are especially important.
  3. 3Chief Seattle and Ailton Krenak are occasionally compared since both have come to appeal at government hearings on behalf of their groups. In Krenak’s case, it was at Brazil’s parliament. However, Edson Kayapó and Tamires Brito (2014) remember an important difference: Seattle responds to a proposal to buy land, while in Brazil there is no proposal, only violent usurpation. Another example of a comparison between the two is the following interview: Furthermore, Krenak (2015) sometimes cites the speech, such as in the referenced document.
  4. 4“Nós estamos em guerra (…) o seu mundo e o meu mundo tão em guerra. (…) a falsificação ideológica que sugere que nós temos paz é pra gente continuar mantendo a coisa funcionando. Não tem paz em lugar nenhum.”
  5. 5 (Londono, 2019: online).
  6. 6Examples could be found on CIMI, one of the most active Non-Governmental agencies that work with indigenous groups. The Magazine «Mensageiro» from Pará, recurrently gives excerpts and comments about the speech. To reference some of them: ;;
  7. 7“Tem uma carta que muitos já leram. Leio vez por outra essa carta que um parente norte-americano escreveu. A carta do chefe Seattle. Ele escreveu pensamentos de índio! Cadê os professores indígenas para escrever sobre isso?” Available at:
  8. 8"É um instrumento legítimo na defesa dos direitos indígenas, estruturado em processo de autoformação e servindo também, em outra vertente desse mesmo caráter educativo, para mudar o olhar da sociedade brasileira, e mesmo do Estado, sobre os povos indígenas"
  9. 9“Quando estudei o ginasial, sabia muito mais a história dos EUA, da França, sobre Napoleão Bonaparte, Frank Roosevelt e coisas assim. E quem fala do Touro Sentado? Quem conta essa história do Mário Juruna? Então, nós, como indígenas, temos que abordar estes pontos para que o Movimento Indígena seja “reciclado” e não perca suas conquistas.”
  10. 10“Os caminhos e as respostas para um novo mundo estão na aquisição e no reconhecimento dos conhecimentos tradicionais das primeiras nações deste grande e luminoso asteroide azul contra o inimigo interno e externo.”
  11. 11“O Banquete dos Deuses: conversa sobre a origem e a cultura brasileira”
  12. 12“E o que tem a literatura com tudo isso? Tem tudo. A ECO-92 nos ensinou que fazemos parte de uma Grande Teia que se une ao infinito ainda não desvendado. Lembrou-nos que somos responsáveis pelo que pode acontecer a esse nosso planetinha e que cada pessoa pode dar sua contribuição – mínima que seja – para que a coisa não degringole de vez. Desde já começamos a assumir uma nova postura ambiental que passa pela mudança de comportamento e pela aceitação de que “não somos donos da teia da vida, mas apenas um de seus fios” (Chefe Seattle). Essa compreensão levou ao surgimento de muitos livros que indicam comportamentos mais saudáveis para nossas crianças e jovens; gerou uma legislação nacional sobre o meio ambiente; criou nas instituições de ensino a obrigatoriedade de se trabalhar o tema ambiental não mais separado das outras disciplinas e ordenou, juridicamente, o modus operandi para a proteção do ambiente, comum a todos nós. Digo, com alguma certeza, que esse evento universal foi responsável, também, pelo surgimento de uma literatura indígena, uma vez que motivou jovens nativos a colocarem no papel sua própria compreensão de mundo, de natureza, de compromisso com um universo que não pertence a ninguém, porque é de todos e para todos.”
  13. 13“Deslizei meus olhos sobre a multidão e notei a grande comoção e encantamento que aquelas palavras provocavam. O governador parecia   bastante incomodado. E o Grande Chefe prosseguia.”
  14. 14“Porque seu inconsciente coletivo, isto é, sua alma, sua essência, sua quintessência gritam mais forte que seu ego, repito. Sua alma é atrelada aos ancestrais, à sua história pseudoesquecida.”
  15. 15“Mas não sou eu só/Não somos dez, cem ou mil/Que brilharemos no palco da História/Seremos milhões, unidos como cardume/E não precisaremos mais sair pelo mundo/Embebedados pelo sufoco do massacre/A chorar e derramar preciosas lágrimas/Por quem não nos tem respeito/A migração nos bate à porta/As contradições nos envolvem/As carências nos encaram/Como se batessem na nossa cara a toda hora/Mas a consciência se levanta a cada murro/E nos tornamos secos como o agreste/Mas não perdemos o amor.”
  16. 16“Porque temos o coração pulsando/Jorrando sangue pelos quatro cantos do universo/Eu viverei 200 anos, 500 ou 700 anos/E contarei minhas dores pra ti/Oh! Identidade/E entre um fato e outro/Morderei tua cabeça/Como quem procura a fonte da tua força/Da tua juventude/O poder da tua gente/O poder do tempo que já passou/Mas que vamos recuperar/E tomaremos de assalto moral/As casas, os templos, os palácios/E os transformaremos em aldeias do amor/Em olhares de ternura/Como são os teus, brilhantes, acalentante identidade/E transformaremos os sexos indígenas/Em orgãos produtores de lindos bebês guerreiros do futuro/E não passaremos mais fome/Fome de alma, fome de terra, fome de mata/Fome de História/E não nos suicidaremos/A cada século, a cada era, a cada minuto/E nós, indígenas de todo o planeta,/Só sentiremos a fome natural/E o sumo de nossa ancestralidade/Nos alimentará para sempre/E não existirão mais úlceras, anemias, tuberculoses/Desnutrição/ Que irão nos arrebatar/Porque seremos mais fortes que todas as células/cancerígenas juntas.”
  17. 17“como uma mina em terreno proibido. A qualquer hora, um movimento mínimo mina como um fio d’água e explode como um oceano. Não dá para calar, por isso há a tradição do povo guerreiro”