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Listening to the voice of the Indians

Study Center analyzes the past of the Missions not only from the point of view of the Jesuits but of those natives who were influenced by the priests

Men of ideas manifested themselves upon the missionary saga brought about by the religious and the natives of America during colonial times. Voltaire said that the Jesuit settlements of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were the triumph of Humanity. Montesquieu compared them to the political-philosophical system imagined by Plato, in The Republic. Hegel highlighted human evolution based a Utopia founded in the fraternity among the different peoples. Thus it was in this manner, by way of fine analogies built upon the conviction, that the disciples of Saint Ignatius, educated in the rigors of the Society of Jesus and invested with a divine mandate, took upon themselves the mission to rescue individuals from the Neolithic Age in which they lived, and introduce them to the Renaissance – in a civilizing jump without stop-offs.

If it weren’t for History, the source of constant revelations, the thesis would be satisfactory. But the past insists on emerging within the ruins of the Missions that had their place in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. It emerges in a pulsating, even unexpected, manner. “We are living in a time of major comparisons. We cannot look at the Missions only through the eyes of the glorious Society of Jesus. We need to listen to what the natives, dead and alive, have to say to us.” Curiously, this recommendation comes from a Jesuit – Father Pedro Ignácio Schmitz, 76 years of age and one of the pioneers of archaeology in Brazil, a professor of anthropology, a member of the Board of the Historic Patrimony and National Art Institute (Iphan in the Portuguese) and Director of the Anchietano Research Institute in the town of Sao Leopoldo, in Rio Grande do Sul. In this centee, linked to the Vale do Rio dos Sinos Univeristy (Unisinos), the past is dug up in successive investigations – be it in the analysis of reports signed by Jesuits and laymen, or in the searches in the archaeological sites, or in the reconstruction of the Missions, via computer graphics.

Over the last few years, the center, directed by Father Schmitz, has been encouraging academic theses that enhance as yet little known aspects in relation to the conviviality of the Jesuits and the Indians in the colonial undertakings. Based on these studies, the classic question – Why were certain Missions successful and others not? – gains indispensable complexity for the understanding of the past. Furthermore, we must analyze the question: what means success or failure in historical terms? “We have learned that the Indian settlements of the south were highly successful as they dealt with the Guarani; peaceful Indians; workers; good for indoctrinating in the catechism or turning into slaves. They were the good savages”, Father Schmitz reminds, today much more worried about deciphering the conditions in which these Indians had accepted the “rules of the game” of the Missions.

Such conditions place in check the thesis of the meekness of the natives and reminds us to the situation of exclusion of the indigenous peoples in Brazil, in the days of today. It is known, that then, the Guarani had no choice: either they were dominated by the truculence of the Spanish colonizers, or they were hunted by the explorers from São Paulo or they went off to the Indian settlements. Having chosen the third alternative, very often the Indian Chief would demand the building of a thatched hut in the forest, the label of the Church, with a cross in front. It was the password for the missionaries to come and settle the community, in a process radical inevitably.

“Our society took a long time to absorb the value of the Missions implanted in the territory belonging to the Spanish Crown, but desired by the Portuguese and their Brazilian children”, the priest explains. But the distinction between the Spanish Mission and the Portuguese Mission is the key point for the turn around in the interpretations. In the first category, contacts made through the “Society of Jesus” had announced a project of autonomy for the Indians. Or that is, as well as their involvement via the catechism, if the natives were to be productive and to pay taxes to the Crown, they would gain the status of citizens of the Empire. In the Portuguese Mission, on the other hand, they were dealt with as laborers available for the colonial system, recruited into the work gangs of trading posts or military installations. In the Spanish Mission, the administration of the settlements had been in the hands of indigenous leaders – The Guarani Chiefs enjoyed wide powers. As Also the Jesuits had become different. Very often they were the sons of the local elite. Father Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, who during the 17th century organized the first Guarani language dictionary, was the son of a rich merchant from Peru.

Back in Brazilian territory, the Jesuits had come from Europe and had been submitted to Portuguese law. If in the Spanish Mission the work of the settlement occurred preferentially in the place where the groups lived, and where their ancestors had been buried, in the Portuguese Mission there was a displacement to locations chosen by the colonizers. Thus, if the Jesuits under Portuguese rule had successful results with the Tupinambá, on the Brazilian coast, they had insurmountable difficulties with various other groups such as the Pataxó, for example.

During the 40’s, Lúcio Costa, author of the urban project of Brasília, carried out the first architectonic survey of the Missions in the south of the country, starting with the ruins of São Miguel Arcanjo, some 490 kilometers from the city of Porto Alegre. A half-century later, all of that  remainders of the Missions (besides São Miguel, there is San Ignacio Mini in Argentina, and Trinidad in Paraguay) was considered under the category of Cultural World Heritage by Unesco. Between one date and another, Father Schmitz worked with innumerable teams, looking for vestiges of this rich past. At the same time, on the campus of Unisinos, new fronts of investigation popped up. For example, from the first harvest of studies it was possible to reconstruct the social administrative organization of the Indian settlement in the midst of the Guarani, the first rehearsal for urban planning of the Modern Age.

The settlements had autonomous administration, as if they were municipalities, with their mayors, councilors, judges, heads of security and community representatives. The population varied around 4,500 Indians per center and was assisted by very few Jesuits (they were numerous in the Order’s schools, not in the settlements). And, organized in this way, such centers became auto-sufficient in the production, distribution and administration of goods. In one of the reports sent to his superiors, a Jesuit priest reported that, in the settlement that he helped to found, there were 50 carpenters, 20 weavers, 4 builders, 12 gunsmiths, 6 sculptors, 10 painters, 8 stonemasons, 12 brickmakers with more than 80 assistants, 2 bakers, 2 cooks, 6 nurses, 4 sacristy assistants, 1 shoemaker, 12 tanners, 2 ceramists, 2 turners, 3 barrel makers, 2 manufacturers of lutes and harps, 1 typographer… This in the first few years of the 17th century! In this small town, choirs and orchestras were later to be formed, proof that the Missions did not only just obey the project of the formation of subjects for the Empire but of cultivating the faithful for a universal Church. Hence the local cults, such as that of Saint Izidro, the protector of farmlands and the intense religious calendar with daily prayers, solemn masses and processions. It is worth remembering that in various settlements this calendar revolved around Churches projected by renowned architects and built by Indian hands.

Searches through the archives of the Society of Jesus made possible the access to the Annual Letters, reports of the Jesuits to the provinces of the Order – some of them make up the archive of documentation of the Anchieta Institute. In these reports, among descriptions of customs, accounting details and various solicitations, both the daily events of the communities that prospered and the sequence of setbacks of the settlements that had short  lives can be found. It was exactly this second category that had intrigued the anthropologist Dóris de Araújo Cypriano, one of Father Schmitz’s students, leading her to analyze the Missions at the Chaco – a region that occupies the center of the Meridian America, covering territories in Argentina, in Paraguay, in Bolivia and in Brazil. Dóris concentrated on the Toba Indians, the linguistic main body of the Guaicuru, hunters-collectors in the Chaco region.

The Toba Indians reacted against evangelical investiture. They had a history of resistance: between 1526 and 1550, Europeans had attempted their pacification at Chaco, by military campaigns. They lost heavily. They had organized penetration columns, which resulted in the work of occupation and settling. They fought in retreat. They reacted with punitive military expeditions. They were massacred. Faced with so many setbacks, they opted, in 1591, for pacification via missionary action. Fathers Bárcena and Anasco launched apostolic excursions to which spawned the first Toba grammar – which in theory would facilitate the life of the missionaries. This was not exactly what happened.

The settlements at Chaco were of a military character, since the life of the priests were permanently at risk – and many of them were killed. As if this was not enough, indigenous groups fought among themselves because of insurmountable rivalries. In 1756, a fort to accommodate the soldiers and the missionaries was built. On the outside, the Toba Indians were camped. The Jesuits attempted to teach them how to manage the land but they did not want to know about planting wheat and vegetables. Nomads, they managed to sustain themselves with nature’s abundance, as Doris observed in her Masters dissertation that she concluded in 2000: “The biological diversity of the Chaco region offered multiple possibilities for the subsistence of the groups who lived in it. This potential capacity was not made use of by the Spaniards who preferred to impose knowledge and practices acquired in Europe into an environment of totally diverse characteristics”. The Toba did not just react to the militarism of the contract workers but imposed limits on the missionaries in very hard negotiations. They did not want to be treated as slaves. They did not want their children to be taught the catechism. They did not want to be transferred out of the area. When the Jesuits were expelled from America, the mission fell to the Franciscan Monks of establishing new contracts with these brave people.

Studies such as this cross with other investigations such as that of the historian Elaine Smaniotto, another of Father Schmitz’s students, who dealt with an analysis of the relations of gender within the populations around the Chaco, publishing an interesting paper during 2003. While in the Guarani settlements the women had to insert themselves into a social division of work imported from Europe, among the hunter-collector tribes this did not occur. The cultural framework Toba men and women did not change with the Missions and the differentiation by gender obeyed its own system of relationships: the body is what defined sex, age, social position and the function of the individual in the community. The law was that of the Indian. It was written on his skin.

Monogamy prevailed, adultery was not tolerated, and the widow, after complying with the period of mourning, could marry again. The birth of a Chief’s son was celebrated, but also the first menstruation of the Indian girls. Abortion was practiced. When the groups started to use horses, female mobility increased. And in this manner female Chiefs arose. “Both men and women made use of the horse. But the mounting varied in accordance with social class and gender”, the researcher concludes.

Currently Dóris Cypriano is poring over the Missions in the Amazon between the 16th and 18th centuries. This deals with the evangelical undertakings by the Portuguese Jesuits with the Tupi Indians, in a region that covers portions of the states of Maranhão and Pará. The survey of these groups, being carried out now in the 21st century, reveals scars from the past: the Indians were uprooted from their lands of origin and transferred to places considered as strategic to the colonizer (close to the margins of rivers and of military fortifications). Another crucial aspect in the Amazon process was the fact that the Jesuits had established a “general language” as the form of communication – in truth, a language strange to the natives. “The layman’s presence, whether as a slave hunter or as a soldier who had to defend the frontiers, had been so rooted in the missionary action that it became  difficult to portray separate analyses”, the researcher comments. Dóris emphasizes as the focal point of the study the Residence at Negro river, a settlement founded on the margins of the river that gave it its name in 1692. Apparently, the initiative lasted no longer than a year: it was deactivated due to the deaths of various Jesuits and the impossibility of substituting them. The study explains the drastic reduction in the indigenous population through confrontations with slave hunters and the epidemics introduced into the communities, with devastating effects.

In the same way as that of the English anthropologist Terence Turner, the new investigations demand a re-interpretation of the past: the contact between the native and the agent of colonial society modified the two actors through a system of interactions with their own structure. As Dóris Cypriano concludes, “the societies involved equally placed their cultural agendas in a situation of risk”. When dealing with subjects of history, to divide the world between dominators and dominated may well be a simplistic solution, as well as a wrong one.