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The invention of Indians in Brazil

Analysis of ethnographies produced by Salesian missionaries deconstructs the notion of the anthropologist as a translator

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A highly instigating and timely debate on what is basically the role of the anthropologist – and the nature of the anthropologist’s research work – might be the result of the book Selvagens, civilizados, autênticos: a produção das diferenças nas monografias salesianas no Brasil (1920-1970) [Savages, civilized, authentic: the production of the differences in the Salesian monographs in Brazil (1920-1970)], if researchers in this field accept the book’s provocative proposals –  put forth by Paula Montero – with an open mind. The latest result of more than a decade of research supported by a grant from FAPESP – under the theme project “Missionários cristãos na Amazônia brasileira: um estudo de mediação cultural” [Christian missionaries in the Brazilian Amazon Region: a cultural mediation study] and the regular project  “A textualidade missionária: as etnografias salesianas no Brasil” [Missionary textualism: Salesian ethnographies in Brazil], the researcher’s most recent book clearly proposes the deconstruction of the outdated notion of the anthropologist as a translator. Paula’s theoretical and empirically accurate view does away with the outdated figure of the specialist who goes to an entirely unknown world – the “other,” the incomprehensible otherness – and captures, by means of interaction with a privileged informant who is never introduced, something that nobody had ever heard of  before. The anthropologist classifies that something, organizing it to transform it into a difference and then translates it into terms that are accessible to the symbolic universe from where he started his journey.

Instead of this encyclopedia-like translation, we see the emergence of a creation –  in the true meaning of the word – as the anthropologist’s object and form of work, because “nothing had been found there previously” that was ready to be captured. The agents of two heterogeneous worlds of knowledge –  in this case, priests and Brazilian Indians –  are both driven by interests, one towards the other, and, in fact, “need to establish a certain agreement so that the creation can exist, a creation that will always be different, depending on who is there,” according to the anthropologist. Paula Montero is a full professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) and the chairwoman of the Brazilian Center for Planning and Analysis/ Cebrap. It was precisely to understand such agreements, in other words, to understand exactly what happens when these agents start interacting, that Paula decided to focus on the Salesian missions as a specific field of reflection and research. At this point, firmly attached to the notion that ideas are driven by subjects and, as such, one must understand the related agents to understand the construction of their interaction, she observed that, if the priest’s mission is to convert, then – the native, who can be a witch doctor or the chieftain in this situation, wants to take ownership of the priest’s power to thus increase his own power in the group and become more powerful than the priest.”

She states that this is not a mere process of destroying a culture. Nor can this be referred to as cultural resistance. “It is actually a political process; it is also a symbol of the interaction between two heterogeneous worlds of knowledge.”  A play on words enters the stage, whereby both sides will establish an agreement on what they have to do to live together in those situations in which they are involved.

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Thus, it becomes clear why the concept of cultural mediation is the key to Paula Montero’s research work and to what extent the missions became a good pretext for her to conduct in-depth research on this topic. It also becomes clear why she made such an effort to avoid focusing only on the discourse and to consult biographies and bring up sources of information through her analysis of the ethnography. This effort included the methodological use of the photographs taken by the Salesian priests, which provided the – details of the environment” of the missionary villages, as she wrote in her book. “The ideas do not impose themselves; the agents have to be positioned in strategic places, embellished by the skills they gained during their journeys to operate categories, build up relationships, etc.”  she says. Her critical eye turns to the production of the older generation of  Brazilian anthropologists who – in the wake of the work on African culture by Roger Bastide – focused on syncretism without including the issue of the mediators. Her critical eye also turns to the more recent anthropological analyses, which focused on the relationship between Brazilian Indians and white people in Brazil, thus reducing everything to cultural resistance. (To be emphasized is the fact that Bastide focused on a transplanted culture, whose subjects had been relocated from their native land, while the issue of the Brazilian Indian culture focused on subjects who in general were still living in their native territory).

Ideal Missionaries
The Salesian priests’ arrival in Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century had resulted from the connection of a number of major interests, Paula points out. In the scope of global geopolitics, it is important to keep in mind that Italy had been sidelined when Africa was being divided, and the Catholic Church desperately needed to find a new region for expansion. The Jesuits had been expelled from Brazil in 1759 and had not been back since; Italy had been unified in 1870 and, in this context, the religious congregation founded in 1859 by the Italian João Bosco seemed to be a group that, in the eyes of the Empire, did not pose any risk to the sovereignty of the State. The Salesian Order, obedient to the Pope and persecuted in Italy after the country’s unification, would not fall into the temptation of creating a parallel State here, as had been the case with other religious orders. In addition, the Salesian priests served the interests of a papacy that needed to ensure its recently achieved secular power, which had enabled the Vatican State to establish diplomatic alliances with the new national States in America.

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In Italy, the Salesian order’s specialtization was the education of young laborers from rural regions. However, they were originally invited to come to Brazil to educate the children of the rural elite and train the urban migrants in new skills, as the Salesians were experts in what were then the contemporary educational technologies. “At the time, there was a non-conformist view of the relationships created by industrialism. The Salesians then focused on taking care of the poorer youngsters, viewed as having been abandoned and at risk, with the aim of integrating these youngsters into new forms of urban civility,”  Paula points out.

Based on these ideals, and with the blessings of Emperor Pedro II, the Salesians arrived in Brazil in 1883, at a time when progressive ideas were surfacing among the powerful coffee plantation owners. It is important to emphasize that until 1910 the Salesians had had no contact with the Brazilian Indians. At the turn of the century, however, the Brazilian State had begun its “project to open up frontiers. This gained strength during the Vargas government, and the result was the incorporation of the entire State of Mato Grosso, for example. Later on, the project would also successfully involve the Amazon Region and would push forward the implementation of cities until the 1960s.”

In the course of this expansion project, the Brazilian Indians started to become a problem for the State in those regions. The Salesians, however, might be a solution. In other words, “the historical and political conditions that defined the Salesian order’s expansion project for the Americas linked to the economic and political strategies of the expansion of national sovereignty over new territories,” Paula writes. The Salesian missions could ensure the “pacifying” of the savages, which would allow for the introduction of productive economic activities in Brazil’s hinterland. Of course, the positivists, who had always feared the growing power of the religious orders in Brazil, disliked the Salesians”  project; “but this project shared the mentality of that time, which preached that the universal nature of civilization as a human condition was self-evident. The proposal was to associate the principles of Catholicism with the benefits of scientism,” Paula points out. Thus, extending the same pedagogical model of the urban experience to “savage” populations did not seem to pose any difficulties to the Salesians. “After all, the “jungle”, in the view of contemporary Christian imagination, was the counterpoint to the city or to Christian civilization.”  The new element, namely, the introduction of Scientifism in the relationship between men and nature, brought on a new dilemma. In the book, the researcher points out that “by assuming that civilization, progress and country are synonyms, the Salesians, in opposition to positivism, wanted to re-consecrate nature, retrieving in the savage the “natural reason” that sees the world as God’s work; in opposition to the “natural religion” of the Brazilian Indians, who worship nature, the Salesians felt they had to civilize nature in order to include it in the nation’s social and rational order.”

The problem of the “fierce native” was often solved by means of violence and brutality. According to Paula, however, Brazil was never in favor of implementing a stated and systematic genocide policy. “Pacificism prevailed in the Republic, which in practice meant that conflicts with the Brazilian Indians were not to be encouraged. Rondon, the leading representative of the positivist  “pacificist” attitude, stood for the secular model, which would become the basis for the System for the Protection of the Brazilian Indians/SIP, created in 1910. By creating legal constraints to the violence of the colonizers, this pacificist program produced a legal structure for Brazilian Indians’  territorial rights. The program also created protection entities such as the SPI and, above all, made it possible for the Salesian priests to act as the front line agents for the conversion of the Brazilian Indians to Catholicism and for the civilizing of the expanding national frontiers throughout the first half of the 20th century.

“In the 1930’s, the Brazilian Government had already granted the Salesians half of the subventions allocated for Catholic missionary institutions, and the format of their institutionalization, inspired by the Jesuit model, remained the same until the second Vatican Council, when the model began to lose its vigor,” says Paula. The impact of the ideological crisis during the 1970’s, which checkmated the mission model shaped by the Council of Trent, forced the Salesians to re-think their relations with Brazilian policy and the Brazilian Indians.

However, the Salesians’  acquiescence to the request of the Brazilian State to participate in the “pacificist” front had not been simple. Indeed, this acquiescence took a long time and was problematic. “Dom Bosco’s desire was to create an Italian colony in America. Only after he had realized that his project to expand the work of his congregation in Argentina would not move forward unless he re-directed his work to Brazil’s indigenous areas,” says Paula.

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The missions’  model was based on schools of arts and crafts. The idea was to gather the Brazilian Indians around a “farm colony” focused on using modern agricultural methods, based on scientific productivity principles and sophisticated technology. Farming the land was the core of the missions’  autonomy and prosperity, and the ultimate objective was to train the body and the spirit of the Brazilian Indians. Unlike a military colony or the sporadic relations of Rondon with some ethnic groups, the missionary agricultural colony, Paula points out, was a new relationship arrangement that connected units of the indigenous system to units of the colonial system in an on-going relationship, to produce new relationships. “But the two policies started off from different principles: the policy for the ethnic groups, followed by the State until the 1950’s, was based on the idea of assimilation through living together with non-Indians, whereas the missionary strategies were based on the idea of civilization, which preached the relative isolation of the native ethnic groups.”

Compared ethnographies – All of this makes it increasingly clear that, by resorting to a methodology that compared three distinct moments in the relationship between the missionaries and the ethnic groups, Paula Montero seeks to explain how the interaction between the two parties changed because of the political context, of the culture of the different tribes and even because of the specific points made by each author of the narratives of these processes. These conditions clearly produce different views of what it meant to be a native Brazilian Indian.

In this sense, the main objective of the researcher’s analysis is a group of three ethnographies written by Salesian missionaries on the Bororo and Xavante tribes from the State of Mato Grosso, and on the so-called Tucano tribe, from the State of Amazonas. The first ethnography, “Os Bororo orientais” [The east Bororos], was written in 1925 by Antonio Colbacchini and César Albisetti; the second ethnography, “A civilização indígena do Uaupés” [The indigenous civilization of the Uaupes], was written in 1958 by Alcionílio Bruzzi da Silva; the third ethnography, “Xavante, Auwe Uptabi, povo autêntico” [Xavante, Auwe Uptabi, an authentic people] was written in 1972, by Bartolomeu Giaccaria and Adalberto Heide.

Colbacchini had a degree in philosophy and theology. From 1906 onward, he became a pioneer and explored the state of  Mato Grosso. In the following year, he became the director of the Tachos agricultural settlements. He believed his mission was to transform the natural savages into social beings, guided by law, order and religion. “Unlike the Republican military attitude towards the indigenous ethnic groups, based on the idea of  “pacificism”, where the idea of civilization mainly comprised control of the territory and the population, Colbacchini assumed the existence of a  “clandestine nation”  that could only become known when viewed from the point of view of the hinterlands.

This proto-nation identifies itself with the principles of  liberty, fraternity, and primordial innocence. According to Paula, understanding the work of Colbacchini involves analyzing how his description mobilizes the imagination to respond to the contradictions, apparently with no solution, that the incorporation of the Brazilian Indians and their cultural differences imposes on the consciousness of man and on the awareness of  his times. Thus, in a text that still closely resembles the written language employed by the encyclopedia writers of the nineteenth century, Colbacchini creates the Bororo totemism when he goes in search of a natural religion.

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The work of Father Alcionílio Bruzzi on the Tucano tribe, written under a different intellectual and political context, highlighted an emphasis on the Brazilian nature of the native tribe, shows that the missionary work conducted in the region around the Negro and Uaupés Rivers is based on the effort to integrate the native tribe into the national State. This also implies the need to build clean and healthy constructions in cities and the building of boarding school facilities whose imposing architecture would represent the definitive civilizing work. In the priest’s opinion, the dynamics unleashed by the missionary centers should be understood as a “civilizing” process and no longer as “catechism.”  It is important to emphasize that the arrival, in 1920, of the Salesians in the region of the Negro River, a river basin predominantly populated by native ethnic groups, was a completely different experience from their experience in the State of Mato Grosso, where they had to mediate the on-going conflicts between landowners and indigenous ethnic groups. The “pacificism” model would not predominate in Uaupés because of a lack of settlers. There was a fundamental difference between Bruzzi’s monograph and that of Colbacchini: “The habitus of a scientific spirit filtered by a language that wishes to be rigorous and contained is much more evident in the work of Bruzzi than in that of Colbacchini, whose language is more intuitive and passionate. Bruzzi’s analysis is guided by science and by his desire to create an individual, even though he had been faced with the inconvenience of not having found subjects subjected to the point of living in a science-based society.”

Bartolomeu Giaccaria, one of the authors of the third monograph, arrived in Brazil in 1954. He was transferred to Sangradouro in late 1956, to be in charge of the mission school. Paula points out that the focus was no longer on the savage, and authenticity became the key concept. “Everything that refers to the native is authentic.”  Rather than focusing on conversion, the intent was to find that which was original, and culture substituted what had been previously taken up by religion.

A short time after his arrival in Sangradouro, Giaccaria contacted groups from the Xavante tribe that had recently arrived at the mission. He was faced with the work of having to teach the Xavante children how to read and write without being familiar with their language and culture. “It was not enough for him to have elementary knowledge of the Xavante language to act efficiently in the classroom and he felt the urgent need to become more familiar with Brazilian Indian behavior and patterns of understanding. In the 1960s, he began his more systematic work of ethnographic observation, together with Adalberto Heide.”

Giaccaria’s work describes the upcoming changes in the political and ideological scenario. “In the 1970’s, the missionary catechism program of assistance to the Brazilian Indians was beginning to lose credibility; the boarding school system began to be harshly criticized and the idea that the Brazilian Indians should live in isolation in their own territories, namely, the reservations, produced a new consensus,”  the author explains. This is why in the sense of civilizing, so significant in the previous works, is less significant in the work of Giaccaria. The idea of civilization gains the more secular meaning of  “cultural heritage” and, as indicated in the title of the monograph, Giaccaria’s work centers on the reproduction of the “authenticity” of being a Xavante. The author’s records of myths and rites in the course of one decade is underscored by the feeling of needing to save as much information as possible on the “Xavante civilization.”  Unlike the previous monographs, the idea of a Christian and urban “civis” was the core notion behind the civilization-creating argument. Giaccaria states that the vitality of the Xavante culture depended on the maintenance of the village in its circular shape, a symbol of fraternity and equality.

What motivated the Salesians in their ethnographies’  “To implement a project, it was necessary to convince the Brazilian Indians to live in the missions, something which the natives only accepted when driven by strategic calculations. Thus it was necessary to organize knowledge: for example, how could one convert, baptize, etc., if one was unfamiliar with the Brazilian Indians’  form of religion and family?”  Each monograph, unlike the official policy for the native tribes, (which was not interested in becoming acquainted with the object of its actions), implied the process of producing knowledge, the objective of which was to make the Salesians’  missionary project possible. It is important to emphasize that this project was the result of intense and ongoing negotiation. “The priests negotiated the legitimacy of their actions vis-a-vis the Brazilian Indians and national society by several means, providing visibility to their “feats” and  “sacrifices” which included protecting the Brazilian Indians’  lives from the actions of white settlers and other tribes, educating the rural landowners’ children or refusing to do so, and educating native children. The priests competed with the witchdoctors for religious and therapeutic authority; they distributed or retained goods, reinforcing or appropriating the authority of the tribal chieftains,” Paula explains. Above all, they had to live with the ghost of the instability of the tribal villages, constantly threatened by sudden population voids. In addition, they had to deal with issues related to raising funds, with the production of efficient ways of persuading the urban elite of the integrity of their intentions and of the legitimacy of their work, in view of competing forces, such as the positivist attitude towards the Brazilian Indians, the pressure of the white settlers for labor and land, and the support that the Church hierarchy in Brazil and in Europe offered or not to the project of establishing self-sufficient agricultural settlements.

The production of  knowledge and the description of the lives of the native tribes were part of the intellectual tools available for dealing with these difficulties. “One of the core symbolic operations of the monographs was to produce a convergence between the different ways of viewing and being in the world, introducing as the common reference the separation between the religious, social and political scopes,”  says Paula. “The grammar rules of indexation were constructed within the scope of practices, as conventions whose objective was to deal with collisions and conflicts in daily interactions.”  This translation, however, was not free from consequences. As stated in the book, “the implicit paradox in the production of the missionary ethnography is that, in order to create an image of the native culture, the ethnographer provokes mutations in the traditional forms of memory production. The Salesian ethnographies, as part and founding element of the conversion project, spread knowledge, for example,  about what it meant to “be a Bororo”  in a way that had been unknown even to the Brazilian Indians themselves, and, in this movement, produced a kind of “conversion”  of the Bororo to the Bororo culture,” the author explains. “Thus, the de-construction of the missionaries’  discourse reveals how the mediators, no matter who they are, build themselves up as subjects of the discourse and join the dispute in the legitimacy-producing process of that which they have to say.”

One can say that Paula Montero’s book focuses on the anthropology of mediations. “Material and symbolic mediations always take place in interaction and produce discourses.”  In other words, by moving away from the idea that the work of the anthropologist is translated, and focusing on the discourse of the agents, Paula abandons the concept of otherness as the founding notion of anthropological knowledge and seeks to overcome the paradox that consists of  thinking up an “other”   prior to the reasoning itself that leads the thinking.