The clay, the genipap and the chalk are the three temporalities that mark the Xakriabá history. Three symbols that narrate our trajectory, inspired by our deepest roots. Being in touch with clay, with the earth, even as small children, is a significant experience that brings us close to the two bodies that establish our belonging: the body as a territory and the territory as a body.
Pottery and handmade items made of clay carry meanings beyond the actual object; specific abilities and peculiar bearings mold a pot or a pan. Such objects have an immateriality, a subjectivity that carries symbolic value. Each piece of clay carries part of the territory, not only as a place where our bodies live, but also as a sacred place where our souls reside.
Indigenous knowledge is not restricted to the development of thought. It is also the development of a sort of wisdom that comes from the hands, from practice, from the body. The entire body is a territory moving from the past to the future. That is how Indigenous intellectuality takes shape.
Our people’s strong suit has always been orality, but with technology, the expansion of records becomes possible, bringing us some advantages. Through photographs, digital writing and audiovisual testimonies, we work so that the next generations will also have the opportunity to reactivate memories, understanding the different historical crossings experienced by the Xakriabá.
By building alliances among us, Indigenous peoples, and with our non-Indigenous friends, we build our Xakriabá school. It is an epistemological work that aims to establish ourselves as a body-territory in a permanent process of (re)territorialization – open, therefore, to a historicity that must be reactivated by memories that teach us not only about the past, but also about the present and the future.
We inherit our native memory from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents: these are ancient, ancestral memories that we carry with us. Active memories, on the other hand, are those that need to be reactivated in matrices of the past, but are still present and active today. They are dynamic and marked by processes of resignification that will define the memories of the body-territory in the future of those who are still to come.
The Xakriabá people, the old inhabitants of the São Francisco Valley, are the largest Indigenous population in the state of Minas Gerais and one of the largest in Brazil. Our contact process with the surrounding society was not different from that of other Indigenous peoples. It was marked by struggle and blood.
Matias Cardoso, a bandeirante,(1) was a great colonizer in the region. He enslaved the Indigenous peoples of the São Francisco Valley. After 1728, we received the title deeds of our lands because our ancestors supported the State in the war against the Kayapó people, which, according to history, also inhabited this region. This is what the cave paintings at the Peruaçu National Park show. Ever since our people supported the State in that war, we were able to live without external conflict, cohabiting with other peoples from the state of Bahia and from other regions in Minas Gerais.
However, our territory has always been under threat and, from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, the so-called “development” intensified the invasion of our lands, and agricultural projects in the region attracted large farmers from neighboring cities. The Xakriabá people are known for their unique internal social organization as well of their external politics. Today, we have the fourth consecutive Indigenous mandate in the city of São João das Missões.
I was the first Xakriabá to study for a master’s degree and this creates another challenge, that of dealing with the pressures of timing from the academic environment, which does not recognize our temporality. Our time, like our knowledge, operates in another order. Such order consists not of lacks, but of different rhythms.
When asked how I felt about being the first Xakriabá to study for a master’s degree, I replied that being in such a place does not put me in a privileged position, but rather makes me commit to questioning why, after so many years, I am the first. Being first doesn’t make me more important, but it makes me commit to struggle not to be last.
By entering the academic territory, I commit to the construction of other, native epistemologies, highlighting the production of Indigenous knowledge in the academic territory and in the territory of science. We have a challenging task, as it is not enough to recognize traditional knowledge; it is also necessary to recognize those who hold the knowledge.
The more I learn new things, the more I feel the need to go back to my origins, and my academic experience only reinforced my understanding of how I am deeply constituted by these origins. Although the challenge our people experienced decades ago to guarantee access to land and establish ourselves in the territory still endures, today we have a new challenge, which is to demarcate space in the academic territory, to indigenize it, transforming its educational practices.
We have shown that we are originary from this land, and that the history that has been told about us consisted of a unique, hegemonically constructed story. Now we also claim the opportunity to build history as a counter-narrative. We claim for the autonomy of telling our own version. We also want to demonstrate that the Indigenous presence in this country is not just part of the past (past history, as historians say), because we are protagonists of a history that is being woven in the present.
As usually happens in academia, the teaching materials that reach our schools is always privileging theories produced in the center. It is as if the culture of the other was stronger. There is a fading and a significant devaluation of Indigenous students in the academic environment. Some students go to university and are not considered authors, interlocutors, or producers of knowledge in that environment. We want to reverse this. That is what I call indigenization. Why not indigenize the other? Why not quilombolize(2) the other?
Recognizing Indigenous participation in epistemological work contributes to the process of decolonizing minds and bodies, deconstructing the mistaken idea that we, Indigenous peoples, cannot keep up with technological trends or anything else outside the village context.
The village where I live is called Barreiro Preto, which means black clay. According to my grandfather, the name’s origin comes from the relationship we have had with clay over time. There was a perennial stream close to my house, and all the cattle that were raised in the region came not only to drink water, but also to eat the saline clay. The elders named our village Barreiro Preto because of the dark, almost purple clay.
In that same place, at certain spots, one could find very argillaceous clay that was used to make pottery, tiles and adobe bricks. The walls of our houses were made with clay and mud. Even today it is possible to find places where there are traces of pottery workshops built from 35 to 150 years ago.
My great-grandparents and grandparents always worked with clay to build their own houses. My father’s generation also worked in adobe production. He says that in order to buy his first watch, he had to manufacture two thousand adobe bricks.
I remember that, in order to build our house, my father showed us how to make adobe. I am proud to have helped constructing our first house, because this practice is now almost non-existent among the Xakriabá. In the past twenty years there has been an accelerated transformation process and today most people buy building materials from outside. It is possible to observe the cultural and economic impacts caused by the lack of such practices and, concerned with the impacts, some people are mobilizing to restore and encourage these traditional practices.
Once, during a Xakriabá house-building workshop at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, a student was impressed by the abilities and knowledge that the Xakriabá masters had about adobe. He asked if they would like the help of architecture students in order to develop a technique that would make the houses last longer, to make them last their whole life. The student felt sorry that such a beautiful house would come undone in four or six years. Libertina, one of the Xakriabá masters, answered him: “No, son, your proposition is dangerous. The house needs to come undone in four or six years so I can keep teaching my children and grandchildren! If the house lasts a lifetime, we will endanger this knowledge and its transmission.”
The Indigenous sages claim that school needs to be interesting. They say that non-Indigenous schools have a lot to learn from our schools, because we know how to make them interesting for the students. To such formative matrix, initiated in the territory, I assign the motto of a territorialized education. It carries the power of native epistemology as a starting and ending point, and it is present in memory, in oral transmission and resonant with the melody of Xakriabá writing.
Among the Xakriabá people there are different experts, with different skills. Some are born, for example, with the heritage of profound knowledge, such as those who know the healing blessings. They have the power to heal not only through the active principles of plants, but also through the power of simple gestures (such as placing a hand on a body), and through the power of words and orality.
There are other knowledges enunciated by orality and by memory, such as time and weather prophecies. Some can, by observing nature in certain months, predict whether the year will rainy and when the rains will fall. The Xakriabá people have a multiplicity of skills passed from generation to generation, and we are concerned about keeping our knowledge alive.
If we see the wisdom of our elders as a source of knowledge, we can both let this knowledge pass us by, like sudden rain, or convert ourselves into wells that store and keep water for times of need. It is thus, through metaphors, that the elders’ knowledge takes shape. They tell us more or less so: “Intelligence can be acquired with time at school, while wisdom requires another temporality; it requires a greater movement of the mind, but also of the body. It is a kind of knowledge that is not only developed by the mind, but also by the hands”.
Xakriabá women, in addition to keeping very distinct practices, store seeds, and are responsible for a network of seed exchange and sharing. They are responsible for keeping the biodiversity of cucurbit seeds such as watermelon, melon, pumpkins, gourds, etc. In addition to preserving these varieties, they promote the circulation of seeds in the Xakriabá territory. They maintain an exchange network between friends and relatives, supporting those who may not have or have not managed to keep some variety that year. Pumpkin, melon and watermelon seeds are deposited on the muddy walls, and with this practice the women reaffirm yet another act of resistance.
Such forms of traditional education inspire me greatly when drawing plans as a Xakriabá teacher. It is a challenge to translate our traditional methodos into school practices – to exercise the indigenization of school practices.
Being an Indigenous teacher is far beyond the simple role of an instructor of each specific field of knowledge. We understand our role in strengthening Indigenous culture through voluntary and solidary participation. We know that it is essential for our own training to listen to our elders, who are living books on the history of the past, present and future.
When I talk about “learning”, I resort to the native Xakriabá sense of the word, which concerns learning by imitation, which is done by associating creativity and tradition. The attentive eyes of children over their parents and grandparents are rhythmic, as the elders inspire creativity and a kind of evolving that originates from re-involvement.
Throughout my trajectory, what has driven me is the certainty that it is possible to build, with the protagonism of collectivity and tradition, a future where the cultures of Indigenous peoples are relished. It is necessary and urgent to give voice to Indigenous peoples’ narratives so that we actually have a truly democratic society, in which symmetrical dialogue is possible.
The time of clay learning represents a period in which the school as an institution did not exist, and in which Indigenous education took place through chanting, through spoken words. There was no writing, but there was memory. Knowledge was acquired and experiences were lived by many generations, passed from the oldest to the youngest. This kind of learning is important to the present day for the preservation of traditions and for constructing the identity of each Xakriabá that comes to the world.
The genipap, in turn, refers to the ritual moments in which our traditions materialize in our bodies. The Xakriabá people and the genipap have historically established a strong relationship through body painting. Body paintings represent the consolidation of our identity, and they give shape to another form of Indigenous learning, which also takes place not in school, but in our daily lives.
When we paint ourselves, at specific times, we believe that it is not just the skin that is being painted, but the spirit itself. Body painting marks and demarcates identity in the contact between body and spirit. The genipap is a tree of good knowledge, because it is from it that we draw our ink. With it we register our culture, which gives us strength.
The time of the genipap was a moment in time when there were no school buildings either, but in which, as in the time of clay, people learned by other means. It is interesting to observe that the time of clay crosses the time of the genipap. There was a period in history when the Xakriabá people were persecuted by farmers and grileiros.(3) During this time, the Xakriabá, in order not to be harassed or killed, were forced to stop painting themselves or wearing any items that revealed the identity of our people. We had thus to think of a strategy to save our body paintings.
For a long time, at least two or three decades, our body paintings were kept in our ceramics – and a lot of those were kept in the earth. The ceramics were therefore fundamental, as they served as set of samples of our body painting.
It is imperative to reflect on how the body paintings carry elements of a different kind of writing. They work as symbolic narratives that convey subjectivities. The act of painting a body, as well as being painted, is ritual; it is a spiritual preparation. It is not only drawings made on skin; the marks penetrate, reinforcing our ancestors’ memories, for our children and for future generations.
The third Xakriabá temporality is that of the chalk. I use the chalk to symbolize the resignification of the school from our own perspective on education. We have had to confront the school that was imposed upon us as an external institution, at first disaggregating our culture.
After a lot of struggle, we were able to construct narratives in which our version of history is told. We were able to secure a differentiated school, which does not suppress Xakriabá knowledge and ways of being, thus subverting what has been for decades instrumentalized by the chalk.
We have had to tame the chalk, a tool used by Indigenous teachers, in order to re-signify the school from our own conception of education. This achievement was the result of a long struggle carried on by the Xakriabá leaders. After all, in everyday Xakriabá life there is no dissociation between politics, culture and education.
We, traditional peoples, can produced another project for society, not based on the fallacy of development, but on re-involvement, on the resumption of other values. In our relationship with the Earth, which is with the whole environment and not just parts of it, we cannot create impersonal or non-spiritual bonds. The Xakriabá cannot see nature as a good to be exploited or as a mere place where food is produced.
Contemporary society needs to recover some values from the relationship with the body-territory. It is necessary to consider the territory as an vital element, that feeds us, teaches us, and constitutes our being as people in the world. We cannot see ourselves as separated from the territory, because we are an inseparable part of it, it is in our bodies.
Our community, as of 1996, stopped adapting to the school, and an inverse movement was initiated: the school started to interact with the experiences lived by the community. The school did not arrive first, the community already existed before the school. The school thus started to respect local culture, establishing dialogues with the ways of living and doing of the Xakriabá people.
Although there are still significant challenges in our relations with the system and the State, we understand that assuming a subversive education makes the Xakriabá school a powerful place for the articulation of knowledge. In addition to studying conventional subjects, we also have classes on culture, language, and Indigenous rights as part of the curriculum.
The practice of organizing the school activities according to the times of the village – such as times of drought and rain – is also an important strategy to enable a dialogue between traditional knowledge and other forms of knowledge. It is a fundamental part of making a differentiated school education.
If someone asks me where the Xakriabá school is, I may very well answer that it is as far as their eyes can see, with the conviction that our school will be present even where my eyes cannot see. When we go out into the world and come across another science, that does not mean we cannot keep our own science.
We believe that the educational process needs to be built based on our own beliefs. What we want is not an Indigenous school education designed for Indigenous peoples, but an education built by Indigenous peoples. To strengthen the educational processes, it is necessary to feed it practices woven into our culture, which are present in orality, in our rituals, in our social organization, in sacred and secret practices.
Instead of using the concept of reappropriation, which is widely employed in anthropology, we resort to “taming” because it is a concept elaborated from the perspective of those who had to resist and tame that which was ferocious, and, therefore, attacked and violated our culture. We made this choice because the concept of reappropriation, although it can have a similar meaning, does not express the impact and violence of the arrival of schools in Indigenous territories.
Another concept with which we dialogue is that of indigenization. It is a concept well known among anthropologists and historians, coined by the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. We use it to talk about the strategies with which the Xakriabá people deal with the school that came to us and how we re-signified it. Sahlins proposed the term indigenization seeking to differentiate it from the concept of acculturation – and this interests us, above all, as a way of opposing the preconceived idea that we, Indigenous peoples, have been “acculturated”.
In order to subvert, body and mind need to go into action, and this causes displacement. However, there is no alternative but to start doing it. But how to start? One must start doing it somewhere, and the only clue I would give is: learn to take off the shoes used to walk paths and access theoretical knowledge produced in the center. Let your feet touch the earth in the territory. Your shoes will become small and will not fit our collective feet; they will squeeze our minds so much that they will limit access to knowledge in the territory of the body.
If the path is not open, start with chopping the wood; if that has been done, open a trail. If the trail is already there, make it bigger, wider, make it a road. That is the only way to widen horizons and to build a territorialized education, inspired by the experience of Indigenous peoples; it is the only way to actualize decolonial practices beyond discourse.
1 Bandeirantes, literally “flag-carriers”, was the name given to the pioneer explorers of the colonial period, who penetrated Brazil westward in search of mineral wealth, such as gold, and in search for Indigenous populations for enslavement or quilombos for extermination. Bandeirantes were mainly European or of European descent.
2 Refers to quilombo. Quilombos are communities originally formed by enslaved Black people who were able to escape and resist slavery, the quilombos are communities created by these people in search for freedom and autonomy. With the end of slavery these communities persisted and still do today. People born in a quilombo are called quilombolas. As this is a very contextual word to Brazilian Portuguese with no equivalent in English it was not translated.
3 “Grilagem de terras” or land grabing, is the falsification of documents to illegally take possession of a vacant or third-party land. The agent of such activity is called grileiro or crickety. The term comes from the act of placing the false documents in a box with crickets to yellow the documents, making they look old and more credible.