Whenever we go to the city, we hear people saying: “Look, the land thieves are coming!” They don’t know that the Xakriabá(1) territory(2) was demarcated in 1987, encompassing only a third of the original, traditional territory, after a massacre. It was the first massacre recognized as a genocide after the 1988 Constitution,(3) in which even a vice cacique(4) got killed. Now, when we take back our traditional territory, people call us land thieves. They don’t understand that we are taking back something that has always been ours. They think we don’t need the land and that we are going to hinder the country’s development, that we’re an obstacle because we won’t plant soybeans or extract the earth’s minerals. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: we preserve the territory. We live sustainably, taking care of the water springs, the forests, and the animals. The territory is sacred to our people.
We have records of more than 300 years of contact with non-Indigenous people, a period of time which resulted in great violence and prohibitions. We were even forbidden to speak the Xakriabá language. First came the missionaries with the aim of catechizing the Indigenous people and teaching their beliefs; then the bandeirantes(5) arrived and, lastly, the farmers. For this reason, in addition to reclaiming the territory, we are also restoring the Xakriabá language. By researching with our elders, we seek to bring back the words that they have kept in secret all this time.
In the past, we had access to a river that is now in the hands of farmers. The name Xakriabá means “good at rowing”, but today we are about 40 km away from the São Francisco River. We have a serious problem of water scarcity; we need to collect rainwater. Lately, with the climate crisis, it has been raining less and less and several springs have dried up. Water from open wells contains a lot of limestone and is not suitable for consumption. As we carried out territorial retakes(6) toward the São Francisco River, we received many threats, but we did not lose heart. We are approximately twelve thousand people, the largest ethnic group in the state of Minas Gerais. We are still here because we resisted and will continue to do so.
Just like the language, Xakriabá pottery was also forgotten over the centuries. Our people had stopped producing or using ceramic pieces in the daily lives of the villages. When I became an art teacher at the Indigenous school, I decided to listen to the community’s elders. In order to find out about Xakriabá ceramics, I went to my mother. She told me that she learned by imitating an aunt and thus began to produce her own clay toys. Her aunt didn’t teach; my mother saw her doing things from afar and thought her clay animals were really nice.
Children, from a very early age, learn by playing with clay, smearing themselves on the earth, loitering in the earth, and learning that the earth is our mother. They learn to respect nature’s rythms, the cycles of the moon, the time of rain, and the pulse of plants. They realize that when the earth is sprouting, the clay becomes weaker, and the ceramic pieces end up cracking. This is how they learn, little by little, to value and respect nature.
We wait for the right moon to remove the clay. Women, when they are in their menstrual cycle, should not handle clay. In the three or four months after giving birth, they should also avoid handling it. Salespeople have already appeared in our village asking for the urgent production of new pieces, wanting everything in their own time, without knowing or considering the time of clay – a time that we understand and respect, which we learned from our ancestors.
My grandfather was a hunter and, when he went out hunting, he stayed out for a few days until he returned with an animal that would feed the entire family. That’s how my mother came into contact with many animals and how she started to make her own animals: she made birds, armadillos, hawks, jaguars, deer… the same animals that my grandfather brought back from his hunts. My mother made the clay pieces just to show it to other people because she hadn’t learned how to burn the pieces yet and they didn’t last.
I learned pottery by making clay animals, like my mother, and then I started making jugs. Studying for my Indigenous Teaching Degree(7) at the Faculty of Education at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, I decided to delve deeper into researching Xakriabá ceramics and interviewed several elder potters of our people, also called our “living books”.
Among us, there was the custom of presenting newlyweds, at their weddings, with handcrafted ceramic objects. One of the strategies we used for relearning ceramics was to transfer our body painting techniques to ceramic objects, using the figures of animals from the Cerrado(8) on the jugs that would be presented as gifts. The jugs our elders used to make had simpler lids, but since I had a family bond with clay animals, I decided to make the jugs with better lids. I made jugs with Penelope birds, armadillos, hawks, and jaguars on top of them, as lids. The jaguar, for example, is an important animal for the Xakriabá culture. Iaiá Cabocla, a jaguar encantada,(9) is our protector. The pajés(10)communicate with her. All of this aroused the interest not only of the community but also of outsiders, conveying a bit of our history beyond the territory. Today, pottery has made a strong comeback among the Xakriabá.
We resumed the practice of open firing the clay, which many people no longer knew how to do. Only some of our elders remembered it. They fired the clay in the open using a type of bark that was quite common in those days, but is no longer used today. We can no longer use the same bark and firewood. The misuse of land by farmers has destroyed everything, and we have difficulty obtaining many materials that are needed to produce not only ceramics but also other types of craftsmanship. We fire in the open from time to time, but daily, we use a kiln that only requires dry trees brought from the forest.
The elders recommended that we do the firing in the open, in the middle of the forest, away from other people, because there is less wind. They also said that isolation prevented what we know as the “evil eye”: if certain people come while we are firing our pottery and look at the batch, it might not come out well.
We had to adapt to be able to resume traditional open-air firing. The open-air kiln consumes a great deal of firewood. A huge fire is needed, and part of the calorie goes away. Partner researchers showed us technologies that we added to ours. In 2004, Rogério Godoy, a professor at the Federal University of São João Del Rei, carried out research characterizing Xakriabá’s clay and ceramics. He went through each village collecting different clays. He observed the temperature at which each clay burned, and what color they turned. And he built a kiln, the catenary kiln, next to our House of Culture, where, from time to time, artisans from the villages meet and exchanges with artisans from outside also take place.
Once, women artisans from Candeal, a neighboring community to the Xakriabá territory, came to one of these meetings. They left our territory some time ago, to live in the municipality of Cônego Marinho, but they maintained the tradition of ceramics in their community. We did this exchange because they still had relatives in the territory. All this has contributed to the resumption of traditional practices: learning from our elders, holding workshops, and collecting knowledge that we gather and elaborate into new practices.
Currently we use the catenary kiln built by Godoy. When researching the Xakriabá clays, he noticed the difficulty we have in getting firewood in our territory. The catenary kiln is a chimney kiln, whose main characteristic is to save firewood. It reaches a high temperature and then mantains that temperature inside, even with little firewood. The new technologies thus come to contribute to the processes of resuming cultural practices.
Our differentiated Indigenous school came to be more than twenty years ago, thanks to the struggle of our leaders. They fought so that the school in the Xakriabá territory would have its own teaching and learning methods, so that the school respected our practices and our reality, within our own calendar. Before, teachers came from the city. They were hired by the mayor, who was involved in local land conflicts, which meant that teachers did not value our practices, and even went so far as to prohibit many of them in school spaces.
In the beginning, we had some difficulties, as the Department of Education was used to lessons within four walls; classrooms with chairs, a teacher, students, and a blackboard. When they arrived at the school and saw that the teacher was not there at the scheduled times, they began to question it, until they finally understood that our school is different, and that we have other ways of teaching. Our people have different ways of teaching and learning. We usually say that we like to “teach without teaching”. Children learn simply by watching an older person do their work. They learn by playing, wandering.
Once, a school inspector questioned the management because she arrived at the school on the day of a wake and did not find any students at the school. Why weren’t they there? We have a lot of respect for everyone in the community, and when one of us dies, everything stops, including school, and we all go to the wake. A wake is also a place of learning; the students will realize how to behave when in grief and learn about food and specific songs for that moment. They learn what can be done and what cannot be done. If they stayed in school, how could they learn about all these things?
Nowadays, the school teachers are all from the village. We are involved with community practices, and we are facing the challenges of working together on our ancestral practices. However, as soon as a school inspector gets used to our way of teaching, her period at the school ends and a new inspector comes; thus the cycle starts over again. Currently, some of the school inspectors are more open-minded, but there are always conflicts. As they don’t know our reality from the inside, they end up trampling our way of organizing and thinking about what kind of education we want for the students in our village. Célia Xakriabá(11) was very precise when she came out with the concept of “taming the chalk”, which refers to the moment when the school system begins to value our practices.
When, in 2007, the position of culture teacher was created, it was a great achievement for us. We struggled for the State to recognize that people who couldn’t read or write could still be teachers. If, for the State, someone who has no schooling should not be a teacher, for us it is the opposite: these people are, precisely, our wise. We are very proud of this achievement.
Teachers at the differentiated school do not choose to be teachers, they are chosen by the community in order to reinforce traditional practices. Our elders cannot write, but they know many other things. They have experience, and many knowledges: they can recognize medicinal plants and their uses, they know all kinds of crafts, and they know the history of our struggle. Some of them are pajés, experts in ancestral practices. Today we also have young culture teachers, who are these masters’ apprentices.
Many times, when we talked in class about some our the traditional practices, the teachers had to take the students outside. There was no proper space for such practices within the school; it was not possible to do the maracá race,(12) the tug of war, or wrestling and archery training. There was also no space in which to produce our crafts and leave them on display for all the other students to see, as a way to encourage involvement.
The culture teachers would only have two hours of class to teach traditional practices such as body painting and music, or to go out with the students and take them to discover natural remedies in the forest. The other teachers would have to find some time within their specific disciplines to work on what was missing. We had very little time for that, as the State periodically came to assess whether the students knew certain things such as the yellow, red, and green colors of traffic lights. When students got bad grades, we were called by the Department of Education, who would question us and complain.
I soon realized that the fifty-minute protocol classes, just reading or talking about ceramics, did not bring effective results. So, I decided to bring the students to the space where I work in my house, my ceramics workshop. We condensed the classes of the entire month into the weekends, so we weren’t worried about the time on the clock anymore. What started to determine the experience of time during our classes was the clay: we follow the time of the clay.
The moon dominates the earth, and this is a very important thing for us. We observe the phases of the moon. We follow them when we are carrying out almost any activity. The students thus learn to collect and prepare clay, as well as what must be done before starting to make pottery. After modelling and finishing the pieces, the students take the objects to their homes, they give them as gifts, or exchange them.
Our school has its own reality and its own objectives. Children grow and develop a sense of belonging to the community. We do not refuse knowledge from outside the village, but for us the highest knowledge is that of our people. We want to prepare our students to live on the land, to not leave the land.
Many people end up leaving our territory to work cutting sugarcane and harvesting coffee in the south of Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Mato Grosso, and some do not return, they stay there. Others return dead because they end up having contact with the violence of large urban centers, and still others return with drug addictions. Women end up staying long periods of time away from their husbands, who are working. Therefore, our idea is that it is possible to survive in one’s own territory. We want to take advantage of existing raw materials, and to encourage our art as a way of generating income.
Information about Indigenous peoples, most of the time, is distorted, with a backward perspective. We are seen as people of the past – as if we could not evolve, use cell phones, or wear clothes. As if we are no longer Indigenous if we do these things. There is also a generalized perspective according to which all Indigenous people are the same, ignorant to the fact that in Brazil we are more than 300 peoples of different ethnicities and cultures, with different arts and beliefs, who speak more than 250 languages.
It is common to hear people doubting that there still are Indigenous people in Minas Gerais, for example. Sometimes people ask us if we come from the Amazon. When we answer that we come from Minas Gerais, they seem surprised, and many say that they didn’t know that there were Indigenous peoples in the state. We suffer from all sorts of prejudices and stereotypes. The agro caucus(13) thinks that we are holding the country back, that we are an impediment – and a lot of people grow up with that perspective. I’ve heard many people saying that they don’t like us because the government feeds us; that we are lazy and do nothing. I’m tired of hearing this! These people, in a way, are also victims of a system; they grow up hearing such things and end up thinking it’s the truth. And then they go on to become councilors, mayors, deputies, senators, presidents, and lead the population in that same direction.
In textbooks, there is little information about Indigenous culture, especially about Indigenous art. In a book, say, with two hundred pages, it is common to find no more than three pages about Indigenous art, often containing wrong information. We know more about European or American culture and art than about what is close to us, the art of our own people. That is why we need to be present at universities, museums, and other exhibition spaces; we need to show our history.
When others speak for us, they don’t always do it with actuality, however well-intentioned they may be. They often make mistakes. Now is the time for us to start speaking up for ourselves. Universities needs to get to know our practices. One way to help this information circulate is to occupy these spaces, and start talking and writing. Our Indigenous philosophers, our thinkers, are not recognized. Universities need to look at us and start addressing our issues. For many years, they sent students and professors to research us. Today we are also researchers of our people.
I am the first Xakriabá to study for a master’s degree at the School of Fine Arts of the Federal University of Minas Gerais. I can’t occupy this space without reflecting about it; I have to live up to the expectations of my community. I must go to university but then I must return to the village bringing my contributions. I’m doing a master’s degree not for myself, but for my people and their struggle.
Art, for us, has a strong connection with life. People who don’t understand that may see an Indigenous person with body paintings and imagine that those are mere adornments, but in fact, in addition to beauty, they bring protection and vitality to the body. All produced objects have a function in our lives. A necklace, a plume, a bracelet, a ceramic vase – every object carries meanings and stories that go beyond the beauty involved. Our utilitarian objects have other functions, too.
Our art is also a form of activism because it reveals a lot about our people; it denounces the violence we have suffered, and carries the history of our struggle and our territory. When we travel, we realize how important artistic work is. Many people have come to know us through our art.
When I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I didn’t want to write texts that would be shelved. I wanted to produce a Xakriabá pottery manual and to organize an exhibition with the pieces I had produced during my research. I was involved with projects both in the village and at the university, which included the construction of our Culture House and pottery workshops. The Xakriabá pottery manual I produced that is circulating through all the villages in the territory, teaching pottery step by step. People who can’t read can also learn, just by looking at the pictures. It was practical research, involved with community practices.
My experience with the master’s degree has been very different. When reading texts by philosophers sometimes I can’t understand what they want to express. They are philosophers from centuries ago dealing with European art, talking about something very different from our conception of art. I wonder why our Xakriabá philosophers are not part of these syllabus, too. Why can’t students access their thoughts, as well our art and its meanings? Why do we always have to read about people that are so far away from us?
My experience shows that it is no use just considering ethnicity as part of the admission process in universities. We also need material support in order to be able to attend our courses. I have a family and a job, and it hasn’t been easy to be in the city. We don’t really like to stay in the city for long periods; a month seems like an eternity! It is important for us to always be in touch with our roots, to keep in touch with the land; not only with nature but with our ancestors, with other energies, with the encantados. For these reasons, many people in the villages end up deciding not to go to university.
We hope that universities can increasingly make their procedures more flexible in order to guarantee the entry of Indigenous peoples into their spaces. Just as we learn a lot by going to university, universities might also have a lot to learn from us. It can be a reciprocal exchange. Together, we must think about practices that will contribute to the world that the next generations will inherit, after us. The world of our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren. It is not only about us.
1 The Xakriabá are an Indigenous people mostly located in the state of Minas Gerais.
2 Indigenous Territories, or Terras Indígenas (T.I.) are areas inhabited and owned by Indigenous peoples as recognized by the Brazilian Constitution.
3 The Constitution of the Federative Republic of Brazil was promulgated in 1988 after the end of the military dictatorship.
4 Indigenous leader.
5 The bandeirantes, “flag-carriers,” were slave traders and seekers of wealth during the early days of Colonial Brazil. Their actions contributed to the extensive westward expansion of Brazil.
6 Refers to the processes of land reoccupation and retaking by Indigenous populations who once lived in that territory.
7 Aimed at training Indigenous teachers who work in basic education in Indigenous schools.
8 The Cerrado is a Brazilian biome.
9 Encantados and encantadas are spiritual beings in many Indigenous religions in Brazil. Also, part of Afro-Brazilian religion.
10 A Pajé is an important person among Indigenous groups; they are healers who communicate with the spiritual realm.
11 Brazilian Indigenous educator and activist.
12 The maracá race is a type of Indigenous game.
13 The agro caucus, or rural caucus (bancada ruralista) is a parliamentary front that acts in defense of large rural landowners and the agrobusiness.