I was born on the 12th of December 1971 at the Indigenous Post(1) Sassoró. My mom is from the Guarani ethnic group, from the tekoha Potrerito/San José. My father is from the Kaiowá ethnic group, from the tekoha Jaguaripé. According to my mom, my birth happened according to the Kaiowá traditional birthing ritual, under the care of an experient midwife (ñandesy mitã mboguejyha) who knew the right prayers (ñembo‘e) and medicinal plants (pohã ñana) for childbirth. She had the very important job of assisting my mother and me from the first month of her pregnancy until the day of my birth. The midwife was related to me through my paternal family (cheru rey‘i gui). In addition, she had already been a midwife to other relatives and she was godmother (comare) to my mother, as she had already performed other deliveries in my extended family. She was, above all, a great advice giver, as she had educational power and legitimate authority.
My mother and father narrate that when I was one month old, I went through the ritual of attaching my name/soul to the body (mitã mongaraí). In other words, I was “baptized” by a trusted prayer (ñanderu) who had already performed several mitã mongaraí in my family. This ritual was performed during the night at the ñanderu’s house, where all the required instruments for the ritual were, like the xiru marangatu. Someone’s name/soul (ñe‘e ayvu réra) can only be brought in the presence of these instruments. After repeated summons through the performance of special chants and prayers (ñengary ayvu reruhá), the soul settles in the body. So, at dawn, after long hours of name/soul chants and prayers coordinated by ñanderu and their assistant, I received my che ayvu réra.
My name/soul is Ava Vera Arandu, which can be translated to Wise (Arandu) and Illuminated (Vera) Man (Ava). This name/soul belongs to an extended family that lives in the Yvay Ypy, one of the many levels of the Kaiowá cosmologic universe. My mom says that the preparatory process for the ritual of laying down my name/soul (jeroky mitã mongarai) started one month in advance, and it involved several family members. During that month, my father, for example, had to look for honey (eira) and wax (araity) from the jate‘i bees to make a special type of candle. Three days before the jeroky mitã mongaraí, my mother had to prepare a white corn (chicha) and sweet potato (kãgui) fermented drink that would be drunk during the ritual (jeroky) by the participants.
My name/soul and my body (che rete), throughout my process of physical growth, had to go through several educational and religious procedures in traditional healing and prevention rituals: a set of precautions transmitted by the most experienced family members, such as the midwife ñandesy mitã mboguejyha and the ñanderu, who guided my extended family on how to behave with me and how to educate me.
In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, there are approximately 45.000 people belonging to the Guarani-Kaiowá and the Guarani-Ñandéva ethnic groups. They are distributed in more than 30 areas, with different sizes and in different conditions of land tenure regularization. There are demarcated areas, as well as encampments awaiting State recognition.
These Indigenous people are known in the literature as being Guarani-Kaiowá and Guarani-Ñandéva, although they have many cultural and social organization aspects in common. The Guarani-Kaiowá do not recognize themselves as being Guarani; they choose to be called Ava Kaiowá. In turn, the Guarani-Ñandeva call themselves Ava Guarani.
The many processes of land reoccupation and retaking that take place throughout the region are the result of the territorialization that the Guarani and the Kaiowá experienced during the colonization process and, later, with the creation of Indigenous Posts in what is today the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. It can be said that Indigenous people were gradually expropriated of their lands. They were transferred to Indigenous Posts, thanks both to direct initiatives of large farmers and the actions of government officials and the missionaries from the Caiuá Evangelical Church and the German United Church.
During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, several extended Guarani and Kaiowá families were expelled from their territories and dispersed. As a result, the Indigenous people “sprawled out” (sarambi) and progressively settled on the edges of the Indigenous Posts, where they were closer to their former territories. The members of expelled extended families found themselves in politically unstable conditions within the limits of the Posts. Since they did not belong to the places to which they had been transferred, they were forced to fight for a place within these new spaces. It was due to the adverse life situation in the Posts that leaders and family members started to plan and strategize to recover the lost territories.
At the end of the 1970s, the leaders of families that had been expelled from their traditional territories (tekoha) started articulating initiatives to fight for the repossession of their land. That process would take place in the following decades. In the first half of the 1980s, the fight to return (jaike jevy) to the tekoha began to be discussed and planned in Great Assemblies – the Aty Guasu – which gained relevance with the configuration of new networks and alliances between the leaders of the extended families.
My extended family is originally from the tekoha guasu Jaguapiré Memby-Jukeri, from which we were expelled in the late 1960s by non-Indigenous people who acquired the Redenção, Modelo and São José farms. With the pressure exerted by the arrival of these new farmers, my family had to progressively disperse and settle in a small area called Galino Kue, located within the Sassoró Indigenous Post, until the second half of the 1980s. From then on, in order to recover the tekoha guasu of Jaguapiré Memby-Jukeri, the leaders and members of the Benites and Romero families carried out an intense fight and allied themselves with the Vargas and Ximenes families. The members of these last two families had not left the Jaguapiré area definitively and continued working, until the 1980s, within the farms that had been established on the former site of traditional Indigenous occupation. The Vargas and Ximenes families worked both in the clearing and the felling of the forest for the making of pastures.
Between 1985 and 1988, the violent expulsion of the extended Vargas-Ximenes and Benites-Romero families from the Jaguapiré area began. I witnessed this violence against my families promoted by the big farmers. That period was marked by intense conflicts with the farmers in the current municipality of Tacuru.
Our families took a firm stand in defending their tekoha and more Indigenous people joined the Jaguapiré tekoha. It was on March 2nd, 1985, at noon, that for the first time Indigenous families were violently attacked and evicted by 30 henchmen sent by farmer José Fuente Romero. The elderly Kaiowá Silvio Benites recalls the eviction, during which he was tortured to the point of having a broken leg. He never recovered from the violence he suffered.
José Fuente, the farmer, came to Moreno’s house. He was really angry with Moreno for planning our return to the tekoha Jaguaripe. Fuente said directly to us that he was not going to accept Indigenous people from the Sassoró Post living on his property. He ordered all families to leave his farm immediately, but we replied that our decision was not to leave our homes, that we were not going to leave our land. Faced with this, he threatened to burn our houses; he said he would send the police and a truck to expel us and transfer us to the Sassoró Post. In less than a week, two trucks, tractors and several armed men and police arrived in the courtyard of our houses. They surrounded our houses and ordered us to climb into the back of the trucks. The police overpowered and tied up children, women, and men and loaded them into the back of the trucks. They also started shooting at us, kicking men in the legs. They tied our arms and legs and loaded us onto the back of the trucks. My leg was fractured by the henchmen and I was thrown into the back of the truck. In the meantime, the two tractors began destroying our houses and gardens. The white (karai) men burned our stuff. They loaded us up in the trucks and dropped us off near the Kaiowá Evangelical Mission, at the entrance to the Sassoró Post.
As a result of the widespread publicity of this event in the press, for the first time several state and federal authorities (senior Funai agents, Military Police commanders, the Federal Police, the President) got involved in the conflict between Indigenous peoples and large farmers for land tenure.
In 1988, the farmers, through their lawyers, obtained two eviction orders for the Indigenous people, which were executed by the police. The farmers thus stopped hiring gunmen to carry out extrajudicial evictions and started to hire lawyers in order to obtain judicial eviction orders from the State Court. In this way, the farmers demonstrated that Indigenous people could be legally evicted from their traditional land by order of Justice. The way these evictions were carried out did not differ much. Several Indigenous peoples of the tekoha Jaguapiré who were victims of both extrajudicial and judicial evictions narrate the same kind of story; they are not even able to clearly distinguish whether it was hired gunmen or the police who acted.
It became evident that the eviction of Indigenous people from their tekoha and the domination of their territories were not only allowed but also fostered by the very system of political, judicial, and economic power dominant in the extreme south of Mato Grosso do Sul. In such context, the Indigenous peoples’ right to lands of traditional occupation, which had been guaranteed in the 1988 Constitution, was clearly ignored – and has degraded over time.
After long years of struggle, on May 20th, 1992, the Jaguapiré Indigenous Land was reoccupied by the extended families, with the support of the Aty Guasu leaders. On May 21st, 1992, the Jaguapiré Indigenous Land was officially recognized by the Minister of Justice, allowing the extended families Benites-Romero and Ximenes-Vargas, who reoccupied the area, to permanently remain in the traditional territory of Jaguapiré, in the municipality of Tacuru.
Between 1982 and 1988, when I was still very young, I accompanied my father and grandfather on the Jaguapiré tekoha and attended the religious (jeroky) and profane (guachire) rituals with my father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother. Such rituals were performed regularly at the Jaguapiré tekoha. I remember that during that same period, due to the conflicts that I narrated, religious rituals took place much more frequently, especially in the house of the leader (tamõi) and prayer (ñanderu) of the extended Ximenes family. He was called Moreno Ximenes, and his wife, who was also a leader (jari) of the Vargas family, was named Tomazia Vargas. The couple had in their house the xiru marangatu instruments needed to perform such rituals.
One of the most decisive memories in my life concerns the way in which farmers expelled my families from the Jaguapiré tekoha in 1988. Such memories encouraged me to try to describe how the Guarani and the Kaiowá fight for the recovery of their tekoha. From a very young age, I realized that the eviction practices engendered perplexity, distress, and embarrassment among Indigenous families, who therefore began to articulate to retake their tekoha.
In the Sassoró Indigenous Post, the families expelled from Jaguapiré found themselves subalternalized and dominated, unable to express themselves and live with some relative autonomy, as they had before in the Jaguapiré tekoha. It was in such context that I grew up and participated in the Aty Guasu. Even when I was a child I heard and came across certain questions and positions that were recurrent within my family and at the Aty Guasu: “Karai rancher kuera omanda, ñane mosemba uka ñande rekohagui” (The farmers ordered our expulsion from our tekoha). “Karai kuera ndoipotavei jajevy jaiko jevy ñadereko hague pe” (The farmers announced that they would no longer let us live, hunt and fish in our ancestral land). “Mba‘eichapa jajevyjevyta, jaike jevyta ñande rekohague pe?” (How should we recover and reoccupy our lost tekoha?). “Jaike jevy hanguã ñande rekoha pe tekõteve ñande aty, jajeroky, ñañopytyvõ joja. Upeicharõ jaipyhy jevyta ñanderekoha” (In order to recover and reoccupy our tekoha, we must start to articulate, meet and carry out frequent jeroky guasu to discuss and plan the reoccupation of all the tekoha).
Both the memories of the elderly Guarani and Kaiowá leaders, as well as the historiographical and anthropological literature, in addition to the official documentation of the Brazilian government, especially the archives of the Indian Protection Service (SPI), demonstrate the very ancient presence of the Guarani and the Kaiowá in the regions alongside the rivers Brilhante, Dourados, Apa, Amambai, Iguatemi, Mbarakay, Hovy and Pytã. The tekoha guasu currently reoccupied and claimed by the Guarani and the Kaiowá is located on the banks of these rivers.
Several extended Guarani and Kaiowá families still inhabited the margins of these rivers by the end of the first half of the 20th century. They made up their territorial spaces of occupation and exclusive use, based on agreements between the families. In the tekoha there were natural resources, such as rivers and streams for fishing and for water consumption. In the vicinity of the Indigenous dwellings, in addition to the vegetable gardens (kokue), there were forests and fields, with different vegetation in their composition. It was possible to find various animals for hunting, fruit trees, medicinal plants, honey, etc. Thus, until the mid-1930s, many Guarani and Kaiowá still inhabited their tekoha autonomously, living in relative abundance. The Indigenous testimonies show that each extended family resided autonomously, not having to dispute either land space or resources. Even though they kept relationships with other families, each of the extended families lived separately, at distances as far as ten kilometers away from each other.
The colonization of the Guarani and the Kaiowá territories took place mostly after the War of the Triple Alliance, also known as the Paraguayan war (1864-1870). Historical documents show that the Brazilian official settlement policy along the contended border strip advanced, firstly, over the Guarani and Kaiowá territories. More specifically, in the post-war period the Brazilian State began to open the region to private capital and granted a huge amount of land to the Cia. Matte Larangeira, granting the privately owned company the exclusive extraction of native yerba mate in the region where the Indigenous tekoha guasu were located.
Thus, even with the presence of the Guarani and Kaiowá in the region, a contract was signed between the Brazilian State and Cia. Matte Larangeira. A “historical situation” began in which contact with the Guarani and Kaiowá was based on hiring their labor for extracting yerba mate. Because their work force carried out the agricultural extractivism, Indigenous people were not expelled from their traditional territory. Therefore, there were few conflicts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Until the 1920s, Cia. Matte Larangeira ended up involuntarily protecting the Guarani and Kaiowá territories. As it held a monopoly, it prevented the entry of other settlers into the region.
From 1915 onwards, the first Indigenous Posts in the current state of Mato Grosso do Sul were established by the SPI. Ignoring the Kaiowá and Guarani way of life, eight diminutive reserves were established between 1915 and 1928. In these reserves, the agency imposed military organization, school education and health assistance, and favored the activities of evangelical missions that were installed in the region. SPI employees and other settlers were not satisfied with how Indigenous peoples occupied the land. They believed it was necessary to concentrate the Indigenous families in the reserves, in order to enable the expropriation of their territories. Several extended families settled in the SPI Posts, but many others continued to live in the forests in the region.
Indigenous territories came to be considered “unclaimed land” and “empty land” and, therefore, became a legal object of commerce. For the State, the eight small indigenous reserves created by the SPI were the only official land destined for the Guarani and the Kaiowá.
The decades of 1950 and 1970 were marked by the end of the Cia. Matte Larangeira’s monopoly over the land, which began to be portioned into smaller lots for private farming. Thus, a new “historical situation” was inaugurated, with Indigenous families being expelled from their territory.
The new occupants took possession of the lands through relations with local political agents. They would count on the work of missionaries, military personnel, and employees at the State indigenist agencies – both at the former SPI and later at Funai. The eviction of Indigenous people took place with great violence. It was thus that, throughout much of the 20th century, the Brazilian State began to commercialize the traditional Guarani and Kaiowá territories located in what is currently the Southern Cone of Mato Grosso do Sul. Faced with expulsion and continued dispersion, the leaders and their families, embarrassed and outraged, decided they would fight back. Thus they began to resist.
The expulsion experience, in a way, generated a common identity among the extended families willing to fight to return to their territories. In this historical situation, families began to reactivate their knowledge and to practice their rituals ever more frequently.
The great religious rituals, the jeroky guasu, were and still are fundamental, involving the ñanderu in the tactics of retaking the tekoha. They are the result of the articulation of the political and spiritual leaders of extended Guarani and Kaiowá families. The jeroky, when performed in situations of conflict over land, express a specific Indigenous thinking that is unknown to non-Indigenous people, including anthropologists. They also produce different reactions among the different family leaders involved in land conflicts with large farmers.
In the current historical situation, the extended Guarani and Kaiowá families living in the recovered and reoccupied territories, instead of disintegrating, are improving their endurance strategies. They are building more flexible forms of social organization and producing peculiar ways of being (teko laja kuera). They make up a contemporary reality characterized by teko reta, which could be translated as the “multiple ways of being” of groups and Indigenous families. The teko reta, however, continue to be ñande reko, “our way of being”, always opposed to karai kuera reko, the “non-Indigenous way of being”.
The concept of “fighting the fight” underpins and describes the complex process that the returning families go through. It is possible to say that while the fight is being carried out, the religious rituals constitute practices and concrete actions that are indispensable for the smooth progress of the reoccupation process. The involvement of spiritual leaders (performing a synthesis of the decisions and expectations of entire extended families) has been critical in this process.
From the beginning of the 1980s, the Aty Guasu, or Great Assembly, began to function as a large forum, open to different communities, to progressively discuss strategies for the recovery of ancient territories. It also began to act to reverse the neocolonial domination of traditional territories and contest the Guarani and Kaiowá ways of being and living (teko) imposed by the karai (non-Indigenous): government officials, missionaries, and farmers. Together with the Aty Guasu, the great religious rituals (jeroky guasu), have been fundamental for establishing networks of political articulation between the leaders of the extended families in the fight for their territories.
From the perspective of the Guarani and Kaiowá families articulated around the Aty Guasu, the social dramas experienced by the residents of each of the tekoha, who were the subjects of traumatic eviction processes, cannot in any way end in the restoration of colonial domination. Today the Indigenous people know that the paternalism of the karai towards them is long gone, replaced by open racism and intolerance.
The only possibility for Indigenous families is the reconquest of their tekoha through their fighting strategy and the reoccupation or retaking (jaha jaike jevy) of the land. The victories already obtained through reoccupation practices, as well as the several retaking settlements sustained over long periods, reinforce their decision and indicate that, despite all the suffering, the actions of the Aty Guasu continue to be supported by the protectors of nature and the cosmos.
1 Indigenous Posts (Postos Índigenas – P.I.s) were part of a public policy held by Brazil’s Indian Protection Service (Serviço de Proteção aos Índios – SPI), a government agency created in 1910 to administer Indigenous affairs. In 1967 the service was closed and replaced by the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio – Funai).