Seth Garfield. Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1937-1988. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001. 316 pp. $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-2665-6; $84.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-2661-8.
Reviewed by Barbara A. Sommer (Department of History, Gettysburg College)
Published on H-LatAm (June, 2002)
Tracking the March to the West and Back
Tracking the March to the West and Back
Seth Garfield's study tracks the interplay between Brazilian national policy and Xavante politics, from Getulio Vargas's 1937 "March to the West" to expand state power and integrate the nation, to the Constitution of 1988, when native peoples in Brazil (now actors on the national political stage) gained new legal rights. In step with recent historiographical trends, Garfield recasts the Xavante of northern Mato Grosso state in central-west Brazil as both victims and players in the process. As he examines state formation from the edge, Garfield probes issues of nationalism, racism, and the transformation of ethnicity. Arguing against "subaltern politics as an 'autonomous' domain" (p. 15), he highlights the ways in which negotiating power and resisting domination changed the Xavante. Garfield also refutes "the irreconcilable dichotomy posited between Indians and the nation-state," showing that "indigenous peoples have sought to negotiate the terms of social incorporation and to adapt elite projects for nation building--only to be typecast as folkloric relics and exotic 'others' or, alternatively, as 'inauthentic' Indians" (p. 216).
The book brings Brazil into the new wave of studies analyzing indigenous-state relations in the Spanish Americas and makes a significant contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century Brazil. It is unique because it focuses on one ethnic group for a relatively long period; Garfield characterizes it as a case study (p. 18). What becomes clear by the end of the book is that by the early 1980s, the Xavante had remarkable success at getting federal resources, receiving nearly one third of the funds for indignous community development projects. As one of the largest indigenous groups in Brazil, the Xavante are exceptional, and I suspect their success led Garfield to choose them for this study.
The eight chapters of the book fall into three general chronological periods. The first chapter, on the Estado Novo (1937-45), lays out the ideological underpinnings of territorial expansion. Chapters 1 through 5 are topical and span the democratic period from the mid-1940s to the 1964 military coup, covering the formation of state agencies and contact with the Xavante, Xavante relations with Indian service agents and missionaries, Mato Grosso elites and land concentration, and the reshaping of A'uwe identity to Xavante and "Brazilindians." The final three chapters are roughly chronological and take up the new state policy under the military (1964-1973), Xavante political mobilization and occupation of lands (1972-1980), and the implementation and failure of a state-run Xavante community development project (1978-1988). Overall, chapters dedicated to policy (2, 4, 6) alternate with those centering on Xavante initiatives (3, 5, 7), although the final chapter takes a more integrated approach, analyzing Xavante engagement in the state-backed development project.
Under the Estado Novo, national myths celebrated Indians as heroes, indeed, cast them as the "base of national character," while debasing living indigenous peoples as infantile and incompetent. During WWII, the task of contacting and integrating the Xavante fell to the Indian Protection Service (SPI). While traditional accounts have glorified the SPI members as intrepid heroes, revisionists have lambasted the SPI as a tool of domination. Garfield takes issue with revisionists, who have minimized the protective role of the SPI. He deflates the reputed power of the service, and argues that the Vargas state "masked more than misalignment among federal agencies; it glossed over the nitty-gritty of local politics" (pp. 48-49). It is this theme that Garfield takes up in subsequent chapters.
Evoking Richard White's concept of a "middle ground" in chapter 3, Garfield looks at local-level SPI-Xavante relations. While SPI officials hoped to use native leaders to mold the semi-nomadic Xavante into sedentary intensive agriculturalists, the leaders in turn "exploited SPI patronage to reward supporters and punish foes" (p. 69). In one of the most successful sections of the book, Garfield examines the way these relationships were worked out by focusing on two rival Xavante leaders and their respective SPI officials and posts. Garfield's nuanced comparison of these two sets of indigenous leaders and post directors shows that individual Xavante and SPI personalities and factional village dynamics shaped the outcomes of policy in practice.
With the demise of the Estado Novo in 1946 and a return to democracy, earlier land grants were abrogated and elites viewed indigenous territory as public land. The unequal struggle between regional elites, imbued with racist and ethnocentric ideas, who saw land as a resouce to exploit for political ends, and SPI officials, who were obliged to delimit indigenous lands, but lacked personnel and resources to accomplish the task, spelled disaster for the Xavante.
I found Garfield's look at life at the missions and SPI posts in chapter 5 compelling. A variety of impositions, including new sexual mores, religious beliefs, marital patterns, and labor regimentation all impinged on everyday life. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, an onslaught of outside influences on the Xavante contributed to a low birthrate and high mortality. Nonetheless, the Xavante maintained a connection to the past through myths and ceremonies. They retained certain cultural practices in secret, such as polygamy, and selectively rejected outside influences, such as the use of clothing. Garfield is careful to note that "disparate sectors responded differently to external domination" (pp. 128-29)--age and gender at times influenced individual choice. At the same time, the Xavante adopted useful or potentially powerful practices to increase their ability to acquire industrial goods and control their lives. It was during this period, that the Xavante, who once called themselves A'ume, began to portray themselves as "Xavante" and as "Brazilian Indians."
In chapters 6 and 7, Garfield recounts how the 1964 military coup squelched politics and popular opposition, ushering in a new era of centralized power and frontier development reminiscent of the Estado Novo, but now armed with new technology and greater fiscal muscle. National security ideology justified colossal state projects in the north of the country. Capital from domestic corporate sources combined with World Bank and InterAmerican Development Bank funds to support cattle ranching and road building, which led to increased occupation and deforestation. But Xavante activism induced the Brazilian government to grant five reserves in 1972--"more than twenty-five years after official 'pacification'" (p. 158). Over the next decade, the Xavante stepped up their efforts, occupying new areas and pressuring the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to legitimize their claims. From the initial land demarcations to the end of 1979, the Xavante "had succeeded in increasing their reserved area nearly tenfold" (p. 183).
In 1978, a FUNAI community development project, designed without Xavante input, prompted mechanized rice production and cattle grazing. The project, which relied heavily on outside capital and technology, brought degeneration in diet and new challenges. Traditional rivalry between factions led to conflicts over control of machinery and reconfigured age dynamics, as younger leaders emerged and the council of elders was ignored. Rather than building self-sufficiency, the program led to dependency. It ultimately failed when funding ended with the mid-1980s debt crisis.
Garfield's book is well structured. He introduces each chapter with an anecdotal event or a sweeping description of broad political change and then a clear one-paragraph statement of purpose. The final section of each chapter not only sums up the material that has been covered but leads into subsequent topics. While Garfield generally avoids jargon, he has a tendency to pile up interpretation and his interjection of academic theorists into his analysis can de distracting. Eric Wolf, Geral Sider, Joanne Rappaport, Sherry Ortner, Partha Chatterjee, among others, are called upon to help make meaning or draw attention to general tendencies (e.g., pp. 125, 158, 173). This seems more tribute than attribution and detracts from Garfield's own capable analysis.
Garfield draws on a wide range of sources. Policy chapters rely heavily on government documents, especially those generated by the SPI and FUNAI, while those chapters on Xavante actions or ground-level negotiation cite published ethnographies, missionary and SPI post reports, and interviews. For the well-studied Vargas period, Garfield makes extensive use of secondary sources. Garfield's use of primary sources can be guarded; he cautions, for example, that "Xavante historical narratives must be examined carefully, for they too served as political weapons in irredentist struggle" (p. 173) and documents produced by SPI post agents "are minefields of historical inaccuracy, rife with self-aggrandizement, distortion, misinterpretation, and omission" (p. 80). On the other hand, Garfield draws extensively from the work of ethnographers, especially David Maybury-Lewis and Laura Graham. But we find no caveats or even a discussion of ethnographic method or scholarship. Moreover, foreign anthropologists as political actors are not credited for their role in Xavante successes.
In fact, in highlighting the Xavante, Garfield largely ignores their political allies, both international and Brazilian. While he mentions international opinion as a force capable of pressuring the government, he does not describe the specifics. For example, when a 1968 report on the SPI revealed human rights abuses and corruption, "International and domestic pressure on the Brazilian government opened new horizons for indigenous peoples in their struggle to secure land" (p. 144). But Garfield provides no details. And although he discusses the role the church played in the 1970s land wars, he mentions other key actors with an offhand, "The Xavante found 'great friends' as well in anthropologists, journalists, health care officials, academics, students, and lawyers" (p. 179). A footnote refers the curious reader to a study on Brazilian NGOs and church organizations. Xavante allies are also missing from his analysis of the 1980s, although by then international organizations played an active and well-publicized role in indigenous mobilization. Garfield may have downplayed such initiatives because they lay outside the parameters of his study, or because he does not view them as viable alternatives to responsible state action in the long run (see his conclusion, p. 217). The omission, however, results in a lack of context and oversimplifies a process that Garfield is otherwise careful to characterize as complex.
I was also struck by Garfield's criticism outside of historical context of the ideological position of early initiatives to enact pro-Indian policies. Shortly after contact, violence between settlers and Xavante led to two schools of policy: one advocating isolation, the other, integration. Garfield states, "The campaign by Brazilian state officials and intellectuals to preserve 'authentic' Indian culture revealed what anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has termed 'imperialist nostalgia,' whereby agents of colonial domination long for the very forms of life they have altered or destroyed" (p. 63). This ignores the fact that the very existence of indigenous peoples was perceived to be at stake--human life as much as cultural survival was threatened. Garfield goes on to assail those who measured Indian "authenticity" with a checklist of cultural practices. He quotes Anthony Smith, a British scientist who, after visiting Mato Grosso in the late 1960s, bemoaned the shabbily dressed Xavante he met as "remnants of their shattered culture" and Claude Levi-Strauss, who "likewise bewailed the cataclysmic change battering Brazilian indigenes, 'wretched people who will soon, in any case, be extinct'" (pp. 114-15). Citing Marshall Sahlins, Garfield points out that "cultural 'authenticity' in fact resides in the specific ways that indigenous societies adapt to historical change" (p. 115). Yet certainly the observations of Smith and Levi-Straus were perceived to be valid at the time--they could hardly anticipate how the Xavante would rebound after the initial shock of contact. And while the Xavante learned to adapt, so too observers, ethnographers, scientists, and politicians changed. My point here is that the shift from a prioritizing of cultural "traits" to a fluid concept of ethnicity is in part a product of the very historical experiences Garfield describes. By the late 1980s, Garfield says, "The worldwide tide of ethnic politics and 'multiculturalism' had washed up on Brazil's shores" (p. 214); his study shows that ethnic politics also flowed downstream from the Brazilian heartland.
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Barbara A. Sommer. Review of Garfield, Seth, Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1937-1988.
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