Indigenous people in Brazilian culture: a missing presence

July 20, 2018
Indigenous peoples have been a missing presence in Brazilian society for a long time but have nonetheless exerted a strong impression on the country's imaginary and on its intellectuals' discourse. The lack of their presence as active subjects in the country's life is a contemporary result of a long historical process. Unlike in the Brazilian Amazon region and other Latin American countries, in most Brazilian urban regions indigenous traits are hardly recognizable in people's strata phenotype. The native populations seem to have disappeared as if by magic. The reasons for that is the country's historical trajectory characterized generally by the compulsory conversion to the colonizers' world. In fact, the indigenous population was one of the pillars for the formation of families and the workforce that enabled the colonizing venture in the most active regions - although gradually replaced from the second century on by black slave labour, more convenient to the market dynamics and colonial policy. The fate of the autochthonous population was dictated also by their mass destruction through conscious and unconscious instruments for the implementation of European hegemony. The expansion of the Portuguese presence in the South American territory led to compulsory evangelization, which paved the way for the forced cultural assimilation and wars of extermination, such as those waged for the occupation of territories for agriculture, cattle raising and mining. Periodic outbreaks of contagious pathologies also helped to seal the fate of native peoples who, isolated for millennia, remained, until the end of the fifteenth century, devoid of immunity to microorganisms imported from Europe through animals, settlers and missionaries. The autochthonous population was camouflaged as well by miscegenation that concocted an apparently invisible layer in a multifaceted national "ethnicity". Nowadays, even among white Brazilian families, the reminiscence of a distant indigenous ancestor is common - preferably to that of black ancestors. Finally, indigenous peoples were kept on the margins of civil society by questionable concepts and practices, such as tutelage and state protection that, in practice, estranged them from social processes. 
In the country's most dynamic regions its representatives would be confused with the miserable populations of the city's outskirts, maybe only identifiable by the peculiarity of their physical appearance and their workmanship.
In the article "Children of Nature", written in Portuguese, I tried to identify the problematic of the missing presence of the indigenous element at a specific moment in Brazilian history: the 1930s. During that time the formation of a centralized state apparatus added to the tensions of social and productive modernization. In such circumstances, nationalist impulses motivated a small number of well-educated groups to embark on an intense search for self-knowledge, trying to understand the country in all its regional aspects and historical origins.
Few times have the country's intelligentsia turned itself so completely inwards. In this context indigenous peoples appear prominently in the narratives derived from scientific expeditions of the territory, focusing on ethnographic research or adventures.
At that period realistic and contemporary narratives aiming at recording the drama of characters inserted in specific population groups - especially, those marginalized - were common. As far as fiction writing is concerned, the indigenous element assumes the role of a mythical, symbolic or imaginary figure, whose meaning in the society, culture and history of the country is called into question. 
In an attempt to identify diverse representations of this "character" of Brazilian life, I chose a very heterogeneous set of novels, all of them surprising in their treatment of the native population and in the evaluation of their meaning to Brazilian culture: Menotti del Picchia's adventure books, the debut novel of Graciliano Ramos, and Cornélio Penna's more introspective two novels. The diversity of the texts selected reveals my intent to identify the representations of the Brazilian indigenous population in the imaginary of an era that longed for modernization but is characterized also by the persistent investigation of reality and the nation's origins.
Even taking into account that specific historical context, it is shocking to follow, in two of Del Picchia's adventure novels, the heartless debasement of the indigenous population always depicted as the narrative's villains clashing with the "civilized" characters. The plot's ruthlessness towards the fictional indigenous peoples, whose only possible asset is their physical power, walks with the total absence of connection between representation and ethnographic records since the writer's version of their cultural traits is not based on reality. This also is the case with the landscape of the Amazon region. The success of the first of these novels at home and abroad confirms the positive reception of this unfiltered Manichean representation that has no interest in the dissemination of a consistent knowledge, favouring instead small clichés of mass culture. Although the third novel in the trilogy converts indigenous characters into the critical consciousness of urban-industrial modernity - the world was on the verge of another war - the disregard towards historical and contemporary indigenous populations in their concrete social and cultural aspects feeds the concealment of native peoples thus contributing to their invisibility. If we consider the writer's previous engagement in the country's nativist cultural militancy since the launch of his 1917 poem Juca Mulato - (the now classic regionalist portrayal of the mestizo), his entertaining youth-oriented stories seem to have no informative purpose.  His nationalist intentions were limited to transferring the background of adventure novels in the jungle to an abstract Brazilian Amazon populated by abstract "men-eaters", the perfect enemies of any civilizing mission. The character of the ancestral Indian was thus relegated to a romantic past and to a modernist militancy that had already been overcome.
The next two sets of narratives are placed in a completely opposite intellectual space, and are represented by two of Brazil's greatest novelists: Graciliano Ramos and Cornélio Penna. We find ourselves now in the field of historical consciousness, transferred to the sensibility of fictional characters troubled by their reading of the past that generates self-criticism and guilt. In Graciliano's  Caetés, the indigenous people makes reference to the origin, a mythical space and time for which the Brazilian trajectory must be accountable. The merciless self-portrait of a member of the elite of a small inland town in the state of Alagoas describes the downward movement from the vitality and authenticity of the native populations to an ordinary, and somewhat ridiculous society.
The novel portrays Brazil's native inhabitants as a benchmark for the country's history through a reflection on the protagonist's inability to elaborate a narrative of the iconic sixteenth century episode of the capture and sacrifice of Bishop Sardinha by the caeté people. The impact of European colonization on the indigenous population, reduced to poverty, cultural de-characterization and moral corruption, demonstrates also the mediocrity of the Brazilian intelligentsia.
Cornelius Penna's novel depicts the same disillusionment as to the country's history through feelings of guilt, self-pity and resentment as in Graciliano's novel. His two novels share however a subjective dialogue with historical interpretation. The native peoples appear as an accusatory ghost, who throws on the heirs of the colonizers' shoulders the weight of their annihilation, legitimized by their status as original inhabitants of the territory and their integration with its environment.
In Penna's novels, the characters' existential anguish coincides with an acute perception of the burden of history which, in the face of the hope of modernization at the time when novels were released, casts a shadow over the dominant optimism among those who believed in the possibility of effectively overcoming the past.
The crisis of conscience that defines "Fronteira" (Border) and "Dois romances de Nico Horta" (Two novels of Nico Horta) signals the limits to the transformation of Brazilian society through mere political voluntarism, since this accountability with the massacre of the native people weighed on consciences and attached the present to the country's colonial past.
Considering the quite different ideological implications among the novels analysed in this article, I found, in spite of everything, at least one point in common between them: they certainly reiterate the ignorance about indigenous peoples through inaccurate, unclear, caricatured, mystical, insubstantial, sentimentally charged images and therefore, contradictory forces, always in opposition to the present. Such representations make little or no reference to the indigenous population existing at that moment in the country; when they do they emphasize the divorce between imagination and reality, the latter being overshadowed by the former. In fact, this obscurity seems to be the condition for their being represented at all. The images of indigenous peoples perambulate in a chaotic and sombre arena and are confused with the very investigation about national identity, blurring the idea of a free, peaceful and geared towards the future Brazil.
How to Cite: Murari, L. (2018). Os filhos da natureza: Figurações do indígena no romance brasileiro dos anos 1930. Latin American Research Review53(2), 358–371. DOI:

About Author(s)

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Luciana Murari
Luciana Murari is professor at the School of Humanities and the Graduate Program in History at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), Brazil. She has published the books Brasil: Ficção geográfica: Ciência e nacionalidade no país d’Os sertões (2007) and Natureza e cultura no Brasil, 1870–1922 (2009), in addition to many articles in Brazilian and international magazines. Since 2013 Murari has been a productive scholar-researcher of the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPq). Her current research deals with the representation of nature in Brazilian literature and social thought during the period between 1923 and 1945.