Academic journal article Human Organization

Demography, Territory, and Identity of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil: The Xavante Indians and the 2000 Brazilian National Census

Academic journal article Human Organization

Demography, Territory, and Identity of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil: The Xavante Indians and the 2000 Brazilian National Census

Article excerpt

Brazilian census data show a remarkable increase in the population self-reporting as "indigenous" between 1991 and 2000 but do not readily enable that increase to be analyzed in terms of the nearly 200 specific indigenous societies or ethnicities that exist in Brazil. In this article, we investigate some instances and implications of how the 2000 Brazilian National Census employed categories conceived for the national population to register one specific people-the Xavante of Mato Grosso, Central Brazil-with their own inherent social arrangements and morphologies. We do so by comparing census data corresponding to Xavante Indigenous Reserves with an independently collected set of demographic data for the same year. Although we found census data to adequately represent basic characteristics of the Xavante population (population size and age and sex distributions), we also found they reclassified and transformed Xavante households and thereby denatured Xavante sociality of its demographic and sociocultural complexity. The Xavante case is an example of how national demographic censuses not only capture data regarding indigenous peoples but also help shape those data by contributing to how indigenousness is perceived. Our findings suggest that the Brazilian National Census should seek to be more sensitive to indigenous realities and thereby to assess more accurately fundamental aspects of indigenous societies.

Key words: Brazil, South American Indians, census methods, cultural anthropology


Brazil is an exceptional case in Latin America for having a reported indigenous population that constitutes such a low proportion of the total population (0.4%). Only the indigenous population of Uruguay is lower than Brazil's, being just 0.02 percent of the national population. Although heterogeneous demographic histories may explain much of the variation in indigenous population proportions among Latin American countries, they are insufficient to explain the radical differences in indigenous population size between Brazil and its immediate neighboring countries. For example, Brazil's indigenous population size is striking when compared with Guyana (6.0% indigenous), Colombia (2.0%), Venezuela (2.0%), and even Argentina ( 1 .0%) (Meentzen 2001 ; Montenegro and Stephens 2006). In Brazil, as in many other South American contexts, indigenous ancestry is prevalent in the population even though perception of or identification with that ancestry may be uncommon in many segments of society (Ramos 1998; Santos and Maio 2004; Yashar 2005). Accordingly, it is that very perception, whether within the censused population or institutionalized in the census project, that may have enormous impact on reported national figures regarding indigenous population size. Furthermore, this and other perceptions regarding indigenousness and non-indigenousness inescapably permeate the entire census process, thereby affecting their results and tangibly influencing public discourse.

One of the most surprising results of the most recent Brazilian National Census, done in 2000, compared to the previous census (1991), was the increase in the number of people self- reporting as indigena ("indigenous") (IBGE 2005; Kennedy and Stephen 2000). The number of people who declared themselves as indigenous rose from 294,131 to 734,127 people between those years (IBGE 2005:19). Among all of the "color or race" categories employed in the Brazilian census, it was indígena that showed the greatest rate of population increase between the two censuses.2

A similar population increase among those self-reporting as "American Indian," reported for the United States between the 1960 and 1990 censuses, has been explained in terms of "ethnic switching" motivated by changing national politics of indigenous identity (Nagel 1995). That example illustrates that the extraordinary increase in the Brazilian indigenous population must not be assumed only to be a matter of simple population growth, but is also likely due to diverse demographic factors, including, potentially, increase due to reclassification from other segments. …

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