The Enawene of Brazil and Education

By Hodgson, Anna | Contemporary Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Enawene of Brazil and Education


Hodgson, Anna, Contemporary Review


THE history of contact between the indigenous peoples of Brazil and mainstream Brazilian society has been a tale of disaster. Since the Portuguese colonists first sent expeditions into the interior to seize land and slaves for the sugar mills to the more recent but equally damaging government policy of 'integration', whole populations have been decimated by disease, de-cultured and in many areas made landless. But for the Enawene Nawe the story has been different.

The Enawene Nawe are a semi-isolated, indigenous people who live together in one large village in the 'transitional' region between the Amazonian rain forest and the savannah lands in the west of the remote state of Mato Grosso in Brazil.

For their entire history (thought to be about 400 years) they have been totally self-sufficient. They are still politically autonomous and have no economic dependency on any other group. And unlike most indigenous groups in Brazil, their numbers have not declined but risen from 97 to over 300 since their first contact with the outside world thirty years ago.

Land is crucial to their survival. Until recently the right to land traditionally worked was enshrined in the Brazilian constitution. Demarcation is not constitutionally necessary but it does give legality in the struggle against all those who have targeted their territories. By 1997 most of their lands had been demarcated, a process started by a Jesuit, Vincente Canas. He was murdered in 1987 and his work was continued by the NGO OPAN (Operacao Amazonia Nativa). But despite demarcation, incursions from diamond prospectors, loggers, soya and cattle farmers, continue.

In the late 1990s a road was built 50 kilometres into the Enawene traditional lands. Nobody took responsibility for its construction but it is believed to have been the work of soya farmers and a local contractor. The Procurator, the state official with federal sanction who protects the people 'without a voice', declared the road illegal but has since had to leave the area because of death threats.

The road builders had contacted members from two other indigenous groups, whose languages were similar to those of the Enawene. They were hired to liaise with the Enawene who were given presents such as outboard motors and promised money for petrol to allow construction, compensation which they now realise was wholly inadequate.

For both the Enawene and the organisations that work with them, the road has been a mixed blessing. It has increased OPAN's workload as demands to visit the towns for petrol and motor repairs have grown and contact diseases (mainly respiratory and diarrhoeal), which had previously been contained by quarantine practices, are brought back to the community. It has also created the need for learning new skills such as economic awareness, numeracy, accounting, reading and writing.

What also makes the Enawene different from most indigenous groups in Brazil is that they have become literate in their own language before learning Portuguese. Literacy activities began in 1995 by OPAN with the help of an anthropologist from the University of Sao Paulo and a professor of linguistics from the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro. By February 1996 there were already 23 Enawene studying. Before the programme began, a phonological analysis and glossary of 1000 words was gathered. This later grew to 2000. Throughout the process it was understood that literacy was not a precursor to formal, externally imposed education.

'There was a lot of discussion with the Enawene how to teach their language', says Heggy Wyatt, an anthropologist and community health worker with OPAN for five years. 'It was very much left in their hands'.

The Enawene are a specialist society with shamans, directors of singing, herbalists, chanting and prayer masters. Those who choose to learn a skill do so out of interest or, as in the case of the shamans, are chosen by the sky spirits. …

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