Who Are Brazil's Indigenas? Contributions of Census Data Analysis to Anthropological Demography of Indigenous Populations

By Kennedy, David P.; Perz, Stephen G. | Human Organization, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Who Are Brazil's Indigenas? Contributions of Census Data Analysis to Anthropological Demography of Indigenous Populations


Kennedy, David P., Perz, Stephen G., Human Organization


With the goal of fostering discussion of anthropological demography, we assess Brazil's indigenous population using data from the 1991 census. We assert that an anthropological demography that includes the use of census data can help maximize the validity and reliability of social research. Despite problems with the conceptualization, coverage, and reporting of indigenas in Brazil's 1991 census, the first part of the analysis shows that census-based and key-informant-based estimates of indigenous populations in Brazil match very well. Given that the census data are no worse than those of other sources, the last part of the analysis projects Brazil's indigena population, and the results indicate rapid growth, from 294,000 in 1991 to 386,000 in 2001. These findings bear implications for ethnographic research on Brazilian Indians, the role of anthropologists in census enumerations, political strategies of Brazil's indigenist movement, and changes in state Indian policies.

Key words: anthropological demography, indigenous population, indigenism, Brazil

At midcentury, the consensus among those who worked with indigenous groups in Brazil was that native populations would soon be extinct or assimilated into the national society (Ribeiro 1967). More recent appraisals suggest that Brazil's indigenous population has not only survived, but has grown in the last 50 years, in an "Indian demographic turnaround" (Gomes 2000). Moreover, since the 1970s, an indigenist movement has emerged in Brazil, calling for demarcation of tribal territories and access to state services (Ramos 1998). One key to improving the lot of Indians in Brazil and other Latin American countries involves more accurate appraisals of the size and basic needs of indigenous populations. National demographic censuses can provide the information necessary to represent Indian populations, allowing analysts to better understand their situation while affording the indigenist movement an empirical basis for making demands of the state. Anthropologists stand to make vital contributions to these scholarly and political endeavors, but this requires some recognition of a role for censuses and demography in anthropological research.

In this paper, we adopt the case of Brazil to illustrate the difficulties and opportunities of using state census data to study indigenous peoples. Brazil is a useful case for three reasons. First, it encompasses indigenous groups long studied by anthropologists, including the Yanomami and the Xavante. However, published demographic estimates on these and other indigenous peoples since the mid-1970s are rare. Second, though it comprises a small share of the national population, Brazil's Indian populations are growing very rapidly. This demographic resurgence bears important political ramifications in light of recent changes in Brazilian law that may hinder indigenous land claims during a period of growing need for land. Third, Brazil recognized indigenous populations in its most recent demographic census in 1991. The census offers opportunities to obtain demographic information about indigenous peoples in Brazil at a time when such information is all but absent from other sources.

We present an argument in four parts. The first reviews a key difference between anthropology and demography, wherein anthropologists tend to ensure the validity of their findings, whereas demographers tend to focus on producing reliable results. We recognize that this contrast is an oversimplification in light of calls for more reliability in anthropology and more validity in demography. This convergence provides a basis for anthropological demography by incorporating methods that increase validity and reliability in social research.

In the second section, we suggest that the use of state censuses and demographic methods to study Brazil's Indians can open new avenues for anthropological demographic research. The 1991 census is the only source of information available for all indigenous people in Brazil with data collected using a standardized methodology, and this allows for a representative national appraisal. …

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