By: C. Paixão
Brazil turned 523 years old in 2023 and continues to ignore the immense diversity of the Indigenous people in the country. Brazil was firstly inhabited by Indigenous people. When the first European colonists arrived in April 1500, there were 11 million Indigenous people and 2,000 different tribes. Their arrival was their first contact with the Indigenous population and natives of Brazil. Traditionally, Brazil was made up mostly of semi-nomadic tribes.
To the Portuguese’s surprise, they found hundreds of thousands of people living in a ‘paradise’ of natural riches, where the Indigenous people were managing the forest to support and fulfil their needs. When the commander of the Portuguese discovery fleet arrived in the current state of Bahia, a letter was addressed to the King of Portugal highlighting the beauty of the land. The commander described the native population as people who wore no clothes, painting their bodies with red paint instead. He also mentioned the accessories they used, such as their noisy porcelain bracelets and collars, feathers, and dried fruits. The commander wrote that their ears, noses, lips, and cheeks were pierced, and that women usually wore their hair either loose or in braids. He pointed out the ceremonial nature of their cannibalism, and he even stressed the importance of women's roles in the homes.
During the first 100 years of the Portuguese inhabiting Brazil, the Amerindian population (Indigenous population from both North and South America) was reduced by 90%. This was mostly due to disease and illness carried by colonists, which was exacerbated by enslavement and European-introduced violence, which included diseases such as smallpox, meningitis, tuberculosis, measles and influenza, leaving them with a strong lack of immunity.
In the following years, the shared sense of a good relationship and collaboration of the Portuguese living in their land came to an end. The male Portuguese colonists began to have children with female Amerindians, giving rise to a new generation of mixed-race people who spoke Indigenous languages, such as a Tupi language called Nheengatu. Most of these newborns were results of the rape and abuse that was going on due to the slavery that the Portuguese imposed in Brazil after years of colonization.
Around the same time of the slavery, groups of daring explorers organized expeditions and undertook journeys into the hinterland to claim them for the Portuguese crown and search for the riches and valuable stones. These expeditions were called “bandeiras”, which translates to “flags”. To benefit from the sugar trade, the Portuguese chose to cultivate sugar cane in Brazil and employ indigenous slaves as labourers, as the Spanish colonies had done effectively themselves. However, the Indigenous people were difficult to apprehend. They were quickly affected by illnesses brought by the Europeans, to which they had natural immunity to, and began dying in large numbers.
The Indigenous population has passed over myths through thousands of generations over the years, and this has an important role in their culture. To be able to understand Indigenous myths, it is necessary to get involved with the Indigenous population, live their lifestyle, and engage with their culture and beliefs. An extremely famous myth told in Brazil, originated from the Kanamari tribe, located around the state of Amazonas. They say that many years ago, two children were born in a village; one was a boy, and one was a girl. One night, the brother entered his sister’s hammock as he was in love with her. Frightened by the boy entering her hammock every night, the girl decided to come up with a plan. When the boy went to her hammock the following day, she woke up, scaring him away, just managing to mark his skin with jenipapo paint. The following morning, the girl discovered that her intruder was her own brother. They were too ashamed to talk and extremely embarrassed. They went their separate ways and never saw each other again, the girl becoming the sun and the boy becoming the moon.
Myths are not only told in a story form; they are also sung. The Marubo tribe, which lives in the state of Amazonas, tell their myths in songs sung by kechitxo (singers). These sung myths are passed on to new generations and are taught to children by older relatives. The Marubo sing their myths to cure illnesses. Every illness has a different song directed to it. Some songs last about 20 minutes but may take up to 3 days.
Indigenous people now describe how entities from the beginning of time were modified or came to create the world we know today. These entities taught mankind how to live together, how to perform festivals and ceremonies, how to cultivate food in gardens, and how to hunt, fish, and build hammocks, among other things.