Native Brazil: Beyond the Convert and the Cannibal, 1500–1900

Feb 19th, 2015 | By | Category: 26-3: Global Indigenous Higher Education, Media Reviews

native-brazilEdited by Hal Langfur
University of New Mexico Press (2014)
285 pages

Review by Colin Snider

The edited volume Native Brazil is a welcome and long-overdue contribution on Brazilian Indigenous peoples. It is a work that finally begins to bring scholarship on Indigenous Brazil closer to the much more developed scholarship on Indigenous peoples in Spanish America.

As the subtitle indicates, the essays in this book move beyond the traditional historical narratives that have defined Indigenous Brazilians as being either cannibals or converts. Each essay provides a nuanced interpretation of Indigenous history in Brazil, showing the ways Native peoples exercised agency as they responded to and shaped colonial and imperial processes and society in Brazil. Together, the chapters cover a wide range of groups and cultures, from the Tupi along the Atlantic coast to the dozens of Indigenous peoples in Brazil’s interior. In the process, Native Brazil excels in demonstrating the cultural, social, and historical complexities of Brazil’s numerous Native groups.

The book opens with an introductory essay that outlines both the historical and historiographical shortcomings of most Indigenous Brazilian histories in comparison to their Spanish American counterparts. The remaining eight essays provide nuanced analyses that explore Indigenous responses to the Portuguese presence. Collectively, these essays show that Indigenous Brazilians did not “disappear” by the 1700s, but instead asserted varying degrees of autonomy within the colonial and imperial systems. Native agency is evident in the ways in which Indigenous peoples responded to and shaped royal policy or settler behavior, be it through their use of aldeias (mission villages), the legal system, market economies, or more violent resistance. At the same time, the essays acknowledge the real cultural, social, and demographic losses many Native groups endured.

Native Brazil is a much needed contribution to scholarship, but it is more of a first step in a new Indigenous history of Brazil than the definitive work on Brazilian Natives. The degree to which the essays compellingly demonstrate Indigenous agency and actions varies. The strongest chapters focus on the ways Indigenous actions and official policies shaped one another. However, few of the essays provide a comparative perspective that could tie Indigenous Brazil into a broader hemispheric discussion without overburdening their arguments.

That said, Native Brazil is an important addition to an oft-overlooked area of Indigenous history in the Americas. In its geographic, cultural, and temporal breadth, Native Brazil breaks new ground on Brazilian history and Indigenous studies. The result is a set of essays that provide an eye-opening reinterpretation and understanding of Brazilian history and Indigenous peoples.

Colin Snider, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Tyler and specializes in Latin American, Brazilian, and comparative Indigenous history.

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