Al Jazeera America’s James Young notes how Brazil’s increasingly urbanized indigenous peoples are facing serious problems in their new environments. This story is sadly familiar to this Canadian.
The bow and arrow, recipes for plant-based medicines and traditional headdress hanging on the walls contrast sharply with the jumble of office blocks visible through an open window and the industrial clank of a nearby train transporting iron ore from a mine outside the city. The Center for Urban Indians, a resource center and meeting space, is housed in a cramped room in a drab two-story building on one of the busiest streets of this sprawling city in the southeast of Brazil.
“Everything changed when we arrived in the city,” said Paulinho Aranã, 54, who along with 14 family members moved to Belo Horizonte from the Jequitinhonha Valley in the north of the state of Minas Gerais in 1979. “We had grown up in the forest. The only thing we knew was animals, not cars or planes.”
“The first time I had an electric shower, I was terrified that the water would be electrified,” remembered Juliana Pataxó, 35. “So I’d fill a bucket with water and take it into the bathroom and use that instead. When my cousins asked me what I was doing, I’d lie and say it was to clean the bathroom afterward.”
Araña and Pataxó — both leaders at the center — are two of more than 315,000 of Brazil’s approximately 817,900 indigenous people who live in urban areas.
“Many come for work or for health care,” said Pablo Camargo, a historian and representative of the Minas Gerais branch of FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation of the Brazilian Government. “Also, life on Indian territories can be difficult. Many are small, and old ways of life such as hunting and fishing are no longer practical. Social problems such as alcoholism and unemployment are common. And today younger indigenous people have access to technology and so are becoming more and more interested in what the cities have to offer.”
The profile of urban Indian populations can vary greatly from city to city, with indigenous culture enjoying greater visibility in the more remote north and west of Brazil. In the vast cities of the prosperous south and southeast of the country, such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, however, urban Indians often struggle to be seen and heard.