Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil

State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1937–1988

Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 11 b&w photographs, 3 tables, 8 maps Published: September 2001

Author: Seth Garfield

History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Brazil, Native and Indigenous Studies

Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil examines the dynamic interplay between the Brazilian government and the Xavante Indians of central Brazil in the context of twentieth-century western frontier expansion and the state’s indigenous policy. Offering a window onto Brazilian developmental policy in Amazonia and the subsequent process of indigenous political mobilization, Seth Garfield bridges historical and anthropological approaches to reconsider state formation and ethnic identity in twentieth-century Brazil.
Garfield explains how state officials, eager to promote capital accumulation, social harmony, and national security on the western front, sought to delimit indigenous reserves and assimilate native peoples. Yet he also shows that state efforts to celebrate Indians as primordial Brazilians and nationalist icons simultaneously served to underscore and redefine ethnic difference. Garfield explores how various other social actors—elites, missionaries, military officials, intellectuals, international critics, and the Indians themselves—strove to remold this multifaceted project. Paying particular attention to the Xavante’s methods of engaging state power after experience with exile, territorial loss, and violence in the “white” world, Garfield describes how they emerged under military rule not as the patriotic Brazilians heralded by state propagandists but as a highly politicized ethnic group clamoring for its constitutional land rights and social entitlements.
Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil will interest not only historians and anthropologists but also those studying nationbuilding, Brazil, Latin America, comparative frontiers, race, and ethnicity.


“[A] strong and disciplined study. . . . The importance of its theme, its relative brevity, and the clarity of Garfield’s writing make it appropriate for a variety of college courses and accessible to both the scholar and the educated reader.” — Roger L. Cunniff , History: Reviews of New Books

“[C]arefully researched . . . . Garfield’s major contribution in this book is to demonstrate how the Xavante were able to manipulate both the acquisition of Portuguese language skills and official discourse to their own end.” — R. M. Delson , Choice

“Garfield bridges history and anthropology to examine the dynamic interplay between the Brazillian government and the Xavante Indians of central Brazil.” — , Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

"[A] major contribution. . . ."
— Hal Langfur , Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"[A] revealing study. . . . Garfield's impressive integration of Xavante history with national policies and frontier dynamics derives from his thorough research and is enriched by the voices of Xavante leaders." — Xenia V. Wilkinson, HAHR

"Garfield provides a thorough and engaging account of evolving relations between the Xavante and the outside world within the context of Brazilian political history. . . . Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil should interest those whose areas of specialization include peoples of Brazil and South America, Brazilian history, indigenous peoples and the state, and ethnicity." — Laura Putsche , American Ethnologist

"Garfield's terrific research has produced a sophisticated, complicated, and dense telling of Xavante-Brazilian central-state relations since the first efforts to incorporate them in the 1940s. . . . Scholars will want to turn to Seth Garfield's book for a complex, well-researched, and intellectually satisfying account of central-state attempts to incorporate interior lands and peoples into the Brazilian nation." — Todd A. Diacon , Ethnohistory

"In this masterful study of the Xavante Indians of Central Brazil, historian Seth Garfield uncovers the agency of Brazilian indigenous groups in the life-and-death disputes over land, resources, notions of nationhood, and the fate of the ancestors of Brazil’s first human inhabitants. Indigenous Struggle is much more than a social and cultural history of the Xavante. Garfield deftly draws theoretical and analytical approaches from his thorough readings in anthropology, cultural studies, and post-colonial studies to create a carefully crafted, eloquently written, and subtly argued examination of the tensions among multiple forces. . . . This work will certainly become a yardstick to measure future studies of indigenous struggles in Brazil and beyond."

— James N. Green , Journal of Social History

"[A] fresh approach. . . . Specialists in various fields will find Garfield’s work useful. . . . Garfield displays a masterful command of the historical and theoretical literature, and his particular framework will help to enlighten the course of the indigenous struggle in other epochs and regions of Latin America. . . . Garfield’s work is a significant contribution. . . ." — Kenneth P. Serbin , American Historical Review

"[A] well-documented study. . . . This book is a valuable source for graduate students in Latin American history, anthropology, and political science, as well as for practitioners working on indigenous issues. Garfield's impressive integration of Xavante history with national policies and frontier dynamics derives from his thorough research and is enriched by the voices of Xavante leaders." — Xenia V. Wilkinson , Hispanic American Historical Review

"[An] excellent monograph. . . . One of the author’s important contributions is to detail how the Xavante succeeded in resisting the government efforts to turn them into exemplary Indians. . . . [T]his well-written and admirably researched monograph will be an invaluable source for scholars wishing to compare Indian policies under such disparate political systems as those of Mexico, Brazil, and the U.S."
— Thomas E. Skidmore , Journal of Anthropological Research

"Seth Garfield deftly straddles the boundary between history and anthropology." — Donna Lee Van Cott, Latin American Research Review

"This book should be widely read by scholars of Brazilian history or, more generally, persons interested in Latin American indigenous history. . . ." — Jerry Dávila , Luso-Brazilian Review

"This is a lively, well-researched, well-written, and engaging work. . . . This is a must read for scholars interested in modern Brazilian political science, state planning, indigenous peoples, conflict resolution, and frontier dynamics." — Sheldon Avenius , Perspectives on Political Science

“A pioneering analysis of Brazilian government policy toward the indigenous population from the standpoint of contemporary history. Garfield goes beyond the sensationalism which characterizes so much criticism of government policy to provide a thoughtful, well-balanced, and highly revealing study.” — Thomas E. Skidmore, author of Brazil: Five Centuries of Change

“This fine historical study illuminates a host of crucial questions about Brazilian state formation, racial discourses, and national identity. Its pathbreaking reconstruction of the complicated interaction between the Xavante communities and the Brazilian state provides us with vivid examples of the way in which the policies of a modernizing state serve to reduce the complexities of indigenous culture but at the same time create possibilities for entirely new strategies of resistance and negotiation.” — Barbara Weinstein, author of For Social Peace in Brazil: Industrialists and the Remaking of the Working Class in São Paolo, 1920–


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Seth Garfield is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Maps

List of Tables

List of Illustrations


1. Introduction: Indians and the Nation-State in Brazil

2. “The Base of Our National Character”: Indians and the Estado Novo, 1937–1945

3. “Pacifying” the Xavante: 1941–1966

4. “The Father of the Family Provoking Opposition”: State Efforts to Remake the Xavante, 1946–1961

5. “Noble Gestures of Independence and Pride”: Land Policies in Mato Grosso, 1946–1964

6. “Brazilindians”: Accommodation with Waradzu, 1950–1964

7. “Where the Earth Touches the Sky”: New Horizons for Indigenous Policy under Early Military Rule, 1964–1972

8. The Exiles Return, 1972–1980

9. The Xavante Project, 1978–1988

10. Conclusion



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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2665-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2661-8
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