The unbroken circle


The moonless night was so dark I could hardly distinguish the outlines of our guides as we approached the village. Light from cooking fires inside thatched huts sent figures dancing on the walls. As we walked toward the center of the village, children called out to each other that the warazu—outsiders—had arrived. Boys and girls surrounded us in circles. Small hands clasped; the children sang and stomped the ground. Songs drifted up toward the crowded canopy of stars. A child reached for my hand: our fingers laced. Other children hung onto me, showing unabashed affection, and fascination with my hairy legs. Their vulnerable voices bathed us in song. These are songs the Xavante have sung for centuries, and continue to teach to their children.

Brazil is a huge country, about the size of the US. It is home to the world’s largest rainforest, oldest river, and largest wetlands, with ancient biodiversity. Brazil’s tropical savanna, or cerrado, covering about a quarter of the country’s landmass, is home to over 420 species of trees, 10,000 species of plants and 800 species of birds. There can be as many as 150 plant species in a single acre of cerrado. The cerrado is both one of the most productive and most threatened of the planet’s ecosystems, with only 3 percent under any kind of legal protection. It is estimated that 50 percent of Brazil’s cerrado has been completely destroyed; another 40 percent is degraded but recoverable.

The diversity of Brazil’s plant and animal life is matched by a vibrant array of cultures—indigenous, colonial and mixed—which inhabit a country that spans a continent. The indigenous people of the country, with a treasure of language, story, ritual, and knowledge, are as threatened as the land. The Xavante Indians of the Mato Grosso plateau of central Brazil live on a fraction of their former lands, in a mosaic of ecosystems including dense gallery forests covering the banks of wild rivers, thick jungle, palm forests, grasslands, parklands, and wetlands. Jaguar and puma roam the savannah. Flocks of parrots screech across the sky, settling in communal nests in the mango trees. Anteaters raid termite mounds, which serve as islands of refuge in the rainy season. Here, the semi-nomadic Xavante have maintained their traditional hunting and gathering way of life. But Xavante lands are threatened by an encroaching agricultural frontier, deforestation and the proposal for an industrial waterway, or Hidrovía.

I visited the Xavante as part of a cultural exchange delegation, in a program initiated by Amalia Souza. Souza, a Brazilian activist, approached The Cultural Conservancy and the Institute for Deep Ecology (IDE) two years ago with the idea of organizing a cultural exchange with the Xavante, in collaboration with the Institute for the Development of Indigenous Traditions (IDETI), a non-governmental organization working to protect indigenous culture and traditional arts. I was joined by Aryeh Shell from IDE and Art and Revolution, and Levana Saxon from the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Youth Alliance (INIYA). We were met in Brazil by Souza, Juranjir Siridiwé Xavante, and IDETI’s Angela Pappian—our translators, guides, and companions.

The Xavante reservation is in the remote far west part of Brazil. We traveled over 1,500 miles by airplane, truck and bus to get there. For hundreds of miles, we saw beaten and subdued land. We knew of the continued colonization of the country by multinational corporations, but we were not prepared for the sight of an endless landscape clear-cut and leveled for large-scale export-oriented agropastoral enterprises. So much of central Brazil has been reduced to withering stalks in a silent landscape of ashes.

Brazil is the world’s second largest beef producer, with about 170 million cattle on over two million ranches occupying nearly 60 percent of the country’s interior. Much of the cerrado has been severely affected by decades of over-grazing. Large scale ranching causes soil compaction, devastation of native species, introduction of noxious weeds, and disruption of hydrologic systems. Cattle pasture often alternates with farming on the same tired land.

The Xavante and 11 other tribes—the Karajá, Krikati, Bororo, Tapirapé, Apinayé, Avá-Canoeiro, Javaé, Xerente, Guarani, M’byá, and Karajá do Norte—face the construction of a series of dams and an industrial waterway whose builders would dynamite, channelize and dredge 1,200 miles from the mouth of the Amazon River through the Araguaia-Tocantins river basin, one of the world’s most important reserves of biological and cultural diversity. Plans are to penetrate deep into the cerrado with an armada of barges to extract timber, iron ore, and gold, and then plant hundreds of thousands of acres of soy and other export crops. Alterations of the river systems proposed for 87 different sites would have disastrous ecological effects, including collapse of river banks, siltation, erosion and flooding. The project has been criticized as both economically and environmentally unsustainable, and threatens the extinction of the pink dolphin, spotted jaguar, giant river otter, and other endangered species. In addition, there are proposals for a series of stepladder dams on the Rio das Mortes that would devastate the fisheries upon which the Xavante depend.

The Initial Environmental Impact Assessment for the Hidrovía was disqualified due to its poor technical quality, and roundly criticized for its mischaracterization of the testimony of anthropologists and biologists, resulting in charges of fraud. The Brazilian Transport Ministry’s refusal to conduct meaningful and accessible public hearings led to a court order suspending the licensing process. The current danger is in the construction of smaller projects that together make up a transport system capable of large-scale resource extraction. Funding for the project has been proposed by multi-national banking institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank.

Reaching the reservation
After days and nights of travel, we met our guides at the last bus terminal on the road into the high plateau, the Wild West frontier of central Brazil. We piled into the back of a pick-up truck for the last leg of our journey, a four-hour roller-coaster ride to the reserve. Jurandir pointed out the expanse of the large private and corporate land holdings. We passed a huge factory warehouse owned by Cargill, a multinational soybean farming, processing and transportation conglomerate working in more than 60 countries with destructive results. Brazil is the second largest producer of soybeans, close behind the US and gaining. Giant soybean companies, run by multinationals like Monsanto, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, have moved into the cerrado, resulting in an increase in the use of herbicides and pesticides, the depletion of surface water and aquifers, loss of local employment, and intensifying concentration of land ownership in a country that already has the world’s greatest discrepancy between the rich and the poor. Soy depletes the cerrado’s fragile soils. Large businesses and land owners, in collusion with government officials, lease the land for pennies on the acre and then move on when yields diminish, leaving huge tracts of denuded, depleted soil. As multinational corporations lay waste the interior of Brazil, the roadways are lined with the shanties of peasants denied access to the land.

Juranjir pointed to the edge of the tilled horizon, where we saw the beginning of the Xavante reservation, a great verdant landscape. He smiled widely and announced proudly, “We have arrived in Xavante land!” We turned off the main road and drove toward the Rio das Mortes Indian reservation. The sight of intact old growth jungle, palm forest, and grasslands was revitalizing. We sped through a dense bamboo jungle and campo limpo, or sweeping parklands, with fire-red termite mounds and statuesque trees.

Suddenly the truck skidded to a halt. The driver jumped out, grabbed his rifle, and ran into the forest. He yelled back to Juranjir as he sprinted through the trees. “Tapir,” said Juranjir. “He saw a mating pair in the forest and he’s after the male.” After a few moments, we heard a shot, and then another, and then the distinctive Xavante cry. “He got it,” Juranjir announced as he hopped out of the truck. We followed. After weaving through the thicket we found the hunter panting and standing proudly over his prey, shot cleanly through its chest. This was seen as a good omen for our arrival.

The Xavante call themselves the A’uwe Uptabi, or True People. The Xavante once defended a vast territory between the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers, but were forced to settle on a reservation near the Rio das Mortes, or River of Death, named after a bloody battle between the tribe and encroaching settlers. The Xavante have a well-earned reputation for ferocity. They have defended their land against Indians and non-Indians alike. For decades, the Xavante living in the sparsely populated western frontier defended their lands with sheer force. Attempts at “pacification” included military incursions, Christian missionaries, the invasion of homesteaders, state-sponsored development projects, and efforts to co-opt Xavante leaders with consumer goods. The current reservation was established in 1979.

Throughout the years, the Xavante have survived concerted efforts at assimilation and confiscation of their lands. They have maintained a tenacious hold on their culture through a rigorous traditional cultural education; 16 years of study and practice. Xavante children are initiated into age-based kinship societies, where they are taught traditional knowledge by their elders. At the same time, the Xavante have engaged themselves in the legal and political machinations of the Brazilian government. Xavante leaders have walked the halls of power in the capital city of Brasilia wearing soccer shorts and tennis shoes, body paint and headdresses, carrying briefcases of legal documents. Working with organizations such as the IDETI and the Instituto Socioambiental, they have taken their activism to the courts and federal legislature to protect their rights and reclaim their reservation lands.

The 800,000 acre Rio das Mortes Reservation is home to 12,000 Xavante, living in ten villages on six reserves. Three of these villages—Etenhiritipa, Areões, and Wederã—have been designated by the Xavante to be traditional in architecture, social structure, cultural education, ceremony and daily practices. Arriving in Etenhiritipa, we were greeted by the village’s spiritual leader Sereburã, its cacique or chief Tsupo, the vice-chief and tribal translator Paolo, and the council of elders. Amalia and Angela were mobbed by the children and greeted by old friends. Some of the smaller children—unaccustomed to warazu—took one look at me, burst into tears and ran away. Juranjir introduced us to the council, and we took turns speaking, each sentence translated from English to Portuguese to Xavante and back again. The elders rose to speak one by one and addressed us in an oratorical style that mixes speech with cadence and breath. They welcomed us with grace, thanked us for traveling the long distance to visit them, and spoke eloquently and forcefully about the threats to their land and culture.

The cacique talked about historical problems with miners, ranchers and poachers and explained that they are now confronting the greatest threat to their future. Under the shelter of palm fronds, the circle of elders explained how the proposed Hidrovía would destroy their way of life.

“We were told the government was planning to build dams on our rivers, cut down our trees and steal minerals from the soil. What will happen to us? Are we to die with the fish, disappear with the animals, and fall with the trees?” asked an elder, his hands rising into fists. “Even when the white man thinks our traditions are gone, they are very wrong about this. Even if it seems like we are holding on by a thread, we will keep our culture alive.”

With assistance from Catherine Powell of the Data Center, we were able to provide the Xavante with detailed information about the corporations behind the Hidrovía project, including a litany of criminal activities that have resulted in multi-million dollar fines and incarceration, convictions and investigations into bribery, influence-pedaling, price-fixing, environmental destruction, and mistreatment of employees.

Xavante villages are arranged in a crescent of large shelters made of tree trunks, bamboo and palm leaves. As many as three generations live in a single dwelling. The community draws its water from wells located in the center of the village. Garden plots provide manioc, rice, beans, and cassava. Groups of daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers roast the manioc in large iron skillets in the shade of mango trees. A diet of cultivated foods and native fruits and nuts is augmented with a variety of fish, tapir, peccary, deer, turtle, capybara, and anteater. The Xavante possess few material goods—no manufactured furniture, no refrigerators, no TVs, no toys except those fashioned by the children. The Xavante make their own clothes on pedal-powered sewing machines, and carry their supplies and harvest in woven baskets. An entire village of 500 people may share two pick-up trucks.

In the middle of the village a lone tractor sat beside a line of outboard motors and aluminum river boats. The machinery had been confiscated from fazenderos (ranchers) caught poaching timber and game on the reservation. Dressed in war paint, the Xavante ambushed the poachers, tied them up and took the equipment. When federal authorities came to the village to retrieve the tractor and the boats, the Xavante told the police they would keep the equipment while their lawyers pursued the case in the courts.

The Xavante are native hunters. They believe they must hunt their traditional game in order to dream. It is through dreaming that they maintain contact with their ancestors. The dream world is an essential part of Xavante life. When Xavante elders dream about council with the ancestors, they share the dream with the village. For weeks the tribe prepares for a reenactment of the dream with tribal members assuming the role of immortals. These ceremonies help ensure spiritual and cultural continuity, aligning present and past.

Once nomadic, the Xavante now pursue a diminishing stock of native animals on smaller ranges. Hunting has changed dramatically with scarcer game, rifles, and trucks. The Xavante say the introduction of processed food into their diets has interfered with their ability to connect with the dream world.

The day we spent on the Rio das Mortes on a Xavante hunting and fishing excursion was an exhausting, humbling adventure. We accompanied a group of hunters, trekking for hours along the banks, working through dense tangles of roots and vines with the help of singing machetes. Equipped with only line, hooks, and sinkers, the skilled fishermen cast out into the jade-colored river and pulled in one fish after another. River dolphins broke the surface of the water, and spotted river turtles basked on the sandbars. When the fishermen had caught all their baskets could hold, we returned to our meeting place for a feast of piranha and other creatures from the day’s harvest.

Juranjir Xavante walks in two very different worlds. (All Xavante adopt the name of their tribe as their Western last name.) President of IDETI, he works in Sao Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, where he lives with his wife—a Japanese Butoh theater director—and their son. He returns to Etenhiritipa for a few months each year to take part in ceremonies, visit his parents, and work with the tribe on the protection of their traditional arts and reservation lands. When I asked him how it felt to have his feet in such separate realities, he told me simply that learning the ways of the warazu was his task since he was a young boy. Twenty years ago, realizing that they would have to come to grips with an encroaching colonial frontier, the Xavante elders decided to prepare eight young boys to leave the reservation, learn Portuguese, and report back about Brazilian culture and politics. Juranjir remembers walking for two days to a landing strip near the edge of the reservation and flying to the big city at the age of eleven. “I could not believe my eyes,” he said. “I had never been away from the village, I had never even been in a truck. It was like traveling to another planet.” His only previous experience with the outsiders was in violent conflict with armed invaders. As planned, a Brazilian family took him in and he attended school. “I could not speak a word of Portuguese, I couldn’t communicate with anyone. After a while I learned the language and studied in school. Every year I returned home to tell my people about the warazu and what we needed to do to protect ourselves.”

The Xavante stand their ground, waging warfare when forced to protect their land, plying the waters of national and international politics with impressive sophistication. Faced with a tidal wave of cultural, economic and political assimilation, they are determined to maintain a difficult traditional lifestyle. For the most part, the traditional villages exist outside of the cash economy, a major vehicle for assimilation. The Xavante have a sophisticated oral performance style that they practice daily in a variety of rituals. A rich library of oral performance continues to relate their stories, create traditional and contemporary art, maintain social structure and unity, and practice the ceremonies that animate Xavante life. Performed in still unbroken circles, the communal songs and dances are central to the survival of Xavante culture.

The Xavante are reaching out to environmental and indigenous rights activists for help in facing the myriad threats to their land and culture. They recognize that global problems require cross-cultural solutions. Still, as they seek help, they want to control the influences on their traditional way of life. Through cultural exchange, they hope to express their essence through their land and culture, and to learn ways in which others have held onto that which enables them to be “True People”—with history and continuity, spirit and community.

The night before our departure from the village, the council of elders gathered us in their evening circle and sang to us. Sereburã‘s deep voice, mature and confident, led elaborate chants that had the force of the wind. The songs were woven with harmonizing choruses, punctuated with exuberant calls sounding like the wild cries of creatures, traversing life forms and lifetimes. Xavante songs, taught to each emerging generation, continue to reach through time to stand with them in the moment.

Their voices still echo within me.

Philip M. Klasky is director of The Storyscape Project of the Cultural Conservancy, an NGO that helps native people preserve traditional story, song, language, and lands. see its Web site at

Take action: A copy of the Independent Review Panel on the Hidrovía Project is available on the International Rivers Network Web site For more info on NGOs mentioned in this article visit,, and; to contact Pró-Fauna, email

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