When we think about Indigenous people, what is the first thing that comes to mind? How do we imagine them? What are our thoughts?
Not long ago, the representation of Indigenous peoples was generally based on what others said about them. And although they have been subjects of numerous anthropological studies, they have been historically represented as “others,” their voices and points of view mostly ignored.
But Indigenous peoples are now taking to the global stage in a fight for the human, social and environmental rights that have so often been denied to them. They are also challenging the invasion and the destruction of their ancestral lands.
One approach to this is through communications and technology – specifically, through what is called ‘ethno-communication.’ Defined as the “forms of media expression that are conceptualized, produced and/or created by Indigenous peoples across the globe,” Indigenous media, film and radio provide a powerful tool for promoting self-expression. They also play a central role in preserving or re-adapting Indigenous traditions, cosmologies and languages, as well as transmitting these to future generations.
“THIS IS OUR WEAPON”
“Instead of using the arrow or the borduna, an Indigenous person can have the same weapon in hand as the white men have,” says Paulihno Paican, an Indigenous leader of the Kayapó ethnic group of Pará, Brazil. The weapon he describes is the camcorder that Brazilian Indigenous filmmakers are using to record their dances, their traditions, their beliefs, and also to spotlight their agenda for the world to see.
“Why are we using this audiovisual technology? To record the stories, the tales, so our memory doesn’t die,” Paican explains. “With a camera in hand, they are stronger Indigenous people.”
In a documentary produced by Brazilian photographer, filmmaker and Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) collaborator Icaro Cooke Vieira, together with Yandê radio and Indigenous production companies Oz Guarani and ASCURI, Paican and other Indigenous communicators share their vision and motivation for the media content they are producing.
Paican’s imagery of the camcorder as a weapon is accurate. Anthropologist Terence Turner says that videos produced by the Kayapó people played a role in advocacy work and raising awareness. They were also used to inform rural communities of environmental exploitation in the Brazilian Amazon basin, which was threatening their way of life.
Turner noted that some videos shot by the Kayapó videographers were used as testimonials against environmentally damaging activities, such as the construction of dams. Their images were also used as evidence in legal trials that resulted in the cancellation of externally-funded projects that were counter to the Kayapó peoples’ interests.
THE AUDIOVISUAL AND THE SPIRITUAL
Cooke had grown up listening to the radio show Programa de índio (“The Indigenous show,” in Portuguese), broadcast by University of Sao Paulo radio and presented by Alvaro Tukano, Ailton Krenak and Biraci Yawanawá, three Indigenous communicators who were responsible for the birth of the Brazilian ethno-media movement between 1985 and 1990. But it was in 2017 when Cooke met Anapuaka when he really took hold of the fact that communication material produced by non-Indigenous people – even when they were tackling Indigenous issues – were not accurate in representing the vision and agenda of Indigenous peoples.
“I believe that Indigenous people want more than merely learning to use technology. They want to create, tell stories in their own way, for their people. They want to be protagonists and shapers of the discussion, rather than being the objects of discussion,” says Cooke.
“I have tried to align my work with Indigenous issues, co-producing audio-visual materials such as the documentary Etnomídia Indígena Brasileira.”
But what is it that makes Indigenous communications different?
“If recorded, edited and delivered by Indigenous people, if 100 percent by Indigenous, then that is ‘ethno-media,’ ” says Anápuáka Muniz, an Indigenous producer who belongs to the ethnic group Tupinambá and is one of the founders of Yandê radio, the first online indigenous radio in Brazil. Created in 2013, it now has more than 500,000 listeners worldwide.
“Some people might argue, ‘isn’t that racism in communications?’ No. This is appropriation, [being the] protagonist, [having] autonomy. This is presenting your best to others.”
Yandê radio and podcasts include music, stories, news and speeches from native groups around the world, but mostly from Brazil. Its name comes from a Brazilian native Tupí-Guarani word meaning both ‘we’ and ‘ours,’ something that characterizes the Indigenous essence: belonging to a larger entity. This is also seen in the program titled ‘copió parente?’ (“Did you get it, sib?”) which is supported by the Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental. It disseminates the local Indigenous agenda, focusing on issues like the environment and land rights, via such channels as radio, Internet and social media.
For Cooke, “Indigenous people manage to integrate knowledge, culture, spirituality and beauty into audiovisual productions,” while providing a sense of respect and deep meaning through film.
RESISTANCE THROUGH MEDIA
Brazil is home to approximately 900,000 Indigenous people who belong to more than 305 tribes, most living on natural forested reserves. However, more than half of the land areas claimed by Indigenous groups have not yet received legal recognition. And that seems unlikely to change soon.
Not long after his 2018 election, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro vowed: “There won’t be any more demarcations of Indigenous lands.”
Bolsonaro has also announced plans to open Indigenous reservation lands to commercial agriculture and mining – even in the Amazon rainforest. Such plans have been called “anti-Indigenous” and “anti-environmental” and have prompted the birth of the largest unified movement of Indigenous resistance in the country, in which the Indigenous media have a role.
“There is so much happening to Indigenous peoples nowadays in Brazil,” says Cristine Takuá, a Maxacalí Indigenous educator interviewed in Cooke’s documentary.
“Hearing might have an impact, but if you show an image, it’s stronger, and the more people we bring into this, the better. This is our job and our duty,” says Takuá.
“In the current political scenario in Brazil, it is of fundamental importance to build bridges of communication, not only for Indigenous groups, but for any and all forms of representation excluded by a system that tries to isolate the minorities and recriminates the collective,” says Cooke.
“I hope to continue this path by denouncing injustice, strengthening cultures and striving for a less aggressive and more collaborative world.”