Inter-cultural Education of the Indigenous People in Brazil

Rita Gomes, in her talk about the education of indigenous people, spoke of their long and arduous journey to first prove themselves as indigenous people of Brazil, and then demand their rights.

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Speaker: Rita Gomes do Nascimento
Date: March 1, 2019 (Friday)

The University-Practice Connect Initiative of the Azim Premji University has been engaging with practitioners, organizations, government officials and academics working in the area of tribal education. Taking this association further to collectively arrive at a better understanding of a variety of issues, a knowledge-sharing workshop on Elementary Education of Adivasi Children in India’ was organised at the University on March 1 – 2, 2019. This report documents one of the sessions.

You can read more about the Workshop on Adivasi Education here.

When Indigenous People take charge of the system, they can bring about the desired social change.

According to the Brazilian state, there are around 305 tribes with a population of approximately 90,000 Indigenous People (IP). However, even these 305 ethnic groups are largely ignored by the state. This data only includes the ones recognised as indigenous people, and this recognition itself has come through after a long struggle by these communities against denial of their existence, identity and rights.

Rita Gomes Do Nascimento in her talk about the education of indigenous people mentioned that during the colonial period, the emperor had declared there were no more indigenous people left in Brazil. So, when the indigenous people first demanded their land, school and health facilities, then, the question emerged how they can demand something when they are not even recognized. Thus, the community had a long and arduous journey to first prove themselves as indigenous people of Brazil, and then demand their rights. They knew that without being recognized as indigenous people, who were colonized and enslaved by Europeans, they will lose their identity, culture and all other rights. To do so, they utilised and took ownership of institutions set up by the white colonizers, like schools and universities, to make sure that the education of the next generation does not get indoctrinated into an enslaved consciousness.

Indigenous movement in Brazil

This struggle led to the birth of the indigenous movement in Brazil. The movement challenged the denial of indigenous identity and their languages. The first part of this movement was more in line with the colonial project of evangelizing the community, assimilating them into the mainstream, making them citizens of the nation while also making use of their labour for national purposes. To do so, the western education system was recognized as an important tool to engage with the colonizers. Due to this movement, a national policy for indigenous school by the Brazilian State came into being, one of the intricate parts of which was a teacher training program and intercultural certificate to teachers.

The Brazil School Education System was introduced by the coloniser as an institution to carry forward their modernization project. This orientalist perspective where the indigenous were seen as backward and had to be modernized through education was seen as an important approach. Western education was given to’ the indigenous people from a charity and civilizing perspective. This notion carries on even today after the colonisers have left Brazil. Someone from outside is providing education – first, it was the missionaries, and then the Service for the Protection of IP. In modern times, it has become the National Service for IP. The popular view of the coloniser and even Brazilian state that there was a need to tutor indigenous people so that they can be enabled to be part of the national citizenry. With this hierarchy in practice, it was the institutions that spoke and represented indigenous people on their behalf. They could not self-represent and therefore, needed to be represented by others. The colonial period of Brazil has seen the decline of this indigenous community, languages from more than 1000 to 277 today, according to the Statistics of the Brazilian State.

The indigenous people realised there was a need to stop this nationalistic project of homogenisation. This led to the birth of the second wave of the movement, which brought in the new proposal that the indigenous people need both modern education as well as their own indigenous education. Not something which is given to them as charity but something which is built by them. Through this second wave, the indigenous people looked for becoming autonomous and assertive about what they want from the State and what they want to continue from their own traditions.

Taking ownership of schools

To achieve this autonomy over their lives, the indigenous people decided to take over the school and other institutions as part of an overall strategy. They decided to take ownership and control of the school and to use education to serve their society. But they also recognised that the school is external to them, something which came from the West. The whole western education system was to liberalize and rationalise human beings. This modern liberal paradigm often went against their indigenous principles of living in relationship with nature and other communities. Thus, the idea of Indigenous School Education (ISE) emerged.

Indigenous education was conceptualized as something that belongs to every indigenous person, and it does not require interference from the state. The ISE also brought in the knowledge of the other’. Especially, the other that is not indigenous and what is identified as white’. The relationship between the indigenous people and the whites had to do with unequal political and economic power, as well as a supremacist tendency that deceived the whites into believing that they have a higher culture and the indigenous people were backward.

Till the 1990s, education was the responsibility of the Service of Protection of Indigenous People. There were very few indigenous school and teachers. However, from the 1990s, the indigenous people decided to become teachers and managers of the indigenous schools. The existing schooling system was not indigenous’ according to the indigenous movement. In the process of ownership and control, they understood that a teacher has to come from the indigenous community. The School is, traditionally, not their institution but it has the power to strengthen their identity and rights; it is a foundation in the strengthening of the indigenous identity. The indigenous used school as a tool to recognise themselves, to identify themselves as indigenous and even as a tool to demand their right which the state was not acknowledging. So that there can be no more denial of indigenous rights and no more erosion of the indigenous languages.

Schools for reclaiming land

One of the indigenous communities staying in Brasilia began to occupy land as a pedagogical tool. Repossessing land for the community was one of the primary ways through which they asserted themselves as indigenous and established a link with their ancestral memory of the territory. They first demanded their rights to the land through the law and petitions to the state to recognize it as the land of the indigenous community. But when the State did not respond, they reclaimed the land by building schools on them. They sent their children and teacher to the reclaimed land and started a school. This strategy worked as the State is generally afraid to do anything against children. Thus, the indigenous people used the idea of the school and re-signified its meaning to not only make a claim to the value of indigenous knowledge but also its use to reclaim the rights to their own land, languages and identity.

Birth of inter-cultural education

In the process of taking over the school, the indigenous movement decided that they would like to take charge of all the education system for the indigenous people. However, the problem was that they did not have the teaching diploma which was required by the State. This led to the idea of beginning a teacher training program in 2001, which was equipped to train the indigenous people both in indigenous knowledge as well as the white’ knowledge. Based on the success of this model, the Ministry of Education in Brazil decided to support this program and funded the universities to start inter-cultural teacher education programs.

The inter-cultural teacher education program trained the teacher for elementary school teaching. Candidates enrolled in the program had to undergo training at the university first and then go back to their communities to get teaching experience. So, they had to manage attending the university and teaching in the school at the same time. Therefore, the timing of the university sessions was set according to school timing and it was organized during the summer break time. The curriculum of the program was designed for five years. The first two years are basic training, from the third year, specialization begins, which is in accordance with what either the community chooses or needs. In this program, there was great participation from the community to support inter-cultural education and teachers.

However, there are also pressing challenges in the inter-cultural model, primarily, of having the classroom as a multilingual space. In the case of a single community, the teacher can manage with two languages but more than one created complexities of using multiple languages for instruction. With many different languages, it also becomes difficult for the various indigenous communities to organize and execute this educational model.

Inter-cultural model for identity and citizenship

Based on the experiments of inter-cultural education, the indigenous people have thought of a similar approach to the idea of citizenship as well as their shifting identities. The indigenous people have claimed that Brazilian is not the only citizenship they want to have and instead have floated the idea of dual citizenship, that is, an indigenous citizenship in addition to the Brazilian one. This would also allow the indigenous people to challenge the model where the Brazilian State decides whether somebody is indigenous or not, rather than the community making that decision. By keeping the two citizenships distinct, the indigenous people want to argue that only Brazilian citizenship can be decided by the State and it has no say in the regulation of indigenous citizenship, which will be regulated by the community itself.

Similarly, their own identities are not static and with the inter-cultural education model, the indigenous people are also moving towards a hybrid identity where they can inhabit both their indigenous identity as well as modern liberal identity.

The speaker, Rita Gomes do Nascimento, is herself from an indigenous community and has held important positions in the Brazilian Ministry of Education while also traveling to various parts of the world and speaking about the struggles and initiatives of the indigenous people of Brazil. In the context of contemporary times where no identity is clearly isolated from the other, inter-cultural education does come across as an important idea for engaging with diversity and inclusion. However, the problem arises when there are many kinds of cultures intersecting each other and it becomes extremely hard to incorporate all the cultures and languages in the education system. What happens in such a case? Does the dominant within the marginalized take up a hegemonic position? Or are there ways in which we can truly keep the system inclusive and make sure that it does not fall into the binary of indigenous versus white.

Report By:

Asim Siddiqui, faculty member, Azim Premji University
Pragati Tiwari, student, MA II, Development Studies