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The name Tupi is the generic designation of several indigenous groups that currently live in Brazil. At the beginning of sixteenth century, the majority of their ancestors inhabited the coastal region, but were practically exterminated there by wars of conquest, epidemics, and enslavement. Some survivors escaped to the interior, avoiding contact with white society until the second half of twentieth century. The Tupi language constitutes a variant of the broader Tupi-Guarani linguistic family, which includes several languages of the linguistic stock also called Tupi, such as Arikém, Tupari, Ramarama, Mondé, Munduruku, and Juruna, among others. In the northeast of the state of Amazonas, the general language known as Nheengatú, is recognized as the “modern Tupi” and spoken by Indians and non-Indians. To date, the historical relations among the different Tupi groups are not well known, but it is reasonable to assume that all of them descend from the ancient populations of the coast that began an early process of political and linguistic segmentation
The Tupi-Guarani population inhabited the coastal lands of Brazil, from north to south. According to ancient descriptions, this was a very homogenous population both culturally and linguistically. Modern ethnohistory and archaeology have divided the Tupinamba located in the north, between Iguapé and Ceará, and the valleys of the rivers there from the Guarani that occupy the southern region in the basins of the Parana, Paraguay and Uruguay rivers. The Tupinambá were located on the coast, along with the Tupiniquim, the Caeté and the Potiguar, among other Tupi groups. Archaeological data suggest that the ancestors of the Tupinambá and the Guarani began to occupy the Brazilian south and southeast many years before the arrival of Portuguese conquerors. From a political point of view, these groups were divided into “nations” or parcialidades that established periodic alliances and wars among them.
Tupi demography was dramatically affected by conquest. In the first two centuries of colonization an enormous population decrease was produced as a consequence of wars, enslavement, epidemics and hunger. The decline is estimated in the many hundreds of thousands of individuals. Indians were captured by the Portuguese and carried as slaves to the sugar-cane plantations or as neophytes to villages (aldeias) under the tutelage of Jesuits and other religious orders. In seventeenth century, the remaining Tupinambá migrated to the interior, escaping of the coastal conquests. It is supposed that diverse Tupi groups later “pacified” in the twentieth century descend from them, such as the Parakanã, from middle Tocantins, the Asurini and Araweté from Low Xingu, the Guajá from Maranhão, the Ava-canoeiro from Goiás, the Surui and the Cinta-Larga from Rondonia, among others.
Traditionally, Tupi economy was based in slash and burn agriculture, fishing and hunting. The Tupinambá settlements had between 4 and 8 large houses (malocas) unevenly dispersed around a central plaza, each one having a population of 500 to 2,000 Indians. The malocas together formed local-level groups that kept variable distances between one another, depending on the ecological and political conditions of each region. Normally, the influence of Tupinambá leadership did not extended beyond the local level. Great shamans, known as karai or karaíba, used to circulate from village to village, prophesying and curing populations. Only during certain occasions, such as wars and anthropophagic rituals, did there emerge greater leaders that were capable of articulating the political and cultural wills of different local groups. Usually after being captured, prisoners were killed and eaten by the members of the group in the public plaza. Both shamans and warriors occupied a central place in these societies marked by the privileged relation they had to deaths, enemies, and non-human beings. Their subjective state was considered ambiguous and ambivalent, and they were supposed to have the power of transforming themselves in other beings.
The earliest information about the Tupi of the coast have inspired a conception of them that oscillated between the image of a cannibal immersed in a permanent state of war and a good savage living in a natural state of freedom. Before modern ethnological research in Brazil, the greater part of the information about Tupi customs was known through the chroniclers of the sixteenth century, such as André Thevet, Jean de Léry, Claude d´Abbeville, Hans Staden, Gabriel Soares de Sousa, José de Anchieta, and Pedro de Magalhães Gandavo, among others. In the twentieth century, ethnographers such as Alfred Métraux, Florestan Fernandes and Hélène Clastres provided a new more integrated vision based on ancient sources.
The history of Tupi peoples is inextricably linked to the expansion of colonization in Brazil. Many economic motivations have operated from colonial times to the present, resulting in the invasion of indigenous lands for the purpose of exploring natural resources. In the earliest period, the Portuguese made war against the Indians of the coast and captured men to work as slaves in the sugar cane plantations. The troops of São Paulo, known as bandeiras, conducted expeditions to the southern region destroying the Guarani missions of Paraguay. Later, the bandeirantes reoriented to Mato Grosso, Goiás and Minas Gerais, where gold was found. Other expeditions attempted to control the center up to the region of Salvador da Bahia, and the Northeast (interior of Pernambuco, Paraíaba, Rio grande do Norte and Ceará). Finally, many attempts to colonize the Amazonian region were made from Maranhão and Pará. After expelling the French and the Dutch, the Portuguese advanced along the Amazon river and continued their slave-hunting campaigns. The Amazonian region was divided up among the religious orders that defended a policy of detribalization by confining the Indians of many different origins in isolated villages (aldeias). To facilitate evangelization, the missionaries adopted the Tupi language in their catechisms. Thus, a modified and standardized version of the Tupi became the “general language” used by both Indians and settlers. Successive epidemics rapidly devastated these populations and many Indians decided to follow their shamans in messianic movements to a “land-without-evil”. Those movements developed curious mixtures of Christian and Tupi beliefs as they fled inland to sites known as santidades.
The expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759 coincided with new policies of Marquoais of Pombal, designed to stimulate population growth. Pombal promoted race mixture and assimilation of the indigenous population into the colonial system. In the last hundred years of colonial period most of the remaining Indians continued to be expelled from their lands. They were decimated by enslavement, wars, or as a consequence of infectious diseases. The rise of Brazilian empire in 1822 did not mark a substantial shift in the previous policies. In the decade of 1840, civic and religious instruction of the Indians was promoted by state. Each province of the empire installed a “general director of Indians”, and “settlements directors” to control Indian population. This task was reinforced by the division of public and private lands ordered by Brazilian government by 1850.
In the republican period began a new debate about the best strategies to absorb the Indians that had not already been absorbed into the nation. While some experts proposed to lead them to civil life by force and to delegate their care to religious institutions, others defended having pacific treatment with them and giving them state assistance. In 1910, the Service for the Protection of the Indians (SPI) was created. Mariscal Rondon, who followed the second orientation, was elected director. Said institution was replaced in 1967 by the National Foundation of the Indian (FUNAI), culminating a process of centralization and federalization of indigenous affairs in Brazil.
Even though the historical processes that came after independence stopped the state struggle against the Indians, that struggle continued in the hands of individuals who challenged government laws. The economy of the country did not stop its growth, specially in zones such as Amazonia, where in different periods of extractive activity was intensified, together with the creation of cattle ranches and the realization of large projects of engineering such as highways and hydroelectric damns. All these activities implied a violent struggle against the Indians that continues to date.
The ideology of Brazilian intellectual elites tended to exoticize indigenous peoples as subjects living in the frontiers of civilization assuming that they would disappear with the growth of national society. In this ideology, the Tupi Indians have been viewed alternatively as symbols of ethnic purity or examples of deculturation.
The indigenous policy of the Brazilian state has experimented with reform in twentieth century, specially after the sanction of constitutional reforms of 1988, which recognized the preexistence of indigenous peoples and give them rights to land titles. This legal shift has given impetus to the revitalization of ethnic identity among indigenous groups that had previously abandoned their ancient denominations.
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