Garfield, Seth. Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy,
Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1937-1988. Durham: Duke University
for Red River Valley Historical Journal
This book gives a sensitive, critical examination of the role of the Xavante Indians in the process of state formation in Brazil from the Estado Novo through the 1988 constitution. Rather than looking at these issues only from the perspective of the Brazilian government which was dedicated to westward expansion or from the view of the Xavante Indians who faced the brunt of these development policies, Garfield presents a penetrating examination of the interactions between these two groups, with the Xavante emerging as a highly politicized ethnic group skillfully negotiating the intricacies of state power (214).
Garfield rejects romantic notions of the Xavante as peaceful natives, noble savages, inherent environmentalists, or solely victims. Instead of embracing such essentialist notions, Garfield realistically describes a “traditional” lifestyle with violent attacks on outsiders as expressions of “Xavante supremacy, xenophobia, and masculine prowess” (2). Ethnicity and “Indian” identities are historically constructed and fluid concepts that different people employ at different times for different purposes (178). Garfield similarly presents an even-handed analysis of the Brazilian Indian agency Serviço de Proteção aos Índios, SPI (replaced in 1967 with the Fundação Nacional do Índio, FUNAI). Although critiquing abuses, racism, and corruption within these agencies, he rejects as baseless charges of a systematic government policy of genocide designed to eliminate Brazil’s Indigenous peoples (143).
Instead, Garfield examines how in the negotiation of state power the Xavante inverted the government’s “March to the West” which was designed to develop the country’s interior into a “March to the East” in which the Xavante brought their struggle to Brasília to engage in political actions to defend their land and rights (161). In this process, both the government’s notions of nation-state formation as well as the Xavante’s political economy and ethnic identities were irrevocably changed. Garfield sees this as a process through which interactions between different groups are continually renegotiated through struggles over state formation.
Methodologically, this is a sophisticated book which will be of interest to anyone interested in issues of Indigenous politics or state formation. Although there has been an increasing amount of crosstalk between history and anthropology which has enriched both disciplines’ abilities to understand the development of ethnic identities within their proper context, historical inquiries into Indigenous issues in Latin America remain largely limited to ethnohistorical discussions of the colonial period. While anthropologists have published a flood of ethnographies on the twentieth century, historians rarely address the historical evolution of Indigenous ethnicities during the last hundred years. Instead, historians tend to treat Indians during this period as peasants, mestizos, leftist guerrillas, poor urban migrants, or in other categories which tend to diminish the importance of ethnicity to their actions.
It is refreshing and important to see a historian such as Garfield so ably and confidently incorporate ethnicity into a discussion of broader twentieth-century historical developments. The result is an ethnographically rich, historically grounded, and well-written book which significantly advances our understanding both of ethnicity and state formation in the Americas during the twentieth century.