Seth Garfield Celebrates the 1994 World Cup with the Xavante Indians

978-0-8223-2665-6_prToday's World Cup guest post is an excerpt from Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil by Seth Garfield. Garfield is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas, Austin. Garfield's latest book is In Search of the Amazon.

On the night of July 17, 1994, I joined hands with Xavante Indians in their village of Parabubure in central Brazil as they celebrated a festive occasion with song and dance. Ringed in a circle, the Indians stomped the earth at the center of the village in graceful rhythm, chanting sonorously in their Gê tongue. As men pounded their feet in one step and women in another, the gendered spheres of Xavante society were ritually enacted. The remoteness of Parabubure from Brazilian settlements shrouded the ceremony in eerie seclusion, the starlit Mato Grosso sky offering the only illumination. Had their forebears been resurrected for an instant and accompanied the performance, they might have thought that little had changed, that the Xavante remained undisputed masters of their territory, faithful preservers of ancestral custom.

But they would have been deceived.Whereas the Xavante once danced on land that extended ‘‘to where the earth touches the sky,’’ they now trod on the confines of a reservation, demarcated by the Brazilian government a decade and a half earlier. Decrepit buildings, the administrative skeletons of a defunct cattle agribusiness, marred the natural tapestry of sprawling shrub, the familiar backdrop for communal ritual. Worn-out clothing draped muscular bodies once bared publicly with neither reproach nor shame. Moreover, the Xavante were not honoring an ancient tradition nor performing a long-standing rite. They were commemorating Brazil’s victory in the World Cup.

Earlier in the day, the Xavante were not celebrating much at all. They were struggling, like other historical actors, to make the most of their circumstances. As their village lacked electricity, the Indians had hoped to view the final soccer match on the public television in the central plaza of
Campinápolis, the nearest town, which was a two-hour drive away. On the dirt road to town, the Indianswould pass a succession of cattle ranches whose fenced-off pasture land once served as hunting ground for wild pig, anteater, deer, and peccary.With shattered pride but determination, the progeny of a onetime warrior nation could take their rightful place in the Campinápolis square, brooking the racism and condescension of ranchers and townspeople.

Cirilo, the Xavante driver, planned to chauffeur many of the eighty or so members of his community in the truck that the Fundação Nacional dol ĺndio (National Indian Foundation, funai) had provided some time ago. He regularly transported fellow villagers to town to buy foodstuffs, clothes, and basic household goods, as well as to receive medical treatment and social security payments. But with each attempt by Cirilo to rev the engine, frustration mounted as the Indians sensed that the trip would
be canceled. 

The Xavante might have radioed funai regional headquarters to send a mechanic. Based on long experience, though, they knew that state assistance would not be forthcoming for days or even weeks. Besides, the radio was broken as well, informed Carlos, a Xavante who headed the funai post in the village and earned his pay as an agency employee. For the final match of the World Cup, a portable radiowould have to suffice, and we all huddled around to await the momentous showdown between Brazil and Italy. The nation’s triumph on the soccer field electrified the indigenous community. During that nighttime revelry, their cynicism (and that of other Brazilians) regarding state capacity and national potential appeared to dissipate.

Less than half a century earlier, the Xavante were as much in the dark as the countryside around them that night regarding soccer, trucks, radios, researchers, reservations, the Indian bureau, and nationalism. In short, they knew little about Brazil, whose victory they now cheered. Nor did they have very much interest, for that matter. Had my grandfather ventured off in his youth to a Xavante village to learn about the interplay between state policy and indigenous political culture, he might have witnessed a more ‘‘traditional’’ lifestyle. He also likely would not have lived to tell the tale.

From the second half of the nineteenth century to the mid–twentieth century, the Xavante defended an enormous stretch of territory in northeastern Mato Grosso against Indian and non-Indian alike. Male warriors bludgeoned interlopers to death, strewing their naked corpses as testaments to Xavante supremacy, xenophobia, and masculine prowess. A history of resistance to Portuguese and Brazilian expansionism and of sociopolitical autonomy fueled Xavante belligerence.

Copyright Duke University Press, 2001.

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