Brazil's National Indian Policy


Imagine for a moment that, hovering just off of planet earth, there is a fleet of alien spacecraft. The ships are stocked with all of the fantasies of science fiction: cures for every disease encountered on earth, nano-robots that can maintain our bodies and allow individuals to live for millennia, production technology that makes toil a thing of the past, and replication machines that turn refuse into food. Yet, for now, the aliens do not allow humans to know of their presence – and thus, we remain in (what would be to them) extreme poverty.

Something like this was proposed in the science fiction film Star Trek VIII: First Contact. Aliens close to Earth withhold contact because, in the Star Trek universe, the federation of advanced races function under the principle of "non-interference." Space travel at faster-than-light speeds is considered a major evolutionary breakthrough – something very few species achieve. To ensure that only civilizations worthy of intergalactic secrets are given the federation’s technology, they wait until after a race accomplishes this feat before making first contact. Thus goes the fantasy world of Star Trek, where alien government is given a God’s-eye view of evolution and acts with a purpose far greater than anything an inferior race could comprehend.

Let’s return to the spaceships sitting a few thousand miles from Earth’s surface, and suppose that they have no such epic mission, and that they do not abide by the principle of "non-interference." Instead, it is merely their preference to sit in the security of their ships while observing and documenting our struggles. Their rationale? To "protect" us from technology that might ruin our antiquated way of life. Out of scientific curiosity – and perhaps with some nostalgia for the "old way" of rampant famine, pestilence, and war – they allow us to continue life as we know it on this world while they enjoy the greatest of comforts technology affords.

Could anyone conclude that such a race has truly acted in humanity’s best interests? Of course, it would be within the aliens’ rights to do what they wished with their property, but could anyone accept the arrogant claim that they knew what was best for humans and acted only for our betterment?

One doesn’t need to imagine stingy aliens in order to observe this kind of hubris. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation recently released photographs (taken by a fly-over plane) of uncontacted, isolated Indian tribes. The man who released the photos initially claimed that it was a previously undiscovered, or "lost," tribe. He later admitted that he had lied about the "undiscovered" part, using the photos as a publicity stunt.

The dishonest campaign raises interesting questions about how the Brazilian government is handling its Indian population. Although anthropologists have known about these tribes for decades – and in this case since 1910 – the Brazilian government has actively worked to isolate the Indians from the outside world rather than make contact or allow others to do so. For what purpose and by what authority they do this is a concern that few question, but that everyone should.

Perhaps the Brazilian government believes that, like the federation in Star Trek, theirs is the power over determining when and where people may be exposed to the benefits of modern tools, medicine, or technology. It’s too late to stop ordinary people from having access to these things, but these Indians are in the unique position of not knowing what is just beyond their borders. Thus the National Indian Foundation, seeing the natives more as subjects in a sociological experiment than as people, may posture themselves as benevolent protectors of a way of life – surrogate tribe leaders, as is it were.

We must remember that, to millions of people in the developed world, including many anthropologists, Indians living deep in the Amazonian rain forest are seen as living the high life. They are emblematic of better times: heroic torch-bearers of a lifestyle and tradition long-lost in the white, Western world. And, like any relic of the past, their primitive culture has an intrinsic value that is worth preserving and protecting, especially from the overwhelmingly commercial (that is, capitalist) impulses of Western society. It is only an arrogant, uninformed Westerner who would seek to trade or donate clothes, medicines, or metal tools to these people. (Much different than Africa, of course, where no amount of government tax revenue and no degree of intervention is too great to send as aid.)

So many have this remarkably romantic picture of the Indians’ lives, and the very thought of initiating contact makes their blood boil. We need hardly address this sentiment as though it constitutes an argument, however. Implicit in the romanticizing is the notion that the Indians themselves would share this view if they were given the choice. Should we conclude that it is only a coincidence that every society on the face of the planet with the freedom to improve their material well-being has chosen to do so?

Yet these apologists for the primitive life are so confident in their judgment that the thought of forcefully isolating thousands of people under such conditions seems perfectly rational and fine. One must wonder just why those who find the simple life so captivating nevertheless pursue decidedly modern lives, while insisting that the Indians remain in their native condition.

Nostalgia aside, those who defend the Brazilian government’s actions typically present two further arguments against allowing contact and exchange. The first objection raised is the vile history of Western-Indian interaction in the last six centuries, and the inference that further contact will only produce the same. Second, they point to the Indians’ own behavior as evidence that they wouldn’t want outside contact, even if it were allowed.

The first objection bears with it a great deal of emotion and shame. The history of Indian-European interaction is undeniably wretched, and no spin on history can exonerate the grave injustices committed in the name of God, government, and ideals. Exploitation is a serious problem that has characterized contact with Native Americans since Columbus first landed in the West Indies.

Yet one fact we must never forget is that historical problems are descriptive, not prescriptive. One of the chief aims in studying history is to learn from past mistakes by changing future behavior. There is no denying that many horrific things were done to unsuspecting and innocent peoples. But any freedom-loving person should deny the implicit claim that any further contact must also be that way. Interaction can and should be different. It is entirely possible to make contact, trade, and engage in cultural exchange without coercion and exploitation.

It must also be noted here that most of the horrific Western-Indian interaction in history has been at the hands of governments and their armies. For example, the United States government is most responsible for the ill-treatment of natives on the North American continent, with the U.S. Army having annihilated most of every tribe west of the Mississippi river.1 The worst of the conquistadors who brutalized Central America were likewise sent on behalf of their monarchs with a license to kill and plunder. Spain and Portugal divided South America on a map – as if they had a right to do so! – and then sent their armies to subdue their respective pieces of the continent.

Those with an historical perspective ought to be most skeptical when a State volunteers to guide Western-Indian interaction, not when missionaries or traders look to make contact. No government apologist should get a free pass here: for what reason can the State be trusted, especially if we are so adamant that history be our guide? For what reason should we assume that Brazil truly has the Indians’ interest at heart? Withholding all contact, including technology sure to improve the quality of life, hardly seems like the only obvious answer.

The second objection that isolation-defenders raise is to point out that the Indian tribes themselves are quite hostile to outsiders, including many instances where unwelcome trespassers have been killed. The argument is that the Indians have acted on their own and have made their wishes clear: Stay away!

On the surface, this argument appears to make use of principles acceptable to libertarians. It is no business of mine whether an Indian living deep in Brazil’s rain forests wishes to have nothing to do with me or my luxuries and technology. If they wish to be left alone, it is their right to be left alone.

However, it is always grave mistake to equate public policy with choices made by real human beings. Policies outlive people and their preferences. The government has no legitimate gauge that can responsibly determine the Indians’ preferences, and it does not actively seek their input. Whatever data that first caused them to insulate the tribe now speaks for them, regardless of how the people themselves might otherwise respond.

Perhaps those Indians photographed living deep in the rain forest would prefer to remain isolated and alone if they knew what the outside world contained. But perhaps not. It is possible that, after overcoming initial suspicion, the natives would welcome medicines that could cure simple (but deadly) diseases. Mothers might appreciate the dramatic drop in infant mortality rates, as they find themselves with healthier and stronger babies. Those producing tools might find some benefit in having metal machetes or farming equipment. Life expectancies could easily increase by years. More children will know their fathers and even grandfathers, times of hunger become largely a thing of the past, and disease could be nearly eradicated.

As it stands we simply do not know what the people themselves prefer, but it is perfectly reasonable to think that they might welcome and embrace modern technology and the relief and luxury it can bring.

My point is not that anyone must accept technological change, but only that no one should be deprived of their freedom to pursue it. Those opposing free markets have long complained that an evil rich man might buy all of the land around your house and prevent you from going anywhere or seeing anyone, but this is precisely what the Brazilian government has done to the Indians. Brazil’s illegitimate land-grab has created the illusion that they are justified in telling everyone to stay away. All the more heroic, then, will be those anthropologists, missionaries, or entrepreneurs who disobey the State’s decrees and seek peaceful contact and exchange with the natives.

Those who are in love with the primitive lifestyle need to realize how violent their own fetishes are when applied to other people without their consent. Basic human freedom and dignity dictates that we have the right to free association, with all of its risks included. Anyone who desires to live the primitive life has only to go live it. And if the Indian tribes are as anxious to stay pre-industrialized as their surrogate tribe leaders say they are, they have only to remain that way. But it is only when we allow men their freedom and dignity that they can make such a choice.

  1. For a well-written, if somewhat romantic, history of the West, see Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Take special notice of the U.S. Army’s involvement in “keeping the peace.”

July 10, 2008