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date: 20 May 2018

Indigenous School Education in Brazil

Summary and Keywords

Self-determination of the original peoples of any nation, preservation of their territories, preservation of traditions, and negotiation of customs facing national cultures are central themes in the debate about and among indigenous peoples in the world. School education is directly linked to such themes as an instrument of acculturation or self-determination and emancipation. As in other countries of the globe, throughout history, what happened and is happening in Brazil is not isolated fact. Current conditions are the product of colonization processes, the development of industrial society, and more recently of globalization. Such historical processes bring struggles, confrontations, transformations, and solidarity. In the legal sphere, international conventions, declarations, and treaties have influenced more or less directly the norms and laws on the subject: from the papal bull and treaties between colonizing kingdoms, to the Declaration of Human Rights, to Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, the Brazilian indigenous issue, like that of many other countries, is also based on, supported by, or held back by actions, debates, and international interests.

But what makes the case of Brazil worthy of relevance for thinking about indigenous education? Two elements make up an answer: the specific way the governors establish relations with the original peoples, and the fact that Brazil has the greatest diversity of indigenous communities.

Keywords: Brazilian indigenous education, indigenous populations, school education, self-determination, indigenous rights, human rights, native education, affirmative action, indigenous knowledge

Indigenous Education and Indigenous School Education in Brazil: Differentiating Concepts

Education and school education are terms often used as synonyms, as a result of the degree of identification of national societies with the school institution as a place of citizen training. However, because of the existence and presence of traditional peoples in different countries, composing pluricultural nations, it is necessary to differentiate the two concepts. Here we chose to use the differentiation made by Meliá (1999) regarding education and school education; this author defines education as a process of primary socialization in culture, and school education as the transmission of information and knowledge of the surrounding society in the school space. The choice is made considering that the concepts of formal education and non-formal and informal learning, as generally found in documents of international organizations (Plavšić & Diković, 2016), diminish the role that the culture of origin exerts on the indigenous subject by considering it “informal.”

According to Meliá (1999), indigenous peoples maintain their identity through their own strategies of “socio-cultural experience, with pedagogical action being one of them” (p. 11). He adds: “The education developed by indigenous peoples allows them to continue to be themselves and to maintain the transmission of their cultures for generations” (Meliá, 1999, p. 11). Language, economics, and kinship are, according to this author, the circles that make up the culture. The education of a particular people is shaped by the way in which this system of relations is lived through the traditional pedagogical action of its transmission, especially to the younger ones. For indigenous people there are critical moments in the life cycle in which the education of the member of the community occurs through pedagogical actions in which almost all the community participates. The development of indigenous otherness in the service of the community is a common ground among the different indigenous ethnicities, but the way this is accomplished varies with each culture.

Indigenous peoples carry out educational practices in spaces and times in which the person, the family, the community, and all the people participate, because education is perceived as a collective responsibility. Focusing on the Kambeba people, residing in the state of Amazonas, Bonin (1999) indicates that, for indigenous people, education is procedural, that is, it happens throughout life, and therefore it presupposes that the individual is always learning. It is a living and exemplary education: it is developed by participation in life, and is given by the observation of the elders in their daily life and in the very act of carrying out the action, of doing together. This is how, over time, the new generations take on all the responsibilities of an adult. It is the adults’ task to stimulate the young, to teach them by example, to advise them, to value the actions expected, and to reprimand, without abuses, the rejected actions. Thus, for the Kambeba, example and oral transmission are articulated in the process of educating. The example offered by the social behavior of the elders and by the interactions they establish with the other members of the group precedes the word. In order not to generalize, it is necessary to point out that the relation to example and word assume, from one people to another, dimensions and subtleties that must be considered. Testa (2008), for example, when describing the relationship of the Guarani Mbya, a people located in the south and southeast of Brazil, with the word points out its communicative function, but it is also constitutive of the person’s spirit; thus, in the processes of transmission and learning of knowledge the word is a part of the person that projects over the other person.

Among the common points and specificities, the indigenous peoples of the American continent have surpassed, as Meliá (1999) states, “the proof of the colonial period, but also the struggles of assimilation and integration of more recent times” (p. 12).

In Brazil, the maintenance of fundamental traditions took place through indigenous education, at the same time that changes in customs were being made as a result of contact with other indigenous groups and with the national society. Throughout history, processes of negotiation, confrontation, conflict, and resistance have been taking place. In these processes, school education has for a long time antagonized indigenous education until the right to a differentiated indigenous school education has become more possible. The school for natives (Barão, 2008), initially something imposed and annihilating, has taken on its own characteristics that make it today, for the most part, an ally in the struggle of indigenous peoples for desired rights.1 The desired indigenous school education has become communitarian, intercultural, bilingual or multilingual, specific, and differentiated (Quaresma & Ferreira, 2013). From the project of a monolingual Brazil (Preuss & Álvares, 2014) to the recent conquest of the right to bilingual or multilingual education, the right to one’s own language is acknowledged as a political action; language is an important vehicle for the transmission and maintenance of culture (Hentz, 2013).

Thus, the advances are noticeable when analyzing three decades of Brazilian history, regarding the self-determination of the indigenous peoples with regard to indigenous school education—financed by the state, but carried out in the schools of the villages, in their own language in the case of peoples whose language has not been swallowed up by the process of assimilation. As for the curriculum, by law, specific contents are provided that are linked to each culture; they may be totally different from the curriculum of non-indigenous schools. However, there are also indigenous schools that work with the regular curriculum, but with low quality. There are contradictions and challenges to be overcome here: if in the historical process of assimilation of indigenous communities to the dominant Brazilian national culture, segregation was established in the low-quality curricula that generally aimed at teaching manual crafts, currently the right to specific curricula, not coincidental with that of non-indigenous schools, can keep indigenous children and young people on the fringes of the surrounding society. Assimilation versus segregation is a permanent concern in the current Brazilian debate. What seems to gain a greater consensus among indigenous traditional leaderships and young indigenous leaders is that the mastering of tools such as reading and writing in Portuguese and of other non-indigenous knowledge becomes an instrument for the recovery of one’s cultures and languages, as well as defense of the rights of the groups.

Brazilian Indigenous Populations: A Brief Overview

Considering the latest census data of the Brazilian population (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística [IBGE], 2010), it can be estimated that, in Brazil, today there are approximately 820,000 indigenous inhabitants, belonging to 305 native peoples, who speak 274 languages (Fundação Nacional do Índio, 2016). They are located in lands demarcated and recognized by the state, in ancestral lands in dispute with squatters and farmers, and in cities (see Figure 1).

Indigenous School Education in BrazilClick to view larger

Figure 1. Map with the distribution of indigenous peoples in Brazilian territory—year 2010.

Source: IBGE (2017). Available online Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística.

They are surviving peoples who have fought and resisted the massacres and assimilationist civilizational policies enforced on them since the 16th century, when the Portuguese and Spanish first disputed land and foreign exchange in the Americas—it is estimated that in the 1500s, when the Portuguese anchored in the Brazilian coast, there were between 2,000,000 and 500,000 indigenous living in the territory that afterward was called Brazil (Azevedo, 2002).

Throughout the centuries, after the invasion of their lands, the Brazilian native peoples were confronted with the colonizing process and with the development project of the nation-state, followed by the developmentalist project for the implantation of the industrial society (Ianni, 2004a). More recently, the process of globalization of the economy has also affected them drastically, because agribusiness affirms the invasions and disputes of their lands (Capiberibe & Bonilla, 2015). In the history of contact and confrontation, they were repeatedly denied their right to be, transforming their existence and presence into a “problem” to be solved by the rulers of the national territory. It was assumed that they would be extinguished from Brazilian territory, but what is currently noticed is a rising birth rate, as well as self-declaration as indigenous (see Figure 2).

Indigenous School Education in BrazilClick to view larger

Figure 2. Demographic data of the indigenous population in Brazil over the centuries.

Source: National Indian Foundation (FUNAI).

Two movements mark the history of the relationship with indigenous peoples in Brazil: to segregate them or to assimilate them to national society. In this history, land distribution and ownership was, and is, a key point in the indigenous issue, because

The way in which they (the indigenous) take possession of nature—the land, the forest, the fruit, the river, the fish, the animal, the bird—concerns how they produce and reproduce their life, their sociability, their material and spiritual culture. Therefore, the action of the Brazilian society against the indigenous begins and ends with the expropriation of their land. [. . .] Transforming tribal property into occupied property, grilada, latifundio, farm, company, is always the first and last step to transform the “indigenous” into “national.”

(Ianni, 2004b, p. 207)

There has been a historical oscillation in Brazil expropriation and recognition of the right of indigenous peoples to land. The settlement process was the main mechanism used to remove them from their land and, at the same time, to remove them from the so-called “national,” in a protectionist or civilizing perspective. In the colony, in the empire, and until recently in the republic, the villages were delimited lands and ruled by the competent governmental authorities, linking them to practices of isolation for protection of the indigenous populations, but also their catechization or evangelization, civilization, and formation of labor to be integrated into the national culture. But, in contrast, in the colony, in the empire, and in the republic, laws more or less intensely recognized the right of indigenous peoples to the property—although limited—of the occupied lands (Cavalcante, 2010).

The National Constitution of 1988 (Brasil, 1988) represented an important legal framework in Brazil, initiating the “time of rights,” as indicated by the indigenous leadership (Bergamaschi & Sousa, 2015). Albuquerque (2013) expresses optimism after the so-called Citizen Constitution (1988 federal constitution) regarding indigenous peoples, mainly because “the Brazilian legal system after 1988 contemplated the right to be indigenous and to continue being indigenous, and not restricting the right to be indigenous to a transitional situation aimed at integration into national society ” (p. 21).

Although advanced and breaking with the idea of guardianship and incapacity present in previous constitutions, the federal constitution of 1988 has not yet been able to guarantee the demarcation of all indigenous lands and the differentiated health and education services that are included in the constitution. The struggle for the demarcation and against invasions of their lands is part of the daily life of Brazilian indigenous peoples, encompassing, since the late 1990s, murder of their leadership and suicide among their youth. The growing violence against indigenous peoples in the invasion of their lands has been made possible by the legislative sphere: the presence of a strong cadre of rural representatives and senators, a self-styled “front in favor of agribusiness,” has been acting aggressively through the formulation of draft constitutional amendments to weaken the land tenure rights won by the indigenous peoples in the 1988 constitution (Capiberibe & Bonilla, 2015).

In the debates and clashes between indigenous peoples and the state, recourse to international treaties has been an important resource used by indigenous people and their allies. With regard to the demarcation of indigenous lands, especially Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) (Organização Internacional do Trabalho & Escritório no Brasil, 2011) has served to instruct legal processes in the country, as was the case with the demarcation of the lands of the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve (Courtis, 2009).

As Capiberibe and Bonilla (2015) point out, the current debate is a reprint of history that has been lived for centuries by indigenous peoples in the Americas, since Europeans invaded their lands. But something important has changed in the course of history, adding to the modes of struggle and resistance a new element:

What is different today is the assertive way in which the indigenous have placed themselves on the national and international political scene, presenting themselves as spokespersons for their causes and acting in an institutionalized way through their associations, occupation of political posts in government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, using a cosmopolitan speech based on the oratory of some men and women whose wisdom has the effective ability to overflow the frontiers of their societies of origin, such as the Yanomami Davi Kopenawa, Kayapó Raoni Metuktire and the Guajajara Sônia Bone Guajajara.

(Capiberibe & Bonilla, 2015, p. 293)

Advances in indigenous school education have also been made possible by the participation of indigenous peoples, with indigenous teachers as important actors (Silva, 1999).

From School for Indians to Indigenous Peoples School Education

The school, an institution of European origin, was transferred to Brazil in the colonial period, to support the creation of a national elite, on the one hand and, on the other hand, to recruit servants and faithful in the New World. From 1549 to 1759, the Jesuits were responsible for such a project, terminating with their expulsion from the colony by the marquis of Pombal. As Romanelli (1978) points out,

Catechesis ensured the conversion of the indigenous population and was carried out through the creation of elementary schools for the “curumins” and missionary nuclei within indigenous nations. The education given to the curumins extended to the sons of the settlers, which guaranteed their evangelization. (p. 35)

The civilizational model used by the Jesuits for the natives was based first on itinerant missionary preaching and then replaced by organized settlements throughout the Brazilian coast. “To aldear” consisted of gathering and segregating the indigenous in one place, to make their evangelization and civilization more effective (according to Moreira, two letters written by Father Manuel da Nobrega justified the model to be implanted: “Dialogue on the Conversion of the Gentile” [1556], and “Civilizing Plan” [1558]) (Moreira, 2010). Thus, to educate meant, at that moment, to evangelize and make the “savages” civilized people, but in a process that kept them segregated.

Later, in the Alvará of April 1, 1680, the king of Portugal established rules that regulated the distribution of land by the Crown, without affecting the right to possession by the indigenous. At the same time, the gentiles could still be enslaved or taken as labor by whites (Perrone-Moisés, 2000). Disinvestment in school education at this stage was consistent with the objectives the policy of enslavement made possible.

A century later, the Pombaline Law, of 1755, introduced norms that altered the aims of the relationship between colonizers and natives, focusing, in addition to evangelization, on assimilation to national society. The abandonment of the civilizational model developed by the Jesuits, operated by the marquis of Pombal, criticized the policy of segregation of the indigenous people in villages and proposed the implantation of towns and villages. The marquis of Pombal’s project favored mixed marriages between indigenous and Portuguese people (miscegenation) and establishing the political and legal solution of the indigenous people and their descendants in a manner similar to the king’s other vassals, proceeding, therefore, to their “nationalization” (Moreira, 2010). At this point, there is no need for an education specifically designed for indigenous people, given that the idea was to assimilate them fully into Brazilian life.

In 1822, with the proclamation of the independence of Brazil, the liberal forces that operated at that moment in the country realized the necessity of an indigenous policy for the emerging empire. In the Constituent Assembly of 1823, José Bonifácio de Andrade e Silva presented a project defending the right of the indigenous people to their remaining lands, recognizing them as the lands’ true owners. Although Jose Bonifacio saw the natives as indolent, he believed that it was possible to educate them to take on European standards and had a preference for the “gentle manners” of civilization. However, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved, and the Constitution was enacted the following year without any reference to the indigenous issue, including school education for indigenous people (Moreira, 2010).

With the influence of liberal European thought, Brazil at the end of the 19th century was marked by the end of the enslavement of African blacks and their adult descendants (1888). The Free Venter Law of 1871 and the Sexagenarians Law of 1885, prior to the Golden Law (Oliveira, 2015), determined, respectively, the freedom of every born black child and that of slaves who were sixty years old. The proclamation of the republic (1889) was followed by a military coup. As for the relationship between the state and the indigenous peoples, it did not change considerably at that moment, although its will had been sketched out. Lopes and Mattos (2006) point out that in 1890 a draft constitution was created and published under the influence of Augusto Comte’s Positive School, whose Article 1 guaranteed protection to indigenous societies and defended the non-violation of their lands, but this bill was not approved, and on February 24, 1891, the first Constitution of the Republic was promulgated without any mention of the indigenous people.

With the end of slavery and with the establishment of the republic, the immigration of Europeans to take on the rural work formerly carried out by enslaved black people began to be encouraged by the government. Blacks were abandoned on the margins of society and subjected to systematic processes of racism (an important element in the composition of structural inequalities and racial tensions in Brazil that still makes up the national framework). For the natives, after frequent massacres authorized in the name of the guerras justas (fair wars), the 20th century brought a new period: the protection and pacification of peoples, with a milestone in the creation of the Indigenous Protection Service (1910), led by Marechal Rondon (Gomes, 2009). In a militarized policy, army troops expanded contact with the peoples of the interior and paved the way for the colonization of the interior lands.

It is important to note that, prior to the end of slavery, blacks who managed to flee made communities that were difficult to access geographically, establishing their own governments and a way of life linked to their cultural roots; such villages have been titled quilombos, and some of them exist to this day. Often, the composition of the quilombos made possible encounters between blacks and indigenous and the fusion of cultures. Based on this history, the struggle for land rights unites blacks and indigenous peoples at various moments in Brazilian history (Leite, 2000; Schwartz, 2003); more recently, the struggle for the inclusion of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian history and cultures in the national curriculum of non-indigenous schools has been shared by the black movement and the indigenous movement in the country (Guimarães, 2015; Alves, 2015).

Indigenous School Education in the First Eight Decades of the 20th Century

Following Oliveira and Nascimento (2012) (Nascimento is a female indigenous author from Guajajara People), focusing on the 20th century, it is possible to identify two great moments of indigenous school education in Brazil: (a) when it was under the management of state indigenist bodies and (b) when it became part of the Ministry of Education. In the first phase, in line with the idea of “ethnic unity” necessary for the conception of “nation,” education was seen as the solution to the “indigenous problem,” seeking to assimilate it into national society. In the second phase, recognition of the cultural diversity of indigenous peoples and their right to self-determination is consistent with the recognition that Brazil is a multicultural country.

According to the authors, the first phase began in 1910, with the creation of the Service of Protection to Indigenous and Localization of National Workers (SPILTN), linked to the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce (Maic). In 1918, SPILTN was renamed the Indigenous Protection Service (SPI). Heir to the colonial conception of indigenous “fraternal protection,” this phase was based on a vision of indigenous people as inferior and in transition, given that its destiny would be the erasure of the differences because indigenous people were expected, in the future, to be integrated into the national society as “ordinary citizens.” From the dispersed management of villages by missionary and colonial agents in the empire, the SPI began to operate a policy that centralized the administration of indigenous settlements, with the objective of integrating and militarizing indigenous communities. In this period, access to the indigenous school was provided to the “regional”; the indigenous school itself was equal to the country’s rural schools, which served non-indigenous populations. Different ethnic groups present in the same school were treated as a single culture, promoting a decrease in sociocultural diversity.

In the 1950s, the SPI showed some attention to indigenous specificities, even if its objectives were integration. In 1953, the body submitted to the government a document recommending that “for the less acculturated indigenous groups” the term school should be avoided—which for indigenous people had the connotation of confinement of children for long hours and under rigid discipline. The school should take on the characteristic of an “indigenous house,” where there would be a space for men and women with tools of carpentry and sewing, in communication with a second room, with tables and chairs, where the classroom would function; The children would stay in the second room, which would be in full view of their fathers and mothers and open to the free movement of their families (Oliveira & Nascimento, 2012, pp. 769–770). In the late 1950s, the SPI developed another document dealing with the creation of “agricultural clubs,” with the curriculum being agricultural activities for boys and domestic activities for girls; it was hoped to transform the schools, turning them from units dedicated only to literacy to units that would allow greater integration of the indigenous people with the environment where they lived.

In 1964, a new military coup occurred in Brazil. In its developmentalist project, the military government saw the land as productive goods and industrialization as a purpose. Both elements increased conflicts over indigenous lands. In 1967, in order to protect the borders of the country, to explore the lands of the interior and those of the Amazon, as well as to improve its image abroad with respect to its indigenist policy, the military government extinguished the SPI and created the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI), linked to the Ministry of Interior. FUNAI was born with the power to manage the indigenous heritage (conservation, expansion, and valorization), to research the communities, to sensitize the natives to the indigenous cause, and, among other functions, to “promote the appropriate basic education of the indigenous aiming at its progressive integration in the national society”(Oliveira & Nascimento, 2012, p. 771).

According to Ianni (2004b), FUNAI would function as a kind of ministry for indigenous affairs. Indigenist politics would continue with a protectionist character, distinguishing and contrasting the “indigenous” and the “national,” but also the “isolated” indigenous from the “integrated” indigenous. The integrated indigenous would be one who, while maintaining the customs and traditions of his culture, would be integrated and would not have changed his economic, political, and cultural beliefs to the prevailing capitalist relations—that is, he could maintain customs and traditions that did not conform to Western lifestyles. For this, the acceptance of private property and the abandonment of tribal property was a defining element. In this perspective, the importance of native languages in the literacy process was recognized in the educational policy for the indigenous communities, leading FUNAI to sign an agreement with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), an American institution that had been active in Brazil since the 1930s working to have natives serve as translators of the bible for native languages, in order to facilitate the evangelization of the people.

Bilingual education—which meant the inclusion of indigenous language teaching in addition to Portuguese—was formalized in 1972 through a ministerial ordinance (Oliveira & Nascimento, 2012), which would create an important scaffolding for future advances toward an indigenous school education of the people rather than education for the indigenous (as a generic and homogeneous category) that had been the majority up until that time. Although the bilingualism was reaffirmed as an integral means of ensuring the learning of national contents and languages, the ministerial decree indicated the need for the training of indigenous peoples as bilingual monitors, which made possible, from that moment on, the engagement of new agents in the policy debate on indigenous school education. It was also then that the germ of the university formation of indigenous people was formed, a theme that was much debated in the Brazilian context.

Monte (2000) points out that, at the end of the 1970s, some nongovernmental organizations formed a small network to develop local actions to support some of the indigenous societies. In that context, educational experiences were developed in specific indigenous communities, both by these organizations and by missionaries of liberation theology; Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (1972) served as the basis for such experiences. The initiatives have received support from universities as well as from international humanitarian organizations. In 1979, the first National Working Meeting on Indigenous Education was held, promoted by the Pro-Indigenous Commission of São Paulo, initiating a series of meetings throughout the 1980s. At the same time, the demand for training of indigenous teachers, triggered by the creation of the modality of indigenous monitors for bilingual education, generated a series of training actions in different regions of the country that articulated indigenous and non-indigenous communities in the debate about the desired indigenous school education. Indigenous teachers became representatives of indigenous peoples in the debates, and new projects of indigenous school education were presented as a result of the demands of indigenous leaders in the struggle for the rights of their peoples.

Regarding the articulation between the actions of nongovernmental organizations and state action, Monte (2000) states that in 1985 an agreement was signed between the State of Acre and the Pro-Indigenous Commission of the same state, as it included schools in the state system of Acre as differentiated and specific categories; it created jurisprudence for curricular actions, practices, and didactic materials appropriate to indigenous education, as well as the hiring of indigenous teachers throughout the country.

These movements took place in the second half of the 1980s within the effervescent Brazilian context of debates on rights faced by National Constituent Assembly, which was preparing a new constitution for the country. Grupioni (1994) states that

The indigenous and their supporters began to attend the National Congress more easily, together with other organized movements, either by drawing up proposals and following the work of the thematic committees, or by lobbying and pressing congressmen. (p. 91)

In September 1987, indigenous actions at the National Congress culminated in the speech by the indigenous Ailton Krenak (1987), in defense of the popular amendment on indigenous peoples. The discourse, considered a historical moment, had the objective of defending the approval of constitutional articles that would guarantee indigenous people the right to land, recognition of their own culture, and self-determination.

Indigenous School Education After the 1988 Federal Constitution

With the approval of the 1988 Federal Constitution, the chapters and articles referring to indigenous peoples marked the recognition of different indigenous peoples in the Brazilian territory, their right to exist, and self-determination. As Oliveira and Nascimento (2012) indicate:

By recognizing as a right to use their “mother tongues and their own learning processes,” the CF paves the way for educational legislation that is more respectful to the needs and interests of indigenous peoples. (p. 774)

In subsequent years legal measures were taken to overcome the tutelary indigenous policy of assimilation or integration. In education, the first of these was Decree 26, of 1991 (Brasil, 1991), transferring the prerogatives of FUNAI’s educational actions to the Ministry of Education (MEC). However, in practice, the National Indigenous Foundation continued to interfere with indigenous education, backed by legal measures: from 1993 to 2012, FUNAI’s new Internal Regulations, approved by a specific ordinance, explicitly stated that one of the objectives of the Foundation was to promote regularization of indigenous schools, to propose guidelines for indigenous school education, to supervise them; for that, it counted on a department of education and prediction of student assistance (Oliveira & Nascimento, 2012). But even in the dispute between FUNAI and MEC, there were important advances for indigenous school education, in the direction of a differentiated indigenous school education.

From the enactment of the Federal Constitution from 1988 to 2013, the main legal advances toward the development of a differentiated indigenous school education, with definition of principles and pedagogical proposals and guidelines for the organization of schools based on the idea of specificity, differentiation, interculturality, bilingualism, and community school were (Oliveira & Nascimento, 2012):

  • in 1993, the approval of Guidelines for National Policy of Indigenous School Education,

  • in 1996, the approval of the new Law of Guidelines and Basis of National Education, contemplating the right of indigenous peoples to school education that contemplates their cultures,

  • in 1998, the approval of the National Curricular Framework for Indigenous Schools,

  • in 1999, the approval of the National Guidelines for the Functioning of Indigenous Schools, recognizing Indigenous School Education as a differentiated modality, with its own legal norms and regulations,

  • in 2002, the approval of the Indigenous Teachers Training Framework,

  • in 2009, the first National Conference of Indigenous School Education and National Commission, bringing together indigenous teachers and leaders and other agents around the debate on indigenous school education, and

  • in 2012, the approval of new Indigenous School Education Guidelines, pointing to “the need to offer all basic education in indigenous school contexts, in accordance with the societal and educational projects of each people” (p. 776).

And Bergamaschi and Sousa (2015) add:

  • In 2009, the creation of the Ethno-Educational Territories (Presidential Decree No. 6861), validated by subsequent debates. The indigenous school education began to be debated and managed by regions traced from the location of the peoples that are in them, and not from the geopolitical division of the states.

  • In 2013, the National Ministry of Education, National Institute of Ethno-Educational Territories was published.

Such advances, promoted by the mobilization of indigenous peoples and other social agents who recognize the right of self-determination of the peoples and Brazil as a multicultural nation, have a fundamental axis: the right of each people to decide how the school should be shaped in their territory, to be a community school, not just a school in the community.

There are important divergences in the national debate about what should be the content transmitted in indigenous schools. Different leaders have different positions: some argue that school education should exclusively deal with the content of one’s own culture; others argue that content of culture should be combined with the contents of the surrounding society (local and global)—these are further subdivided into two groups: some emphasizing the culture itself, and others the surrounding culture (Testa, 2008). Among indigenous teachers, there seems to be greater agreement to emphasize indigenous knowledge (Silva, 1999), even if it is recognized that it will not be the school alone to rescue or preserve native cultures. As for being bilingual or multilingual (there are people who speak up to four languages—in view of the contact and marriage between different peoples) and contemplating their own pedagogies, there is a greater consensus, although the practice of schools often contradicts what is desired (Brito, 2013; Brito is anindigenous historian of the Kayapó people). Leaders and youth are concerned about the need to know the current context of globalization, appropriating the new technologies of communication and information, as well as international debates on biodiversity, climate, natural resources, and peoples’ rights throughout the world. Thus, in addition to basic education (elementary and high school), there are actions to access higher education (technical or university education), ensure the permanence in courses, and determine what the curriculum should be.

Access for Indigenous Students to Higher Education

In academic meetings dedicated to the debate on indigenous issues, such as the National Meeting of the Brazilian Society for Progress in Science (Brazilian Society for Progress in Science, 2016), we have learned that, since the 1970s, there have been cases of indigenous people who have attended universities, especially in states where there was expansion of campuses to the interior, as was the case with the Federal University of Amazonas (Universidade federal do Amazonas, 2012). Other cases were due to the migration of indigenous youth, alone or with their families, to cities where they attended urban schools and later entered universities by competing against other students. There are also cases of those who, as children, were taken from their families by religious groups and placed in boarding schools to be trained as religious, and, upon leaving their religious career, sought university training. Some of them, including through a broad action or affirmative action (in the case of the program promoted by the Ford Foundation in Brazil in the early 2000s (Dassin, 2008), carry out post-graduate work, reaching a university teaching career as a researcher.

However, the more significant access of indigenous people to higher education was made possible by the 1996 National Education and Guidelines (LDBEN) Law (Brasil, 1996), which, according to the National Constitution, in regard to the right of indigenous peoples to specific and differentiated education, mobilized, intensified, and made visible the demands presented by the indigenous movement to the universities. This was followed by a series of measures taken alone by states or universities (Paladino, 2010), culminating in Federal Law No. 12,711, of August 29, 2012 (Brasil, 2012), guaranteeing vacancies set aside for blacks, pardos, and indigenous in courses of higher education federal public institutions.2

The state of Paraná was the first to elaborate a specific law, Law 13.134/01 (Paraná, 2001), first regulating the reservation of three vacancies in state university entrance exams to the state’s indigenous candidates (Amaral & Baibich-Faria, 2012) and, later, in Law 14.995/06 (Paraná, 2006), ensuring six vacancies in the selective processes for entry into the state public universities of Paraná to the Indians of this state. This is one of the forms of affirmative action officially established for access of indigenous peoples to higher education, the reserving of places in regular courses already offered by the universities.

In the state of Mato Grosso, also in 2001, the first course of Training of Indigenous Teachers in Higher Education took place. The course proposal was collaboratively built in a process that lasted four years and counted on the participation of FUNAI, the state Secretariats of Education and Indigenous Education, the indigenous leaderships of Mato Grosso, and two universities (Federal University of Mato Grosso and State University of Mato Grosso). Thus, in 2001 a specific selection process was carried out, and the classes of the first class of the Courses of Specific Degree for the Training of Indigenous Teachers began; it was re-offered in 2005. In these offers, 186 vacancies were offered for indigenous teachers for the first class and more than 100 were offered for the second class (Ministério da Educação e Cultura, 2006). This is another form of affirmative action formalized for the access of indigenous peoples to higher education, the creation of specific training courses for teachers and other indigenous professionals. This model is widespread in the country, being offered in several institutions of higher education.

Also in 2001, the publication of Law 10.172 (Brasil, 2001), in the context of the National Education Plan, significantly boosted the creation of intercultural bachelor’s degrees, because it provides for the creation of special programs for the training of indigenous teachers in higher education. It is important to mention that some institutions, such as the State of Amazonas, for example, have contributed significantly to the expansion of the number of indigenous teachers in the country, thanks to the provision of specific courses, such as Pedagogy—Intercultural Indigenous Bachelor, which between 2009 (its first year) and 2012 had more than 7,300 indigenous students entered (Universidade do Estado do Amazonas [UEA], 2013; UEA, 2012). UEA, in turn, offered 1,200 places in the Full Degree for Indigenous Teachers of Alto Solimões, working outside the university campuses, that is, by going to the villages (UEA, 2014).

More recently, other institutions have started to use another form of affirmative action to enter higher education. The model adopted by the University of Brasilia (UNB), starting in 2005, through an agreement signed with FUNAI, provides for 10 annual vacancies in five university courses: Agronomy, Nursing and Obstetrics, Forestry Engineering, Medicine, and Nutrition (Sousa, 2009).

In 2007, for admission in 2008, the Federal University of São Carlos approved the creation of a supplementary vacancy in each of the university’s 64 course options, in addition to creating a specific reception and continuance policy for indigenous students from all over the country (Dal’Bo, 2010). The subsequent improvement of the policy, with the creation of the Center for Indigenous Cultures (CCI), the National Meeting of Indigenous Students (ENEI), the Pedagogical Program for Indigenous Monitoring (PPAI), and the decentralization of entrance exams in four regions of the country have prompted dialogue among indigenous students across the country.

In the universities whose policies of entry and continuance in federal higher education institutions preceded Federal Law No. 12,711, of August 29, 2012, the selective process, that is, the form of admission of indigenous students varied from institution to institution. After the law, each university was able to choose its form: there are universities that use the general entrance exam; others have specific selective processes.

In 2008, with the strengthening of the actions implemented at the State University of Mato Grosso, the Intercultural Indigenous Faculty was created, whose objective is to offer full and bachelor degree courses, aimed at the specific training of indigenous teachers and professionals.

In the national debate, there is an additional element: the possibility of creating an indigenous university, in the style already existing in three Latin American countries. It would establish itself among different universities to promote indigenous knowledge. Although there is no consensus on a single model of university education, they coexist in a climate of intense dialogue between different agents. What is agreed is that the struggle for indigenous rights now also has the pen and the new technologies of communication and information as important weapons.

Open Questions

In the countercurrent of history that sought to assimilate Brazilian indigenous peoples into the nation, and the expectations in the 1960s that assimilation would result in the disappearance of indigenous peoples, what was witnessed in the first decade of the 21st century was the population growth and self-declaration of people as indigenous (IBGE, 2012). Self-knowledge and the affirmation of the intense diversity of peoples present in Brazilian territory have played an important role in this recovery. According to Capiberibe and Bonilla (2015),

indigenous societies have been trying to make the State and non-indigenous in general understand that they are not only different from the “white man” but are different from each other: they have languages, sociality, cosmological knowledge, political and economic regimes. And that this diversity cannot be ignored or subtracted. (p. 293)

However, in the second decade of the 21st century, the growth of aggressive actions on indigenous lands and legislative attacks on the rights conquered in the Federal Constitution of 1988 pose a severe risk to such peoples. With regard to the right to cultural identity and to specific and differentiated school education, slowness in the implementation and support processes of indigenous schools minimizes the changes that could actually occur (Vilanova, Fenerich, & Russo, 2011).

Various agents have acted in different ways so that there are advances in establishing the guarantee of the rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil. In this context, the connection between non-indigenous agencies from fields such as law, anthropology, linguistics, and education has been fundamental, and it can be said that several of them assume the role of allies. In the case of researchers, for example, it is possible to speak about a militant intellectuality (Baines, 2012). But there is also, and contradictorily, the risk of these same allies taking protectionist and indigenist stances (not to speak with the peoples, but for or to the indigenous peoples), given the inheritance that the country has in the course of its history. It is worth mentioning that research on indigenous people in Brazil gained considerable strength from FUNAI’s research sector to draw up indigenist policies (Lima, 2010).

The increasing influx of indigenous people into universities and their training as researchers have launched the production of knowledge in debates that are very helpful and thought provoking. Indigenous students from different fields have provoked dialogue on the knowledge produced by non-indigenous “experts,” including interpretive misconceptions committed in research done in their native villages. They have also questioned the authorship or the concept of innovation on certain knowledge when what non-indigenous researchers did was only to describe processes carried out in indigenous communities. Research methodologies that presuppose the participation of indigenous peoples and other minorities as social agents, and not only as informants, have assumed greater transformative relevance in the process, because they seem to help to constitute knowledge with indigenous people and not only on or for them (Freire, 1972).

There are also challenges for the indigenous researchers themselves concerning which intangible assets involved in the social practices of indigenous peoples they can and should reveal. As part of the community, would ethical procedures be the same or would they have specificities?

These issues have been present in universities and indigenous movements, producing important dialogues in the construction of responses and alternatives. The future is likely to respond to the challenges, but also bring up new questions.


The article is due to the research project Indigenous Studies: Curriculum Innovation, Internationalization of Brazilian Universities and Strengthening of National and International Indigenous Researchers, funded by the Brazilian Ministry of Education and the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes) in the Abdias do Nascimento public announcement.

The authors of the text are activists and researchers of indigenous causes at Brazilian universities. Marcondy Mauricio de Souza is a Brazilian indigenous student, of the Kambeba-Omágua people; he was coordinator of the Center for Indigenous Cultures—Federal University of São Carlos from 2013 to 2016. Roseli Rodrigues de Mello and Thaís Juliana Palomino are non-indigenous researchers and collaborators of the Center for Indigenous Cultures—Federal University of São Carlos; both were coordinators of the Coordination of Equity Affirmative Actions and Policies of the same university, the first one during the years 2012 and 2013 and the second one during the years 2015 to 2017.


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(1.) The variation of terminology used throughout the text to designate the indigenous peoples sought to follow the evolution of the terminology used by national governments throughout the history of Brazil.

(2.) A “pardo” is a mixed-race person, the child of a black father and a white mother, or of a white father and a black mother.