Journalism from the center of the world

‘Reforestation is when we reawaken hope in people who were asleep’, says the newly elected congresswoman Célia Xakriabá. Photo: Foto: Mídia Ninja

Célia Xakriabá playfully refers to herself as “Parentíssima,a portmanteau of her own invention that combines the Portuguese word parente, meaning familial relative, with the honorific excellentíssima, or right honorable—because as an Indigenous public official, she has kinship ties with so many people. Célia is a well-known creator of new words. And someone who creates words gives birth to new worlds. Equipped with this power, she will take a seat in the Brazilian Congress at the age of thirty-three, possibly the youngest Indigenous parliamentarian on the planet. As an Indigenous woman from the Brazilian savannah region known as the Cerrado, Célia was elected federal deputy on the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) ticket in Minas Gerais with 101,154 votes.

Since her childhood, Célia has fought not only alongside Indigenous peoples but also alongside other traditional populations living in this biome, one half of which has already been destroyed, even though it is the birthplace of many Brazilian waters. No terms are more poetic in Portuguese than the words used to designate the communities of the Cerrado, names that evoke the essence of what these people do and are: raizeiras, from raiz, people of roots, for women who gather medicinal plants; benzedeiras, from benzer, people of blessings, for women who use the power of folk medicine to heal; geraizeiras, from gerais, an older term for the Cerrado, for people who plant crops and raise animals on communal land; vazanteiros, from vazante, the lowland margin of the river, for people who rely on the ebb and flow of waters in their subsistence fishing, farming, and livestock raising; and quebradeiras de coco-babaçu­, from quebrar, to break, for women who crack open babassu coconuts and use the plant’s fronds to make baskets, coconut bark to make coal, and the nut itself to make oil and soap. Not to mention the other Cerrado communities, like quilombolas (formed by escaped African slaves), Indigenous people, smallhold farmers, and artisanal fishers. Each one of these communities is an entire world tied in with all the others. And all of these communities-worlds are as endangered as the ecosystem to which they belong, now being ravaged by predatory agribusiness and large transnational corporations. In September 2022, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal found the Brazilian State guilty of the ecocide of the Cerrado and genocide of its peoples.

Célia Xakriabá, who is now entering Congress to—as she puts it—defend the earth, is the daughter of ancestors who have long fought for life in one of Brazil’s most fascinating landscapes. For the sake of this battle, she once went on a hunger strike and slept under a modernist pilaster outside the Palácio do Planalto, the presidential residence. She launched her campaign at the exact spot where the Xakriabá people were indelibly scarred by a massacre that occurred in February 1987 in northern Minas Gerais state: there, the leaders Rosalino Gomes de Oliveira, Manuel Fiúza da Silva, and José Pereira Santana were murdered in their sleep.

The Parentíssima Célia Xakriabá received the SUMAÚMA team on January 3, 2023, at the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. By then, she had attended the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and ministers aligned with Indigenous and climate causes; she had intoned her song and poetry during Joenia Wapichana’s first day of informal work as president of FUNAI, Brazil’s federal agency of Indigenous affairs; and she had also helped Sonia Guajajara, Indigenous Minister, receive kin from all over Brazil, who came to lodge their grievances or simply because they were curious about the new ministry. Célia understands what a powerful moment this is. And what a delicate one. Indigenous people are finally occupying strategic positions at the level of central power—and the key players are women. The new federal deputy is one of the founders of ANMIGA (National Alliance of Indigenous Warrior Women of the Ancestors), an organization of Indigenous women that addresses gender violence, an issue that intersects with the fight for planet Earth and climate equilibrium.

In this interview, Célia Xakriabá shows how she embodies the difference between Indigenous and conventional politics. Her difference lies in language—and there are no profound changes without changes to language. Célia’s poetics is the poetics of the borduna, a traditional Indigenous weapon made from wood. Her style is ancestral, not annual, as she explains. And her dress is political action.

And now let’s hear from the Parentíssima Célia Xakriabá.

Célia Xakriabá protesting against indigenous genocide, in Brasilia. Photo: Pablo Albarenga/SUMAÚMA

SUMAÚMA: Who is Célia Xakriabá and what can Brazil and the world expect from one of the youngest Indigenous representatives on the planet?

CÉLIA XAKRIABÁ: I’m Célia Xakriabá of the Xakriabá Indigenous people, from the Cerrado biome, from this force that has deep roots. The Cerrado lands, the Cerrado biome, are home to more than seventy Indigenous peoples. The Cerrado encompasses more than eleven Brazilian states, and one of its main Indigenous peoples is the Xakriabá, there in northern Minas Gerais, who make up the state’s largest Indigenous population. I’m also a member of the National Alliance of Indigenous Women, cofounder of the National Alliance of Indigenous Warrior Women of the Ancestors (Anmiga), and now am the first Indigenous federal deputy for the state of Minas Gerais, defying the racism implicit in the absence of Indigenous people from the political arena. As the youngest Indigenous deputy on the planet, I have a commitment to humanity’s oldest woman, who is the earth.

What was it like to watch cacique Raoni walking up the ramp of the Palácio do Planalto with Lula at the president’s inauguration?

It was very emotional to see Lula’s inauguration, because the only time I’d been at the Palácio do Planalto before that was during the penultimate national meeting of the peoples of the Cerrado, when I spent a whole day and whole night there; I slept inside, next to that pillar under the Palácio, on a hunger strike for the creation of the Nascentes dos Gerais Sustainable Development Reserve.

It was very emotional for me to return to Indigenous lands during the campaign and have people tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “I remember you from that hunger strike, when a lot of people left because it was so cold. I don’t remember it ever being so cold in Brasília, and loads of people left, but not you. And it wasn’t even exactly your people. It was a mobilization for communities of geraizeiros [small farmers and gatherers who often work the land and raise livestock collectively], and you were the only girl, the only woman who stayed on there.”

How are you preparing to deal with a Congress made up mostly of white men?

People used to ask me, back when Sonia was in Congress, “What will you be able to do if you’re just one Indigenous woman in Congress with 513 federal deputies?” And I would answer, “We’re less than one percent of the Brazilian population, five percent of the world’s population, and we protect more than eighty percent of its biodiversity. The majority does not always make things better. We’re in the minority, but we’re making a country, a planet, better. We’ll be in Brasília doing this for the planet.”

And when people say to me, “But you’ve been in Congress a lot shorter time; it’s a lion’s den,” I reply, “What is a lion to we who are jaguars? We know the territory well. And we may not have been in Congress for as long, we may not have been minister for as long, we may not have been secretary of health for as long, and we may not have been president of Funai ( National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples) for as long, but we’ve been in Brazil a lot longer. We talked about this with President Lula at COP27. The only reason Brazil hasn’t lost its position as a leading international player in environmental issues is because we acted as ministers of the environment.”

Congress has a green room, but it is a deforested green room. We have come to reforest it with our ideas, our positions. Yes, we are few in number, but we haven’t come alone. We understand that this is a turning point for Brazil. It’s a turning point for humanity. And humanity needs to understand our responsibility.

When you demarcate an Indigenous territory, it’s an opportunity to have water to drink. When you demarcate an Indigenous territory, it’s also an opportunity to have air to breathe. We are lung specialists. We sustain the lungs of the world and of the people. We need to walk side by side. This is a ministry of political dialogue, and my term in office will be a time of dialogue. We want to preserve the lives of our leaders, of our children and women.

When Funai was retaken (led for the first time by an indigenous person), on Monday, January 2, you mentioned the “politics of mystery.” What is this spiritual dimension of politics like?

When I entered Congress and received my badge as a federal deputy, I remembered that the last time we were there, we had brought in more than two hundred coffins, representing rollback laws and murdered Indigenous leaders. [We were received with] pepper spray and rubber bullets, and my ear was even ripped in front of Congress.

And it was the fire prayer of the Guarani women that made it rain only there. At that moment, in 2015, when we thought we wouldn’t be able to block PEC 215 [a constitutional amendment that would transfer from the Executive branch to Congress the power to demarcate Indigenous lands, quilombola territories, and conservation areas], it was the singing and maracas that made the lights of Congress go out. It started raining—and they still haven’t managed to take a vote on it. Now I’ll be in a place where we have the power to legislate, to pass laws, to speak up. But it must be said that, beyond judicial laws, our laws are ancestral. And it’s important to take the strength of ancestral laws [to Congress].

We’re here in the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples for the first time in history, walking alongside the mystery of the Indigenous peoples. The mystery of the land, the forest, the Cerrado, the Atlantic Forest, the Pampas, the Caatinga, and the Pantanal.

You’re a creator of words: “parentíssima,” “mulheragem” [the celebration of women]. Can you tell me who Manuelzão Xakriabá is, what loas are, and what Manuelzão and loas have to do with your way of speaking?

Manuelzão is my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather was one of the first recognized letter readers in Xakriabá territory in the 1940s, when writing wasn’t common, when reading wasn’t either. And reading letters back then wasn’t about reading to become a teacher. It had to do with power. Like in documents that went like this: “This is a repossession order. You have to vacate this area.” Even if that information was a lie, if it was read by a non-Indigenous person, the lie would endure for ten, twenty years, because we weren’t empowered to read the paper.

Even if people don’t recognize or understand the more than 274 Indigenous languages and more than 305 peoples, we have a different way of speaking. It’s not about understanding our song, it’s about feeling it. My great-grandfather was a leading figure and later my grandfather was too, models of the strength of oral communication. And my grandfather didn’t just talk; he pondered. We only talk about something after pondering it a lot, because pondering something is also a way of learning.

My grandfather was the first book I ever read in my life. Then I learned to read other books, but without losing the ability to read people. How can you keep reading books and not lose the ability to read time? To read the earth? More than 522 years [after the European invasion], a country as diverse as Brazil can’t underplay the strength of the people, that which isn’t visible, the strength of oral communication. Our words carry commitment. I’m also proud because after [Mário] Juruna, I’m the second federal deputy from the Cerrado. He used a tape recorder, he used oral communication, but people didn’t believe him, because here only paper holds the truth.

And loas?

Loas are the way the Xakriabá language is intoned, the melody with which it is spoken. Lately, people have been saying, “Celinha, you won this election because you have a different way of talking. You’re more poetic.” Now people are often going to see poetry serve as a borduna [a wooden club used for hunting, self-defense and ceremonies] in Congress, because poetry is something that reaches you not fast, not loud, but with sensitivity, at this moment when we arrive here with the melody of our words, our different way of talking, as Indigenous people begin to occupy a number of spaces. This is also reforestation. Reforestation is when we reawaken hope in people who were asleep. Brazil wasn’t dead, Brazil was asleep, and with our presence, our different way of approaching things, the strength of our paint, the strength of our voice, our oral communication and song, we will go on making laws without losing the melody of words. We will go on making laws without losing the lilt of our song.

Célia, in January 2021, I interviewed the geraizeiro Braulino Caetano and asked him who came up with the name “Articulação Rosalino” [Rosalina Gomes Alliance of Traditional Peoples and Communities]. And he gave me the following answer: “Look, we actually created this alliance to bring all of the peoples together to fight. There was a daughter of the Xakriabá, a girl then, named Célia. She was the one who argued for the name Rosalino. Our movement is called the Rosalino Gomes Alliance precisely because of this girl. She studied, went to college, got a master’s degree, and I hope she’ll be a great force for Brazil, and that tomorrow or later, she’ll become a federal deputy.” What does Rosalino’s story have to do with your political journey?

Rosalino was a great Xakriabá leader who along with two companions was murdered in 1987. Only after that was the Xakriabá territory recognized. Unfortunately, all the Indigenous territories I know of in Brazil were only demarcated after some Indigenous leader was murdered. It’s as if some member of your family had to die for you to have a house, an apartment. Nobody asks this question: “Do you suppose that every time you think about your right to a house, to a place to live, it means someone in your family has to die?”

The Xakriabá struggle was marked by this massacre, but at the same time, through pain we won freedom for our territory. And Rosalino said, “I’d rather become compost, but I won’t leave here.” Rosalino was killed on February 12, 1987, in a massacre that marked the history of the Xakriabá people, that marked the history of Brazil. It was the first crime to be ruled Indigenous genocide in Brazil. Rosalino was murdered and his partner, Anísia, who was pregnant, was also shot. When I was doing research for my master’s degree and would go back to the territory and ask the Xakriabá women how they contributed to the struggle, they would answer, “Oh, my dear, I didn’t contribute much. My husband was a leader. He used to go to Brasília on foot. He’d spend three months looking for a lift, and all I had to do was open a small plot of land to support my children.” I asked Elisa, I asked Nena, whose partner was also killed in this massacre. And I was very frustrated because the women said they didn’t exactly play a leading role in the fight. Their contributions seemed invisible. Today, the four caciques in the Xakriabá territory are men, but at the same time I’ve been made into a leader too. And in February 2022, thirty-three years after the massacre that killed Rosalino, we launched our pre-campaign, on the same spot where he was killed in 1987. And on that day, Rosalino’s son told me, “This ground was demarcated with blood, and you’ll have the chance to wield a pen to keep massacres of Indigenous people from remaining a factor in the extermination of Indigenous people in Brazil.”

This is why I argued for the name Rosalino Alliance of Traditional Peoples and Communities ten years ago. When I met Braulino, I was thirteen, and even back then he said, “My dear, you’re going to be a political representative someday.” But I was only a child and I just laughed. Later he said, “Don’t laugh at your father, I’m telling you.” The Rosalino Alliance is one of the only ones I know of in Brazil and the world that brings together eight peoples, of which two are Indigenous and six are other traditional communities. There’s an alliance of unified pain but also of unified strength. We have often participated when quilombolas took back their lands, and on various occasions the quilombolas supported us when we took ours back.

Who is Sonia Guajajara and what does she represent for you today? 

To me Sonia is a model, an inspiration, a sister, a “Parentíssima” warrior of a minister, who also comes from this collective of women. We are cofounders of the National Alliance of Indigenous Warrior Women of the Ancestors. I first met Sonia when I was fourteen. And then, in 2018, when I was finishing up my master’s degree, Sonia said, “Celinha, I’d like you to come help with my campaign; I’m going to be vice-president of the Republic, together with Guilherme Boulos.” And I said, “Sister, I’m very tired, I’ve just finished my master’s, I can’t.” And she said, “Come and stay just a week.” And I ended up spending three months with Sonia during her 2018 campaign.

When people asked if she was prepared, she’d say: “We’re prepared. We prepared ourselves in the struggle.” And when people asked during these elections, “But are you prepared? Are your candidacies viable?” I’d answer, “Our candidacies are not only viable; they’re destined. Because there is a Call for the Earth right now. Since people don’t listen to the Earth, don’t understand the Earth as the greatest authority, we’re going to run for office together with the Earth.” And when people asked, “But is this the right time? There’s no political fact that will get you elected.” And then I’d say, “Isn’t raping Yanomami girls a political fact? Isn’t raping Guarani-Kaiowá girls a political fact? Isn’t killing women? Isn’t ecocide? Isn’t genocide? What is a political fact?”

Was it Sonia Guajajara who invited you to run for deputy? How did this invitation come about?

It was a joint effort by the Bancada do Cocar [the Indigenous caucus known as the feather headdress caucus]. We said, “Since there’s a ruralist caucus, let’s launch the Indigenous caucus. Who’s in a better position to take on the ruralist lobby than the Indigenous, who bring the force of the Earth?” And that was when she said, “Celinha, let’s do it!” You can only get somewhere because other people pave the way, even if they didn’t succeed in getting there themselves. And then, last year, the leadership said, “You have to run for office.” That was when we made up our minds.”

When was that?

At the Free Land Camp, during the Indigenous Women’s March, some Krenak kin asked us about it. They said, “It’s time to run! Haven’t the Xakriabá decided to run yet?” In November 2021, the Xakriabá leaders made the decision, and in March 2022, we launched our campaign on the very spot where the Rosalino massacre took place. Sonia took a little longer to make up her mind, because she had to decide whether she was going to run in the state of Maranhão or the state of São Paulo and whether she was going to change parties or stay. I realized that just as it took thirty-three years after Juruna Xavante’s election for Joênia Wapichana to be elected the second Indigenous person in Congress, and the first Indigenous woman, we ran the risk of seeing no Indigenous people elected for the next ten to twenty years if we didn’t run now. It’s a contextual struggle, because in the context of the Bolsonaro government, the Indigenous issue became a state of humanitarian and nonhuman existential emergency.

A lot of people said things like: “Well, if you’re not elected this time round, don’t be sad! You can try again. One day you’ll make it.” I said, “If you want people who are revolutionaries, who are prepared to defend territorial and environmental issues with their own bodies, vote now. It can’t be put off any longer.” Then they’d say, “But I don’t have two votes. I’d really like to vote for you both.” This happened with me and with Sonia. “But unfortunately, I already have another candidate…”

In the final week, I said, “No, you don’t have two votes, but we don’t have two planets either. The time is now.” And that was when we launched the Call for the Earth [the campaign slogan used by Indigenous women candidates]. Even though Sonia was in São Paulo, and I was in Minas Gerais, we did a lot of things together. The Call for the Earth also mobilized other Indigenous candidacies. There were more than 180 Indigenous women candidates in Brazil, strengthening the movement. We still need to advance farther and grow stronger because we need to make progress at the state level. We failed to elect a single state candidate.

We were here at the offices of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, and it was like watching a big soccer match before President Lula announced the name of the new minister. People were rooting for Joênia, for Sonia, for Weibe. APIB [Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil] submitted a list with three names, and President Lula made his choice and ended up including all three. What is your assessment of this process?  

People talk a lot about embassies, about Itamaraty [the Ministry of Foreign Affairs], where diplomacy rules. But I know of no people more diplomatic than us, Indigenous peoples, who build everything through dialogue. There are of course differences, because we are more than 305 different peoples, speaking 274 different languages. Yesterday [January 2] was a historic moment for me: being with Sonia the minister, with Joênia the president of Funai, and me in the lower house, with Weibe taking office there too, in the important Department of Indigenous Health. People said we were going to end up divided, but our list of three names was the most democratic nomination for cabinet members ever. No one else presented a list of three names for a ministry. People just nominated someone. Although there were three names, the list was drawn up based on a consultation with the movements and with APIB. So, this also shows that we have a different way of doing things. And it didn’t divide us, on the contrary: Sonia was named minister, Weibe was named the [Indigenous] health secretary, and Joênia was named president of Funai.

We showed the importance of having Indigenous kin everywhere. I just had a meeting with Joênia Wapichana to draw up a work plan, [which we’re] drafting collectively. We’re not in separate little boxes. The president of Funai just left the ministry, the secretary of Indigenous Health is right here in the next room, the Indigenous member of parliament is here, because we know how to do things together. Even if we do things differently, even if we make some decisions based on what we hear from our bases, when it’s time to look for the best path, we’re together.

We’re here at a ministry led by an Indigenous woman, the “Parentíssima” Minister Sonia Guajajara, [with] the “Parentíssima” President of Funai Joênia Wapichana and the “Parentíssima” Secretary of Indigenous Health Weber Tapeba. We’re also in Congress, and the Indigenous caucus hasn’t disbanded. The caucus has planted seeds all over. When we take office on February 1, it will be a historical moment. I won’t be alone in Congress, because we’re going to pack those ramps with many Indigenous relatives, with Indigenous women. The Indigenous caucus is the people.

What is Anmiga? Do you view Anmiga as an Indigenous political current?

Anmiga, the National Alliance of Indigenous Warrior Women of the Ancestors, is a group that brings together the strength of women from all biomes. Land-women, seed-women, water-women, root-women. The twenty-first century belongs to Indigenous women.

In 2018, I said, “Sonia, I think that in order to consolidate this political movement and for the leaders to really Indigenize politics, we need to visit our territories.” We were already thinking about organizing Anmiga caravans. In 2019, we started to put the project together here in Brasília, but [soon after] a pandemic was declared in Brazil and the world and we couldn’t do the caravan right then.

In 2019, Sonia undertook the journey “Indigenous Blood: Not a Single Drop More.” She traveled to twelve countries and twenty cities in thirty-five days and denounced what was happening in Brazil. We filed a case against Bolsonaro for the crime of ecocide at the Hague court in the Netherlands, and people said, “Why are you going to Europe? Don’t you know they’re a big part of the problem?” And we said, “This big part of the problem has to become a major part of the solution.”

We also questioned ratification of the Mercosur agreement, which benefited Bolsonaro’s government, and we talked about how important it would be for the European parliament and all countries, like the United Kingdom, to pass traceability laws to guarantee that these products don’t come from Indigenous territories or from slave labor. As a result of this pressure, recently, at COP, the European parliament was looking at an anti-deforestation law [which has since been agreed].

We also questioned the fact that the anti-deforestation law only considered the Amazon, without taking into account other biomes, like the Atlantic Forest, Cerrado, Pampas, and Pantanal wetlands. Unless there are environmental protection laws for all the biomes, this effectively legalizes and boosts agricultural expansion in these other biomes. When you do this, you also spark more territorial conflict in the Amazon region and put it under greater pressure, in terms of production and deforestation.

We don’t know of a single project that has visited all of Brazil’s regions, all of its biomes, listening carefully, with the understanding that if our stage isn’t big enough for the voices of all Indigenous women to be heard, then our microphone will be the maraca, and we’ll take our stage with us, right to our territories. And that’s what we did with the caravan project, in the understanding that our most far-reaching microphone is the one that hears Indigenous women from the perspective of the bioeconomy. Anmiga’s chief project is to combat violence against Indigenous women in our territories. This is what we have at the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, a group committed to combatting rape and violence against Indigenous women.

Further in relation to Anmiga, you organized a big fashion show at the World March of Women. What does clothing have to do with politics?

We’ve talked about decolonizing fashion, because for us it is not exactly fashion. I like to say that in music as well as in fashion, it’s not the “annual” trend that catches on with us; it’s more the ancestral trend. So, the older something is, the more beautiful. Our fashion isn’t annual; it’s ancestral. For me, clothing is what you wear and re-wear, what inverts and subverts.

The whole design of my campaign in Minas Gerais drew inspiration from my clothing. Clothing comes from a place of enchantment, of beautiful things, because politics doesn’t need to be an aggressive environment. Politics is the space we build through culture. When I couldn’t talk about the campaign, I wrote poetry, I brought the fight, the emergence of Indigenous peoples. And I did this on important stages, together with a few performing artists, like Nando Reis and Gilberto Gil. So, this is the idea we bring into the spotlight, understanding this way of doing politics that comes with the voices of our territory, the colors of our territory, the colors of our biome.

I’ve always been independent in how I dress. I’ve got a dress that was painted during the Federal Supreme Court case. While we were there, standing vigil, I stopped and painted my clothes. I don’t do this because I’ve got time but because we need to have autonomy over our time, and only those who have taken back their time actually have time. I say that the fight for freedom, for true autonomy, isn’t really about who has more money but about who has the freedom of time.

How can you be a member of Congress, a minister, president of Funai, a teacher or lawyer, without giving up your autonomy to dress as you want, to eat as you want? Because we can be many things, but the first book I read was my grandfather, the first pen I held wasn’t to make a written “x,” but to take genipap and write on my body. So, even in Congress, I still have the autonomy to dress using genipap. It is the power of the feather headdress that guides our thinking and our decision making. For us, the feather headdress is like our head’s home. It helps guide this place. Together, let’s paint Congress with genipap and annatto. Congress will no longer be gray; it will be the same color as us.

Translated by Mark Murray and edited by Diane Whitty


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