Countries from Brazil and Argentina, in the southern cone of the American continent, to the United States and Canada, in the north, have used their armed and police forces to wage war against Indigenous communities by contacting, surveilling, controlling, incarcerating, exiling, and murdering their people.
In the mid to late 1800s, the U.S. Army launched a tireless campaign involving armed aggression and broken treaties against American Indians from the great plains and western mountain regions who continued to resist the violent invasion of their territories by settlers, gold prospectors, and soldiers. This unfortunate chapter of history unfolded in the “far west” of the United States, a brutal place ruled by the law of kill or be killed, on the frontier between Indigenous peoples and commodity people—white men and women who, when they closed their eyes, dreamed only of gold, riches, and blood.
The story of how nations as different from one another as the Navajo, the Comanche, the Lakota, and the Nimíipuu—based in what is currently known as the United States of America—fought back in a moving one. It is rich in examples of a courageous resistance of bows, arrows, and dreams wielded against treacherous invaders who attacked unmanned camps at the break of dawn to massacre women, children, and the elderly.
This swarm of greedy invaders was temporarily halted from 1861 to 1865, during the American Civil War, because non-Indigenous people were too busy killing each other. But when the war finally ended, the U.S. Army once again turned its attention—and the weapons it developed during the war—to what it considered the “Indian Problem.” Repeating rifles, machine guns, and cannons began being used to subjugate the Indigenous peoples of the great plains.
Native American resistance was heroic. Red Cloud, a celebrated leader of the Lakota Nation, made history when he officially defeated the powerful U.S. Army in a dispute over the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho’s sacred hunting grounds. Following a series of humiliating defeats, the federal government was forced to call back its troops and cease work on a road to the mountains of Montana, which were laden with gold. The Army abandoned the forts it had constructed on Indian territory that Red Cloud personally burned to the ground. In 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie recognized the rights of the Lakota people and their allies to that unceded territory.
Yet, the treaty was broken just a few years later and accompanied by an even more lethal invasion. One essential strategy of this war was the deliberate decimation of large herds of bison, a long-standing food source for the Indigenous peoples of the American Midwest. In the 1870s, the U.S. Army ideologically and materially supported the slaughter of 30 million bison. Hunger, cold, and relentless persecution eventually bent the knees of the American Indians who refused to surrender and still dared to resist. Ten years after Red Cloud’s victory, the main leaders of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho people were either dead, in prison, or in exile.
Just over a century after Red Cloud’s time, Indigenous leaders such as the Kayapo cacique Raoni Metuktire and shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami are still fiercely resisting the interests of gold prospecting, public land theft known as grilagem, burn-offs, illegal deforestation, illegal hunting and fishing, and arms and drug trafficking. These interests thrived in plain sight during the Brazilian military governments of 1964-1985 and 2019-2022, as did hunger, violence, and disease. The killing of flora, fauna, and fungi for the extraction of riches continues to expand those derelict landscapes that we refer to as cities, agricultural enterprises, and mining sites.
Capitalism seems eager to kill everything, down to the very last jaguar. To burn everything, down to the very last macaw. To topple everything, down to the very last kapok. Capitalism seems eager for all the water to evaporate until all that’s left is a vast desert strewn with the carcasses of boiled river dolphins and asphyxiated fish. The foundation of this death machine is the rampant acceleration of greed and destruction. The genocide of forest people feeds the holocaust of all living things, echoing the immortal thinking of philosopher Aílton Krenak: it is the fate of capitalism to devour everything.
This is the hunger we must reject, as actor Yumo Apurinã said in the performance, “Voo Livro – Movimento Futuros” (Free Flight – Futures Movement), staged by the Companhia Brasileira de Teatro in early October at SESC Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro. The “Time Frame” thesis, a draft bill that would impose an arbitrary cutoff date curtailing the right of Indigenous peoples to their traditional land, was recently ruled against by the Supreme Court only to be resurrected like the living dead in Congress. This bill is only one of many explicit, shameful, and desperate attempts to break the peace treaty between Brazil and its more than 250 Indigenous communities. Brazil’s 1988 Constitution grants Indigenous peoples the right to demarcate the land they have traditionally occupied, both physically and symbolically. Indemnifying grileiros—criminals involved in complex schemes to steal public land—and their descendants is a terrible public policy that must be deemed unconstitutional. Historic crimes should not be rewarded.
The future is hungry for life, truth, and justice. This is the hunger that must be affirmed if we’re to have any hope of surviving ourselves. The right to land of the Laklãnõ-Xokleng people, who prompted the time frame ruling and whom public and private armed forces of Santa Catarina state have been massacring for centuries, must be fully enshrined and protected from a flood of settlers, military police, and rainwater stemmed by dams that were erected without their consent. Santa Catarina has historically treated Indigenous people as a problem to be solved by militia who are paid to execute “bugres,” a derogatory term for Indigenous people, in order to make room for farmers, with their pesticides and machines.
The truth is there is not and never has been an Indigenous problem. It is non-Indigenous people who are the problem, with their way of life that kills everything and in the end dies out as well. The law of the far west is kill or be killed, from the north of the American continent, all the way to the south—and in Gaza as well.
Sidarta Ribeiro is a father, capoeira practitioner, and biologist. He holds a PhD in Animal Behavior from Rockefeller University and a Post-Doc in Neurophysiology from Duke University. A researcher with the Strategic Studies Center at the Oswaldo Cruz Foudation (Fiocruz), and a cofounder and educator at the Brain Institute at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, he has authored five books, including O Oráculo da Noite and Sonho Manifesto (Cia das Letras). For SUMAÚMA, he writes the monthly column Thought Seeding.
An Indigenous woman of the Guarani Mbya people, Kerexu Martim lives in a village in the southernmost region of the city of São Paulo. She has been drawing since she was a child, primarily women, inspired by her own origins–a mix of Indigenous peoples on her mother’s side and Black people on her father’s side.
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: Julia Sanches
Art by: Kerexu Martim
Layout and finishing: Érica Saboya
Editorial workflow and copy editing: Viviane Zandonadi
Director: Eliane Brum