How Language Preservation is Key to Indigenous Resistance
In Field Notes, writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. Before the Portuguese colonized what we now know as Brazil in the 1500’s, the land was home to over 2,000 tribes for thousands of years. Today, members of surviving tribes are at the forefront of leading political and cultural efforts for Indigenous rights in the country. In this Field Note, Nicole Froio shares a vignette of one teacher’s commitment to the Tupi-Guarani language.
08 November, 2023
Chief José Urutau arrives an hour late for our interview, and a few minutes late for his own class on Indigenous chanting. He hurriedly ushers me into his classroom, a dilapidated room in an abandoned house right next to one of the most famous soccer stadiums in the world, the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.
We are in a space called Aldeia Maracanã, an urban Indigenous village established in the abandoned Indigenous Museum of Rio. During the preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, this site became contentious, as the city wanted to knock it down and make it into a parking lot. Chief Urutau was one of many Indigenous people who refused to move from the premises in protest against the plans. After a legal battle, some of the Indigenous people occupying the space came to an agreement with the city, and some of the land around the building was lost. Months later, part of the group returned to the site.
In 2023, Urutau highlights the Indigenous struggle for land by urging his students to protest against a bill of law that would impose an arbitrary cutoff date that curtails the land rights of Indigenous peoples. “If we don’t protest against this, if we don’t scream against this, they will take our land,” Urutau tells his students. “This is about Indigenous rights but it’s also about climate change and the environment. Agribusiness wants to take our land.”
Preserving Indigenous cultures is Uratau’s life mission. The group that is now occupying Aldeia Maracanã consistently demands government funding to restore the crumbling building that they argue should be a point of cultural reference for urban Indigenous people. They are continuously ignored by the local government, but they still organise events to preserve their cultures and Urutau is a big part of that. In his darkening classroom, Urutau connects to the internet through his phone and starts streaming his first class to his students.
Urutau starts by saying hello in Tupi-Guarani to his students: “Katu!” He then explains the name of where we are in the original Tupi-Guarani language: Tekohaw Marakana, where “teko” means life, and “tekohaw” means “where a person lives, dies, works and struggles.”
“Since I arrived in Rio, I have seen three different variations of how this is written,” Urutau says. “And this word means something further than ‘village’, because your tekohaw is where your life is. Where you were born, where you grow, where you fight, where you are buried. So it’s more than a village.”
Urutau is originally from the state of Maranhão, where he was raised in the Guajajara Indigenous village. He migrated to Rio de Janeiro in 2006, where he started formally studying Indigenous languages and developing his own Indigenous linguistics course, with a focus on preserving the languages that have been decimated by colonialism and cultural genocide. According to the 2022 census, Brazil’s Indigenous population consists of 306 ethnicities and 274 languages, and Urutau’s work seeks to recognize ethnic and linguistic diversity of indigeneity, particularly for urban Indigenous folks like himself.
“I tried to get this course into the state university here, and I taught it completely for free for five years in the nearby university,” Urutau said. “Without monetary support, I couldn’t keep going. Nowadays, I teach in Aldeia Maracanã. I teach workshops in a myriad of organizations and in public schools.”
While Indigenous words are often used to name things in Brazil – for example, the name of the neighbourhood of Maracanã is an indigenous word from the Tupinambá language, which means “similar to a rattle”, a reference to the noise birds in that area used to make – the languages of the original people aren’t widely taught in schools, particularly in urban contexts. Across the country, Indigenous people speak 160 different languages and dialects. Urutau teaches the Tupi linguistic family to dozens of researchers and urban Indigenous people every year. He says there aren’t any courses like his in the whole of Rio de Janeiro .
Urutau’s linguistics and Indigenous chanting courses are dedicated to preserving Indigenous culture, but they are also focused on discussing and revealing the importance of indigenous culture in the formation of the Brazilian people. As Urutau cleans the white board, he sings an Indigenous chant. He turns back to his students and explains that Indigenous chants can change depending on the Indigenous ethnicity that is singing it.
“We have the same chants, but each group may sing it in a different way, according to their own context,” he explains. “Each ethnicity sings it in their own way, adding their own meaning to the chant.”
Urutau and his place of teaching are an example of Indigenous resilience and resistance in urban Latin America. Neglected and forgotten by authorities, Aldeia Maracanã has no running water or electricity, but a myriad of indigenous ethnicities — including but not limited to Ashaninka, Guajajara, Kati, Tembé, Apurinã, Manauara and Kaiowá — are dedicated to maintaining the space liveable and want to turn it into an Indigenous university.
As the sun sets outside and the classroom darkens, Urutau teaches his students a chant that Indigenous people usually sing in their protest marches. “Pisa ligeiro, pisa ligeiro / quem não pode com os índios não mexe com a terra deles” (“Step lightly, step lightly / If you can’t fight the indians, don’t mess with their land”), he sings, making clear that he does not stay away from politics in his classes. Decolonization is key, and he pushes for it daily.