This winter, Clay Anderson went with his daughter Athena, an FSMN alumna, on a twelve day service trip sponsored by Global Citizens Network to live with the Xukuru Indians of Brazil. Clay shares his experiences:

Global Citizens Network is a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis that works with remote rural villages and indigenous communities throughout the world. Participants live with families in host communities for one to three weeks and work with the residents on projects that meet local needs. A part of the fee is a donation to buy construction materials for the projects.

The Xukuru live in northeastern Brazil, about 125 miles inland. The closest city is Pesqueira, population about 90,000. Most of the Xukuru villages are in the lowlands at the base of the Ororuba Mountains.

Mountain in Xukuru territory, Brazil
Xukuru territory, Brazil

Being close to the equator, it is always hot. There is a rainy season from about March to June, and a dry season from about July to February. There are rivers that flow down from the mountains that provide water to the Xukuru during the dry season.

The Xukuru have lived in this area since time immemorial. The Xukuru worked for Portuguese landowners as low-paid laborers. They were compelled to learn Portuguese, and their native language has been virtually forgotten. They were converted to Roman Catholicism, but they continued to hand down their native ceremonies and traditions in secret, and now they practice both side by side.

In 1988 the Brazilian constitution was amended to provide that land would be returned to the indigenous people. Many laws protect the Indians, establishing that they have the right to maintain their culture, but these laws are not always followed or enforced. The Xukuru, under the leadership of their Cacique or Chief, Xicao, carried on peaceful protests to recover their land. Eventually the Xukuru were successful, and the government returned their land to them. In 1998 Cacique Xicao was assassinated. There was a period of turmoil after the assassination.

The Xukuru choose the Cacique by waiting until someone with the necessary leadership skills emerges. In 2000 Marcos, the son of Cacique Xicao, was chosen by the leadership council to be the new chief, although he was only 21 years old. Marcos has proven to be a tireless and charismatic leader. Marcos wears two wedding rings, one to symbolize his marriage to his wife, and one to symbolize his marriage to his people.

In 2003 Marcos was shot in an assassination attempt and the two young people who were with him were killed while trying to protect him. In response, some of the Xukuru rioted, breaking windows in Pesqueira and burning the home and car of the one they believed was responsible. The police did nothing to pursue the attempted assassins, but vigorously pursued the Xukuru for destroying non-indigenous property.

In 2009 Marcos and 35 other tribal leaders were convicted of ordering the riots. Marcos was sentenced to over ten years in prison. These convictions are under appeal. Before and at the time of the riots Marcos was either in the hospital or under heavy sedation at his mother’s house, so it is difficult to understand how he could have instigated anything.

This was the first trip that Global Citizens Network had sponsored to the Xukuru. There were seven participants. The team leader and assistant team leader spoke fluent Portuguese, and my daughter Athena has studied Portuguese at Concordia Language Villages. The rest of us had to struggle with the language barrier. This trip shook us out of our comfort zone and gave us a chance to see that there is a larger world outside of the U.S., and that we are a part of that world.

We stayed as guests in Cacique Marcos’s house. This house had belonged to one of the farmers and was a nice, upper middle class, Western style house. We had expected to stay with families in the villages, so this was much nicer accommodations than we had expected. Cacique Marcos and his family were very gracious hosts.

Chief Marcos and Athena
Chief Marcos and my daughter Athena
We toured the village where we were staying. The Community Center houses multi-purpose rooms for education, offices, and video production studios. We watched a couple of videos about the Xukuru people that had been made by the teenagers. The Xukuru want to extend the Community Center and build a covered amphitheater. We also toured the site of a future garden for plants that do well in dry areas. We learned that the water for the city of Pesqueira arises in Xukuru territory, but the Xukuru people do not get any compensation for it and feel this is unfair.

The Xukuru strive to have their lives reflect their values. They grow organic fruit and vegetables and have a dairy cooperative. They sell much of their produce to the government Food Purchase Program for use in the schools, or for stockpiling and distribution to needy people. Their goal is to produce food in accordance with “respect for sacred nature and in natural wisdom.” They are trying to preserve their culture while still being a part of the modern world, respecting natural resources and ancestral wisdom.

During the period between Christmas and Epiphany on January 6, the “twelve days of Christmas,” the Xukuru tend to relax and have parties. This is when we were there, so we went to more celebrations and did less work than we expected. On December 30, we were invited to a wedding reception.

We climbed in the back of a pickup truck, which was our usual transportation while we were with the Xukuru, and drove to a small house on a bumpy dirt road, with lights set up around it and dance music playing. There was plenty of food, and everyone was friendly, although they must have been surprised at seeing Americans there.

On New Year’s Eve we drove into Pesqueira to buy supplies. Marcos has bodyguards accompany him whenever he goes into town, but that didn’t stop him from greeting everyone he saw. First we filled up the truck with gas, and noted that gas costs about three times as much as in the U.S. We stopped at a building materials store to buy construction materials for the amphitheater as our donation to the community. Next we stopped at a big grocery store that was crowded with shoppers and very noisy. We bought a huge amount of food, and then had to find room for it in an already crowded truck.

After that, we went to a graduation party for a man who had just graduated from technical school. Most of the food included various parts of a goat, including all the organs, a sort of sausage made from ground up stomach and goat’s blood, and some liquid that came from the goat’s stomach that I think must have been similar to rennet. I wanted to eat like the natives, so I tried everything, and it all tasted good.

When it got dark, we went to the New Year’s celebration. It was easily the most remarkable New Year’s party I have ever been to. We joined a large number of villagers on the back of a large flatbed truck and drove up to near the top of the sacred mountain of the Xukuru. The site was lit by bonfires. In the center there was a shrine built of branches, with candles burning inside. We felt privileged to be invited to share this ceremony with the Xukuru people.

The purpose of the ceremony is to cleanse the people and renew their relationship to Nature. At first, people came up to the shrine and prayed individually. After a while, the Paje, or shaman, and other tribal leaders, began chanting, and leading a dance in a circle around the shrine. We were pleased when Marcos urged us to join the dancing and singing.

Some people went into a trance-like state where they would shake and weep or make odd vocalizations. The Xukuru believe that they are possessed by the spirits. All the problems of the past year were symbolically burned in a fire. Marcos gave a speech about the progress of the past year, including our visit, and that the people should continue to work together in the coming year. There was a sort of Communion service in which they passed around water from the sacred well and pieces of molasses sugar, symbolizing purification and sweetness of life. At the end, everyone walked around shaking hands, hugging, and wishing each other a happy new year.

Everyone rested on New Year’s Day. The next day we went out for our first work day. The Xukuru schools were on break until January 23, so the construction crews were all working on the schools to prepare them for reopening. Our job was to tear down an old wall around a school, dig a ditch, break up the adobe bricks from the old wall, and put the pieces in the ditch to make a foundation for a new wall.

Athena working at the school on a hot, sunny  Brazilian day.
Athena working at the school on a hot, sunny Brazilian day.
We worked at the school for four days. There were always a lot of kids running around the work site, wanting to play with us and taking anything that we left lying around. It was very hot and sunny. I found that I was not able to work for very long or get very much done before I was exhausted.
Athena and friend
Athena and friend
January 6 was Epiphany. We returned to the same spot as the New Year’s celebration, but this time during the morning. They took us down a path over black volcanic rock with spiky silver plants. In a little wooded area they showed us the grave of Cacique Xicao. He was buried next to a rock where he used to sit and meditate and seek the guidance of Nature.

We returned to the shrine, where there was more dancing. Around noon we climbed up a long, steep rocky slope to the very top of the mountain. The view was spectacular, but there was no shade and it was extremely hot. The Paje led a ceremony with chanting and more people being possessed by the spirits.

Dancing around the shrine on New Year's Day
Dancing around the shrine on Epiphany.
January 7 was our last day with the Xukuru. Cacique Marcos’s parting words to us were that what was important was not that we had brought money and purchased construction materials for them, but that we had come to get to know the Xukuru people, and that we would go home and tell our friends the story of the Xukuru.

Guest blogger Clay Anderson is the father of FSMN alumna Athena Anderson who graduated in 2010. Athena currently attends Great River School in St. Paul.