The last two lines of Palmeiras’ anthem are not only strong but carry a political message, making direct reference to the Italian immigrants who founded Palmeiras. Victims of persecution and even labelled “the enemy” during WWII as Brazil sided with the allied forces against Germany, Italy and Japan, the italianinhos in Brazil felt the ugliness of exclusion. The hymn – written in 1949 and with the agony of being looked upon as unpatriotic in fresh memory – leaves no room for excuses: “we know how to be Brazilian, while maintaining our (Italian) core” is the message contained in the lines that in their original version read “que sabe ser brasileiro, ostentando a sua fibra”.
The practice of implicit or explicit exclusion continues to this date, although the target has moved: in today’s Brazil, Indigenous peoples – and especially those living in remote areas or close to our national borders – are by some labelled “a risk to national security”, as if prone to side against Brazil in case of a conflict with a neighbouring state or might suddenly demand secession, seeking to break free from Brazil.
Such arguments can only be sustained by someone who has never visited Indigenous communities or truly sat down to listen to what Indigenous persons have to say.
Take the Yanomami. Their experiences with non-Indigenous (i.e. our) society has been anything but a smooth ride. Their more frequent contact with the outside world happened during the 1950s and 1960s, but it was the gold rush in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s that led to a dramatic population decrease as the Yanomami fell victim to diseases like the measles, malaria, tuberculosis… Even a regular flu could be enough to wipe out an entire village. In addition, the Yanomami were the victims of other kinds of violence and it was only when they faced the risk of annihilation that the Brazilian government gave in to national and international pressure, demarcating their territory in 1992 and expelling more than 40.000 gold diggers.
Today, the Yanomami consist of a little over 19.000 individuals on the Brazilian side and another 15.000 in Venezuela. The Brazilian Yanomami live inside a territory of roughly 95.000 square kilometres and at large maintain a traditional life style. They have created three representative organisations, the largest one being Hutukara Associação Yanomami, or HAY for short.
Davi Kopenawa Yanomami is the president of HAY and one of the most respected Indigenous leaders in Brazil. Having lost his father and most of his close family to the diseases brought in by the gold diggers, he lived for a few years in the city before returning to the village to become a fierce advocate of the right of Indigenous peoples to chose their own destiny. He’s seen it all, including “progress” and what it does to people and their societies. Based on this he’s made his choice in a firm belief that he and his people are better off where they are, maintaining a traditional way of life.
At the Hutukara General Assembly, some 600 Yanomami from all over the territory gathered to discuss many of the issues that are important to the Yanomami people: territorial surveillance, the continuous presence of illegal gold diggers and farmers on Yanomami land, health care, schools and social/cultural identity among others.
Again: the early Yanomami experience with non-Indigenous society was mostly disastrous in nature: gold diggers, timber loggers, even government officials trying to “pacify” the “savages” and “integrate” them. As of 1988 and the new Brazilian Constitution – where extensive rights for Indigenous peoples were guaranteed – improvements started to occur, most notably in the demarcation of Indigenous territories and the understanding that non-contacted tribes should be allowed to decide when, where and if to have contact with the outside world.
Being Brazilian, and knowing that they are Brazilian, the Yanomami seek what their country’s constitution entitles them to: access to their traditional lands – free from intruders – allowing then to live according to their own beliefs and wishes. They depend on the Brazilian government to provide protection. But not only that: as other citizens, also the Yanomami have the right to decent health care and schools. In addition, they have the right to be not only informed about but actually approve of any governmental activity – for example infrastructure projects – that directly or indirectly interfere with their lives. This is called the principle of free, prior and informed consent and is to be found both in the Brazilian constitution as well as in several international conventions ratified by Brazil, for example the ILO 169.
The Yanomami are Yanomami. And they are Brazilian. Denying them their rights or discriminating against them is criminal. Just like discriminating against those of Italian, German and Japanese descent living in Brazil was a crime at the time. As was forcing Palestra Italia to abandon its name and become Palmeiras. As was forcing palmeirenses to physically – and physically should be understood literarily – stand up to defend Palmeiras and the Palestra Italia stadium from being invaded by the mobs.
I didn’t find any palmeirenses at the Demini village while participating in the General Assembly. I did however find the Yanomami proud and beautiful as ever, just like my Palmeiras. Maintaining their core, just like my Palmeiras.
Cut off from all communication, I could nothing but interrogate persons from the incoming single engine planes Thursday morning to find out about Bahia vs. Palmeiras. Finally, a public prosecutor from Porto Alegre relieved me of my agony: we were alive by the smallest possible margin.