Brazilian Indigenous Peoples' Day: what has changed in the 80 years since the date was created?

Native peoples have formed leaderships, made claims and are living a moment of unprecedented political protagonism

Translated by: Lucas Peresin

Brasil de Fato | Lábrea (AM, Brazil) |
Indigenous during mobilization for land demarcation and guarantee of their rights, at Esplanada dos Ministérios, Brasília - Brazil - Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

Exactly 80 years ago Brazil recognized, for the first time, April 19 as the "Indian Day". Influenced by Marechal Cândido Rondon, then President Getúlio Vargas issued a decree-law in 1943 establishing the commemorative date. Since then, native peoples have experienced an organizational leap and increased their ability to influence the Brazilian State. And they turned the date into "Indigenous Peoples Day", celebrated with that name for the first time in 2023, reaffirming the diversity of the more than 300 indigenous peoples that live in the country.

Throughout this entire period, indigenous peoples have strengthened their organizations, formed their leaders, allied themselves with indigenists and produced important milestones in their history and in Brazil’s. This was the case with the creation of the first indigenous reserve in the 1960s, passing through the Constituent Assembly’s demand movement and the first Acampamento Terra Livre (“Free Land Camp” in literal translation), until 2023, with the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and an Indigenous Parliamentary Front.

"Indigenous peoples not only have survived, but actually became relevant political actors and have their guidelines on the agenda of the broader Brazilian public sphere. It is another paradigm, another reality, in which it is no longer just a question of survival, but of placing the indigenous peoples’ issues at the center of the political debate", explains Professor Leonardo Barros, researcher on the relationship between indigenous peoples and the State at federal universities of Pará (UFPA) and Viçosa (UFV).


The inclusion of the date in the national calendar did not mean respect for the native ways of life. In the 1940s, nations around the world used to conceive the indigenous question in two ways: integrate them or exterminate them. The second option was followed, for example, by the United States and Argentina, through wars and military campaigns with the aim of decimating populations. 

"There was an understanding, not only in Brazil, but in various parts of the world, that the indigenous condition was transitory. That is, indigenous peoples would surely disappear soon and become part of the national society. This wasn't only in Brazil, Canada had the same vision as well", recalls Barros. 

This is the reason why in 1943 the indigenous population was in decline, a contrast with the current phase. The 2022 Census preview indicated that the Brazilian indigenous population has doubled in the last 10 years and exceeded 1.65 million. By the time of the creation of Indian Day in Brazil, the organization of indigenous peoples was "incipient", according to Barros, and still strongly affected by the so-called “March to the West”.

"The true sense of Brazilianness is the March to the West", shouted Getúlio Vargas on New Year's Eve 1938. In the speech transmitted by radio throughout Brazil, he defended "opening paths and extending economic frontiers". In this path, however, were the Brazilian indigenous peoples. And the Villas-Bôas brothers - Orlando, Cláudio and Leonardo - were responsible for making contact, inspired by Marechal Rondon's policy.

Already under the presidency of Jânio Quadros, in 1961 Brazil had the first indigenous land recognized by the federal government: the Xingu Indigenous Park. Leader Raoni Metuktire, Kayapó born on one of the tributaries of the Xingu River, was probably the first indigenous leader who was internationally recognized for the struggle for rights, a role he still holds today, at the age of 93.

Cacique Raoni and Lula at the inauguration ceremony on January 1st, 2023 / Photo: Tânia Rego/Agência Brasil

But the military's project for the indigenous people was radically different from the vision of the Villas-Bôas brothers and the indigenous leaders themselves. Although they have not waged a declared war, as in the USA or Argentina, their fingerprints are spread over the most obscene cases of genocide against peoples. Especially those who lived in the Amazon, the new frontier of expansion of Brazilian capitalism during the dictatorship that began in 1964.

Military dictatorship 

In the 60s, the process of annihilation of the original peoples was in full swing. The protectionist and preservationist perspective of the Villas-Bôas brothers no longer influenced the State. Despite the cruel methods against the indigenous people, there were almost no denunciations or opposition. The main driver of the genocide was the Brazilian State itself, through the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (Indian Protection Service or SPI in the portuguese acronym).

The first denunciations were compiled in the so-called "Figueiredo Report", produced by then-prosecutor Jader de Figueiredo Correia. The document described cases of torture, sexual abuse and mass murders perpetrated by the military government.

In an attempt to lessen the impact of the repercussions, the dictatorship changed the name of the official indigenous organization of the Brazilian State. The Indian Protection Service (SPI), idealized by Rondon, leaves the scene and the National Indian Foundation, as Funai was then called, is created. In general terms, however, the new organization continued the atrocities carried out by the SPI, perpetuating the project of dissolution of the indigenous peoples' ways of life.

With the aim of opposing the military, entities originating from the Catholic Church were created with the aim of boosting the organization of indigenous people, among them some that still operate today, such as the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi) and the Native Amazon Operation (Opan).

"Anthropologists began to organize themselves politically in the Brazilian Association of Anthropology and thus built this process of a network of allies. The indigenous people know very well how to work with alliances, this is a characteristic of their politics at the local, national and international level”, says Leonardo Barros, researcher on indigenous politics.

The Constituent Assembly's Explosion of Claims 

According to Barros, the Constituent Assembly of 1987 and 1988 represented an organizational leap for indigenous peoples in Brazil. It was time, along with the most diverse sectors of society, to demand their rights to be included in the Federal Constitution, after two decades of military authoritarianism. According to the researcher, this period laid the foundations for the organization of the current Brazilian indigenous movement. 

"Studies indicate in this period an increase in the organizational capacity from the point of view of the indigenous movement and a significant increase in the main product of the Brazilian indigenist policy, which is the land demarcation. These elements are remarkable in the 90s. After the 1988 Constitution, there was a significant increase in indigenous associations", describes the university professor.

During this period, many of the regional and local organizations that today make up the Brazil's Indigenous People Articulation (Apib) were formed. The organization brings together leaders from all regions of the country and has indicated names that today make up the Lula government (Workers' Party), such as the Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sônia Guajajara.

In 2004, the first Free Land Camp (ATL) took place, the most important indigenous event in Brazil, which also served to form leaders. The ATL mobilizes thousands of people and hundreds of peoples, languages and mores every year. All in defense of the native peoples’ constitutional rights. Most editions took place at Esplanada dos Ministérios in Brasília (Federal District), where the next ATL will be held, scheduled this year to start on April 24th.

Indigenous future 

For the future, the UFV professor predicts a "boom" of indigenous people with higher education degrees, who are increasingly professionally qualified to exercise leadership positions. The phenomenon should reflect affirmative policies in public educational institutions. In 2012, a law forced universities to reserve places for indigenous people who studied in the public system.

"That means there are already generations of scientists and indigenous thinkers, which is a process that Canada did in the 1970s and 1980s. So today there are already many established thinkers in Canada who are indigenous. You are going to start seeing this now here in Brazil, more than you already have. So the summary is this: a path like this with comings and goings. It wasn't easy, but indigenous peoples are in a growing movement", says the researcher.

Edited by: Thalita Pires e Flávia Chacon