Sônia Guajajara: Indigenous women in Brazil leading in the fight for justice (part 1)

As of June 16, Brazil is reporting 888,271 confirmed coronavirus infections and 43,959 Covid-19 deaths, second only to the United States and assumed to significantly undercount the real totals. Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has stoked the pandemic by ridiculing social distancing, insisting on keeping Brazilian business open, and calling his supporters to take to the streets without masks. Bolsonaro regularly spouts racist, sexist, homophobic, and misogynist rhetoric. And he has taken special aim at indigenous peoples by opening up millions of acres of the Amazon rain forrest to private logging and ranching, leading to a string of murders of indigenous leaders. Meanwhile, the pandemic itself is killing indigenous people at alarmingly high rates, threatening geographically isolated indigenous tribes with genocide.

This interview with Sônia Guajajara, one of Brazil’s leading indigenous voices, was conducted by Fabiana Reinholz and Katia Marko of the Rio Grande do Sul branch of Brasil de Fato, one of Brazil’s leading independent media outlets launched in conjunction with the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2003.

Translated by No Borders News. Part 1 reviews Guajajara’s activist history, Brazil’s failure to teach indigenous history in public schools, and her experience running for vice president in 2018. Part 2 will take up the movement against Bolsonaro.


Sônia Guajajara (né Sônia Bone) was born in the Indigenous Territory of Araribóia in the state of Maranhão. From a very early age she understood she would have to struggle against anonymity, against the invisibility of Brazil’s indigenous people. “I always wanted to find a path, a way to bring the history and way of life of the indigenous people to light for society as a whole.”

Sônia is an elementary school teacher and a nursing assistant, and an indigenous feminist leader. Her strength and courage have carried her very far, becoming the first indigenous woman to run for the executive of the Republic, in 2018, at the age of 44 as the vice-presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Freedom.

At the age of 15, Sônia left home to study in the state of Minas Gerais following an invitations from the National Indian Foundation (Funai) and today holds a master’s degree in Culture and Society from the Institute of Humanities, Arts, and Culture from the Federal University of Bahia. In 2001, she participated in the first national indigenous gathering, a conference held after a national Indigenous March, to discuss the Statutes of the Indigenous of Peoples in Luziânia in the state of Goiás.

She also made history by delivering the Moto Serra de Ouro Award to Senator Kátia Abreu in defense of the Forest Law. In 2012, she coordinated the Terra Livre Camp at the People’s Summit, which was organized in opposition to the Rio +20 United Nations conference on sustainable development. And the following year, she led the organization of the Indigenous Peoples Week and the occupation of the plenary of the Chamber of Deputies and the Planalto Palace, Brazil’s presidential palace.

During almost two decades in the struggle for the rights of the original peoples, she has held leading positions in a variety of organizations and movements. Among them, the Coalition of Organizations and Confederations of Indigenous Peoples of Maranhão (Coapima), the Coalition of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coiab), and the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib), where she is executive coordinator.

Brasil de Fato: What does it mean to be an indigenous woman in Brazil?

Sônia Guajajara: Being an indigenous woman in Brazil means living as an eternal challenge, to struggle, to occupy space, to be a protagonist for your own history. Historically, we were told that we could not occupy certain spaces. For a long time, indigenous women were invisible, our work was confined to our villages, which was always very important work because we play a guiding role there. But the time came when we realized we can do a lot more than this, that we can also take our place in the front lines of all struggles.

[Read next, Martina Gomes: Black Lives Matter and the antifascist struggle in Brazil.]

It is a real challenge for us to break through this barrier, to leave the villages to take up these spaces. Imagine occupying these spaces out here, where there is prejudice, an ingrained racism that has never been overcome, even though at some point we thought we were making progress… And we are now faced with this new fight against racism, against a prejudice that is increasingly expressed in society as a whole.

So being an indigenous woman is a permanent fight to reaffirm your culture, your identity, and, particularly, your gender.

BdF: When did you begin your activism?

SG: I was born an activist. I’ve spent my whole life fighting against anonymity, against indigenous peoples’ invisibility. I always wanted to find a path, a way to bring the history and way of life of the indigenous people to light for society as a whole. I always understood that the history told about indigenous people was not real history. And this is still true today in our elementary school books where indigenous peoples are treated as the peoples of 1500, as peoples from the past.

This always bothered me a lot because the books didn’t deal with, and they still don’t, indigenous people today, in the present. They don’t address violence against the indigenous peoples, including the fight for land, even though the Brazilian Constitution guarantees territorial rights for indigenous peoples. Clearly, this right is an original right, it predates the Constitution, but the Constitution does recognize it, it’s written that this State shall not demarcate indigenous territories.

There is a distancing between indigenous peoples’ reality, which is a constant struggle, constant resistance, and what society knows about us, or what the educational system teaches. This generates an alienation, and with it, the continuing ignorance of our own history. Because whoever doesn’t know the history of Brazil doesn’t know the history of the indigenous peoples, and doesn’t know themselves.

BdF: This is also something that happens when we talk about black people, their history is not discussed. Why don’t we bring this history into our schools? Why haven’t we succeeded in changing this?

SG: The very foundation of the country’s development plan, the foundation of the country’s economic plan is based on the extermination of indigenous peoples and the black population because we have always been seen as obstacles, as problems. President Jair Bolsonaro himself, when he was a federal deputy, put it very clearly when he said, “the cavalry of the United States was so competent that they managed to exterminate all the Indians, and today they do not have this problem.”

This is a totally criminal view, but it comes from the criminal processes of killing everyone who hindered development. So there’s always been this idea that progress comes from death. All the wealthy white elite, who have always been in charge of the country, will never permit a discussion about diversity in Brazil, to discuss the presence of diverse peoples, cultures, and territories.

So, for as long as we have conducted this struggle, this resistance, in the indigenous movement, in the black movement, we remain invisible. Our lives continue to be totally secondary, our rights are attacked or restricted and very little is achieved. All of this adds up to the elite who are in power, in charge, being able to continue saying what happens and what does not. Historically, we have been told where we belong, our limits. And we have carried out this fight because we are stubborn, resilient, and we will not accept this oppressive system, this permanent domination, we will not accept this imposition.

[Read next, Guilherme Boulos: How to stop the rise of fascism in Brazil.]

And as long as our people continue dying, they are dying in the struggle. That’s why I say that I was always in the fight, on the front line. Ever since I was learning my ABCs, I carried this unease with me that I couldn’t just watch, couldn’t see all this without reacting. Some time passed and I assumed a leadership post in the indigenous movement in the state of Maranhão for two terms, then I took on a role in the indigenous movement in the Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon, then the Confederation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil. It is a story of many struggles and challenges, but also a lot of courage because, despite everything we were told we could not do, we were breaking down barriers and kept occupying these spaces.

I came up from a local territory, I passed through the state, through the Amazon, through the national movement, and then I took on another place in the electoral arena, which went beyond the limits of the indigenous struggle. We joined this fight for the first time in history, it took 518 years for this to happen, and it was very significant for us.

BdF: This was the first election after the 2016 coup that threw Workers Party President Dilma Rousseff out of office in what was, obviously, a misogynist coup. And today research shows growing prejudiced attacks against women, both in the mainstream press and through Bolsonaro’s “hate office” on social media. Given all this, how do you evaluate women’s participation in politics in Brazil and why is it still so low?

SG: Exactly, there is still a very small number of women participating in politics, especially considering that women have assumed leading roles in many struggles. However, I think we have managed to take a leap in recent years. Although there is still a lot to be done for women to be recognized as having equal capabilities.

Even today, it is unfortunate that we see how many people won’t vote for a woman or trust a candidate just because she is a woman, because they still think politics is a place for men. It’s the machismo that is still totally out there that is very present, and it’s this machismo that grows louder when it comes to choosing, to electing representatives. It’s a sad reality, but that’s still the way it is. I think that we need to fight really strongly against this machismo if we want to take on more and more of these roles.

In addition to machismo, the electoral arena ends up being very unfair, very unfair in the campaign itself because people often vote to please others and votes are bought and sold. I think that we women, when we enter politics, people who come from social movements, from the frontlines of resistance, people who come mainly from the left, we come to make a difference. We come to change this way of doing politics. And every woman who enters this field, should keep in mind that our job is to change this way of doing politics. But people are very used to, accustomed to being able to vote in exchange for something, and if we don’t stoop to this, it reduces the votes needed to elect women by even more.

BdF: Are women encouraged within the parties?

SG: There is some encouragement, but I think it is still very tentative. The parties still prioritize those who have more experience, or who have more, perhaps, friendships. And, generally, those who have more experience are men because they have always been, throughout our whole history, occupying these places, while there are still very few of us women with this experience in political life. So when it comes to choosing who the parties prioritize, it is usually still the men. Only a few parties make a priority of women joining this field.

Given that, we have already seen several surveys after the elections demonstrating that many women were put on electoral lists only to fulfill, or to complement gender quotas. We have to raise this discussion more insistently so that women do not accept launching their candidacies just to supplement the quotas, but so that, in fact, women’s campaigns are priorities, they have equal incentives, and are able campaign just like any candidate.

My candidacy with Guilherme Boulos was very fair, very collaborate, not least because our attitude was that each candidate was equal, neither one being more or less important. Obviously, the political system itself forces you declare a candidate to lead the ticket, with a vice-president and such. But we adopted a co-candidacy campaign. This was understood internally, within the party. We ran a totally shared campaign with a shared agenda. I had full autonomy to create my own agenda, with resources dedicated to women. It was a very different experience, both because of the co-candidacy and because of the way our resources were used to facilitate autonomous agendas.

*Part 2 will appear on June 17.

[For international news and analysis from working-class and socialist points of view, read No Borders News.]

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