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Indigenous women are showing us how to fight for environmental and human rights

September 25, 2023

During a recent trip to Brazil, I saw how Indigenous women activists there have completely changed the political landscape

Iwas invited to the third Indigenous Women’s March in Brasília, the capital of Brazil, earlier this month. The last occupation of Brazil’s legislature was in January 2022, when a group of rightwing thugs, imitating the January 6 riot in the US, attempted to kill Brazilian democracy. This was the exact opposite.

Five hundred Indigenous women from across Brazil occupied the Congress – not with guns or knives or anger, but with the strength and truth of their words, the intensity of their knowing, with their headdresses, feathers and beaded primordial designs calling us to the earth, to know the earth, to protect and respect the biomes and honor Indigenous women’s rights to their lands.

There, in a space dominated by conservative white men in suits, deep in the business of mining, timber, agro-business and evangelizing – Indigenous women, once only a few, pepper-sprayed and excluded – now had their sisters as they walked through the front door with a sense of belonging, pride, pageantry and urgency. They opened with their version of the national anthem, sung by Djuena Tikuna in her Indigenous language. Those who suffered the “violence of absence” for years were suddenly undeniably present.

It hasn’t even been a year since two Indigenous leaders, Sônia Guajajara and Célia Xakriabá, were elected to Congress in Brazil. (Guajajara was later appointed minister of Indigenous peoples.) In their very short time in power – through brilliant organizing to claim demarcation of Indigenous lands, unapologetic assertion of their Indigenous culture, and mobilizing thousands of Indigenous women throughout the country, they have already shifted the policies and political landscape of Brazil.

Guajajara told me, “Many people are saying that Brasília is now breathing new air, that you can already see many cocares [headdresses] and wraps of black women within government spaces on the streets of Brasília, and we are present in all environments. So, it is certainly not just a physical presence, but also a different energy that we bring to this place, which is the energy of ancestral strength.”

What I experienced during my recent time in Brazil was nothing less than a radical re-imagining of the country’s future, but it also felt like the beginning of what many Indigenous women there are calling for – a much broader and more global agenda, a “reforesting” of politics and the mind. Before I had not been terribly hopeful; I am now.

Here are four reasons why:

1. The fight for a new bill to protect Indigenous women from violence

Indigenous women have experienced ongoing severe violence since 1500, when Brazil was invaded. As Xakriabá told me: “Every attempt at missionization begins with women and is very violent. People talk about mining, but what happened this year that horrified the world with the Yanomami issue was the illegal mining, malaria, and girls aged 10 to 12 being raped in exchange for food. So, it is not possible to watch this without thinking about addressing violence against Indigenous women.”

Legislation to combat violence against Indigenous women has never been considered. There is the important Maria da Penha Law against gendered violence, but it was not designed for Indigenous women, who represent 305 different peoples in Brazil and 274 different languages. There are Indigenous societies that are matriarchal, and there are Indigenous societies that are patriarchal; this law did not take into account the specificity and the care needed.

Comprehensive legislation to protect women from violence needs to include educational initiatives in schools so that children today do not become perpetrators of violence against women tomorrow.

Marina Silva, Anielle Franco, Sonia Guajajara, and Célia Xakriabá attend the inauguration ceremony of the new Brazilian deputies.
Marina Silva, Anielle Franco, Sônia Guajajara, and Célia Xakriabá attend the inauguration ceremony of the new Brazilian deputies. Photograph: Sérgio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

“So many times Indigenous women are killed and not counted,” Xakriabá said. “We don’t know how to count our dead. But if they don’t count us when we are alive, imagine when we are killed.”

2. The strategic and successful sisterhood of Indigenous women working inside and outside the government

Xakriabá and Guajajara were frontline activists long before they were part of the government. With Braulina Baniwa they co-founded Anmiga, a powerful activist group uniting and empowering Indigenous women, helping them gain visibility and come into political power.

Anmiga focuses on working to infiltrate three state powers – the legislative, executive and judicial – and the “fourth” power, Indigenous presence in Brazil, with the power of Indigenous women. In a very short time Anmiga activists were responsible for a massive campaign that ultimately elected three Indigenous women to Congress.

The week I was there, Anmiga was able to bring and unite hundreds of women in a bustling encampment where plenaries were held discussing critical issues and concerts showcased powerful Indigenous music. Then there was the march itself, in which an estimated 8,000 Indigenous women and hundreds of non-Indigenous women took to the scorching streets.

At the Decolonizing Fashion show, hundreds of attendees got to see a runway parade of traditional outfits – embroidered tunics, beaded dresses and waistcoats, intricate headdresses – from more than 20 Indigenous stylists. The pride and nonstop photo-taking and appreciative energy from the crowd felt more like rock concert than a fashion show.

An Indigenous woman presents a creation from Indigenous designers during a fashion event at the third March of Indigenous Women in Brazil.
An Indigenous woman presents a creation from Indigenous designers during a fashion event at the third March of Indigenous Women in Brazil. Photograph: Adriano Machado/Reuters

Xakriabá told me: “Decolonizing fashion is also taking our culture in our clothes. Our bodies are territory and what we wear is the fight too.” The headdress is a covering long denied women. Xakriabá and Guajajara have taken it back.

Guajajara said: “The headdress is our identity; it’s also a symbol of strength. When you wear a headdress, you feel much larger, much stronger and we are continually improving the use of headdresses. Women are wearing them more frequently, so it doesn’t mean it can’t change. Culture is not static. You can improve it. For me, the headdress is truly a symbol of resistance and identity.”

3. Women saying no to marco temporal

One of the focuses of the march was protesting marco temporal, a controversial, anti-Indigenous legal concept currently under debate by the Brazilian supreme court and senate. The marco temporal thesis claims that Indigenous people are only entitled to demarcation of lands if they were in official possession of them as of 5 October 1988.

Marco temporal would have left protected peoples and biomes vulnerable to further settler violence and environmental extraction and denied ancestral rights. Indigenous activism has already paid off as on Thursday the supreme court overruled marco temporal in a majority vote.

4. Reforest politics and the mine

Here’s what Indigenous women taught me

To reforest politics means to engage in actions that heal, that regenerate, that highlight diversity, that understand that the biomes are our salvation. Our ecosystems are in catastrophic danger and Indigenous people know how to care for and keep them alive.

Reforesting politics means to know our history, to educate ourselves as to when and how lands were stolen and who their original caretakers were and then create the mechanisms to give them back. Reforesting politics means that one single tree, one single person is only as strong as the forest or community. We need to bring an ethics of care and solidarity, beauty and poetry to every place where the necro-patriarchal machine is rapidly and rapaciously digging its extractive and murderous claws. It means honoring the generosity and wisdom of Indigenous women who protect our lives while risking their own.

In Sônia’s words: “For the coronavirus, a vaccine was possible, but to address climate change, it’s solely the consciousness of human beings. Indigenous peoples make up only 5% of the world’s population, yet we protect 82% of the remaining biodiversity on the planet … If our rights are threatened, this biodiversity is also in danger. If this biodiversity ceases to exist, all people are at risk. It’s a truly necessary connection – a fundamental understanding of who we, Indigenous peoples, are, and what we represent for all people.”

  • V (formerly Eve Ensler) is a playwright and author, most recently, of Reckoning
nd the mind

Here’s what the Indigenous women taught me.