500 years on, the Pataxo want more than white man's scraps

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The Independent US

Five hundred years after Portuguese sailors first sighted a lush green land in the South Atlantic Ocean, Brazil is paying homage to its colonial roots with a series of lavish celebrations.

On 22 April, national excitement will reach fever pitch as the country remembers its founding fathers - led by the explorer Pedro Alvarez Cabral.

In Porto Seguro, in the east of Brazil, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso will journey to the exact spot where the colonialists laid claim to the soil, for commemorations of the past five centuries.

But while many of the country's 150 million people join the party, some, such as Maria Pessoa das Neves, will be watching from the sidelines. The elderly woman, with her squat nose and red-brown skin, lives in a small, wooden shack on the shore near where the Portuguese landed. But, although she is listed as Maria Pessoa das Neves on all official documents, she does not think of herself by that name.

"I'm Jakutinga," she said proudly. "And I'm a Pataxo." Jakutinga, 66, is one of Brazil's 350,000 surviving Indians. When the Portuguese arrived in 1500, there were an estimated five million indigenous people living in Brazil.

As in other parts of the American continents, the natives were wiped out through a combination of "white man's diseases" that were alien to the Indian immune system and wars with the new settlers. Those who remain tell a very different history to the official version that will be paraded before the world this month.

"My life and my forefathers' lives have been difficult for a very long time," Jakutinga said. "There have been many struggles during the past 500 years and they are still not over." Shetells the story of the Pataxo simply. "We have lived in many different places. Each time people chased us away we travelled somewhere else in smaller and smaller groups. I moved here around 30 years ago because there was some big argument with landowners where I lived before. I don't know much about it but I remember they wanted us off their land."

In 1971, some of the Pataxo started to gather in Coroa Vermelha - a 20-minute drive from Porto Seguro and the place where the Portuguese celebrated their first mass in the new world. And on a small scrap of land, beside the main road, they founded a community.

From that day, the Pataxo have been waiting for the government to give them back land they had lived on before the Portuguese invaded. Already, some 10,000 hectares have been handed over as compensation for territory taken during the colonial period. But another 23,000 hectares, which they claim was traditionally occupied by their people, is still being fought over. This is why the 500th anniversary is important to the Pataxo. They are aware that for the first time in Brazil's history, all eyes will be on them. "We all know this is the time to draw attention to our cause because they won't want us to make trouble when the important people visit," Jakutinga said.

The rest of Brazil's 210 tribes are supporting the Pataxo's fight for land. A few days before the celebrations, Indians from across the country will gather at Coroa Vermelha. Their organisers expect around 2,000 indigenous people to make their presence felt through protests at the official festivities.

Sumario Santana, of the Indianist Missionary Council, has worked with the Pataxo for more than a decade. "We have been waiting a long time for this moment to come," he said. "All the work we have ever done leads to this.

"The Pataxo know that they symbolise all of Brazil's Indians. They know that everything they've struggled for during the past 500 years could be given to them because now is the time for the country to correct past wrongdoings. And they won't let this moment pass without a fight."

Not all the Pataxo live in Coroa Vermelha. The rest of the 5,000-strong community is scattered across three different sites in the state of Bahia. But wherever they live, the tribe makes a living from either agriculture or tourism.

The 150 families that live alongside Jakutinga sell wooden handicrafts to tourists. The people here are predominantly poor; they live without running water and without land to grow vegetables. And constant contact with white outsiders has all but washed their culture away. Only a few elderly Pataxo remember their native tongue, while the younger generation are too interested in material acquisition to bother about the tribe's ancient ways.

For nearly 30 years, the Pataxo in Coroa Vermelha have been eking out a living from tourism. But, of late, many changes have occurred in their lives. During the past six months, hundreds of workmen have been arriving at their rural slum for a massive clean-up operation paid for by the Brazilian government.

Already, they have built the community's first school and are now constructing a shopping centre for the Pataxo to sell their crafts, a cultural centre to preserve the tribe's history and a museum that explains the culture of Brazil's indigenous Indians. Perhaps most importantly, 250 solid brick houses are also being built for the tribe, although only 13 have been completed.

Jose Augusto Sampaio, an anthropologist of the National Association for Indigenous Action, says this massive undertaking by authorities is a last-minute attempt to give the place a facelift before the dignitaries descend.

"The Pataxo have never been given so much and it is obvious that the government wants people to believe that they live well and have access to lots of resources. But thereality is very different," he said. "They think this will keep the Pataxo quiet, but after 500 years of oppression it is going to take a lot more to make amends."

Benedito Alves do Espirito Santo, or Arapaty, will celebrate his 50th birthday this month. A former tribal chief, he is still a member of the Pataxo's revered council of leaders. Sitting in his sparsely furnished living room, dressed in jeans and flip-flops, he reflects on the lives of his people.

"I'm not saying that the houses and things are bad but they are a white man's vision," he said.

"Some of our people can't even read, so what use is a museum?

"To me this party and all this building work is just like the day the Portuguese arrived. It's an invasion all over again. But while we can, we'll take advantage of their sudden generosity."

Bene, as he calls himself, admits that many of the Pataxo's traditional ways have been lost since the Portuguese first discovered Brazil. And he says the tribal elders are now trying hard to recapture some of their community's vanished past by teaching Indian values to the young.

"It is the duty of the Pataxo to remind the world that Brazil's Indians are still alive," he said. "And until that day of celebration, we will keep asking for what is rightfully ours. Because, when that party is over, they will forget us again soon enough. That much I'm sure of."