The inspirational and exemplary story of the Vilas-Boas brothers is not one has been told often. Their pioneering work between the 1940s and 1970s in Brazil with the native Xingu peoples garnered them international recognition and acclaim and set in motion the wheel for the simultaneous preservation of the rights of indigenous people and their careful integration into modern society in that country.
In 1938 the Brazilian government led by Getúlio Vargas, a determined politician who set his sights on a highly industrialized Brazil launched a program known as the March To The West. Its goal was to expand European settlement further inland into the central and eastern parts of the country thereby taking control of extensive land endowed with natural resources. Up to this point much of the country’s development had centred on the coastal regions and accommodated its lucrative trade by sea. This project intended to reverse the country’s ailing economic fortunes with new business, introducing migrants from the World Wars and stretching the reach of the government into territory previously held by the indigenous populations. By the late 20th century the projects had been deemed to be a success by several successive governments.
As part of the many expeditions of the project, there was one which included the then still unknown Vilas-Boas brothers in 1943. Claudio, Orlando and Leonardo, brothers from a family of eleven children from the interior part of the state of São Paulo took part in the Roncadur-Xingu expedition. At first the brothers were turned away by the general who considered them educated – illiterates were the preferred candidates for exploring the virgin territories of the country. Unfortunately, the unjust and segregational attitudes of the day also meant that they expected to work long hours and with little reward. However the brothers persevered hoping they would secure a senior role with the expedition.
It was not long after the expedition had begun that the men made in-roads into the central and western parts of the country that first contact was made with Indians – the Xingu. Soon after political changes favoured the brothers and they became the principal leads of the expedition. With the support of Marechal Candido Rondan (a keen explorer and an advocate of the Indians), the nature of the expedition changed. Its original goal to expand European settlement and to acquire natural resources was complemented with the aspiration of preserving the life of the Indians.
If we think our goal in this short-lived passage on Earth, is to accumulate wealth, then we have nothing to learn from the Indians. But if we believe that man’s ideal rests in the equilibrium between his family and his community, then we have many extraordinary lessons to learn from the Indians
Leonardo died in 1961 but Orlando and Claudio had continued work setting up over thirty airstrips, establishing settlements for new towns and laying the groundwork for roads between them. Probably their most cherished accomplishment however was Xingu National Park. With the threat of the encroaching European industrialists and indifferent government officials, the brothers realised what could only amount to a direct threat to the Xingu way of life was imminent. Already the isolated tribe had suffered uncommon epidemics for which they knew no cure brought by the visiting explorers, it was only a matter of time before they would be enslaved, oppressed and forced to conform to a culture too different from their own. The brothers scrambled to obtain the necessary land and moved thousands of Indians into the park, maintaing a space for each tribe so there would not be inter-tribal disputes or violence. In this context, the Indians would over the next thirty years come into contact with the world and taught skills advantageous for the modern economy.
Why was the goal of preserving the culture of the Indians important?
– Prevalent supremacist attitudes against non-Europeans would force them to change their culture while simultaneously insisting that the European system was ‘correct’
– Drive to acquire resources at all cost meant that they would become yet another underclass of peoples, subservient and part of a segregated society with few rights
– Lack of laws to protect individuals inhabiting a piece of land would force them to be in a constant state of geographical flight
Was preservation the only goal?
– Objective was also to slowly introduce the Indians to the modern world
– To do this at a rate that would not become harmful to Indians societal norms
– To instill a latent sense of curiosity about in Indians about worlds they had not yet seen
Why was integrating them into mainstream society important?
– All men are created equal and have basic rights which include education, health and shelter
– Accept that integration is inevitable and ultimately beneficial for mankind’s advancement
– Ensuring that Indians would be able to actively participate in the laws governing the country
– Changing perceptions in a country to include all its people and to avoid segregational laws