I practiced my greetings in Guarani several times before approaching Élida Oliveira. Élida, who doesn’t speak Portuguese, had arrived that morning in the town of Amambai, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, deep in Brazil’s agricultural heartland and less than an hour’s drive from Paraguay. She was accompanied by officials from Funai, the federal agency responsible for indigenous affairs in Brazil. Élida had traveled there to explain how, three years earlier, local health agents and representatives of the municipal Guardianship Council in the city of Dourados, where she lives, had arrived to remove her newborn child from her custody.
“The child, they took him when he was only 8 days old. She asks that you not take away her children again.”
Two-hundred women listened in silence to Élida’s testimony, given in her native language Guarani, an indigenous language of central South America. A local named Wanda Kuña Rendy had volunteered to translate Élida’s words to Portuguese for the authorities in attendance, but she was only able to get through a few sentences before bursting into tears. “The child, they took him when he was only 8 days old,” Rendy said. “She asks that you not take away her children again.”
Élida smiled when I asked for an interview, but she was hesitant to allow her youngest child to leave her lap as we recorded. As a researcher, I had prepared to attend the sixth annual Kuñangue Aty, a large gathering of women from the Kaiowá and Guarani indigenous communities, to focus on the prayers and songs that marked the nights and days of the meeting, from the initial reception to the final debates. As an ethnographer or a reporter, however, I was compelled to pay attention to the issues afflicting the human beings involved. “Why has the number of indigenous children in institutional care increased so much in the last year?” I wondered. Janete Alegre, organizer of the Amambai meeting, asked, “Is there now a law that says indigenous children must be taken from their indigenous families and given to the whites?”
In the sprawling municipality of Dourados alone — with a population of some 200,000 people in an area twice the size of Los Angeles — 50 indigenous children were living in shelters at the end of 2017, according to a study by the Funai Regional Office. By July 2018, 34 remained separated from their families. I discovered the stories of Élida and other mothers in Dourados are just the tip of the iceberg. Uncountable communities suffer from the complex problems associated with the state taking indigenous children from their families. There are indications of even more serious irregularities in the processes where the children are taken, which have been monitored since 2010 by Funai, the Public Defender’s Office, and the Federal Public Ministry.
“The institution says that she is poor, that she lives in an unauthorized occupation,” shouts Jaqueline Gonçalves, a young member of the Kaiowá leadership. “Institutions need to respect us. This is the genocide of indigenous peoples!” Her words invoked the violence inflicted upon the Kaiowá and Guarani peoples in Brazil since the beginning of the 20th century. The local family court alleges mistreatment and neglect, as well as drug and alcohol problems, to justify the separation of children from their mothers.
“They claim that our children are dirty. But of course! We live off the land and cook over open fires,” a group of women wrote in a letter signed by participants of the Amambai meeting. Demanding that alternatives be found within the villages themselves, as mandated by the federal Statute for Children and Adolescents, these women want to have the right to follow the traditions of child care passed down from their ancestors. You should eat food from your place of origin and sing to newborn babies, they said.