The Pataxó people of Brazil: the recreation of a culture

by Alexis Ulrich

Their history

In Porto Seguro, on the Discovery Coast in 1500, the Tupiniquins, who were speaking the Tupi language, were living on the coast in their villages surrounded by plantations. They have been integrated and acculturated in the new society until their total assimilation. Other indigenous people (Pataxó, Maxakali, Kamacã and Botocudos), whose languages belong to the Macro-Jê language group, were living in nearby coastal forests, in a a semi-nomadic way, hunting and gathering. Since the beginning, there has been a clear opposition between farmers and hunter-gatherers.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Pataxó, already evicted from their traditional lands like the other natives, were living near the colonial villages on the coast. In 1861, the government of the province of Bahia concentrated all the indigenous people in one village: Barra Velha. Acculturation was even more accelerated with the model of the Métis (the caboclos), already integrated into the system of subsistence and the small local business.

In 1951, a clash opposed the Pataxó to a neighboring village, and the natives were scattered throughout the region by police violence and persecution. Some returned the following years, married with White, Black and Métis people. Before this episode, the Pataxó only married among themselves.

In 1961, a Presidential Decree ratified the National Park of Mount Pascal which incorporated all the lands occupied by the natives. As a result, the natives could not exploit natural resources any more, neither plant, nor harvest, nor fish. They could only survive thanks to the compensation of the state.

In 1969, the FUNAI (National Indian Foundation) managed for them to have the right to use part of the territory, but lands were insufficient and their poor quality made their productivity too low.

In the early 70, as the Porto Seguro region was dedicating itself to tourism, and under the stimulation of the Funai officials and the shopkeepers, the natives developed their handicraft production. The Pataxó culture having been destroyed, they used patterns of the Xerente people. They then moved to Coroa Vermelha where both tourism entrepreneurs as the public authorities wanted typical Indians to sell the produced handicraft.

In 1998, thirty Pataxó occupied the Jaqueira reservation, a forest area, to live as their ancestors did and to exploit eco-tourism. This area is called nowadays the Coroa Vermelha Indigenous Land.

The Pataxó culture

From the time of its discovery to the present day, the history of the Pataxó people has been a series of acculturation episodes with the creation of artificial villages where natives from different indigenous groups were relocated, where they had to speak the Portuguese language (or the general language invented by the Jesuits based on a Tupinambá vocabulary and a Portuguese grammar), losing their language, their way of life, their beliefs.

With the external factor of tourism pressure and the internal factor of the group to see themselves as an authentic people, the Pataxó reinvented their language, the Patxohã (or language of the Pataxó warrior), more than they revitalized it (it has a Portuguese grammatical structure and a Maxakali vocabulary). They also invented body paintings they were not using in the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 2001, they held a seminar that defined the patterns of body painting and attributed a meaning to each of them.

This assertion of identity with diacritics, or differentiating, signals to show (and see) themselves as a full group, meets the stereotypes of Brazilian society, and primarily those of the Indians of the First Mass. But it goes even further, because it is part of a path from the community self-esteem to sustainability (both economic and cultural), towards the Pataxó self-determination. Thus we can truly move from the indigenous to the native Indian. However, the native lands of Brazil belong to the federal state and not to the natives, which means that this is a protection of nature and biodiversity, not of the natives. They are not private lands, but common land to all the Brazilian people.


If the history of the reclaiming of their culture by the Pataxó could serve as an example for other indigenous people, the struggles of indigenous peoples in Brazil are not as peaceful as theirs. Guaranis are killed by landowners in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where they claim their ancestral lands. On November 18, 2011, the cacique Nísio Gomes, 59 years old, was assassinated in front of his community and his body removed.

“Between 2003 and 2010, there were 250 natives murdered only in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul: more than half of the total deaths of 452 natives recorded throughout Brazil.” (source: Report on violence against indigenous peoples in Brazil, pdf in Portuguese)


Photo credit: Calliopejen