Eliane Lima dos Santos, otherwise known as Eliane Potiguara, a member of the Potiguara tribe, has organized a nationwide network of indigenous women in an effort to guarantee a better future for Brazil's 220,000 Indians.
Eliane was born in Rio de Janeiro after her family emigrated from the impoverished state of Paraiba, home of the Potiguara Indians. Raised in a favela, or shantytown, she was ridiculed by other children because of her Indian descent. But she drew strength from her mother and her maternal grandmother, "women with a real fighting spirit," strong role models who made numerous sacrifices to guarantee an education for Eliane. At a young age she discovered her vocation for teaching: when she was just twelve years old she studied half days and worked the rest of the day at the neighborhood school teaching students to read and write, in exchange for a small salary and donations of food. In high school, she taught primary school in the mornings, attended her own school in the afternoons, and worked as a telephone operator at night--every day of the week, including Saturdays and Sundays. After graduating, she taught at rural schools for a few more years before attending the university, where she developed an interest in indigenous linguistics. With two children in tow, she quit teaching and traveled to Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil to study the Guarani Indians, particularly the societal role of women. Later, she returned to her roots, living among the Potiguara Indians, where her third child was born. Back in Rio de Janeiro, she helped create an advisory group for indigenous affairs at the city council. Eliane participates actively in a number of Brazilian organizations, such as the Union of Indigenous Nations.
Eliane has organized the Group of Indigenous Women Educators, known as GRUMIN. So far, there are twenty-six regional coordinators implementing a basic program of education and consciousness-raising among women in hundreds of villages. The women are given an eighty-page booklet that in simple, clear terms and pictures explains the history of indigenous people in Brazil, and their contribution to the country's history. For most of the women, it is the first time they have been made aware of events occurring outside their communities and given an opportunity to reflect about their own situation as women and native Brazilians. In the process, the older women are encouraged to share their knowledge of the indigenous group's history and traditions. Craft workshops are organized to keep local customs alive.The idea behind the group is to strengthen self-esteem and foment awareness among Indian women who are the bearers of tradition, heads of families, and pillars of their communities, but who have been discriminated against both as native Brazilians and as women. They are learning that they are citizens with the right to a good education, decent medical care, and a reasonable amount of land on which to engage in their traditional subsistence activities of farming, hunting, or fishing. And by learning how to operate within the Brazilian political system, these women will be more capable of ensuring those rights for their families."The result of this educational process is that women realize that they are proud of and want to preserve their cultural traditions and values," says Eliane. "They also realize that their survival as a people and as native Brazilians is threatened by the lack of economic alternatives." Eliane works with the women and the other members of the community to find income-generating activities rooted in their traditions and based on their skills. For instance, Eliane's ancestral village in the northeast of Brazil is bringing back traditional fishing--an activity that allowed her great-grandmother to add protein to the family diet and other goods to the household through the then prevailing barter system. Through the years this activity declined: the wood used in making the traditional canoes was gone, and competition from professional fisherman became intense. Today Eliane is revitalizing this small industry with better boats and techniques so that once again it will enrich both the local diet and economy.
Before the Portuguese explorers arrived in 1500, there were an estimated three to five million Indians in Brazil. The indigenous women enjoyed important decision-making power within their communities, but that changed when the colonizers forced many Indians to work, under slave-like conditions, on plantations. Traditional social structures and family roles suffered badly even where groups of Indians survived. Today only 220,000 Indians survive in Brazil. Since the beginning of the century, they have been treated in a patronizing, often corrupt fashion by a series of government agencies. Official assistance programs, rather than encouraging indigenous groups to continue their traditional economic activities, such as farming, hunting, and fishing, handed out food and medicine, creating a destructive dependence that continues today. For decades, the Indians were legally considered wards of the state, unable to make decisions for themselves. The new Brazilian constitution, written in 1988, did away with that tutelage, ensured Indians unprecedented rights, and required the demarcation of all Indian lands. "But to date few of these provisions have been implemented, and even fewer Indian groups are organized enough to take advantage of these newly gained rights," notes Eliane.
Eliane also wants to multiply the number of regional education groups participating in the GRUMIN project, as well as increase circulation of the GRUMIN newspaper and educational videos. Seminars, as well as regional and international conferences are being planned to bring women from a number of indigenous groups together to share experiences. An ambitious, long-term goal is to create a center for professional training and leadership formation for indigenous women in the centrally located Mato Grosso or Goias states. There, women would participate in three month-long courses to develop leadership and management skills. In addition they would learn to further develop their handicrafts--weaving, ceramics, basketry, painting, and sewing--to create an additional source of family income. Upon returning to their communities, these women would be in charge of offering a similar course to their neighbors. "It is our hope to stimulate cultural and political consciousness-raising among indigenous women nationwide as well as to encourage them to develop variants of traditional products (analogous to, for example, Navajo jewelry) that will enjoy great value in the market," Eliane explains.