The Xavante live on six reserves in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Colonial records place them farther east; as missionaries, settlers, slave hunters, and mineral prospectors intruded the territories the Xavante roamed in their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the Xavante moved westward. They settled along the Rio das Mortes and its tributaries.
In the late 1930s and 1940s, Xavante experienced renewed conflicts with peoples of European descent, as settlers and colonists began to move into the Rio das Mortes region. In 1946, after a period of extreme tension with settlers in the area, a Xavante group made their first peaceful contacts with representatives of Brazilian national society. Peaceful contacts with various disparate Xavante groups continued to be made throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
Today, the Xavante are remarkably prominent in the Brazilian media. If a citizen knows the name of one or two indigenous groups, chances are “Xavante” will be among them. However, the Xavante are generally portrayed in the media as a group of belligerent, self-serving ruffians. Through steady coverage of their negative interactions with FUNAI, Brazil’s national indigenous bureau, the Xavante have attained the dubious distinction of being social pariahs in the capital city of Brasília and the bane of FUNAI. This myopic coverage overlooks the desperate situation of many communities which motivates leaders to put pressure on this government institution. In addition, media coverage ignores the many innovative ways that some Xavante now use to draw attention to their plight.
Behind the barrage of Xavante leaders in Brasília are the critical needs of many communities. For example, health care is precarious in most Xavante communities, and virtually nonexistent in some. Although the Xavante have had higher birth rates in recent years, they have an extremely high proportion of infant and childhood deaths. Only 86 percent of children survive to 10 years. In many cases, death is the result of a treatable illness or poor sanitation. Gastrointestinal disease and respiratory infection account for a significant proportion of childhood deaths. In a number of communities, human waste enters water supplies that are then consumed by community members. Waste accumulation is exacerbated by the introduction of materials that do not rapidly decompose; contemporary villages are littered with plastics and toxic products such as batteries.
Dramatic changes in the Xavante diet, the result of sedentism and FUNAI development schemes, have also caused malnutrition and related health problems. A recent study in a Sangradouro community determined that 22 percent of children under age 10 had an energy-protein deficiency while 74 percent had anemia. FUNAI's "Xavante Project," which brought mechanized rice to all Xavante reserves in the 1970s and 1980s, created a nearly exclusive dependence on upland rice as the staple food. Meat and fish, the Xavante's principle protein sources, are scarce in most areas.
Diet changes are also manifesting themselves in an alarming incidence of diabetes. Diabetes is aggravated by the recently acquired taste for refined sugar, a dietary novelty, and in some areas by alcohol-particularly in communities such as in Areões that are located close to Brazilian towns.
The combination of poor health and geographic isolation is deadly for too many Xavante. Leaders’s demands for vehicles may seem outrageous to those unaware of the circumstances in which contemporary Xavante live, but viable means of transportation are essential to survival. Without trained health care providers in or near their communities, Xavante often must travel hundreds of miles to receive medical attention. Sometimes community members must travel as far to obtain prescription medications.
Land rights are a constant concern for the Xavante, as Brazilian farm owners encroach on the land the Xavante inhabit. One of the most serious threats to Xavante land is posed by the proposed Hidrovia-Araguaia Tocantins canal system. This project would enable shipping on the Rio das Mortes, which borders two of the Xavantes' largest reserves. It would cause irreparable environmental damage to the river system, pollute its waters, alter wetlands and destroy food sources on which the Xavante rely. The increased water traffic and population influx would mean more illegal trespassing onto Xavante lands and increased exposure to prostitution, alcoholism, and disease, including malaria which potentially could become endemic in Xavante areas. The Xavante reacted assertively to the Hidrovia and have thus far been victorious. They have networked with other indigenous groups and met with officials from FUNAI and IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, as part of a campaign that culminated in their a federal court order that currently prohibits work on the Hidrovia.
The Xavante's actions concerning the Hidrovia illustrate new modes of interaction with dominant society. Although the print media continues to focus attention on those leaders who persist in the old way of pestering FUNAI, new leaders are moving beyond these tactics. They are seeking autonomy from FUNAI, acting independently, and are forging ties with diverse segments of national and international society. Moreover, Xavante have begun to establish independent associations, which have proliferated in recent years. Nearly every Xavante community has its own association and is seeking collaborations with entities that have no affiliation with FUNAI.
Xavante associations and communities are working hard to disseminate information about their way of life and difficulties they currently face, as well as to instill respect for their culture among outsiders. In addition to performing and conducting seminars in schools or other educational settings, some Xavante have been able to appear in highly visible performance venues where they reach large audiences. For example, one community produced a video documentary titled A'uwê Uptabi, which was awarded the Paz e Cultura prize. The project also produced a book of Xavante myths and historical narratives.
Other Xavante are forging new ground and experimenting with electronic media to reach new and broader audiences. Jesus Xavante and his father Domingos Xavante, from the community of Dom Bosco in T.I. São Marcos, have developed an innovative CD-Rom which they premiered in two programs on Vitrine, the TV Cultura network's popular weekly new media show. Another group, Associação Warã, has pioneered the Xavante debut on the World Wide Web. Their site reports about environmental destruction in their native savannah and threats to their land. It also provides information on Xavante ways of living in and maintaining the environment.
These examples illustrate the innovative and impressive ways that many Xavante have broken away from their old styles of dealing with the outside world. It is now impossible to think of Xavante primarily in terms of their hard-nosed dealings with FUNAI. They are seeking new relationships with outsiders and new ways of interacting. Perhaps most exciting are the creative ways in which they are harnessing resources such as books and performances as well as the latest technologies including CD-Roms, the web, and videos to portray themselves, their way of life, and challenges they face.