Ailton Krenak
“We Have Always Been at War”

© Marina Camargo, 2019​

In an interview, writer thinker, and one of the most important activists of the Brazilian indigenous movement, Ailton Krenak, talks about the ideas of belonging and resistance that permeate the struggle of indigenous populations of the American continent.

How do you define belonging?

For me, belonging has nothing to do with the utilitarian concept of some cultures, mainly those strongly influenced by Western thought, which associate it with the idea of country and nationalism. To belong to a place is to be part of it, to be an extension of the landscape, the river, the mountain. It is having your elements of culture, history and traditions in that place. In other words, instead of giving meaning to the place, the place gives meaning to your existence.

The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro contends that belonging to the land, rather than owning it, is what defines indigenous peoples. Do you agree with him?

Yes! Human beings are not superior to any other living being on the planet and, therefore, the idea of wanting to own some portion of the Earth seems absurd to me. There is a letter attributed to Chief Seattle, Ts´ial-la-kum, written in the 19th century in response to then President of the United States, Franklin Pearce’s proposal, who wanted to buy the indigenous territories of the Suquamish and Duwamish peoples in the region of what is today the state of Washington (USA). In one excerpt, the indigenous leader said the following: “Is it possible to buy or sell the sky and the warmth of the earth? Such an idea is foreign to us. If we don’t have the freshness of the air and the glimmer of water, how can you buy them? Every inch of this land is sacred to my people.” He wasn’t only talking about those territories; he was talking about the Earth, that living, fantastic organism, of which we are a part as a condition for our existence. The ambition to own a place leads human beings to detach themselves from the Earth and observe the world from the outside, as if they did not participate in its wholeness. This detachment makes, for instance, some people look at a mountain only to calculate how many tons of ore they can extract from it.

In your book “Ideias para adiar o fim do mundo” (Ideas to Postpone the End of the World), released in 2019, you write: “When we depersonalize the river, the mountain, when we strip them of their meaning – an attribute we hold to be the preserve of the human being – we relegate these places to the level of mere resources for industry and extractivism.” Can you talk more about this?

The Krenak village is on the left bank of the Rio Doce, in the state of Minas Gerais, and to its right is Takukrak Mountain, which is a kind of oracle for us. Every morning, we look to it to know what the day is going to be like. When the dawn brings clear clouds floating around, adorning its peak, it’s a sign that we can go out and dance, fish, celebrate. When it seems to have few friends floating around, we remain quieter. But in my book, I also talk about our relationship with the river, which we call Watu and consider an ancestor, an elder, our grandfather. In 2015, it was so profoundly affected by an environmental crime [Editor’s note: the rupture of the Fundão dam, in Minas Gerais, by the mining company Samarco, controlled by multinationals Vale and BHP Billiton, which killed 19 people and contaminated the entire Rio Doce basin, with a length of more than 600 km] that the press announced its death. That episode affected our lives in a radical way: we had neither water, nor fish, nor a place for our rituals and festivals. The children could no longer play there.

When the Federal and State Public Ministries began to put pressure on Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton to provide reparations to the Krenak for the damages they suffered from the toxic sludge from mining, the first thing the consortium of companies wanted to do was remove us from our land. And we refused. They – the companies – asked us: Are you going to stay here like scourges now that the river is dead? And we replied: The river is an extension of our family. We’re going to stay here to watch over it. That can be incomprehensible to minds dissociated from the idea of belonging to a place.

How do you assess the situation of indigenous populations in Brazil with the current government’s dismantling of environmental and indigenist policy?

In 2018, a little before the election of President Jair Bolsonaro, a Portuguese newspaper asked me: “How are Indians going to do with all of this?” I replied: “Indians have been resisting for 500 years. What worries me are the whites. What are they going to do to get out of this one?” And up to now, I haven’t seen a more forceful attitude on the part of the whites in relation to the government’s attacks on the environment, education, culture, and social policies. I thought the political parties would build a huge coalition to confront this neoliberal project, but nothing happened. People seem anesthetized. We indigenous peoples continue to resist, but I see Bolsonaro’s government as yet another chapter in our colonial struggle, which began in 1500, when the Portuguese invaded our territories, and continue to do so today. The model of occupation of America by the Europeans aimed at exterminating the native populations and throughout that time we never had peace. We’ve always been at war.

Is it possible to postpone the end of the world?

I say in my book that in order to postpone the end of the world, we need to reaffirm the meaning of life in society; we need to be able to experience the pleasure of being alive, of dancing and singing. We, human beings, need to keep our subjectivities alive, our visions and our poetics about existence and value diversity, because homogenizing humanity is a way of robbing us of our joy.

* This interview was originally published in Humboldt.

Ailton Krenak (1953) has been an activist in the indigenous and socio-environmental movement since the 1970s, having contributed to the creation of the Union of Indigenous Nations in the 1980s. In 2016, he was awarded the title of Doctor Honoris Causa by the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, in Minas Gerais.  His book Ideias para adiar o fim do mundo, released in 2019, was celebrated by the public and critics alike.