Eye on the Amazon

Notes from Brasilia: Pepper Spray, Turned Away and 513 Years of Fighting for Indigenous Rights

Kayapó Chief Raoni

"One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."Martin Luther King, Jr.

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How inspiring it was to hear the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. spoken from the heart of an indigenous warrior as he berated a Brazilian congressman who tried to mislead a crowd still full of energy after a full day of courageous action.

The massive national indigenous mobilization began earlier this week with prayers, songs and dance, followed by an assembly with an overarching message declaring, "We did not come here to stand around talking, nor to simply march around the congress. We came here to take action, and to get inside the house that is supposed to be of the people and for the people!" The protesters continued to march peacefully into the congressional building, now heavily surrounded by armed police officers.

As captured in a short video on the scene, the intention was to send a message of peaceful resistance to the Brazilian government through dancing and singing in front of the security. As groups gathered, security guards made a signal and pushed one of the protestors, inciting a brief skirmish followed by bursts of pepper spray on the non-violent protestors. This was a blatant and painful injustice emblematic of the treatment of indigenous peoples in today's Brazil.

Following the aggression, with his admirable grace and humility, legendary Kayapó Chief Raoni came around greeting each one of the officers. I wondered how small those officers must have felt with such an act of humility. Later a small commission of chiefs were able to get inside the congressional building and left with one more victory: a promise that PEC 215 – a proposed constitutional amendment that would roll back the demarcation of new indigenous territories by passing the authority to demarcate lands from the Executive to a Legislative branch that is increasingly hostile to indigenous rights – will be suspended.

Although a notable achievement, indigenous people closed the day affirming that they will not stop until they have all of their constitutional rights secured. One chief closed a powerful speech and the day, "Today we went to the judiciary, executive, and legislative, but this is only the beginning. The people governing this country think they have the power, and they forgot that there is a special force besides theirs: the force of the people! So we are here to make them remember. We are also part of the people and they will not shut us down."

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