Maria Jussara Gomes Gruber

This description of Maria Jussara Gomes Gruber's work was prepared when Maria Jussara Gomes Gruber was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .

Introduction

Jussara Gruber is helping the Ticuna indigenous people in Amazonas State to establish stronger identity and self-respect by organizing an ethnographic Museum reflecting the Ticuna's own priorities. The Museum she has established serves as an important tool for helping the Ticuna defend their culture and lands against predatory landowners and loggers, and as a broader instrument for indigenous people's resistance, values, and rights within Brazilian society.

The New Idea

Jussara Gruber believes that an ethnographic museum organized and structured by the direct descendants of those who created the artifacts can help rescue social and cultural values threatened by mainstream society, and build tribal identity and individual self-respect. By enabling an indigenous group to display its culture and history and to reveal its essential cultural values and politico-economic concerns, such a museum serves as an important instrument of the indigenous society, supporting the tribe and its traditions as a contemporary, living culture and refuting claims that indigenous peoples have no future. Embodying this concept, Jussara's Museum enables the Ticuna indigenous people to display objects that have the greatest cultural and sentimental value for them and to present them in ways that make sense to them. Located in the town of Benjamin Constant, in Amazonas, the Museum is unique in Brazil–the first to be located near an indigenous area and the first to be organized and managed with the participation of the indigenous people themselves. Under Jussara's tutelage, the museum enables the Ticuna to escape from the discriminatory ideas of mainstream society. It also combats widely held prejudices by introducing the Ticuna to society at large through their beautiful artistic productions.Jussara's idea turns the traditional practices of ethnographic museums on their head. Most museum exhibits are organized according to the curator's or collector's preconceptions. In marked contrast, Jussara's Museum is organized according to the criteria and interests of the originators of its artifacts, and is thus more revealing of the culture itself.

The Problem

Brazil's indigenous peoples have long experienced violence, discrimination, social isolation, and oppression by the mainstream, nonindigenous population. Not surprisingly, the Ticuna and other indigenous peoples of the Upper Solimões River (and elsewhere in Brazil) are strongly affected by social disturbances resulting from their difficult and complex contacts with mainstream Brazilian society.

The Ticuna's 26,000 people are Brazil's most populous indigenous group. They live in some ninety-five villages in Amazonas, scattered along the banks of the Upper Solimões River and its tributaries and islands. In spite of long contact with mainstream society, the Ticuna maintain many important traditional cultural practices, including initiation rites, shamanism, mythology, language, and arts. Their population density, cultural awareness, and living traditions make the Ticuna the dominant culture of the Upper Solimões River.

Never easy, the Ticuna's relations with mainstream society have worsened in recent years. Ticuna efforts to establish land boundaries and reclaim their own territory have met with increasing opposition from local nonindigenous leaders (and landowners and storekeepers in particular), who have viewed such efforts as reducing their access to the Ticuna's resources and diminishing their ability to exploit Ticuna labor. The conflict exploded into violence in 1988, when fourteen Ticunas of the Capacete community were massacred and twenty-five were wounded on the order of a timber merchant. "We were regarded (and killed) by the white people as if we were animals," the beleaguered Ticuna reported.

The Strategy

In 1986, Jussara helped found the Magüta Museum and Documentation and Research Center of the Upper Solimões, in the town of Benjamin Constant, in Amazonas, close to the Ticuna lands (and Brazil's border with Peru and Colombia). The Center was founded to study the history and culture of the indigenous peoples of the Upper Solimões River; to train indigenous peoples and support projects in education, health care, and the environment; to advise the indigenous peoples on human rights and citizenship; and to support Ticuna organizations.

Spurred by the 1988 massacre, Jussara reoriented the Magüta Museum by involving the Ticuna themselves, emphasizing Ticuna concepts of culture and history, strengthening their pride in their own culture and achievements, and building their identity and self- esteem. Through meetings, conversations, travels, and research, Jussara helped the Ticuna understand the instruments, languages, and techniques important for the creation of a museum in their own image.

Jussara's current strategy emphasizes publicizing and consolidating the Museum. Her achievements include a library of 2,500 books about the Ticuna and other indigenous tribes of Brazil and the Americas, ecology, anthropology, travelers' tales, and the history of the Amazon. In 1995 a Ticuna, Constantino Ramos Lopes, trained by Jussara to be the Museum's curator and administrator, took part in the XVII the General International Council of Museums (ICOM) Congress in Norway, where he received an invitation for the Ticuna people to mount an exhibition in Holland's Museum of the Royal Tropical Institute in 1996. Several Brazilian museums have also displayed Ticuna-organized exhibitions, and In 1995, the Magüta Museum was awarded the title of "Symbol Museum of Brazil" by ICOM's Brazilian Committee and received the "Rodrigo Melo Franco de Andrade" National Prize for community museums.

Students at Rio de Janeiro's Federal University plan to study the Magüta Museum as a project in new museum concepts. Each year the museum attracts more than 1,000 visitors, including foreign tourists, school children, researchers, teachers, local residents, and the Ticuna themselves.

Jussara's current objectives include consolidating her work, extending the Museum's outreach nationally and internationally, and finding ways to make it self-sustaining. In particular, Jussara wants to deepen the training and participation of the Ticuna that are already working in the Museum, and to increase their number, level of participation, and responsibility through an internship program. Her main objective is to increase the Ticuna's access to the techniques of administering museums so they can manage and expand the Museum's activities.

The Person

Jussara's work with the Ticuna stems from her interest and training in the arts and her studies of anthropology, linguistics, and education. She spent four years as a researcher in the Ethnography and Ethnology Sector of Brazil's National Museum.

Since 1981, Jussara has devoted herself to the Ticuna indigenous people. She has participated in the General Council of the Ticuna Tribe and its activities to define land boundaries. In the educational field, she has taken part in an experimental project to train Ticuna educational monitors and in the creation of the General Organization of Bilingual Ticuna Teachers, which currently has 200 indigenous teachers. In 1983 she coordinated a project to record Ticuna mythology that resulted in the first book ever written in the Ticuna language. And in 1993 she created the Magüta Museum Newsletter, which publicizes the museum's activities and educational projects.