This profile was prepared when Maria Amélia Leite was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
The New Idea
By helping disenfranchised indigenous groups value and regain their fading cultural identity, Maria Amélia empowers them to interact as equals with outsiders. In northeast Brazil, indigenous people have a long history of oppression, to the point that their existence is largely unacknowledged by the government. In this context, Maria Amélia has found that a new sense of self-worth and group unity gives indigenous people the foundation from which to proactively defend their land, fight for legal recognition, and obtain access to public services. Ultimately, in unifying small, fragmented groups into a broad-based movement with ties to the strong indigenous movement in the Amazon, Maria Amélia is increasing their political power. Since land rights are linked closely to cultural identity as well as legal recognition, Maria Amélia promotes land rights as a critical lever to validate indigenous culture and people. By working at the grassroots level and focusing on long-term cultural shifts, she teaches local people to push their initiatives forward and to create their own organizations when needed. Under Maria Amélia’s counsel, indigenous leaders have improved public health care systems and manage income generation projects which build cultural pride. After having secured the legal recognition of over 50,000 indigenous people in the northeast, Maria Amélia is writing, promoting research, and spreading her methodology. Her work has implications for indigenous groups everywhere who struggle to relate to their surrounding communities and governments.