The rich cultural traditions of indigenous communities in Brazil have come under threat from mainstream institutions that ignore or discredit their value. Kaká Werá works to bring indigenous cultures to the country’s mainstream, strengthening self-esteem among natives and spreading crucial insights on environmental protection and cultural diversity.
The New Idea
Kaká has founded a series of programs that use indigenous knowledge to address stubborn social issues from fresh perspectives. His flagship program is the “Aldeia do Saber Sagrado” (Sacred Knowledge Tribe) in the city of Itapecerica da Serra, near São Paulo city. This space offers trainings and activities for the young and the old, serving thousands of adolescents, health professionals, and indigenous Brazilians each year. In it, children from public and private schools learn about indigenous history and culture, take classes in environmental education, and work in reforesting the devastated woods. Doctors, psychologists, and others interested in indigenous medicine attend courses on indigenous culture and learn the use of medicinal plants.
Through his umbrella organization, the Arapoty Institute, Kaká organizes volunteers to visit tribes in the region to help with emergency needs, provide health training, and identify potential leaders within each tribe. These leaders take part in training initiatives in the “Aldeia do Saber Sagrado” that prepare them to start new business ventures, to manage the production of arts and crafts and generate income for the tribe. They also take on the responsibility of spreading the knowledge they gain at the “Aldeia do Saber Sagrado” throughout their communities.
Kaká works to spread the products and insights of indigenous culture beyond the borders of Brazil. He draws on the principles and infrastructure of movements for fair trade to establish new, lucrative markets for native products in Europe. He has developed exchange programs that immerse European youths in the life of indigenous Brazilians, and put together international conferences that are rooted in indigenous cultures but organized around principles that transcend cultural boundaries.
Brazil is home to approximately 3 million native Indians, and a great majority of the country’s citizens—nearly 120 million—can claim native ancestors. Despite their strong numbers, natives are among the most stigmatized and stressed populations in the country. The indigenous groups that remain are survivors of centuries of brutal campaigns of extermination and enslavement, and the legacy of the colonial past still weighs heavily on most. They are what is left of a more than 12,000-year-old civilization, whose ancestors left a tradition of science and an immeasurable system of values, centered in cooperativeness, spirituality, and integration with nature.
These modern indigenous groups can be divided into three rough categories based on their relationship with the mainstream non-indigenous population. One group lives in forest regions and has little or no contact with the non-indigenous civilization. Another group keeps mainly within the forest regions, but maintains some trade and other moderate contacts with the cities of Brazil. This group tends to be well-served by citizen sector organizations such as the “Instituto Sócio Ambiental” (Social-Environmental Institute), and they have earned a reputation for sustainability and environmental protection. A third group of native Indians lives in and around urban centers, especially in the Southeastern, Northeastern, and Southern regions of Brazil (such as Cariri, Pataxó, Guarani). The culture they have built over thousands of years was firmly rooted in the life of the forest, and their traditions become particularly vulnerable in the context of urban poverty.
There are 30,000 native Indians distributed between the rainforest region and peripheral areas of big cities in the southern region of Brazil. These Indians suffer severe problems of malnutrition, hunger, and poor health. For some years, these problems have been addressed by Funai, the National Foundation of the Native Indian. However, this assistance has resulted not in strength and prosperity for the native tribes of Brazil; instead, it has produced stagnation and economic dependence. Another problem faced by indigenous communities is a lack of local natural resources: facing population growth and a diminishing ecosystem, they increasingly leave behind traditional practices and begin to consume beyond the possibility of replacement. They remove trees without planting new ones, and lose their traditional sense of environmental stewardship. Very few indigenous leaders and groups have risen to analyze these problems and work toward solutions.
Widespread public ignorance about indigenous populations in Brazil only aggravates this situation. Most people learn about ancient Indian tribes and their painting, hunting, and fishing as if native Indians no longer exist. They do not engage with the triumphs and trials of modern Indian life; nor do they learn the importance of Indian culture—both ancient and modern—and the benefits it can bring to society as a whole. Without this knowledge, native groups remain stigmatized and marginalized, and the people of Brazil remain incapable of building a deeply integrated and healthy society.
Kaká created the Arapoty Institute and its “De Aldeia em Aldeia” (From Tribe to Tribe) project to build independence, health, and practices of environmental protection within indigenous communities. His organization gathers volunteers to visit indigenous villages, offering health services and fostering conversations on the preservation and best use of natural resources. Kaká trains his volunteers to identify potential leaders through these conversations, dedicated people who can provide direction and momentum for their tribe’s development process. These leaders participate in the Aldeia do Saber Sagrado, learning management strategies that help them support cooperatives for arts and crafts, maintain ecologically sustainable agriculture, and protect traditional cultural symbols and values.
The Aldeia do Saber Sagrado also works with a core of young people selected from public and private schools throughout Brazil. Through an environmental education program developed in partnership with the Environment Secretariat of Itapecerica da Serra, these students experience the daily routine of the member of a tribe, learning the stories and myths of traditional Tupi culture as they go. They take part in planting crops and the economic activities of the tribe and learn how and why to protect rainforests and promote cultural diversity. By 2005, this program worked with 55 public schools and over 20 private schools in São Paulo city. Each school visits a partnering tribe twice a year. Fees paid by private schools help finance trips for underfunded public schools. To ensure that the work of the Aldeia continues inside each classroom, Kaká is developing support materials to help teachers make the link between indigenous knowledge and traditional subjects such as mathematics, geography, and history.
In addition, Kaká leads courses on phytotherapy (the medicinal use of plants) for health professionals, helping psychologists, nutritionists, and doctors to see beyond their stereotypical perceptions of indigenous cultures and tap into the power of native Indian remedies. These courses cover indigenous cultures broadly, touching on their community life and respect for nature along with their insights on natural medicine. The courses convene at the Aldeia do Saber Sagrado every two weeks for eight months each year. Because these courses have great educational value and great potential for fundraising, Kaká is currently training teachers and preparing his facility to run the course three times a year. In 2003, the Aldeia do Saber Sagrado hosted more than 15,000 people, and it is growing quickly. Kaká is working on a second Aldeia do Saber Sagrado in the State of Minas Gerais.
His organization, the Arapoty Institute, also directs the “Cultura Viva” (Live Culture) Project, which offers cultural performances and workshops in schools, congresses, seminars, and businesses, aiming at spreading respect for traditional cultures and the experience of modern indigenous groups. Kaká also has another important partnership with the Brazilian cosmetics company, Natura, which is renowned for its social work in Brazil and now has a shop in Paris. He partners with this store to open new markets for artisan products from indigenous communities.
The work of the Arapoty Institute extends internationally through trainings for youth and conferences targeting all age ranges. Kaká has developed with UNESCO an interchange program between Brazil and Europe that trains European youth to engage with native Indian approaches to universal human principles. In January 2004, the Aldeia do Saber Sagrado received 15 youths who took part in an immersion course to discuss this culture and undertook to spread these principles, and more than 20 youths will participate in January 2005. The Arapoty Institute also partners with the Foundation Danielle Mitterrand in France to organize annual conferences reaching more than 10,000 people. In these conferences, experts from a wide range of disciplines gather in discussions focused by the notion of devir, which posits that all must think and act now to secure a positive future.
Kaká was born in the city of São Paulo to two indigenous parents: a father from the Kaitité nation and a mother from the Krenak nation. They were forced out of Minas Gerais by farmers attempting to enslave local Indians. They arrived in the city of São Paulo in the 1960s and settled a region next to a Guarani tribe. His mother passed away when Kaká was seven years old, leaving her husband in full responsibility. His dream was for Kaká to study the language and culture of the dominant elites of Brazil so that he would never have to go through the same deprivations that his parents had to endure.
Apart from school, Kaká spent most of his childhood and adolescence within the neighboring Guarani tribe, especially during times of harvest. In 1980, the land holdings of the tribe came into question. During this time, at the age of 16, Kaká served as a key mediator, because he was the only one in the tribe who could communicate well with non-indigenous society. After a three-year series of negotiations, the lands were acknowledged as federal indigenous lands and incorporated to Guarani ground. One year later, Kaká lost his father and was taken in by a pajé (healer) named Werá. Many young Guarani were no longer interested in learning the traditions of their culture, particularly in the field of medicine, so Werá passed on his knowledge to Kaká. In 1986 he was baptized in the sacred Guarani traditions and invited to perform the duties of pajé. In 1993, Kaká went with an indigenous specialist to meet members of his mother’s tribe, the Krenak, who lived in the State of Tocantins. There, he took on the role of pajé and after a while was baptized as a member of the tribe.
During secondary school, Kaká was strongly involved with student movements for social justice and environmental protection. Unlike many of his peers, he made the connection between the ideals of youth movements and the environmental issues faced by the region’s tribes. He created a group linked to the indigenous cause and helped to develop the Ambarandu (Temple of Knowledge) project, which proposed the creation of a school run by Guarani that could integrate indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge. When the UNI (Union of Indigenous Nations) was born with the mission of uniting the indigenous tribes of Brazil and securing representation in the Constitutional Assembly in Parliament, Kaká involved himself deeply in its work.
In 1988, Kaká received an invitation from Paulo Freire to coordinate indigenous culture projects for the Municipality of São Paulo. He built two indigenous centers with public and university support: the Center of Culture and the Center of Agriculture. The buildings were ready by 1992, and Kaká had designed a full range of trainings and curricula for indigenous and non-indigenous teachers. However, when the government of the city changed that year, the project came under severe political pressure, and Kaká resolved to work outside the government. He created the Arapoty Institute in 1994 and devoted himself to the protection and advancement of indigenous culture. He has published three books, one of which has been adopted by the Ministry of Education for use in schools, and lectures internationally in support of his work with the Arapoty Institute.