- Indigenous lawmaker Célia Xakriabá says the fight for the climate emergency was key to her election to Brazil’s Congress last year, which drew votes from people with a completely different political party alignment.
- “We were not only elected by progressive people [voting]. It is the environmental issue, the issue for life, the issue of the right to water, the issue of the right to food without poison [pesticides]” — issues that she tells Mongabay must go beyond the progressive parties.
- In this video interview, Célia Xakriabá says one of her priorities in Congress is to create a secretariat for Indigenous education within the Ministry of Education, and establish quotas for Indigenous people at several levels, including Indigenous professors in universities and job posts in embassies.
- Another priority is an update to the statute on Indigenous peoples, which she says is still written “in a racist way and in a retrograde way.” Change is already coming on this front: on its first day in office, the new government changed the name of the federal Indigenous affairs agency from the National Indian Foundation to the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples.
BRASÍLIA — Célia Xakriabá recalls how, during her campaign last year for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil’s lower house of Congress, she was always asked how non-Indigenous Brazilians could help Indigenous people. She would answer with a question of her own: “How many of you have voted for Indigenous candidacies?”
They would usually fob this off with the excuse that “unfortunately I don’t have two votes.” But if they were truly committed to the environment and to the planet, Célia Xakriabá says, “there is no other time.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have two planets. So, the time to bet on our candidacy is now,” she tells Mongabay. “The context that we are living, of an ecocide, of a genocide, is now! We cannot postpone the fight for life, we cannot postpone a fight that is committed to humanity.”
Célia Xakriabá went on to win the seat, representing the southern state of Minas Gerais. “It was this embarrassment that helped mobilize” voters, she says, including those with completely different political party alignments. “In the south of Minas Gerais, where President Lula did not win, I had more than 8,000 votes.”
She says she received many testimonies from mothers saying: “I never voted for the left [parties]. I was going to vote for another candidate, but my 8-year-old son said: ‘Mom, she cares for nature, she cares for the waters, she cares for the rivers.’
“We were not only elected by progressive people [voting]. It is the environmental issue, the issue for life, the issue of the right to water, the issue of the right to food without poison [pesticides].” These issues, Célia Xakriabá says, must go beyond the progressive parties as well.
And this brought her to an important revelation: Why do people of such opposed ideologies have a point of convergence? “Because the issue of the climate emergency, the emergency of humanity, and the emergency and threat to Indigenous peoples have points of convergence,” she says.
And if this point of convergence doesn’t sensitize people, there’s something wrong, she says. “It is not with party seats, left and right. There is something wrong with the plan for humanity. We need to think about economic transition, political transition and humanitarian transition.”
Born in the municipality of São João das Missões, in Minas Gerais, Célia Xakriabá celebrates being “the youngest Indigenous federal deputy in the world” at the age of 32. She was the first Indigenous woman to get a doctorate from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), an experience of which she says “I don’t feel more important, I feel lonely.” She adds it’s the same feeling shared by Sonia Guajajara, a prominent Indigenous rights activist who now heads Brazil’s first ever Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, and Joenia Wapichana, Brazil’s first Indigenous lawyer and the first Indigenous woman ever elected to the Chamber of Deputies, and now the head of Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs.
“A country that is 523 years old and we are victims not only of the racism of presence, but also of the racism of absence, when, even though we are unique, people [even] ask if we are for real,” Célia Xakriabá tells Mongabay in a video interview from her house the day after the Jan. 8 attacks on Congress and other federal buildings in Brasília by supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro.
Célia Xakriabá talks about her priorities in Congress and her active role in the denunciation of Bolsonaro for crimes against humanity and genocide before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Watch the interview in the video below.
‘Politics needs to be thought of with color and diversity’
In 2021, Mongabay published a series of data-driven multimedia stories on Brazil’s Indigenous people living in urban areas, showing their strong presence in cities and ethnic diversity, as well as highlighting the persistent challenges they face accessing education, sanitation facilities and other amenities — and the harsh prejudice they continue to face.
Célia Xakriabá says this invisibility “hurt me a lot” during her campaign in Minas Gerais, when she visited university campuses. “I would ask people: how many of you know an Indigenous word and its meaning? No one. How many of you know an English word and its meaning? Everyone.”
To help tackle this “historical debt,” she says one of her priorities in Congress is to seek via legislation the creation of a secretariat for Indigenous education within the Ministry of Education, and establish quotas for Indigenous people at several levels, including Indigenous professors in universities and job posts in embassies.
“If we really want to break through the racism of absence, we have to talk about settling historical debts, and settling historical debts is to think about quotas, both in universities and in embassies, quotas in the ministry, quotas in various places, not as a place of favor but as a place of historical reparation,” she says. The 2021 Mongabay series, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, showed how quotas for Indigenous students led to a substantial increase in their enrollment in higher education in the past decade, allowing them to get better opportunities and helping fight prejudice in urban areas.
Another priority is an update to the statute on the Indigenous peoples, which Célia Xakriabá says is still written “in a racist way and in a retrograde way.” That’s begun to change since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office as president at the start of 2023: one of his very first orders of business was to change Funai’s full name from the National Indian Foundation to the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples.
“If in the middle of the 21st century we are only now reaching this place, it means that Brazil took too long to recognize where it starts from. If it starts with us, why did we arrive last?” Célia Xakriabá says. Her biggest dream, she says, is “to have the right to go back to sleep peacefully, because there are 523 years that Indigenous peoples don’t have the right to go back to sleep in the tranquility that they deserve,” referring to the more than half-millennium since the Portuguese conquest of South America in 1500.
Célia Xakriabá says she will also push for a national policy of territorial and environmental management of Indigenous lands, issued by former president Dilma Rousseff, to become law so that it can be implemented by the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and Funai.
“All the Indigenous territories in Brazil that I know of were demarcated only after the death of some Indigenous leader,” Célia Xakriabá says. “Do you know what that is? It’s as if in order to have an apartment, each person who had a house in the city had to kill someone in his family.”
To really drive change and rebuild Brazil, she says, “politics needs to be thought with color and diversity.”
“It must have the Black color. It needs to have the Indigenous color. It needs to have the color of the land and of diversity and of the populations that are in a state of vulnerability,” she says. “Today, to think about our contribution to this Brazil is also to assume and recognize our ancestral power.”
Banner image: Célia Xakriabá. Image by Leo Lara/Universo Produção via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Karla Mendes is a staff contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil. Read her stories published on Mongabay here. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes
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