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Brazil’s Indigenous Women Artisans Are Struggling Right Now. And You Can Help

Fighting against the destruction of their forest and traditions is nothing new for Brazil’s Indigenous women artists. Still, in light of the pandemic, their culture is quickly becoming forgotten.

Latin America’s largest country is again grappling with a rampant coronavirus outbreak which is leaving no territory untouched. Most countries have shut their borders to Brazil, and vice versa, and states across the country are implementing lockdowns and restricting travel—leading local economies to grind to a halt.

Of greatest concern is Brazil’s vulnerable communities—particularly its remote Indigenous population living in the forests who are being disproportionately affected by the virus (Indigenous people are 3.5 times more likely to contract the virus than whites). The coronavirus has robbed Brazil’s Indigenous tribes of notable elders, many of whom were the guardians of their traditions, wisdom, and possessors of their unique spiritual knowledge. It is custom for the tribal elders to pass on this information from generation to generation before their death but due to the unprecedented threat of COVID-19, many tribal leaders were unable to pass on their cultural legacy to their heirs, representing a huge cultural loss to their communities.

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As her people continue to fight for the preservation of their lands as deforestation accelerates, indigenous tribes are fighting for their unique cultural traditions to be valued in an increasingly industrialized world.

There is, however, another cultural and economic tragedy manifesting among Brazil’s Indigenous women artisans. Fodor’s spoke with artist and activist Kaiti Yawalapiti from the Indigenous Xingu reserve deep in the central-western Mato Grosso state, home to 16 different ethnic groups of more than seven thousand villagers about the challenges her people face.

On a typical week in pre-pandemic times, Kaiti Yawalapiti from the Yawalapiti ethnic tribe would make the journey from her home in Canarana, a city that borders the Xingu park, to the forest for meetings with her fellow women artists. She would also collect the jewelry, crafts, and clay pottery that the Xingu women had made over the past week to sell online, at Indigenous shops in metropolitan cities like São Paulo, or trade fairs. Once there, she would encounter women sitting on the ground under their circular wooden-thatched huts, busy at work stitching baskets, threading beads into intricate patterns for vibrant earrings and necklaces, and painting tree branch patterns onto clay pots.

Kaiti Yawalapiti

But these are not typical times. For the women who have not been in isolation with suspected COVID-19 symptoms, many are having to take on additional domestic responsibilities as either their husbands have fallen ill or children remain out of school. For those who are able to work, the demand for their art has been minimal.

“Arts and crafts is our livelihood but during the pandemic, art sales have dropped drastically. I am one of the few artists who has a strong online presence and given that I live outside of the park, I usually sell the artworks of various women from the village: my cousins, aunts, nieces. Why? Because my art is not my own, it is the art of our people,” Kaiti explains. “Each earring or bracelet is like a ‘copy’ of those that were created by our ancestors—that they made with great patience from seeds, coconut, tucum, and cotton threads, which they taught their daughters and daughters after that through centuries. We say that we are activists because our art is always a form of resistance. But we have suffered a lot due to COVID. Many women can’t leave the park so they can’t sell their art which is how they usually put food on the table.”

Aside from the economic hardships, Kaiti tells Fodor’s that the challenges that Brazil’s Indigenous women artists face extend far beyond the pandemic. As her people continue to fight for the preservation of their lands as deforestation accelerates, Indigenous tribes are fighting for their unique cultural traditions to be valued in an increasingly industrialized world.

“I don’t want to encourage people to plant more trees. I want to encourage people to stop destroying our forest.”

“Our art is passed on from generations. Art is sacred in the Indigenous world. It’s spiritual and always reflects our intimate relationship with the forest,” says Kaiti. “Aside from being taught and learn[ing] from oral traditions…we say that it belongs to our people in every element of understanding: it belongs to our ancestors, to the spiritual presences, to the children who live and for those who are yet to come. But today, in a world where globalization dominates, many people do not value our history, instead [they value] fast fashion which is produced in ten-minutes in factories where quantity is more important than quality. And what happens? This type of consumption pollutes our environment. Many people talk about industrial pollution, rivers that are being polluted, but they still consume a lot. I’m not saying that we should stop consuming 100%, but the body requires little clothing, hardly any shoes. And our art is just the start of making these changes. In regards to deforestation, people often say: Why don’t you plant a tree, that would help. No. That’s not the solution, the solution is preventing the forest from burning in the first place. I don’t want to encourage people to plant more trees. I want to encourage people to stop destroying our forest. I’m here to demonstrate that our art can be part of the day-to-day life of western men and women.”

So, how can you help?

As Kaiti explains, the first step in helping Brazil’s Indigenous artisans is education: making a conscious effort to really consider what you are buying and whether it is helping or damaging people and the environment. The second way to valorize Xingu art is by purchasing their arts and crafts online, in Indigenous craft fairs, and in Indigenous shops. Purchases of jewelry created by all the Xingu women can also be made via Kaiti’s Instagram account, @kaiti_artes, which she ships worldwide.

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“By buying and wearing our jewelry, you are helping give visibility to the women in the forest who have little access to the internet, are fighting for the preservation of our lands and culture. My job is always to support the village’s artisanal production, so that young people can continue investing in culture as a way to supplement their income. Today, there are about 65 relatives involved,” she says.

Kaiti warns readers, however, to be wary of Indigenous art appropriation, as well as stores selling Indigenous art for exorbitant prices, as they’re often pocketing most of the profits. “There are famous stores on the internet that take our production to you, but in a very predatory way, charging many times more than they pay for each accessory. If there are handmade Indigenous shops, buy from them!” Kaiti urges.

Kaiti’s advice is also to avoid donating money directly to Indigenous artists. “I am against giving money to the Indigenous because it will stop the women doing their arts. With the pandemic, they have already stopped the dances, the rituals, so the art of the Xingu has to always be 100% alive for people to continue their culture.”

For Kaiti, as an Indigenous woman with visibility, she believes that it’s her responsibility to give voice to her fellow Xingu women artisans who are rarely online and are often too shy to speak to the outside world. “We will inform you in the right way, and I count on your strength to continue sharing and supporting our work.”