Walking through forests, swimming in small rivers and accompanying my grandparents in the fields, this was my daily life when I was a child in the village of Te’yikue, in Caarapó (MS). My name is Eliel Benites, I am an indigenous person from the Guarani and Kaiowá ethnic group and I am a PhD professor at the Indigenous Intercultural Faculty (FAIND/UFGD).
As a child, I did not think that one day education could change the fate of my trajectory and lead me to the great path of struggle for the rights of my people. My parents thought that school would bring me a better future, so from a young age I studied in a community institution that taught me to speak Portuguese. Maybe they were right at the time, but then I realized that the conditions to live well as indigenous people were taken from us long ago, when our lands were taken from our ancestors, making happiness as a whole unattainable.
Knowing our history, geography, cosmology and all the knowledge of our ancestors in the context of the indigenous school and beyond, I realized that the difficulties of life in the countryside were imposed by the colonizers, took away the dignity of the people and, therefore, in the mentality of my parents, living well meant studying and leaving with villages. That’s when I realized that education is much more than I thought. It was about educating a people about their struggle and trajectory, a people who were historically invisible and abused by non-indigenous colonial societies.
As time went on, things became more difficult. I had to study outside the village, in a city school, to finish primary school, because I only had to study in the community until I was four years old. I had to learn, in practice, to live outside the village context. So I finished high school in the city, getting to know different realities, but with a lot of respect and admiration for the good things I experienced.
The older I got, the greater the responsibility and the closer I got to education. In 1997, I started teaching, working as a translator teacher from Portuguese to Guarani. A year later, I started as an indigenous teacher, taking over a classroom to teach reading and writing to 40 students at the Ñandejára-Polo municipal school, located in the village of Caarapó.
Until then, only children were taught to read and write in Portuguese there. I started teaching in the Guarani language. Arriving on the July holidays, in 1997, I remember that one student was already reading and writing, but everything was in the Guarani language. They had heavy hands to write, they couldn’t because they were traumatized by the non-indigenous teachers who argued with them a lot, but I saw that they were fantastic at drawing, excellent artists. They drew forests, animals, trees, rivers and houses in the village, and I asked them the name of each drawing. They said the name and wrote it on the side, and that’s how more than 40 students became literate that year.
This indigenous school experience, bit by bit, made me important, bringing me closer to the wisest in the community, which we call ñander (elders) and ñandesy (old woman). When I started studying intercultural degrees (specific courses for training indigenous teachers), such as Ára Verá (enlightened space-time) and Teko Arandu (living in wisdom), I realized that this knowledge could be registered as academic work, set as research topics and for coursework, dissertation and thesis, as I just did in 2021.
But in the context in which we live, here in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where anti-indigenous ideas and attitudes (with several massacres by leaders) are strong, the defense of the rights of our people is based on the restoration of these ancestral memories. Because understanding the process of resistance depends on the process of recording this knowledge, bringing back memories of our lands, our culture, cosmologies and the whole range of values that guide our existence. Therefore, the importance of being a home teacher increases. It is not just about teaching 40 students, but about a people who have historically been rendered invisible and abused by a colonial non-indigenous society.
Fight so that the memories are not forgotten
From 1997 until today, we have made a lot of progress in relation to indigenous school education. It is common to find indigenous schools and teachers in all villages in Mato Grosso do Sul, but recently there has been a setback. With the current government, investment in Indigenous schooling has been slashed in budgets, affecting students, academics and teachers in different ways, making Indigenous schooling as a whole unfeasible and preventing Indigenous people from knowing their history and past. I think this is the state’s strategy, because by taking away the right to study, people do not know their history and reality, they easily accept the ideas of the dominant who exploit and violate them.
Experiencing these great trajectories in the context of indigenous school education and also following the struggle and resistance of the great Guarani and Kaiowá leaders provided, over time, a more holistic view of the issue of our people’s struggle. Today, I carry the struggle and hope that great leaders led towards resistance in my work so that the memories of large areas are not forgotten. So that all indigenous policies are actually a continuous recomposition of traditional values that were taken from us through the historical process of violence practiced by the colonizers until today.
For a long time, I taught not only students, but also local teachers, thinking about including our people more and more in the academic environment. In 2013, I was appointed as a tenured professor with sole commitment to FAIND/UFGD, and in 2021, I was elected by the FAIND academic community to take over as unit director. A turning point, not only in my professional career, but in the history of all indigenous peoples who fight for the knowledge and education of our people.
I live thinking that all the crises of modern Western society, with its great ideas of development and technology, are the result of the idea of man (non-indigenous) as the center of the world and the forgetting of the importance of the planet, which is multiple connected, enabling the emergence of diversity of beings. We, the indigenous peoples, are the custodians of forests, rivers, land and all that ecology that enables the existence of the diversity of life and therefore not returning our land is like imprisoning and poisoning our mother. All actions/policies and training aim at our resistance, struggle and the possibility of recovery of our great traditional territory so that memory and guardians can once again guide the existence of our Guarani and Kaiowá peoples. ___________________________________
Voices of Education is a bi-weekly column written by young people from Safeguard, a community volunteer program that helps Brazilian public school students enroll in university. The founder of the program, Vinícius De Andrade, and students with the help of Safeguard in all states of the federation take turns writing the texts. Follow the Safeguard profile on Instagram at @salvaguarda1
This text was written by Eliel Benites of Dourados (MS) and reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of DW.