Studying Indigenous Brazil: The Xavante and the Human Sciences 1958–2015

Rosana Dent was a 2016-2017 Consortium Fellow in Residence. She is Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow in Indigenous Studies at McGill and will be assuming a position as assistant professor in the Federated Department of History at New Jersey Institute of Technology beginning in the 2018-2019 academic year. 

In 2015 I sat down with an elder from the Xavante village of Pimentel Barbosa, and looked through a series of photographs from the preceding sixty years, taken by anthropologists, geneticists, and public health researchers. Sidówi remembered all of the researchers; he had been studied far more times than he could count. Moreover, he issued an enjoinder to me to join them in my capacity as a historian and “do important work” by bringing back the research of the many scholars who had visited. My dissertation, Studying Indigenous Brazil: The Xavante and the Human Sciences 1958–2015, is a history of how Indigenous individuals like Sidówi and scholars from the natural and social sciences, have engaged one another since the 1950s in Brazil. Through a case study of the Xavante of Mato Grosso, I examine the evolution of the personal, political, and epistemological relationships that have constituted research over the past six decades.

Xavante communities began establishing contact with Brazilian national society in the mid-1940s in the wake of settler colonial expansionism. This high-profile process of contact drew interest from researchers, with the first long-term academic ethnographer arriving in 1958. Scholars from across the human sciences followed, particularly from the fields of anthropology, human genetics, and public health. These academics made the Xavante one of the most highly studied Indigenous groups in Brazil. Through the rise of developmentalism, the military dictatorship (1964–1985), redemocratization and the institution of a new constitution, and fundamental changes in ideas about research ethics, the Xavante continued as an object of scientific inquiry. This project traces how researchers and, crucially, research subjects have developed new ideas about what it means to participate in knowledge production within this historical context.

While previous approaches to the history of science have often focused on a specific technology, institution, or disciplinary network of collaborators to trace the political and social lives of scientific knowledge, this study centers on the shared object of diverse scientists’ inquiries. Repositioning the Xavante as the common thread elucidates the close relationships between scientists from distinct disciplines and historic moments. The story of collaborations between a social anthropologist and a team of biomedical and genetics researchers in the early 1960s, for example, complicates simple disciplinary histories, documenting the importance of flows of ideas and methods between the social and natural sciences in the study of human nature and culture. Focusing on communities that were repeatedly studied uncovers the continuities and ruptures of interactions that were essential both to the knowledge academics were able to produce, and to subjects’ experience of their scientific visitors.

Xavante subjects formed opinions and developed a corpus of knowledge about scientists over time. They expressed these understandings to each successive generation of scholars, and these interactions captured in field notes, publications, and oral histories illuminate how Xavante actors have managed and made demands on their academic visitors. Beyond simply participating in a gift economy or struggling to have biomedical needs met, I show that over time Xavante subjects strategically engaged experts to participate in the process of “making themselves up.” Grounded in the view from the field, by examining the iterative experiences of being researched I highlight the affective interactions and often-invisible Xavante labor that formed the basis for knowledge production.

As a fellow-in-residence, the generous company and intellectual feedback of the Consortium community enriched my final year of dissertation writing. My second chapter benefitted greatly from the feedback of the History of the Human Sciences working group. The chapter, entitled “Fission-Fusion: Interdisciplinarity in the Human Geneticists’ Tribe” examines the research agenda that James Neel and Francisco Salzano promoted for human genetics studies in the early 1960s. Their conceptualization of research on Indigenous groups, which they tested in their first two joint field seasons with the Xavante, was predicated on the notion that the social science–natural science divide had to be bridged.

Over the course of the year, I developed the broader framing for my study to increasingly center the affective dimensions of scientific work and the way Xavante leaders and other community members mobilized kinship to compel mutuality. While research practices and analysis of fieldwork experiences have always been central to my approach, examining the relational and caring labor of scientific subjects became increasingly important as my writing progressed. This development was informed by feedback on a brown bag lunch presentation of my work and the wonderful and varied questions that the other fellows raised early in the year.

My fellowship-in-residence at CHSTM offered me a quiet place to work with vibrant lunchtime conversation with scholars from across the US and abroad. It gave me a chance to test out ideas with other advanced graduate students, post-docs, and faculty members from nearby institutions at a crucial moment as I consolidated the arguments of the project. I am much indebted to the Consortium for the time, space, and company that made finishing my PhD such a pleasure.