Krenak members protest an anti-Indigenous bill in Brasilia this year. The sign reads "Krenak People of Minas Gerais, like a tree trunk, we are very strong." (Photo: Geovani Krenak)

50 Years Later, Finally Justice for Brazil's Indigenous Krenak People

"Justice, however slow, is being served," said Indigenous chief Geovani Krenak. "The spirit of our assassinated warriors, like my grandfather, welcomes this decision."…

Half a century after Indigenous elder Jaco Krenak and dozens of fellow natives were bound and forcibly taken to concentration camps run by Brazil's military dictatorship, a federal court has ordered the government to apologize and deliver reparations to the Krenak people.

"This decision works as a barrier. It affirms that this can never happen again in Brazil."

Judge Anna Cristina Rocha Goncalves charged the federal government, the Minas Gerais state government and the country's Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, for the crimes committed against the Krenak people in southeastern Minas Gerais during the dictatorship that ran from 1964 to 1985. She ordered the federal government to organize an official ceremony for a public apology with national coverage.

"Justice, however slow, is being served," Indigenous chief Geovani Krenak, a grandson of Jaco Krenak, told Mongabay in a phone interview. "The spirit of our assassinated warriors, like my grandfather, welcomes this decision."

Speaking the Krenak language, drinking alcohol, having sexual relations, loitering, breaking curfew, leaving the village without prior permission, and resisting occupation by farmers on their land were banned by military officials at the time, according to reports and witness accounts. Arbitrary confinement, torture and beatings were commonplace punishments. Many Krenak died at the camps, though the exact numbers are still unknown.

The ruling, issued Sept. 13, also ordered Funai to conclude the demarcation process of the Sete Saloes Indigenous Reserve, along with a series of measures to rehabilitate the Krenak language and culture.

Brazil's attorney general, representing the federal government and Funai in the case, confirmed that they had received the decision, but declined to comment. "Any eventual manifestation will occur within the case," the attorney general's office wrote to Mongabay in an email. The Minas Gerais state attorney general did not respond to Mongabay's request for comment.

At least 8,350 Indigenous individuals were killed during Brazil's military dictatorship, and many more lost their land or were tortured, according to the 2014 National Truth Commission Report.

Minas Gerais was reportedly the hub for some of the cruelest measures. In 1969, military official Manoel dos Santos Pinheiro created the Indigenous concentration camps known as the Krenak Reformatory and the Guarani Farm, which held a total of 121 Indigenous individuals from 17 ethnicities in the municipalities of Resplendor and Carmesia, respectively, according to data from academic research compiled by the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church.

Indigenous people considered rebels by the military regime were detained without trial at these two locations, according to evidence presented in a lawsuit filed by the Federal Public Ministry in 2015. "The Indigenous people were not subject to trial. They were not allowed to practice their own culture or rituals, or even speak their own language," said federal prosecutor Edmundo Antonio Dias, one of the co-authors of the lawsuit.

The military regime also created the Indigenous Guard, a group of Indigenous people trained by military officials to punish and torture their own people, disrupting existing modes of self-organization and resistance among Indigenous communities, prosecutors say. During the graduation ceremony for the first batch of the Indigenous Guard, a man bound by his hands and feet on a pole -- a torture method called pau-de-arara -- was presented to the officials, captured on film by anthropologist Jesco Von Puttmaker in 1970.

In a testimony in the lawsuit, Douglas Krenak, another of Jaco Krenak's grandsons, recounted one of the violations his grandfather endured at the hands of the regime. "He arrived home to two military officials waiting for him. They told him to kneel and exhale, saying that he had been drinking. He then bound his hands with a rope from a horse's saddle, and he was dragged from the village all the way to the prison, where he was detained."

Later, in an attempt to reassign Krenak's land to local farmers, whole families were forcibly removed from the territory and taken to a farm owned by the military dictatorship, where they were forced to work long hours. "My grandfather died in exile, he died on Guarani Farm," said Geovani Krenak. "My people were not even allowed to date, because the military officials didn't want us to have children. Our population came down to just 50 people at the time. It's a sad chapter in our history."

Beyond the harm tied to the dictatorship, the Krenak people have also faced other challenges. In 2015, their land was affected by the worst environmental disaster in Brazil's history, when a dam holding mining waste in the municipality of Mariana collapsed, unleashing millions of tons of toxic sludge. The disaster left the Doce River that runs through the Krenak reserve laden with toxic chemicals, affecting their customs and food supply. "We want to get our land back and return to our sacred rituals. Our warriors' spirits are still not at peace with everything that happened," Geovani Krenak said.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, an open supporter of the military dictatorship with his own long history of discriminatory remarks against Indigenous peoples, has vowed to not recognize any more Indigenous territories, raising concerns about whether his administration will follow through on the court's recent judgment. "Funai is going to fight this decision," Geovani Krenak said. "The very government body that is supposed to defend indigenous interests is our enemy."

Amid all this hardship, activists celebrated the court ruling punishing violations against Indigenous people by the military regime. Another lawsuit criminally charging military captain Pinheiro for genocide and crimes against humanity is awaiting trial.

"The current government has been signaling a return to the paradigm of that period with a total disrespect for Indigenous rights," Antonio Eduardo Cerqueira, Cimi's executive secretary, told Mongabay by phone. "This decision works as a barrier. It affirms that this can never happen again in Brazil."

Geovani Krenak also expressed reason for optimism, not just for Indigenous people, but also for Quilombolas, the Afro-Brazilian descendants of runaway slaves, and other historically persecuted groups in Brazil.

"The decision gives us hope, we can tell our children that what happened is now reverberating with society," he said. "We know what is ours by right and what we suffered, but it will be a message for the rest of society that they should not give up fighting."

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