The only Amazon Indian in Brazil's Congress tries to keep white man honest

As Brazil's Congress reconvened last month, Mario Juruna, former tribal chief of the Amazonian Xavanti Indians, stalked the corridors of power. He was provoking, as usual, a mixture of sympathy, anger, amusement, and contempt among his fellow parliamentarians.

With the ''Week of the Indian'' beginning April 19 and a proposal before Congress to modify legislation on the legal status of the Indians, Brazil's only Indian congressman will no doubt soon be capturing headlines again.

A picturesque if anachronistic figure in the ultra-modern Congress building of brave, new Brasilia, deputy Juruna wears his hair shoulder length, trimmed to a thick fringe across his forehead in traditional Indian style. Told that a jacket and tie was obligatory dress in Congress, he protested that this was ''another imposition by the white man''; although he finally submitted to this regulation, he sometimes wears his tie around his neck but above his shirt collar.

The self-styled defender of Indian rights first received publicity in 1976 when he began calling on government officials armed with a tape recorder - partly to help his limited knowledge of Portuguese but mainly because ''the white man is a liar, I record everything he says so I can collect on his promises later.''

In December 1982, he was elected by nearly 32,000 electors from the State of Rio de Janeiro as a parliamentary deputy. Last October, Juruna risked losing his mandate when he denounced the Cabinet in a parliamentary speech, saying ''every minister is a thief.'' Many wanted him removed from office. But sacking the only Indian deputy would have brought embarrassment. A compromise was reached in the form of a letter of rebuke in exchange for a semi-apology from Juruna.

To many Brazilians, Juruna is a joke. Brazil's top comedian, Jo Soares, impersonated him in a recent television series so astutely that even a missionary who has worked with Indians admitted he found the program ''irresistibly funny.'' The missionary also recalled traveling on the same plane as Juruna and being tempted to intervene because of the way the other passengers were openly mocking him.

''So many intelligent Brazilians think of the Indians as halfway between a child and an animal,'' the missionary said.

Official figures put the Indian population at about 220,000. Although some tribes are facing extinction, the overall Indian population is growing at an estimated annual rate of 3.7 percent, compared to the national rate of 2.8 percent.

Although they are generally categorized into five or six main groups, more than 160 small tribes are known and others are still being ''discovered'' in the vast, still largely unpopulated, Brazilian hinterland.

The government organization responsible for Indians is the National Foundation of the Indian (FUNAI), and it tends to be criticized from all sides.

''It's just a public relations operation,'' commented an ecologist with the University of Brasilia.

''They try but there's so much more they ought to be doing,'' a foreign missionary said.

Last year, Juruna's Xavanti tribe occupied the FUNAI offices, demanding, and getting, the dismissal of several senior officials. Juruna has called for FUNAI to be disbanded altogether. Yet everyone agrees the foundation has some excellent people and projects.

What FUNAI lacks is enough money and public support to deal with many problems - the most important being shortage of land. In spite of its immense size - it is larger than the United States, excluding Alaska - Brazil is land-hungry. Some reserves have been established for the Indians, but their borders are not always respected. In many areas, traditional Indian territory still awaits official demarcation. Meanwhile disputes, which often lead to bloodshed, are common between Indians, squatters, and landholders. The Indians are legally wards of the state under the 1973 Statute of the Indian. Theoretically this protects them and their lands from exploitation, though in practice there are many loopholes, especially where the land and its mineral resources are concerned. They do not have to buy land, and they have other privileges such as tax exemption, as they are basically treated as minors without parents.

Joao Fagundes, a deputy in the ruling Social Democratic Party, has proposed changing these laws to apply only to those Indians who continue to live in their traditional tribal state.

The law provides for Indians to become ordinary citizens - if they are over 21 years old, speak Portuguese, and participate in normal Brazilian society - but this happens only if they apply in writing to be emancipated. To date, says Fagundes, not one Indian has made the application.

''I don't want the Indian to remain a tourist attraction, I want him to be a person,'' Fagundes says.

Juruna will certainly fight Fagundes's proposals. To the Indians who consider they have been exploited since the white man first set foot on the continent in 1500, today's privileges are all too few. Fagundes himself perhaps puts his finger on the real problem Brazil's Indians face. ''The trouble is,'' he said, ''President Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo steps down next March. This year the succession dominates everything. What Brazilian politician is interested in Indians?''

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