THE case of an alleged rape of a young woman in the Amazon town of Redeno by a chief of Brazil's small Caiapo nation raises an important question about Indian identity in this country.
Whether the chief is tried as an Indian or non-Indian could set a precedent as Congress rewrites Brazil's 1973 Indian statutes and reviews the 1988 Constitution.
The case is likely to influence the fate of many of Brazil's roughly 180 indigenous peoples, whose Indian identity gives them special legal status and constitutional rights to their ancestral lands.
"If you say Paiaca is not an Indian, you say [his tribe's] land is not theirs," says Lidia Luz, coordinator of the Pro-Indian Commission, a nongovernmental group partly funded by the Ford Foundation.
It appeared this week that the government will at least initially treat the chief, Paulinho Paiaca, as an Indian, while police investigate the rape charges.
Officials at Funai, the National Indian Foundation, announced that Mr. Paiaca was to leave his village yesterday for a Funai regional office, where he would remain under house arrest until the investigation is concluded. Funai officials will also try to transfer the jurisdiction of the case from state to federal government, and will provide an attorney for the chief.
The announcements came a day after Caiapo chiefs had reportedly armed their warriors and closed all exits and entrances to their tribal villages, in effect taking hostage about 3,000 white men who work as miners and lumberjacks in the area, under license to the tribe. The chiefs had reportedly done this fearing police would serve a local judge's arrest warrant to Paiaca.
The Caiapo are one of Brazil's wealthiest indigenous peoples, having decided to exploit the gold and wood found in their region. Paiaca reportedly owns an airplane and several cars, and has traveled abroad.
In recent years, the chief had gained international distinction as a recipient of the United Nations Global 500 Award for environmental preservation, and for his decision to supply the Body Shop, a British cosmetics marketer, with nut oils from his tribe's land.
Many of his admirers expressed shock and disbelief at the first report of the alleged crime June 10 in Veja, a national newsweekly. According to Veja's report of the victim's police deposition, Paiaca and his wife tortured and tried to kill the woman, Silvia Leticia da Luz Ferreira. Paiaca, who left Redeno earlier this month for his tribal village, Aukre, says his wife attacked Ms. Leticia out of jealousy.
According to current Brazilian law, Indians are wards of the state and thus not subject to the same legal processes and penalties that other citizens undergo. If he is found guilty, the court may sentence him to house arrest or to Funai service instead of jail. This and other special provisions are contained in the 1973 Indian Statute, which Congress is now redrafting.
Until recently, most of Brazil's 300,000 or so indigenous people were struggling for mere survival in the face of land conflicts, disease, and pollution deriving largely from white occupation of the Amazon region. But in the last several years, they began to gain special recognition and rights to land and natural resources through specific provisions in the 1988 Constitution.
The government has also begun to heed many tribes' longstanding demands for land demarcation. Last year, activists hailed as a major victory President Fernando Collor de Mello's decision to map out 36,000 square miles for 9,000 Yanomami Indians.
But the Indians fear that new statutes will protect them less than the 1973 law. And they say next year's congressional review of the 1988 Constitution could also diminish their separate identity, which lays the basis for indigenous land claims.
"There was big resistance on the part of wood and mining interests to the Yanomami demarcation," says Ms. Luz of the Pro-Indian Commission. She says an early warning to the Indians came when some congressmen tried unsuccessfully to write a distinction between acculturated and unacculturated Indians into the 1988 Constitution, in a bid to start bringing indigenous territory under standard Brazilian law.
"Most indigenous peoples have contact with whites," Luz notes. "There are few isolated Indians.... [But] if they have watches and cars and wear jeans, this doesn't change the way they understand themselves, their people, and their culture. [A white person] can wear an Indian necklace and will still be white."
Many nonnative Brazilians say it is time to update outmoded legislation. The old law "made sense in a time when the Indian lived in a closed culture and had no appreciation of white society," Marcio Thomaz Bastos, a prominent attorney, told Veja magazine.