Since 1999, the Federation of Indian Organizations of the High Negro River (FOIRN) has operated the Indian Education Project, an initiative dedicated to developing schools managed by Indian communities themselves that value the languages and cultures of local ethnicities. FOIRN is a non-profit civil society organization created to defend the rights and improve the quality of life of the local Indian communities. It represents some 750 villages, with an overall population of more than 35,000 Indians, equivalent to around 10% of Brazil’s Indian population. Twenty-two ethnic groups live in the region, representing the Tukano, Aruak, Maku and Yanomani linguistic families, spread over 10.6 million hectares of land, which includes the municipalities of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Santa Isabel do Rio Negro, and Barcelos, in the state of Amazonas.
Missionaries arrived in the area in the 18th century and, since 1920, Church activities in the area have been supported by the State. The State public school network is run by priests and nuns. If, on one hand, the Church contributed towards the high literacy rates in the region, on the other hand it interfered in many aspects of traditional Indian social organization. For instance, it forbade the use of Indian languages in the schoolroom. Classroom activities were carried on without regard to traditional activities such as fishing, hunting, and farming. This educational format was prejudicial to both the individual and the community, and resulted in low self-esteem and loss of identity amongst Indian students.
After much debate on an educational system for Indian communities that would enable Indian citizens to take the future of their micro-regions into their own hands, reformers established a partnership in 1997 between the Municipal Department of Education of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, FOIRN, and the Social-Environmental Institute (ISA). At present, the Project is based on three lines of action: 1) structuring experimental schools; 2) conducting education workshops on organization of the new schools and preparation of teaching material in several native languages; and 3) linking up government programs to implement public policies on Indian education.
The schools are part of the municipal network and offer elementary and middle school education. Teachers at these experimental schools are community members, selected by the respective school associations and paid by the municipal government. Technical and teaching support and other resources are provided by FOIRN. So far, four schools have been set up, serving 54 communities and nine ethnicities.
At these experimental schools, the calendar is adapted to local practice, alternating school cycles with traditional village work cycles. The curriculum varies among the communities and is defined in cooperation with parents and village elders. The community also participates during classes: Indian health agents hold workshops at school, village elders tell traditional tales, agronomists teach students how to farm fish and chickens. Lessons are not restricted to the classroom and take advantage of available spaces, such as the forest, farmed areas, rivers and waterfalls. Educators base activities on the “learn by doing” principle of experiential education.
The Indian schools so far have a zero truancy rate. The student body grows daily and several schools in the region are using the adapted methodology. The Project currently reaches an estimated 30% of municipal schools directly and 40% indirectly. Teacher training programs are a priority. There have been some memorable achievements; the Tuyuka language, threatened with extinction, has been recovered and has become the main language at the local school. The Tuyuka not only regained their values but found a source of income: they are selling a storybook and a traditional music CD to raise funds for improvements to the school.
Similar achievements can be seen at other schools. The first graduates from the Pamáali school in 2004 presented a typical dance that had not been preformed for over 60 years. It was recovered through lessons given by the few elders who still live in the communities. Beginning in 2006, this methodology is being adapted to high school pedagogy.
Moving beyond schooling, the Indian Education Project of the High Negro River tells a story of the fight for Indian rights in the region, along with the revalidation and recovery of traditional values, beliefs and identity. Education is an important tool for creative and sustainable development that will lead to improved quality of life.
- An adapted educational system is helping the Indian communities of the High Negro River region recover their identity and their self-esteem, as well as teaching them that they can take their future into their own hands by respecting their past.
- By incorporating native language, knowledge and traditions into their curriculum, schools help maintain and recover local culture and traditions. In addition, they keep interest levels high by bringing together lessons and village life.
- Adapting the school calendar to respect traditional cultural and seasonal activities overcomes practical obstacles to class attendance.