Land and Indigeneity in Toré Songs of the Brazilian Tapeba People

In Northeast Brazil, indigenous identity claims advance to legalized status through a process that routinely contemplates evidence of an active tradition of the toré, a song- and percussion-driven circle dance and sacred ceremony recognized as the region’s “utmost marker of Indianness” (Grünewald 2005:17). This tradition aside, the 6,300 Tapeba people of the municipality of Caucaia, Ceará1 bear little outward resemblance to the Indian of the Brazilian historical imagination: chanting, dancing, warring, pre-modern, naked but for body paint, feathers, and rattles. Indeed, the Tapeba and the approximately 50 other indigenous groups who have reemerged across the Northeast since the 1970s—some two centuries after their purported extinction—are tri-racially fused (indigenous-African-European) Portuguese speakers, many of whom have lived as ethnically unmarked, landless peasants for generations, occupying but having no legal claim to territories once populated by the region’s now-extinct Tupi-speaking Indians and later titled to white Brazilian landholders (posseiros). 

Without exception, land rights are the most sought-after and lethally contested entitlement guaranteed by law to Brazilian communities like the Tapeba who have achieved legal recognition of their indigeneity. Since October 2011, I have conducted dissertation research at Lagoa dos Tapeba I, “Tapeba Lake I,” one of 26 Tapeba communities in and near Caucaia, investigating how toré song texts specify Tapeba land claims absent the federal demarcation that should have followed their recognition in 1993.2 The following brief analysis of two toré song texts reflects some Tapeba perspectives on land—particularly the indigenous village as a rightful, timeless, and stabilizing feature on it—during this ongoing period of uncertainty.

Lagoa dos Tapeba I exists on an indigenous retomada, “retaken land,” located along the south flank of federal highway BR-222 outside Caucaia. Although Tapeba occupation here has since the 1990s gone sufficiently uncontested to allow the construction of several dozen brick-and-mortar and stick-and-concrete habitations, a schoolhouse, water tower, and community pavilion, posseiros have at least twice brought in armed police and bulldozers in attempts to force indigenous inhabitants off the land. Many toré songs respond to such conflicts. One example exhorts Ceará’s governor to recognize the Tapeba occupation as a reconstitution of Ceará’s indigenous presence via the Tapeba’s symbolic return to the tapera, a Tupi term translatable as “old Indian village.”

Na tapera, ô, na tapera,
Onde eu fui, governador?
Ai, ai, eu lá, na tapera!

In the old village, oh, in the old village,
Where did I go, Governor?
Ay, ay, I’m over there, in the old village!

Another song naturalizes Indians and their village within a timeless chain of ecological transformations and renewals through reference to the jurema tree:

O vento balança o mar
O mar balança a areia
É no tronco da jurema
Que os índios balançam a aldeia

The wind ripples the sea,
The sea carries the sand,
It is at the trunk of the jurema tree
That Indians balance/incite the village

Perhaps the most venerable natural symbol of Northeast indigeneity, the jurema tree has entheogenic uses throughout the region, including in a beverage made from its root, consumed during toré rituals to facilitate contact with nature and ancestral spirits known as encantados, “enchanted ones.” Here, Tapeba knowledge of this plant confers birthright to land; it validates the Tapeba village as a boundless, synchronic, simultaneously natural and supernatural feature of Ceará’s landscape.

While these two songs cannot fully propound a Tapeba vision of land, they emphasize a recurring perspective by which land rights are ever coterminous with indigeneity. Put another way, synchronicity trumps diachronicity: indigenous legitimacy in Brazil rests not on blood quantum and unbroken descent from a federally recognized Amerindian group (as in the U.S.) but on self-ascription and substantiation of a differentiating cultural practice (see French 2002; 2009). The Tapeba address these latter criteria through strategically aligning timeless notions of Brazilian “Indianness” to images of nature culled from Ceará’s local environment. In this, they sound through song what they continue struggling to overcome by means of law: the historical break catastrophically separating their “posttraditional Indian” selves (Warren 2001:5) from their pre-contact, unacculturated, and landed indigenous predecessors. 


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Warren, Jonathan W. 2001. Racial Revolutions: Antiracism and Indian Resurgence in Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Additional reading

Aires, Jouberth Max Maranhão Piorsky. 2008. “De aculturados a índios com cultura: Estratégias de representação dos professores tapebas em zonas de contato.” Revista Tellus 15:81-104.

Arruti, José Maurício P. A. 2006. "A produção da alteridade: O toré como e as conversões missionárias indígenas.” In Deus na aldeia: Missionários, índios e mediação cultural, edited by Paula Montero, 381-426. São Paulo: Globo.

Barreto Filho, Henyo Trinidade. 1994. “Tapebas, tapebanos e pernas-de-pau de Caucaia, Ceará: Da etnogênese como processo social e luta simbólica.” Série Antropologia UnB.

––––––. 1998. “Tapeba.Povos Indígenas no Brasil.  Accessed October 12, 2012.

Cordeiro, José. 1989. Os índios no Siará: Massacre e resistência. Fortaleza, Brazil: Hoje Assessória em Educação.

Estatuto do Indio. 1973. Lei 6001/73 de 19 dezembro 1973. Accessed October 2, 2012.

French, Jan Hoffman. 2002. “Dancing for Land: Law-Making and Cultural Performance in Northeastern Brazil.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR) 25(1):19-36.

––––––. 2009. Legalizing Identities: Becoming Black or Indian in Brazil’s Northeast. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Grünewald, Rodrigo de Azeredo, ed. 2005. Toré: Regime encantado do índio do Nordeste. Recife, Brazil: Editora Massangana.

Magalhães, Luiz Cesar Marques. 1998 “From Peasant to Indian: A Study of the Toré Ritual Songs and the Re-Creation of Tradition in a Brazilian Indian Community.” Ph. D. dissertation, Columbia University.

Oliveira, João Pacheco de. 2005. “The Anthropologist as Expert: Brazilian Ethnology Between Indianism and Indigenism.” In Empires, Nations and Natives: Anthropology and State-Making, edited by Benoît de L’Estoile, et al., 223-248. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Oliveira, Jr., Gerson Augusto de. 1998. Torém: Brincadeira dos índios velhos. São Paulo: Annablume.

Palitot, Estêvão Martins, ed. 2009. Na mata do sabiá: Contribuições sobre a presença indígena no Ceará. Fortaleza: SECULT/Museu do Ceará.

Pinheiro, Joceny de Deus. 2009. “Authors of Authenticity: Indigenous Leadership and the Politics of Identity in the Brazilian Northeast.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Manchester.

Porto Alegre, Maria Sylvia. 1994. “Fontes inéditas para a história indígena no Ceará.” In Documentos para a história indígena no nordeste: Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte e Sergipe, edited by Maria Sylvia Porto Alegre, et al., 15-40. São Paulo: Universidade de São Paulo.

Ramos, Alcida Rita. 1998. Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Reesink, Edwin. 2000. “O segredo do sagrado: O Toré entre os índios do Nordeste.” In Índios do Nordeste: Temas e problemas, edited by Luiz Sávio de Almeida, Marcos Galindo e Juliana Lopes Elias, 359-406. Maceió: Editora UFAL.

Seeger, Anthony, Roberto da Matta, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 1979. “A construção da pessoa nas sociedades indígenas brasileiras.”Boletim do Museu Nacional 32:2-19.

Seraine, Florival. 1955. “Sobre o torém (dança de procedência indígena).” Revista do Instituto do Ceará 69:72-87.

Silva, Isabelle Braz Peixoto da. 2006. Vilas de Índios no Ceará Grande: Dinâmicas locais sob o Direitório Pombalino. Campinas, Brazil: Editoras Pontes.

Valle, Carlos Guilherme Octaviano do. 2005. “Compreendendo a dança do torem: Visões de folclore, ritual e tradição entre os Tremembe do Ceará.” Anthropológicas 16(2):187-228.

1 25 kilometers west of Fortaleza, the Atlantic coastal state capital.

2 Partly because Tapeba territory coincides with several urban zones in Caucaia, legal and bureaucratic efforts have largely stalled, unable to solve the problems of posseiro counterclaims against the Tapeba and relocating thousands of non-Indians; these and other issues must be resolved before demarcation can be considered finalized and the Tapeba can claim control of their lands.