The story of the Panará natives of Brazil is one of great difficulties, perserverance and hope. Once reduced to 70 individuals and exiled from their lands during the brazilian dictatorship in the 70’s, today they have reclaimed a portion of their original territories, won a legal case to receive compensation from the government for the damages caused unto them, and have now regrown into 5 tribes with upwards of 600 healthy individuals.
In the early 1970’s the native group had between 300 and 600 people living in 10 different tribes in areas spanning across the Brazilian states of Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso and Pará. The military government at the time was investing in large-scale infrastructure projects, one of which was the construction of a large highway that crossed and connected those three states, and cut straight through the middle of their indigenous lands. The contact with the white workers was violent and caused a series of disease outbreaks among the natives, whose population shrank to 70 people in less than a decade.

The Villas Bôas brothers, who had created and maintained the giant Xingu indigenous preservation area, begged them to abandon their lands and go live in the Xingu, which they did. The Xingu lands, however, had a vastly different ecosystem and the Panará people could not practice the farming, hunting, and resource-maintenance traditions of their people. They moved around within the preservation, hoping to find some conditions that resembled the ones they were used to, with no luck. At the time, they had few elders alive and had to rely on shamans from other tribes and systems of belief for medicine.
Having seen little growth in their health and numbers, in 1991 they decided they had to try to reclaim their lands. With help from an organization dedicated to the preservation of indigenous culture, some of the tribe went on an aerial excursion to see if any forests were left or if the white people had “eaten” it all. Most of the forests were gone, but they saw one patch that seemed big enough to rebuild from. That is when they started a judicial battle with the Brazilian government and eventually became the first native people to receive compensation from the government for the damages caused by the construction of the BR-163 road. They won 1.2 million reais (Brazilian currency) and the demarcation of 1.2 million acres of land in 1996.
Their return to the homeland and the consequential re-flourishing of their society proved their sacred connection to that territory and to the plants and animals that live there. They reconnected to their medicine, to their rituals and their whole way of life and today their tribes are filled with healthy and happy children. In the last 20 years, their population has regrown past 600 people and they are proud to show their culture thriving once more.

The Panará subsist on farming, fishing, hunting and gathering. They grow potatoes, yams, corn, cassava, peanuts and bananas and have a variety of techniques to maintain their resources and ensure that the tribe is always well-fed. They have different types of fishing for the rainy and dry seasons and they’re hunt is characterized by the use of knowledge about the ecosystem, rather than brute force and weapons. They also are well experienced at harvesting and preparing the honey, fruits and nuts of their region, and do a lot of their gathering between November and February, when the crops they’ve planted haven’t yielded yet.

Different parts of the tribe participate in different parts of food harvesting and preparation, and different clans mobilize together to ensure that everyone has food. The crops are circular in shape, imitating the circular shapes of the village, as are most of their body painting and haircut designs. The rich and complex structure of their culture connected to their environment may explain why they felt weak and disintegrated when they were separated from their ecosystem.

The video below tells a bit of their story and how they live.