Contact Strategies
Histories of Native Autonomy in Brazil
Heather F. Roller



THE XAVANTE BOYS would never forget their first impressions of the city. Trucks roared and spewed exhaust, sirens blared, and people yelled in a strange tongue. The boys’ home village—with its savannas, forests, and streams—was hundreds of miles away. In the city, they would live with middle-class foster families, learn another language, and attend school. Over the years, each would become familiar with the cultural codes of the warazu, the whites. Most would even enjoy life in the city, with its soccer games and afternoons watching cartoons, but they constantly felt the pull of home.1

There had been eight boys in all, handpicked by their chief, Apoena, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “It is to Ribeirão Preto that they will be sent,” the chief had said, referring to a city in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. “They go with a mission: to study, to learn, to enter the heart of warazu culture.” The chief’s decision was part of a much longer process of moving closer to whites and seeking to dictate the pace and forms of that contact. Apoena himself was legendary among his people and among Brazilians for making peace back in the 1940s. As the Xavante described it, they had “tamed the whites,” ending a long period of bloodshed and successfully channeling a flow of gifts and other material benefits into Xavante hands. But waves of ranchers and other settlers had come, too. They moved deeper into Native territories, felled forests, and strung up barbed wire to contain vast herds of cattle. By the 1970s, the situation had become dire. As one Xavante elder remembered, Apoena “thought a lot about the future and the survival of the community. That’s how he came up with the strategy against the non-Indians.” He would send the Xavante children, some of whom were his own grandsons, “to learn the language of the warazu to defend our people.”2

The Xavante were not ignorant or naïve about contact. Since the eighteenth century, Xavante groups had engaged in cycles of violence and revenge with white interlopers, but they also had interacted peacefully with traders, missionaries, and officials. Some Xavantes even agreed to live in state-run settlements or missions, until epidemics and abuse drove them to migrate farther into the interior.3 With these collective memories of trauma and loss, the boys’ mothers cried for them when it was time to bid farewell for what they feared was the last time. But they consented to Apoena’s plan, for they agreed that the boys had important roles to play in the history of their people. They called it the Xavante Strategy.4

Seven of the eight boys returned home as grown men. They became leaders of Xavante villages and were key figures in the struggle to reclaim their lands in the state of Mato Grosso—a struggle in which Portuguese language skills and other forms of intercultural fluency were essential.5 The eighth stayed in São Paulo, working as a Xavante representative in the world of the whites and promoting knowledge of Xavante culture. He even helped produce a documentary film about the boys’ experiences in the city, as they carried out the visionary plan of Apoena.6

This book is about the ingenuity and complexity of Native contact strategies, used and adapted by a wide range of Indigenous groups in Brazil as they sought to maintain their autonomy over about two centuries. It aims to bring the reader into a world distant from the Atlantic coast, yet connected to it by flows of people, objects, and ideas. The inhabitants of this world almost never put pen to paper, but their actions and occasionally their words filled the pages of missionary chronicles, official reports, and the accounts of explorers and would-be settlers in their territories. They also passed down their own oral histories, which were occasionally collected by travelers and ethnographers. Such records, though fragmentary, tell us a great deal about the dynamics of contact. They also remind us of an essential fact, one that is often obscured by our knowledge of how things turned out: for a very long time, large numbers of people managed to live outside the structures of colonial or national rule.

Brazil was not the only place. Around 1800, over half of the habitable territory of the Western Hemisphere—from the American Southwest to the Caribbean coast of Central America to the vast grasslands of Argentina and Chile—was under effective Native control.7 Scholars have recognized the social and political implications of this situation but have generally analyzed it from the Euro-American side, from the perspective of state societies that wanted to assert stronger claims over borderlands and nonstate peoples. We are only just beginning to consider what it looked at it from the other side, from the perspective of autonomous Indians who saw those “borderlands” as the edges of their homelands. This shift in perspective has been framed as “facing east” or, more broadly, as “facing empire.” It is an effort—always incomplete, given our source material—to understand how the processes of state and settler expansion looked from the vantage point of still-autonomous peoples.8

My previous book focused on how Native Amazonians built enduring communities under Portuguese colonialism.9 In my initial research for that project, I made a rather rigid distinction between Indigenous peoples who were incorporated into the colonial system (the focus of that research) and those who were not; I assumed that autonomous groups stayed that way by rejecting or avoiding contact with colonial society. They had, I thought, chosen the opposite path—the path of no engagement. But soon I began finding sources that described autonomous Native peoples initiating contacts, stipulating their conditions, and directing their course. I realized that this deeper history of engagement needed to be told. It is not simply a flight story nor an incorporation story—these being the traditional framings for Indigenous history in Brazil. Instead, it is a story of how independent Native groups sought access to new products, knowledge, and people, for their own purposes and, whenever possible, on their own terms.10

The central argument developed in these pages is that autonomous Native peoples often took the initiative in their contacts with Brazilian society. Rather than fleeing or permanently withdrawing from that society, many groups sought to appropriate what was useful and powerful from the world of the whites. (In this context, white had little to do with skin color and was instead defined as non-Indigenous.) At the same time, Indigenous people chose not to live like whites.11 They refused fixed settlement, rejected formal religious conversion, and continued to move and gain their subsistence in the old ways—even as they visited capital cities, acquired new, useful things like axes, guns, and horses, and incorporated non-Indigenous people into their bands. They also sought to control the pace and extent of contact: they might open up to outsiders for a period of time and then decide to limit interactions for as long as was collectively deemed necessary.

Stories of Native agency and power are important, especially when they overturn old narratives of defeat, passivity, or irrelevance. We discover that in some times and places, Indigenous peoples felt that they had the upper hand: they considered Euro-Americans to be weak opponents and sought, often successfully, to manipulate them for their own gain. It would be a mistake, however, to idealize these initiatives. Many Indigenous groups across the hemisphere grew fiercely divided over questions of strategy. They argued and even shed blood over disagreements about how to position themselves defensively or opportunistically before the invaders, and if these internal conflicts could not be reconciled, Native groups might splinter, sometimes permanently. Some turned on neighboring Indigenous societies, brutalizing those who could not (or would not) play by the new rules of engagement. As an example of a divisive strategy, we might think of the extensive trafficking in Native children that occurred in Brazil, peaking in the nineteenth century. That trade was mediated by a rising cohort of Native leaders whose power and authority derived from their success at controlling such exchange relations with Europeans and their descendants. Other leaders and peoples wanted no part of human trafficking, and some became victims of it. We can see echoes of such divergences among and between Native groups today, often revolving around the question of whether to allow extractive industries like logging or mining on their lands.

With the goal of understanding the full range of Native strategies in situations of contact, the book is framed broadly. It bridges two major periods of Brazilian history as traditionally defined. Most scholars who acknowledge the power and persistence of Native peoples in colonial Brazil have seen independence from Portugal in 1822 as the beginning of a new era of Native decline and disappearance. Without discounting the hardships that they faced with the violent expansion of settler enterprises and new forms of state repression, the book aims to highlight the processes by which many Native groups endured as autonomous peoples. Even late in the nineteenth century, Brazilian authorities admitted among themselves that some two-thirds of the empire’s territory was “inaccessible to the civilized man” and that many settlements in the interior were surrounded by “wild Indians” who threatened them with “formidable hostilities.”12 Behind this rhetoric of loathing are histories of Native autonomy and resistance that no longer can be relegated to a distant past. At the same time, it is clear that colonialism, as a set of practices and ideologies, continued to structure the interactions of the state, settlers, and Native peoples long after the birth of the Brazilian empire and republic.13 Throughout the centuries considered in this book, Native peoples’ historical roles and contemporary rights to resources and land were denied according to a persistent colonial logic. The reader will therefore see the adjective colonial attached to the conventionally defined era of Portuguese rule in Brazil and its associated institutions, while terms like colonial, colonization, and colonialism are used in their broader sense.

Whereas most Indigenous histories focus on a single group or region, this one weaves together stories from across Native Brazil (see the appendix). It also tracks changes in strategies over time and space by accompanying the trajectories of two powerful groups: the Mura and the Mbayá-Guaikurú (or simply Guaikurú).14 With homelands in the two major river basins of South America—the Amazonian and the Paraguayan—these two peoples were at the center of some of the continent’s fiercest battles over routes and territory. Through their labor, they each created immense landscapes of seasonal bounty: in the case of the Guaikurú, groves of fruiting palms and lush grazing lands that emerged from the annual floodwaters; and in the homelands of the Mura, rivers and lakes that teemed with aquatic life.15 Though there was no known contact between the Mura and the Guaikurú, I think of them as connected by vast, intricate networks of water. They were also linked in the writings of state officials, who came to see them as common threats—or as valuable allies. Some of these authors were known to have encountered both groups in the field.16

Like many of those labeled “indomitable” around the hemisphere, the Mura and the Guaikurú were peoples skilled in the use of canoes or horses, which made them fast and formidable in warfare.17 For a half century or more, they successfully fought colonial expansion in their respective regions, using a devastatingly effective combination of old and new techniques of warfare. Each group also forged long-lasting (though still fragile) peace agreements with the Portuguese in the late eighteenth century, which brought both Native peoples into regular, often close interaction with a range of colonial actors. But the story did not end with their supposed “pacification.” In the nineteenth century, they made themselves indispensable to the Brazilians as allies and impossible to ignore as enemies. And over the course of the last century, they have revealed—through their words, actions, and claims—the hollowness of narratives that proclaim them to be extinct.

The Guaikurú and the Mura are among the few Native groups in Brazil for which we have a rich, long-term register of historical documents.18 Anthropologists and a handful of historians have already written about each group, but this book presents new evidence from the neglected collections of regional archives in Brazil. The paper trail on the Guaikurú extends into Spanish America, too, beginning in the late sixteenth century and intensifying as they positioned themselves at the center of the Spanish-Portuguese imperial rivalry of the eighteenth century.19 Though I decided to limit my archival research to Brazil and Portugal, mindful of the fact that the project already sprawled across regions and time periods, I have looked past colonial and national borders in my search for relevant scholarship on the strategies of autonomous Native groups. I have also relied on the fieldwork of anthropologists engaged with descendant communities of Guaikurú (who are known as the Kadiwéu) and Mura peoples and have looked to Native oral histories and interviews to understand how contact has been lived and interpreted in the modern period.

We tend to assume that very few autonomous Native groups affected processes of colonization and state formation in the Americas. The handful of groups that feature prominently in the literature—such as the Comanche and the Mapuche—are usually described as exceptional cases. Much distinguished these Native societies from others, but I will argue that within the Brazilian context, the Guaikurú and Mura were more emblematic than exceptional.20 Similar strategies of engagement were used by many Native peoples in different regions and periods, as the sources make clear. If some Indigenous groups’ interactions with state societies were better documented, it was often because they occurred on a larger scale, for a longer period of time, or in regions of greater geopolitical importance.

Contact strategies shifted over time, often dramatically. In some historical contexts, openness to outside people and things made sense and brought real advantages. At other times, the same group might decide that it was better to reject and withdraw. These were strategies not necessarily in the mode of conscious, rational calculation (though sometimes they were that), but more in the sense of practical decision-making and improvisation in response to ever-changing situations.21 It has to be acknowledged, of course, that many Native societies did not survive long enough to pursue such strategies. But those that did left their mark on colonial and national societies—imposing upon them, rejecting them, or even offering an alternative to them.22

Homelands and Borderlands

In an agricultural treatise about the northwest Amazon in the eighteenth century, one finds an entry on the urucum, or annatto, tree. Removed from their spiky pods, the urucum seeds could be boiled down and made into a brilliantly red dye, and the author of the treatise noted that “nearly all of the heathens paint themselves with the beautiful finery of this color.” For colonists, urucum was a potential export product, and some began to cultivate the tree. But it was also seen as a kind of indicator species for independent Indians in the interior: “Only where there are no heathens are there no urucum trees; in fact, if one is found out in the forest, it is a sign that there were, or still are, some heathens in those parts.”23 Because there was no indelible frontier line separating colonial territories from Indigenous ones, colonists depended on features of the landscape to identify spaces that were more or less secure, closer or farther from the corridors and enclaves of colonial power.24 Not only particular tree species but also trails through the jungle, fishing weirs in remote waterways, burned or cleared areas, columns of smoke in the distance, or—more ominously—arrows embedded in footpaths might indicate that one was in Native territory. Colonial maps also depicted these interior spaces, leaving them disconcertingly empty or filling them with symbolically dense tree cover. Sometimes the mapmaker added a club-wielding Indian to remind European audiences of what such spaces represented, but local settlers knew intuitively, through the daily practice of deciding where they could land their canoes, pasture their animals, or hunt.25

One of Brazil’s first historians described the early Portuguese colony as a crab civilization, its settlers clinging to the Atlantic coast.26 But by the early eighteenth century, armed adventurers had begun moving aggressively west in search of mineral wealth and Native slaves. Over the course of decades, they set up mining operations and trading camps in the sertão, the remote interior lands or “wilderness.” Collaborating with these settlers, the Crown established forts and strategic settlements as a means of staking Portuguese claims to the lands and resources (including human ones) of the interior. But rather than the sovereign imperial realm imagined by distant Europeans, these were outposts—as any colonist unlucky enough to be stationed at an upriver garrison knew. The urucum trees were all around.

The spaces in proximity to these outposts and routes of expansion but not under state control have been conceptualized by anthropologists of South America as the tribal zone. The arrival of Europeans, along with their germs and technology, fundamentally altered social relations and ecological conditions in Indigenous core areas; at the same time, Native groups sought to adapt their strategies of trade, warfare, and survival to the new context. Processes of structural change, from increased militarization to political centralization, played out across this zone, even among those groups not in direct contact with Europeans.27 In other words, there was no world apart for independent Native peoples. For all of their internal complexity and deep history, they were never cordoned off from the developments at the coasts, along the colonial highways, or at the outposts of empire. This autonomous and interconnected Indigenous realm was a “Native New World.”28

Historians of this hemisphere often refer to the spaces where different peoples came into contact, but where no single group could claim absolute control, as borderlands. More specifically, borderlands could be zones between rival European empires—say, the Portuguese and the Spanish—where the balance of power was shifting and uncertain.29 But what if Indigenous initiatives were just as important as, or even more important than, imperial rivalries in shaping the borderlands over time? What if borderlands formed around or between Indigenous homelands? How might emerging colonial societies have been shaped by the social, cultural, and political dynamics of Indigenous spaces? In the words of historians Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett: “Instead of merely asking what Indians did when Europeans grappled for power, we must take a larger view. We must ask how Indians created the conditions for borderlands history rather than simply looking at how they acted within it.”30

Long-lived stereotypes about unconquered Indians stand in the way of more nuanced understandings of Native historical agency in the borderlands and interior spaces of Brazil. Consider, for example, what I have identified as the first detailed description of the Mura, written by a Jesuit missionary in the early years of the eighteenth century. He characterized the “heathen corsairs” (gentio de corso) of the Madeira River region as follows: “Truly wild beasts of the forest, they are only human in the form of their bodies. They do not have houses, nor villages; they wander ceaselessly through the forest, sleeping wherever they are at nightfall; and they eat only fruits, game, and wild honey. . . . Everything they eat is more raw than roasted or cooked.” Although they were said to be friendly with two other Native groups, with whom they visited and shared food, the author said that the Mura would turn on these friends violently if they did not receive everything they wanted on these visits—in what was likely a reference to the feasts and ritual combats that the Mura still practice to this day with neighboring groups.31 In such descriptions, independent Indians were associated with nature and savagery, harkening back to medieval European images of the wild man and representing the antithesis of all that was civilized.32

In calling the Mura gentio (heathens), the Jesuit author used the standard term for unconverted Indians. Originally referring to those who were neither Christian nor Muslim, by the sixteenth century the term was being applied to the Native peoples encountered by the Portuguese in South America and Africa, who were thought to practice no religion at all. According to the old proverb, the Brazilian Indians were “sem fé, sem lei, sem rei” (without faith, without law, without king). In another version, they were “sem barba, sem honra, sem vergonha” (without beard, without honor, without shame). For centuries, Native peoples would be defined in terms of what they supposedly lacked.33

Unconquered Native polities were also seen as instinctively hostile, a trait that was almost always linked in colonial texts to their mobile way of life. According to the same Jesuit author, the Mura “attack the whites wherever they come across them . . . and they are greatly feared by the rest of the heathens. They go about in groups of eighty, ninety, or one hundred, and anywhere they go, they soon make war, without any other cause than taking women from one another.”34 By the eighteenth century, the Mura had become, along with the Guaikurú, the “archetype of ferocious nomads.” These narratives of “an ‘errant’ and ‘pillaging’ people forever wandering the sertões,” or wilderness, shaped anti-Indigenous policies and justified wars against a wide range of independent Native groups.35 The same peoples were often accused of cannibalism, typically without any direct evidence. Instead, authors recycled older images of roasting human flesh, which had appeared in famous sixteenth-century accounts of Native peoples.36 The threat of hostile “barbarians” also had a certain convenience. Local power brokers might, for example, invoke such threats as a means of justifying armed expansion into new territories or protecting their own interests and privileges in moments of political change. For the Crown, hostile Native groups might serve in a different but equally useful role: they effectively blocked unauthorized people—smugglers, prospectors, or rival Europeans—from entering particular territories.37

Savage, wild, heathen, cruel, barbarous, errant, and wandering: this is how writers most commonly described independent Indians, well into the modern period. They often compared them to pests like ants (which destroyed crops) and mosquitoes (which plagued humans), and they wrote about their presence as a kind of “infestation” of lands and rivers.38 When settlers took Native captives, they referred to them as “pieces”—selling them, renting them out, and bequeathing them to their heirs as human property.39 Jarring as all these words and images are, historians know how to read around and between them. With the awareness that autonomous people have been vilified throughout global history by those who have failed to exert social, economic, and political control over them, we can question or reject outright the negative traits that have been ascribed to independent Indians. At the same time, we can highlight evidence of Native initiative and strategy. Take, for example, the many historical descriptions of Native mobility. Instead of the aimless nomadism that has been criminalized for centuries, it is possible to detect a capacity for territorial expansion, nimble practices of subsistence, and purposeful engagement with the outside world.40 Likewise, denunciations of Native raiding as senseless cruelty often contain evidence of purposeful targets, and they can be cross-examined with other sources that describe how Indians responded to the provocations of settlers and soldiers and took advantage of their tactical weaknesses. Historical documents, in other words, can be read in ways that their authors never intended.

Admittedly, the source limitations for the study of nonstate people’s histories are daunting even within ethnohistory—a field that formed around the method of bringing ethnological insights to the interpretation of documents produced in situations of contact or conflict.41 Native peoples of the Americas who were incorporated as colonial subjects at least “shared some common discursive terrain with Europeans,” such as a basic understanding of colonial law and Christianity. Some of these Native subjects even produced their own written sources in a European language or in an alphabetized version of their mother tongue.42 But for autonomous Native groups during the era of Portuguese colonization, the most direct statements we have were filtered ones, usually communicated through interpreters. To my dismay as I was doing the research for this book, even the names of important leaders usually went unrecorded in the sources. Native cosmologies and prophecies, if recounted at all, tended to be described in a fragmentary, muddled, or condescending way, making them impossible to reconstruct as they existed centuries ago. But many autonomous Native peoples quickly acquired facility with Euro-American conventions and symbols when it served their interests to do so and when there were political or economic openings available to them. They might cross a border to visit a frontier fort, show up on the outskirts of a colonial town, or make friendly overtures at a plantation, seeking an audience with local power brokers or an opportunity to trade (figure I.1). They sometimes interacted with travelers who passed through their territories, or hosted visitors in their villages. These actions and choices left traces in the documentary record that we can mine for insights into Native motivations and aims.

FIGURE I.1 Native Visitors at a Plantation, 1835.
Source: Johann Moritz Rugendas, Malerische Reise in Brasilien (Paris: Engelmann & Cie, 1835).

The historical sources for this book have had to be eclectic and far-ranging. They include official correspondence, military reports, missionary chronicles, legislative or policy documents, travelers’ accounts, natural histories, maps, portraits, ethnographies, and oral histories. Moving from the early eighteenth century into the twentieth century, the sources change dramatically in quantity and quality. On the one hand, documentation became more decentralized and fragmentary with the end of Portuguese rule; even the thick rag paper was replaced by brittle domestic sheets after independence. On the other hand, one finds more individual voices and a greater quantity of culturally important motifs and stories. Many of these were collected by amateur ethnographers, who felt a sense of urgency to preserve bits and pieces of Native cultures that they assumed were on their way to extinction.

In the 1890s, one such traveler-ethnographer in Western Brazil described an elderly Kadiwéu woman, squatting in the sun, preparing urucum seeds to make paint. “The operation was long and patient,” he wrote. “And because her hands were the principle instruments used, it happened that her fingers were ever more dyed with the beautiful red color in preparation. Instead of cleaning them with a rag or washing them, she simply rubbed them off on her body, which, with the passing of time, turned completely red, so much so that the old woman looked like an ancient statue of terra cotta.” The Kadiwéu and their Guaikurú ancestors once collected urucum in the wild, but by the late nineteenth century, they were growing their own and trading it with neighboring Native groups. For many Indigenous peoples in South America, including the Kadiwéu, painting with urucum and other natural dyes remains central to their ritual life, aesthetics, and identity.43 The sight of an urucum tree means that one is close to home.


1. These details come from the documentary film Estratégia Xavante, dir. Belisário Franca (Giros and IDET, 2007).

2. Interview with Cidancri, Estratégia Xavante. On the challenges facing the Xavante during the 1950s–1970s, see Seth Garfield, Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1937–1988 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), chs. 5–7.

3. Aracy Lopes da Silva, “Dois séculos e meio de história Xavante,” in História dos índios no Brasil, ed. Manuela Carneiro da Cunha (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992), 357–78; Mary C. Karasch, Before Brasília: Frontier Life in Central Brazil (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016), 49–52, 107–11.

4. Paulo Cipassé Xavante, “Histórias de um líder Xavante,” interview by Tereza Ruiz, Museu da Pessoa, November 25, 2014,

5. Laura R. Graham, “Fluid Subjectivity: Reflections on Self and Alternative Futures in the Autobiographical Narrative of Hiparidi Top’tiro, a Xavante Transcultural Leader,” in Fluent Selves: Autobiography, Person, and History in Lowland South America, ed. Suzanne Oakdale and Magnus Course (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 235–70.

6. Jurandir Siridiwê, who stayed in São Paulo, was a co-producer of Estratégia Xavante.

7. Amy Turner Bushnell, “Indigenous America and the Limits of the Atlantic World, 1493–1825,” in Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Jack P. Greene and Philip Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 191; see also David J. Weber, Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 12.

8. Juliana Barr, “Geographies of Power: Mapping Indian Borders in the ‘Borderlands’ of the Early Southwest,” William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 1 (2011): 5–46; Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Kate Fullagar and Michael A. McDonnell, eds., Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

9. Heather F. Roller, Amazonian Routes: Indigenous Mobility and Colonial Communities in Northern Brazil (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014).

10. I follow David Weber in noting that independence is a relative term and is not meant to discount the kinds of independence that incorporated Indians managed to find within the colonial system. Weber, Bárbaros, 281n45.

11. On this aspiration among contemporary indigenous groups, see Cristiane Lasmar, De volta ao lago de leite: Gênero e transformação no Alto Rio Negro (São Paulo: Edusp/ISA, 2005), 257; I originally came across this reference in Janet M. Chernela, “Directions of Existence: Indigenous Women Domestics in the Paris of the Tropics,” Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 20 (2015): 204.

12. Patrícia Melo Sampaio, “Política indigenista no Brasil imperial,” in O Brasil Imperial, ed. Keila Grinberg and Ricardo Salles (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2009), 1:197, quoting a report from the Ministry of Agriculture in 1877.

13. For a critique of the convention by which colonial serves only as a chronological marker, see Jean-Frédéric Schaub, “Is the ‘Colonial Studies’ Category Indispensable?,” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 63, no. 3 (2008): 625–46.

14. The Mura were in a linguistic family of their own, whereas the Mbayá-Guaikurú were part of the larger Guaikurú language family (which encompassed the Abipón, Mocovi, Toba, Pilagá, Payaguá, and Mbayá peoples). The Mbayá occupied the northernmost territories, and in the eighteenth century, many of them migrated from Spanish-claimed territories on the western side of the Paraguay River to Portuguese-claimed territories on the eastern side. While Mbayá has remained the preferred Spanish ethnonym for this group, the Portuguese simply referred to them as Guaikurú or as índios cavaleiros, “horsemen Indians.” In the eighteenth century, they called themselves Eyiguayegui, or “people of the eyiguá palm,” referring to an important source of food. José Sánchez Labrador, El Paraguay católico (Buenos Aires: Imprenta de Coni Hermanos, 1910), 1:5.

15. On paying attention to different kinds of cultural landscapes, see Cynthia Radding, Landscapes of Power and Identity: Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

16. This was the case, for example, with the military engineers and fort commanders Joaquim José Ferreira and Ricardo Franco de Almeida Serra, as well as the royally appointed naturalist Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira, who each encountered the Mura and the Guaikurú in the late eighteenth century.

17. Bushnell, “Indigenous America,” 208.

18. Perhaps the only others are the Mundurukú, Caiapó do Sul (Panará), Tupinambá, Xavante, and Bororo.

19. The most useful study of the Guaikurú across the Spanish-Portuguese divide is Francismar Alex Lopes de Carvalho, Lealdades negociadas: Povos indígenas e a expansão dos impérios ibéricos nas regiões centrais da América do Sul (segunda metade do século XVIII) (São Paulo: Alameda, 2014).

20. Stephen Warren makes this argument against the exceptionalism of the Shawnee in The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 18–19. About the Comanche, Pekka Hämäläinen writes that they “may have been exceptional in degree—no other Native American society seems to have managed to exert such concentrated and long-lasting dominance at colonial frontiers—but not in kind.” Pekka Hämäläinen, “The Politics of Grass: European Expansion, Ecological Change, and Indigenous Power in the Southwest Borderlands,” William and Mary Quarterly 67, no. 2 (2010): 206–7.

21. Pierre Lamaison and Pierre Bourdieu, “From Rules to Strategies: An Interview with Pierre Bourdieu,” Cultural Anthropology 1, no. 1 (1986), 112–13.

22. Paul Cohen, “Was There an Amerindian Atlantic? Reflections on the Limits of a Historiographical Concept,” History of European Ideas 34, no. 4 (2008), 388–410; Bushnell, “Indigenous America.”

23. António Vilela do Amaral to Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira, “Tratado da agricultura particular do Rio Negro,” Barcelos, April 20, 1787, BNRJ, 21, 2, 020. Logs painted with urucum were taken as signs of Native defiance by members of colonial expeditions, according to Manoel da Costa Pereira, “Registo de hum Diário feito por Manoel da Costa Pereira da segunda entrada que fez com a Bandeira para a reducção dos Gentios Bororos e Araviras,” October 1796, APMT, Cod. 25, fls. 122v–23v.

24. On the absence of a “bright frontier line,” see Sean F. McEnroe, “Sites of Diplomacy, Violence, and Refuge: Topography and Negotiation in the Mountains of New Spain,” The Americas 69, no. 2 (2012): 182. On European sovereignty as partial and limited to corridors and enclaves, see Lauren Benton, In Search of Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Jeffers Lennox, Homelands and Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690–1763 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

25. On the importance of local awareness of territorial extent, see Tamar Herzog, Frontiers of Possession: Spain and Portugal in Europe and the Americas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 8–9.

26. The crab comparison is from the Franciscan friar Vicente do Salvador, História do Brasil (Curitiba: Juruá, 2007 [1627]), 39.

27. R. Brian Ferguson and Neil L. Whitehead, “The Violent Edge of Empire,” in War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare, ed. R. Brian Ferguson and Neil L. Whitehead (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1992), especially 3, 12–15.

28. This is the useful framing of Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), focusing on the Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples of the interior of North America.

29. Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (June 1999): 814–41.

30. Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (2011): 352. Important examples of this approach to South American borderlands include Guillaume Boccara, Los vencedores: Los Mapuche en la época colonial (San Pedro de Atacama/Santiago, Chile: Línea Editorial IIAM, 2007); Elisa Frühauf Garcia, As diversas formas de ser índio: Políticas indígenas e políticas indigenistas no extremo sul da América portuguesa (Rio de Janeiro: Arquivo Nacional, 2009); Silvia Espelt-Bombin, “Makers and Keepers of Networks: Amerindian Spaces, Migrations, and Exchanges in the Brazilian Amazon and French Guiana, 1600–1730,” Ethnohistory 65, no. 4 (2018): 597–620; Mark Harris, “The Making of Regional Systems: The Tapajós/Madeira and Trombetas/Nhamundá Regions in the Lower Brazilian Amazon, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Ethnohistory 65, no. 4 (2018): 621–45; Jeffrey Alan Erbig Jr., Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met: Border Making in Eighteenth-Century South America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020). For North and Central America, see Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Claudia García, Etnogénesis, hibridación y consolidación de la identidad del pueblo Miskitu (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2007); Pekka Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); Caroline A. Williams, “Living Between Empires: Diplomacy and Politics in the Late Eighteenth-Century Mosquitia,” The Americas 70, no. 2 (2013): 237–68. A recent collection that reflects these new approaches while transcending traditional geographic divisions is Danna A. Levin Rojo and Cynthia Radding, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Borderlands of the Iberian World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

31. “Imformação do Rio da Madeira, e dos mais rios que dezagoão nelle, de seos certoens, gentios delles, e de seos costumes, ritos, e ceremonias,” n.d., Biblioteca Pública da Évora, Cod. CXV 2–15, no. 5, fls. 44v–45. I have dated this document to 1714, because it refers to an episode in “the past year 1713” (fl. 43). It was likely written by João de Sampaio, a Jesuit at the mission of Canomã. I am grateful to Mark Harris for sharing a copy of this relatively unknown document with me, and to Marta Rosa Amoroso for helping me to decipher and interpret the passages about the Mura, especially the one that likely describes feasts and ritual combat. Curt Nimuendajú and others have described a different document, also by a Jesuit in 1714, as the first historical mention of the Mura, but that letter simply lists the Mura as one of many Native groups inhabiting the Madeira River: Bartolomeu Rodrigues to Jacinto de Carvalho, Guaicurupá dos Tupinambarana, May 2, 1714, in Corografia histórica, cronográfica, genealógica, nobiliária e política do Império do Brasil, ed. Alexandre J. de Mello Moraes (Rio de Janeiro: Tipografia Brasileira, 1872), 4:363; see also Curt Nimuendajú, “The Mura and Pirahã,” in Handbook of South American Indians, ed. Julian H. Steward (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1948), 3:255.

32. Alcida Rita Ramos, Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 48–49.

33. John M. Monteiro, “The Heathen Castes of Sixteenth-Century Portuguese America: Unity, Diversity, and the Invention of the Brazilian Indians,” Hispanic American Historical Review 80, no. 4 (2000): 703–5; Ângela Domingues, Quando os índios eram vassalos: Colonização e relações de poder no Norte do Brasil na segunda metade do século XVIII (Lisbon: Comissão Nacional para as Comemorações dos Descobrimentos Portugueses, 2000), 329.

34. “Imformação do Rio da Madeira,” 45.

35. Ramos, Indigenism, 36 (“archetype of ferocious nomads”); David Louis Mead, “Caiapó do Sul, an Ethnohistory (1610–1920),” (PhD diss., University of Florida, 2010), 96 (“an ‘errant’ and ‘pillaging’ people”). Iberian debates about the validity of the territorial claims of mobile Native groups are summarized in Erbig, Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met, 58–60.

36. Hal Langfur, The Forbidden Lands: Colonial Identity, Frontier Violence, and the Persistence of Brazil’s Eastern Indians, 1750–1830 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 243–45. The most famous of the early accounts was Jean de Léry’s description of Tupinambá cannibalism: History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America, trans. Janet Whatley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990 [1556]).

37. The key study of how Indian wars could be overtly manipulated in this way comes from northern New Spain. Sara Ortelli describes a situation in which local officials and settlers invoked the threat of war with “the Apache”—like “the Mura,” a catchall term—so as to protect their own interests in the context of a royal reform effort at extending control over this frontier region. Sara Ortelli, Trama de una guerra conveniente: Nueva Vizcaya y la sombra de los apaches (1748–1790) (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, Centro de Estudios Históricos, 2007). On such “convenient wars” in the Brazilian borderlands, see Carvalho, Lealdades negociadas, 151–57. On the Crown’s assessment that Native groups might advantageously block the access of unwanted migrants and rivals, see Langfur, The Forbidden Lands; Nádia Farage, As muralhas dos sertões: Os povos indígenas no Rio Branco e a colonização (Rio de Janeiro: ANPOCS, 1991).

38. However, descriptions of Native peoples by state officials were often contradictory, ranging from images of their (potential) utility and loyalty to denunciations of their (presumed) insolence and hostility. On these images in the late colonial period, see Domingues, Quando os índios eram vassalos, 323, 336–42.

39. The best study of Native enslavement in Brazil, focusing on colonial São Paulo, is John M. Monteiro, Blacks of the Land: Indian Slavery, Settler Society, and the Portuguese Colonial Enterprise in South America, ed. and trans. James Woodard and Barbara Weinstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

40. For challenges to stereotypes around the “nomadism” of Native Brazilians, see Ramos, Indigenism, 33–40. The classic study of the mobility and other evasive tactics of those who were “barbaric by design” is James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

41. James Axtell, “Prologue: The Ethnohistory of Native America,” in Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1–12.

42. Yanna Yannakakis, “Bárbaros in the Archive” (panel, annual meeting of the American Historical Association and the Conference on Latin American History, Atlanta, January 8, 2016).

43. The quotation is from Guido Boggiani, Os Caduveos (Belo Horizonte: Editora Itatiaia, 1975), 140–41. Other nineteenth-century descriptions of the Kadiwéu using urucum can be found in Francis de Castelnau, Expedição às regiões centrais da América do Sul (Rio de Janeiro: Itatiaia, 2000), 366–67; Alfredo d’Escragnolle Taunay, Scenas de viagem: Exploração entre os rios Taquary e Aquidauana no districto de Miranda (Rio de Janeiro: Typographia Americana, 1868), 114–15.