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Iracema (de Questembert), video, 2009

Maria Thereza Alves
To Speak from the Heart

While in Minas Gerais filming ‘Iracema (de Questembert)’—a video for the Lyon Biennial based on the fictional narrative of an indigenous woman in Brazil who inherits an estate in France and founds an Institute for Art and Science—the actress’s brother, Tam Krenak, gave me a copy of the ‘Wörterbuch der Botokudensprache’ by Bruno Rudolph, a German apothecary who lived in Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century. Botocudo is a derogatory term given to the Krenaks by the Portuguese.

Tam asked if I could translate the Krenak-German dictionary into Krenak-Portuguese so that the Krenaks could study it. The 500-plus years of Portuguese and continued Brazilian colonization of indigenous peoples resulted in the decimation of the Krenak language due to drastic loss of population from genocide. Concurrently, repression of the language and culture of the Krenaks was to such an extent that in the nineteen-seventies, a Krenak speaking her own language could be beaten, arrested, imprisoned, exiled or even killed. Yet at the same time, in present day Brazil it is often insinuated that indigenous peoples have “forgotten or lost” their language; insinuations that refuse to acknowledge the deliberate physical and cultural policies of premeditated genocide implemented both by the Portuguese and Brazilian Governments.
Recent democratic times have encouraged the Krenaks to use their language without fear of repression, though gaps are still caused by repressive colonial policies. Tam says that the Krenak dictionary by Rudolph will contribute to the Krenak community’s hopes for the regeneration of the language given that it contains words currently unknown to contemporary Krenak speakers.

With this exhibit, ‘On the Importance of Words, a Sacred Mountain (stolen) and the Morality of Nations’, I would like to propose that a website be constructed wherein new information from linguistic studies undertaken by anthropologists and other researchers and investigators, and that includes dictionaries such as Bruno Rudoph’s, be made available for the indigenous communities who must be the first beneficiaries of any such research.
Strangely, the process whereby indigenous peoples are deliberately forced to loose their culture is—due to rampant racism in Brazil—called “acculturation.” The only culture in the Americas is that of the indigenous nations; everyone else has flimsy constructions of forgotten assemblies and attempts to imitate Europe, while others struggle to reconstruct an African identity.

Jürgen Bock, director of the Associação Maumaus in Lisbon, is an old friend and a fluent German and Portuguese speaker. Jürgen’s academy works with young artists to develop projects that are based on social situations—similar to my own art practice. Jürgen organized his equipe to translate the dictionary and with the support of the Goethe Institute printed 600 copies for the 600 Krenaks who have survived Portuguese and Brazilian colonization.
In the meantime, Shirley Krenak, the principal actor in ‘Iracema (de Questembert)’, has proposed to write the creation myth of the Krenaks and to produce a publication including drawings by Tam Krenak, and that will incorporate the new words that are now being returned to the Krenaks through the translation of this dictionary. A process of acculturation begins after hundreds of years of deculturation because of these new strategies of resistance, which recuperates the “lost” aspects of Krenak culture by the Krenak, themselves.