Saturday, November 13, 2004

Using Courts in Brazil to Strengthen an Indian Identity


ON all her official papers, she is known as Joênia Batista de Carvalho. But that is not the real name of the first Indian woman to become a lawyer in Brazil, just a name a clerk randomly selected when her parents were first brought from their Amazon village to have their births registered.

Whether her preoccupation with issues of cultural identity and autonomy stems from that incident, Ms. Batista is not sure. Still, when she went to the United States earlier this year to receive a Reebok Prize for her human rights work, she chose to accept the award as Joênia Wapixana, using the name of the tribe to which she belongs.

"Everything I do is aimed at focusing attention on our community, so that others, outside, can see who we really are," explained Ms. Batista, staff attorney for the Roraima Indigenous Council here in Brazil's northernmost state. "Why have we as a people been able to continue to exist? Because we know where we come from. By having roots, you can see the direction in which you want to go."