Pí Suruí- Indigenous Activism and Photography
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Pí Suruí: Indigenous Activism and Photography

From the Paiter Suruí indigenous community in Brazil, 24-year-old Pí Suruí is both a budding photographer and a psychology student. She has dedicated extensive time photographing other indigenous communities and is an activist for her people. Suruí photographed at COP 26 and saw closely the environment of the conference. She kindly refers to other indigenous communities as ‘relatives’ or ‘parente’ in Portuguese.

“Relatives are relatives everywhere, we call each other relatives when they are indigenous peoples. We sympathize with others. Because it’s no use fighting for my people and forgetting the people who are there on my side. How are we going to strengthen the fight if this is not the case?” says Pí Suruí.

The ‘Suruí’ from Rondônia call themselves ‘Paiter’, which means ‘true people, ourselves” and they communicate in a language from the group ‘Tupi’ and from the linguistic family ‘Mondé’. They live in the indigenous land of ‘Sete de Setembro’ on the border between the states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso in Brazil. Their official contact with non-indigenous was registered in 1969.

“Indigenous Peoples need to tell their own stories, we have lived a long time with our story being told by other people, from another perspective, a more colonizing perspective. Time has come for us to tell our story and who is better to tell our history than ourselves?” says Pí Suruí when asked about her motivations to be an activist and photographer.

“There came a time when I could use photography as a fighting tool, and that’s when I started to take pictures of my people and the people I work with. I want to tell this story in a way that we don’t see, it’s an indigenous angle”.

Pí Suruí

Pí Suruí: the importance of female leadership in indigenous communities

Pí Suruí also discussed the importance of female leadership in indigenous communities’ activism. “My people are patriarchal, so it is men who are the chief and chief of the people. And every village has its chief as well. It’s a hierarchy so it’s from parent to child. But today, women are taking up space and having space within the community. I am the first indigenous woman photographer of my people,” says Pí Suruí.

Pí Suruí participated in COP 26 as a photographer for ‘Mídia India’. “It was an incredible and remarkable experience. But it was also a sad experience because we see that indigenous peoples are not included in the decision-making process. The people there are not the one who represents what they brought as a slogan, which is the ‘protection of the forest’ and ‘climate change’, and who better to talk about that than the indigenous peoples?,” says Pí Suruí.

The COP 26 had an imbalanced representation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – or IPCC – is an important document discussed at the conference. The authors of the document are largely male despite the large increase in female authors from 1990 from less than 5% to more than 20% in 2018.

Not only there are fewer female authors in the report but also in the climate negotiations at COP 26. Women have low representation in political positions, so they are fewer in climate delegations.

Also, about two-thirds of civil society organisations could not come to Glasgow due to visa, accreditation issues, lack of access to Covid-19 vaccines, and changing travel restrictions. Most of the absent were from the global south which least contributes to greenhouse gasses and suffers the most from climate change.

“We have an indigenous youth movement in Rondonia in which each village has its representative and it is always a woman and a man, and we try hard to include women in these spaces and decisions. Now I see a lot of girls engaged [in projects] and we always try to put half [women] and a half [men]. We try hard to make it very clear that women are important in this journey and that they have a very fundamental role. We understand that even though the culture is very focused on the issue of men, women are fundamental,” says Suruí.

Pí Suruí - Photograhper

In an interview for ‘A Crítica’ the indigenous sociologist Valéria Marques argues that the leadership of indigenous women always existed but visibility is new. She also argues that misogyny is a non-indigenous behaviour that has a strong impact on indigenous communities that results in violence. However, there is change as women are becoming leaders in the ‘cacicado’ or indigenous leader.

“We have external influence resulted from contact some time ago. Everything has an influence of non-indigenous culture. Our culture is not like that, but we understand that there has to be this balance today. My father always says that ‘culture walks and culture advances,” says Pí Suruí.

“You have to have that balance. Yes, it obviously had a great influence even on this wave of feminism itself, of understanding that feminism is not just for white people, there is feminism for black people, for indigenous women. But still knowing how to respect what is part of our culture, our roots and who we are. Because it’s not so simple to say what feminism is, as we still need to consider our culture. There are great leaders among my people who are women and it’s a path and we’re walking.”

“So, a while ago I didn’t see feminism being talked about, there was a lot of feminism aimed at white people and they are very different realities. The feminism of white people, black people, and indigenous people, so now I think this fight is really starting. I see people talking about indigenous feminism. Then it started to be talked about and discussed. It’s not something that we see everywhere and all people argue. But I think in my group these things are happening,” says Suruí.

The recent death of the journalist Dom Philips and the indigenous expert Bruno Pereira sparked debates on the protection of the Amazon and the violence indigenous communities face. Philips and Pereira were two people that dedicated their lives to the protection of the forest and the indigenous communities. 

“People think they have the right to invade other people’s territory and homes. These times are difficult. Recently they burned down the house of a relative of ours. And we have to live with it. Unfortunately, in this government, it is very difficult. The inspections that should be happening do not happen and with the pandemic that became even less,” says Pí Suruí “and those who know here see some indigenous peoples who monitor their own indigenous lands which put their lives and ours at risk. The struggle of indigenous peoples is very difficult”.

“And it still is,” says Pí Suruí “and when I saw that video of him, of Bruno singing, I cried a lot. I have many friends who work with journalism and who live denouncing and doing this heavy side. I have a friend doing fieldwork talking about the massacres that took place within the communities so she was horrified. It is very sad because we find ourselves in this situation.”

Pí Suruí described how this violent reality became close to her when she was young. “When I was 12/13 years old, my father started to be threatened more intensely and we had to have people from the national force around to protect us. This was something that had a great impact on my life when I was young. Because it leaves anyone traumatized”.

“But that’s it, we will continue to fight and we are fighting and we continue to live because this is our life. Mainly my life, I have nowhere to run. If I lose my territory where do I go? where is my family going?,” says Pí Suruí  “I saw a video of a relative who said that ‘people are very keen to take care of the trees and the forest’, but if we don’t take care of those who take care of the forest that are we [the indigenous people], the forest will not stand.”

About the author

Political Science Student at Sciences Po Paris | fernanda@rockandart.org | + posts

Born in Brasília, Brazil. Political Science student at Sciences Po Paris and exchange student at King's College. Nature lover, mother of three dogs and photography enthusiast.

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