Potiguara from Catu/RN: Political Action and Reverberations of Indigenous School Education

Claudia Moreira

MSc in Social Anthropology (UFRN).
Specialist in Education and Human Rights,
Diversity and Ethnic-Racial Issues.

The Potiguara Indians, as the families descended from the Eleotérios are defined, live near the Catu river, in the borderline between the municipalities of Canguaretama and Goianinha, in Rio Grande do Norte southern region, although the kinship network recognized by them still indicates people living in the municipality of Vila Flor and in the neighbor urban areas, as well as in the capital city, Natal. With a population of about 226 families, corresponding to 992 people (FUNAI, 2020), they do not have a demarcated territory. They receive assistance from the official indigenist agency; from CONAB, in terms of food security; and also from the State and Municipal Departments of Education since they organized an Indigenous school in the village. In terms of occupation, they consider themselves to be farmers, many of whom provide labor for nearby shrimp companies, mills and farms. On free market days, during the weekends, it is easy to find a, “Catuzeiro” selling their products in the coastal municipalities of the region.

The public policies available to the Brazilian population coexist in different sectors, even if the path to obtain access and inclusion to them has already proved to be diverse. On the one hand, the State provides some access to public rights, on the other hand, it does not guarantee inclusion. The Federal Constitution of 1988, in chapter II referring to Social Rights, in its article 6, states to Brazilian society: “Education, health, food, work, housing, leisure, security, social security, protection, maternity and childhood, and assistance to the destitute are social rights” (EC nº 26/2000 and EC nº 64/2010). Marta Rodrigues defines the notion of public policy “as a process by which the various groups that make up society, whose interests, values ​​and objectives are divergent, make collective decisions, which guide society as a whole” (RODRIGUES, 2010, p.13) .

For Indigenous peoples, particularly in the Northeast, building access to the various policies involves acting in social movements, both to obtain the specific rights guaranteed in the Federal Constitution (art. 215, 231 and 232), and in the struggle for new ones. In order to overcome the condition of peoples in the situation of violated rights, the Indigenous peoples in Brazil made viable, in this dispute, paths created through intense mobilization and political organization.

In this text I point out the history of political action of the Potiguara from Catu, their strategies to guarantee access to specific school education and its repercussions. In this formalized practice, the teaching of NheenGatu (a modern Tupian language) and toré constitute central historical and symbolic elements that the Potiguara have been strengthening in the present. Based on the experience of Rio Grande do Norte, I will discuss the access to public policies that have been built through the organization and political action of the Indigenous people themselves.

Between 2003 and 2007, I carried out, in different periods, academic research with the Potiguara from Catu, which resulted in a master's thesis at the PPGAS/UFRN. At that time, the political position of the leaders on the importance of re-elaborating school education in the community was already visible, having the children sociability as its main focus. The experience with NheenGatu was already being developed, although it took place during non-school days. I noticed that most of the class participants were children and they used to present what they learned to residents and visitors to Catu. They showed their ages in Tupi, played games with each other using learned expressions and so on. By the way, one of these talented children, Claudiane Soares, currently works as a teacher at the João Lino Municipal School.

Without intending to describe a chronological scheme, it can be said that an unofficial indigenist promotion that took place in the community in 2002, 2003 and 2004, under the responsibility of a single employee of the José Augusto Foundation, made this Tupian language accessible to the Potiguara in Catu. This initiative would soon receive the partnership of a politician from the city of Natal, encouraging, with financial support, the displacements and the participation of a former UFRN student, specialist in the Indigenous language, who started to mediate the classes on Sunday mornings. There was a lot of effort on the part of intermediaries to transmit knowledge about Tupi and toré performances. However, scholars claim that it is not relevant to define toré in a decontextualized way, but to try to understand its meanings for each Indigenous group that practices it (GRUNEWALD, 2005; VALLE, 2005).

As a researcher, in that period, I was able to observe the growing interest of children, adolescents and adults in knowing that universe. In common environments, among young people and adults, this language is not currently used, but it consists of an important symbolic element that would also bring cohesion to ethnic claims in Catu, such as identity re-elaborations (OLIVEIRA, 2004). On the other hand, it would also be used as an element of differentiation with the surrounding society and its expectations about the Indigenous (SILVA, 2007).

In 2005, the Municipal Department of Canguaretama approved the project “Nhe-em-Catu: notions of the Tupi language in the classroom”. I was able to talk to the Municipal Secretary of Education at the time, Hortência Gomes, about the project. According to her, the local city hall already knew about the existence of that community of “Indigenous remnants” in Catu, and, when they received a visit of some people from Natal, “they decided to do an experiment with an Indigenous language”.

(...) There was a team over here, Professor Aucides who I think is from the José Augusto Foundation. There was one here whose name I don't remember now. It was this teacher along with other teachers. There was a person from UFRN and there was a priest, Fábio. Do you know him? He was integrated into these issues. I know this team has been here. There were already meetings dealing with these issues with the community. So, they came here with the proposal, I embraced the idea, I thought it was interesting and that's how it all started. The community already had this interest, also because of these understandings between this team and the community, if I'm not mistaken it was through an NGO that held the meetings there. So they brought this idea to our department. I took the idea to the mayor. I found it interesting that the students expanded their knowledge, because not only the issue of language is being studied there, but also the issue of Indigenous culture (...).

(GOMES, 2005 apud SILVA 2007)

The Secretary of Education's narrative made it possible to understand how the pro-Indian militancy managed to associate its interests with those of the municipal public administration. Which, to a large extent, would be well developed among the participants of this initiative in Catu. The Tupi classes at the School would continue, now financed by the Municipality of Canguaretama. In 2006, during my master's research, a kindergarten teacher told me that students made comments in Tupi in the school hallways. They also learned to perform mathematical operations using the language system. At that time, Aderildo, a former student of the first tutor of Tupi in Catu, had assumed the role of transmitting knowledge about the Indigenous language at school, through a contract with the Municipal Department of Education (SILVA, 2007, p. 220). In this sense, we would have a whole generation closer to the Tupi language in Catu.

Through the anthropological literature referring to the Indians of the Northeast, it is known that investing in the recovery of Indigenous languages ​​was not a common practice. In this case, the Potiguara from Catu make a specific use of this experience and are unique in building paths for their political actions to access constitutionally guaranteed rights.

In the context of the Northeast, there was the case of the Fulniô, in Pernambuco, calling the attention of indigenists from the extinct Indian Protection Service (SPI) to recognize them as Indigenous due to the perception that they maintained an Indigenous language and religious rituals. This would guarantee them specific social assistance. A more current counterpoint would be the Potiguara Indians of Paraíba, who invested in Tupi classes, although they had already had a relationship with FUNAI for several decades.

Recognizing the mediation that took place with the Potiguara of Catu for the appropriation of an Indigenous language, attention is paid to an important factor: that of understanding how the political relationship of the Potiguara with the Tupi language was initially organized, whose consequences are apparent today. The João Lino Municipal School, currently established by the Ministry of Education as an Indigenous school in Rio Grande do Norte, would still go a long way in mobilization, especially through the figure of chief Luiz Katu, acting as a representative of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do RN (APIRN).

In his personal biography, he was once a student at the João Lino school, studied Pedagogy, graduated in Indigenous education through the Saberes Indígenas na Escola project and is doing his postgraduate studies in Indigenous ethnology. He is part of the staff of Indigenous teachers at the João Lino school. His leadership was crucial to the mobilizations concerning different rights claims, having embraced the struggle for differentiated education. Given his pioneering spirit, Luiz Katu contributes to educational projects developed in other Indigenous groups in RN. Like other Indigenous peoples in the Northeast Region, the guarantee of this right would provide access to specific school education, also with the perspective of mediating future projects involving the younger generations in Catu.

School as a space of autonomy: repercussions of potiguara Indigenous school education

Although it is a constitutional right guaranteed by the Brazilian State, its consolidation, related to the differentiated education among the Potiguara occurred only after the mobilization and reclaiming by the community. I will report on some contexts of political action organized by leaders in search of access to the Indigenous school, whose effects are related to the expansion of associative networks and the mobilization of new generations. As is the case of Indigenous children, who have the right to experience an education that respects the history of their people, the time of the community and the dialogue with the themes considered important to its members.

An emblematic situation of the mobilization organized by the Potiguara was the holding of a Public Hearing in the City Council of Canguaretama, in 2008. According to chief Luiz Katu — the cacique —, since there was no quorum on the part of the elected politicians representing the people, the Potiguara decided put on a performance emphasizing the Indigenous right to differentiated education: “Barefoot, we danced a toré on the hot pavement and closed the main street”. For him, it was this political action that unlocked the clash, and councilors began to attend the public building to give the audience its due attention. This municipal resistance to recognizing the Indigenous right to access has been happening for years (2003), when the leaders asked the Municipal Department of Education to include them in the school census as an Indigenous people.

To make a comparison with other Indigenous peoples of the Northeast, I will now deal with a publication by Kapinawá Indigenous teachers (2016), in which the initial experiences with Indigenous school education were told. According to the teachers, “there was a wait” for FUNAI, the official Indigenous institution, to include Kapinawá teachers in its training events (PROFESSORAS E PROFESSORES KAPINAWÁ, 2016). A situation analogous to that experienced by the Potiguara in Catu, when the organization of the Indigenous school was the initiative of the social actors themselves. That is, the schools produced specific education, but they were not “official”.

For this reason, Indigenous teachers did not participate in training processes, nor did they receive due support from official representatives. The Potiguara, on the other hand, gathered Indigenous teachers and families and decided to produce Indigenous school education in Catu, in 2008. Despite this recognition being asked to the Ministry of Education, the State Department of Education required a “FUNAI document” clarifying the issue, which FUNAI did produce. MEC, by its turn, issued a technical note supporting the situation and supporting the Indigenous people's request. Thus, in 2014, Catu obtained the formal status of the João Lino Indigenous School (PLANO ESTADUAL DE EDUCAÇÃO/RN, 2015).

Thus, it is possible to understand this process as a conquest of these peoples, achieving the recognition of their right to develop in their territories an education that met specific demands, as guaranteed by Brazilian legislation. However, the negotiation boundaries have retracted, considering that Decree n. 10,088 of November 5, 2019, in article 5 of chapter III, of the final provisions, revoked Decree no. 5,051 of April 19, 2004, which enacted in Brazil Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization – ILO – on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. The Decree entered into force on May 6, 2020.

For the state of Pernambuco, they have a relevant history in mobilizing for differentiated education. This theme, inserted in local assemblies, is always debated and becomes more and more the object of political action, since schools have historical precariousness and nothing has been done by state administrations – situations that also present themselves at the national level, say the Indigenous leaders. In Pernambuco, Indigenous schools were state-owned in 2002, but since 1994, the Indigenous school education committee had made this request at the national level (PROFESSORAS E PROFESSORES KAPINAWÁ, 2016).

In Rio Grande do Norte, precisely in Catu, the João Lino Indigenous School receives support from the municipality and the State, according to an interview with Luiz Katu carried out in 2017 by students of the UFRN audiovisual social communication course. The municipal departments also support the production of specific didactic material prepared by the teachers themselves.

Comparing this model to that of other peoples in the Northeast, as is the case with the forms of school management among the Kapinawá, these include participatory and mobilization spaces, spaces for the construction of autonomy. The didactic material produced with the Indigenous teachers reaffirms the processes of organization of local knowledge, often recorded only orally. Participation in associative networks has also proved to be an important strategy for Indigenous peoples. In the case of the state of Pernambuco, there is the State Commission of Indigenous Teachers (COPIPE). There is also association with NGOs — as is the case with the Luiz Freire Cultural Center; federal instances; the CIMI; the universities; the State Department of Education and FUNAI. At the local level, Indigenous peoples reproduce the forms of organization of the national Indigenous movement and establish spheres of dialogue and political participation internally and externally.

On the possibility of the Indigenous school in Catu becoming a contradictory space or that it could assume an ambivalent sense, it would need more observation to analyze. We have the example of research on school education carried out by anthropologist Valéria Weigel, among the Baniwa who live near the Içana River, in the State of Amazonas, which demonstrated:

In the case of boarding schools, as an institution of Western culture imposed on Indigenous populations, it can be said that it facilitated the dissemination of certain elements of that culture (such as, for example, writing in Portuguese), which contributed to the strengthening of modernizing, hegemonic ideology in national society, while placing these elements within the reach of members of the Indigenous group, so that they could transform them into instruments for their actions. The study shows that the Portuguese language learned in boarding schools was used, at various times, in their defenses, denouncements and claims. In this way, the school, like any socially constructed space, is an open space, where the practices undertaken in it produce effects resulting from a bundle of relationships – which we could call negotiations – between the social forces involved.

(WEIGEL, 2020, p. 5. Emphasis added)

In the Baniwa case, there were successive production processes of formal education led by external mediators and with many disputes between them. Above all, school experience and mastery of the Portuguese language meant a two-way street where the Indigenous people were also able to elaborate and defend their interests:

The Baniwa school, then, is configured as a situation of intercultural confrontation, insofar as it has been a space for conflicts between the cultures, interests and power of the different social actors involved. It is this conflicting nature that modifies the vertical sense of imposition attributed to school education and highlights its character of possibility. The existing possibilities are engendered by connections and subordination to broader conditions, as is typical of pedagogical relationships.

(WEIGEL, 2020, p. 6. Emphasis added)

This is a very specific situation given the historical and social contexts experienced by the Baniwa people, although Potiguara Indigenous school education has produced access to the Tupi language and, in certain terms, has re-signified local experiences with broader society. As an example, one can highlight the interest of public and private schools in carrying out visits to Catu; of the media; of university students and researchers seeking to know the mobilization and struggle for specific education¹. This historically demonstrates that the political and social organization of the Potiguara has built positive results and greatly expanded the associative networks and supporters in their political relationships.

Having said that, we will now focus on Indigenous children and young people, who are recognized as important social actors in the village. Young people are perceived and recognized as “pontas da rama” (terminal bud). An expression that summarizes the place and importance of young people in social and political organization. Rehearsing an interpretative exercise, it can be said that the “branch” sprouts the new and from there the possibilities of continuity are realized.

Young people assume roles in toré and rituals, participate in mobilizations in other Indigenous territories, political actions and Indigenous meetings specific to them. Children, on the other hand, are understood as “curumins”, an expression in Tupi that gives meaning to childhood as produced among the Potiguara in Catu. They are explanatory metaphors related to future projects that would also provide guarantees for the social reproduction of that people.

During my master's research, carried out in Catu (2005-2007), I interviewed several elders. It was remarkable that, for that generation, the role of the child was very close to that of an adult. Work was the main practice in the sociability of those citizens. Household chores and often agriculture had a prominent place in everyday life. At this point, a gender approach is necessary: ​​boys are given even more responsibilities. As in the narrative given by Mr. Pedro Inácio, who died on the day a Public Hearing was held in 2005, in the legislative chamber of Natal, on a remarkable episode of his childhood:

[...] My father sent me to get gas and a candle to light the house when a sister of mine died. ...I had many sisters... she was very young... then I went... I was a boy and it was already night! My father taught me to listen to the train tracks to see if something was coming... when I arrived at the bodega in Goianinha, the men asked:
- Are you alone? And I said:
- I am!
They all admired my courage, Catu was a forest back then [...].

(oral information)

Such experiences are currently resignified in Catu. Among other roles, childrens assume the place of students and play roles in the family's social and productive organization. In conversations with some elderly people, it was possible to learn that work in the fields marked the sociability of older generations and was always cited as opposition to school, leisure or “learning to read” times. It is interesting to note that both are currently associated activities, allowing the experience of Indigenous ways of being. This gives meaning to the maxim of the Indigenous social movement for access to quality education, made known to me in 2002, at an assembly of the Xukuru People, in the backlands of Pernambuco: “Education is a right, but it has to be our way!”

However, the form of family organization still includes working time in the domestic production unit for young people. This can even be observed in the didactic material produced by some Indigenous peoples in Pernambuco. When they draw up their annual calendar, the school time is also demarcated according to the time of planting or harvesting and rituals. These are examples of specific organizations, and from there also emanates the right to build their educational methodologies. Community life or that of the family unit in the possibilities of Indigenous school education is respected in the perspective of the community's time. What confers autonomies and self-construction as realities of Indigenous peoples and their social conquests.

On the other hand, the specificities in the protection of Indigenous children and adolescents go beyond the right and access to school education as projects for the future, whose management is up to the Indigenous peoples themselves. Assis Oliveira (2019), professor of Human Rights at UFPA, draws attention to the right to land, to territory as one of the main violated rights. But he also refers to other levels of violations, such as the right “to identity and self-recognition”. It is noteworthy that these violations, above all, occur in situations of coexistence in urban spaces where Indians and non-Indians live together socially. Situations of prejudice and coexisting control in social relations between the Potiguara and the locals:

The leader of the Catu community discusses an apparently simple example of how national society interferes in the culture of its people. He clarifies that even when it comes to naming his newborns in the community, there are obstacles. Be it the registry office or the Catholic church, there are barriers raised to prevent the choice of name.

(COSTA, 2020, pp. 212-213)

In order to face this situation of violation of rights expressed in the impediment of choosing the name of their own children, the Potiguara reacted by adopting their “Indigenous names” in the villages:

When one arrived in town to be registered with an Indigenous name, the woman would say:
- It's a strange name! Name Mary, Joseph, John, Francisco.
So, the Indigenous would find themselves lost. But when one would go back to the village, their old trunks, the relatives, would change it. That name he received in the city disappeared and he gained the nickname.

(Mucunã Katu, Rural Screen, 2020)

Prejudices, the deficit in school education and malnutrition are still recurring situations of violations of the rights of Indigenous children and adolescents in Brazil. For Assis Oliveira, a debate has still taken place in the field of child labor, due to situations that occurred in the southern region of the country, where children and adolescents are involved in the production and sale of handicrafts. This state of affairs, for the researcher, needs another look and “has posed the challenge to the system of guarantees of rights to rethink its logic of understanding work, childhood and their relationship with the living conditions of Indigenous peoples” (OLIVEIRA, 2019).

The Indigenous school among the Potiguara in Catu plays an important role in the constitution of the “curumim” being, a term used to refer to children. This statement makes it possible to understand childhood as a social construction (COHN, 2005; SILVA LOPES, 2002). Here, an approximation with their realities and experiences is defended. Only with systematized and carefully produced knowledge is it possible to propose and establish public policies that will meet the specificities of Indigenous schools and their social actors, protagonists of the school routine.

The official achievement of an Indigenous school education among the Potiguara also demonstrates the construction of rights to experience an Indigenous childhood. These rights are very much related to children, although not mentioned in the Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA). Mentions of Indigenous children would only occur in 2009, with the approval of law 12,010, of August 3, 2009, which amended law 8,069, of July 13, 1990, of the ECA. The Brazilian State recognizes the specific right, and includes the anthropologist as a specialist professional in actions related to Indigenous children and adolescents. “It was possible to insert a new chapter in the Statute, which deals specifically with the issue of the adoption of Indigenous children” (FUNAI, 2009). The experience of rights for these social actors has become an important topic of debate and political mobilization among Indigenous peoples widely and in Rio Grande do Norte.

In the history of the Potiguara, one can identify four moments characterized by different interests in regard to school education. The first corresponds to the period when the school was implemented in the 1980s, when the “donation of the land” and its construction were made possible by one of the local colonizer in response to a developmental project and the expansion of the integration process that the residents of Catu experienced back then. Thus, there was the construction of a neighboring road, intensification of land negotiation, advance of colonizers in the territory, arrival of electric light and the entrance of the plants (SILVA, 2007).

In a second moment, more than a decade after the first one, we consider the experiences with different social actors and the approach to an Indigenous language between 2002 and 2006. The third moment, between 2008 and 2010, would be related to the internal organization of teachers, parents and students to insert bilingualism, with NheenGatu, in the specific education project.

The fourth moment, perceptible now, would occur between 2011 and 2015, with the installation of a Local Technical Coordination (CTL/FUNAI) in RN, the consolidation and also the officialization of Indigenous school education. In effect, the Potiguara would establish a status — in the Weberian sense — among Indigenous peoples, by expanding their participation in events focused on education and related topics. On the other hand, this status would expand the political relations of the Potiguara and would come to reflect on the understanding of non-Indians about ethnicity and the assertion of Indigenous identity in Rio Grande do Norte.

The João Lino Indigenous School would also reveal a memory of ownership of the earth. Although being “donated” by a non-Indigenous colonizer in a certain historical period, it has been used for several decades as a community associative space. I noticed that events and internal meetings, whether just with Indigenous people or with other social actors, have been taking place in that space. In addition to being a place where institutionalized educational practices occur, the João Lino Indigenous school, in many ways, has a symbolic character in the Potiguara struggle and involves the construction of rights that, translated into public policies, will, in fact, meet the interests of the Indigenous people.


Claudia Moreira

MSc in Social Anthropology (UFRN). Specialist in Education and Human Rights, Diversity and Ethnic-Racial Issues.


1- To learn more about this topic, check: (Cardoso, 2018); (COSTA, Guilherme Luiz P.; SILVA, José Alberto da; COSTA, Ana Maria M., 2020); (Foque Collective, 2015); (COVIDEO/IFRN, 2018); (Fernandes, 2018; MACIEL, Ana Beatriz C.; FERNANDES, Cícera T. G. L. S.; PEREIRA, Antônia S. 2018); (Marques, 2015); (University TV, 2012, 2017, 2018); (Rural Screen, 2019).

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