Schooling of STs: India can learn from Brazilian experience of educating indigenous people

odisha tribalBy V Santhakumar*

Amarendra Das1 and I have visited a set of schools in the tribal villages of the Gajapati district of Odisha state (in India) early this year. Since these tribal communities speak a different language (namely Soura) (and they don’t speak the main language of the state – Oriya), schools here practice bilingual education in 1-4 grades. The use of their own language in school has encouraged the students to be more active in classrooms and reduced their fear of schooling. However, there are a number of issues: There are not enough teachers who know both languages. Since many people from these communities are not educated to be teachers, schools have to depend on others. Hence those who teach subjects such as maths may not know the local language. The transition of students to higher grades, which do not use the tribal language, is difficult. The state government2 and academics like Ajit Mohanty3 have documented these and other issues.

Though the interest in education is catching up among the scheduled tribes in India, it has not encouraged all boys and girls to complete schooling. Dropouts and non-completion of schooling are higher among them. This is reflecting in the indicators of their human development. Since they constitute nearly one-tenth of Indian population, enhancing the human development of the country as a whole, requires narrowing the `development’ gap between them and the mainstream population.

However, there are different ideological positions in this regard. Some may object to the attempts to `develop’ or `modernise’ these people. It is true that the mainstream society can learn important lessons from these tribes. These include their practices of nurturing bio-diversity (rather than destroying it), knowledge of plants and other materials for different uses, and also the continuation of certain communitarian arrangements that may enhance the quality of social life. It is desirable if others including the `modern’ or middle-class Indians learn how to treat their girls and women from tribal people. However these should not encourage us to argue against all kinds of development interventions for this population.

There is a need for them to develop (or transform) and change on certain dimensions. Encouraging all boys and girls to complete schooling is the first step. That will reflect in the fertility rate, infant mortality rate, nutritional- status and so on. There are practices which may have to change. Studies on health conditions of these people have noted the negative impacts of certain habits (such as the excessive use of tobacco or country liquor). Cousin marriages or sexual relationships within close circles can be damaging in the long-run. Girls and boys may start courtships earlier and that may lead to pregnancy and early marriage among scheduled tribes. Early marriage and/or child-bearing could be harmful for girls as these may affect their education, opportunities for viable employment and other aspects of their life.

The resources over which these people have access to (the forest) is also shrinking due to competitive uses including that for environmental protection. Hence they cannot continue with the same livelihood practices, and if they continue, there could be a degeneration in their quality of life. Whether it is good or bad, there are contacts between tribal people and the mainstream society. In the absence of adequate capabilities to deal with the outside world, the former are more likely to be exploited in such interactions. Hence the real challenge is in finding out ways to enhance the human development and other capabilities of these people, and to nurture their practices which are valuable for everyone.

brazil1Indigenous people in Brazil4

Indigenous people constitute only about 0.4 percent of the Brazilian population. Due to the way these people were exploited and decimated in the past by the colonialists and their successive generations, and also the international discourses on this issue, there has been a greater concern about the welfare of indigenous people during the last 3-4 decades there.

The education of indigenous people in Brazil also has a longer history. It was initially started by the Christian missionaries but the content and the language of education were those of the colonialists. Though the Church was primarily interested in enhancing their ability to read the bible, it was also interested in education as an instrument of social change5. The activities of missionaries have also helped the codification of a number of languages spoken by these indigenous groups.

Then there were a number of experiments by the non-governmental organisations to provide bi-lingual education to these groups. As part of these, there were attempts to document and teach the history and cultural practices of each of these groups to their children. Hence inter-cultural education6 became popular in the schooling of indigenous people in Brazil and other Latin American countries. Though bilingual education is attempted in parts of India, it is yet to practice inter-cultural education for its scheduled tribes.

However, Brazil has gone beyond these `successful’ experiments of inter-cultural education for its indigenous people. The social and political mobilisation of different marginalised social groups including the indigenous people of this country during the last 3 decades has facilitated this transition. Indigenous communities have started taking control of their schooling. The elementary schools are controlled and managed by them. They see the need for education (not much to become `modern’) but to assert their rights in (and to deal with) a system/structure controlled by the mainstream and educated society.

According to Rita Potyguara, who heads the program for indigenous education in Brazil (and she is an indigenous person), there is no dearth of demand for schooling by indigenous communities currently. Even those communities which have established contacts with the mainstream society only recently start demanding schools. There is a perception in Brazil that its indigenous people are more `powerful’ politically and have greater access to resources, than other marginalised social groups, say, the blacks.

It seems that the lower demand for (and hence under-achievements in) schooling among the scheduled tribes in India is due to the slower pace of their social and political mobilisation. Such a mobilisation of tribal population is only recent even in Kerala where there is a longer tradition of socio-political movements among almost all other social groups. When scheduled tribes are mobilised by the mainstream political parties, there may not be enough attention on their specific issues.

One constraint that Brazil faced a couple of decades ago was the non-availability of teachers from indigenous communities. Bi-lingual and inter-cultural education cannot be practised well if there are not enough teachers from indigenous groups. This has encouraged the Ministry of Education of the Government of Brazil to request interested universities to prepare a proposal to train teachers from indigenous communities. Such proposals are to be prepared in consultation with one or other of such communities.

These programs are partly through the residence of trainees in the universities and partly in their localities (through practice, research and documentation in schools). University professors also spend a part of their time in the location of the communities carrying out research and mentoring of trainee-teachers. A number of federal universities have started this program and through this, they have reached a situation where nearly 90 percent of the teachers of schools in indigenous areas come from the same communities.

Célia Xakriaba7 is an exemplar of this education. She, who comes from the Xakriaba tribe, went through this training program at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, worked as a cultural teacher at the school in her community and was then invited to take over the Coordination of School Education of Indigenous groups in her state in Brazil. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree that train people from marginalized social groups. She is a sophisticated combination of tradition and modernity.

On the one hand, Celia is a confident and empowered woman (remaining single in her late twenties, which is very unusual in her community), shaping the aspirations of boys and girls of her group and other indigenous groups in the region. On the other hand, she is deeply rooted in the tradition and practices of its community. According to her, education has allowed her to overcome two tendencies: outsiders romanticize tradition and indigenous people follow traditional practices without worrying about the gaze of external observers. In contrast, people like her can facilitate “transformation” through the reflection of tradition and not through its rejection.

This is the kind of transformation that those boys and girls belonging to the scheduled tribes of India have to undergo. Higher education and teacher-training specifically aimed at such social groups can play an important role here. This can be an agenda for Azim Premji University and others, which are interested in contributing to the `quality schooling for all’ and social change in India.





4 There is a debate on whether the Scheduled Tribes can be called indigenous people or not, and hence I am continuing to use tribes. However, this debate should not prevent us from comparing the challenges that these two groups – Scheduled Tribes in India and Indigenous people in Brazil – face in terms of education.

5 Based on the discussions with the office bearers of the National Mission for Tribes in Brazil – an arm of the Evangelical Church.



*Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Source:


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