Indigenous Rights: Fighting For Recognition and Protecting Traditional Ways of Life

Kari Guajajara swims in a river in the village
Exploring the journey of Indigenous lawyer Kari Guajajara from Lagoa Quieta, her home village, to Washington (DC) where she received the Global Anti-Racism Award

August, 2023 – “The Guajajara people cannot exist without the forest. There is no Guajajara spirituality without water. Naturally, my professional life is linked to this relationship. My work as a lawyer evolved organically from who I am and I simply started occupying a space where I could amplify my voice and advocate what we, Indigenous peoples, have always stood for,” says lawyer Maria Judite da Silva Guajajara, whose Indigenous name is Kari, as a tribute to her maternal grandmother Kari Amora. Both celebrate their birthdays on March 2. 

Kari was born in Ypaw Myz'ym, which translates as “Calm Waters” – in Portuguese, her village is known as Lagoa Quieta. Kari was one of the first Indigenous women ever to enroll in a higher education program at the Federal University of Maranhão (UFMA), and the first Indigenous person to obtain a law degree in her state.

Today, at the age of 28, she is a member of a collective of 10 Indigenous lawyers who serve Indigenous communities in nine states in the Brazilian Legal Amazon, where approximately 38 million people live. The collective incorporates the diverse perspectives of each of the peoples they represent in Brazilian courts. They work on issues such as access to public health policies, education, fighting violence, protecting communities living in voluntary isolation, land recognition and demarcation and, more recently, on the case involving the Marco Temporal (Time Limit) decision, which is currently being reviewed by the Federal Supreme Court (STF).

(In the photo Ivo Macuxi, Cristiane Baré, Kari Guajajara and Maurício Terena, from left to right: indigenous lawyers at the STF - Photo: Apib)

(In the photo Ivo Macuxi, Cristiane Baré, Kari Guajajara and Maurício Terena, from left to right: indigenous lawyers at the STF - Photo: Apib)


Kari is one of four Indigenous lawyers who will argue against the thesis that Indigenous peoples can only claim their territories if they can prove they were occupied prior to October 1988, when the current Brazilian Constitution was enacted. The STF resumed the case's trial in the last week of August. This happened because one of the justices requested, in June, additional time to analyze the case. 

Currently, she works as a legal advisor for the Brazilian Amazon Indigenous Organizations Network (COIAB) and the Maranhão Indigenous Organizations Network (COAPIMA). Both organizations received financial and technical support from USAID/Brazil to strengthen their institutional capacities and advance their priorities for territorial management to improve and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Legal Amazon.

The Integrated Environmental and Territorial Management in Eastern Amazon Indigenous Lands project, led by the Indigenist Workers Center (CTI) together with the Society, Population, and Nature Institute (ISPN) and other local partners supported activities in the Jê Timbira and Tupi territorial complexes (find out more here).

In addition to environmental protection, USAID contributed to other actions carried out by the organization, these include joint efforts to assist with identification documents; settle disputes; and engage in the creation of an Indigenous Ombudsperson Office within the Maranhão Court System. “Although the institutional support provided by USAID was specifically focused on COAPIMA, it included other cobenefits, and continues to generate positive results for myself and other original peoples,” explains Kari. 

In her home state of Maranhão, the number of Indigenous homicides (including in relation to conflicts over land) is among the highest in Brazil, according to data from the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI). At least 32 murders were reported between 2010-2022. Recently, an Indigenous woman was killed in the municipality of Amarante on July 26, after being a victim of sexual abuse. 

This occurred in the same municipality where Kari's village is located, within the Arariboia Indigenous Land, where she often goes back to see her family. Her last visit was a few days before traveling to Washington, DC to receive the Global Anti-Racism Award, presented for the first time by Antony Blinken, Secretary of State (know more here).

In the photo, Kari wears a dark outfit and wears a green feather ornament on her head. He holds the certificate next to Secretary Antony Blinken, who is a white, gray-haired man in a suit.


The Arariboia Indigenous Land covers six municipalities, encompassing an area of 413,000 hectares (roughly the size of Cabo Verde). It includes 232 villages, and is home to around 15,000 Guajajara Indigenous People (Tenetehara, as they call themselves), as well as some Awá communities, who live in voluntary isolation.

Ancestry – While visiting her village, Kari took part in a protection ritual performed by her grandmother; her mother, Surama Guajajara; and two aunts – Cintia and Suluene – on the banks of the Buriticupu river. Kari could not hide her emotion as she spoke of the importance of traditional peoples for the conservation of the forest and its biodiversity. “Perhaps the greatest learning that I will always carry with me (from my Indigenous people) is precisely the understanding of our collective existence. Humankind has lost much of this: people have become individualistic, and only seek power.”

The ritual consists of traditional Guajajara chanting, and the pace is kept by maracas (gourd rattles filled with seeds, and adorned with feathers and graphics). It includes a bath in the waters of their local river, which Kari used to call "her pool” as a child.

“These ritual moments reveal our past, who we really are. All our learning comes from nature, which represents life for us; so we preserve and fight for it. Water, trees, and animals mean everything to our people,” says her grandmother Kari Amora, whose name in Portuguese is Maria Santana. 

At the age of 72, “with seven children, 28 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren”, as she often recalls, Maria is the chief of her village, and the eldest in a family led by women. 


“If you look at our family today, you could never imagine the struggles that my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts had to face to get here. They managed to show incredible strength at a time when they had no prospects. Firstly, because they were women (which is an obstacle, even among our people); and secondly, because they came from a poor family. In spite of that, they have an extraordinary internal power, and our grandmother managed to pass it on to all of us. I am very grateful to all of them, not only for the spiritual strength they have given me, but because I am the product of their work and life,” adds Kari. 

It was Aunt Cintia that taught Kari how to read and write in both Tupi and Portuguese, when she still lived in their village. “She was always a very attentive girl. I liked to teach my students through music, and she paid a lot of attention to bird calls. I always knew that Kari would become the person she is today,” recalls Cintia, a teacher and linguist. As an Indigenous leader, Cintia is currently one of the deputy coordinators of the Maranhão Indigenous Women Network (AMIMA), which has received support from USAID/Brazil.

Aunt Suluene, a social worker and president of the Makarapy Institute, helped take care of young Kari and her two brothers, while their mother Surama worked in the city or in other communities as a healthcare agent, a job she still performs today.

Overcoming Barriers – Kari says that one of the main challenges she had to face at university was overcoming prejudice for being Indigenous. “I was met with indifference by other people, including colleagues and teachers, and with an air of superiority and intolerance—possibly because of my body paintings, my clothes, or the way I spoke. Instead of feeling welcome, I felt different, and wondered if it would be worth it," she recalls.

She mentions the difficulties she faced after graduating. She still faces prejudice within the Judicial system for being a woman and for being Indigenous. 

Kari believes that Indigenous lawyers have the responsibility of building bridges between these different realities, and claiming respect for their people. “Indigenous peoples play an important role in environmental preservation. Although we are only 5% of the population, we contribute to 80% of all biodiversity conservation.”

When asked about the results of her effort so far, Kari concludes: “I can see that it was – and still is – worthwhile because, unlike what they try to tell us, Brazil is Indigenous. Diversity is our country's wealth.”