In Brazil, it is commonly believed that disabled people do not exist amongst Indigenous populations. Popular myths circulate that Indigenous babies undergo severe scrutiny at birth and those with any physical peculiarities are immediately eliminated. Such practices are indistinctly named "infanticide" and disregard the sociocosmological and historical specificities of the 305 Indigenous groups inhabiting the national territory (Censo Demográfico 2010, 85). 2

The Karitiana are one of the Indigenous peoples in present-day Amazonian Brazil. 3 With a population of 396 people (Rocha 2017), they live in seven villages which respect the patrilocality rule: Aldeia Central, Bom Samaritano, Caracol, Beijarana, São Francisco, Rio Candeias, and Juari. The latter two villages are located outside Terra Indígena Karitiana [Karitiana Indigenous Land], an area which has been under consideration with Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), the state institution responsible for Indigenous land demarcation in Brazil) for years. 4

This article considers the contested representation of infanticide as distinctly "Indigenous" and targeting disabled babies. Drawing on my fieldwork in Brazil between 2011 and 2014, I will detail Karitiana's perspectives on people commonly referred to in Portuguese as "especial" [special], and as osikirip in Karitiana. 5 Osikirip is a broad and complex term that in specific contexts is synonymous with "special people" but can in other contexts refer to people that, temporarily, behave badly with their relatives. Karitiana invoke the meaning "special people" to describe relatives with atypical bodies and behavior. 6 In this article, I will use osikirip only in the last sense, as a synonym of "special people", unless there is a strict remark concerning the broad sense of the term. I argue that the informal but powerful Brazilian government's depiction of infanticide of disabled infants as uniquely Indigenous is racist and ableist; it also is inaccurate. Those called osikirip inhabit important roles in Karitiana family and community life, reflecting Indigenous values of belonging and reciprocity. Spotlighting contests over the film Hakani (2008), I will show how racist-ableist depictions connect to legal maneuvers to limit Indigenous people's agency in Brazil. This work also will trace the impact of the film for one young osikirip Karitiana, as well as show how some Karitiana resist colonial stereotypes and violent treatment of their members.

Colonialism, Disability, and Infanticide

Characterizing Indigenous peoples living in Brazil as persistent practitioners of "infanticide" dates back to the colonial period. In the 16th century, Jesuits in charge of the Christian catechesis used infanticide to associate Indigenous peoples with "savagery." In 1560, the highly educated and influential priest Anchieta wrote about the Tupinambá Indigenous people: "se acaso fosse a criança defeituosa era rapidamente eliminada […] que assim fazem a todos os que nascem com alguma falta ou deformação" (apud Holanda 2008, 83). 7 Anthropological research carried out among these peoples reiterates observations similar to Anchieta's and may even use the term "infanticide" to characterize the prohibitions on the life amongst particular sociocosmologies. 8

Even as Brazilians continue to perpetuate the racist stereotype that Indigenous people eliminate their disabled children, the state acknowledges the living presence of Indigenous disabled people. For example, Karitiana osikirip are beneficiaries of public health and social assistance policies which have been implemented in the country after the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution and the consolidation of the democratic period known as New Republic (1985-2016). Following Western biomedical practices, so-called osikirip must undergo medical examinations, including electroencephalogram (EEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests. If they receive diagnoses of disability, then can have access to Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS), the Brazilian public health system, and a multi-professional team of health agents to assist them. They are followed by medical treatments (also provided by SUS) centered on psychotropic drugs for those diagnosed to have mental disabilities. The medicines, say the Karitiana, make these osikirip more sociable and willing to live with his or her relatives. 9 Indigenous people designated as physically disabled may receive occasional support of nutritionists and physiotherapists as well. A diagnosis from the state medical system also allows Karitiana osikirip to receive Benefício de Assistência Continuada (BPC), a monthly minimum wage pension given to disabled people whose per capita family income is less than a quarter of the minimum wage. 10

Karitiana's Osikirip

Bodymind differences, what is glossed as osikirip or "disabled" by the Brazilian government, holds different meaning and impact among Karitiana people. According to my Karitiana hosts, osikirip (1) do not speak, or do not speak properly; (2) do not eat, or do not know how to feed their own; or (3) do not learn; but all osikirip (4) are "angry" and attack their own relatives. Osikirip entails conforming behaviors and atypical bodymind functions, but responses to difference underscore differences between Indigenous and colonial worldviews. One interlocutor described osikirip as sharing proximity with non-human beings. Describing her son, Pablo (not his real name) she explained, "Pablo Ymywym Hyk horoj̃." He "is like" Ymywyn Hyk, a being who lives in the forest and frightens hunters suffering from bad luck. The term horoj̃—translated as "it is like" or "it seems"—relates beings by similarity. Thus, the characteristics of Pablo's body and behavior indicate that he is not entirely human like his mother. At the same time, he and his mother recognize their kinship connection. In this context Pablo is distinguished from being an ogre, of still belonging to his family. In fact, among Karitiana, it is understood that because osikirip may look like non-human beings, they need to be cared for even more in order to live well among relatives (Araújo 2014, 102-143). 11

For the Karitiana people, like other Amerindian people of Lowland South America, kinship relations fundamentally shape the meaning of osikirip. A focus on kinship bonds means that osikirip know who their relatives are. The people I talked with emphasized how osikirip know their neighbors, especially co-residents (Araújo 2014, 50-53). If someone cannot speak, they perceive looks; if the person cannot see, they distinguish voices. For this reason, Karitiana people strive to build routines, which can be understood as an appreciation of conviviality (Overing 1999). It is through intimate interaction that such groups live and eat together, "in peaceful happy communities, surrounded by caring kin" (Gow 1991, 2). Social anthropologist Peter Gow has discussed a general Amerindian theory about how such bonds are created under requirements of consciousness and language from those participating in this network of connections. 12 According to his ethnography among the Piro Indigenous people of Peruvian Amazonia, eating, speaking, learning, and living are involved in the development of such attributes because these actions produce human people, abilities that differentiate them and non-humans. 13 In view of this argument, inverse and symmetrical to the Karitiana argument about their osikirip relatives. 14 It is possible to conclude that Karitiana osikirip are the opposite relatives to this ideal of kinship, because they have atypical bodies and behavior that disrupts social norms, such as refusing a mother's food and expressions of anger; it is possible that osikirip have difficulty perceiving themselves as part of kinship relationships. 15 Gow further contends that people who are indisposed to social life accumulate sadness, dissatisfaction or resentment within their surroundings. The "anger" characterizing osikirip is the form of a privileged relationship with the outside world (Viveiros de Castro 2002, 407-418). This proximity can be deleterious amongst relatives. In spite of this, however, kin members recognize bonds with all of their own, even with those who disrupt the ideal of conviviality—the bedrock practice amongst relatives. Therefore, in many instances of everyday life, relatives make all possible efforts—according to the logic of commensality, sharing and care—for the osikirip to cast off their "anger" and become happy to talk, eat and learn. Even though attributions such as doing household chores, going to school, playing, taking care of children or hunting may be more challenging for some osikirip. Their relatives will advocate for them to take place. Karitiana do not create obstacles for the social participation of osikirip. On the contrary, relatives make systematic efforts as to ensure osikirip occupy the same spaces as others, striving to guarantee their humanity, a place in this network of kinship.

Hakani: a survivor's story

The production and release of the short film Hakani: a survivor's story (2008), embodies the contest over the colonial racist and ableist depiction of Indigenous people and infanticide and actual the Karitiana lifeways and relations. It also illustrates the material harm of on-going colonial efforts to pathologize and demonize Indigeneity. The film, sponsored by Atini – Voz pela Vida (Voice for Life), a non-governmental organization, and Jovens com uma Missão (Jocum) (Youth with a Mission), was based on a story circulated Jocum's founders and popularized in the Brazilian newspaper Correio Braziliense. A 2007 article told the story of Suruwaha siblings Hakani and her older brother, Niawi. According to newspaper, co-residents of their family realized the children had been the target of a spirit of the forest which brought misfortunes to them. They pressured the parents to kill the children but the couple killed themselves instead. The siblings' older brother, feeling embarrassed, beat the children to an unconscious state and buried them in a shallow grave. Niawi died, but—because she cried—Hakani was saved by another brother who raised the girl for a few years. Eventually the brother sent Hakani to a missionary post. Later, the girl was adopted by the couple Márcia and Edson Suzuki, missionaries of Jocum and the founders of Atini (Santos-Granero 2011, 131-132). Justifying their missionary interventions, the 30-minute film falsely alleged that "infanticide" of disabled children was widespread among Indigenous peoples in Brazil. 16

Hakani's producers casted Indigenous people for the film, including a young Karitiana boy, Timóteo (not his real name). Timóteo played the role of Niawi—the disabled Indigenous child who was buried alive due to his condition. Among the Karitiana, burying someone alive is a serious act and may imply the "death of the soul" (Ministério Público Federal no Estado de Rondônia 2009). During filming, Timóteo was seen crying frequently. 17 Upon learning what had happened to Timóteo, his family intervened, blocking the possible harmful spiritual consequences of the film production and Timóteo's "soul" did not die.

I met Timóteo a few years after the filming. At the time he was living with his family and he had constant bursts of "anger," despite psychotropic medication and toys acquired through the BPC pension to mollify him. In recent years, when I have had the opportunity to video-chat with his parents or siblings, Timóteo, now a teenager, sometimes appears and waves at me. The harmful experience of the film continues to impact the family.

Responding to Timóteo's traumatization during the filming of Hakani, his father pursued legal action through the Ministério Público Federal (MPF) (Federal Prosecution Service) in the state of Rondônia. The legal action requests the conviction of Atini and Jocum for collective moral damage (Holanda 2018, 173). This endeavor prompted a public civil investigation over the facts involving the production of the film. As the investigation is confidential because it involves a child, I only had access to his Statement of Claim. In it, Timóteo's father reports that he had authorized a trip for two of his children to visit the missionary group Jocum's headquarters in Porto Velho. The father had been informed that Timóteo and his teenage daughter would be photographed in exchange for a fee. The children's father insisted that if he had known that his son would have to go through such embarrassment, he would not have accepted the proposal (Ministério Público Federal no Estado de Rondônia 2009). For Timóteo's father, part of the collective wounding his family experienced stems from the fact that his son, who had been diligently nurtured, was stunned for being treated as a dead person. The family continues to take care of their osikirip relatives. With food and talk, medications and money to support daily life, they humanize them, reinforcing the network of kinship, and enjoying everyday life together. Their legal action on behalf of Timóteo has not yet been judged, following the glacially slow pace typical of Brazilian lawsuits. Family members and other Karitiana know that they cannot expect much from a context dominated by bolsonarism, which legitimates racism, homophobia, and ableism.

The Long Reach of Colonial Racism and Ableism

Hakani continues to be shown on popular Brazilian TV programs (Ministério Público Federal no Estado de Rondônia 2009; Holanda 2018, 171-174). The film and its advocates contend that it is important propaganda against "Indigenous infanticide" (Holanda 2018, 173-174). Viewers have posted negative comments and racist reactions against Indigenous peoples in response to the film (Santos-Granero 2011, 132). The Federal Prosecution Service from the Distrito Federal, along with many Indigenous people and their allies, have argued that the film incites hatred, increases prejudice against Indigenous peoples and abuses of freedom of speech. Subsequently, the Brazilian legal system prohibited the broadcast of Hakani on two internet websites in 2016. Still, Hakani is currently available on several YouTube channels among other public-facing sites.

The colonial stereotype and political practice that leverages disability and infanticide to justify interventions in and oversight of Indigenous people remains unabated in Brazil. At the same time Hakani was produced, for example, a campaign in favor of a Bill from the Evangelical Parliamentary Front 18 in the Brazilian House of Representatives, was launched. Although a law on "infanticide" already exists in the Brazilian Criminal Code (Angotti 2019, 36-37), the 2007 Bill sought to criminalize so-called "Indigenous infanticide," which became known as Lei Muwaji—the name of the mother of another Suruwaha child who was sentenced to death by relatives and who left her village with the support of Jocum missionaries (Holanda 2018, 175). According to the Brazilian Association of Anthropology and the Indigenous Missionary Council (which is connected to the Catholic Church), the Bill associates Indigenous peoples to savagery and irrationality, fostering systemic and institutional racism against them (Holanda 2018); by design, this framework denies the significance of cultivating bonds with osikirip relatives amongst the Karitiana people within national public debate. In 2015, the Bill was approved by the House of Representatives. Even though it underwent several changes, the final text restates "infanticide" as an Indigenous practice requiring special attention from Indigenous agencies. Currently, it has gone through the Federal Senate, through the Human Rights and Participatory Legislation Committee and was put forward to consideration by the Constitution, Justice and Citizenship Committee in 2019.


The production and wide circulation of Hakani, as well as the Muwaji bill, demonstrate how the old colonial myth of "Indigenous infanticide" remains firmly entrenched in Brazil. The particular ways this myth has been used to target Indigenous people and their self-determination reflects the interlocking power of racism, ableism, and colonialism. For Timóteo and his kin, disability was leveraged to dehumanize Karitiana people in the name of Christian humanitarianism and colonial superiority. This Karitiana family's experience, while distinctive, is not unique. Openly anti-Indigenous governments and government policies have a long history in Brazil and in many other nation-states around the globe. Indigenous resistance, struggle, adaptation, and continuation warrant greater recognition, study, and support.

It is hoped that this article encourages other anthropologists—and other scholars—to become interested in the connected issues of disability and Indigenous peoples. Engaging critically with Indigeneity can expand the narrow, standard interpretations of disability anchored to Western medicine and Global North worldviews, drawing attention instead to disability as relational and dynamic in understudied contexts. Bringing disability studies frameworks into conversation with Indigenous studies generates new insights into the ways ableism buttresses colonial structures and practices—and opportunities to resist and dismantle those corrosive forces.


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  1. The ethnographic data supporting this essay is a result of the fieldwork I carried out with the Karitiana Indigenous people for eight discontinuous months, between 2011 and 2014. Such endeavor was possible due to a doctoral grant offered by Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior [Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel], a foundation which is part of the Brazilian Ministry of Education. I thank the editors and reviewers of this text, whose observations have improved the arguments presented here, and Karen Villanova, who translated manuscript to English.
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  2. In the western legal tradition, "infanticide" gained its sense of nefarious crime in the 16th and 17th centuries when the forming nation-states implemented measures of demographic control as an assurance of new subjects (Angotti 2019, 25-27).
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  3. Karitiana belongs to the Tupi-Arikén linguistic family and is the only language of this family that is alive today.
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  4. Karitiana people are FUNAI employees, teachers, Indigenous health agents and Indigenous sanitary agents in villages. The group has universal access to governmental social security programs such as Bolsa-Família, a monthly pension transferred to families and, the retirement pension for rural workers, both of which are given to people under a set of specific rules and conditions. It is also common for teenagers and young Indigenous people, many of them already married and carrying their young children, to move to Porto Velho in order to study and/or work. The community frequently travels to Porto Velho, the state capital of Rondônia, located in the south of the Brazilian Amazon. All Karitiana spend time in that urban center for at least a few days a month to shop and for families to receive their social security benefits (Araújo 2014, 19).
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  5. Even though such expression is no longer used, "special people" used to be an official expression when referring to disabled people. It was even used in Lei de Diretrizes e Bases da Educação Nacional of 1996 (Education Law), the most important Brazilian law in this regard. Legitimacy of the term was questioned in the late 1980s, when the first organizations of disabled people were formed. The "special" category was considered a euphemism and seemed inconsistent with the struggle for inclusion and recognition of rights (Lanna Jr. 2010, 17). Its use, however, has remained part of the national daily vocabulary, including among Karitiana people.
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  6. In Karitiana people's perception, osikirip are atypically small, open, weak, thin or bent, and their heads, eyes, throats, hearts, arms, kidneys, intestines, etc. may be absent. A part of osikirip Karitiana are diagnosed by formal medicine people with mental disabilities, but other part, no. However, the Karitiana evaluate that is a medical malpractice. Therefore, osikirip is, by the Karitiana, a synonym of a person with mental disability, but sometimes this is not confirmed by medical protocols.
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  7. "If the child was defective, they would quickly be eliminated […] a common practice to all of those who are born with any type of absence or malformation."
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  8. Holanda (2008, 45-68) analyses an extensive literature about Indigenous people living in Brazil and neighboring countries. She condenses the motives related to the "interdicts of life": twin births or a new baby when the mother is still breastfeeding; body differences; illegitimate relationships or population control; and individual decisions under specific circumstances. These situations are not usually announced, because they are not social events, but result from private, conflicting and embarrassing decisions.
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  9. In fact, other senses of osikirip that do not correspond to "special" are also treated with the use of substances, in this case plants called "remédios do mato" [forest medicines] by the Karitiana. When a hunter encounters a non-human predator in the forest, he returns home tormented. He is called osikirip in this moment and must therefore be treated with "forest medicines," usually in the form of baths.
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  10. The Brazilian minimum wage, in 2021, is 1100 reais, the Brazilian currency. In order for osikirip/"special people" to receive the minimum wage pension, their situation as people with disabilities and poor families should be verified by the Instituto Nacional de Seguridade Social (National Social Security Institute). Anthropologists Valeria Aydos and Helena Fietz have been reflecting (also together) on the effects generated by legislation and public policies for Brazilian people with disabilities implemented in the last decades. While Aydos (Aydos and Fietz 2017) researches the inclusion of people with autism in the labor market, Fietz (2020) studies the family arrangements involved in the care of adult people with disabilities.
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  11. A first approximation between the "special" Karitiana and the "spirit children" of Nankani, a people from Northern Ghana (Denham et al. 2010), highlights the differences between the formulations of the two peoples. The "spirit child" is a non-human who needs to be sent back to the ancestral world (Denham et al. 2010, 610-611). The comparison resonates with the assumptions of South American lowland ethnology that took different ethnographies produced in sub-Saharan Africa as a point of comparison. Among Amerindian peoples, ancestor worship would not constitute the core of their sociocosmology (Carneiro da Cunha 1978), but rather the relations between non-kin, valuing difference (Viveiros de Castro 1992).
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  12. The aim of Peter Gow is explicit that, "o parentesco é, acima de tudo, um sistema de subjetividade, pois as estruturas básicas da consciência humana envolvem necessariamente a consciência de um eu [self] em meio aos outros" [kinship is, above all, a system of subjectivity, for the basic structures of human consciousness necessarily involve the consciousness of a self amid the others] (1997, 39). This theorical proposition is more implicit in your book Of mixed blood: Kinship and History in Peruvian Amazon (Gow 1991), a monograph about Piro people, but in this specific article he efforts to develop the idea explicitly.
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  13. Today, Piro people is also known by the term Yine. They are, like the Karitiana, an Amerindian people, socially organized according to kinship logic. They are between 6,000 and 7,000 people living in various communities at Urubamba river (Opas 2019, 1074).
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  14. Lévi-Strauss' (1973) discussions on the question of comparison theoretically allows the approach now made between the Piro-Yine propositions on kinship—worked on by Gow (1997)—and Karitiana's kin relationship of osikirip. According to the author, the generalization of social phenomena allows their comparison, and not the opposite. Therefore, it is possible to consider social propositions from different peoples and verify the logics underlying them, as Lévi-Strauss does in his studies on Amerindian mythology.
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  15. Castro's 2018 doctoral dissertation centered on marriage and kinship classifications among the Karitiana, and demonstrates that they have consciousness about this complex social organization. Karitiana (2018) discusses what is "education" for this group without non-Indigenous institutions (like school) and concludes that first rule in a good childhood education is know the terms of kinship and apply them correctly in their daily lives. This conduct shows respect for the older relatives.
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  16. I reiterate that it is a rare practice, supported by individual decision, which is often secret. Amongst such Indigenous peoples – not all of them, as in the case of Karitiana – the practice is not carried out through collective imposition (Santos-Granero 2011, 144; Holanda 2018, 184).
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  17. Kirakosyan (2014), reflecting on violence practiced against disabled non-Indigenous Brazilians, considers "emotional abuse" and other violences a part of everyday life of disabled Brazilians. Ableism pervasively shapes the interactions between disabled and non-disabled Brazilian people. Studying "symbolic universe of racist, revisionist and neo-Nazi pages on the Internet," Brazilian scholar Adriana Dias (2007) has demonstrated that people with disabilities are a fundamental target of this hate-based community. Anahí Guedes de Mello (2014) reflects about gender and disability and forms of violence in Brazilian society. Disabled Indigenous Brazilian people, in general, do not escape an interaction that is both racist and ableist, when interacting with Brazilian people.
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  18. Founded in 2003, the Evangelical Parliamentary Front is a non-governmental civil association that rally Brazilian congressmen who are members of evangelical denominations. One of its goals is to intervene in the Brazilian legislative process to improve public policies in combination "with God's purposes and according to His Word" (apud Gonçalves 2016, 83).
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