Indigenous Brazilian works toward higher education

Pepyaka Krikati at left snaps a selfie with others who joined in the protests against cuts in education. (Photo courtesy of Pepyaka Krikati.)

Maringá, BRAZIL – Accessing a college degree is difficult for many middle-class Brazilians due to the high price of tuition in private colleges and the competitiveness of public universities.

It’s even more challenging for Indigenous people.

Indigenous activist Pepyaka Krikati in a Zoom interview with Youth Journalism International. (Nicole Luna/YJI)

According to the Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, in 2013 the government created a type of scholarship program for Indigenous and quilombola communities. The goal was to make secondary education more accessible for Indigenous people.

Called Bolsa Permanente, this type of aid offers 900 BRL (about $175 U.S. dollars) for qualified students to cover their transportation and meal costs. Through this program, around 18,000 students were able to access university, according to the Instituto Humanities Unisinos.

But since 2018, the number of available scholarships has fallen.

“I’m like a low-income student, because I depend on the university’s affirmative actions,” said Pepyaka Krikati, a 30-year-old indigenous university student in São Paulo.

Krikati left his community in Maranhão state to study Pedagogy in São Paulo at the Federal University of São Carlos, one of the most prestigious universities in Brazil.

For him, moving to a big city was a huge challenge due to the cultural differences, he said in an interview on Zoom.

“Many Indigenous people struggle to survive outside their tribes because there isn’t the same support, especially with the current government cutting those scholarships,” said Krikati.

In the village, he said, people help each other, so if someone needs a phone, they can borrow it from a neighbor. The leader, or cacique, also helps, he said.

“But downtown is different. Buying stuff is necessary, and to do it, you need money,” Krikati said.

In 2022, according to the Instituto Humanities Unisinos, the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Culture offered 2,000 financial awards from a list of 5,278 students who applied for them.    

“Without this financial aid, people cannot sustain themselves at university,” Krikati said.

Indigenous secondary students protesting against the cuts in the education last year. (Photo courtesy of Pepyaka Krikati.)

Being an Indigenous person in São Paulo – one of the biggest cities in the world – wasn’t easy at first. But it’s getting better.

Back home in Maranhão state, Krikati said he used to be on the defensive because people discriminated against him as a Native person. But in São Paulo, he said, it was different.

“At the beginning, people avoided talking to me, but now I’m feeling more welcomed,” Krikati said.

Despite the cultural differences, Krikati saw speaking with others as a way to spread more awareness about his ethnicity.

“I started to speak up more about my culture to break up some  stereotypes that people have about it,” Krikati said.

He shared a few culturally interesting facts about his village education that differ a lot from regular Brazilian education.

“We receive an intercultural education in the village, where we have singing, dancing and painting classes. We also learn how to observe nature and more about the history of our people,” Krikati said. “Furthermore, we have parties to celebrate our culture, which last from one week to even one month, such as the Bereavement Ending and the Tree Log Race.”

The Bereavement Ending consists of a tribute that takes four to six months to honor one member of the tribe who died. Although it looks like a regular bereavement ceremony, it’s completely different. 

“During the Bereavement Ending, we cannot paint ourselves, cut our nails or hair, and we must keep joyfully singing to not disrespect the dead,” Krikati said.

The Tree Log Race, more common in the northern tribes of Brazil, is a competition between two parties of the same tribe: the Low Party and the High Party, according to Krikati. This division is made at the birth of a child, according to the male’s heritage.

An Indigenous community gathered last year to celebrate the Log of Tree Race. (Photo courtesy of Pepyaka Krikati.)

Basically, the goal of this race is to pass the piece of the trunk to the next runner of the same party as fast as possible, similarly to a race with a baton. The winner is the one that arrives first with the log in hand. 

Krikati plans to continue his studies in São Paulo, to teach in his tribe’s indigenous school when he graduates.

Although he moved to this big city to learn, Krikati has been spreading knowledge everywhere he goes.

Nicole Luna is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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