By Carlos A. Moreno
RIO DE JANEIRO – An 18th century Guarani leader who fought and died defending indigenous lands from the Spanish and Portuguese armies has become the first Indian officially recognized as a Brazilian national hero.
Sepe Tiaraju, previously unknown to most Brazilians, now shares that honor with 11 other figures in the nation’s history, including an emperor, five military leaders, the inventor of the airplane and the leader of a slave rebellion.
“This acknowledgment is of great significance because Sepe has always been ignored by Brazilians and by history, because he represents Indian resistance to the occupation of their lands, a struggle that still goes on today,” scholar Jackson Antonio Lopes, coordinator of the Indigenist Missionary Council, told Efe.
The decree recognizing the Guarani leader as a Brazilian hero was published Tuesday in the official gazette.
“In commemoration of the 250-year anniversary of the death of Sepe Tiaraju (his name) will be inscribed in the Book of the Heroes of the Fatherland, in the Pantheon of Freedom and Democracy,” the decree read.
The tribute is late in coming because close to 10,000 people, mostly Indians from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, had already commemorated the actual 250th anniversary of his Feb. 7, 1756, death with different activities in Sao Gabriel, the southern town where Tiaraju fell in battle along with 1,500 other warriors.
Fighting under the slogan “This land has an owner,” the newly inscribed Brazilian national hero led Guarani resistance to the Treaty of Madrid, signed in 1750 to divide up the lands of South America between Spain and Portugal.
The treaty gave Spain control over the region known as Colonia del Sacramento – what is now Uruguay – and ceded to Portugal the Misiones Orientales (Eastern Missions), a region corresponding to the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, then home to thousands of Guaranis converted to Christianity by Spanish Jesuits.
The accord stipulated that the Guarani Indians in the new Portuguese lands be moved to the other side of the Uruguay River and thereby remain under Spanish control.
Even though the Jesuits managed to postpone the forced evacuation for several years, the Indians, who had prosperous villages with livestock and crops, preferred to stay and battle a joint expedition of Spanish and Portuguese troops in what became known as the Guarani War.
Tiaraju, who is considered a “popular saint” in some regions of southern Brazil because his image appeared to the evangelized Indians in battle, died in combat at the Battle of Caiboate, near the present-day city of San Gabriel.
Shortly after his death, caused by “a Portuguese spear and a Spanish gunshot,” according to legend, close to 1,500 Guaranis were massacred by the combined Portuguese and Spanish forces.
Today, the Guarani tribe is the largest indigenous group in Paraguay and one of the most numerous in Brazil.
Long before receiving the title of national hero, Tiaraju had already achieved legendary status in Rio Grande do Sul and was immortalized in Basilio da Gama’s 18th-century epic poem “O Uruguay” and Erico Verissimo’s 1949 novel “O Tempo e o Vento.”
On Wednesday, his name was etched into the Steel Book at the National Pantheon of Brasilia, located near the Congress building, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace.
Tiaraju joins an illustrious list of names that includes Emperor Pedro I, who declared Brazil’s independence; Deodoro da Fonseca, a marshal who overthrew Emperor Pedro II and became the country’s first president; and Marshall Luis Alves de Lima e Silva, Duke of Caixas, who led the Brazilian forces in the War of the Triple Alliance, or Paraguayan War.
Also included in the book are Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier “Tiradentes,” leader of a failed revolt against the Portuguese colonizers; Zumbi dos Palmares, who headed a slave rebellion; Alberto Santos Dumont, inventor of the airplane; and rubber-tapper Chico Mendes, who died defending the Amazon rain forest. EFE