“Identity recovery”: An interview with Indigenous artist and Tibira charity founder Katú Mirim
According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), “Brazil’s Indigenous population stands at 896,900 individuals, 36.2% of whom live in urban areas. A total of 505 Indigenous Lands have been identified, covering 12.5% of Brazilian territory. There are 305 different peoples, most of whom live in the Amazon region and speak 274 languages.” Despite these numbers, Indigenous people still face many challenges in Brazil, from racism to the impacts of the climate crisis, the absence of territory demarcation to a lack of representation in mainstream spaces.
With this in mind, COLORS spoke to São Paulo-based Indigenous artist, musician, and activist Katú Mirim, who is also the founder of Tibira: an online collective supporting people from the Indigenous and LGBTQIA+ communities in Brazil. We discussed everything from her personal relationship with her Indigenous identity and how it influences her artwork to the Indigenous artists whose work should get more recognition.
COLORS: introduce yourself to us: who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
Katú Mirim: My name is Katú Mirim and I come from São Paulo. I’m an Indigenous activist and a lesbian. I was adopted when I was only eleven-months-old, and I only discovered I came from an Indigenous background—I am descended from the Bororo people from the state of Mato Grosso—when I was around 13. Since then, I have been in identity recovery.
I am the founder of Visibilidade Indígena—a platform amplifying the voices of Indigenous artists—as well as Indígenas LGBTQ, or Tibira, which is an online collective. I also recently initiated the hashtag #DenúnciaíndioNãoéFantasia (#ComplaintIndianIsNotFantasy) which seeks to denounce the completely racist “red Indian” fantasy and cliche perception of Indigenous people. Outside of all that, I make music, and just try to survive in this country that’s been in chaos lately.
COLORS: What was it like to discover you come from an Indigenous background as a teenager?
KM: While it wasn’t confirmed that I was Indigenous until I was a bit older, growing up I always experienced racism because of the way I look. At school, we were taught that Indigenous people were a thing of the past, that they were savages and had been exterminated. At first, whenever someone told me that I looked like I was Indigenous, I denied it. Then, when I met my biological father for the first time, he told me that we come from the Bororo people. From then on, if people ever pointed at me and told me I had an “Indian face,” I would proudly say: “I am an Indigenous person descended from the Bororo people,” and that would be the end of that.
I was heavily affected when my biological father passed away. I felt like I’d lost my only connection to my culture, especially because I didn’t have the internet at the time. When I got a WiFi connection, I used it to do more research about Bororo people.
“Digging into your ancestry is at once emotional and political.”
COLORS: Can you tell us more about the Bororo people?
KM: Bororos is an area in the state of Mato Grosso. It’s also known as Boebororo. Boe means “true people.” We always add this prefix when we’re talking about ourselves. The first time I made contact with an Indigenous person who lived in Mato Grosso was in 2007. His name is Yamaru Bambam and he is from the Kuikuro people. I met him on Orkut, a Brazilian social media website. He told me to look for my people, and that there were many of them online, but I really struggled to find them as they often use traditional names that are difficult to search for.
Time passed and I began to become more confident about asserting myself as an Indigenous person. I got in contact with the Guarani people from the Indigenous land of São Paulo do Jaraguá. I remember I once told one of their children that I was of Indigenous descent. She was very confused and said: “What do you mean you’re a descendant? Are you Indigenous or not?” This really made me think about how I defined myself. Digging into your ancestry is at once emotional and political. At first I was mainly concerned with the former: I wanted to find my people and rescue my identity. But later on, I got more passionate about speaking up about the fact that Brazil has erased my father’s cultural identity and his people.
I was finally able to get in touch with some Bororos people recently. We are currently in communication, however I’m not baptized into Bororo culture yet. The Bororo people have a matrilineal culture: only sons born to women from the community are considered Bororo, whereas I’m a father’s daughter. When I realised this I was incredibly disappointed. But the culture has changed slightly, especially in recognition of the fact that so many of the people from the community were kidnapped and are now coming back to look for their heritage and a sense of belonging. Everyone I’ve talked with has been very understanding and respectful of my narrative. I’ve started to learn more about the language and the culture, as well as other cultures beyond Bororo because I recently did a DNA test and found out that I’m from all over the Americas. So many people I know have similar experiences and feelings to me. I think we all need to occupy our spaces and identities. That’s what I try to do with my voice and with my art.
COLORS: When and why did you start making your own music? How does your music connect with your identity?
KM: I was adopted by a white, cis, male pastor, so the only music in my house was by artists like Aline Barros, or music from the church. I loved to write poetry. I first heard rap music through my neighbor, and also when people started playing it during school break times. Later on I got into rock music as well.
One of the first rap tracks I wrote is called ‘Aguyjevete’. In the Guarani language, this title means “gratitude to the people who fight.” The song talks about the struggle of Indigenous and Black people. I wrote it with a lot of passion. When I listen to it now, I’m a little embarrassed. It’s always like that with your early work. But that’s the point of art: you’re meant to grow and evolve.
“Homophobia and transphobia are not native to Indigenous people, this hatred is a product of colonization and evangelization.”
COLORS: Can you tell us about the main challenges facing Indigenous communities in Brazil today?
KM: We’ve been fighting for 520 years for Indigenous lands and territories to be demarcated, which still hasn’t been made a constitutional right. There are also other problems: the Indigenous suicide rate is three times the national average, and the rape of Indigenous women is also enormous. Our people are always stereotyped, and almost never authentically represented in the mainstream media. There are no Indigenous news anchors or CEOs. We’re here, but nobody gives us space because they think we’re either a thing of the past, or that we still live naked in the forest. It’s even more frustrating when you see public figures, brands, and events saying they are inclusive and anti-racist but not including any indigenous people.
There’s even prejudice within the Indigenous and LGBTQIA+ communities, which you would think would be super welcoming. So many people think that there’s no such thing as a gay Indigenous person. We’re fighting in all spaces. I see it as my mission to continue with my art, not to give up on my dreams, and try to open up space for others in the future.
COLORS: As you mentioned in the beginning of this interview, you founded an online collective, Tibira, to support people from the Indigenous and LGBTQIA+ communities in Brazil. Can you tell us how this came about?
KM: Tibira was born from the lack of space to talk about indigenous issues and LGBTQIA+ issues within Indigenous communities. To kick things off, I created an Instagram account and posted a picture of one of my relatives, along with information about who he is and the Indigenous group he is descended from.
Some people think that all Indigenous communities have the same attitudes towards homosexuality. The truth is, some accept it and others don’t. This is mainly because of colonization. homophobia and transphobia are not native to Indigenous people, this hatred is a product of colonization and evangelization.
At the moment Tibira exists purely online, but eventually we would like to create a physical space: a shelter for young people who have been expelled from their villages. That’s our dream, but it’s a long way off at the moment. We don’t have the money to finance it. Until then, we’re using our digital platform to spotlight Indigenous, LGBTQIA+ people, allowing them to speak with pride. We don’t only feature people from Brazil: we’ve also showcased people from North America and have worked with a trans community in Bolivia. We want to keep communicating with each other so that we can try to understand what colonization has done to our bodies, what it is to be an Indigenous woman, and what it is to be an indigenous transgender person.
Of course, non-Indigenous, non-LGBTQIA+ people can also see the account. I hope it creates a dialogue, or a bridge, so that they can start to understand these communities better too.
Recent posts on Tibira
COLORS: What are the things you’re most proud of achieving with Tibira so far?
KM: we worked on a commercial with Converse, which was amazing. Everyone at Tibira loved the brand. Also, a lot of people have told me that they felt alone, and were thinking about committing suicide until they found Tibira. It’s important for me to know that Tibira is changing lives, and bringing hope to other young people and LGBTQIA+ Indigenous people.
COLORS: As well as your plan to build a physical space for Tibira, what are your personal hopes and ambitions for the future?
KM: I want to be rich! I want to be independent from white people. I want to have my own studio where I can welcome Indigenous artists and give them autonomy. That’s my dream. If anyone wants to support me, just let me know!
I also dream of recognition: not only as an artist, but as a person, as an identity. We’re starting to see Black people in various mainstream spaces, after a hell of a fight, but we’re not seeing Indigenous people yet. We are at the margin of the margin. We have a lot of talent. All we’re missing is the opportunity to show it.
“We need to decolonize: decolonize spaces, decolonize the mind, decolonize the soul.”