Indigenous Culture

The Return of the Tupinambá Cloak: Restitution and Internal Colonialism

After 300 years under Danish possession, the return of the Tupinambá cloak marks the struggle—and a victory—for historical restitution, as a starting point for analyzing the way practices of continuous plundering by invaders were adapted in colonized territories under the logic of internal colonialism.

“Different contexts required greater or lesser visibility and highlighting of demarcating signs of ethnic differences,” states Bahian researcher, Teresinha Marcis, “resulting in abandonments, escapes and searches for alternative options for survival both within and outside Olivença”. Considered extinct since the 17th century, in the early 1980s members of the Tupinambás of Olivença called for the first discussions about resuming their status as an indigenous people. This debate gained momentum in the late 1990s and in 2000, the same year the cloak was brought to Brazil for the Brasil+500 “Rediscovery Exhibition”, held in the pavilions at Ibirapuera Park, where the São Paulo Bienal is held. This further agitated the demands of the Tupinambá, who tried to prevent the return of the sacred piece to Denmark.

At the end of the exhibition, the cloak was returned to the Danish museum, but its extraction cannot be understood in isolation. It confirms something much more deep-rooted than theft, which can be understood as a modus operandi shaped by the “arrival” of supposed modern progress. It is a kind of “repetition of colonization” acclimatized in Brazil, with its unhealed wounds, still open from Western invasion. Among the keys to interpretation, one of the most important for understanding this series of thoughts and practices of the living (and the survivors) of colonized territories, is the one that highlights the so-called internal colonialism, a concept to which Mexican sociologist Pablo González Casanova dedicated himself. Among his definitions, González Casanova says: “States of colonial and imperialist origin and their dominant classes [and their agents of control] remake and preserve colonial relations with minorities and colonized ethnic groups within their political borders.” Thus, the germination of the project initiated by the invasion guaranteed the continuity of the model of “geni-epistemocides”, this time, taken over by the colonized themselves.

In July 2022, the decision of Federal Judge Luiz RB Filho, from the Federal Criminal Court of Maranhão, together with the actions of leaders of the Akroá Gamella—a people waiting for land demarcation—resulted in the restitution of objects seized by the Maranhão Military Police. Receiving little coverage from traditional media, the return was reported in the article “In a historic decision, Maranhão Federal Court returns illegally seized objects to the Akroá Gamella people”, by Jéssica Carvalho, published on August 19, 2022 on the CIMI website . According to the journalist, “the list of objects returned include bows, arrows, cell phones and instruments used to cultivate the land, all belonging to the Akroá Gamella people and which were abruptly seized by the Military Police” in a surprise police raid, which took place in November 2021.

The “Liberte o Nosso Sagrado” movement is another example of restitution, but which took much longer to resolve. “Liberte o Nosso Sagrado” is made up of religious leaders, researchers, and activists from the Black movement who fought for the return of 519 pieces and sacred objects from the African religions Umbanda and Candomblé, expropriated through seizures carried out over the span of almost a century (between 1889 and 1945) by the Civil Police of Rio de Janeiro. The pieces were boxed and classified in a racist manner as “Black Magic Museum Collection”. After a lot of struggle, ups and downs for the group, on September 21, 2020, the pieces were transferred to the Museum of the Republic, in Rio de Janeiro, for safekeeping.

There is something that goes beyond the current restitution movements orchestrated by colonial institutions and governments: the practices of continuous looting have adapted to the logic of internal colonialism (González Casanova, 2006). Be it cases of internal and external restitution, such as the return of the Tupinambá cloak, or cases not described here. An inherent form encompasses them all, namely: the dependence of museums, embassies, and other institutions on the judicial system; an apparatus through which such operations are submitted so that they get results.

Escaping colonial logic is not easy, but examples like that of Glicéria Tupinambá point to solutions for a restitution that is more profound than the return of the object itself.

In 2006, filmmaker Glicéria Tupinambá, known as Célia Tupinambá and recently announced to represent Brazil at the Venice Biennale in 2024, set out to make a replica to present to her people’s Encantados (non-human beings, akin to spirits). With the support of her community and by listening attentively to its elder members, she began to reclaim and learn techniques for making the cloak. Célia’s actions not only pointed out ways to not depend on restitution, which is hostage to a system coupled with the institutional bureaucracy of colonial heritage, but also gave back, to herself and her people, something much greater and deeper, demonstrating that it is possible to return to a past that is alive in the present.

Glicéria Tupinambá is an artist, filmmaker, and teacher. She directed the documentary Voz Das Mulheres Indígenas (“Voice of Indigenous Women”, 2015) in addition to making videos with young people from her village/community.

Khadyg Fares, of Lebanese and Alagoan descent, is a researcher, educator, and curator with a focus on anti-colonial studies, dissidents, and image theories. She is currently part of the postgraduate program in Art History at the Federal University of São Paulo–UNIFESP.

Translation: Zoë Perry