The Suyá Sing and Dance and Fight For a Culture in Peril

For 25 years, anthropologist Tony Seeger has documented the music of Brazil’s Suyá and he now leads the effort to protect their rights

Tony Seeger, Curator of the Folkways Collection and Director of Folkways Recordings at the Smithsonian Institution, is the first anthropologist to extensively study Brazil's Suyá Indians. The Suyá live in the Mato Grosso, the Great Bush of central Brazil. Seeger, accompanied by writer David Roberts and photographer Enrico Ferorelli, traveled by VW bus along highways and forest tracks and finally by boat to reach Lik-ko, the village where the only remaining Suyá live. Seeger had two goals: he wanted to record dry-season ceremonies he'd never seen and continue to help the Suyá document their ancestral land claims.

Seeger's anthropological mission dovetails perfectly with his work at the Smithsonian. One of Folkways' mandates is to document the music and dance of ethnic minorities all over the world before these arts disappear. Folkways has issued a recording of Suyá music, and Seeger's program enables the Suyá to videotape and record their dances. As Seeger learned the Suyá language, he came to see that their very social coherence hinged on song and dance. The Suyá, he recognized, make music to "re-establish the good and beautiful in the world."

The Suyá are beset by threats to their very existence. They have no source of cash income. Their water is polluted from the activities of ranchers, loggers and miners upstream. But the most immediate threat comes from illegal squatters, who carve farms and ranches into the dangerous fringe of Indian territory. The Suyá are prepared to fight to hold on to their land and culture. Seeger, a prophet of the new, politically committed anthropology, is bringing camcorders and land-claim lawsuits to bear on the Suyá's fight for a place in the modern world.

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