A lakuh constructed in the Museum of the Indian. Inside the lakuh indigenous people of the Oiapoque region in Brazil communicate with the spirit world.

The Museum of the Indian in Rio de Janeiro

Sara Shahriari

The huge, densely forested region that the Portuguese claimed and named Brazil around 1500 once had an indigenous population of millions. As in much of the Americas that number was radically reduced by the slavery, disease and loss of lands indigenous people suffered over the following centuries.

Brazil today is home to several hundred thousand indigenous people, and the largest number of uncontacted tribes in the world. Brazil’s National Foundation of the Indian, or FUNAI, estimates there are 67 uncontacted groups in the country. The Brazilian government forbids most outsiders entrance to their territories.

The Museum of the Indian in Rio de Janeiro hosts one of the world’s largest archives of documents on South American Indians, along with a museum whose rotating exhibits change to highlight difference indigenous groups from Brazil.

This year the Museum of the Indian, which was founded in 1953, focuses on the indigenous peoples of Oiapoque in the exhibit The Presence of the Invisible.

Oiapoque is located in far northern Brazil, and is home to the Karipuna, Galibi, and Galibi Marworno Palikur people, totaling about 5,000 individuals. In a water world dominated by flooded grasslands, the people of Oiapoque’s spirituality focuses on the invisible and the beings of the underwater landscape.

These beings, called Karuan, only show their human form to shamans. To communicate with the Karuan communities gather in a ceremony called Toure between September and November, according to information provided by the museum. Under a delicate structure called a lakuh whose every element is symbolic, people of Oiapoque and the Karuan exist together.

Interactive exhibits in the museum show visitors the traditional tattoos of different groups of Oiapoque, models of homes and video of people from the region describing everything from their crops to their relationship with the spirit world.

Though the Brazilian government has institutions in place to protect indigenous Brazilians' lands, many contacted and uncontacted groups are at risk from loggers, oil extraction projects, gold miners and even government-approved hydroelectric projects.


The Museum of the Indian, or Museu do Indio is located in the Botafogo neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, and is open Tuesday 9 to 5:30, and Satudays, Sundays  and holidays from 1 pm to 5 pm. Entrance on Sundays is free. All information on exhibits is currently in Portuguese, but sources at the museum say exhibits translated to English and Spanish will become available this year.

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