The Pataxó

Bahia’s largest indigenous group, the Pataxó (pa-ta-sho), who number roughly 3000, are among Brazil’s many indigenous groups facing an uncertain future. Historically, the Pataxó are survivors. They were a strong tribe who held out against the Portuguese, and up until the 1800s were one of the most feared indigenous groups of the interior. Their resistance hindered frontier expansion, though by the early 19th century their power had waned.

Today, the Pataxó practice subsistence agriculture in the south of Bahia, supplemented by hunting, fishing and gathering. Similar to Amazonian indigenous groups, the Pataxó utilize local plants as their pharmacy, with the rainforests of southern Bahia providing a vital source for traditional medicine. The region boasts incredible biodiversity, with many of its plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. In all, the Pataxó use more than 90 different plant species to treat colds, asthma, fever, toothaches, rheumatism, anemia and dozens of other illnesses.

As with many indigenous groups around the world, the slow creep of modernity into Pataxó communities, coupled with economic hardship, has put the future of their traditions at risk. In Barra Velha, the largest Pataxó community (numbering some 1800), all of the traditional healers (curandeiros) are over 60, and it's possible that their knowledge will be lost within two decades. Today’s curandeiros may be the final generation of traditional healers in Pataxó culture.

In addition to struggles within their own communities, the Pataxó face severe threats from outside. As Bahia’s population grows, farmers have pushed them off their lands, leading to violent skirmishes. In 2007, 15 indigenous Pataxó went to Brasília to settle the matter of their land rights. In 2012 the family of a gravely ill indigenous child fought for treatment in the hospital in Porto Seguro, and then Salvador. Though the child survived, the treatment was delayed due to bureaucratic struggles over who should pay for her healthcare, and the case caught the attention of a large number of Bahians. These tensions between indigenous Brazilians and the government are not unique to the Pataxó, and many other tribes in the country are facing similar issues.