As a Brazilian journalist passionate about climate and human rights, the Amazon holds a central place in my heart. What a blissful surprise I had last week when I saw Djuena Tikuna, an Indigenous woman from the rainforest, at the center of the stage of MIT Kresge Auditorium.
The Amazon rainforest is a vital ecosystem regulating global climate, which has been endangered by rising deforestation rates and criminal fires, driven mainly by illegal land-grabbers, loggers, miners, and cattle ranchers. If the forest is gone, the whole planet is doomed. At the frontline of this battle are the Indigenous communities, who have been resisting for over five centuries of violence and colonization.
Djuena Tikuna uses her powerful singing in that fight, the voice of an independent journalist, artist, and activist. Her performance was part of a concert by MIT students and musicians celebrating their recent research trip to the Amazon rainforest. Accompanied by 80 musicians of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, she not only performed in her native Tikuna language but made the audience sing along with her.
You can watch the full concert and her participation in this video (from approximately 1h36):
Before leaving the stage, Djuena explained, in Portuguese, that she makes music to “reforest hearts and minds.” For that, she didn’t need a translation. After the concert, an MIT student who met the artist on that recent trip to Manaus, approached her to share a comment from someone in the audience. “Everyone could feel what you sang. A person who doesn’t speak Portuguese told me that she could feel it even though she could understand the lyrics,” the student said.
Djuena is a pioneer. She was the first Indigenous woman to perform and launch an album at the Amazon Theater, 121 years after the foundation of the opera house located in Manaus City.
“I’m here, echoing this Indigenous fight for life. Not only for their own lives but the planet’s life,” Djuena stated after her performance.
All I could do was listen to her story – and I invite the readers to do the same:
I was born in 1984 in the Tikuna community. My people live in the state of Amazonas (Brazil), on the border with Colombia and Peru. We are the largest Indigenous group in the Brazilian Amazon. In Brazil, there are over 305 Indigenous communities, with 274 languages still spoken, and each Indigenous community has its struggles. My people still maintain their roots, language, and music very strongly; we are a very musical people, and I have been listening to traditional songs since I was a child.
My father did not have a job; he was a fisherman in our village, which is very close to the Colombian border. My mother was an artisan, and both of them were illiterate.
When I was a kid, my father found a job as a bank security guard in Manaus City, the capital of the Amazonas state, and we had to move there. It is a seven-day trip by boat from our village to Manaus.
In the city, I experienced a different life; many cars and different foods. Even though Manaus is in the Amazon region, it was no longer the food we took from the river or the fruits we picked from the forest. We had to buy them, and I didn’t adapt easily.
In Manaus, there were many Indigenous in the community, living on the outskirts and in small apartments. Then a Tikuna resident said he knew of land in a distant neighborhood, and we could go there to buy these plots of land. Several of us started buying land there, and we formed an association. There, we grew and continued to maintain our traditions: songs, language, and traditional customs. We always practiced our way of life as if we were still in the village. In the forest, we lived freely. We could go fishing or work on the farm. When I was a child, I had complete freedom. We all, not just me, had a cultural shock in the city because it was a different way of life. But in this community we built in Manaus we felt like family, protected by each other.
My fight for resistance began in this community. I am there, my family is there, and my relatives are there. We fight for our rights as Indigenous who live in the city. Many people think that Indigenous only have rights when they are in the village, but it is not true. Our leaders try to combat this way of thinking by non-Indigenous. We have our communities, and we have our rights. We fight for education, health, and sanitation.
My mother still does not speak Portuguese well. It was her choice not to study, and we always respected that. However, my parents always encouraged us to study and thrived so that we could have an education. “You have to read, you have to learn their language,” they would tell us. My mother could see all of her children graduating. My siblings graduated in pedagogy, nutrition, and administration – only the two youngest have not yet finished college, but they are still very young.
My first college degree was in computer science. While studying there, I experienced prejudice, just like I did throughout my school life for not speaking the Portuguese language [as a primary language].
When I was nine years old, I studied at a school in Manaus, and a teacher asked me to read the board. I was just shooking my head, to show that I didn’t know how, but the teacher insisted: “No, you will read this.” She knew that I was Indigenous and, at that time, I still couldn’t read. This left me terrified, and I became traumatized.
During my time at the university, I was engaged in the Indigenous and youth movements. And I had always been drawn to music, as my people have a strong connection to it. But I was too ashamed to sing.
In 2006, the city of Manaus started organizing a fair solely for Indigenous people, with a cultural night dedicated to them. One of my cousins, who had seen me sing before, suggested, “You have such a beautiful voice, why don’t you sing?” At first, I refused, but I eventually agreed. My first song was about the history of my people. After people heard me sing, they began inviting me to perform at the university and schools. Three years later, I sang at a student congress in Brasília. Music showed me that when I sing, people respect me and listen to my voice. It is my resistance, showing that I am alive, my people are alive, and no one can silence us.
Later, I dropped out of computing college and started singing, traveling, and getting to know other cultures. At the age of 25, I met my husband, who is a journalist and photographer. This inspired me to enter journalism school, thinking that it would help me speak and communicate better.
When I entered journalism school, I was afraid of experiencing prejudice again. Indigenous people are afraid to study because you have to speak, appear, and have good diction. I faced my fears and found solace in music. In college, I realized that I needed to cover Indigenous topics. I wanted to talk about culture, but Indigenous culture. People didn’t like it. “Oh, she’s Indigenous, she only knows how to talk about that,” they said. No one wanted to work with me. Indigenous knowledge wasn’t valued there. So I decided to do it alone because I knew I could. To get where we are now, we face many challenges.
Music is closely tied to me. I realized that my music is resistance. So I use my music as a tool for struggle and resistance. I am a journalist, my own press officer, and my own producer. I am the protagonist of my own story.