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IBGE provides previously unreleased demographic data about Brazilian Indians

December 13, 2005 10h00 AM | Last Updated: October 29, 2019 03h01 PM

In the publication “Demographic trends: an analysis of the life of Brazilian Indians based on the results of samples of the 1991 and 2000 Demographic Censuses”, IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) has conducted an analysis of the self-declared Indian population...

In the publication "Demographic trends: an analysis of the life of Brazilian Indians based on the results of samples of the 1991 and 2000 Demographic Censuses", IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) has conducted an analysis of the self-declared Indian population (according to their answers in the aforementioned censuses questionnaires) and has released, for the first time, information about indicators such as infant mortality, school attendance, illiteracy rates, fertility rates, among several others.

The Indian group has been surveyed since the 1991 Census, through the question "color or race". The methodology used to obtain the answers is based on self-identification. The self-declared Indian population living in reservations, rural areas or urban centers took part in the survey. The data were analyzed by a group of technicians and researchers which includes anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists and sociologists.

In the 1990’s, the number of self-declared Brazilian Indians increased by 150%, at an annual rate almost six times higher than that of the population in general. That occurred mainly due to the growing number of people living in urban areas, especially in the Southeast, since most of these people only declared to be Indians in 2000, having classified themselves in other ethnic groups in 1991.

Increase brought about by bigger number of urban Indians

According to the 1991 census, the percentage of Indians in relation to the overall Brazilian population was 0.2%, or 294 thousand people in the country. In 2000, 734 thousand people (0.4% of all Brazilians) were self-declared Indians, representing an absolute increase of 440 thousand persons (annual increase of 10.8%) between the 1991 and the 2000 censuses. That was the highest increase rate among all the categories of color or race. The overall population in the country increased by 1.6% per year in the same period.

There are some possible accounting for this phenomenon: a) growth of the Indian population, although at a level still insufficient to justify the expressive increase; b) international immigration from nearby countries with numerous Indian population, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru; c) increase of the number of urban Indians who declared themselves Indians in the 200 Census and that had previously declared to belong to other racial groups -in this group are included those who did not identify themselves with specific ethnic groups.

The distribution of this increase among the regions was uneven: the North region, held the biggest number of Indians in the country and presented the slightest rhythm of increase due to the participation of the Northeast and of the Southeast regions. The latter, which had the smallest Indian population in 1991, doubled its participation in 2000, changing from 10.4% to 22.0% - annual growth of 20.5%.

Consequently, in 2000, 29.1% of the self-declared Indian population lived in the North region, whereas in 1991 this percentage was 42.4%. In 1991, 30.5 thousand self-declared Indians lived in the Southeast region; in 2000 this population increased over five times and reached the figure of 161.2 thousand persons. In the Northeast, the number of Indians changed from 55.8 thousand, in 1991, to 170 thousand, in 2000.

Considering the relative participation of the Indian group in the overall population by Major Region, it can be observed that, in 2000, the Central-West had the biggest level of participation (0.9%), two times above the figures for the national average (0.4%).


The number of self-declared Indians grew in all the states. The growth rates ranged from 2.1% (Roraima) to 28.9% (Sergipe) and reached levels higher than 5.0% per year in 25 of the 27 Federative Units. The five states which most increased were Sergipe (28.8%); Piauí (27.0%); Rio Grande do Norte (26.4%); Minas Gerais (26.2%) and Goiás (23.9%). On the other hand, the lowest rates were those of Amazonas (5.9%). Mato Grosso do Sul (5.7%); Alagoas (5.4%0; Amapá (4.9%) and Roraima (2.1%).

The urban areas of all regions had significant absolute increase, a phenomenon also observed in rural areas, but at a lower rate. In 1991, Brazil had 223 thousand Indians in the rural areas (76.1% of the total). In 2000, 383 thousand of them lived in urban areas (52.0% of the total). This apparent urbanization occurred due to the growing number of self-declared Indians in the Southeast and Northeast regions. Both of them , which have a smaller Indian territory, held emergency movements. On the other hand, in the regions which have a bigger area of Indian land, such as the North and the Central West, most of the Indians are in the rural area, as expected.

In 2000, 18.1% of Indians lived in capitals, whereas in 1991, this figure was 12.0% (increase of 50.5%). Despite this movement, some capitals of the North (Porto Velho, Rio Branco and Boa Vista); of the Northeast (Fortaleza) and of the Southeast region, except Vitória (ES) had a reduced percentage of self-declared Indians in relation to the total in the state.

The municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira (AM) had, in 2000, the highest number of Indians in the country, followed by Uiramutã (RR). Indians made up almost two-thirds of the population in these places. São Gabriel da Cachoeira also had the highest absolute number of Indians.

Indians living in urban centers follow the same pattern of distribution of the population according to sex and age as the rest of the Brazilian population, that is with low fertility and mortality rates, low dependence ratio and high average age. For those living in rural areas, the distribution presented characteristics of a young population, as a result of the of high levels of fertility, which becomes prominently narrower as the age increases resulting in the decrease of the relative percent participation of the adult and elderly population.

The average age of the Indian population in Brazil, according to the 200 Census, was 23.2 years of age (22.9 for men and 23.5 for women). In the urban areas the average age was almost twice as that in rural areas (30.1 and 16.8 years of age, respectively). In the specific rural areas the population was even younger, with an average age of 15.9 years. The North region had the lowest average age (17.2 years); and the Southeast the highest, 31.8 years.

In the urban area, the non-active persons made up a little more than one-third of the potentially active population, whereas in the rural area, this ratio was practically one to one.

The majority of Indians was born in the North and Northeast; the Southeast receives most immigrants

The inter-regional migration of Indians was reduced in 1991 and in 2000. The situation was different only in the Southeast, where, in 1991, 27.7% of the resident Indians had been born in other regions of the country, especially in the Northeast; in 2000, this percentage was 25.5% - more similar to the population in general. It is worth mentioning that, in 2000, the immigrant population in the Central West increased from 3.8% in 1991 to 14.2% , of which almost 50% came from the Northeast.

Education indicators show progress, but are still below the national average

The censuses show that the Indians had enormous progress in terms of education indicators along the 1990’s, although these are still below the average for the population in general.

The literacy rate, for example, which was below 50% in 1991, had increased by 50.2% and reached 73.9% in 2000. In the same period, for the Brazilian population 15 years of age or over, there was general increase of the percentage of literate persons from 8.1% (from 79.9% to 86.4%). The reduction of the illiteracy rate among Indians was mainly observed in the rural area, principally in the Northeast region. The highest levels of literacy are in the Southeast and south regions, as shown in the table below:

Illiteracy among Indians 15 years of age or over affects women more than men, especially in the rural areas. Only in the Northeast region were the rates of men and women similar (25.5% and 26.0%, respectively)

According to the 2000 census, the schooling rate for persons between 5 and 24 years of age was 68.3%. For Indians it reached 56.2% - in 1991, only 29.6% of the self-declared Indians between 5 and 24 years of age were in school. The great contribution for the increase of the rate among Indians was highest in the rural area, except in the Southeast region. The Northeast had, in 2000, the highest schooling rate among Indians: 67.8% (in 1991 it was 31.6%).

In 1991, the Indians 10 years of age or over had an increase of 2 years in their average number of schooling years, changing from 3.9 years in 2000. For the population in general, the average was 5.9 years of age in 2000. In the urban area, the average number of years of schooling of Indians increased from 4 to 5.3 years, but the increase occurred exactly in the rural area, where it changed from 1.2 to 2 years of schooling.

Fertility rates fell by almost 30% between 1991 and 2000


Similarly to what happened in most parts of the country, the fertility of Indian women also decreased extremely. The fall was almost 30% between 1991 and 2000, when it was a little less than four children per woman. Most of this decrease is related to the population of women living in urban areas, because in the rural ones the figures were about six children per woman. In relation to specific rural areas, the highlights are figures of about seven children per woman in the South and Central West regions. These results can be compared to the birth rates estimated for the country in the beginning of the 20th century, but are compatible with what is said about the behavior of some Indian tribes.

The percentage of single persons among the self-declared Indians in Brazil, in the 1991 and 2000 censuses, was equivalent to approximately one third of this population, whereas other 60% were engaged persons. Comparing both censuses, there was slight decrease in the percentage of single persons, from 39.1% to 35.7%, and an increase of the number of engaged persons, from 53.9% to 55.8%.

Among the Indians 10 years old or over, almost 50% lived with a partner, both in 1991 (50.6%) and in 2000 (46.9 %). These percentages represent almost two times the figures of the overall Brazilian population (28.6% in 2000) and are compatible with the patterns of marriage of Indian people. The percentage of persons married in civil and religious ceremonies increased from 17.5% to 25.0% between 1991 and 2000. The figure for persons married in civil wedding ceremonies from 13.7% to 17.9%. The religious ceremonies, only, followed the general downward trend, decreasing from 18.3% to 10.2%. The number of widowers remained constant between both censuses, about 4.0%, whereas the number of divorced and separated persons increased from 2.7% to 4.4%, also according to the general trend.

In traditional Indian societies, women get married at a very early age. Therefore, the average age of self-declared Indian women in censuses was significantly lower than that of other women in the country. They were 5.5 years younger in 1991 and 3.6 in 2000, when, on the average, the marrying age of the Indian woman was 20.6 years. Among self-declared Indians, most women and men were already engaged at 25 years of age.

Northeast region has lowest infant mortality rate

The 2000 Census shows that infant mortality rate among Indians (51.4 for 1000 children born) was extremely higher than that of the overall Brazilian population (30.1/1000). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the infant mortality rates are classified into high (50 /1000 or more) medium (20-49/1000) and low (less than 20 /1000). According to the 2000 census there were three groups of figures for this indicator, changing according to the item "color or race". The first category included Oriental (18 /1000) and white people (22.9/1000); the second, dark-skinned (33.0/1000) and black people (34.9/1000); the third, Indians (51.4 /1000). Following the WHO criteria in general, for the categories of color or race, the level of infant mortality was medium, except among Indians, whose classification was high.

Infant mortality of Indians also presents geographic distribution partially distinct from that observed for the population in general. Based on the results of the 2000 census, the population classified as Indians in the northeast region presented the highest rate (71.7 /1000 children born) and in the North, the lowest (39 /1000). Intermediate values were observed in the Southeast (42.3/1000), South (48.3/1000) and Central West regions (52.9 /1000).

Another aspect which calls attention is that, for the country in general, infant mortality of Indians living in urban areas (52.2 thousand) is higher than in rural areas (47.0 thousand), the opposite of what is observed for the rest of the population. At regional level, this pattern is observed in the North, Southeast and Central West regions. On the other hand, infant mortality is higher in rural areas. Still at regional level, in the Southeast and in the South, infant mortality of Indians is higher in the specific rural areas than in the urban areas.

These differences among regions may result from several factors. It is worth mentioning that the extension of Indian land is considerably higher in the North and Central West of the Country. This can, in a certain way, provide Indians living in these areas with means to have better life and social conditions (subsistence agriculture, for instance) if compared to those residents of urban centers, where adaptation depends on the overcoming of social-environmental drawbacks, of cultural shock and of social exclusion.

Catholics are still the majority, but protestants gain force in the 1990’s

According to both the 1991 and the 2000 census, most self-declared Indians were Catholic, similarly to the population in general. The same way, the percentage of Catholics among Indians fell in the 1990’s – in 1991 it was 64.3%; in 2000, 58.9% .Of the 41.1% belonging to other groups, 20% were protestants; 14.4% had no religion and only 1.4% followed the so-called Indian traditions. Between 1991 and 2000, there was increase of the number of protestants, mainly those of Pentecostal origin (from 7.7% to 11.9%) and of spiritists (from 0.3% to 0.8%).

It is important to point out that the religion of several Indian tribes is not structured upon churches or an institutional organization, as most commonly detected by censuses. The Indian religion is associated the Indian people’s myths and beliefs. In this respect, answers such as "without religion" or "undeclared" may be interpreted as non-participation in formal religious organizations. The investigation of religion may contribute to the understanding of the role developed by the missionaries in Indian communities.


[1] The dependence ratio provides allows the measure of the participation of the non-active population (children and elderly) about the population group which could be performing some productive activity.

[2] The "specific rural group" is formed by those Indians living in rural areas of municipalities with Indian land, as a consequence of the relationship between these Indians and those dwelling in these areas.