Estimates of the original Amerindian population of Brazil range from 2 to 5 million at the time of first contact with Europeans in the early sixteenth century. There were hundreds of tribes and languages. Now there are 230 tribes that speak more than ninety languages and 300 dialects.

Because of violence and disease, the original Amerindian population was reduced to about 150,000 by the early twentieth century. In 1910 the Indian Protection Service (Serviço de Proteção aos Indios--SPI) was established. Its leader, Marechal Cândido Rondon, was famous for stating that "one should die, if necessary, but never kill an Indian." In 1968 the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do índio--Funai) replaced SPI, which was charged with corruption. The Indian Statute went into effect in 1973. The 1988 constitution provides that Indians are entitled to the lands that they traditionally occupy.

Despite the difficulties it faced, the Amerindian population began to recover its numbers and increased to 330,000 by the mid-1990s. In genetic terms, millions of Brazilians have some Amerindian ancestry, usually on the side of their grandmothers or great-grandmothers. The ancestry is especially strong in the Amazon region, where the inhabitants of mixed Indian and white descent are called caboclos . Because of such widespread miscegenation and acculturation, objective definitions of "Indian" are practically impossible in Brazil. The most useful definition, also used for official purposes, is subjective but pragmatic: Indians are those who consider themselves Indians and are considered by others as such. They include groups that are officially classified as isolated, in the process of integration, or integrated (although "integration" involves entry into the lowest ranks of Brazilian society).

Most of the Amerindian population is in the Amazon region, where Amerindian lands account for about 15 percent of the territory. Some of the largest areas were set aside during the Collor administration in 1992. The best known and largest of these is the 9.6-million-hectare Yanomami Indigenous Park, located in the northern states of Amazonas and Roraima, along Brazil's border with Venezuela. Gold miners and their diseases have had an adverse impact on the Yanomami. The Caiapó in southeastern Pará became widely known both for their traditional environmental management and their controversial concessions to gold miners and lumber companies. Other indigenous areas include the Xingu Indigenous Park and other parts of Amazônia, including the western section of the Amazon along the Rio Solimões, Roraima, northern Amazonas, Rondônia, Acre, Amapá, and northern and southeastern Pará. The Northeast (Maranhão) and Center-West (western Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Goiás) regions also have large indigenous areas.

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