Indians, police clash at Rio Indian museum

Mar 22, 2013, 11:02 AM EDT
Indigenous people and their supporters hold a baby while shouting to police as they stay inside the old Indian Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Friday, March 22, 2013. Police have surrounded Rio's Indian Museum complex next to the legendary Maracana stadium in a bid to expel a group of indigenous people and their supporters. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
(AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Indians with faces painted and armed with bows faced off Friday against police at an old Indian museum complex next to legendary Maracana football stadium, resisting a forced eviction and the destruction of the building to make way for World Cup works.
Several Indians stood watch on the roof of the large stone structure as riot police clashed with supporters of several dozen Indians from throughout Brazil, some of whom have been squatting in the crumbling complex for years. A large campfire burned near the building and some Indians danced around it.
The museum has been at the center of a drawn-out legal battle between the squatters and state and local authorities, who want to raze the complex as part of renovations ahead of the 2014 World Cup. Maracana will also host the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics.
Officials have not said exactly what would replace the museum, but they've said the area will see a new parking lot, commercial center and expanded stadium exits.
The indigenous group includes men and women of about 10 ethnicities, mostly Guarani, Pataxo, Kaingangue and Guajajara, who have been living for years in 10 homes they built on the site of an old Indian museum abandoned since 1977.
Gabriel Guajaja, a 23-year-old law student wearing an Anonymous mask and brandishing a Brazilian flag, said he turned out to support the Indians holed up in the museum.
"It's been 500 years that white men have been exploiting the indigenous people of this continent," said Guajaja. "The local government wants to destroy even this little bit of Indian culture we have here in the city. It's disgraceful."
Police used tear gas and some came to blows with the Indians' supporters in an early-morning street scuffle. Two helicopters hovered overhead.
By midmorning, dozens of Indians and their supporters were still holed up in the complex, chanting and brandishing homemade signs, one of which read "Maracana Village resists."
Inside the complex, Indians in face paint and feather headdresses negotiated with police and local government officials as others beat out a rhythm on pans.
At one point, the Indians held an infant above the wall of the complex to show negotiators the baby was holed up there. A woman held a homemade sign reading "they won't pass."
A few hours after police arrived, about 10 people left the museum complex, climbing down the exterior wall over a ladder.
Carrying bags of belongings, they said they were going to live in a shelter and that they would inspect alternative lodgings proposed by City Hall.
Meanwhile, the ranks of protesters gathered along with the news media in a median strip in front of the complex continued to swell. The protesters chanted "fascists" and anti-police jingles.
Blighted streets around the stadium are also to undergo a transformation to become a shopping and sports entertainment hub. Most of a nearby slum, about 500 meters (yards) away from the museum, was demolished to make way for the new development.
The governor of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Cabral, told a news conference in October that the building's razing is necessary for hosting the World Cup.
"The Indian Museum near the Maracana will be demolished," Cabral said then. "It's being demanded by FIFA and the World Cup Organizing Committee. Long live democracy, but the building has no historical value. We're going to tear it down."
However, a letter from FIFA's office in Brazil to the federal public defender's office, published in January by the newspaper Jornal do Brazil, said that the football authority "never requested the demolition of the old Indian Museum in Rio de Janeiro."
The squatters believe they have history and the law on their side.
The crumbling mansion with soaring ceilings that housed the old museum was donated by a wealthy Brazilian to the government in 1847 to serve as a center for the study of indigenous traditions.
After the museum closed more than three decades ago, Indians of various ethnicities started using it as a safe place to stay when they came to Rio to pursue an education, sell trinkets in the streets or get medical treatment.