Foto: Fabíola Silva, 1998

Asurini do Xingu

  • Autodenominação
    Awaete
  • Where they are How many

    PA165 (Siasi/Sesai, 2012)
  • Linguistic family
    Tupi-Guarani

History of contact

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The first reports of the Asurini date from the end of the 19th Century. In 1894, an attack on a group of non-indigenous people at the place called Praia Grande, above the mouth of the Bacajá River, was attributed to the Asurini Indians (Nimuendajú,1963c:225). In 1896, according to the French traveller H. Coudreau, the Asurini attacked at Serra do Passahy and on Praia Grande (1977:37). There were still confirmed attacks by the Asurini on the banks of the Bacajá River at the end of the 19th Century (Nimuendajú,1963c:225). In this period, the Asurini were also attacked several times by the Whites (probably rubber extractors) who set fire to their villages (Mancin,1979b:2).

From the banks of the Bacajá River, they moved in the direction of the headwaters of the Ipiaçava e Piranhaquara rivers, where they built several villages. In 1931, there is a report of an attack by the Asurini at the mouth of the Bom Jardim stream. In 1936, they were attacked by the Gorotire, a Kayapó subgroup, in their expansion to the north (Nimuendajú,1963c:225). Pressured by the Kayapó, the Asurini finally settled for a long time on the banks of the Ipixuna River.

Between 1965 and 1970, the Asurini were forced out of this area by the Indians whom they called Ararawa (Araweté). There are reports that the Xikrin of the Bacajá attacked the Asurini in 1966 (Cotrim, 1971b and Lukesch,1971:13) in the region of the Rio Branco, tributary of the Bacajá. In the 1960s, the hunting of wildcats and rubber extraction led the regional population to move further up the tributaries of the right bank of the Xingu, provoking hostile encounters with the indigenous population. Reoccupying the region of the Ipiaçava and Piranhaquara rivers, the Asurini continued their hostile relations with the Whites, although in rapid and fleeting encounters.

The Asurini pillaged the camps of the Whites to get metal goods (machetes, axes, etc.). In the 1970s, the presence of the Whites intensified in the area with the purpose of contacting the indigenous groups of the region and as a result of the emergence of new economic activities: mining, cattle ranching, and government projects (especially the construction of the Trans-Amazon Highway).

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Among the changes, the Funai agent Antonio Cotrim emphasized the likelihood of extending the iron ore province of the Serra dos Carajás up to the right bank of the Xingu, which meant bringing “into the scenario of disputes over tribal territory new protagonists: the powerful southern consortium of US Steel and CVRD (Companhia do Vale do Rio Doce)" (Soares,1971b: 4). According to the Funai agent, air reconnaissance missions located various indigenous settlements and established a program of "pacification" financed by CVRD, under the responsibility of the Catholic missionaries Anton and Karl Lukesch.

For Monsignor Anton Lukesch, "to contact one of the few really isolated and unacculturated societies that still survives in the modern world and to study, understand, and make known their aboriginal way of life represents the most cherished dream of every ethnologist”. Besides that, Lukesch justified their expedition as a kind of “participation” that became urgent in order “to avoid dramatic and tragic interethnic confrontations" with the coming of the Trans-Amazon (1976:9). At the same time, Antonio Cotrim Soares alleged that :

"In part, respect for the territory of the Asurini really depends more on the absence of disputes over economic interests than on fear of violent contacts, since it is well-known in the Xingu how armed expeditions have been promoted and financed by powerful bosses, against indigenous groups, that have prevented the expansion of rubber extraction activities. As can be seen, it was the absence of native rubber stands that preserved the territorial autonomy of the Asurini" (1971b:13).

In the 1970s, persecuted by enemy groups to one side, and “pacified” by the interests of a multinational company on the other, the Asurini had no other option but to accept contact. Father Lukesch (1976:18) recounts how an Indian made gestures indicating that he wanted the expedition to go away, at the time of the first encounter, but other Asurini took the initiative and attempted to establish direct and friendly relations with the Whites.

During this time, intertribal fights occurred and, according to Takamui, an Asurini more than fifty years old, his people had to flee from the Araweté, moving in the direction of the Piranhaquara and Ipiaçava in order to make alliances with the Whites who were already there. Not only were the Lukesch brothers on their trail, but also Funai maintained attraction expeditions in this area. Soares describes the activities of the expedition that he led during its second penetration into the area of the Ipixuna (January/February, 1971), such as the visit to one of the inhabited villages and the documentation that he gathered through photographs and recordings. There is a detail in his report worth citing - "The existence of an abandoned communal maloca" (1971a:3) – which provides evidence of what was happening among these groups. The existence of wooden objects and ceramics decorated with geometric designs and the communal house are evidence of an Asurini village, occupied by the Araweté, whose inhabitants had fled after an attack by that group.

In April, 1971, the expedition led by Lukesch, which was better financed than the poor attraction expeditions of Funai, contacted the Indians of Ipiaçava, forcing Cotrim Soares to change the route of his expedition and take over the activities of the priests, since the priests’ activities were prohibited by the indigenist agency (Soares,1971b:5).

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Cotrim interpreted the peaceful approximation of the Asurini to the Whites as a solution to their desparate situation: "among them (the Whites), they would have a secure refuge against the hostilities of their enemies – or even allies for a future vendetta". The Asurini had no better luck with the Funai expeditions than with the Austrian missionaries, the Lukesch brothers. According to Cotrim, Funai prohibited the activities of the priests "due to the grave harm they had involuntarially caused to the community" (1971b:5). Due to the Lukesch expedition’s failure to adopt preventive measures, the group was “contaminated” by a violent epidemic of flu and measles, resulting in 13 deaths and a long period of recovery, which affected the entire group.

Cotrim, at the same time, admitted that there also was a certain lack of preparation on the part of Funai. For example, the members of the penetration expeditions were not vaccinated. In the words of the Funai agent, "Another thing that happened that did not go unnoticed was the delay of our action in controlling the epidemic outbreak, for we didn’t have immediate resources at our disposal, given the bureaucratic obstacles in liberating them" (1971b:6).

The difficulties in continuing the work with the Asurini and the disenchantment of Antonio Cotrim Soares with the “indigenous cause" became public at the time of his declarations to the press that he refused to continue being a “gravedigger of Indians” and denounced the work conditions in Funai:

"at the moment of contact, the first consequences become evident: ... contagious diseases, depopulation, food crisis and signs of their inevitable dependence on the national society. A series of factors have contributed to these consequences, the principal and pivotal one being the lack of rationale in the method developed in this phase of contact – so-called by the promoters of catechization [i.e., the Lukesch brothers]. The negative effects have derived from the lack of preventive measures, the inconsequential distribution of gifts, the lack of selection and control of the contact team in their relations with the Indians – it seems to us that this method of establishing presence in contacts with isolated groups, has turned into a peculiarity, without the exclusivism of its promoters. On the first level, the most terrible results have been of a biotic nature, besides the high mortality, for these have debilitated them organically for a long time. The most affected by ‘fatalism’ were the elders. The vicissitudes of depopulation effects began to affect their social organization; the domestic groups became acephalous, initially disorganizing their productive force. Their whole social life was affected, principally their economic activities which stagnated due to a lack of labor force. The general state of debilitation lasted for more than two months. As a result of this state, they missed the season for preparing the soil, and only a small percentage of the work initiated was actually of any use".

On another occasion he said:

"Their daily life is one of destitution since the first demonstrations of disenchantment have arisen, despite the fact of their being provided with food supplied by the Whites. Presently, the basis of their food diet is manioc cereal provided by Funai, complemented with reduced rations of sweet-potato, manioc, and other foods gathered from their gardens".

And further:

"The food quota provided by Funai is insignificant in relation to the minimum caloric intake recommended by the dietary table; the average quota of the daily supply of manioc cereal is 12 kilos for 40 Indians – representing about 300 grams per person per day. Added to these factors, we have the psychological traumas: the technological contrasts, the sophisticated habits, intervention in their medico-religious behavior (the adoption of medicinal techniques with chemical pharmaceutical products) among the immediate effects which, perhaps, have already been put into confrontation in this phase of contact" (1971b: 23-24).

Dismissed from Funai, Cotrim abandoned his career as indigenist and the Asurini continued to suffer the effects of contact. The Indians say that, after Cotrim left, another member of the attraction expedition was left behind among them and reached the point of even being “without any sugar". The Indians themselves decided to go alone to Altamira to look for supplies, tricking the head of the Post by telling him that they were going on a hunting expedition. The episode is told today with much humour, but it reveals the state of abandonment in which they were left after being “pacified.”

In the 1980s, acting on the recommendation of the anthropologist Berta Ribeiro – who was present among the Asurini in 1981 -, the National Secretary of Cimi (The Indigenist Missionary Council) succeeded in getting authorization from the then President of Funai, Coronel Paulo Leal, to send two missionaries of the group Little Sisters of Jesus to work among the Asurini of the Xingu. They arrived in the village in mid-1982, bringing with them a long and successful experience of support in the recovery of the Taripapé, also a Tupian people, who live near in the Araguaia River(MT) and who had gone through a similar process of depopulation after contact. The missionaries did not want to formally assume any assistance activities, substituting the obligations of Funai. At the time, no type of agreement between them and Funai was formalized, and the missionaries made it clear that what they would be doing was a sort of “parallel action, of guidance and knowledge of the problems of the group during its process of recovery".