Foto: Thomas Gregor, 1983

Mehinako

  • Other names
    Meinaco, Meinacu, Meinaku
  • Where they are How many

    MT254 (Ipeax, 2011)
  • Linguistic family
    Aruak

History of occupation in the upper Xingu

mehinako_2

In recounting their past, the Mehinako describe only a few generations of ancestors before reaching the "mythical times" (ekyimyatipa), when the culture heroes and the spirits created humans, social institutions and the geography of the region of the Xingu.

As far as is known, the Mehinako have always lived in the Xingu basin, in the region of the Tuatuari and Kurisevo rivers. The first village for which there is any record is Yulutakitsi, which must have been inhabited 150 or more years ago in an uncertain locale. What makes Yulutakitsi especially intriguing is that the group was, at that time, divided into moieties, each of which lived in triple rows of houses, on opposite sides of the central plaza. According to several inhabitants of the village, the social frontier was marked by a small fence which crossed the center of the plaza, but others state that it was the bench in front of the men's house which served as the dividing line. As the Mehinako chief Aiyuruwa said:

"We did not marry a woman on our side. We married on the other side. And when someone of the other side died, we did not cry for them nor did we undo our belts and our body paintings. Only they were in mourning".

The only possible vestige of this organization in moieties among the contemporary Mehinako is the pattern in which the houses of chiefs have to be placed facing each other, and with each new move of the community they are oriented in the direction of their "opposites" on the other side of the village.

The historical Mehinako villages were located to the north of the present-day Aweti village, on the Tuatuari River. The Mehinako go back to these communities every year to gather pequi fruit and to make salt (potassium chloride) with a species of water plant called jacinto, found in the lakes of the region. For the Mehinako, these places are their traditional habitat. The abandoning of these communities was due to various reasons, such as the exhaustion of the fertility of soils, nearness to many leaf-cutter (saúva) ant colonies, the occurrence of many deaths in one place and the belief that the constructions and the trails of the community had become too large and degraded, causing problems for their reconstruction.

All the old villages are described nostalgically by the Mehinako as being larger and better than their present community. It is said that in the past, the central plaza was surrounded by several rows of houses instead of just one. People were free of the white man's sicknesses (even the flus were unknown), the fish was more abundant and the gossip more intense.

At the moment of the first visit by the German explorer Karl von den Steinen, in 1884, the Mehinako had three separate villages, although one of them may have been only a camping site in the dry season (uleinejepu). It is probable that the present population of about 183 inhabitants is only a little more than a quarter of what it was in the days of von den Steinen. The Mehinako villages customarily had many more families and houses than in the present.

The relocation of the Mehinako villages from their traditional territories was provoked by the arrival of the Ikpeng, a Karib-speaking group, in the mid-1950s, who attacked the inhabitants of the village with a heavy rain of arrows. When the Mehinako chief was struck in the back by an Ikpeng arrow, the Villas-Bôas brothers encouraged the inhabitants of the village to abandon their territory and move to a place closer to the post. The Yawalapiti had done the same, at the same time, in order to escape the Ikpeng. One kilometer from the post, the Yawalapiti gave the Mehinako their first house, Jalapapuh, "the place of the saúva ants". Both groups later agreed that the Mehinako could fish only in the areas of the Tuatuari River which were near their community. On the trail from Jalapapuh, the Mehinako stopped in the Aweti village, where they divided the territory with clusters of banana trees placed in the middle of the trail between the two villages. The Mehinako agreed that they would not exploit cane to make arrows in this area without the permission of the Aweti. Thus, large areas of forest and várzea remained something like a territory vaguely divided among Mehinako, Aweti and Yawalapiti.

The effective estabishment of the community in Jalapapuh was determined by a Yawalapiti woman married to a Mehinako. The new village was located several meters from the Tuatuari River in a place near the first gardens and plantations of pequi of the Yawalapiti.

With the move to Jalapapuh, the Mehinako built several new villages near to the community of origin. In the 60s, after a series of flu and measles epidemics killed more than 15 people, the Mehinako resettled in a new place about 183 meters away. In 1981, they once again built a new community in the same area, for the old community had become reduced and unattractive. The nearness of the Leonardo Post facilitated access to medical treatment and to consumer goods brought by the Villas-Bôas brothers, in such a way that they had no intention of returning to their traditional lands even though the threat posed by the Ikpeng had passed.

Despite the frequency of their moves, the Mehinako have preserved much of what is important to them in their village way of life and their relations with other groups. As in the past, the village faced the Tuatuari River. The sun rises over the Kurisevo, passes directly over the men's house in the center of the community, and sets on the Tuatuari. The way that goes from east to west, from the port on the Kurisevo to the Tuatuari, is even called the "way of the sun".

Besides that, with the move to Jalapapuh, the relations of the Mehinako with other groups became more intense. Their Yawalapiti neighbors began marrying more frequently with the Mehinako than in the past, and shared important rituals with them. The Leonardo Villas-Bôas post, with its constant flow of Xinguan visitors, was only three hours away from the village. The present village is called Uyapiyuku and is a bit more distant from the Post, but the Post is still frequently visited by young people.

The Kurisevo Watch Post (Posto de Vigilância, PIV) was also created, the head of which is a Mehinako who lives at the Post with his family. The post is about 40 minutes by car from the center of Gaúcha do Norte, the municipality most frequently visited by the Mehinako for buying consumer goods and business with the mayor, who is responsible for the schools of the village and the PIV Kurisevo.