From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Vincent Carelli, 1976


Where they are How many
PA 470 (Siasi/Sesai, 2020)
Linguistic family

The Suruí reached their present location in the beginning of the 20th Century, after fleeing from the repeated attacks of the Xikrin, when they came to inhabit the banks of the Vermelho River, tributary of the Itacaiúnas. They entered into definitive contact with the whites in 1960, when a flu epidemic killed two-thirds of their population, reducing it from 126 to 40 people. In 1962, a smallpox epidemic killed six more people. From then on, the Suruí, abandoning their birth control methods, began a rapid population recovery. In 1997, their population had reached a total of 185 people.


Foto: Carlos Alberto Ricardo, 1970
Foto: Carlos Alberto Ricardo, 1970

The first known name of this group was that given to them by Friar Antonio Salas in 1923, who called them Sororós. In the 1950s, another Dominican friar Gil Gomes, who was responsible for the first contacts, called them Suruí, which is the name that is most utilized. The Xikrin Kayapó called them Mudjetíre. In 1961, I identified the word Akwáwa as being the self-designation of the group, but the anthropologist Iara Ferraz considers the term Aikewara more appropriate.


According to the linguist Aryon Dall'Igna Rodrigues, in his book Línguas Brasileiras [Brazilian Languages] (São Paulo: Loyola, 1986), the Suruí speak the Akwáwa language, the same as the Asuriní of the Tocantins and the Parakanã. It belong to the Tupi-Guarani family, like the languages of the Tenetehára (name that groups the Guajajara and Tembé together), Tapirapé, Avá-Canoeiros, which are similar to it. Presently, the majority of the Suruí also speak Portuguese.


At first contact, they were located on the banks of the small stream known as Grotão dos Caboclos, tributary of the Sororozinho River, which in turn is a tributary of the Itacaiúnas. Today (1998) the village is built in an area near to the road OP-2, which connects the Transamazon to São Geraldo do Araguaia. The Sororó Indigenous Land is situated in the southeast of Pará in the municipality of São João do Araguaia, about 100 kilometers from the city of Marabá, the major urban center of the region.

They were originally located in a region of tropical forest, but in the last 30 years the forest has been destroyed and replaced by pastures; what is left of the forest is situated within the indigenous territory.

Presidential Decree 88.648, of August 20th, 1983, homologated the demarcation done in 1979, of an area of 26,257 hectares. This demarcation, however, left several old villages and principally several nut-groves outside the area


In 1960, before contact, the population was 126 people, according to the genealogies which I have reconstructed. The flu epidemic resulting from contact killed 86 people. The census I undertook in 1961, showed a total of 40 people, 14 men, 7 women, and 21 children. In 1961, a smallpox epidemic affected the group, killing 6 more people. The medical assistance provided mainly by Dr. João Paulo Botelho Vieira Filho, of the Escola Paulista de Medicina [of São Paulo], who has visited the group since the beginning of the 60s, has made possible a broad demographic recovery. In 1985, Iara Ferraz recorded a total of 109 pessoas, 52 men and 57 women. In 1997, the population total was 185 people, according to the survey done by the medical doctor João Paulo Botelho Vieira Filho.

History of contact

Since the 1920s, there exists uncertain information on the existence of the Suruí at the headwaters of the Sororó River, according to Friar Antonio Salas, in the Dominican journal Cayapós and Carajás. Several older dwellers of the region informed me that the Suruí, in the mid-1920s, used to appear around a ranch called Altos Montes, near Santa Isabel. But it was only after the Second World War, when the region was invaded by gold-panners in search of rock crystals, at that time a mineral of strategic importance, that the contacts intensified. In 1947, for example, the Indians attempted approximation to the nut-gatherers in a place called Cajueiro. The owner of the "instalment", together with his employees, opened fire, wounding several of them.

The first organized attempt at contact was made in 1952, by the Dominican Friar Gil Gomes Leitão, who left with several men from Xambioá and reached the village, finding it deserted. Various presents were left. Days later, the Suruí made incursions on houses of regional inhabitants, near the Xambioá stream, where they left turtles, bananas, feather ornaments, etc. This retribution of presents caused panic among the inhabitants. In the following year, Friar Gil succeeded in making his first contact. Near a stream, in the surroundings of the village, he met with more than 100 people who were waiting for him. They didn't allow him to stay the night in the village, which the Friar was only allowed to do in 1960. Before that, in October, 1957, enthusiastic with the results of contacts with the missionary, the Indians attempted to make contact with nut-gatherers on the banks of the Sororozinho, near the place called Fortaleza. They were driven back with gunshot, one Indian died and three others were wounded.

With the death of the old chief Mussenai, in April 1960, during the flu epidemic which killed most of the population, the group passed through moments of disorganization. One regional person, taking advantage of this situation, was able to gain the trust of the Indians. Under the pretext of civilizing the Suruí, he obliged them to cut their hair, wear clothes, build houses similar to those of the Brazilians, and introduced them to new food needs (sugar, etc.). His goal was to transform them into skin (pelt)-hunters. In September, 1960, Friar Gil was able to expel the intruders from the village. To avoid new invasions, he put an employed married couple in a barracks about three kilometers away from the village. Thanks to this action, the Suruí returned to their ways. The regional-type house was destroyed and the tribe went back to planting a large garden, which produced well in 1961.

From then on, the contact with the whites became permanent and the group lived dramatic moments, at the beginning of the 70s, when the region was the stage for the famous Guerilla war of the Araguaia. The fact of their having taken the side of the army guaranteed their survival.

Before contact with the whites, there were many warrior contacts with Kayapó groups. They state that their original territory lay beyond the Vermelho River, tributary of the Itacaiunas, but they fled to the present territory to escape the attacks of the Indians they called Karajá. In 1996, they declared to me that the Karajá were the Xikrin, who actually inhabit the region of the Cateté River, tributary of the Itacaiunas, exactly at the base of the Serra dos Carajás.

Social and political organization

Foto: Tiuré, 1981
Foto: Tiuré, 1981

Instead of their forming small local groups, as occurs in other Tupi groups of the region, the Suruí have only one big village, called okara, rectangular in shape, with a central plaza on which they hold their rituals.

In the past, agriculture was their principal economic activity. They made large gardens, where they planted various kinds of manioc, bananas, sweet potatoes, corn, pepper, cotton, and tobacco. Hunting activities were quite productive in a region where tapirs, deer, peccary, wild pigs, paca, armadillo, monkeys and cotias were abundant. Among birds, they preferred the curassow and the jacu, but in time of necessity they also consumed macaw and various species of parrots. Fishing was an activity of little importance, since they lived at a distance from the large rivers. Gathering complemented the search for food. These days, their food diet has been modified by the scarcity of game and by the introduction of a poor cattle-raising, and the cultivation of rice.

Like other Tupi groups, they have a rule of partilineal descent, connected to the transmission of kinship only on the paternal side and to the idea that the man is the principal partner responsible for procreation. Due to the strong connection existing between the father and the newborn, they have the custom of the couvade which makes post-partum restriction more important for the father than for the mother.

They are divided into five patrilineal descent groups: Koaci-arúo (coati), Saopakania (hawk), Pindawa (palmtree), Ywyra (wood) and Karajá (descendants of a "Karajá" Indian, probably Xikrín, taken prisoner by the Suruí). Genealogies indicate the existence of two more groups, Sakariowara and Uirapari, today extinct. There are also indications that the Saopakania and the Ywyra have subgroups. The existence of exogamy among the groups, besides other characteristics, permits them to be classified as clans.

Foto: Carlos Alberto Ricardo, 1970
Foto: Carlos Alberto Ricardo, 1970

Chieftainship is inherited and exclusive to the men of the Koaci clan. The name for chief is morobixawa. This word could be translated as "big", and is also present in the name for full moon, sahi morobixawa. Immediately before contact, the Suruí were led by Musenai, an elderly chief who died in the epidemic of 1961. He was succeeded by his son Kuarikwara, who died a short time later. Apia, the son of Kuarikwara, was very small and could not assume the post of chief. With the lack of Koaci men, Uareni, a Saopakania, assumed the post of chief. At the beginning of the 70s, when they were involved in the guerilla wars of the Araguaia, they felt the need for a chief who knew the whites well; thus Amaxu, a Karajá, assumed the chieftainship and led the group in its most difficult moments. But, in that time, if someone asked the Suruí who was their morobixawa, they answered by pointing to Apia. When Apia reached adult age, he was recognized as chief, but he showed not even the least interest for the post, thus he was substituted by Mahyra, a Koaci, grandson of Kwarikuara's brother, Sarakoa, who also died at the beginning of the 60s.

In the past they practiced polygyny, but the shortage of women, which actually produced polyandric unions, that is, the possibility for a married woman to have as another sexual partner a single man, made polygyny become inoperant as a practice. Preferential marriage is with mother's brother's daughter, father's sister's daughter, or sister's daughter. The residence rule was patrilocal; today the newly-weds tend to set up a new residence.

Their kinship terminology is Iroquoian. Thus, in generation 0, a man calls brother and sister, not only the children of his own parents, but also his mother's sister's children, and his father's brother's children; mother's brother's children and father's sister's children are called by another term. In the first ascending generation, father and father's brother's are called by the same term; mother and mother's sisters are called by another term, while mother's brother and father's sister are called by different terms. In the first descending generation, they use the same term for son and brother's son, and the same for daughter and brother's daughter; son and sister's daughter are called by another term which makes no differentiation by sex. In the second ascending generation, all men are called by a term equivalent to grandfather and all women by a term equivalent to grandmother. In the second descending generation, there is only one generic term applied to the individuals of both sexes.

The Suruí have an apparently limited stock of proper names, which results in many repetitions in the genealogies. A boy receives a name at the moment of birth, generally with a playful or joking meaning, and receives his permanent name in the ritual of piercing of the lower lip, when he reaches the approximate age of 13 or 14 years.

Cosmology and shamanism

Foto: Roque de B. Laraia
Foto: Roque de B. Laraia

Like other Tupi-Guarani groups of the region, the Suruí believe in Mahyra, the mythical hero, father of the twins Korahi and Sahi (sun and moon). It is these twins who complete the work of separating nature and culture, begun by Mahyra, the civilizing hero par excelence, for it was he who stole the fire from the vulture and gave it to men. Few myths have been collected among the Suruí, which requires new research on the subject.

Shamanism is present among the Suruí: Mussenai, the old chief, and Kuarikwara, who succeeded him, were pai'é [shamans], similarly with Uassaí and Mikuá, two of the oldest survivors of the epidemic. It is no different from the shamanism found by Eduardo Galvão (1961) among the Tenetehára. The most important ritual, the Tokasa, occurs soon after the cutting of the gardens, when a small cerimonial hut is built in the center of the plaza. At night the men - female participation is forbidden - led by the shaman seek to enter into contact with the spirits of their ancestors, who are named in the songs they chant.

An immense cigar, made of tobacco leaves, is used by the shaman to facilitate transe. It was customary to blow smoke over outsiders with the smoke of this cigar.

As happens among other Tupi-Guarani groups, the dead are buried inside the house. When the house becomes full of the dead, it is abandoned; at least that was what happened in the period of the flu epidemic. In normal circumstances, the house and the dead are abandoned when the village moves as a result of the exhaustion of agricultural lands. The spirits of the dead are called owera, but the major concern is with the karuara, a form of spirit that never was a human being and that has the power to provoke sicknesses. Tupã is considered the demon of Thunder and Lightning, for that reason being greatly feared by the Suruí.

Note on the sources

The ethnological bibliography on the Suruí is very small. This entry is based above all on the book Índios e Castanheiros [Indians and Nut-Gatherers], which is divided into two parts: one on the Suruí, written by me, and the other on the Parkatêjê, written by Roberto Da Matta. In my book Tupi - Índios do Brasil atual [Tupi - Indians of Present-day Brazil], I do a comparative study of the social organization of Tupi societies, including Suruí. Besides that there are my articles "Arranjos poliândricos na sociedade suruí" [Polyandric arrangements in Surui Society], which deals with the solution that the Surui found for dealing with the demographic imbalance between the sexes, due to the drastic population decline which followed contact; "A fricção interétnica no médio Tocantins" [Interethnic friction on the mid-Tocantins]; "O homem marginal numa sociedade primitiva"[The marginal man in a primitive society], which studies the social ostracism of a young man after he refused to go through the ritual of lip-piercing to use the tembetá; "Akwáwa-Asurini e Suruí: análise comparativa de dois grupos tupi"[Akwáwa-Asurini and Surui: comparative analysis of two Tupi groups]; "Encontro e reencontro etnográfico"[Ethnographic encounter and re-encounter], which describes my visit to the Suruí 35 years after my fieldwork.

There is also the chapter "Suruí", written by Iara Ferraz for the volume on the "Sudeste do Pará" [Southeast of Pará] of the collection Indigenous Peoples in Brazil, published by the CEDI.

Sources of information

  • ARNAUD, Expedito. Mudanças entre os grupos indígenas Tupi da região do Tocantins-Xingu (Bacia Amazônica). In: --------. O índio e a expansão nacional. Belém : Cejup, 1989. p. 315-64. Publicado originalmente no Boletim do MPEG, Antropologia, Belém, n.s., n. 84, abr. 1983.
  • BARBOSA, José Natal. Contribuição a análise fonológica do suruí do Tocantins. Brasília : UnB, 1993. 59 p. (Dissertação de Mestrado)
  • BELTRÃO, Jane Felipe. Laudo antropológico AI Sororó a propósito da BR-153. Campinas : s.ed., 1998. 123 p.
  • FERRAZ, Iara. Suruí. In: RICARDO, Carlos Alberto (Coord.). Povos Indígenas no Brasil. São Paulo : CEDI, 1985. p. 100-25. (v. 8 II-Sudeste do Pará/Tocantins)
  • JABUR, Clarisse do Carmo. Aikewara ispenheim : comparação do mito do dilúvio Aikewara (Suruí) com os demais grupos Tupi-Guarani. Brasília : UnB, 2001. (Monografia de Graduação)
  • LARAIA, Roque de Barros. Akuáwa-Asurini e Suruí : análise comparativa de dois grupos Tupi. Rev. do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros, São Paulo : instituto de Estudos Brasileiros, n. 12, 1972.
  • --------. "Arranjos poliândricos" na sociedade Suruí. In: SCHADEN, Egon. Leituras de etnologia brasileira. São Paulo : Companhia Editora Nacional, 1976. p. 193-8. (Originalmente publicado na Rev. do Museu Paulista, São Paulo, v. 14, n.s., p. 71-6, 1963).
  • --------. Encontro e reencontro etnográfico. Textos Graduados, Brasília : UnB, v. 3, n. 3, 1996.
  • --------. A fricção interétnica no Médio Tocantins. América Latina, Rio de Janeiro : s.ed., v. 8, n. 2, p. 66-7, 1965.
  • --------. O homem marginal numa sociedade primitiva. Rev. do Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Rio de Janeiro : Instituto de Ciências Sociais, v. 4, n. 1, 1967.
  • --------. Tupi : índios do Brasil atual. São Paulo : USP, 1987.
  • --------; MATTA, Roberto da. Índios e castanheiros : a empresa extrativista e os índios no Médio Tocantins. Rio de Janeiro : Paz e Terra, 1978. 208 p. (Estudos Brasileiros, 35)  
  • LIMA, Luíza de Nazaré Mastop de. Tempo antigo entre os Suruí/Aikewara : um estudo sobre mito e identidade étnica. Belém : UFPA, 2002. (Dissertação de Mestrado)