From Povos Indígenas no Brasil
Photo: Edir Pina de Barros, 1985


Self-denomination Where they are How many Linguistic family
Kurâ MT
982 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)

Before the opening of landing strips and highways, it was the Bakairi who controlled the access of scientific expeditions to the upper Xingu, where part of their population lives today. Today nearly all of them live to the southwest of this area, as fishers and agriculturalists, above all " mandioqueiros, [tenant farmers specializing in manioc production] ", like the other Karib.



The Bakairi call themselves Kurâ, which means people, human beings. They consider themselves the true Kurâ, humanity par excelence, while other beings have to be specified. Kurâ expresses, strctu sensu, "we, the Bakairi", "what is ours". The origin of the term Bakairi is unknown to them and is found recorded in the chronicles of regional history since the 18th Century.


The Bakairi language belongs to the Karib family. According to scholars, it has some elements in common with the languages of the Arára and Txikão and other elements in common with Nahukwá and Kuikúru. All Bakairi speak their language, as well as Portuguese.

Since the 1960s, missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (S.I.L.) have been translating Biblical texts to the Bakairi language. They have also elaborated readers to teach reading and writing in the maternal language. These works have tended to uniformize the internal differences, which are worth a careful study.


They live in the state of Mato Grosso, on the Bakairi Indigenous Lands (61,405.5905 hectares) and Santana (35,479.7443 hectares). In both, shrub forest predominates.

Santana is located in the municipality of Nobres and gets its name from one of the tributaries of the Rio Novo which, in forming part of its limits, descends to the Arinos, tributary of the Juruena, branch of the Tapajós.

The Bakairi Indigenous Land is almost entirely located in the municipality of Paranatinga, on the right bank of the Paranatinga or Telles Pires River, tributary of the Tapajós. A part of it is situated in the municipality of Planalto da Serra, on the left bank of that river. In the vicinity there are the Urubu and Daniel hills, and part of Serra Azul.

Legally, both indigenous lands have been strictly regularized: homologated and registered in the Estate Service of the Union and in the Notary Public for the Registry of Properties.

The urban centers that exercise most influences on the lives of the Bakairi are Nobres, Paranatinga and Cuiabá, the capitol of the state.


The Bakairi today total around 950 people, of which 898 live on Indigenous Lands and are distributed in the following way: 

Municipality       Indigenous Land  Local Group Population
Nobres Santana


           Nova Canaã
           Boa Esperança
Paranatinga Bakairi Painkun
           Alto Ramalho
Atuby Aturua
 Planalto da Serra    Sawâpa  28
 TOTAL 02  11 898
 Source: Taukane, 1999: 47
Year Total
1965 261
1968 277
1977 386
1980 414
1983 448
1988 572
1996 651
1999 898

Marriages with non-Indians occur and if the children resulting from these marriages observe the basic rules of sociability of the Indians, they are considered Bakairi.

History of contact

Foto: Roquette Pinto, 1914
Foto: Roquette Pinto, 1914

The mythical origin place of the Bakairi – Sawâpa waterfall – is located below the confluence of the Verde River with the Paranatinga. Due to internal conflicts and pressures from enemy indigenous peoples, basically the Kayabí, the Bakairi migrated in three different directions. A part of them went to the headwaters of the Arinos; it was the first to be reached by the bandeira expeditions in the first decades of the 18th Century, after which they got involved in mining activities. Another went to the upper Paranatinga; they were surrounded by colonizers, cattle-raisers or agriculturalists or got involved in activities related to these, in the first decades of the 19th Century. The third group, which was the largest, went in the direction of the upper Xingu, losing contact with the other two. The first two groups of Bakairi came to be known as “tame” or “independent”. Later Karl von den Steinen would come to call them “western", differentiating them from the “eastern” group of the upper

After 1847, the Bakairi of Arinos, also said to be from Santana, along with those of the upper Paranatinga, visited with frequency the General Directorate of Indians in Cuiabá, hoping to receive presents. Later, they got involved in rubber-gathering, especially those of Santana, going to commercialize it in the capitol. The Bakairi of Santana ended up working compulsorily in rubber extraction, even on their own lands, for the rubber-bosses who occupied these lands. Prohibited from speaking their language, among other sorts of violence practiced against them, some of these Bakairi migrated to Paranatinga in the decades from 1920 to 1960. But they were forced to leave by employees of the SPI who claimed, as did the rubber-bosses, that they stole cattle. The creation of the Santana Indian Post in 1965, did not change this situation. From that time on, the S.I.L.(Summer Institute of Linguistics), established its presence there, intermittently, as did Jesuit missionaries. Years later, the Bakairi themselves forced the invaders out of Santana. Only in 1975 was a school built in this area.

The Bakairi of the Paranatinga were guides, canoe makers and interpreters in the expeditions of von den Steinen – undertaken in 1884 and 1887 – and in others that came after them. Through these expeditions, the relations between the Eastern and Western Bakairi, in the terminology of vem den Steinen, were re-established. Before then, the Bakairi and other peoples of the upper Xingu were unknown to the whites.

In 1920 the Indian Post was created and the Bakairi Indigenous Land was demarcated, but leaving outside its limits the group of Antoninho, the famous guide of von den Steinen. The objective was to attract all upper Xingu Indians into the area, and thus conquer lands and manual labor for colonization. But only the Bakairi definitively moved to the Paranatinga and three years later their presence in the upper Xingu was no longer recorded. Critically reduced in number, those who had been transferred re-organized into several groups on the banks of the Paranatinga, and were submitted to compulsory labor by the agents of the SPI. The other Indians of the upper Xingu visited the Post in search of “presents".  

In this period of territorial losses and depopulation, missionaries of the South American Indian Mission began to work among them, and stayed until the 1960s when the Bakairi pressured them to leave. In 1922, a school was also built in the area. Twenty years later, the various local groups were brought together into one single “settlement”, by the side of the Post, since mobility and dispersion, both essential to their universe of sociability, were considered an impediment to education and health services. Those who did not submit to the imposed order were transferred to other indigenous areas, above all those of their enemies. Several Bakairi participated, compulsorily, in the “pacification” of a Xavante group, on the upper Batovi. A part of these Xavante migrated to the Bakairi Indigenous Lands, but in 1974, with a population of 180 people, which surpassed the Bakairi population, they left for the Culuene River.

The decade of the 1980s was marked by Community Development Projects financed with resources of the World Bank, which introduced in the two areas trucks and mechanized agriculture, among other things. On the Bakairi Indigenous Land, in this period, the Bakairi recovered an area of lands that had been taken away from them at the time of the second demarcation. The unequal access to the goods introduced resulted in the fragmentation of the existing “settlement” and in the constitution of the present local groups. 

Social and political organization

The Bakairi are a riverine people, agriculturalists and fishers; hunting and gathering complement these activities. They live dispersed in various groups, each of which dominates a specific territory delimited by rivers and brooks and with rights over its resources. As a rule, the name of these politico-territorial units corresponds to the names of the nearby rivers or brooks. An individual or a family is identified as belonging to the place in which he or she lives, there being a relation between identity and territoriality. The local group is the largest sociological unit in this society.

The local group is in general comprised of a group of siblings of both sexes, or of two groups that have married amongst themselves, being led by the individual who joined political forces towards that end. It is formed by a variable number of domestic groups most of which are comprised of elementary families, that is, basically father, mother, and children. The chiefs of these groups are the props that sustain the political and legal order, through a council. It’s up to the leader to maintain the delicate equilibrium between the groups and represent them before other local groups and non-Indians.

The residential units are arranged in a linear fashion, forming streets, a style that was introduced by agents of the SPI. But there is always a place, to the side of the leader’s house, which is like a center, where they hold meetings and rituals. In some groups there is the kadoêti, the "mens’ house", in which the ritual masks are kept.

The elementary family guards a strong principle of its own autonomy. It can break established alliances and go live in another local group where it has kin, either maternal or paternal, of either of the spouses. The recently married men live in the house of their wife’s father – with the exception of the firstborn sons of leaders – until the birth of the first child at which time they can choose where they will live, whether with his or his wife’s kin. The kinship system is bilateral, that is, paternal and maternal kin have equal importance. Terminologically father and father’s brother are equated, as are mother and mother’s sister. There are distinct terms for father’s sister and mother’s brother.

Marriage is preferentially between socially and biologically distant kin. One cannot speak the names of affinal kin, whether real or potential. The names are derived from deceased consanguineal kin, which can only be pronounced after they have been put back into circulation. Ideally it is the maternal and paternal grandmothers who name the child. Each of them recovers at least one name of their deceased consanguineal kin of the same sex as the child. A person inherits at least four names, two from the maternal line, two from the paternal. There are individuals who accumulate ten names, which confers prestige on them. The father and father’s kin are forbidden to pronounce the names deriving from the maternal line, and vice versa. Besides these names, they have others in Portuguese.

Art, culture and games

Bakairi art expresses in all artifacts themes that refer to the spirit world, above all in the plaits, the fans for turning over beiju, the zoomorphic stools, through the paintings done with jenipapo[blue-black dye], urucum [red vegetal dye] and tabatinga, a kind of white clay. In so doing, they spiritualize material things and materialize spiritual things.

It is worth highlighting here the masks, above all of the ritual called Iakuigâde, which are of two types: (1) Kwamby, oval-shaped, which are the leaders and shamans and (2) Iakuigâde, rectangular and carved in wood, representing tutelary spirits of the aquatic world. Elaborate male and female body paintings – in the style of the upper Xingu – done with jenipapo, urucum, tabatinga and vegetal resins are associated with the rituals.

In terms of material culture, also noteworthy are the hammocks, made from cotton and buriti fibre, woven on vertical looms.

As far as games, soccer stands out, with internal and interethnic tournaments.


The cosmos - organized by Kwamóty and his grandchildren, Xixi e Nunâ - is conceived as consisting of several layers which meet on the horizon. There exist two earths, one concave and the other convex, with one being the negative mould of the other, each having its own rivers and subterranean waters. There is a bell-shaped jar, like an immense umbrella, containing the subterranean waters of the upper earth, the borders of which are held in place by immense mythical frogs. Between this bell-shaped jar and this earth there is the air which is necessary for life. The sun and the moon, where Xixi and Nunâ, respectively, went to live, move in such a way that, when it is day on this earth, on the other it is night and vice-versa. These layers are interconnected by invisible trails that only the shamans can see and travel over.

In ancient times, these two earths were interconnected by a type of stairs that Kwamóty left so that they, the primordial Bakairi, could live in both. As they came to make “gossip” amongst themselves and between the two earths – causing ruptures in the society in formation - he cut the stairs, provoking a deluge, from which only two pairs of brothers were saved. The two earths moved further away from each other, while the sun and the moon met. The Bakairi believe that the eclipse of the sun is an augur of the return of chaos.

Kwamóty controlled chaos by putting the bell-shaped jar in place, but abandoned them [ the Bakairi] to their own fate. Thus they came to know pain, sickness, death, and the struggle for survival.

The structure of the universe was defined when death came into existence, for the earth on which the Bakairi lived did not accept that they inter their dead in it. In a final gesture, Kwamóty inverted the position of the two earths. With that, the most feared of cosmic forces – the iamyra – entered into circulation. Each person who dies liberates two iamyra: one that goes out by the left eye, which will go to inhabit the rivers of this earth, where it controls the supernatural tutelary spirits of the species of fish, aquatic animals, riverine birds; and the other that goes out through the right eye and goes to reside in the other earth, and which is hierarchically superior to all other supernatural beings, as they preside over the natural cycles – including the seasons of the year – and cosmic order.

There are two seasons of the year: kopâme, the “time of the waters” (middle of September to the middle of April) and âdâpygume, the “time of drought" (middle of April to the middle of September). There are also two sub-categories that they call kopâme ipery and âdâpygume ipery, the “beginning of the waters” and the “beginning of the drought” respectively.  

Time and space are related through the cycle of a vital substance called ekuru. Present in all living beings, inanimate and animate, it is obtained through food, making itself present in the blood. Without it, blood - yunu - coagulates, which is followed by death. This substance is eliminated through body fluids, residues, secretions and excrement which, in contact with the earth, is reprocessed by the plants. In its free and pure form, only the plants contain it. In the interval between contact with the earth and reprocesssing, all ekuru that is eliminated keeps within itself the properties of whoever expelled it. In the case of the human being, ekuru of the fingernails, of hair, of feces, of saliva “raise kadopy", which are similar to it but supernatural. Their preferred places are the abandoned houses, dark places. They appear to the living, frightening them, which causes fainting and sicknesses.

The terrestrial kadopy, which are residues of the body residues, have an ephemeral existence , in contrast with the iamyra, which are essence. Space is polluted by infestations of kadopy and iamyra, making it inhospitable, and unhealthy. This is one of the reasons for Bakairi dispersion and mobility. In the rainy season, given the high level of humidity, the ekuru penetrates the soil more quickly, which is regenerated. In the dry season, however, the lack of humidity makes the ekuru cycle become extremely slow. Only on the banks of the rivers and streams is its rhythm more rapid, which results in more fertile terrain, less polluted, more adequate for life.

Thus they explain the existence of different spatial domains that they call iduanary and pojianary, "region of the forest" and "region of grass", respectively. They basically extract the ekuru necessary for life from the forest and the rivers. The Kurâ-Bakairi only consume plants and vegetarian or essentially vegetarian animals, disliking carnivores.

In the forests bordering lakes, ponds, or rivers, they practice agriculture and group hunting. Due to the dangers associated with these forests, the presence of members of the female sex is forbidden before the earth has been prepared for planting. Among these dangers, the most notable is Ynhangõnrom, a monstrous supernatural being, "lord" of the forests, who has an enormous breast that he squeezes, pouring out a lethal milk on those who destroy the forest. He has an assistant Karowi, a little, but horrendous being. In the more closed forests one can encounter the iamyra which seek shelter in it when surprised on this earth by the day. In the gardens and shrubbery one can also encounter them, for they long for their “kin”, for the places where they lived and worked. The contact with these supernatural beings is the cause of bio-psychical disorders and imminent death. To pronounce the names of the dead signifies evoking them, which must be avoided until they are put back into circulation. Each species of animal has its “owner”, a supernatural being that is that species’ ward and who turns against those who commit excesses. A malicious being, Kilâino, makes hunters lose their ways in the forest. Associated with the aquatic domain, there are many supernatural beings. Besides the “wards” of each species of fish, aquatic animal and riverine bird, there is pakororo, an enormous white and supernatural jaguar which turns over the canoes of fishers, as well as poro tapekéim, an immense and monstruous fish that can turn canoes over and swallow the fishermen alive. There is also a legion of supernatural beings, with human forms, called kurâmã.

Of the supernatural beings related to this domain, the Bakairi most fear the subaquatic iamyra, which can assume the forms of fish. With so many dangers, the aquatic domain is essentially a male realm.


Bakairi mythology is very rich, with many elements in common to upper Xingu mythology. It narrates the origin of the world, of the twin demiurges, the rivers, the day and night, the sun, as well as the transferral of goods that belonged to the animal world- among them, manioc, the hammock – to the Bakairi. The great rituals of kado remember, through chants, the essential part of this process, as though recreating the world.


In Bakairi daily life one can observe various rituals that do not, properly speaking, obey any ritual calendar, but rather the contingencies of life, being associated above all with marriage, sickness, first menstruation and death, the last few mentioned implying dietary and social restrictions. Besides these, there is a complex of sacred and pan-community rites, called kado, the scheduling of which is concentrated in the dry season. Among these there is the Anji Itabienly, the "Baptizing of the Corn", which marks the beginning of the Bakairi year and the cycle of the ekuru. It is held at the time of the first harvest of corn, still green, in January or February. In the middle of April, when the season of the waters ends, the great rites are held when they utilize ritual masks - the Kápa and the Iakuigâde – but never simultaneously. These rituals can go on for years, being suspended in the time of the rains, when the ritual masks are kept in the kadoêti. Of these two rituals it is the Iakuigâde that has a more sophisticated level of elaboration. There are 23 ritual masks, each representing the tutelary spirit of a species of fish, aquatic animal, and riverine bird. Finally, there is, from time to time, the sadyry, ear-piercing ritual for adolescents of the male sex.

These pan-community rituals have elements in common, such as male and female body paintings, done with jenipapo and urucum, collective hunting and fishing parties, collective meals. Each one of these rituals is presided over by the leader of the local group which promotes it and by the shaman, on the spiritual plane.

The rites of the kado constitute a tribute to the dead, who control the natural cycles, including the seasons of the year and of the ekuru, vital substance.

Besides these rituals, the Bakairi annually hold pan-community June festivals, which are equally important for their social cohesion.


In a world that is so full of supernatural beings, sources of sicknesses, the shamans have a vital role. They can penetrate into the bodies of animals, of the sick. They know no barriers to communication: they speak the language of the iamyra, the animals, tutelary entities or not. Besides acting in the case of sicknesses, and the loss of objects – which they have the power to locate – among other things, their participation in the pan-community rituals is absolutely necessary. Through them cosmic forces are rebalanced and life is led back to order.

Note on the sources

Before 1884 the Bakairi received only rapid mention on the part of members of bandeira expeditions, explorers of the north of Mato Grosso and administrators of the then province. It was only after the expeditions of Karl von den Steinen to the Xingu, in 1884 and 1887, that the information about them gets more dense. Two books of his are worth noting: Central Brazil: Expedition of 1884 for the exploration of the Xingu (1942) and Among the Aborigines of Central Brazil (1940), both classics in South American ethnology. They contain precious information on the Eastern and Western Bakairi, their history, language, social organization, mythology, rituals and relations with other indigenous peoples. Various other expeditions followed those of von den Steinem, especially those by Max Schmidt, who recorded, among other things, important data on the migrations of the Bakairi of the Xingu to the Paranatinga and the relations they established with the regional population, including with the SPI agents. Kalervo Oberg and Fernando Altenfelder Silva, who were among the Bakairi in the mid-20th Century, published articles on social organization and ritual seclusion, respectively.

There are five academic monographs on the Bakairi. The first, by Edir Pina de Barros (1977), brings together information on their history and social organization, their relations with missionaries, SPI agents and rural land-holders of the region. In the light of this data, she analyzes the question of identity and ethnicity. In her doctoral thesis (1992), this same researcher presents dense information on their history, cosmology, social organization, naming practices, rituals and shamanism. Various of her articles have been published in anthropological journals. Another reference is the thesis by Debra Sue Picchi (1982), which focuses on the impact of mechanized agriculture on the traditional subsistence system, nutritional status and health. To analyze this question, historical, cultural, and above all, ecological factors were considered.

Darlene Yaminalo Taukane, a Bakairi woman, wrote, in her recently published Master’s dissertation, about school education among the Bakairi of Paranatinga, including the reflection of indigenous teachers on school education and the place of the school in their project for the future, besides an important chapter on the process of socialization in their society, which has already been published in the form of an article. In relation to their language, there is the doctoral thesis by Tânia Conceição Clemente de Souza, on discourse and orality among the Bakairi of Paranatinga. There is also the classic study of language by Capistrano de Abreu made on the basis of information of an informant brought from Paranatinga to Rio de Janeiro, in the final decade of the 19th Century. There are also the studies done by missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, since the 1960s. Noteworthy among these are the translations of Biblical texts and readers for literacy in the maternal language. Under their auspices, the Bakairi have been producing texts in their own language, some of them published. The Bakairi teachers are producing texts, in the context of their training as teachers.

Sources of information

  • ABREU, Capistrano de.  Os Bacaeris.  Estudos e Ensaios, Rio de Janeiro : Civilização Brasileira, 3a. Série, 2a. Edição, p. 155-97, 1976.
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  • ALAKUAI, Davi et al.  Udodo Kâyntadobyry - Quando eu tive medo da onça.  Cuiabá : SIL, 1995.  62 p.  (Livro de Leitura Bakairí, 6).  Circulação restrita.
  • ALAKUAI, Davi; KURUMA, Jair.  Seko Mugaru Nhemaken-Hohobyry - Quando minha mãe deixou escapar o tatu.  Cuiabá : SIL, 1995.  48 p.  (Livro de Leitura Bakairí, 5).  Circulação restrita.
  • ATAUGULA, Joaquim.  Pyrykâ Xixi Agâ Atobyry - A perdiz e o sol : algumas histórias de nossos antepassados.  Cuiabá : SIL, 1995.  58 p.  (Livro de Leitura Bakairí, 7).  Circulação restrita.
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  • CAMP, Elizabeth L. (Comp.).  Adâitobyry Nhegatuhomobyry - As aventuras da vida : contos narrados pelos Bakairí.  Cuiabá : SIL, 1994.  33 p.  (Livro de Leitura Bakairí, 3).  Circulação restrita. -------- (Comp.).  Ânguydo imeom - Os animais.  Cuiabá : SIL, 1994.  26 p.  (Livro de Leitura Bakairí, 2).  Circulação restrita. -------- (Comp.).  Tâdyâhobyry modo - Os acidentes que aconteceram : contos narrados pelos Bakairí.  Cuiabá : SIL, 1995.  50 p.  (Livro de Leitura Bakairí, 4).  Circulação restrita. -------- (Comp.).  Udodo modo - As onças : contos narrados pelos Bakairí.  Cuiabá : SIL, 1995.  69 p (Livro de Leitura Bakairí).  Circulação restrita. --------; LICCARDI, Millicent R. (Comps.). Âsenomedâdaynrim modo xunâry modo - Os contos dos alunos.  Cuiabá : SIL, 1993.  31 p.  (Livro de Leitura Bakairí).  Circulação restrita. -------- (Comps.).  Itainly Iraynâ - Antes de ler.  Cuiabá : SIL, 1992.  54 p.  (Pré-Leitura Bakairí).  Circulação restrita. --------; comps.  Kytanwem Tâdâsenomedâdo Kâintainhoem - Para nós lermos na nossa língua.  Cuiabá : SIL, 1992.  200 p.  (Cartilha de Transição de Português para Bakairí).  Circulação restrita.
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