From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Luciene Pohl, 1998


Where they are How many
AM 186 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
Linguistic family

The Banawá constitute one of the least known indigenous groups in Brazil. Inhabitants of the region between the Juruá and Purus rivers, they are very close to their neighbours, the Jamamadi, with whom they share many cultural traits and indeed speak dialects of the same language. Contact between the Banawá and sectors of national society also took place through the mediation of the Jamamadi. Their territory was invaded in the final decades of the 19th century, during the rubber boom in Amazonia, but it was only in the 1990s that the State finally recognized their land rights. Even so they still face invasions from loggers and rubber companies even today.

Location and land ownership

Foto: Luciene Pohl, 1998
Foto: Luciene Pohl, 1998

The Banawá Indigenous Territory (IT) is situated in the municipalities of Canutama and Tapauá, in Amazonas state. It is 195,700 ha in size with a perimeter of 240 km. They occupy an area of terra firme located between the Piranha and Purus rivers. The current distribution of the four Banawá villages is confined to the shores of the Purus river, like the Jarawara and Jamamadi peoples.

The first studies and surveys aimed at determining the area of traditional occupation of the Banawá were conducted in 1986 by the Technical Group (TG) created by Directive No. 1348/86. With the denomination of the Banawá-Yafi do Rio Piranhas Indigenous Territory, the area was declared to be held under permanent indigenous ownership on May 29th 1992 by Directive No. 260/MJ/92, with a surface area of 79,680 ha and a perimeter of 200 km.

In 1998 a TG was set up with the objective of receiving consent from the Banawá indigenous population to begin the physical demarcation of the IT, in accordance with the identification conducted in 1986. As well as noting the existence of non-indigenous occupants within the IT, this Technical Group ascertained that the area traditionally occupied by the Banawá was not limited to the borders proposed by the earlier TG created by Directive No. 1348/86.

In order to preserve the cultural ties with the Jamamadi, the Banawá Indigenous Territory should have already been identified in contiguous form with the Jamamadi/Jarawara/Kanamati IT in 1986, which unfortunately did not happen. The areas indispensable to the development of productive activities, as well as those set aside for the preservation of the natural resources used by the population, are located in the southern portion of the Indigenous Territory, specifically on the headwaters of the Geissuã, Quaru and Apituã creeks, where the borders of the Jarawara/Jamamadi/Kanamati IT and the Hi Merimã IT are also found.

Taking into account this observation and the fact that this land was identified and declared in accordance with legislation that was supplanted by the current Federal Constitution and by Decree No. 1.775/96, Funai recognized the need to undertake a new study of the area traditionally occupied by the Banawá. Through the studies and surveys conducted in the field and office by a new TG coordinated by Luciene Pohl, it was possible to expand its perimeter and ascertain that the most adequate name for this territory would be the Banawá IT, rather than Banawá-Yafi do Rio Piranhas IT, since the latter name regionally carries a pejorative connotation in relation to the group.

Currently there are still three non-indigenous occupants in the area who pursue other activities still linked to the extraction of forest products, principally timber, essential oils and Brazil nuts, as well as agricultural activities.

Language and population

Foto: Luciene Pohl, 1998
Foto: Luciene Pohl, 1998

Speaking mutually intelligible languages, sharing a largely similar vocabulary and significant cultural traits, as well as intense intergroup relations, the Banawá are considered to be a subgroup of the Jamamadi, who live just outside the southern border of the Banawá IT. They also belong to the Arawá linguistic family along with the other inhabitants of the region located on the middle Purus river and its affluents: the Deni, Jamamadi, Jarawara, Kanamati, Sorowaha, Hi Merimã, Paumari and Kulina.

Data concerning their birth rate, death rate and demographic growth were not recorded in the years prior to the presence of the team instituted by Executive Instruction No. 146/DAF/98, which registered a total of one hundred Indians.

The Banawá present a tendency towards demographic growth, since around 50% of the population are young people. On the other hand, the life expectancy can be considered low, since in 1999 just 12% were aged 50 or more, among whom 6% were more than 60 years old.


The first village mentioned by the Banawá was located on the Apituã creek, close to the Purus river. The second site present in their narratives is located on the lata creek – wati'lata – where the Jamamadi left the tins for the Banawá to extract copaíba or sorva for the ‘boss’ Firmino during the period when they consider that they established the first contacts with national society. Malocas were later located on the Sitiari, Cotia and Yati'fá creeks or on the Pedra creek. Finally they mention villages on a creek with many small fish, Abasirimefai, where a number of swiddens were situated.

Recognition of the Banawá in the terra firme region between the Purus and Juruá rivers dates back to the 19th century when travellers visited the Purus river and noted the presence of a sizeable Jamamadi population in the territory spanning between these rivers.

Among the various records of occupation of the region of the Piranhas river left by the Indian Protection Service (SPI), a report by José Sant’Anna de Barros, written in 1930, states that: “ ... on the Cunhuá river live the Catuinas, Mamaoris, Pauquiris, Tucumandubas and Beidamans, on the Piranhas the Jamamadios, Canamadis and Jarauaras, on the Curiá live the Jamamadis and Araçadanis and on the Riozinho the Marimans; forming perhaps the largest indigenous population on the Purus river, totalling more than a thousand souls, according to various sources of information I have obtained” (Report of the 1st Regional Inspectorate of the SPI, relating to the work of the Marienê PIN, 1943).

The presence of non-indigenous occupants in the IT is closely related to the process of occupation and exploration that held sway on the Purus river during the rubber economy from the second half of the 19th century. With the aim of sustaining the rubber enterprise, various incentives and forms of State sponsorship were implemented to shift a labour force from the Northeast region of Brazil to the Purus river. We can also identify a failure on the part of the State to defend the indigenous territories.

According to Darcy Ribeiro (1982: 42-9), the occupation sponsored by the government in the region of the Juruá and Purus rivers was undertaken in such a violent form that, in a short space of time, the region, which had been an area with one of the highest indigenous populations in Amazonia, became proportionally depopulated with the emergence of civilized centres. It is known that indigenous populations existed that were never even recorded. During this occupation, the rubber tappers justified the use of violence by alleging that the Indians stole their work tools. They therefore organized expeditions to put an end to their ‘problems’ through the expulsion or extermination of the Indians and the seizure of the land where abundant rubber trees grew. These expeditions became known throughout the Amazonian region as ‘correrias.’ With the decline of latex extraction, just some of the former rubber tappers remained behind.  

Village and society

The Banawá are distributed in four villages. The main village is located close to the upper course of the Banawá creek and shelters the largest number of inhabitants, around 70% of the population. This village is arranged in two rows of houses, side-by-side, set approximately ten metres from each other. Each row is located on either side of the landing strip. The house of the village leader (Bidu) is centrally located. In front of this house and on the other side of the air strip is the house of the missionaries, also centrally positioned, with a tiled roof and locked door, a well and a radio antenna.

The format used in the construction of the houses mostly follows the regional pattern of being built on stilts. There is also a type of construction in which the houses are completely closed with thatch, from the roof to the walls, with the floor made from flattened earth. This type of building is fairly similar to the shelter built for the reclusion of young indigenous women when they menstruate for the first time.

The other three villages have a smaller population, each with approximately 10% of the Banawá. This 'decentralization' is due to the fact that their inhabitants do not follow the pattern socially accepted within the main village. In Cachimbo village, located next to the same Banawá creek, on its middle course, there is just one house inhabited by two brothers who drink heavily. In Apituã village resides a man who was expelled from the central village for killing a relative. Finally, in Paraíba village there are those inhabitants considered ‘mixed’ and also maintain some kind of conflict with the residents of the main village. This village is located at the mouth of the Banawá creek and is composed by three houses where some Banawá live, but where non-Indians married to women from the main village predominate.

There is also another kind of house located in the swiddens. These provisional houses are built from beaten earth and are wall-less, covered only with stilt palm leaves.

The Banawá relate that, in the past, they did not live in a fixes location, as occurs nowadays. Although their movements were restricted to the terra firme situated between the Purus and Piranha rivers, the fragmentation into smaller groups and the consequent formation of new villages occurred frequently. Both this kind of transitoriness and the absence of a ‘fixed address’ are characteristics found among other groups from the Arawá linguistic family, such as the Hi Merimã and the Paumari.

One of the possible motivations for this attitude may be explained by the fact that these groups belonged to mutually hostile subgroups. Studies of peoples from the Arawá linguistic family show that sorcery accusations lead to internal conflicts, which in turn produce fissions and group migrations.  

Religious life

Death among the Banawá is recounted in rich detail. They say that they bury their dead in graves located close to the villages and typically feed them with offerings for some days until the 'soul' abandons the physical body. The belongings of the deceased, such as arrows, blow guns and pans, are also deposited in the grave. The Banawá believe that the person who dies leaves the grave to eat, making noises that can be heard by the living.

In relation to shamanism, according to the accounts of the Jamamadi, the initiation of shamans includes a period of exclusion from social life. This exclusion also occurs among Banawá girls during their entry into adolescence. At first menstruation, the adolescent girls are isolated in seclusion within the domestic space. As small house is built and sealed so that the girl ‘takes shape.’ She leaves, generally at night, merely to perform her physiological needs. She cannot be seen under any circumstance by any man from the village. At the end of the period of reclusion, a festival is held in which the girl is whipped with canes, since, according to the Banawá, there is a danger of diseases occurring.

Protestant worship

Recently another type of ritual has begun to be practiced due to the presence of missionaries from JOCUM (Youths With a Mission) and SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics): church services in the Banawá language, which involve the participation of much of the community. Firstly everyone prays in a low voice, each person reciting their own prayer. Bidu, a Banawá leader, prays for all the place he knows: Porto Velho, Ji Paraná, São Paulo – cities he has visited in the company of the missionaries – including the neighbouring towns of Canutama and Lábrea, situated within the Purus river region. Afterwards a boy begins to sing and play guitar, after which everyone accompanies him for about an hour. At the end of the singing, the missionary, or indigenous preacher, makes a speech in the Banawá language. Only a few terms are left untranslated, such as Jerusalem, olive tree and Jesus. Later there is a sermon based on part of the Bible already translated and everyone accompanies with their printed copy of the text. The long singing begins again before another section of prayers in a low voice and finally the service ends.

Productive activities

The productive activities developed by the Banawá, as well as the other indigenous peoples of the region, are based on agricultural production, hunting, fishing and gathering.

The Banawá swiddens are large and belong to particular families. They plant various kinds of crops: the staples are bitter and sweet manioc, banana, pineapple, peach palm and sugarcane. Swiddens mainly planted with manioc receive a specific name, kua'ma, ‘swidden for making flour.’ Their swiddens are located close to the villages, near to the Pedra, Apituã, Sitiari and Banawá creeks.

The former swiddens or areas of brushwood are also of great importance since these are places where fruits can be collected and certain animals come to search for food, making them ideal for hunting.

The Banawá are skilled hunters during the night and day and make use of bows, arrows and rifles. The most highly prized game is tapir, since its meat is enough to feed the entire village. It may be grilled or boiled and served with the broth. Collared peccaries are also important game and may be roasted in their own fat to be eaten with grated lime. When larger animals are scarce, the Banawá make broths with birds – macaws and tinamous, for example – which are more easily encountered.

During his visit to a Jamamadi village back in 1873, the chronicler Steere learned hunting strategies from the Indians that are still practiced by the Banawá today, such as attracting animals by imitating their cries:"(...) and he imitated the voices of the parrots and toucans and later the cries of the tapirs, peccaries and monkeys, with an admirable similarity. Later he imitated so vividly the strange growl of the jaguar that we shivered. The art of imitating animal voices is employed in hunting” (1949: 77).

Various forms of classifying fauna exist. One of them reflects the Banawá knowledge of the habits and time that particular animals spend in their habitat. One category designates the species that spend most of their time in the tree canopies, such as the macaw, woolly monkey, howler monkey and other animals. Another class designates those that spend most of their time on the ground and only walk, such as the tapir, armadillo, collared peccary, deer, agouti, anteater and tortoise. Those animals found in intermediary locations, between the tree tops and the ground, are classified in another category: these include the toucans, tinamous, coatimundis and some small birds. Water-dwelling animals are excluded from this classification.

Fishing is not one of the preferential activities for the Banawá, though they may fish when game is difficult to find. A specific name exists for each creek according to the type of fish most abundant in it: Aba'fa, a place were many matrinxã are found; Awida'fa, or ‘Quaru,’ as the non-Indians call areas with large quantities of piau (leporinus).

Gathering, an activity widely practiced for the construction of houses, the fabrication of numerous artefacts and the sale of surplus items, is carried out across the entire Banawá IT. The main products extracted are straw, Brazil nuts, copaíba oil and andiroba. The Banawá have no fear of distances and cover large areas to conduct this type of activity.

The main areas used for productive activities are the margins of the Citiari and Wifa creeks, to the north, as well as the areas surrounding the headwaters of the Quaru, Geuissuã and Apituã creeks, all located in the south of the Indigenous Territory.  

Natural environment

In environmental terms, the middle Purus river region is considered fairly well preserved and abundant in natural resources. The areas indispensable to the physical and cultural well-being of the Banawá people are situated in the region of terra firme between the Piranha river basin, to the west, and the basin of the Purus river, to the east of the Indigenous Territory.

The floodplain characterizing the Purus region is rich in sediments since its rivers rise in the Andean region where the process of erosion is intense. The large quantity of vegetation carried by the current functions as a kind of fertilizer when the river dries and leaves part of this organic material on the beaches and the shores of the lakes. The decomposing plants and the aquatic vegetation facilitate a new cycle stimulating the growth of new plants.

During the rainy season, the living conditions are more favourable to aquatic animals, while the terrestrial animals tend to be more concentrated due to the quantity of water. Since the Banawá are situated on terra firme located close to the floodplain of the Purus river, it is during the rainy season that they make easier use of the floodplain ecosystem for hunting. On the other hand, when the rivers begin to dry, the demand for fish increases.

The middle course of the Piranha river forms one of the borders of the Banawá Indigenous Territory. Its main affluents are located within the boundaries of the Jamamadi/Jarawara/Kanamanti Indigenous Territory, as well as those which are indispensable to the Banawá, already cited previously. The eastern limit of the IT is formed by other affluents of the Purus river: Apituã, Quaru and the lata creek or wati'lata. There are also the tributaries located to the northwest of the IT: the Cotia and Citiari creeks. All these rivers are important to the Banawá culture, both in terms of the resources used, and in terms of the location of their villages.

Measures are needed to control the timber exploration that today plays enormous pressure on these areas essential to the preservation of the resources needed for the physical and cultural well-being of the Banawá people. Moreover, the trade in extractivist products in which these Indians are the main suppliers must be regularized. If not, the current model of economic exploration, implanted during the peak of the rubber period, will lead to the depletion of the presently abundant natural resources.  

Sources of information

  • BULLER, Barbara; BULLER, Ernest; EVERETT, Daniel Leonard.  Stress placement, syllable structure, and minimality in Banawa.  International Journal of Amer.  Linguistics, Chicago : Univ. of Chicago Press, v. 59, n. 3, p. 280-93, 1993.