From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Jorge Hernández Díaz, 1983


Where they are How many
PE 4689 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
Linguistic family

The Fulni-ô is the only indigenous group of Northeastern Brazil that was able to keep its language – the Ia-tê – alive and active, as well as the ritual they call Ouricuri, which is currently performed in total secrecy.

In the central part of the Indian Reservation is the city of Águas Belas, which is entirely surrounded by Fulni-ô territory.

Name and language

Both in the historical literature and in part of the anthropological literature, the Indians from Águas Belas have been called Carnijós or Carijós, or even Cajaú (Hohenthal, 1960). It is not known when they were aldeados (put in villages); what is certain is that in the mid-18th Century they were already known by the name of Carnijós. It is possible that in this village the Carijós may have fused with other ethnic groups and later re-organized themselves in clans, adopting then the name of the host group, Fulni-ô.

For a long time the Fulni-ô were considered by experts the last remnants of the Karirí Indians, who once lived throughout the entire Northeastern region of Brazil (Boudin, 1949). One example of this interpretation is Mario Melo, who described them as "the last children of the Cariris who once dominated our hinterland" (Melo, 1929). According to Boudin (1949), this confusion was due to the fact that both groups lived in the same region, the mid and upper São Francisco River.

The hypothesis that the Fulni-ô were actually Kariri was discarded since a comparative linguistic analysis concluded that "the language of the Karnijós Indians differs considerably from that of the Indians of the Kariri family" and that the Ia-tê may very well be an autonomous tongue, since it "represents the relics of a linguistic family still not registered in the list of Brazil’s Indian languages, or is part of an indigenous family that has no other representative in our territory, or whose existence is not known so far" (Sobrinho, 1935: 49). Recently the linguist Aryon Dall'Igna Rodrigues (1986) classified not only the Kariri but also the Ia-tê language as part of the Macro-Jê branch, although he did not include the Fulni-ô language in a specific family.

Nowadays all the Indians in Águas Belas speak Portuguese; mostly adults and the aged use Ia-tê; children and young people use Portuguese more frequently. Even though Ia-tê may be losing ground to Portuguese, it still plays an important role in the Fulni-ô society.


Foto: Memélia Moreira
Foto: Memélia Moreira

The Fulni-ô live currently in the municipality of Águas Belas, in the interior of the State of Pernambuco, in the area known as Sertão (semi-arid interior), 273 kilometers west of the State capital, Recife. The Ipanema River, a tributary of the São Francisco River, crosses the region where Águas Belas is located from north to south. In 1980, the municipality’s population was 37,057, of which 11,714 lived in the city proper and 25,343 in the rural area – which includes the Indian village.

The surface of the area belonging to the Fulni-ô is 11,506 hectares.

The life of the Fulni-ô takes place in two villages. One of them is located near the town of Águas Belas. It is there that the Fundação Nacional do Índio – National Foundation for the Indians – (Funai), the Brazilian government’s official organ for Indian Affairs, is located; the other is where the sacred Ouricuri ritual is held and the Fulni-ô stay in months of September and October.

Demographic information

Foto: Jorge Hernández Díaz, 1983
Foto: Jorge Hernández Díaz, 1983

The oldest data regarding the Fulni-ô population are from 1749, when, according to the "Informação Geral da Capitania de Pernambuco" – General Information of the Captaincy of Pernambuco – (1906), there were 323 individual belonging to that ethnic group living in the village of Ribeira do Panema. Estêvão Pinto, using as source reports by the Diretoria dos Índios – Indian Directorship –, says that, in 1855, the Fulni-ô were 738; but by 1861 their number had been reduced by half, since only 382 individuals, comprising 90 families, were left (Pinto, 1956:25). The author comments that the cause for this may have been an epidemic of cholera that ravaged the village in 1856. By 1873, the Fulni-ô had been reduced to less than 100 (Costa Júnior, 1942:11; Pinto, 1956: 26).

Gradually the population recovered; in 1922, the village had approximately 500 Indians “... living in 150 huts, almost all of them made of straw” (Pinto, 1956: 26). We deduce that, by 1937, the number of Fulni-ô had already increased since, in an article written around that time, Carlos Estêvão de Oliveira, when referring to the group, comments that there were one thousand individuals that spoke Ia-tê (1942: 171).

It is possible that the figure Carlos Estêvão de Oliveira gave was a bit optimistic since, according to the 1945 and 1948 reports of the 4th Inspetoria Regional (Regional Inspectorship), the village had respectively 823 and 1,263 inhabitants (Pinto, 1956: 26). By 1982, the village had 2,668 residents; the number had increased to 2,788 by 1989, according to the Funai (Povos Indígenas no Brasil 1991/1996, ISA, 1996).

Historical information

In the Captaincy of Pernambuco there lived many indigenous groups that spoke the Tupi language. The Indians that were not Tupi-speakers were known as Tapuios or Tupuyaa. During colonial times, the Indians who lived on the coast were pushed to the interior. Thus the peopling of the São Francisco River valley, for example, was mostly due to the Indians who settled there after the arrival of the Portuguese and to the catechist work missionaries carried out with them.

Also important for the formation of a new demographic distribution in the region was the dispute, in the mid-17th Century, between the Portuguese and the Dutch for Northeastern Brazil. After the Dutch were expelled from Pernambuco, Portugal decided to reorganize the way it administered the local indigenous population. It is possible that, because of such administrative reorganization, the Portuguese Crown decided to put the Indians in villages in order to better control them. That would be the explanation for the insistence of the Portuguese authorities to give the Indians “a square league of land” where at least 100 Indian couples were to settle. We suppose that it was approximately at that time that the Fulni-ô were put in villages.

The Ouricuri ritual

The arrangements for the transference of the Indians to the village in the municipality of Ouricuri, begin in the last weeks of August. Every Fulni-ô who has a job away from Águas Belas, such as public officers, teachers and policemen, asks for a leave during the ritual’s first week in order to attend it; those who can remain in the village in Ouricuri throughout the ritual.

The Fulni-ô have, as a rule, not to speak about the ritual. The older Fulni-ô claim that those who violated that norm had strange deaths. There is no doubt that this is a warning against the breaking of the secret.

Yet some of what takes place in the village in Ouricuri is known by outsiders. For instance, there are areas in which women are not allowed, although they know what activities are carried out there. At night, men and women must sleep separately – the women in the houses and the men in the sheds. Sexual intercourse is prohibited in the village in Ouricuri during the ritual months. And although there is not an absolute sexual abstinence, the sacred place is respected and encounters take place outside the village. Music – even whistling – and consumption of alcohol are not allowed either. When a Fulni-ô drinks alcohol in the city or in the village of the Indigenous Post, he/she cannot go to the village in Ouricuri. For that reason they avoid drinking spirits. According to the older Fulni-ô, in the ritual the Indians pray for the well being of everyone, because, they assure, their religion is very similar to Catholicism.

In the Ouricuri ritual, the Ia-tê plays a crucial role, since it is the language preferably spoken in the fourteen weeks that the ritual lasts. It is then that the younger members are socialized by learning a symbolic code that is different from that used by the surrounding society.

One of the main events in the ritual is the election of their authorities, that is, the pajé (shaman), the cacique (chief) and the liderança (leadership). In the Ouricuri ritual, both the cacique and the pajé are central figures. We do not know what their prerogatives are, nor the limits of their authority. When we asked which one of them had more authority outside the ritual, the answers we obtained were contradictory – some said it was the cacique, some said it was the pajé. But there seems to be a consensus that, when it comes to a topic that involves the group as a whole, both must act by common consent.

In the past the ritual village was built with huts made of leaves from the ouricuri (uricury syagrus) palm tree. Each year, as the date of the opening of the ritual approached, the Fulni-ô built their huts, which were dismantled in the end. Nowadays the houses are permanent, although they are built with materials of quality inferior to those of the village in the Indigenous Post. Sanitary conditions are also more precarious. Until 1981, the Fulni-ô used, during the ritual, the water collected in the rainy season in two cisterns; frequently the water was used up before the end of the ritual, so the Indians had to get it in the city or fetch it from streams on the hills, 6 or 7 kilometers away, bringing it back to the village in mule-drawn carts. The scarcity of water caused sanitary conditions to worsen, and the number of deaths caused by intestinal infections was alarming. In 1982 the Fulni-ô managed to get from the company that brings water to Águas Belas, Compesa, an extension to the village in Ouricuri; in exchange, they allowed it to tap water from one of the watercourses that cross their lands for the city.

Inter-ethnic marriages

Among the Fulni-ô, interethnic unions are proportionally important in terms of sheer numbers. Based on data found in the Indigenous Post, between 1940 and 1970 there were 173 of these unions in the village.

One of the mandatory pre-requisites for someone to participate in the Ouricuri ritual is to have at least one Fulni-ô parent. In addition, there is another requirement: to have attended the ritual since early age. Those who do not lose the right to participate in it later and thus is no longer considered a Fulni-ô. Therefore all the offspring of interethnic marriages who take part in the ritual identify themselves as Fulni-ô and are recognized as such (in most cases) by the “whites” or “civilized”.

In what regards to the offspring of interethnic unions who do not attend the ritual, we can say that some of them identify themselves as Indians and demand to be considered as such, which the Fulni-ô do not agree with. In general, even the offspring of interethnic unions who do not attend the ritual maintain close relations with the Fulni-ô, and live in the Indigenous Lands or often in the village of the Indigenous Post proper. But the offspring of interethnic unions face problems because, as one older Fulni-ô put it, they are “between two nations”: on the one hand, the Indians discriminate them by calling them grogojó (a variety of gourd); on the other, the “civilized” deny them the status of Indians while at the same time to not accept them entirely as part of the “white” community.

But although neither society fully accepts interethnic marriages, they continue to take place. In any case, when a young man wishes to marry a “civilized” woman, the older Fulni-ô try to dissuade him. The “civilized” do not have much sympathy for that type of union either.

Remnants and descendants

The Fulni-ô have two social categories to classify their descendants who are not considered part of the group. One, called remanescentes (remnants), is formed by those who live in the Indigenous Land and who, because they own lots in it, are recognized by the Funai as Indians. The other is comprised of the offspring of interethnic unions who do not take part in the Ouricuri ritual.

In the Indigenous Land lived, in 1982, approximately seventy families that owned lots in it the Funai considered Indian, but were not considered so by the Fulni-ô. The origin of this group is somewhat uncertain. Most probably they are descendants of interethnic unions who do not attend the Ouricuri ritual.

The Fulni-ô justify the exclusion of the remanescentes from their group by arguing that they are not Indian, since they do not take part in the Ouricuri ritual, do not speak Ia-tê and do not live in the village. Most of these remanescentes do not identify themselves as Indian either, although they do recognize that they come from Indian parents. The only tie that seems to exist nowadays between the Fulni-ô and the remanescentes is property over land – and it is in order to ensure it that the remnants claim their indigenous identity, which reinforces their claim over the properties they possess.

As for the second category, it is divided in two groups. One is made up of those who identify themselves as – and demand to be called – Indians; the Fulni-ô society does not reject them but does not accept them in the ritual either. In the other are those who have been entirely socialized as “whites” and are completely integrated in the regional society; these the Fulni-ô call descendentes (descendants), when they know their origin.

The struggle for the land

Since it was founded, two hundred years ago, the present settlement of the Fulni-ô has been linked to the history of the town of Águas Belas and its non-Indian inhabitants.

According to tradition, it was a white man, João Rodrigues Cardoso, who first settled in the area and gave origin to the village of Ipanema, which later would become the town of Águas Belas. Mario Melo (1929) says that this man, with the help of the Fulni-ô, erected the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Our Lady of Conception), also obtaining from the government the appointment of his friend Lourenço Bezerra Cavalcanti for director of the aldeados, a post created in 1757.

The 1850 Imperial Land Law (Lei Imperial de Terras) gave to the Provinces the possession over extinct Indian aldeamentos. As a result, the Provinces of Northeastern Brazil were in a hurry to declare extinct the Indians who lived in their aldeamentos. It was for this reason that, on May 4, 1875 the president of the Province of Pernambuco considered extinct several aldeamentos, among them Ipanema or Águas Belas.

With the official extinction of the aldeamentos, the “civilized”, anxious to expand their properties, invested against the Fulni-ô, pushing them into the caatinga (the semi-arid interior of Northeastern Brazil) and taking their cultivated lands, thus illegally taking possession of lands that rightfully belonged to the Indians.

Yet it is possible that the Fulni-ô were actually luckier than other indigenous groups, because the Provincial government, in the face of the seizure of their lands by “civilized” settlers, came to their rescue and determined the demarcation of the lands that had been previously given to the Fulni-ô. Thus in that same year of 1875 the area was demarcated and given to the Fulni-ô (Cerqueira Vianna, 1966; Pinto, 1956; Melo, 1929). This demarcation respected the donation previously made to the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, whose surface was 759,664 square meters (Pinto. 1956:14).

This intervention of the provincial government on behalf of the Indians, although useful in slowing down the advance of the “civilized” population, did not stop it altogether, and a few years later the Indians were once again pressed to depart from lands that rightfully belonged to them. Thus in 1886 the local Câmara de Vereadores (City Council) considered the demarcation irregular and asked the government to legalize the lands occupied by posseiros (illegal “white” occupants).

So in the 20th Century the Fulni-ô continued their old struggle for land. In 1904, with the change in the government, the “civilized”, encouraged by the new laws established by the Republican regime, were looking for new ways (or, more precisely, new legal ways) to seize Indian property. In 1908, the village lands were leased to a certain Nicolau Cavalcanti de Siqueira for a 6-year period, in the end of which they were to revert back to public control (Vasconcelos 1962:36; Pinto, 1956:16).

However, when the contract end, the mayor of Águas Belas at the time, Cezar Montezuma de Oliveira, invited all those who lived on the lands to request their respective lease. But because this did not happen the lands were given back to the Fulni-ô.

In 1928 the area was subdivided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce, to which the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios – National Service for the Indians, then the official federal organ for Indian policy – (SPI) into 400 lots of 550x550 meters (30.25 hectares), plus 27 smaller lots with irregular perimeters. On May 14, 1929 the Fulni-ô were given temporary individual titles to the lands they owned. But although at that time each Fulni-ô family received a lot, today some of them are landless.

Leasing of the land

From then on the Fulni-ô began to lease their lands to non-Indian residents of the municipality of Águas Belas. Many of the “civilized” people who were cultivating these lands irregularly began to pay an annual sum to the Indians who owned the lots, through a contract signed in the SPI Post; since that time many “civilized” people plant in lands that belong to the Indians.

In 1982, the Post’s records indicated that, of the 427 lots in which the Indigenous Land is divided, 275 were leased out, most of which to very poor people.

Another type of leasing is what is called chão de casa (house’s floor). Due to the peculiar situation of the municipality of Águas Belas, the solution found by the homeless “white” families since the 1950s was to build houses inside the Indigenous Land. In order for a “white” person to do so, he or she needs the permission of the owner and of the head of the Indigenous Post. In 1980, there were 485such houses, built on 11 lots. A 1986 report mentions 800 houses in that condition (Povos Indígenas no Brasil 1985-1986, CEDI, 1986).


Nowadays the majority of the Fulni-ô plant their roças (planting fields), usually 2 or 3 hectares, using only their family workforce. In general they sell part of their production. They produce fodder and cotton for sale, whereas beans, maize and cassava are planted both for commercial purposes and for family consumption. The one commercial activity in which women are involved is the manufacturing of crafts made of palm leaves. It is the men who are in charge of finding, cutting and transporting the palm leaves from the hills to the village. When the family lacks men, the women must perform this extenuating task.

Items most commonly produced are purses, mats, brushes, hats and fans. Other articles, such as sandals, must be ordered in advance. Some of those products are decorated with dyed fibers; the older Fulni-ô say that their ancestors used to use dyes they themselves prepared.

These objects are manufactured preferably between September and December, when the work in the roças is coming to an end. In that time of the year it is also easier both to get the palm leaves and to manufacture the items, because it is the dry season and the leaves dry quickly; in addition, in the rainy season the Fulni-ô must also tend their fields. The months with most production coincide with the Ouricuri ritual; it is also at that time that the demand for these products is highest, although it must be said that they are manufactured throughout the year.

The Fulni-ô in the white world

The Fulni-ô participate in a number of activities outside their village, some of them as students, some as workers. In 1982, for instance, 80 of them attended school in the city of Águas Belas. Many others worked outside the Indigenous Land, some of them even as part of the Funai staff in other Indigenous Posts. Some were teachers in Águas Belas; others were construction workers in different cities in the States of Pernambuco, Alagoas, Bahia and São Paulo, as well as in the Federal District.

The Indians also participate actively in the municipality’s political life; and also in a very significant way, since, under certain conditions, they may decide an election in favor of a candidate, because proportionally the number of Indian voters is high. In 1982, the Fulni-ô had enough votes to elect two councilpersons in Águas Belas, so if they so desired they could be represented in the City Council. However, in the 1982 elections this did not happen, because the votes of the Indians were divided. From what was observed then, the political behavior of the Fulni-ô was heterogeneous: some voted taking into account the parties’ programs; others, their personal ties with certain candidates; and others still in accordance to their clientelist relations with regional political leaders.

Last but not least, it is interesting to mention the opinions the Fulni-ô expressed to Jorge Hernández regarding the books written about them, in particular about the themes referring to the Ouricuri ritual and to their clan organization, dealt with in Estêvão Pinto’s work. Since those are themes the Fulni-ô zealously guard to themselves, an older Indian said that the book was not based on a good recompilation of the information and that its content was an interpretation of them made by the author: "It was the ‘civilized’ who wrote this, according to their understanding. It wasn’t us, nor our Indian chiefs, it wasn’t the Indians who wrote it. It was the ‘civilized’, who studied it and interpreted it." It is hoped that soon the Fulni-ô themselves will write and interpret their history for us.

Notes on the sources

Mario Melo’s publication of the results of his in investigation in 1929 was the first historical and ethnographic information about the Fulni-ô ever published. Other sources with information of that nature are the texts written by Max Boudin and Estêvão Pinto, responsible for most of the ethnographic information available on the Fulni-ô, especially in what refers to their clan organization and the Ouricuri ritual. The information was gathered among the Fulni-ô in the 1940s, when the ritual was beginning to be hidden by a wall of secrecy.

Data on the founding of the city of Águas Belas can be found in the works of Mario Melo, Estêvão Pinto, and in a book written by Sanelva de Vasconcelos specifically about that.

For the structure of the Ia-tê, the language spoken by the Fulni-ô, Geraldo Lapenda’s book should be consulted. Another text with some information on this topic is Lemos Barbosa’s.

Regarding living conditions in the Fulni-ô village in the 1960s, there is a report by Mabel Cerqueira Vianna.

The Master’s thesis by Jorge Hernández Díaz, of 1983, and Miguel Vicente Foti, of 1991, both presented at the Universidade de Brasília, have information about the new conditions in which the Ouricuri ritual is performed. With regards to land leases, one may check Hernández Díaz’s thesis as well as Sidnei Clemente Peres’s, who presented it at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)’s Museu Nacional (National Museum) in 1992. There are also more recent reports by Ivson José Ferreira.

Sources of information

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  • BOUDIN, Max Henry.  Aspectos da vida tribal dos índios Fulniô.  Cultura, Rio de Janeiro : Ministério de Educação e Saúde, v. 1, n. 3, 1949.


  • CONDEPE.  Os Fulni-Ô.  In: --------.  As comunidades indígenas de Pernambuco.  Recife : PER-Condepe, 1981.  p.71-81.


  • COSTA, Januacele da.  Bilingüismo e atitudes lingüísticas interétnicas : aspectos do contato português-ya:the.  Recife : UFPE, 1993.  (Dissertação de Mestrado)

.  Ya:the, a última língua nativa no Nordeste do Brasil : aspectos morfo-fonológicos e morfo-sintáticos.  Recife : UFPE, 1999.  (Tese de Doutorado)

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  • COUTINHO JÚNIOR, Walter; MELO, Juliana Gonçalves.  Reflexões sobre a questão fundiária Fulni-Ô.  In: ESPIRITO SANTO, Marco Antonio do (Org.).  Política indigenista : Leste e Nordeste brasileiros.  Brasília : Funai, 2000.  p. 55-64.


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  • FOTI, Miguel Vicente.  Uma etnografia para um caso de resistência : o ético e o étnico.  In: ESPIRITO SANTO, Marco Antonio do (Org.).  Política indigenista : Leste e Nordeste brasileiros.  Brasília : Funai, 2000.  p. 73-8.

.  Resistência e segredo : relato de uma experiência de antropólogo com os Fulniô.  Brasília : UnB, 1991.  126 p.  (Dissertação de Mestrado)

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.  Os Fulniô : relações interétnicas e de classe em Águas Belas.  Brasília : UnB, 1983.  311 p.  (Dissertação de Mestrado)

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  • MELO, Mário.  Os Carnijós de Águas Belas.  Rev. do Museu Paulista, São Paulo : Museu Paulista, v. 16, 57 p., 1929.

.  Etnografia pernambucana : os Xucurús de Ararobá.  Rev. do Instituto Arqueológico e Geográfico Pernambucano, Recife : IAIHIGIP, v. 33, n. 155/158, 1933.

.  Síntese cronológica de Pernambuco.  Rev. do Instituto Arqueológico e Geográfico Pernambucano, Recife : IAHGP, s.n., 1943.

  • OLIVEIRA, Carlos Estevão de.  O ossuário da "Gruta-do-Padre" em Itapirica e algumas notícias sobre remanescentes indígenas do Nordeste.  Boletim do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro : Ministério da Educação e Saúde, v. 14/17, 1942.


  • PERES, Sidnei Clemente.  O arrendamento como uma forma de mediação de conflitos agrários : o SPI e os Fulniô de Águas Belas.  In: ESPIRITO SANTO, Marco Antonio do (Org.).  Politica indigenista : Leste e Nordeste brasileiros.  Brasília : Funai, 2000.  p. 65-72.

.  Arrendamento em terras indígenas : análise de alguns modelos de ação indigenista no Nordeste (1910-1960).  Rio de Janeiro : UFRJ, 1992.  269 p.  (Dissertação de Mestrado)

  • PINTO, Estevão.  Etnologia brasileira : Fulniô os últimos Tapuias.  São Paulo : Companhia Editora Nacional, 1956.

.  Os indígenas do Nordeste.  São Paulo : Companhia Editora Nacional, 1935.

  • SOBRINHO, Pompeu.  Índios Fulniôs.  Rev. do Instituto do Ceará. Fortaleza : Instituto do Ceará, v. 49, 1935.


  • VASCONCELOS, Sanelva de.  Os Cardosos de Águas Belas : estudo histórico, geográfico, sociológico e estatístico das Águas Belas e genealógico de seu fundador.  Recife : Arquivo Público Estadual, 1962.


  • VIANNA, Mabel de Cerqueira.  Aspectos sócio-econômicos e sanitários dos Fulni-Ô de Águas Belas - Pernambuco.  Recife : Sudene, 1966. 50 p.


  • Os Fulni-Ô.  Dir.: Cláudia Menezes. Vídeo cor, Hi-8/VHS, 45 min., 1993. Prod.: Cepaveh.


  • Aos guerreiros do silêncio.  Dir.: César Paes. Vídeo Cor, Betacam, 54 min., 1992. Prod.: Laterit Producions.