From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: autor desconhecido, 1971

Gavião Pykopjê

Where they are How many
MA 769 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
Linguistic family
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Our natural resources have become scarce and the pressure on our area is very great. More and more young people migrate to the city to earn small amounts of money and return with a lot of bad habits and disrespect for our customs and way of life. But we are trying to keep our culture very much alive; we still perform some of our festivals and continue to speak our own language, pierce our ears, and marry in the traditional way. We’ve already been through difficult times in the past, our people almost came to an end, but now we are growing again and our main concern is how to keep our people united without having to disperse to live in the city or in other villages. For us, our union is reinforced and lived through our festivals: this is when children and young people can learn who is who in the village and how to treat each person, what our songs are like and the way they speak of nature. But we’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to hold the large festivals involving the entire community." (Joel Martins, Pykopjê)

Name and population

When referring to their own group, the Pykopjê use the tern Pykopcatejê. The other Timbira peoples also call them Pykopjê. The Krikati, their neighbours, refer to them as Iromcatejê, meaning ‘people of the forest,’ highlighting the environment dominated by the Gaviões – the term by which they are known to the regional population and denominated by Funai.

Currently, the Pykopjê are distributed in three villages – Governador, Rubiácea and Riachinho – and have a total population of 473 individuals.

Information collected by the ethnographer Curt Nimuendaju suggest a drastic depopulation between the mid 19th century – when there are references to a “Pykopjê army with 1,600 men” – and the period when he visited them in 1929 and found just 270 people. The Pykopjê population would continue to decline sharply until the 1960s, presenting a slight upward trend from the 1970s onwards, which may be ascribed to improvements in healthcare after the installation of the FUNAI post in the area.

1929: 270 people and 2 villages (São Félix and Governador) – data from Nimuendaju (1946)

1963: 145 people and 3 villages (São Félix, Governador and Riachinho) – data from Lave (1967)

1969: 198 people and 3 villages (Governador, Rubiácea and Riachinho) – data from Cotrim (Cited in Montagner 1980)

1986: 263 people and 1 village (Governador) - data from Barata (1988)

1996: 458 people and 3 villages (Governador, Riachinho and Rubiácea) – data from Ladeira (CTI)

2004: 473 people and 3 villages (Governador, Riachinho and Rubiácea) – data from Funasa

2005: 577 people and 3 villages (Governador, Riachinho and Rubiácea) – data from Jonas Polino Gavião (personal communication)  


The Pykopjê inhabit the south-western part of Maranhão state in the microregion of Imperatriz, which forms part of a transitional zone between the Amazonian forest and cerrado (tropical savannah) formations. More precisely, they are located in a small strip of land about 41,644 hectares in size in the municipality of Amarante, just 10km from the urban centre of the municipality. This area comprises the Governador Indigenous Territory (IT), ratified in 1982 (Dec. 88001/82), which also contains three villages belonging to the Guajajara Indians.

In 2003 and 2004, the leaders from the three Pykopjê villages visited Brasilia to demand revision of the IT’s limits. FUNAI promised to set up a workgroup for the preliminary studies for extension of the ar  

Contact history

The history of contact between the Pykopjê Indians and whites, like the history of the region in general, can be split into two periods that are essential to understanding both their current situation and the relations established with national society. The first period began towards the end of the 18th century and ran until the mid 20th century, when the territory inhabited for centuries by the Timbira groups started to be invaded by two expansion fronts: cattle ranching and agriculture. However the first of these fronts was the one directly responsible for the arrival of Brazilians in the region.

Although the impact caused by the confrontation between Indians and cattle breeders included the same kind of violence found in other recently penetrated areas, it was subsequently ‘attenuated’ – when compared to the agricultural and (especially) extractivist fronts – by the fact that ranching did not need to use indigenous labour in its production activities. It essentially comprised a fight for possession of the land.

The Pykopjê appear in the literature as one of the most warlike of the Timbira groups, inflicting the largest number of losses on the exploring parties and hindering occupation of the region by cattle ranchers. However, after many clashes, the Pykopjê were finally dominated around 1850.

According to Nimuendaju, the Gavião of Pará (or Paracatejê) were part of the Pykopjê group (or the Eastern Gaviões) and became an autonomous group after this moment of ‘peace’ with the ‘civilized people,’ when a faction opposed to this peace accord relocated to the area of forest where they are found today.

After this lengthy phase of ‘pacification’ wars, the region was definitively occupied in 1852 with the foundation of the town of Imperatriz. After the initial impacts provoked by the penetration of cattle ranching, the region went through a long period of relative stagnation, its population remaining low with the new non-indigenous occupants mostly practicing subsistence farming. This situation allowed the Pykopjê, after so many wars, to live in a degree of tranquillity, providing time for them to reorganize as a group and create defence mechanisms adapted to the new reality.

The arrival of the ‘Paulistas’ in the mid 20th century

However, in the 1950s, during the Juscelino Kubitschek government, the region underwent profound changes with the proposal to build the Belém-Brasília highway. The arrival of the ‘Paulistas’ – farmers coming from the south of Bahia, Minas Gerais and São Paulo – prompted a sudden rise in land values and marked the beginning of the second phase in the history of relations between the Pykopjê and national society.

The southern farmers immediately looked to settle in the best quality lands, strategic points with easy access to the Belém-Brasilia axis. This process resulted in the expropriation of many smallholder farmers who, under pressure, were forced to sell their lands and resettle in more distant areas. The net result was a rush to occupy the lands inhabited by the region’s indigenous populations: the Pykopjê and Krikati. For their part, the ‘Paulistas’ who arrived in the 1960s and 70s – no longer finding ‘available’ lands and facing the extremely high value of the areas most in demand – also turned to the forest regions, expelling the smallholders located in indigenous areas. This simply worsened the situation of tension and led to various clashes between the indigenous and regional populations.

In 1976 a ‘Paulista’ farmer attacked one of the Pykopjê villages, Rubiácea, setting fire to all the houses and forcing their inhabitants to abandon the village in fear and flee to the Governador village. After this episode, FUNAI initiated the administrative procedures to demarcate their lands (Barata 1993), whose borders were established by the agency in 1977 and finally ratified in 1982. But the size of the territory, less than 42,000 ha, has proven insufficient to meet the physical and cultural reproduction of their inhabitants, meaning that an amplification of the territory is now being demanded from FUNAI.

Three Pykopjê villages existed until the 1950s when they were struck down by a severe flu epidemic. Many Indians died during this period and the survivors went to find any others who remained in order to live together in a single village, Governador. After a while, this village began to grow quickly and in 1990 the population divided again. This led to the emergence of the three current villages: Riachinho, Governador and Rubiácea.

The three Guajajara villages inside the IT – Borges, Favêra and Barriguda – were established after the Guajajara groups in question asked the Pykopjê for permission to occupy a small part of the area, since they had nowhere to go and had no wish to move to the city. The Pykopjê allowed them to settle there.

Way of life

For the Pykopjê, as for the other Timbira peoples, time is seen as a sequence of summer (amcró) and winter (ta’ti), or more precisely, the dry season (roughly lasting from April to September) and the rainy season (roughly October to March). These two seasons regulate the two ceremonial periods of social life and the set of productive activities. The rites linked to the annual cycle and those connected to initiation are always held during the same part of the year. Most of the former rites take place in the rainy season, while the dry season is reserved for one of the initiation rites.

The Pykopjê festivals (amji kin, literally: ‘become joyful’) are linked to the annual cycle (festivals for maize, sweet potato and the change in season), the initiation of young people, the regulation of kinship and interpersonal relations (such as the festivals for fish, tayra and masks), the attribution of vyty status (the ritual association of a boy or girl with individuals of the opposite sex in the village) or the festivals and small ceremonies linked to the individual’s life cycle (such as the end of the couple's period of reclusion after the birth of a child and the rites for reintroducing someone who has spent a long time separate from village life due to illness or mourning). In the latter two cases (vyty and the life cycle), the responsibility for providing the village with food and goods belongs to the person’s house of origin.

These festivals demand a lavish distribution of food, and today some festivals pass through a ‘latent’ period lasting various months while the sponsoring village produces or acquires the food and other items needed for its conclusion. As well as food, beads and cloth are required to give to the participants from other villages.

Each festival is identified by the name of a specific log race and by specific songs. This implies that without a ‘singer’ (incrercatê) who knows the songs, the ritual in question cannot be performed. The villages without the necessary singer resolve this problem by ‘hiring’ a singer from another Pykopjê village or from the village of another Timbira group.

The festivals therefore highlight the solidarity needed for co-existence in the villages and form periods when rules of behaviour are emphasized. As well as providing moments of pleasure and informality – young men have the chance to meet women from outside, while married men and women are permitted to have extramarital sexual relations – the amjkin are essential to the actualization of the sociocultural structure and to the balance of internal relations.

The ‘festivals’ therefore fill the annual calendar of the villages almost entirely: during any period of the year, a village is always preparing for a festival, performing another or waiting for the conditions to finish yet another.

Sources of information

  • ARAÚJO LEITÃO, Ana Valéria Nascimento (Org.).  A defesa dos direitos indígenas no judiciário : ações propostas pelo Núcleo de Direitos Indígenas.  São Paulo : Instituto Socioambiental, 1995.  544 p.


  • BARATA, Maria Helena.  A antropóloga entre facções políticas indigenistas : um drama do contato interétnico.  Belém : MPEG, 1993.  140 p.  (Coleção Eduardo Galvão)


  • --------.  Os Pukobie e os Kupen : análise de um drama.  Brasília : UnB, 1981.  177 p.  (Dissertação de Mestrado)


  • --------.  Tupi-Guarani e Jê Timbira : articulações étnicas em processo.  Brasília : UnB, 1999.  (Tese de Doutorado).


  • LADEIRA, Maria Elisa; AZANHA, Gilberto.  Os "Timbira atuais" e a disputa territorial.  In: RICARDO, Carlos Alberto (Ed.).  Povos Indígenas no Brasil : 1991/1995.  São Paulo : Instituto Socioambiental, 1996.  p. 637-41.


  • NEWTON, Dolores.  Social and historical dimensions of Timbira material culture.  Cambridge : Harvard University, 1971.  342 p.  (Tese de Doutorado)