From Povos Indígenas no Brasil
Photo: Priscila Faulhaber Barbosa, 1985


Self-denomination Where they are How many Linguistic family
875 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
3.500 (Benedito Maciel, 1994)

The Kambeba – also known as the Omágua, principally in Peru – are one of those groups that in Brazilian Amazonia ceased to identify themselves as indigenous due to the violence and discrimination perpetrated by non-indigenous people in the region since the mid 18th century. It was the growth of the indigenous movement from the 1980s onwards, and in particular the clear recognition of indigenous rights by the 1988 Constitution and the multiplication of indigenous organizations, that encouraged the Kambeba to begin to reaffirm themselves as Indians and fight for indigenous causes. Since then they have assumed a prominent position in the region due to their considerable capacity for political negotiation and liaison with other indigenous groups, government agencies and both religious and secular non-governmental organizations from the surrounding national society.

Location and population

In Peru, the Omágua inhabit lands close to the capital, Lima, and on the outskirts of the city. In 1994, this population numbered around 3,500 people according to a Kambeba leader who visited the country at this time.

Today the Kambeba in Brazil are located in five villages: four in the middle and upper Solimões region (upper Amazon) and one on the lower Rio Negro at the mouth of the Cuieiras river. A few families also live in the city of Manaus and a number of others on the upper Solimões on Ticuna lands.

Kambeba sources confirm the existence of 223 families on the upper Solimões (Amazonas state), which would increase the Kambeba population in Brazil to approximately 1,500 people.

The area that became the Jaquiri Indigenous Territory (IT) was first visited by Funai (the National Indian Foundation) in 1974. In 1982, the area was identified but was only ratified and registered in 1991 with an area of 1,820 ha. The IT is located in the municipality of Maraã, close to the towns of Alvarães and Tefé. Data collected between 1999 and 2002 by the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI)/Tefé indicated that 62 Kambeba were living in the Jaquiri village.

The Igarapé Grande IT was first identified in 1983 with an area of 400 ha. In 1994 a new WG (Working Group) was set up to identify the area (Funai Directive No. 745 of 18/08/94). In 1999, another WG was created (Directive No. 134 of 11/03/99) to undertake another identification. Around 38 Kambeba inhabited this area between 1999 and 2002. The area was ratified on 20/04/2004 with 1,539 ha.

The Barreira da Missão IT was ratified in 1993 with an area of 1,772 ha and is located in the municipality of Tefé, about half an hour’s river journey from the town of Tefé. The village inhabited by the Kambeba, known as Betel or Barreira do Meio, had a population of around 126 people between 1999 and 2002. The IT also contains two other villages where mostly Ticuna and Kokama families live.

The Kambeba also live in the Cajuhiri Atravessado IT, located in the municipality of Coari, which was identified and approved by Funai in 2001 with 12,500 hectares. However the process of recognizing this land is currently paralyzed due to contestations by non-indigenous residents. This land is occupied by 20 Kambeba, 20 Miranha and nine Ticuna.

The Nossa Senhora da Saúde village, whose process of official recognition as an IT has yet to be initiated, is located on the right shore of the Cuieiras river, close to where it flows into the left shore of the Rio Negro, in the municipality of Manaus, five hours by boat from the city’s administrative centre. In 1997, the village was inhabited by 27 individuals. The Kambeba from this village, along with the Baré from three other of the region’s villages, are discussing the demarcation of a continuous territory from the lower course of the Cuieiras river to the Terra Preta community on the left shore of the Rio Negro.

However, if we take into account the most recent figures from 2002, referring to the villages of the middle Solimões, the census conducted in 1999 on the Cuieiras river, referring to Nossa Senhora da Saúde village, the figures from 1996 on the Kambeba living in Manaus and the data from the upper Solimões provided by OCAS (Cambeba Association of the Upper Solimões), we can estimate the total population of these Indians in Brazilian territory at around 1,500 people. The Kambeba of the upper Solimões were incorporated with the Ticuna when the Ticuna indigenous lands were demarcated, but today they are campaigning for ethnic recognition via OCAS with support from the Kambeba of the middle Solimões.

The Tefé Prelacy Bulletins from 1979 and 1980 make no mention of the Kambeba in the demographic census of the Indians in the Prelacy. Although the Kambeba of Jaquiri had already taken part in the Encounters and Meetings held by the Prelacy and CIMI, no census of these Indians had been conducted at this time. This only happened in 1984.

The census data shows that over the last 20 years the Kambeba population increased more than six-fold, rising from 54 in 1982 to 325 in 2002. The dips in the figures presented in the table are related to the deficiencies of the censuses and not to a reduction of the indigenous population over the period. From the 1990s onwards with the strengthening of Uni-Tefé (Union of the Indigenous Nations of Tefé) and primarily with the process of outsourcing healthcare, which resulted in an agreement between Uni-Tefé and Funasa in which Uni-Tefé took over the day-to-day running of the DSEI (Special Indigenous Health District) of the middle Solimões, the censuses have become more regular and detailed.

Language and school

Though they do not speak the maternal language on a day-to-day basis, as occurs among the members of this ethnic group in Peru, the Kambeba in Brazil still retain a sizeable vocabulary. Belonging to the Tupi-Guarani family, the language is identified by themselves as Cambeba, which some older people and leaders use during formal moments of meetings with whites or in some school classes (see Bonin & Kambeba 1999).

Schooling only became part of the Kambeba world in the 1980s when indigenous teachers and health workers were trained to work in the villages and new leaders were instructed for the emerging indigenous movement. As a result, many young people go to nearby towns after completing the 4th grade in their village schools “in search of more knowledge.” Hence schooling, though structured in the villages within the non-indigenous model, assumed a distinct meaning and importance based on the survival strategies of these Indians. Today many of the Kambeba leaders occupying positions in Uni-Tefé undertook secondary level education outside the village. In 2005, a Kambeba man from Jaquiri began an undergraduate course in Social Sciences at the Federal University of Amazonas.


Figura: Mapa do território Cambeba entre os séculos XVI e XVII.
Figura: Mapa do território Cambeba entre os séculos XVI e XVII.

During the first two centuries of colonization, the Kambeba were distributed in two large groupings: one on the upper Napo – the Omágua-Yetê or true Omágua – in what is now Ecuador (Oberem 1967-8), and the other on the upper Amazon – known as ‘the Island Omágua’ or ‘la Gran Omágua’ – whose territory in the 17th century extended from the present-day municipality of Fonte Boa upriver as far as Peru, covering an area of 700km (Porro 1995:912).

There is no consensus among the chroniclers or even among contemporary authors concerning the size and location of the territory occupied by the Kambeba along the Solimões river between the 16th and 17th centuries. But the fact is that until the 17th century the upper Amazon was almost entirely inhabited by the Kambeba, who were met by travellers with a certain surprised admiration, not only due to various cultural aspects, but also their demographic density and their social and territorial organization.

The first significant reports on these Indians were produced by Gaspar de Carvajal, who left accounts of their culture, diet, housing, settlement patterns and territorial occupation. Political power in Aparia “seemed to be centred on the figure of the ‘great Aparia lord,’ chief of the main settlement; his authority was recognized upriver as far as the western limits of the province...” (Porro 1995:48).

The practice of artificially flattening the skull was highlighted by almost all the chroniclers, with the exception of Carvajal, beginning with Pedro Teixeira’s expedition. In his Relação do Rio das Amazonas (1639) he mentions only the fact that they have flattened heads. However, it was Brother Cristóbal de Acuña, the chronicler of Teixeira’s expedition, who described this feature in more detail on his return to Belém:

“All of them have flat heads, which makes the men ugly-looking, though the women disguise the fact more since their heads are covered with abundant hair. The natives are so accustomed to having their heads flattened that as soon as children are born, there are put in a press where the forehead is compressed with a small board and the skull by a much larger board, which, acting as a cot, supports the entire body of the newborn (...) they end up with the forehead and skull flattened like the palm of the hand (...) looking more like a deformed bishop’s mitre than the head of a person” (1994: 117-8).

Ouvidor Sampaio, in his Diário de Viagem, a diary written during his voyage to the settlements of the Captaincy of São José do Rio Negro (1774-1775), says that the Cambeba told him that “...they used the artifice of shaping their heads to show they did not eat human meat, thereby enabling them to escape enslavement...” (Sampaio 1825: 74). This information is confirmed by reports from the Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira expedition (1783-1792) (see Ferreira 1974:50).

Índio Kambeba: In.: FERREIRA, 1971, vol. I, prancha 117.
Índio Kambeba: In.: FERREIRA, 1971, vol. I, prancha 117.

The practice was probably abandoned during the final decades of the 18th century. In 1787, José Joaquim Freire, a member of the Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira expedition, painted a Kambeba Indian who, according to the author, was one of the few people still remaining with a flattened head (Ferreira 1974:52-3).

The most important documentation on the Kambeba was produced in the 16th, 17th and part of the 18th centuries. Pedro Teixeira’s expedition, which journeyed upriver on the Amazon at the end of 1637 as far as Quito and returned to Belém in 1639, generated an important mass of documents, published in a number of versions. It is also worth highlighting the Diary and Map made by Samuel Fritz, a missionary among the Kambeba between 1686 and 1723.

The Kambeba

The image of the Kambeba as a people with a ‘more developed’ social organization and culture than the majority of the region’s indigenous groups is found repeatedly in the 16th and 17th century chronicles. Acuña (1994:16-7), for example, referring to the “people of the Province of the Waters, commonly called the Omágua,” says that they are people “...with more reason and better government than anywhere else along the river...” but that these qualities had been learnt from part of the group that lived with the Spanish in Peru. Mauricio de Heriarte (1847:53) also emphasizes this aspect when he writes: “...they are governed by Chiefs in the villages; and in the middle of this province, which is expansive, there is a Chief, or their King, whom all obey unconditionally.” This feature can also be observed both among the Aparia described by Carvajal, and in the Notícias Autenticas do famoso rio Marañón by the Jesuit Paolo Moroni. The latter writes:

“...the Omágua take pride in always having possessed, even before becoming Christians, a kind of civility ('politics') and government, with many of them living a sociable life, displaying complete subjection and obedience to their chiefs...” (translated by Porro 1992:173).

It should be borne in mind that terms used by the chroniclers, such as ‘province’ or ‘lord’ or even ‘king,’ are clearly derived from European conceptions of social organization and cannot, therefore, be taken to have the same meaning in the Amazonian context. Even so, these reports indicate the existence of some kind of government at regional level among the Kambeba that impressed the colonizers.

However, the image of the Kambeba presented by Pedro Teixeira, also in 1639, highlights other aspects: “...they are very savage people and though all those living along the river are savage and eat each other, the Kambeba are unsurpassed since they eat nothing other than human meat and use the skulls of those they kill as trophies...” (translated by Porro 1992:123).

Mapa das aldeias e localidades Kambeba – séc. XX.
Mapa das aldeias e localidades Kambeba – séc. XX.

Another cultural aspect that impressed travellers was the fact that the Kambeba used clothing made by themselves. Tis aspect is given considerable emphasis in almost all the chronicles on the groups of the upper Napo and on the Gran-Omágua. Acuña writes that “[...] all of them go about decently dressed, both the men and women, who weave [...] not only the clothes they need but also other items traded with their neighbours.” He also stresses the beauty of the clothing: “[...] they make very beautiful cloth, either woven in different colours or painted so perfectly that it is almost impossible to distinguish between them...” (1994:17). In Heriarte (1874: 53-4) we read: “[...] they usually wear their own kinds of shirts and trousers: the women with shawls and tunics.” Laureano de La Cruz, who visited the Kambeba in 1647, also mentions their clothing, though in a less impressed tone: “The clothing worn by Omágua men comprises armless painted cotton tunics that reach down to the knees [...] while the women wrap themselves in cotton shawls so short and narrow that they cover them very little...” (transcribed by Porro 1992:140).

We can note, therefore, that the image of the Kambeba varies depending on the view of the chroniclers, but that their predominance and their image of being ‘more civilized’ than other peoples derives from the fact that they presented cultural aspects closer to the European world. This meant they were regarded better and even admired, in contrast to other indigenous groups whose social organization was very different to western patterns and cast them as ‘more savage.'

Exploration, depopulation and ‘extinction’

European commercial expansion saw Amazonia as an area for economic exploitation. The colonizers’ objective was to transform the region into a colony for the commercial exploitation and extraction of raw materials and natural products. Although the Portuguese policy initially delayed this process, since the country's priority was on developing military security (Santos 1999), the harvesting of drogas do sertão (wilderness plants) was one of the first activities of commercial exploration in the region, which basically used the indigenous workforce as compulsory labour. Later as the settlements, missions and small towns were founded, indigenous labour became necessary for farming, transporting merchandise, construction work and warfare.

In the mid 18th century many peoples had already completely disappeared, others had fled into the forests and the headwaters of rivers, or had scattered and been absorbed into the population of towns, settlements and the small villages lining the main rivers. The Kambeba comprised one of the latter cases.

La Condamine (1992) visited the upper Amazon in 1743. Staying at San Joaquín dos Omágua, between the Napo and Tigre rivers, he reported the presence of theses Indians among the local population, but noted that in contrast to the powerful nation that had once occupied a 200-league stretch of river below the Napo, they “don’t seem to be original inhabitants of the land.” La Condamine says that of the 30 Omágua villages marked on Fritz’s map, he saw nothing but ‘ruins.’ And he adds that “all the inhabitants, frightened by the incursions of a group of bandits from Pará, who came to enslave them in their own lands, dispersed into the forest and the Spanish and Portuguese missions.” However, La Condamine speaks of ‘some clues’ to the presence of a “nation that bears the same name Omágua” and that “lives close to the source of one of these rivers and uses clothing only found among the Omágua amid the nations that populate the shores of the Amazon, as well as a few remnants of the baptism ceremony and some disfigured traditions.”

Factors such as wars, slave raiding and religious conversion, combined with deaths from epidemics and the disappearance of many of those who fled, meant that within the period of two centuries the Kambeba had been violently dispersed and brought to the brink of extinction. In fact, authors such as Meggers (1987) and Porro (1995) concluded that these Indians had become extinct by the mid 18th century. Porro, examining the particular cultural features of the Omágua and their geographic and historical conditions for his study of the region’s settlement pattern, describes them as “ already extinct tropical rainforest tribe...” Further on he states that “the Omágua comprised, along with the Cocama who still inhabit the basin of the Ucayali, Tupi-guarani groups who relocated to the upper Amazon” (1995:92, author’s italics).

Hence as well as the demographic and territorial losses suffered during the colonial period, the Kambeba experienced brusque social and cultural transformations. The groups that survived this veritable massacre and were reported as late as the 19th century were certainly very different to the Kambeba of the 16th and 17th centuries.

From "Indians" to "caboclos"

The establishment of the Portuguese state along the Solimões river and its principal affluents, founded on the legislation introduced by the Pombal government, intensified the control and exploitation of the indigenous workforce. Because of the scarcity of Indians on the Solimões, the traffic in slaves penetrated the Tefé, Japurá and Juruá rivers. Indigenous enslavement would continue in the region until at least the mid 19th century as one of the most lucrative economic activities for the white colonists (see Maw [1828]1989:196; d’Orbigny 1831, apud Ribeiro 1996:81; Bates [1850-9]1979:201). In this context, for the Kambeba of the first half of the 19th century – reduced to small family groups – continuing to live or survive on the islands and floodplains of the upper Amazon meant denying their ethnic identity and identifying themselves as caboclos – that is, non-Indians – in order to lessen the degree of violence and discrimination.

As a result, news about the Kambeba became increasingly rare and scattered during the 19th century, indicating their demographic collapse, territorial losses and incorporation into missions and towns.

Spix and Martius were in the Tefé region at the end of 1819 and beginning of 1820 and, on visiting São Paulo de Olivença, Spix observed that the ‘Campeva’ – along with the Ticuna, Kulina and Araicu – walked around naked and painted their bodies, but were losing the custom of artificially deforming the cranium (Spix & Martius 1981:197-8). In a footnote, the authors add that in São Paulo de Olivença:

“[...] the Campeva had once formed the majority of its inhabitants; today they are longer distinguishable as an independent tribe and have become tame Indians. Few Campeva families still live in complete freedom in the forests between São Paulo de Olivença and Tabatinga; most inhabit these towns for at least part of the year, after which they return to their swiddens.”

The British naval officer Henry Lister Maw, passing through the Solimões region in 1828, identified the Kambeba at the mouth of the Tigre river on the left shore of the Marañón, in Peruvian territory. In fact the settlement was called San Joaquim dos Omágua, Fritz’s former mission, but it was certainly not inhabited by Kambeba only, since in Fritz’s time other indigenous groups were already living with them. Around 50 couples lived at the settlement, residing in 25 to 30 ‘huts’ with a church. The Indians basically depended on fishing as a livelihood, salting and selling their catch to populations located inland of the rivers. The population also grew beans and maize and lived off manatees, turtles and large birds.

In mid 1847, Paul Marcoy, on his trip across South America, ventured down the Loreto river in Peru as far as Belém in Pará, Brazil. In São Paulo de Olivença he mentions the presence of Kambeba and makes the following comment concerning their interethnic relations with other groups in the region:

“...despite the apparent fusion with the Cocama, Júri, Ticuna and Mayoruna groups, they never marry with the latter three, interacting only with their Cocama allies and their Portuguese bosses (...) time has not erased from these descendents of the Umaua the proud disdain with which their ancestors treated any idea of alliance with river-dwelling tribes. Even today, if a poor Tapuya turtle catcher from São Paulo is asked whether he is Júri, Ticuna or Mayoruna in origin, he will reply proudly: ‘No sir, I am Kambeba...’” (2001:66).

Another interesting aspect of Marcoy’s account is the fact that these Indians were still speaking their traditional language in the mid 19th century, albeit often in clandestine form. He writes: “...they preserved the language of their forefathers, the Umaua of Popayan. But they spoke the language only among themselves, with Tupi being used in public and a confused but intelligible version of Portuguese functioning as their official diplomatic language” (Marcoy 2001:68).

That same year, 1847, the Italian Gaetano Osculati, on his journey through the region, reported the presence of Kambeba (‘Campivas’) in São Paulo de Olivença – along with Araya, Kulina and Ticuna. Travelling downriver from São Paulo de Olivença to Amaturá, he reports that they passed various islands inhabited by ‘a few’ Omágua (1990:148 and 154).

In 1851, Lewis Herndon and Lardner Gibbon, lieutenants from the US navy, journeyed down the Amazon and located the Kambeba in Sarayuca, on the lower Ucayali river, under the name of Omágua (Herndon & Gibbon 1991:283-296). The Omágua of Sarayuca lived with the Pano and Yano, but the three groups spoke their own ‘dialects.’ The population of the Omágua and Pano totalled 232 individuals.

Missionary presence

The Congregation of the Holy Spirit reached Tefé in 1897 and marked a new phase in the church’s presence in the Tefé region. After the Jesuits and the Carmelites, now the Holy Ghost Fathers took over the process of Christianizing the Indians. An initial report written in 1899 describes the situation of the Indians of the Tefé region and at the same time sets out the conception of the mission’s work among the Indians.

“Here the most abandoned live. There are just 7 or 8 priests. Indian tribes, exploited by trade, physical abuse and slavery, withdrew into the depths of the forests. Their houses are set on fire and their wives and daughters captured and subjected to violent treatment and even death. This also explains their bloody forms of revenge.”

The work of these missionaries, especially Father Constant Tastevin – who worked in the Prelacy of Tefé between 1905 and 1937 – led to the ‘Tefé Indians’ returning to the indigenist agenda, principally those of the Jutaí, Juruá and Japurá rivers. The indigenous of the Solimões would only appear in the final three decades of the 20th century, following the adoption of a new approach by the Catholic church among the Indians in Tefé, already influenced by the presence of CIMI and the Indigenous Movement.

As well as denouncing the violence suffered by the Indians and emphasizing the ‘need’ for conversion, the documentation on the Indians produced by the Holy Ghost Fathers up to the 1970s also provides a forceful account of cultural aspects, such as language and mythology. In the documents produced by CIMI, however, the denunciations of violence are maintained, but emphasis is placed on aspects of political organization (assemblies, encounters, etc.) and the fight for land. In this new documentation by CIMI, the Indians appear at the forefront of various initiatives and the resistance to commonplace forms of exploitation and violence. However, there is little information on language, myths, rites and so on, and an almost complete absence of information on the process of conversion or Christian life in the villages, especially on the middle Solimões.

An itinerary of memories

Kambeba accounts collected at the end of the 20th century by Maciel (2003) indicate that the origin of the group living today in Brazilian territory is a region of Peru, close to Lima. André Cruz, the Kambeba general coordinator of Uni-Tefé, who visited Peru in 1994, cites the existence of at least one village in Lima inhabited by around 3,500 people speaking the Kambeba language.

The accounts cite two names for this 'place of origin' of the Kambeba: Magua and Jurimágua.

“My name is Valdomiro Cruz, I’m 79 years old, Kambeba, and I speak the language. My father was called Manoel Anaquiri Coelho and he taught me a great deal. He told me how the Kambeba came from their land guided by my grandfather Pedro Marinho. They came from there in Mágua” (Maciel 2003:91).

In his testimony, Valdomiro Cruz’s son, André Cruz, also mentions this region of Peru but associates it with the name Jurimágua, which in the colonial literature refers to another indigenous group that inhabited Amazonia until the 18th century, slightly downriver of the Kambeba territory. André stated that his kinspeople from Peru “ on the Tacana river, it’s not a lake or a river, it’s a kind of large inlet” and added: “...that’s the place my grandparents left when they travelled to Tacana Island.” According to André’s description, Tacana Island is located between Tabatinga and Benjamim Constant. André says that there they constructed a large earthwork around 600 metres in size to build houses, because “it flooded every year.”

In André’s version, they relocated from Tacana Island to Capote Island. “I was nine years old at the time, I can remember arriving there clearly...” Later, they moved to the Alti-Paranã and afterwards the Jaquiri. According to Valdomiro Cruz (Bonin 1999:13-17), they migrated from Mágua to Mapanã, where they constructed an earthwork. From there they relocated to the Copeçu at the time of the Paraguayan War (1865-1870). Soon after the war they moved to the Capote where they lived for many years. “I lived on the Capote almost all my life, then when I married and my brothers also married, we left the Capote. We went to the Alti-Paranã...” Valdomiro is married to Assunciona, who was born and raised on the Furado river, Alti-Paraná. The Kambeba relocated from the Alti-Paraná to Fonte Boa, where they stayed for just one year before leaving for the Jaquiri. Valdomiro remembers that:

“Up until then we didn’t say to anyone that we were Kambeba, afraid of what the whites might do with us, right? We could still remember the time when Indians were hunted like animals and we didn’t want to see our children suffer the same ordeal. But then there was that Indigenous Assembly in the Miratu village, in ‘82, wasn’t it? From that date on we started to say again: we are Kambeba.” (Bonin 1999:17).

The Kambeba state that they moved to Jaquiri in 1971. Because of an epidemic and the shortage of good and wood for commercial extraction – their main work at the time – the group relocated downriver on the Solimões to two different sites. Some families travelled in a small boat and eleven canoes to the place called Jaquiri, then in the municipality of Tefé, today belonging to Maraã, on the middle Solimões, where they founded a village of the same name. In 1982, this group founded another village on the Igarapé Grande river, in the municipality of Alvarães. Another group of families journeyed as far as the city of Manaus.

Some years later another group that lived scattered along rivers and inlets in Fonte Boa migrated to a place called Missão, 40 minutes from the city of Tefé by water, where, along with Ticuna and Kocama, they founded a village known today as Barreira da Missão.

In 1991, another group of families from the Igarapé Grande village migrated to Manaus in search of medical assistance and work. Three years later, this group received an area of land from a Kambeba resident in Manaus. Located on the Cuieiras river, an affluent of the Rio Negro, the group relocated to this site and founded the village of Nossa Senhora da Saúde.

See the map below for the direction of Kambeba migrations, villages and sites in the 20th century.

The series of migrations over the last three decades has demanded considerable skill from the Kambeba in terms of adapting to a range of ecological niches different to those of the floodplains and islands of the upper Amazon, in particular for the group from the city of Manaus that migrated to the floodplain of the Rio Negro.

Participation in the indigenous movement

The ethnic reaffirmation of the Kambeba began in the 1980s on the middle Solimões when they started to take part in indigenous assemblies and meetings organized by the Miranha from Miratu village, in Uarini municipality, with the backing of missionaries from the Prelacy of Tefé and from CIMI. In these meetings, the Indians discussed their social, political and economic problems: health, education, food and land. This alliance building, which focused primarily on shared indigenous interests and aspirations relating to land, culminated in the ethnic reaffirmation of many of the region’s groups, such as the Kambeba, Mayoruna, Ticuna and Cocama.

From this moment on, the Kambeba and Miranha began to connect up with the indigenous movement then emergent in the country. In this sense, the ethnic affirmation of the Kambeba developed within a historical context marked by an important change in Brazilian indigenist policy – on the part of the State, the Catholic Church and society in general – whose specific impacts on the middle Solimões combined to enable the Kambeba not only to reassert themselves as an indigenous people, but also to start to play an important role of political leadership across the region.

The work of the church in Tefé was one of the decisive factors for the emergence of many ethnic groups in the region, a process that was politically innovative but also contradictory. Until the end of the 1970s, only the Miranha of Miratu village were officially recognized as Indians, their territory having been demarcated at the start of the 20th century by the SPI. Before CIMI arrived in the region in 1979, it was the MEB (Grassroots Education Movement) which provided support to the Jaquiri, Betel and Marajaí communities, among others, before they identify themselves as indigenous. The church’s work, already shaped in this period by the “preferential option for the poor,” inspired by the Second Vatican Council and the ideas of Medellin and Puebla, looked to implement a political discourse of social transformation, encouraging community organization and creating the CEBs (Grassroots Ecclesiastical Communities).

However the formation of the CEBs was based on a Catholic discourse of morality and ethical behaviour and a unifying meaning from the sociopolitical and economic viewpoint. Consequently, the forms of indigenous organization were mostly incompatible with this new ethics. In this field of action, the interferences and contradictions were constant.

The 1st Encounter of Indigenous Leaders of the Prelacy of Tefé was hosted in the village of Miratu of the Miranha Indians, in Uarini municipality, in July 1980. Also present were indigenous leaders from the Jutaí river. At this encounter, the leaders undertook a diagnosis of the situation of indigenous peoples in the Tefé region, focusing especially on the issues of healthcare, land and village organization.

Exploitation by river traders and local merchants was one of the most visible problems widely condemned by the Indians. Due to the lack of transportation or better community organization, the Indians were forced to sell their products at the price the bosses wished to pay. They also complained about the high prices of the products purchased from the bosses. Consequently, as far as the Indians were concerned, ensuring their own land was the only viable way of improving their lives.

The ethnic reaffirmation of the Kambeba can be traced to this encounter. Afterwards they began to take part in indigenous assemblies and meetings. The Miratu Encounter was a landmark in the history of the Kambeba and the Indians of the middle Solimões. The embryo of the indigenous movement was born, translated into the growing alliances between peoples and villages, the exchange of experiences and the discussion of common problems. All the leaders spoke about their problems and concluded that they not only shared a similar past, but also a present of suffering and exploitation. Only the combined action of the villages and peoples, along with the search for non-indigenous allies, could improve their situation. This perception led the Indians to combine forces with the indigenous movement and the Church through CIMI.

From 1989 onwards, Kambeba leaders were elected to occupy the main positions in Uni-Tefé and since then people from the community have continued to assume leading posts in the movement. The emergence of the Kambeba as one of the most prominent ethnic groups on the Solimões river from the end of the 1980s is rooted in the way in which they formed alliances with regional social actors such as the Church, with national organizations and with other indigenous peoples, especially the Miranha, Cocama, Ticuna and Mayoruna.

It is within this complicated network of relations, alliances and conflicts that the Kambeba affirm themselves as an indigenous people, reworking their symbolic and cultural world, extracting from the centuries-long silence 'forgotten bits' of their history and tradition, reorganizing themselves and planning both their present and their future.

Sociocultural aspects

The Kambeba houses are built from wood on stilts and covered with straw thatch, or more recently with aluminium or asbestos roofing. Architecturally, the houses are no different from other regional houses. In 1997, when I visited the Nossa Senhora da Saúde village, all the houses bar one were covered with aluminium roofing, obtained through savings and their relations with the local council of the town of Novo Airão, which also provides healthcare and education. They say that they use aluminium because it is more durable and because “straw is difficult to find” in the local area. The houses are set in a row, one next to the other, along the shore of the river or creek. They are internally divided into three areas: a) a living room where they receive visitors, place the radio or stereo, photos of family members or of a local politician or famous artist, and images of saints when the family is Catholic; b) a bedroom, where the couple sleeps along with smaller children and young women before they marry; c) a kitchen containing gas or wood stove where the day-to-day meals are served. In contrast to the bedroom and often the living room, the kitchen is usually open with a wall only on the side where the wind blows strongest.

The Kambeba maintain relations with different social actors such as churches, political and military authorities, merchants, and so on. When they have to fight for their interests or insist on their rights, they always use diplomatic means. This was evident during the process of winning their lands, especially in the cases of Barreira da Missão and Igarapé Grande. The same was also seen with Nossa Senhora da Saúde. Ever since settling in the location, they have developed contacts with their ‘neighbours:’ Baré Indians, who live an hour’s journey upriver from the village; large and small landholders on land close to the village; traders, owners of recreios (boats) and fishermen. These relations have transformed the port of the Kambeba community into the main port on the Cuieiras river, where boats stop to load cargo and passengers. This also makes it an important point of communication and exchange of information between the Kambeba and the regional and indigenous communities on the Cuieiras river.

These relations are also strengthened by the work of the health agent, Valdemir, who since 1992 has been providing care not only to the village but to all the neighbouring communities who seek his assistance. This intensified with the implantation in the community of a Base of the Manaus DSEI (Special Indigenous Health District) in 2000. The village school has performed a similar role. In 1998 five of the twenty students enrolled at the school were non-Kambeba (see Bonin 1999:185). This flexibility was also observed in the Igarapé Grande and Jaquiri village schools on the Solimões when school education was first being introduced.

In terms of religion, the Kambeba today are divided into two groups: the Catholics (Jaquiri, Igarapé Grande and Nossa Senhora da Saúde villages) and the Pentecostals (Betel village). Among the Catholics, the Kambeba, as well as having the only school and health post on the lower Cuieiras river, also have rezadores, who know how to pray in Latin, a language unknown to the other groups. This gives them a certain status vis-à-vis the Baré and other river-dwelling communities, including a leadership role that is channelled into the fight for indigenous land.

The Nossa Senhora da Saúde village is also visited by ‘neighbours’ on special dates such as Holy Week, the Festival of Saint Thomas and Christmas. On these occasions the Kambeba hold special celebrations as well as festivals and games on the village clearing. These are important moments for forging matrimonial and political alliances.

The Kambeba are organized into patriarchal families (fathers, sons, grandsons). On marrying, the couple soon build their own house but maintain close connections and obedience to their fathers and fathers-in-law until the latter die. Consequently, the tuxaua’s authority is recognized and accepted for a long period. The Cruz family wields power in the Jaquiri, Igarapé Grande and Nossa Senhora da Saúde villages. In Betel village, the tuxaua (leader) belongs to the Marinho family. The authority of the Kambeba patriarch, Valdomiro Cruz, is recognized in all the villages and even among the families living in Manaus. It was Valdomiro who led the group to the middle Solimões, having been the tuxaua in Jaquiri, Igarapé Grande and Nossa Senhora da Saúde. Today these villages have other tuxauas, though from the same family.

The tuxaua is responsible for community projects. Additionally, he looks after the village and advises its other members, as well as ensuring that the social norms are being followed properly. He is also responsible for representing the village in relations with non-Indians, the State and other authorities. However his role is more internal than external. The tuxaua seldom leaves the village. When a series of journeys need to be made, or lengthy periods have to be spent outside the village, he usually designates a representative, normally a less prestigious authority figure such as a health agent or teacher. This also applies to the leaders forming part of the Indigenous Movement, who are designated to represent the group ‘to the outside’ or the interests of Indians in general, but who are not internal leaders as such.

In terms of the division of labour, men and women perform specific and distinct roles. Men are primarily involved with political activities, felling and clearing forest for swiddens, toasting flour, selling produce, fishing, making canoes and such like. Women are particularly responsible for domestic activities, small children, housekeeping and daily meals; they look after the husband’s belongings and educate their daughters in the group’s norms and rules, but they also undertake other activities such as planting and weeding the swiddens, gathering fruits and peeling manioc to make flour.

The Kambeba do not prohibit marriage outside the group. On the contrary, matrimonial alliances with other indigenous groups and with other river-dwelling populations have been a stategy continually used by the group to maintain a demographic equilibrium and to forge interethnic political alliances. However, they strive to ensure that marriage does not entail the removal of the person from the village and day-to-day contact with the group. As a result, the criterion for belonging to the group is relatively flexible, based more on politics than blood. A man or woman who marries a Kambeba person is accepted into the group as long as they follow the established rules and obey the those in authority. They children are considered Kambeba if they comply with the same rules

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