From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Luiz Costa, 2004


Where they are How many
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Linguistic family
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The Kanamari call themselves tukuna, a term which means ‘people’ and which they extend to all other Katukinan-speaking Amerindians. In spite of the turmoils which the twentieth century brought them, in particular the increasing and violent presence of non-Amerindians, the Kanamari nonetheless managed to maintain their language, an extensive mythological tradition and their rich ritual complex.

Language and location

Aldeia de Kumaru. Foto: Luiz Costa, 2004
Aldeia de Kumaru. Foto: Luiz Costa, 2004

The Kanamari originally lived in the tributaries of the upper-middle Juruá River, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, where the majority of them still are. They have since also established themselves in neighbouring river sections, such as the upper Itaquaí, and further afield, such as the middle Javari and the Japurá.

The Kanamari are today situated in different Indigenous Reservations: the Vale do Javari Indigenous Reservation, in which they are found on the Curuçá, Javari, Itaquaí and Jutaí rivers; the Mawetek Indigenous Reservation, just south of the Vale do Javari and comprising the tributaries of the left bank of the middle Juruá; the Kanamari Indigenous Area, situated on tributaries of the right bank of the Juruá, downriver from the city of Eirunepé; and two small Areas on the Japurá, Maraã and Parana do Paricá. There are also a group of some 60 Kanamari living in a community in the Umariaçú area in the upper Solimões, inhabited mainly by the Ticuna. The Kanamari of the Itaquaí also claim that there are a few of them living in the upper Juruá, upriver from the city of Cruzeiro do Sul.

They speak a language from the Katukinan family. There is some variation between the dialects of different sub-groups, but these have become less marked through inter-marriage. Katukinan-speakers were more numerous in the past then they are today. The Katawishi, whose language was recorded by Father Constant Tastevin in the early twentieth century, used to live in the lower course of the Juruá. They were thus the first victims of slave raids and rubber tappers from the Amazon River. Today it seems that they no longer exist, or at least that they no longer speak their language.

Kanamari, at any rate, is not a traditional ethnonym. The origin of the word is unclear. A further problem has been the use of the terms ‘Kanamari’ and ‘Katukina’ to refer to non-Katukinan-speaking Amerindians. There is at least one group called ‘Katukina’ which speaks a Panoan language and lives in the upper Juruá, in the state of Acre. In the past there was also a group known as the Katukinaru, who probably spoke originally an Arawakan language but also knew the Tupian lingua franca, and possibly a Panoan-speaking group also known as ‘Kanamari’.

Tastevin explains that for most early non-Indigenous settlers there were only two ‘types’ of Amerindians in the Juruá: the violent, war-like ‘Kaxinawa’, which referred mainly to all Panoan-speaking groups, and the peaceful ‘Kanamari/Katukina/Kulina’, which refers generally to the Katukinan- and Arawan-speaking groups in the region. As such, some societies which do not fall under this last category readily accepted denominations which placed them in the ‘peaceful’ side of the dichotomy, as a means for avoiding massacres organized by their new neighbours.

Demography and mobility

Photo: Luiz Costa, 2004
Photo: Luiz Costa, 2004

The Kanamari are an intensely mobile population, and undertaking a census among them is incredibly difficult. At any given time their villages are full of people visiting, others who are staying for some time, some who are leaving and so on. The wide area in which they live makes the task even more complicated. Census of the Kanamari counted 1.654 people in 2006. In 2010 this total rose to 3.167 people. 

But the fact of living in different Federal units has by no means dampened movement between the different rivers. Although this is a year-round constant, the less-permanent movements have different characters depending on the part of the year. The Kanamari basically recognize two seasons: a dry season which lasts from April – September and a wet season from October – March. The transitional period is characterized by cold spells (‘friagem’ in Portuguese, ‘poru’ in Kanamari). There are shorter drier and wetter moments within each season.

The dry season is characterized by two antagonistic movements. One is of dispersal of family units, which travel on hunting treks and searching for tracajá and turtle eggs on the beaches which appear when the river is dry. These movements are mainly small-scale, but can involve whole villages if these are small and tightly knit, centred on a group of siblings and their married children. Traveling after turtle eggs often takes the Kanamari to nearby cities, such as Atalaia do Norte and Eirunepé. But the dry season is also the time when rituals occur, mainly the Jaguar-becoming (Pidah-pa) ritual which marks the final stage of the mourning period, but also the God-becoming (Kohana-pa) ritual in which the Kanamari are hosts to the soul-bodies of the dead. These rituals can be small affairs, involving only the residents of a single village. But they can also, particularly the Jaguar-becoming ritual, include people from far away, especially when it concerns the final mourning rite of a headman or renown shaman. (See Cosmology, ritual and shamanism)

The wet season, too, is marked by a similar tension. This is the period when village unity is emphasized and small-scale travel is avoided. People tend to prefer to stay with close kin, hunting and eating together, avoiding, insofar as it is possible, contact with neighbouring villages and, especially, with distant ones. Small expeditions to gather forest fruits are common But it is also when peach palm (‘pupunha’ in Portuguese, ‘tyo’ in Kanamari) is ripe, and this requires them to return to abandoned fallows or to older villages, whose long occupation guarantees an abundance of peach palm, as well as chonta palm (açaí, dyan). These movements often involve the majority, or even all, of the inhabitants of a village, who gather in order to prepare and consume peach palm drink. These moments of aggregation are, however, short-lived, and it is not uncommon for the residents of newer villages to take raw peach palm back with them so as to maintain a steady supply.

On another scale, there are more-or-less permanent movements to villages in other rivers. The process of sub-group fragmentation which the Kanamari say began with the presence of whites in the Juruá, and their subsequent work for rubber bosses, led to an inversion of the situation which prevailed before. If in the past endogamous sub-groups were localized in specific river-sections, and met with other groups primarily for ritual purposes, today these different sub-groups reside in the same river and often in the same village. Conversely, members of the same sub-group live far apart, seeing each other rarely. There are, again, two contrasting solutions to this situation. In the Itaquaí, for example, older, larger villages are fissioning, giving way to smaller villages with varying make-ups, but which are active attempts to create small nexi of sub-group residential endogamy. The fact that small villages made up of people from the same or allied sub-groups tend to agglomerate, means that today the Itaquaí is divided into three clusters based on sub-group membership.

The second solution also involves an attempt to re-establish sub-group autonomy, but it moves in the other direction, as people travel to distant rivers in the hope of living with similars. One recent example of this has been the steady movement of Bin-dyapa (Mutum-dyapa) people from the Komaronhu, in the Mawetek Indigenous Reservation, to the Itaquaí, almost all of them establishing themselves near the primarily Bin-dyapa village of Massapê.

Contact history

Crianças Kanamari. Foto: Luiz Costa, 2004
Crianças Kanamari. Foto: Luiz Costa, 2004

The extension of the area occupied by the Kanamari, the variety of experiences with the non-Indigenous population in the past and in the present and the fact that the first whites to enter the Juruá probably did so some 150 years ago, makes it difficult to generalize about ‘contact’. What follows is thus the history of contact as told by the Kanamari of the Itaquaí, and while the first part is possibly generalisable to other areas, the second is specific to the river in which they live.

Time of Tamakori

The Kanamari say that they were created by the Culture-Hero Tamakori who then left them in the middle Juruá and went downriver to Manaus, where he created the whites. In his absence they continued living where he had left them, divided into sub-groups and maintaining ritual exchanges between them. They refer to this period as ‘the Time of Tamakori’, a Time whose end started with the arrival of the first white in the Juruá, a man whom they know as Jarado. He arrived from downriver, and thus from ‘Manaus’, where Tamakori had created his ancestors. As he traveled he “marked the land with wooden sticks” in order to establish the limits of future towns and rubber storehouses (‘barracões’). Having no motors then, he rowed up the Juruá where, at the mouth of a river known as the Toriwá, he met a group of Kanamari, probably Potyo-dyapa (Japó-dyapa). The Kanamari called him ‘-tawari’, a term which can be translated as ‘trade partner’. Jarado gave them metal spear tips, fish-hooks, nails and pans. In return the Kanamari offered him smoked meat and manioc drink, all of which he accepted. He continued his journey upriver and, upon his return, told the Kanamari how he had had to fight with the ‘Kaxinawa’ and contrasted their ferocity with the Kanamari’s gentleness. They once again traded before Jarado continued his journey downriver to Manaus never to be seen again.

Time of Rubber

Jarado’s departure began what the Kanamari call ‘the Time of Rubber’. And if they remember him as a generous trade partner, the same cannot be said of the whites who followed. Initially it seems as if the Kanamari did not work for the rubber bosses, maintaining their longhouses but visiting the whites in the Juruá for trade items. In time, Kanamari chieftainship began to rely on these relations with the whites, as it was the chief’s task to obtain merchandise and distribute it among his followers. The Kanamari word for chief, -warah, is the same as that for ‘body’, and just as it is the body’s burden to offer some stability to the soul, which is otherwise placeless and nomadic, so too is it the chief’s job to try and contain the variety of Kanamari mobility. The presence of these new –tawari, however, along with the death of certain important chiefs, began a period of more intense movement which the Kanamari tried to counteract by establishing themselves in the ‘barracões’. But the miserliness and cruelty of these bosses proved too much for some of them, who decided to follow a chief into the Itaquaí, where there were no whites. One of the more palpable consequences of this period, for the Kanamari, is the fragmentation of the sub-group endogamy which was deemed to exist in the past, resulting in a new social configuration based on the inter-marriage of -dyapa.

The Kanamari originally established themselves in the headwaters of the Itaquaí. The abundance of game and lack of white bosses was an incentive for a series of later migrations into the river. Movement between the Juruá and the Itaquaí remained intense. But this was short-lived, however, and soon the whites also entered the Itaquaí, coming from downriver at first, and thus from the Javari and upper Solimões, and later from upriver, from the Juruá and then over land. At first, two chiefs guaranteed that the cargo obtained from the whites was fairly distributed and that the distance between them and the bosses was maintained. But the death of both in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s led to another period of intense movement. Some of them followed a boss into the Curuçá and later into the Javari, where many still are today. Others began living more or less permanently in the farms or ‘properties’ of the white coloners for at least part of the year, working for them in rubber collection and lumber. Their villages became progressively few and circumscript to a small stretch of river. The Kanamari of the Itaquaí remember this period as “when we lived in the middle of the whites”.

Time of Funai

The “Time of Rubber” finally ended with the arrival of Funai in 1972. A sub-post was established in Massapê and the removal of the non-Indigenous population began, only to be concluded in 2002 with the withdrawal of the last settler. But what the Kanamari most remember from this period is the copious amount of cargo distributed by Funai. They have detailed recollections of what was distributed and where, who got what and when. Funai also ‘relieved’ them of any ‘debt’ that they may have had with the bosses and nominated new chiefs, thus suppressing the vacuum left with the deaths of former leaders. But by distributing merchandise, visiting the Kanamari in their villages – and establishing a sub-post which was to be occupied by a Chefe de Posto, who would live in their villages – Funai actually established itself as the ‘chief’ of the Kanamari. It is thus not as ‘i-tawari’ that the Kanamari call Funai, as they had done Jarado, but instead ‘tyo-warah’, ‘our body/chief’. The Kanamari still claim that they live in the “Time of Funai”, even if today it no longer distributes cargo as it once did.

Today there are no non-Amerindians living in the part of the Itaquaí River that is in the Terra Indígena do Vale do Javari. Estimates suggest that at the time of Funai’s arrival in the Itaquaí there were some 200 whites in the river, probably just less than the number of Kanamari. This forced them into a few villages in a circumscript region: the whites demarcated the other areas as ‘their property’ and prevented the Kanamari from using its resources. When they began to be withdrawn, Funai suggested that all of the Kanamari move to the Javari, which was closer to the town of Atalaia do Norte, in order to better assist them. Many did, but the experience proved to be taxing and most returned to the Itaquaí. The Sub-post of Massapê, now called Posto Indígena Massapê, was re-inaugurated and Funai then tried concentrating all of the Kanamari in a single village during the 1980’s. The Kanamari have mixed feelings about this period, because although Funai once again distributed large amounts of cargo, the experience of living n such a large village proved taxing. With the whites finally gone, the Kanamari have begun to re-establish the distance necessary between there village, so that it is now possible to identify three clusters: a Kadyikiri-dyapa (Macaco de Cheiro-dyapa) one upriver, a Bin-dyapa (Mutum-dyapa) one in the centre and a primarily Potyo­-dyapa (Japó-dyapa) one further downriver. A series of strategic marriages with Hityam-dyapa (Caetitu-dyapa) people means that these are fairly evenly distributed throughout the river, with a somewhat larger number in the Potyo-dyapa cluster.

Social organization

Casal Kanamari. Foto: Luiz Costa, 2004.
Casal Kanamari. Foto: Luiz Costa, 2004.

They divide themselves into sub-groups which receive the name of an animal followed by the suffix –dyapa. Originally, they claim, these –dyapa were identified with specific tributaries of the Juruá River. They married endogamously and maintained ritual and commercial relations with neighbouring –dyapa that could, occasionally, turn hostile.

History, however, intervened and began a process of fragmenting sub-group endogamy. The presence of whites and internal rivalries led to inter-marriage and relocation, resulting in new configurations in which –dyapa endogamy was no longer the norm. The distance which the Kanamari claim was thus necessary for social reproduction collapsed on itself, making it much more difficult to identify the close and the distant, the safe and the dangerous. This ambiguity resulted in two antithetical movements: it helped to increase patterns of mobility, making it difficult for villages to establish themselves for any length of time, while at the same time re-enforcing village solidarity, as these strived to become small islands of endogamy in a configuration based on continuous flux.

The other Katukinan-speaking groups are the Biá River Katukina, who live in a tributary of the Jutaí, and the Tsohon-dyapa, who live in the interfluves of the Jutai and the Jandiatuba. But the first descriptions of the Juruá tended to identify more groups, differentiating ‘the Kanamari’ from some –dyapa sub-groups which are, today, also considered ‘Kanamari’. While some of these confusions are clearly based on a lack of rigour on the part of early observers, particularly in their eagerness to identify tightly bound ‘tribes’ and ‘clans’, it also reveals a more general pattern. These sub-groups are defined by the distance they establish between each other: while some sub-groups do form loosely-knit alliances, they do so by expelling from these alliances other –dyapa. This interplay of proximity and distance is an integral part of –dyapa constellation, and although the approximation between some sub-groups has considerable time-depth, most tend to be ephemeral. Often, reiterated alliances between –dyapa result in the assimilation of one by another: as occurred with the Dom-dyapa (Fish-dyapa), today almost certainly a part of the Bin-dyapa (Mutum­-dyapa).

In such a situation it would be premature to consider the Tsohon-dyapa, and possibly the Biá River Katukina, as a separate ‘people’. The former means ‘Toucan-dyapa’ and the main reason for their being considered a separate people is that they have chosen, in their recent history, to isolate themselves from non-Amerindians. They do, however, maintain regular contacts with the Kanamari who live on the upper Jutaí River, including some inter-marriages, and have been seen near the Itaquaí River as well. Their language appears to show some difference, but it seems to be no greater than the difference between the dialect spoken in the upper Jutaí and that spoken in the upper Itaquaí, for example. As far as the Kanamari are concerned, the Tsohon-dyapa are tukuna, like themselves.

As are the Biá River Katukina, but here it seems as if the distance is, at present, too great to be overcome. The Kanamari know them as the Pidah-dyapa (Jaguar-dyapa), although it is unclear if they accept this denomination. While the Tsohon-dyapa are situated at the heart of Kanamari territory, the Biá River is a little too far. In the mid-twentieth century a group of Wadyo-teknim dyapa (Macaco Prego-dyapa), fleeing from shamanic attacks and the violence of rubber bosses, tried to live near Katukina villages. The tensions, however, proved too great and they ended up migrating elsewhere, probably being the ancestors of the group which today lives in the Japura river, a tributary of the left bank of the Amazon.

They are all, as we have seen, tukuna (‘people’) and are further divided into sub-groups. These are not, however, mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. It is possible for a Kanamari to identify herself, and be identified by others, as being of more than one sub-group. Although sub-groups are associated with particular rivers and river sections, these do not exhaust known sub-groups, meaning it would be a mistake to believe that by compiling a roster of all -dyapa one accounts for all of the Kanamari. There can always, they say, be more sub-groups, beyond the limits of Kanamari territory, distant from any given village, and always potentially dangerous because of this distance. Kanamari society is not concerned with any form o totalisation, but instead with fragmentation, plurality and dispersal – which explains, in part, the difficulty encountered by early observers, which is still that experienced by modern ones.


The Kanamari claim that in the past the sub-groups were endogamous and situated in specific rivers or river sections, visiting each other during ritual occasions. These sub-groups were led by one or more chiefs, spread out in villages which were not only situated on the main channel of the tributary, but also in smaller igarapés. They were internally articulated by relations of consanguinity and actual affinity. The sub-groups spoke mutually intelligible languages – actually dialects of a single language – and generally referred to each other as –tawari, the same term they used to call the first whites. These relations were characterized by commercial partnerships, ritual exchanges and, eventually, marriages, although sub-group endogamy was preferred. They also paved the way for accusations of sorcery, being always and necessarily ambiguous, possibly actualizing latent tensions between the –dyapa. One aspect of these tensions were the ritual Tapir-skin fights, which occurred mostly between people from distinct sub-groups. These fights, however, also took place with the Kulina (Arawan-speaking) of the Juruá, a people which act as potentialised –tawari for the Kanamari. In these occasions, sub-groups gathered to visit Kulina villages during manioc beer-drinking festivals. Upriver from the Kulina and the Kanamari lived the feared Dyapa, a generic term for all Panoan-speaking peoples – and the unmarked form of the sub-group name, -dyapa – with which no relationship, other than warfare, was possible.

This state of affairs, which is how the Kanamari say they used to live, is the result of the configuration brought about by the presence of the Creator-Hero Tamakori. But Tamakori’s adventures on earth are themselves a movement against another reality, characterized by internal non-differentiation in which species had not yet been defined. This is the time of the Old Sky (Kodoh Kidak) in which humans, animals and spirits were inter-mixed. It is not analogous to the other ‘Times’, however, in that it does not properly situate itself in a temporal sequence: there is no sense in which Tamakori’s actions amount to a rupture, nor is the time of the Old Sky easily situated historically. The Kanamari say that the frog Piyoyom shot an arrow into the Old Sky, which was very low, just above people’s heads, shattering it. But as it came down it created the forest which exists today and the ground we stand on is its remnant. Myths from the Old Sky often situate events in places known to the Kanamari today and include historical characters, which suggests that the order established by the Creator left the disorder of the Old Sky in suspension, as it were, where it remains as a potential against which life on earth needs to be established. And if Tamakori enabled social life by installing difference where non-difference existed, he still needed to do so by making humans differentiate themselves through sub-groups and languages.

The order established by Tamakori was itself brought into disarray by the ‘Time of Rubber’, initiated by the whites. This period led to the fragmentation of these sub-groups, often displacing them into other rivers, forcing people from different sub-groups to live together and, ultimately, leading to a series of inter-marriages between them. These processes – co-residence and inter-marriage – could have resulted in the demise of sub-groups, which would seize to be emphasized in a context were interaction was intense and repeated marriages acted to diminish and extinguish the distance which was previously emphasized. This was not, though, what happened. Sub-groups continue to be important and people say that now they do not always live with kin as they would like, and that their ‘true kin’ (-wihnim tam) live in distant rivers. This in spite of the fact that these ‘true kin’ may be rarely visited and occasionally are never seen. At the same time people who may live in the same village as a given person are classified by that person as ‘distant kin’ (-wihnim parara), even though they live, hunt and work together.

So the Kanamari say that they would like to live with their true kin, but the historical process initiated by the whites has impossibilitated this. This is in part because of the distance between people from the same sub-group today, but it is also due to the fact of living together with ‘non-kin’ (-wihnim tu). Sub-group divisions are no longer clear-cut, and repeated inter-marriages have created people who identify themselves and are identified by others with a plurality of –dyapa. Thus although the Kanamari say that people from ‘other’ sub-groups are ‘non-kin’ or ‘distant kin’, they know that living together has made the gradations between ‘true kin’ and ‘non-kin’ much less clear-cut. There are parallels between this process of creating people who are multiple, or who contain within themselves multiple relations which in the past would have been kept distinct, and the Old Sky mode of being, in which differences had not yet been introduced. But the movements go in opposite directions: the first from undifferentiatedness towards discreteness, the other from the discrete to the undifferentiated – here a lack of differentiation which, perhaps paradoxically, has not eradicated the differences which existed before. Sub-groups continue to be an aspect of Kanamari relations, but instead of delimiting distinct kin-bodies they now also cut across these kin-bodies, relating people who should be different and unrelating those who should be similar.

Villages and local groups

The Kanamari thus want to live with kin but find that they cannot, while at the same time, almost by default, become more kin-like (-wihnim-pa, ‘become kin’) with people who they should not consider kin. Sub-groups serve to relate people who live far apart and unrelate those who are co resident, while also, because of the multiplicity of sub-groups with which a person is identified, make more similar that which was previously different and make different that which was previously similar. For most of the twentieth century the Kanamari of the Itaquaí tried to counteract both the process of sub-group fragmentation and that of progressive undifferentiatedness by two means: constant movement towards areas were ‘true kin’ reside, in an attempt to re-establish sub-group integrity; and by living with each other in close proximity, in an attempt to do away with the differences established by sub-groups through becoming kin to people who were previously non-kin. With the river empty of whites, and a wide area once again available to them, the Kanamari have introduced a new method for resisting these antagonistic trends. It is this process, which involves creating ever-smaller villages which form part of wider village-clusters in the Itaquaí that I will outline below.

The Kanamari do not, strictly speaking, have a generic native term for village other than hak nyanim, which is how they called their longhouses in the past and literally means ‘big house’. Today they also use the Portuguese term ‘comunidade’. Most Kanamari stopped making their longhouses in the mid-twentieth century, when they began working more intensely with the whites, and they now make their houses in the regional style, generally organizing houses behind a patio (hokanim), and on one occasion around it, where rituals take place. But from what we know of longhouse composition in the past it seems as if a typical Kanamari village is organized in the same way, with each house corresponding to a section within the longhouse. Even atypical, larger villages, such as Massapê, appear to conform to a similar pattern, although here the village can be seen to be a composite of various longhouses.

Massapê was the village where most of the Itaquaí Kanamari were concentrated by Funai during the 1970’s – 1980’s. This is the village with the Funai post and where the infirmary, currently under the care of Funasa, is situated, all of which were, and still are, added incentives for keeping people in Massapê. It was thus much larger than villages used to be, and was composed of various consanguineal clusters. This experiment in living together in such a large village was, from a Kanamari perspective, a complete failure. Sorcery accusations, stealing, bickering, miserliness, anger, gossip and everything which is considered antithetical to Kanamari village life was commonplace. But the merchandise which Funai distributed during this period, and the medical assistance it provided, kept most Kanamari in Massapê, or in smaller villages very close to Massapê. As Funai’s presence in the area began to wane and chefe de postos started spending considerably les time in the village and distributing fewer goods; with health care shifting from Funai to Funasa, being centred in the Casa do Índio in the nearby town of Atalaia do Norte; and with the whites – and their steady supply of trade goods – being finally removed from the river, the incentives to live together in a single village were gone. From 2000 onwards the Kanamari have begun to move away from Massapê, establishing their villages in a wide stretch of the Itaquaí and reinstating a distance between sub-groups consistent with the distance which existed in the past.

One way of referring to the people of a given village is by saying the name of the settlement, or its chief, and adding the term –warah afterwards. –warah stands for ‘body/owner/chief’ and, we may add, in certain contexts, ‘village’. A composite such as x-warah, to refer to a village, has a meaning along the lines of ‘those people whose body/owner/chief is x’. The process of village/body-making among the Kanamari is one of expelling foreign substances and relations from the village space and, through this expulsion, creating a social space where everything is similar and safe. The physical space of the village should thus be the visible outcome of the process of kinship.

Relationships within the village space should be generous and peaceful, based on sharing and mutual care. And the surest way of ensuring these relationships is by living with people whose bodies have been created with your own, through these very relationships. Thus a village will not tolerate foreign bodies at its core. In a world of intense mobility this poses a problem in that at any given moment there will be people from other villages passing by or spending some time with you. In the case of ‘distant relatives’ who live in the Itaquaí, or ‘true relatives’ who live far away, this is less of a danger – although it is by no means completely safe these visits are always characterized by some tension.

But it is completely foreign (onahan) bodies and substances which pose the most problem and which need to be expelled immediately. Sorcerers (bauhi) who travel to the Itaquaí from distant regions to cause harm tend to hide near Kanamari villages, particularly their gardens, and their presence, discerned by the shamanic darts (dyohko) which cause harm, is cause enough for a village to disperse, or for its residents to aggregate in other villages. Shaman’s familiars more generally (also called dyohko) can only exist in villages as the familiars of shamans who are kin. When a dyohko-spirit is familiarized by the shaman it is, in general, no longer dangerous, and it refers to its shaman-master as i-warah, ‘my body-owner’. A similar process occurs with the young of animals who are raised as pets by the Kanamari. The process of animal domestication among the Kanamari is conceptualized as one in which the animal young loses its body to the person raising it (pets are normally cared for by women), who is then referred to as a-warah, ‘its body-owner’. Kanamari villages are thus the place for similar, related bodies.

After the disaster of trying to live all in one place the Kanamari are now trying to establish small villages, centred on marital alliances, some of which have been repeated through generations. By creating these small villages, of between 20 – 40 people, they are contributing to the process of expelling ‘foreigners’ from the village cores. The process is necessarily incomplete since not all people who live in the same village are related in safe ways and not everyone acts generously all the time, not to mention the frequent visits of people from neighbouring villages or rivers and the more dangerous visits of completely foreign bodies. Furthermore, these villages are situated in village-clusters which are mainly composed of people from the same sub-group. These villages are also related by marital alliances – Kanamari post-marital residence is primarily uxorilocal (i.e. the newlyweds go to live with the wife’s parents) and form a tightly knit group which visit each other regularly. There are three such clusters, or ‘local groups’, in the Itaquaí today. This solution is an interesting compromise to the tension between living in the Itaquaí and living with co-sub-group members, as it allows for both while also reinstating the distance between sub-groups that is believed to have existed when they lived in the Juruá and which was shattered by the arrival of the whites.

Cosmology, ritual and shamanism

Menino Kanamari. Foto: Luiz Costa, 2004.
Menino Kanamari. Foto: Luiz Costa, 2004.

The Kanamari live in the ityonim, a word which can mean ‘world’ and ‘forest’ but also ‘time’. Above them is the sky, Kodoh, and inside the sky is the Kodoh Naki, the Inner Sky, which is where the Kohana gods live. When one dies the Kohana come to earth to take the soul (ikonanim) to the Inner Sky following the Rainbow-path (or, according to other Kanamari, traveling upriver). The journey is long, and its process, in the case of adults, is one of rejuvenation. Everyone in the Inner Sky is young. Once the soul reaches the Sky, she finds her hammock ready, so that she may rest from the journey. In time she drinks the vomit of the Elder King Vulture, a being that only exists in the Inner Sky, which the Kohana-gods call their manioc drink (koya). Once she has drunk from the celestial drink she receives a body, made of the leaves of the buriti palm, and is told that she will not return to earth: “You are that which we care for now. You will not return to the forest”. From now on she is known as Kodoh-warah, Sky-body/owner.

The time between death and the reception of a new body in the Inner Sky is equivalent to the time of mourning (mahwa) on earth. Kanamari souls have two related characteristics: they are highly mobile and they always try to attach themselves to bodies. Bodies work to contain the fleetingness of souls, just as chief-villages on earth contain the movements of the Kanamari. During the mourning period the soul moves incessantly between the earth and the sky, and when it is in earth it approaches the bodies of its kin, particularly those of small children, in the process causing illness. The soul needs to be ‘blown away’ (-topohman) by a man who has drunk the juice of the omamdak, which literally means ‘tree bark’ and seems to refer to absolutely any tree. Omamdak drinking is accessible to all adult men.

Most animals have an equivalent eschatological fate. At the death of their bodies, their souls go to the Inner Sky where they too, eventually, receive a new body, which is in this case a body of the same species they were on earth. But in the interval between death and its new body the game’s soul also tries to attach itself to bodies, but in this instance human bodies, against which it tries to avenge its death. The generic term for ‘souls’ – be they that of dead humans or animals – is tukuna ikonanim, which means ‘person-soul’. They all need to be blown away after the ingestion of omamdak. Failure to do so, in both cases, results in the death of the afflicted.

After the fall of the Old Sky, which created the world as it exists today, the distance between earth and the sky became far too great to be overcome under normal conditions. However, the powerful shaman Dyanim was, not long ago, able to ascend to the Inner Sky with the aid of his spirit-familiars (dyohko). It is from what he told the Kanamari that they know what life in the Inner Sky is like. They say that everything which exists on earth exists in the Inner Sky, except that, after death, everyone is kin. There are no sub-groups in the Inner Sky, and not even differences between people. Everyone lives together and there is no fighting. This includes the Panoan-speaking groups, which the Kanamari fear on earth; the Kulina, with whom they maintain an ambiguously tense relationship; and the whites, who caused most of their suffering in the last 150 years. It is as if, unable to live exclusively with kin in life, death undoes the problem by making everyone, even enemies, into kin.

Shamans have a surplus of souls which are their dyohko-familiars. Dyohko refers to powerful old spirits, to the earth-bound soul of the shaman and to the magical darts which sorcerers throw at the victims in order to inflict disease. The shaman’s body is impregnated with dyohko substance which is what permits him to extract dyohko-darts from his patients, but he also has any number of dyohko-familiars which he cannot, however, store within his body, at the risk of losing his mind, and so keeps them in a pouch where they should be regularly fed with tobacco snuff. These are often animal-spirits that have been on earth since the beginning of time and had, probably, been previously familiarized by a shaman who has since died. Familiars call shamans i-warah, ‘my body-owner’, and the process of familiarization is one of reducing the spirit, transforming it into a stone which can be safely stored. Upon a shaman’s death these familiars regain their bodies and need to be re-familiarized by another shaman, lest they start inflicting harm upon the living. Furthermore, the shaman himself has a dyohko soul, called Pidah diwahkom (‘Jaguar Heart’), which assumes a Jaguar form when the shaman’s body dies. It is imperative that these be familiarized by another shaman for they too harm the living.

The shaman’s ‘Jaguar Heart’ is also called Kohana. Some Kanamari believe that the soul of shaman does not go into the Inner Sky at all but instead becomes a Kohana here on earth. Others say that the shaman is also able to familiarize the celestial Kohana, transforming them into large stones which are used in the Kohana-becoming ritual. This contradiction seems to express a fundamental property of the Kohana, which is its ability to cut across realms which should be separate, such as the earth and the sky, the living and the dead, Jaguars and humans. These dyohko are essential in the Kohana-becoming ritual. In these rituals a shaman inserts Kohana-odyohko into living men, dressed in the buriti-palm vestment known as wakwama, which are the form of the bodies of the Kohana. The men then become parok, a term which implies loss of consciousness, and it is the dyohko that sings through them. The songs that the Kohana sing are called Kohana nawa waik, ‘Kohana’s songs’ and it is said of them that they are Kodoh-warah, sky body-owners. The Kohana sing these songs to the women, who must learn them on behalf of humanity, as these songs are essential for the regeneration of life.

The Kohana songs are called ‘sky body-owners’ to distinguish them from the Jaguar songs, which are called Ityonim-warah, ‘forest body-owners’. These are sung in the Pidah-pa (‘Jaguar-becoming’) rituals and they are also simply known as Pidah, ‘Jaguar’. Most are ancient, although new songs are learned by the Pidah nawa nohman, ‘Jaguar’s chanter’, and, unlike the Kohana songs, they are known by the living. One of the purposes of these Jaguar-songs is to effectuate the final stage of the mourning period. Upon the death of an individual, a lock of hair is cut and kept by a close consanguine. When it is decided that the mourning period is over a Pidah Nyanim (‘Large Jaguar’) ritual is held in which the men, now called ‘Jaguars’, bury the lock in the village patio, in an act which is known as ‘to bury our mourning’ (ityowa mahwanim dahmahik). The ritual continues for days as Jaguar songs are sung, led by male ‘Jaguar’s chanters’ and repeated by the women. The purpose of the ritual is to guarantee the regeneration of the forest and of society through the death of humans.

Indeed, both the Kohana-becoming and the Jaguar-becoming rituals, and their songs, act to guarantee abundance in the forest and in society. Chanting and dancing occur at night and during the day the men go on collective hunting and fishing expeditions. It is said that both the Kohana and the Jaguar make game abundantly available to them during these hunts, as a ‘payment’ (ohunhuk) for the ritual. But these songs are also sung during manioc and pupunha drink production, in fruit gathering expeditions and so on. The Jaguar songs, being very old, are associated with the ancestors (-mowarahi), those whose body has been buried and through whom the forest continues to be productive. They are thus sung to ensure the regeneration of the forest and of society.

Sources of information

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. Os Kanamari da Amazônia ocidental : história, mitologia, ritual e xamanismo. Salvador : FCJA, 2002. 382 p.

CARVALHO, Maria do Rosário; REESINK, Edwin B. Ecologia e sociedade : uma breve introdução aos Kanamari. In: SANTOS, Antônio Carlos Magalhães Lourenço (Org.). Sociedades indígenas e transformações ambientais. Belém : UFPA-Numa, 1993. p. 113-54. (Universidade e Meio Ambiente, 6)

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MONTEIRO, Rosa Maria. Wana Adjaba itsonim nawara (os donos da terra). In: GRAMKOW, Márcia Maria (Org.). Demarcando terras indígenas II : experiências e desafios de um projeto de parceria. Brasília : Funai/PPTAL/GTZ, 2002. p. 113-21.

NEVES, Lino João de Oliveira. 137 anos de sempre : um capítulo da história Kanamari do contato. Florianópolis : UFSC, 1996. 277 p. (Dissertação de Mestrado)

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