From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Isabelle Vidal Giannini-ISA, 1996

Kayapó Xikrin

Where they are How many
PA 2267 (Siasi/Sesai, 2020)
Linguistic family

The Xikrin, a group of the Kayapó language, emphasize hearing and speech. In order to hone these qualities, the Xikrin perforate the corresponding organs (ears and lips) in early infancy. Hearing is directly related to knowing – to the acquisition of knowledge. Oratory is in turn a highly valorized social practice, a virtue for the Kayapó groups in general, who define themselves as those who speak well – Kaben mei – in contrast to all the other peoples who do not speak their language. The gift of oratory is attributed to men and involves passionate discourses, performed in the centre of the village.


Foto: Vincent Carelli-ISA
Foto: Vincent Carelli-ISA

All the Kayapó groups name themselves Mebengokré, that is “people of the water hole” or “people of the large water,” referring to the Tocantins and Araguaia rivers, whose crossing supposedly led to the separation of the ancestral group. Kayapó oral traditions refer back to the differentiation of the Gê peoples as an event that occurred in the area between the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers, in what is now Tocantins state. According to myth, the Gê ancestors lived together as a single group in this region until they discovered a giant maize tree, but as they started to harvest the seeds, they began to speak different languages and separated into the various Gê groups found today.

As well as the autodenomination Mebengokré, each group possesses its own name relating to a leader or the village’s location. The Xikrin used to call themselves Put Karôt, while the name Xikrin arose from the form in which they were called by another Kayapó people, the Irã-ã-mray-re, now extinct. It is interesting to note that the Xikrin who lived in the Bacajá river region recognize the group who near the Cateté river as Put Karôt, but not themselves.

The other Kayapó refer to the Xikrin as Djore, a name of another extinct group who lived along the shores of the Vermelho river, an affluent of the Itacaiúnas. In the earliest historical literature the Xikrin are called Uxikring, Chicri and Purucarus or Purukarôt.  


The Xikrin speak the Kayapó (or Mebengokré) language, belonging to the Gê linguistic family and the Macro-Gê linguistic trunk. They recognize the similarity between their language and those of the other groups and can also list the differences. This is interesting since they recognize both a linguistic unity and identity, and the differences within this wider group. Thus, all the members of a Kayapó group understand each other easily, a fact not repeated in the Xikrin’s communication with other Gê language groups.

In the village, the Xikrin use only their own language among themselves. Young men, who have more chance of contact with non-Indian society, speak Portuguese better than older men, women and children.

Linguists have only recently dedicated themselves to studying this language, paying attention to the particularities of Xikrin speech. The Kayapó have an orthography designed by the International Society of Linguistics (SIL), a missionary body that has worked for decades among these groups.


Currently living in Pará state, the Xikrin occupy two Indigenous Territories, both approved and registered: Cateté IT and Trincheira Bacajá IT.

The area of the Cateté Xikrin is drained by the Itacaiúnas and Cateté rivers and is situated on terra firme covered by tropical forest called ‘liana forest’ in this region, within the jurisdiction of the municipality of Parauapebas but close to the urban centre of Carajás. It is an area rich in mahogany and Brazil nut trees. In the clearings there is a high concentration of babassu palm, while burity palm grows abundantly in the marshy regions to the south. The largest village, as well as the Funai post, are situated on the left bank of the Cateté river, at a place called Pukatingró by the Indians, where the river winds in a long curve with a beach and shallow waterfall. After 1993, a new village was formed at a site named Djudjê-Kô by the Indians, with a fertile soil for swiddens and rich in game and fish.

The Bacajá Xikrin live on the left bank of the middle Bacajá river, an affluent of the right shore of the Xingu, within the José Porfírio municipal district. The region is covered in dense forest. In 1985, a fission took place and part of the group relocated to a site further upriver, at the Trincheira village.

The Xikrin build their villages close to a river or creek, but on dry and well-drained land. The social space comprises a central plaza encompassed by houses and the surrounding forest with small circular swiddens. The houses possess a particular physical location and obey a set pattern, which is maintained whenever they build a new village or forest camp site. In the middle of the village is the Men’s House, a male, political, juridical and ritual space.


Mulheres preparando o alimento ritual no forno de pedra ki. Foto: Isabelle Vidal Giannini-ISA, 1996
Mulheres preparando o alimento ritual no forno de pedra ki. Foto: Isabelle Vidal Giannini-ISA, 1996

The centre of the world is represented by the centre of the circular village’s plaza, where rituals and public life in general unfold. The symbol of the centre of the world and the universe is the rattle, a round, head-shaped musical instrument, played as the Indians sing and dance following a circular path that accompanies the solar trajectory. The Indians say that when dancing they return in time to their mythic origins, thereby recreating the energy required for the continuity and stability of the environment and the resources needed for survival, the continual reproduction of life and the different social institutions that ensure the equilibrium indispensable to life in the community.

The Xikrin define distinct natural spaces: the earth, divided into open tracts and forest, the sky, the aquatic world and the subterranean world. These are conceived to possess distinct attributes and inhabitants, while relating between themselves in varying ways. These natural spaces make up the different domains comprising the cosmos. The forest is home to different ethnic sets of enemies, terrestrial animals and also plants. It is the primary space for hunting game, such as tapir, tortoise, armadillo and peccary. But undue and unruly appropriation of the animal world causes the fury of a supernatural entity, the owner-controller of the animals who, through sorcery, regulates the predatory activities of humans. On the other hand, the forest is also the source of important attributes of Xikrin sociability. It was in this domain that during the time of origins the Indians acquired fire and ceremonial language. The forest is seen as a physical space shared with animals and enemies: competitive and aggressive. In the event of illness, the forest domain must be avoided.

Neutralization of this aggressivity is performed in clearings – places formed by the village or the swiddens – by means of domesticated animal species and cultivated plants. The clearing is the site for kinship and alliance relations, for the individual’s socialization, in other words, for the definition of Xikrin humanity. The aquatic domain provides the possibility for strengthening the physical and psychological aspects of the individual. Water causes rapid maturation through ritual immersions, yet without altering the being’s substance. Water is a creative element in contrast to fire, which is a transformative element. An owner-controller also exists in this domain. His relationship with humans is based on solidarity and, in mythic time, marks the beginning of relations between humans and the other domains. It was the owner-controller of the aquatic world who taught humans to cure sicknesses. Medicinal plants come from the terrestrial domain, but their knowledge and the rules for manipulating them for human benefit were acquired in the aquatic world through the mediation of a shaman and his relationship with the owner-controller of this domain. The subterranean world is linked with blood, raw food and cannibalism, representing a truly anti-social condition, in which humans comprise prey rather than predators. It represents all that humans have no wish to be. Within the sky domain, the East is the place of humanity par excellence, the place where the Xikrin originated. The Xikrin possess two myths that consecrate them as inhabitants of the earth, in opposition to the sky (Koikwa) where they came from, and in opposition to the subterranean inhabitants, who they succeeded in eliminating for ever (kuben kamrik).

From the geographical point of view, two cardinal points are recognized: East (Koikwa-krai) and West (Koikwa-enhôt). The East is a geographically well-defined and localisable region. It is the place where the Mëbengôkré originated, as their mythology indicates. The West is simply a conventional reference point of spatial delimitation in opposition to the East, but as it lacks any definition, no-one can situate it. According to the Indians, it represents the end of the world. The region east of the Araguaia and Tocantins is presented as a mythic space, bounded by an immense spider web which descends from the sky to the earth. Found on the other side of this web is the dwelling-place of the harpy eagle, ok-kaikrit, the shaman’s initiator.  


Desenho Xikrin
Desenho Xikrin

In Xikrin society, an individual becomes a shaman when he passes through an extreme situation, during which he ascends a giant spider web, reaches celestial space with its eternal light and where the nape of his neck is symbolically perforated by a harpy eagle, the largest bird in this ecosystem. The shaman – a super-human being whose powers are acquired ‘extra-socially’ – is the mediator between Xikrin society and both nature and the supernatural. The shaman has the power to transit between the human world and the natural world. During life, humans accumulate attributes from different cosmic domains and come to be constituted through them. The shaman lives, shares and communicates continually with these domains. He performs the role of intermediator. The shaman is a full being: he lives in human society, shares the social world of animals and the supernatural and has the capacity to manipulate the different domains. Among many other skills, he can negotiate with the owner-controllers of the animal world for plentiful game or an abundant catch of fish. He is initiated by the harpy eagle, an inhabitant of the celestial world, and thereby acquires the capacity to fly, which in turn affords him a cosmic view of the universe. The Xikrin say that the shaman, an individual who also treats illnesses and rescues the soul when it detaches from the body, manages to ‘see’ in a wider sense: he perceives what is invisible to humans. The Xikrin believe the shaman sees exceptionally well and only he and birds possess this highly developed faculty. 

Ceremonial life

When a community contains a sufficient number of people, and thus human resources, the cycle of rituals is continuous. During rituals, individuals acquire knowledge of kinship relations, formal friendships and the properties of each person, that is, aspects of social organization and reproduction. Song, choreography and decorations, which humans acquired in the time of origins, are reproduced in ritual as manifestations of the actual situation of humanity in the cosmos. During the preparations, men leave for fifteen days or more in search for sufficient meat to perform a ritual. They construct simple shelters in the forest where they string up their hammocks. A place is selected near to a river providing fishing and an old swidden, which attracts game and supplies fruit crops. A number of stone ovens roast the game daily, after which the meat is wrapped in wild banana leaves and buried until the day when camp is broken and the men return to the village.

While the men hunt, the women remain in the village, preparing manioc flour, harvesting sweet potato and collecting innumerable bunches of banana to be consumed during the ritual. The bananas are buried in order to ripen and function in a way as a natural clock that will indicate the day of the ritual. The most important rituals are those focused on male nomination (Bep, Takak), female nomination (Bekwe, Ire, Nhiok, Payn, Koko) and male initiation, made up of five phases, each of which is symbolically related to one of the particular cosmic domains. These rituals are sometimes inserted within others, such as the new maize festival or merêrêmei, ‘beautiful festival,’ which takes place during the transitional period between the dry and rainy seasons; the festivals incorporating new members of a ceremonial society, such as the armadillo society – Apieti –; the marriage ritual or mat festival; the funerary rituals and ritual fishing using timbó vine poisons. There are also recently introduced rituals, such as Kworo-kango, or the manioc festival, deriving from the Juruna people. Men and women perform their festivals separately or together. Boys are submitted to a large variety of initiatory trials: the fight against a nest of wasps, which symbolizes an enemy village, races and scarifications on their legs to increase agility, duels with heavy clubs or competitive games. At certain periods, the ritual cycle attains its climax and develops over several days with high intensity and lavish style. Ceremonial life also acts as a crucial context for the expression of the ways in which the Xikrin reflect on the relationships developed with the White world.

The Seventh of September Ritual

7th September 1996, a special ritual in the village of the Xikrin Indians of the Cateté river. As soon as dawn breaks, everyone, Indians and their guests, head to the centre of the village whose array of houses form a circle. Two masts, two flags, one of Brazil, one of Funai. Young boys positioned in files sing the national anthem, while two indigenous teachers hoist the flags. Once over, the Indian preacher reads a paragraph from the Bible written in the Kayapó language. Applause. Men, women and children from the Dudjê-kô and Putkarot villages were taking part.

The leader Karangré gesticulated, swapped ideas with the older men, and explained the choreography. Sudden movement, a rapid glance at my surroundings. In the ngobe - a physical space situated in the centre of the village and the meeting place for the men's Council for performing social and political functions - was the old ceremonial chief Bemoti, symbolizing the power of Brasília dressed in suit and green tie. Contrasting behind him, the elder Kenpoti, resplendent in a traditional headdress of white hawk feathers. The men from the Mebegnêt age set (mature or elder men) and the Mekramto age set (men with more than four children) divided up into those using jackets to personify the Federal Police, Ibama and Funai, personae from the border close to the world inhabited by the Xikrin Indians. The boys, companions from the Menoronu age set (initiated adolescents who sleep in the men's house), formed two parallel rows, one of the rows dressed in the blue strip of the Djudje-Kô village football team and the other with the red strip of the Putkarot village football team.

The dance begins. The boys walk in the direction of the Men's House, performing a choreography based on a football training exercise. Some three months beforehand the anthropologist Fernando Vianna, an ex-professional football player, had trained, taught and developed a physical education program with the Xikrin at their own request. These exercises acquired a specialized set of motions, transforming them into a ritual dance.

As they arrived in front of the Men's House, the first two boys in the file have their thighs scarified with teeth from the aruanã fish to make them into truly strong men; they move to the end of the file, re-perform the same dance and return for another two boys to be scarified, continuing in rhythm until all the boys have received the scars. Among the Xikrin, boys are submitted to a large variety of initiatory trials: the fight with a nest of wasps, which symbolizes an enemy village, races and scarifications on the legs to increase agility, duels with heavy clubs and competitive games.

Rest, a change of act, swapping of clothes. The Xikrin adorn themselves with diadems made from macaw, oropendola and harpy eagle feathers, itã shell necklaces, and cotton bands on their arms and chest. Several girls are being decorated, parrot feathers covering their bodies and vulture feathers on their heads; they arrive with faces painted with annatto, while a paint made from charcoal and tree resin is applied to the top of their heads. Their hair is shaven Xikrin-style and the paint covering them repels the souls of the dead. We have moved on to the Bekwoi female naming ritual.

Receiving a name makes up part of individual's lengthy process of socialization. During his or her life, a person accumulates numerous names, transmitted by their set of name givers and including various genealogical positions. As well as relating humans among themselves via the ancestors, names relate the Xikrin to different cosmic domains, whether those of animals, plants, spirits or other ethnic groups.

At the end of the ritual, the parents of the named girls offer all the participants cassava bread with fish, game roasted in the stone fires, banana, sweet potato, coffee, fanta and coca-cola.

But the ritual is not just enacted at the moment 'of the festival,' but also during extraction of the raw material needed for the individual to transform through his or her attire, impregnated with the essence of the other and thereby embodying self and other simultaneously.

The Xikrin spent at least three years preparing for this ritual. They acquired the flags, patiently negotiated the jackets from agents working for Ibama and the Federal Police (in Marabá), convinced me to choose and buy a suit and tie (in Brasília), and Fernando to arrange making the strips for the two football teams. The T-shirts with the emblem of the Bep-Nói Association were made in Papauapebas from their own funds. They acquired the black trousers and white T-shirts from the evangelical pastor in São Félix do Xingu. Everything was thought through, negotiations were made in such a way that they acquired the items from the key people: not just any jacket was suitable, only authentic ones from the Ibama and FP agents; not just any suit was suitable, only one bought in Brasília at the time when they went to request support from the President of Funai and Ibama, the Justice and Environment Ministers, and so on. The items should 'possess' the identity of the people - they account for the diversity of the geographic area they inhabit. Speaking about each of the items involves a long discourse concerning the negotiations and their acquisitions.

The ritual is a primary field for analyzing questions such as knowledge processes, tradition, innovation, interpretation, the comprehension and expression of the Xikrin way of life and thinking about their involvement in a wider world subject to continual and rapid transformation. The ritual is the synthetic expression of the Xikrin's basic concepts and truths, and the vision they have of themselves, their society and their universe. The essential aspects are transmitted in a clear, explicit and ordered way, showing that the Xikrin are consciously in command of their world.

Social organization

Mulheres Xikrin pintando com espátula e jenipapo. Fotos: Vincent Carelli-ISA e Michel Pellanders-ISA
Mulheres Xikrin pintando com espátula e jenipapo. Fotos: Vincent Carelli-ISA e Michel Pellanders-ISA

The domestic group, comprised of people who live under the same roof, is a basic institution. A woman is born, lives and dies in the same house. Houses like swiddens belong to women. After marriage, the man goes to live in his wife’s house. The women of a house undertake their activities as a group. Their work includes seasonal planting, the daily collection of tubers for the staple foods, the resupply of firewood and water, as well as some of the gathering from the forest. They are responsible for domestic tasks such as processing and cooking foods and looking after children. They also dedicate a large amount of time to body painting an extremely developed activity, weave cotton and fulfil an important role during rituals. Although they do not participate formally in the Council, they give their opinions on collective discussions and make decisions on subjects related to naming and marriages.

Questions of a political nature are proposed and resolved during the men’s council in the centre of the village, attended by all the men from the youngest, silent witnesses, to the oldest, more distant witnesses. The incorporation of a youth in the men’s house takes place around the age of ten, through ties of friendship which are completely independent of kinship ties. From the moment of his introduction into the men’s house until the birth of his first child a young man passes through different age sets. The birth of a child marks the moment at which the youth becomes an adult. The men’s house is associated with the male groups and the activities typically confined to men. Different groups divided by age set meet within it, occupying different spaces. Each set has a leader who listens to and expresses the concerns of his group. It is extremely rare to have a chief who is by himself responsible for the whole village.  

Foto: Michel Pellanders-ISA
Foto: Michel Pellanders-ISA

Village leadership succession among the Xikrin occurs within the same family, transmitted from father to son and from the oldest son to the youngest. Men generally work under the direction of a leader, divided into age sets. But to be a leader, a period of apprenticeship is required to acquire full knowledge of the rituals, songs, quotidian activities, war practices, myths and history of the group. A leader has no coercive means of imposing a decision on the different age sets. Instead, he succeeds in putting across his ideas and having them accepted through discourse, the exaltation of moral values and the interests of these groups. A leader never takes a decision alone, he has no power to do so. He must be attentive to the needs, wishes and ideas circulating within each age group set, and as soon as he spots a possible consensus, the leader must formulate it in a way that everyone can support, as though it were his idea. In the case of disagreement, the age set of the oldest men is consulted.

Hunting and fishing may be individual or collective activities. Men fabricate most of the body decorations, woven baskets, musical instruments, clubs, bows and arrows. On certain occasions, the age groups become more visibly apparent, for example during nomadic life, when each set concentrates on specific activities, or during certain rituals or sporting competitions. Very often they divide into two halves (adolescent versus married) and carry out various economic, political and ceremonial activities.

Every individual knows how to relate with other individuals in the village through kinship terminology. Members of a family or a residential section, including affines and kin, form mutual support units during daily life and in cases of sickness.

Naming relations are extremely important. Receiving a name makes up part of the individual’s lengthy process of socialization. During his or her life, a person will accumulate as many as thirty-five names, transmitted by the naming set and including various genealogical positions. A name can only be transmitted ceremonially to an individual who is considered ‘hard,’ with a formed and healthy body. As well as inter-relating humans via ancestors, names relate people to the different natural domains. Naming can be dangerous for a child who cannot yet walk or for a person who is sick.

History of fissions and territorial occupation

 The current configuration of Kayapó groups results from a long process of social and spatial mobility, marked by the continual formation of factions and political fissions. The histories of these trajectories, full of tensions, conflicts, sorcery accusations and epic tales of leaders, populate the memory of the latter-day Kayapó, forever told and retold in dramatic and detailed fashion by elders. After the fission of the Apinayé ancestral group, an event occurring roughly at the start of the 18th century after crossing the Araguaia river, the Kayapó split again at the end of the same century. The original group remained occupying the region bordering the Pau d’Arco, an affluent of the Araguaia, while the group called Pore-kru, ancestors of today’s Xikrin, headed in a northerly direction, towards the region formed by the Parauapebas and Itacaiúnas rivers. Later this group split into two: the Kokorekré who remained in the Parauapebas river area and the Put-Karôt, who moved away towards the Cateté river region on the upper Itacaiúnas. The Kokorekre (Kokorekré), who began to establish trade relations with the regional non-Indian population who were moving up the Parauapebas river, were also victims of diseases, as well as suffering around 1910 a massacre inflicted during a punitive expedition made by the Whites. Rubber exploration led to the deterioration of relations between the Put-Karôt and non-Indians, and the Indians withdraw from the Cateté towards the headwaters of the Itacaiúnas. It was in this village that a debilitated group of the Kokorekré joined up with the Put-Karôt. Around 1926, fearful of the Kayapó-Gorotire with whom they had endured a long period of hostility, they migrated northwards and settled in the region of the Bacajá river. A little afterwards, between 1930 and 1940, a group who disliked the site separated from the remainder and returned to the Cateté river.

The arrival of the Xikrin in the Bacajá region is calculated to have occurred sometime in 1926 or 1927. When they arrived at the Bacajá, they heavily explored both banks of the river, building a number of villages and confronting at various moments the Araweté, Asurini and Parakanã. The conflicts with the latter people are more recent and all the adults recall them.

Contact with non-Indians and population

The first formal contact between the Cateté Xikrin and non-Indians was in August 1952, at the SPI’s Las Casas Post, close to the village Conceição do Araguaia. (SPI = "Serviço de Proteção ao Índio" - Indian Protection Service, the governmental agency preceding FUNAI). Contact between the SPI’s sertanistas (explorers) and the Bacajá Xikrin took place on 13th November 1959, almost at the mouth of the Golosa creek where it flows into the Bacajá river. They were hit by epidemics provoking many deaths and the Indians headed back into the forests.

In 1961, another SPI front contacted them on the Carapanã creek on the right shore of the Bacajá, where they had built a large village. Sometime later, the Xikrin relocated to a site next to an old SPI post called Francisco Meirelles, below the Dois Irmãos creek. Finally in 1965 they were transferred to the site of the current village, called Flor do Caucho. There are no reliable data for the population during this period. However, it is known that there was a high death rate. Influenza, bronchopneumonia and other diseases struck both the groups.

However, in the last two decades, the demographic data show that the Xikrin have enjoyed a continual populational growth, due to the high number of births alongside the reduction in adult deaths and the considerable reduction in infant mortality. This is due to the abandonment of certain taboos relating to birth control and the assistance of the official indigenist body. As an indication, the Xikrin population which in 1985 numbered 472 individuals, with 304 in the Cateté area and 172 in the Bacajá area, in 2001 numbered 1051 individuals, 690 on the Cateté and 362 on the Bacajá.

Use of natural resources

Festa por ocasião de saída da primeira safra de madeira da Terra Indígena Xikrin do Cateté. Foto: Pedro Martinelli-2000, ISA
Festa por ocasião de saída da primeira safra de madeira da Terra Indígena Xikrin do Cateté. Foto: Pedro Martinelli-2000, ISA

The use of natural resources is highly diversified. The Xikrin know and distinguish the regional fauna and flora in detail. They not only recognize biological diversity (the variety of faunal and floral species) but also ecological diversity (the variety of ecosystems). Xikrin society’s conservation of this biological and ecological diversity is extremely important for the social perpetuation of their classificatory and symbolic knowledge and their pragmatic usage of the environment. The Xikrin define themselves essentially as hunters, despite their dependence on swidden produce. The most relished game are tapir, white-lipped peccary, deer, collared peccary, paca and agouti. They collect land turtles in large quantities and unearth armadillos. Recently some bird species have entered the menu, which is a novelty.

Various fish species make up part of the diet. In the winter they fish with nylon line and metal hooks. In the summer communal fishing with timbó poison predominates. A significant decrease in fish resources is now perceptible. The problems are caused by the fact that all the headwaters of the rivers flowing through the Cateté Xikrin Territory are outside the demarcated area. These rivers pass through an area of mineral extraction, large tracts of farmland where protection of the gallery forest is disrespected, causing gradual silting of the rivers. On the other hand, the Indians who in the past owned immense territories (taken as an infinite continuity), used to exploit only a fraction of the natural resources available to them. Today, these resources no longer appear inexhaustible.

As well as diversifying their diet, the custom of trekking though the area allowed a very carefully planned management of the different ecosystems. Many rituals depend on these treks, essential for obtaining stocks of food for sponsoring the ceremonies and obtaining other products not found close to the village. For example, the gourds used to make the ceremonial rattles, only found in the fields bordering the source of the Itacaiúnas river, medicinal plants, fibres, bees wax, mastic tree resin, and bird plumage. Foods deriving from the forest include palm hearts, Brazil-nuts, the babassu coconut and other smaller coconuts, different kinds of honey, wild fruits (assai palm, bacaba palm, Lucuma tree, cupuaçu, wild cacao, etc...) and palm larvae.  

Nilto Tatto em reunião no centro da aldeia com a comunidade Xikrin. Foto: Pedro Martinelli, 2000.
Nilto Tatto em reunião no centro da aldeia com a comunidade Xikrin. Foto: Pedro Martinelli, 2000.

They also collect all the raw material necessary for their material culture, especially timber, vines, straw, as well as shells, fresh water gastropods and various seeds. But a quantitative decrease can be seen in the raw material used by the Xikrin in their daily life or for the manufacture of decorations: as a result, itã shells have been substituted by buttons, various seeds by industrial beads, and deer and tapir claws by metal bells. Xikrin women now produce a larger quantity of babassu oil, a product traded for bird feathers with other Kayapó.

Despite the drastic and rapid changes to which they have been submitted, the Xikrin continue to practice slash-burn agriculture, planting various kinds of sweet potato, yam, manioc, maize, pumpkin, papaya, banana and cotton. Preparation of the terrain for cultivation is divided into three successive phases: chopping and felling (May and June), burning (August and September) and planting (October). Even after being abandoned, the swiddens are sources of food supplies for a long period of time, providing numerous products, such as firewood, sweet potato, fruits, genipap and annatto (used in body painting), babassu (to make palm oil) and medicinal plants from species planted close to the houses.

Even though their lands are demarcated, during recent decades the Xikrin areas have been a continual target for invasion by mineral and timber extractors, Brazil-nut harvesters and farmers. Contact, changes and adaptations produce an outward spiral that is rapidly widening and causing further impacts whose solutions can only be achieved through a new form of management.

In 1991, the Cateté Xikrin ceased to be seduced and coopted by the regional non-Indian population and regained control of their territory. By means of continuous external support, they issued and won a civil public suit against timber companies who had been illegally operating in their territory, and developed a forest management plan, whose main function is to conjoin traditional subsistence activities and the traditional use of resources with activities involving commercial exploration of forest products, such as Brazil-nuts and wood. In order to defend their people’s rights and facilitate their institutional links and partnerships, the Cateté Xikrin created the 'Bep-Nói Association' in 1995. Its statute – widely discussed by the community – respects their complex social organization (Read more about the Timber Exploration Project in the Xikrin do Cateté IT).

The Xikrin of the Bacajá make an annual collection of Brazil-nuts, which they sell to merchants in Altamira. Generally, this activity is assisted by Funai, which supplies new machetes (to break the tough outer bur encasing the nuts), ammunition, hammocks, mosquito nets and clothing, while also looking after transportation and sales, returning any profits to the Indians. However, this activity has not proven particularly lucrative, despite the large expanse of Brazil-nut trees in the Trincheira-Bacajá reserve; the price fetched by Brazil-nuts is low, while Funai debits the materials it supplies for collection from the net profits.

Visita dos ministros da justiça e do meio ambiente na ocasião da primeira safra de madeira. Foto: Pedro Martinelli, 2000.
Visita dos ministros da justiça e do meio ambiente na ocasião da primeira safra de madeira. Foto: Pedro Martinelli, 2000.

More profitable, though illegal, is the extraction of timber, especially mahogany and also cedar. Every summer, when it becomes possible to remove the trunks due to the absence of rains, the Xikrin are besieged by timber cutters after mahogany. These merchants are usually based in Tucumã, using people with considerable prior experience of negotiating with Kayapó communities as their intermediaries. Some years ago, timber cutters opened up a road starting from the Bacajá shore opposite the village and extending as far as Tucumã with various branch roads. Timber extraction occurs ever closer to the village and has caused a large amount of damage to the forest. Discussing the subject with the Indians is a difficult task, though, since they are clearly aware of the risks to the forest and animal game, but remain lured by the profits. The timber is paid for with food supplies and there are indications that a few men monopolize the monetary income, depositing it in bank accounts, Funai and the Federal Police have attempted to expose this activity a number of times, but without succeeding in putting an end to it.

Traditional education

Foto: Vincent Carelli-ISA, 1973.
Foto: Vincent Carelli-ISA, 1973.

Traditional teaching takes place through living together and participation observation. Adults guide, correct and sometimes teach in a more systematic manner songs, choreographies and ritual sequences to sets of boys and girls. Important pedagogical aspects include repetition and participation in the different events. An individual with a pronounced inclination towards performing a specific activity, learns in a more continuous fashion from a recognized specialist in that activity. Girls learn body painting at home from adult kin. Myths are told by older men, in the form of tales, dramas or political discourse. Punishments exist, or better, certain types of pressure from kin and the wider community in relation to deviant conduct, especially through ridicule or light ostracism. Well executed work and appropriate behaviour are publicly praised and admired.

Education proceeds in stages roughly corresponding to age sets and the sexual division of activities (Read more about infancy among the Xikrin). As a result of personal aptitudes, some individuals are specialists in particular activities, such as the shaman, singer or artisan. Accepting such a function requires possessing a recognized capability of performing it. Someone wishing to become a shaman has to suffer a serious illness, dream a lot and be instructed by another older shaman. Singers inherit their function from their name givers. Those possessing more pronounced skill in craftwork seek the company of older and talented artisans in order to learn from them.

Notes on the sources

The above text is an attempt to synthesize the various sources of information available on the Xikrin. In the ethnological bibliography, the monograph Morte e Vida de uma Sociedade Indígena Brasileira, by Lux Vidal, published in 1977, is a fundamental reference for anyone wishing to study Xikrin society. She describes this society in detail, emphasizing their social organization, the system of age sets, kinship relations, formal friendships, ceremonial roles, and oppositions between centre/periphery, man/woman, nature/culture. She provides an analysis of the relations between name givers and receivers, the transmission of prerogatives, as well as Xikrin social organization through a study of name giving rituals. Between 1978 and 1986, Vidal wrote important articles on the meaning of body decoration. These include, “Pintura e adornos corporais”, published in SUMA Etnológica Brasileira, edited by Berta Ribeiro, and “A pintura corporal e a arte gráfica entre os Kayapó-Xikrin do Cateté”, published in the collection Grafismo Indígena, edited by the author herself. Vidal also wrote an article on the age sets as a system of classification and demographic control of groups among the Xikrin of the Cateté, and how these are manipulated in different contexts. This article can be found in the Revista do Museu Paulista, vol. XXIII. The topic of death and longing – a very present feeling among the Xikrin – was tackled by the author in an article called “A morte entre os índios Kayapó”, published in the book A Morte e os Mortos na Sociedade Brasileira, edited by José de Souza Martins.

As a reference from the 1960s and 1970s, there is also the work of Father Caron (1971) on the Xikrin Indians, written in the form of a diary, a register of his missionary work during the period from 1964 to 1970. In addition, there are notes by Protásio Frickel containing plans and details on the construction of the Xikrin house, made at the time of contact, as well as descriptions of the equipment and subsistence techniques used by the group. Horace Banner, in an article published in 1961 in the Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, describes the life of the Xikrin in their camp site and their relations with the regional population.

In 1991, Isabelle Giannini wrote her M.Phil. dissertation entitled A ave resgatada: a impossibilidade da leveza do ser, cujo foco centrou-se no estudo da etnoclassificação da avifauna pelos Xikrin do Cateté e do simbolismo das aves nos vários campos da vida social em que são significativas. whose focus centred on the study of the ethnoclassification of the bird life by the Cateté Xikrin and the symbolism of birds in the various field of social life in which they are meaningful. In 2000, Fabíola Andéas da Silva presented a doctoral thesis entitled As tecnologias e seus significados: um estudo da cerâmica Assurini do Xingu e da cestaria dos Kayapó Xikrin sob uma perspectiva etno-arqueológica. The author seeks to demonstrate that the productive processes in Xikrin material culture are not just an indicator of the adaptability or efficiency of humans in solving problems deriving from their relationship with the material world, but also a social construction.

In articles published in Povos Indígenas no Brasil (1991/1995 e 1996/2000), Giannini approaches more contemporary questions concerning the predatory and illegal model of timber extraction and the defence of sustainable management by the Xikrin of the Cateté. The same publications contain articles on timber exploration and mineral extraction in the Xikrin do Bacajá indigenous area, written by the anthropologist William Fisher. The author completed a dissertation in 1991, Dualism and its discontents: social organization na village fissioning among the Xikrin Kayapó of Central-Brazil, and in 2000 published the book Rainforest exchanges: industry and community on amazonian frontier. The latter studies the relations between the Bacajá Xikrin society and their environment. Clarice Cohn in her recent M.Phil. dissertation A criança indígena: a concepção Xikrin de infância e aprendizado investigates the way in which the Bacajá Xikrin conceive infancy and learning. The study is based on a description of children’s experiences in daily life and rituals, as well as the occasions and modes of learning and teaching, in order to perceive their specificity.

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