From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Hein van der Voort, 1998


Where they are How many
RO 54 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
Linguistic family

Expelled from their lands by ranchers after the opening of BR-364, in the 1960s, the Kwazá people lost many of their members and their culture. Today they are only about 40 individuals who have been living together with the Aikanã and Latundê for a number of decades, in the south of Rondônia.

They were known in the literature as 'Koaiá'. Their traditional neighbors were the Aikanã, Kanoê, Tuparí, Mekens/Sakurabiat, Salamãi, and possibly several others. The people maintained relations amongst themselves, through the exchange of women, festivals, wars. Their languages are not mutually intelligible. Even so, their cultures are very similar probably because of intertribal contacts and common subsistence resources in the region. Today the majority of these people either have been decimated or are dispersed, with their cultures having been destroyed by the national society since the beginning of the century. More or less 25 speakers of the Kwazá language are left. Most of the Kwazá are already mixed with the Aikanã and live on the Tubarão-Latundê Indigenous Reserve, in Rondônia, together with survivors of the Aikanã and Latundê peoples. There is also a family of mixed Kwazá and Aikanã in another Indigenous Reserve, the Terra Indígena Kwazá do Rio São Pedro


The self-denomination of the group is 'Kwazá' (in which the z corresponds to the sound [ð], which is pronounced like the letters th in the English word the, and in which the accent falls on the last syllable). In the few existing references in the literature on the Kwazá until 1942, they are referred to as 'Koaiá, Koaya, Coaiá or Quaia'. The Kwazá do not recognize these names and consider them wrong. They explain that the correct name is 'Kwazá', but they don't attribute any meaning to it. It is probable that the names 'Kwazá' or 'Koaiá' derive from names that were given to them by other peoples. For example, the Salamãi in the past called them 'Koaiá'. Besides that, the name 'Kwazá' is most likely not their original self-designation because the inventory of sounds in the Kwazá language does not include the [ð]. On the other hand, this sound is very frequent in the language of a neighboring people, the Aikanã. These people call them the 'Kwazá' (with the [ð]), although they also do not attribute any particular meaning to the name.

The name 'Arara' was used in the past by several FUNAI employees, and today it also can be found in the scientific literature. This name is not recognized by the Indians and has not been widely diffused. Besides that, it could cause confusion with other peoples of Rondônia who are also called 'Arara'. There are several other self-denominations which have descriptive value, but they are not much used. The names 'Tsãrã txinũténaheré' "those of the big land", 'Tsãrã txuhũinaheré' "those of the small land" referred to two groups of Kwazá who lived in two distinct places in the south of Rondônia until the end of the last century.

Finally, the Kanoê called the Kwazá, 'Tainakãw'.

Language, location and population

Foto: Hein van der Voort, 1996
Foto: Hein van der Voort, 1996

The Kwazá language can be classified as an 'isolate', similar to several others of the state of Rondônia. This means that the Kwazá language is not related to other known languages or linguistic families. Historical-comparativve studies indicate that, with respect to the system of sounds, the formation of words and the vocabulary, Kwazá is very different from other languages. The sparse similarities between Kwazá and the isolates Aikanã and Kanoê languages, and the languages from the Tupi, Nambikwara, Txapakura and Macro-Jê families are probably due to a very long history of contact or to coincidence.

Today most members of the three nuclear families which comprise the greater part of the Kwazá population live on the Tubarão-Latundê Indigenous Reserve, municipality of Chupinguaia, Rondônia. There they live among the Aikanã, which has a population of approximately 150 individuals. Some of the Kwazá consider themselves Aikanã. During my stay amongst them, I counted 25 Kwazá speakers, more than half of them being children. Half of the Kwazá are trilingual, for they speak both Aikanã and Português. A part is bilingual in Kwazá and Português. There are some who speak Kwazá as a second or third language, and some passive “speakers” who understand Kwazá. Most of the speakers of Aikanã are bilingual, also speaking Portuguese. The Latundê people also live on the Indigenous Reserve, and they speak a language which can be classified as Nambikwara.

Among the Kwazá/Aikanã families who live in the region of São Pedro, there are only a handful of persons who know kwazá, besides Portuguese.

Several Kwazá live in the cities (Porto Velho, Pimenta Bueno, and possibly in other places), and have no contact with the village Indians. Thus, like many urban Aikanã, they may have lost their language. There are no data that confirm the existence of Kwazá who live outside of Brazil.

The Kwazá language is a “language threatened by extinction”, that is, it runs the risk of disappearing in very little time, because it is spoken by a few people and/or because it is not being transferred to the younger generations. The languages of the neighboring Kanoê and Latundê are in the same situation.

Traditional context and situation

The traditional habitat of the Kwazá was the high forest. They lived along the rivers, preferentially at the headwaters. Among their traditional neighbors were the Aikanã and the Kanoê, both with unclassified languages; the Mekens/Sakurabiat and the Tuparí, of the Tuparí language family; the Salamãi, of the Mondé language family; and various others, several of which are already extinct. Even speaking mutually unintelligible languages, these peoples maintained contact amongst themselves, whether due to territorial wars, or as a result of intertribal alliances, festivals, and marriages. This intertribal exchange produced strong similarities among the material, spiritual, and intellectual cultures of these peoples, making up what was called by the anthropologist Denise Maldi the “Cultural Complex of Marico"(1991), which, among other things, is characterized by the following aspects: baskets made of tucum fibre ('marico'); beehive-shaped community longhouses for more or less 10 nuclear families; chicha, a sifted and fermented beverage, of corn, manioc, banana, açaí, etc.; shamanism based on the use of a psychoactive powder, paricá; social organization based on clans with animal names and specific features from mythology. The Kwazá fit this typology. As far as the division into clans, although the remaining Kwazá do not remember this, there are indications in the oral memory of the neighboring groups that suggest the former existence of clans among the Kwazá.

Various customs disappeared shortly after the beginning of contact with the national society. Before contact, the Kwazá held rituals of anthropophagy (they ate their enemies); they held adult initiation rituals, involving the isolation of young girls for several months; they played the sport of head-ball [with a ball of rubber] (today they play soccer); they painted their bodies with urucum [red vegetal dye] and jenipapo [blue-black vegetal dye]; they decorated their bodies with collars, bracelets, earrings, and helmets of coco, teeth, shells, tucum fibre and feathers (today they prefer to use acryllic beads, silver collars, caps and watches); they pierced their lower and upper lips to use lip-plugs; they slept in hammocks made of tucum fibre (today they prefer beds); the men played various types of music with various types of bamboo flutes (today it is very rare); they had sacred flutes which the women were prohibited to hear (today, there are no more); they hunted and fished with bow and arrow and timbó [plant poison] (today they hunt with guns). The social and political organization of traditional society was very egalitarian. The group was divided into territorial subgroups, probably clans, like their neighbors. Possibly there did not exist a form of leadership higher than these subgroups, and it was generally exercised by young men. The shaman held an important position as doctor and spiritual intermediary, which did not give him any special status outside of these spheres of activity. Although men and women exercised different activities, a woman could also be a leader or shaman. It is almost impossible to obtain more information on the traditional life of the Kwazá, since the elders of today grew up in a time of great turbulence because of contact with the westerners. Along with rice and beans introduced by the westerners, the Kwazá of today still (as in the past) plant bananas, manioc, peanuts, yams, tobacco, in gardens that are periodically burnt and transferred to the virgin forest after a few years. They still gather fruits, raise larvae found in patauá fruits and keep jacus, macaws, besides other birds, pigs, coatis, and various types of monkeys as pets.

Present context and situation

Since the 1930s the Kwazá have combined hunting and the planting of gardens with rubber extraction, through which the peoples of the south of Rondônia have become integrated to the global economy. They used to work rubber as hired labor for the westerners in exchange for exogenous products such as coffee, sugar, firearms. In the 1970s, the Kwazá and the Aikanã began to work for themselves, selling rubber in the city. They have also been involved in the exploitation of timber of good quality, and exchange mahogany for cars and supermarket goods (like rice, sugar etc.), thus becoming accustomed to the way of life of the westerners. The missionaries destroyed other important parts of their culture, for example, the UNIEDAS Mission (United Evangelical Churches of South America, a fundamentalist protestant church) taught that the practice of shamanism is an “evil against God". In this process of acculturation to the world of the westerners, the Indians have become dependent on basic food products and medicine which cost money, and, as a result, they have lost their autonomy. Their lands, which are not very fertile, do not contain minerals of any worth, the timber of good quality has practically come to an end, and palm cabbage is almost no longer found in the area. The local rubber market collapsed in 1997. Today, the retirement pensions of the elderly and the salaries of the indigenous health and educational assistants represent a source of family income.

The Kwazá and other peoples of Rondônia, like the Aikanã, were expelled by ranchers from the fertile lands where they originally lived, after the opening of state highway BR-364 in the 1960s. Thus, today, the great majority of the Kwazá live together with the Aikanã and the Latundê in the Tubarão-Latundê indigenous area, demarcated in 1983. The soil of this indigenous area is almost totally sandy. A large part of the indigenous area has lowbrush vegetation. Each year, the region has less virgin forest, which is leading to the rapid depletion of game animals.

The Tubarão-Latundê Indigenous Reserve as a whole has only one leader or chief, who represents the three groups living in it. This leader, today, is a young Aikanã man, assisted by the more elderly people of the community and by the administration of the FUNAI headquarters in Vilhena. Together, the Indians created in 1996 the "Massaká Association of the Aikanã, Latundê and Kuazá Indigenous Peoples" ("Massaka"‚ originally, was the name of an Aikanã Indian). Until recently, the NGO "Proteção Ambiental Cacoalense"[Cacoal Environmental Protection] (PACA), of Rondônia, has given support, in the form of courses, to the Massaká Association.

Until their lands were demarcated in 2000, the Kwazá of the São Pedro River were seriously threatened by the local ranchers and politicians. Fortunately, the FUNAI and the CIMI made an effort to get the area recognized, area, since the headwaters of the São Pedro stream, tributary of the Pimenta Bueno River, correspond to one of the original regions of the Kwazá people. The evidence that supports the rights of the Kwazá includes manuscript documents by explorers of the region since the beginning of the 20th century, such as Rondon and Lévi-Strauss. The Terra Indígena Kwazá do Rio São Pedro was demarcated in June 2000 and homologated in February 2003. Nevertheless, there is still a rancher occupying part of this small indigenous reserve.

Note on the sources

There is almost no mention of the Kwazá in the sources. The first mention to the 'Coaiás' (Kwazá) was made on a manyuscript map by General Rondon in 1913 (published in 1948), who located them on the banks of the São Pedro River, tributary of the Pimenta Bueno River, approximately 20 kilometers to the north of the Tanarú River. The São Pedro River was called Djaru-jupirará ‘red river’ by the 'Kepkiriuat' (Tupí language), who provided the information to Rondon. Also according to the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, the Kwazá language was spoken on the São Pedro River. At the end of the 1930s, when Lévi-Strauss visited the south of Rondônia, he met a young Kwazá among the Kepkiriwát. This young man came from the São Pedro stream. A few years later, the mineralogical expedition 'Urucumacuan', directed by Dr. Victor Dequech, passed through Rondônia and met the 'Coaiá' on the banks of the Pimenta Bueno and the São Pedro. The first reconnaissance of the 'Koaiá' by the Indian Protection Service (SPI) took place in 1942, when Lieutenant Estanislau Zack mentioned them in his report. From then until 1984, there is no more mention of them; in that year, the American linguist Harvey Carlson visited the Tubarão-Latundê Indigenous Area and met several 'Koaiá', survivors of various epidemics that they had suffered for more than 40 years. He tried to call the attention of the linguistic community to the existence of the language. Lévi-Strauss, Zack and Carlson collected short lists of words that demonstrate that the language was identical to that spoken by the present-day Kwazá. The 'Koaza' language was also mentioned by Ione Vasconcelos, professor of the University of Brasília, who has researched the neighboring language Aikanã, in personal correspondence to me in 1993.

I lived in the Kwazá and Aikanã villages for 14 months between 1995 and 1998, in order to study the Kwazá language. A description of the Kwazá language, including a dictionary and a collection of traditional texts, was published in 2004. The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) has financed my project.

Sources of information

  • MALDI, Denise. O complexo cultural do Marico : sociedades indígenas dos rios Branco, Colorado e Mequens, afluentes do Médio Guaporé. Boletim do MPEG, Série Antropologia, Belém : MPEG, v. 7, n. 2, p. 209-69, dez. 1991.


  • RODRIGUES, Aryon dall’Igna. Línguas brasileiras : para o conhecimento das línguas indígenas. São Paulo : Loyola, 1986.


  • RONDON, Cândido Mariano da Silva. Conferencias realizadas nos dias 5, 7 e 9 de outubro de 1915 pelo Coronel Rondon no teatro Phenix de Rio de Janeiro. Comissão de Linhas Telegraphicas Estratégicas de Matto Grosso ao Amazonas, Rio de Janeiro : Typ. Leuzinger, n. 42, p. 217-9, 1916.


  • VOORT, Hein van der. Alguns aspectos da língua Koaia, presentemente denominada Kwaza. Boletim da Abralin, s.l. : Abralin, n. 20, p. 35-54, jan. 1997.

. Índios redescobertos. Parabólicas, São Paulo : ISA, v. 4, n. 28, p. 6, abr. 1997.

. Linguistic fieldwork among the indians in the South of Rondonia, Brazil. Yumtzilob, Tijdschrift over de Americas, s.l. : s.ed., v. 8, n. 4, p. 359-86, 1996.