From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil


Where they are How many
AM 108 (ISA/Foirn, 2017, 2017)
Colombia 528 (Colômbia, 1988)
Linguistic family
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The Indians who live on the banks of the Uaupés River and its tributaries - the Tiquié, Papuri, Querari and other minor rivers - today belong to 17 ethnic groups, many of which also live in Colombia, in the Uaupés and Apaporis river basins (tributary of the Japurá), the principal tributary of which is the Pira-Paraná River.

These indigenous groups speak languages of the Eastern Tukanoan family (only Tariana is of Arawak origin) and participate in a wide-ranging network of exchanges, which include marriages, rituals and commerce, which form a definite socio-cultural complex, called the “social system of the Uaupés/Pira-Paraná”. This, in turn, is part of a broader culture area, including populations of the Arawak and Maku language families.

Ethnic groups: Arapaso, Bará, Barasana, Desana, Karapanã, Kotiria, Kubeo, Makuna, Mirity-tapuya, Pira-tapuya, Siriano, Tariana, Tukano, Tuyuca, Tatuyo, Taiwano, Yuruti (the last three live only in Colombia)

How many people: 11,130 in Brazil (in 2001) and 18,705 in Colombia (in the year 2000)


Crianças tuyuka. Foto: Aloisio Cabalzar, 2002.
Crianças tuyuka. Foto: Aloisio Cabalzar, 2002.

The Eastern Tukanoan language family includes at least 16 languages, among which is Tukano proper which has the largest number of speakers. It is used not only by the Tukano, but also by other groups of the Brazilian Uaupés and on its tributaries, the Tiquié and Papuri. Thus, Tukano has come to be used as a sort of trade language, allowing for communication among peoples with quite different paternal languages and, in many cases, which are mutually incomprehensible.

In some contexts, Tukano has come to be more used than the local languages themselves. The Tukano language is also widely used by the Maku, since they need it for their relations with the Tukano Indians. The languages classified as Western Tukanoan, on the other hand, are spoken by peoples who inhabit the border region between Colombia and Equador, such as the Siona and Secoya.

Considering the significant number of people from the Uaupés basin who are residing on the Rio Negro and in the cities of São Gabriel and Santa Isabel, it is estimated that around 20 thousand people speak Tukano. The other languages of this family are spoken by smaller populations which predominate in more restricted regions. This is the case of the Kotiria and Kubeo on the Upper Uaupés, above Iauareté; the Pira-tapuya on the Mid-Papuri; the Tuyuka and Bará on the Upper Tiquié; and the Desana in communities located on the Tiquié, Papuri and their tributaries.


Fonte: Instituto Socioambiental.
Fonte: Instituto Socioambiental.

The Uaupés River runs about 1,375 kilometers in length. From its mouth on the Rio Negro to its confluence with the Papuri River, the Uaupés is located in Brazilian territory and runs over about 342 kilometers. Between the mouth of the Papury and the mouth of the Querari, the Uaupés River serves as a border between Brazil and Colombia for more than 188 kilometers. From there up to its headwaters, it is located in Colombian territory and runs over 845 kilometers. Navigating on the Uaupés, H. Rice (1910) counted 30 large rapids and 60 smaller ones.

After the Rio Branco, the Uaupés River is the largest tributary of the Rio Negro. Presently, the name Uaupés is more used in Brazil, since in Colombia, it is Vaupés that is more used), but it is also known as the Caiari. Along its course, the Uaupés receives the waters from other large rivers such as the Tiquié, the Papuri, the Querari and the Cuduiari.

The largest population centers of the Uaupés River are the city of Mitu, capitol of the Colombian Department of the Vaupés, and Iauareté, which is the seat of a district of the municipality of São Gabriel. Iauareté, besides being a traditional location of the Tariana, also is the center of a large mission of the Salesians and an Army border platoon. There are two other Salesian missions in the Uaupés basin, one in Taracuá (at the confluence of the Uaupés with the Tiquié) and the other on the upper Tiquié, called Pari-Cachoeira. There is also an Army detachment at the confluence of the Querari with the Uaupés and another in Pari-Cachoeira.

Ethnic groups and demography

The ethnic groups present in the Uaupés basin are the following:

1) Arapaso. Eastern Tukanoan group who presently only speak the Tukano language. They live on the Middle Uaupés, below Iauareté, in villages such as Loiro, Paraná Jucá and São Francisco. Several families also live on the Rio Negro and in São Gabriel.

2 ) Bará. The call themselves Waípinõmakã. They inhabit mainly the area of the headwaters of the Tiquié River, above the village of Trinidad, which is in Colombia; the upper Inambú stream (tributary of the Papuri) and the upper Colorado and Lobo (tributaries of the Pira-Paraná). They are divided into around eight sibs (descent groups with a common ancestor which cannot intermarry). They are specialists in the preparation of aturá carrying baskets made of turi, much used where the Maku carrying baskets made of vines are not available. They also prepare red dye, carajuru. They are also skilled manufacturers of canoes. Presently, they are the principal specialists in the making of feather adornments used in the great cerimonies.

3) Barasana. They call themselves Hanera. They live on the Tatu, Komeya, Colorado and Lobo streams, tributaries of the Pira-Paraná, and on the Pira-Paraná itself, in Colombian territory. They are also found dispersed in the Uaupés basin, in Brazil. They have 36 named subdivisions on record.

4) Desana. They call themselves Umukomasã. They live mainly on the Tiquié River and its tributaries, the Cucura, Umari and Castanha; the Papuri River (especially in Piracuara and Monfort) and its tributaries, the Turi and Urucu; besides parts of the Uaupés and Negro rivers(including the cities of the region). There are approximately 30 divisions among the Desana, of chiefs, dancers, chanters, and servants. This number may vary according to the source. The Desana are specialists in certain types of woven baskets, such as large apás (trays with internal hoops made of vines) and sieves.

5) Karapanã. They call themselves the Muteamasa, Ukopinõpõna. They live on the Tí stream (tributary of the upper Vaupés) and upper Papuri, in Colombia. In Brazil, they are found dispersed in several villages of the Tiquié and Negro. They used to have around eight subdivisions, but probably only four of these left descendants.

6) Kubeo. They call thermselves Kubéwa or Pamíwa. They speak a very distinct language of the Eastern Tukanoan family, and for this reason are sometimes classified as Central Tukanoan. The vast majority of them live in Colombian territory, in the region of the upper Uaupés, including its tributaries the Querari, Cuduiari and Pirabatón. In Brazil, they live in three villages on the upper Uaupés and are found in small numbers on the upper Aiari. They are divided into approximately 30 named sibs. These sibs, in turn, are grouped into three unnamed phratries which function as marital exchange units; in other words, in contrast with most of the other ethnic groups of the Uaupés, the Kubeo are accustomed to marrying amongst themselves, people who speak the same language. They specialize in the manufacture of barkcloth masks.

7) Makuna. They call themselves Yeba-masã. They live mainly in the neighboring territory of Colombia, especially on the Caño Komeya, tributary of the Pira-Paraná River, on the lower course of this river, and on the lower Apapóris. In Brazil, they are found on the upper Tiquié and on its tributaries, the Castanha and Onça streams. They are divided into around 12 sibs. They specialize in the manufacture of blowguns and curare poison, they are also skilled manufacturers of canoes, besides supplying light and quite well-finished oars to the Indians of the upper Tiquié.

8) Miriti-tapuya or Buia-tapuya. Presently, they only speak the Tukano language. They have traditionally inhabited the lower and middle Tiquié, especially in the communities of Iraiti, São Tomé, Vila Nova and Micura.

9) Pira-tapuya. They call themselves Waíkana. They are located on the middle Papuri (around Teresita) and on the lower Uaupés. They have migrated and also live in places on the Rio Negro and in São Gabriel.

10) Siriano. They call themselves Siria-masã. They live on the Caño Paca and Caño Viña, tributaries of the upper Papuri, in Colombian territory. In Brazil, they are found dispersed throughout the Uaupés and Rio Negro river basins. There is information that refers to 27 Siriano sibs.

11) Taiwano, Eduria or Erulia. They call themselves Ukohinomasã. They live on the Caño Piedra and Tatu, tributaries of the Pira-Paraná River, and the Cananari River, tributary of the Apapóris. All of these areas are situated in Colombian territory. There exists information that the group has eight subdivisions.

12) Tariana. They call themselves Taliaseri. Diferent from the other ethnic groups of the Uaupés basin, most of the Tariana have adopted Eastern Tukano, but they used to speak a language belonging to the Arawak family, and several communities still speak this Arawakan language. Presently, they live on the middle Uaupés, lower Papuri and upper Iauiari. Their population center lies between the Iauareté and Periquito rapids. They are specialists in fishing tools such as the caiá, cacuri (fish trap), matapi.

13) Tatuyo. They call themselves Umerekopinõ. They live in an area located in Colombia: the upper Pira-Paraná River, the upper Tí and the Caño Japu. In Brazil, they are represented above all by women married to men from other ethnic groups. There are around eight internal subdivisions.

14) Tukano. They call themselves Ye"pâ-masa or Daséa. This is the most numerous group of the Eastern Tukanoan language family. They are concentrated primarily on the Tiquié, Papuri and Uaupés rivers; but they are also living on the Rio Negro, below the mouth of the Uaupés, and also in the city of São Gabriel. It is possible that there exist more than 30 subdivisions of the Tukano, each one named and, ideally, consisting of an hierarchized set of sibs. Presently, with all of the dispersions of groups that have occurred over the last few centuries, the hierarchical positions are often disputed and subject to varying versions. The Tukano are traditional manufacturers of ritual benches, made of wood (sorva) and painted, on the seat of the bench, with geometric motifs similar to those found in weaving. The bench is a highly valued object, obligatorily used in cerimonies and rituals, where the leaders, the kumua (chanters) e bayá (cerimonial chiefs) sit.

15) Tuyuka. They call themselves Dokapuara or Utapinõmakãphõná. They are concentrated mainly on the upper Tiquié River, between Caruru Rapids and Colombian village of Trinidad, including the Onça, Cabari and Abiyú streams. They are also found on parts of the Papuri River near the Brazil/Colombia border and on its tributary the Inambú. They have around 15 named sibs. They are outstanding canoe manufacturers and, in the past, they were specialists in the making of hammocks woven from buriti fiber. They are also specialists in the making of the urupema basket, woven from very fine strips of arumã, which are used to filter fruit juices.

16) Kotiria. They call themselves Kótiria. They are located predominantly on the middle Uaupés, between Arara and Mitú falls. Between Arara and Taracuá (of the upper Uaupés), the Kotiria are the only group; above that point, they live together in a territory where the Kubeo are the majority. There is information that there exists 25 divisions among the Kotiria. Their specialty in interethnic trade relations is the preparation of red dye, carajuru, made from the leaves of a vine, and which is greatly used in the making of ritual artifacts and the painting of the Tukano benches, as well as for body painting. They are also skilled basket makers and producers of barkcloth objects.

17) Yuruti. They call themselves Yutabopinõ. A group of the Eastern Tukanoan language family, they live on the upper Paca (tributary of the upper Papuri) and the caños Yi and Tui and neighboring areas of the Vaupés into which these streams flow (in Colombian territory). There is information that they have nine sibs.

On the Uaupés River and its tributaries, there are presently more than 200 villages and small settlements. Individuals of these ethnic groups are also present in the cities of the region, above all in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Santa Isabel and Barcelos.

The following table presents population estimates for each ethnic group.

Ethnic group Population in Brazil


Bará  39
Barasana  61
Desana 1.531
Karapanã 42
Kotiria 447
Kubeo 287
Makuna 168
Mirity-tapuya 95
Pira-tapuya 1.004
Siriano 17
Taiwano 0
Tariana 1914
Tatuyo 0
Tukano 4.604
Tuyuca 593
Yuruti 0
TOTAL 11.130

Identity and difference

Maloca na região do Uaupés. Foto: Acervo Museu do Índio, 1931.
Maloca na região do Uaupés. Foto: Acervo Museu do Índio, 1931.

Together with their neighbours, the Tukanoans make up an open-ended socio-political system that is integrated through networks of reciprocal exchange involving visiting, trade, intermarriage, and ritual feasting. This regional system depends upon an interplay between similarity and difference, between things that give its component groups some measure of collective identity and things that make them different from each other and create interdependence between them. Let us begin with the similarities.

The Tukanoans share a continuous geographical area and the same basic way of life involving both hunting and gathering but with a predominant emphasis on fishing and on slash-and-burn agriculture with bitter manioc as the principal crop. In the past they all lived in communal houses or malocas of more or less uniform architectural style: a large rectangular building with a massive gabled roof and a door at each end. They speak closely-related languages with many features of grammar and much of their vocabulary in common. They also share conventions regarding how these different languages should be used: most people speak at least two languages and often understand more but in normal conversation they use only their father's language. They also share nearly identical styles of body ornamentation and, although the words and melodies may differ, they use the same musical instruments and their music, dancing and singing conform to the same basic stylistic repertoire. These shared conventions regarding life-style, spatial organisation, language, speech, dress, music, dance mean that Uaupés peoples partake in a common system of verbal and non-verbal communication that receives its fullest expression at inter-community rituals.  

Índio Bara com seu filho no Alto Papuri. Foto: Jean Jackson, 1969.
Índio Bara com seu filho no Alto Papuri. Foto: Jean Jackson, 1969.

Each group has their own origin stories but they also share a body of broadly identical mythology. The myths explain the origins of the cosmos, describing a dangerous, undifferentiated world with no clear boundaries of space and time, and no difference between people and animals. They explain how the deeds of the first beings created the physical features of the landscape, and how the world was gradually made safe for the emergence of true human beings. Finally, a key origin myth explains how an Anaconda-ancestor entered the world-house through the "water-door" in the East and travelled up the Río Negro and Uaupés with the ancestors of all humanity inside his body. Initially in the form of feather ornaments, these spirit-ancestors were transformed into human beings over the course of their journey. When they reached the rapids of Ipanoré, the centre of the world, they emerged from a hole in the rocks and moved to their respective territories. These shared narratives give the Uaupés peoples a common understanding of the cosmos, of the place of human beings within it, and of the relations that should pertain between different peoples and between them and other beings.  

Pedro Garcia, da etnia Tariano. Foto: Miguel Chaves, 1998.
Pedro Garcia, da etnia Tariano. Foto: Miguel Chaves, 1998.

Against this common backdrop, each group has a distinctive identity and a particular place within the system. The population is divided into some 20 exogamous groups, - the Bará, Barasana, Cubeo, Desana, Makuna, Pirátapuyo, Tatuyo, Tukano, and Uanano and others - each with rights to a particular territory or stretch of river with different characteristics and potential. Compounding these ecological factors, different groups are traditionally associated with the production of particular craft goods - the Tukano make stools, the Desana make baskets, the Tuyuka make canoes, etc. These differences form one aspect of group identity and also underpin the ceremonial exchange feasts or dabukuris that represent one major component of the ritual activities characteristic of the region. During these feasts, different groups come together to dance, to drink cashirí, to display their feather ornaments, to recite their ancestral pedigrees and to exchange their different products - stools for canoes, fish for meat, or caterpillars for the pulp of palm fruits.

Each group has its own language, its own set of personal names, its own dance-songs, and its own genealogies and narratives of origin. Each has a particular Anaconda ancestor that brought the people to their own particular territory. The body of this Anaconda is at once the stretch of river on which they live, the malocas they inhabit, and the individual members of the group, each one a reincarnation of the original. Language, names, songs, stories and other verbal property act as emblems of identity, affirm territorial rights and ritual prerogatives, and manifest aspects of the life, soul and spirit of the group.

Each group also owns one or more sets of Yuruparí, sacred palm-wood flutes and trumpets that are the bones of their ancestor and which embody his breath and song. Alongside feasting and ceremonial exchange, the rites surrounding the ancestral musical instruments, condensed symbols of group identity, spirit, and power, form the other major component of Tukanoan ritual life. Ceremonial exchange emphasises the equivalence and mutual interdependence between the different groups; the Yuruparí rites emphasise the unique identity of each one.

Social organization

Piutr Jaxa, antigo habitante de Pari-Cachoeira, no Uaupés, e que atualmente vive na Terra Indígena Balaio. Foto: Piort Jaxa, 1993.
Piutr Jaxa, antigo habitante de Pari-Cachoeira, no Uaupés, e que atualmente vive na Terra Indígena Balaio. Foto: Piort Jaxa, 1993.

The groups referred to above, the Tukano, Barasana, Desana, etc., are patrilineal and exogamous: individuals belong to their father's group and speak his language but must marry partners from other groups who speak other languages. Externally, groups are equal but different; internally each is made up of a number of named clans ranked in a hierarchy. The ancestors of these clans were the sons of the Anaconda-ancestor and their birth order, the order of emergence from their father's body, determines their position: higher ranking clans are collectively "elder brothers to those below. Clan rank is correlated with status and prestige and loosely correlated with residence: higher ranking clans tend to live in favoured downstream locations with lower ranking clans often living upstream or in headwater areas. Clan rank also has ritual correlates: top ranking clans, the "head of the Anaconda", are "chiefs" or "headmen" who control the group's dance ornaments and Yuruparí and sponsor major rituals; middle ranking clans are specialist dancers and chanters; below them come shamans; and at the bottom are servant clans, the "tail of the Anaconda", who are sometimes identified with the semi-nomadic "Makú" (A pejorative term with connotations of 'servant, slave, uncivilised, etc." ) who live in the interfluvial zones.

Índios Wanana. Foto: Curt Nimuendaju, década de 1930.
Índios Wanana. Foto: Curt Nimuendaju, década de 1930.

This hierarchy of specialised roles and ritual prerogatives is most evident during collective rituals where genealogies are recited and where relations of rank and respect are emphasised. In a more subtle way, it is also reflected in everyday life. The inhabitants of a maloca are typically a group of closely-related men, the children of the same father or of two or more brothers, who live together with their wives and children. When a woman marries, she leaves her natal maloca and goes to live with her husband. In symbolic terms, the maloca replicates the world in miniature and the maloca community is a both a replication and a future precursor of the ideal clan organisation described above. Here the father of the maloca community would be the Anaconda-ancestor of the whole group and his sons the ancestors of its component clans. In real life too, the eldest son and senior brother is typically the maloca headman and quite often his younger brothers are dancers, chanters or shamans, sometimes in appropriate order of birth.

Confecção de banco tukano. Foto: Rosa Gauditano, 2002
Confecção de banco tukano. Foto: Rosa Gauditano, 2002

The inhabitants of neighbouring malocas make up loosely-knit communities that tend to form around charismatic leaders who host major feasts and sponsor the building of large malocas that act as ceremonial centres. Much of Tukanoan ritual and religious life is focussed upon sacred objects such as feather ornaments and Yuruparí, on sacred substances such as red carayurú paint, beeswax and varieties of coca, tobacco and ayahuasca, and on less tangible wealth in the form of names, spells, songs and chants. As manifestations of its spirit-powers, all such items are collectively owned by the group and integral to its identity and, at a collective level, large-scale public rituals express the group's internal structure and its relations to others. At the same time, those who have extensive esoteric ritual knowledge, who control sacred property, and who sponsor public rituals can advance their position and become powerful in their own right.

The Eastern Tukano and the Maku

The peoples of the Eastern Tukano and Makuan language families live together more intensely in the interfluvial region between the Tiquié and Papuri rivers and, to a lesser degree, between the Papuri and the Middle Uaupés (between Iauareté and the mouth of the Querari). In this area, they have developed a strategy of complementarity, given that traditionally they occupy distinct spaces and utilize specific environmental management practices. Different from the Tukanoans, who live on the larger rivers, the Maku prefer the smaller streams, located more in the center of the forest. They are good hunters, gatherers of forest fruits and know the paths in the forest quite well. The Tukano, in turn, are dedicated agriculturalists and fishers; even when they hunt, they prefer to do so in canoes, surprising wild pigs and tapirs who come to the riverbank to drink water.

From the point of view of the Tukano, the Maku form a category sui generis, to the extent they are different both from affines and from kin of the same descent groups, for they are not marriageable and are not assimilated to their kin groups through kinship terminology. The Maku represent a central reference point in the Tukano conceptual system, since they are associated with the lowest hierarchical categories.

The Maku maintain intermittent relations of trade and collaboration with the Tukano. In general, Maku domestic groups take the initiative to associate themselves with Tukano domestic groups, and it is they who also decide when they have to go back to their settlements or change Tukano “bosses". They can stay for only a week or up to several months among the Tukano, but there exist cases in which the relation is more stable and certain Maku are accustomed to performing tasks for specific Tukano domestic groups, maintaining this collaboration over several generations. Even in these cases, living together is interrupted when the Maku decide to take care of their own houses or to travel.

The Maku seek work when they are experiencing moments of greater necessity (their gardens are in general inadequate and there are periods when game is scarce). In these situations, they offer their services to the Tukano: the women work in the gardens and in the processing of manioc, and the men hunt, make coca (ipadu) or take on some particular task (changing the covering of a house, cutting down the forest for a garden, etc.). In exchange, the Tukano pay them with part of what is produced in cooking (manioc flour, manioc bread etc.), the men receive ipadu and tobacco and even used clothes, tools, hammocks, among other things.

When the Maku family is very large and the cost, in terms of exploiting the resources of the garden, is high for the Tukano domestic group that is hosting them, the Tukano group can tell them to leave. More frequently, however, it happens that the Maku themselves get fed up and feel rejected, so they leave on their own for their settlements, taking with them a supply of manioc flour and tapioca. In these cases, the Tukano complain that they leave without saying anything, from one minute to the next.

What most marks the relation between these two groups is the great autonomy of the Maku, which the Tukano cannot violate. The Maku seek out the Tukano in order to supply immediate food needs; the Tukano accept the Maku and designate various tasks for them to perform. Sometimes the Maku also participate in the collective work parties to cut or plant gardens organized by the Tukano, when caxiri (fermented manioc beverage) is offered. But on these occasions the relations between them are cold and distant, and involve no intimacy. In general, the Maku almost never eat together with the Tukano nor even sit close to them, except on the occasions when there are morning community meals and some Maku are present.

Social distance is marked by certain behaviors. When a Tukano speaks with a Maku, the Tukano stays at a certain distance, looking off to the other side. Another example: on returning the cigar that a Tukano has asked a Maku man to “pray” over (in order to cut some pain that a child or the Tukano himself is feeling), the Maku man, instead of putting the cigar in the Tukano man’s hand, squats down close to him and throws the cigar on the ground, close to the Tukano who asked him to perform the cure.

The relation between the Tukano and the Maku is celebrated in large dabucuris (rituals of offering food), held at the time of gathering certain forest fruits (such as ingá, cunuri, buriti and wild açaí). On these occasions, the Tukano prepare much caxiri and ipadu to receive the Maku, who arrive before daybreak, playing trumpets, small drums and making a lot of noise. They bring large quantities of fruits which, at first, are left on the riverbank but then are brought into the festival house, at the appropriate moment of the ritual (when there occurs a cerimonial dialogue between a pair of Tukano men and another Maku). Groups of Maku panpipe players take turns playing during the festival with groups made of up Tukano boys and men. They form dance pairs with the women, Tukano or Maku indiscriminately. The same ceremony can also be done with the offering of smoked meat; the roles can also be inverted, with the Tukano offering manioc bread and flour to the Maku. In general the festival occurs in the Tukano village.

The distancing that characterizes the relations between the Tukano and the Maku is based on the way the Tukano perceive the Maku. The Tukano describe them as different, strange and, in a certain sense, inferior. Some aspects which the Tukano mention are:


  • the Maku live in small improvised shelters, like those one makes on journeys in the forest and in the garden;
  • the Maku never are content to stay in one place, always coming and going, restless;
  • they are careless agriculturalists and, besides that, they don’t know how to cultivate, they don’t wait for the most productive time of manioc, uprooting all the unripe tubers to make caxiri; the men do the same with the coca plants, picking the leaves with no control and thus they have to ask the Tukano to get ipadu (which is a daily necessity);
  • they are not trustworthy, and not rarely are accused of robbing manioc from the Tukano gardens and then hiding their stealing by sticking the manioc stick in the soil after ripping off the root; they are also accused of making off with tools, clothes, and other things;
  • Maku local endogamy and the constant changes in the constitution of local groups are looked upon with disdain by the Tukano who even emphasize certain incestuous marriages, as though there were no definite marriage rules among the Maku;
  • the Tukano also say that the Maku have no hygiene, they don’t wash nor comb their hair, they dress like ragamuffins, with old and filthy clothes.

This view of the Maku has several practical outcomes, for example, marriage with them is expressly prohibited and a person that has some degree of Maku ancestry (whether on the father’s or the mother’s side) is stigmatized. However, the marriage of a Tukano man with a Maku woman is more acceptable than the marriage of a Maku man with a Tukano woman, which practically never occurs.

In the contact situation, which has involved the intensification of trade, evangelizing and school education, changes have occured in the relation between these peoples. The Tukano have taken on the role of intermediary in the penetration and trade of industrialized merchandise. While the Tukano have adhered to the practice, which is today quite widespread and valued, of sending their children to school until the end of basic education (the 8th grade) and, less frequently to high school in the city, the Maku have never adapted to the school system and all attempts promoted by the missionaries have failed. Even the schools established in the Maku villages, with Tukano teachers, have rarely produced good results.

Presently, the intense migration of the Tukano to the missionary or urban centers, such as the cities of São Gabriel da Cachoeira and Santa Isabel, has led to a process of the abandonment of several areas. This has made possible the establishment of Maku villages on the main course of the rivers, as is the case of the Tiquié.

Cosmological aspects

Índios Tukano. Foto: Márcio Meira, 1990.
Índios Tukano. Foto: Márcio Meira, 1990.

As basic principles, Tukanoan cosmology combines shifting perspective, replication of organisation at different scales of existence, and analogous organisation of different levels of experience. The world is made up of three basic layers: sky, earth, and underworld. Each layer is a world in itself, with its own particular beings and each may be understood in both abstract and concrete terms. In different contexts, the "sky" might be the world of the sun, moon and stars, the world of high-flying birds, the flat tops of the tepuis from which waterfalls cascade, the tree-top world of the forest, or even a head adorned with a head-dress of red-and-yellow macaw feathers, the colours of the sun. Likewise the "underworld" might be the River of the Dead beneath the earth, the yellow clay beneath the topsoil where people are buried, or the aquatic world of earthly rivers. But what is "sky" or "underworld" depends not only on scale and context but also on perspective: at night the sun, sky and day are below the earth with the dark underworld above. A story tells of man who finds the corpse of a star-woman who fell to earth when buried by her family in the sky above: to them she is dead in the underworld; to him she is alive on earth. The man marries the star-woman and goes with her to visit her family. To the man, the stars are spirits of the dead who live by night; to them it is he who is a spirit and it is his day that is night.

Inn this schema, marriages between different groups also take on cosmic dimensions. All groups have an Anaconda-ancestor but these anacondas can also manifest themselves as jaguars or harpy-eagles - in a transformational and perspectival world, the powerful predators of sky, earth and water are equivalent and complementary. The Barasana typically marry the Bará; in myth Yeba, or "Earth", the Barasana ancestor in jaguar form, married Yawira, daughter of Fish Anaconda, the ancestor of the Bará. The Bará, Makuna and others are Fish or Water People, the Barasana and Tukano are Earth People and the Tatuyo and Desana are Sky People.

In symbolic terms, the maloca is the world and the world is a maloca. The thatched roof is the sky, the supporting house posts are mountains, the walls are the chains of hills that seem to surround the visible landscape at the world's edge, and beneath the floor runs the River of the Dead. The maloca has two doors, a men's door or "water door" in the East and a woman's door in the West, with a long ridge pole, "the path of the Sun", running along the top of the house between the two. In this equatorial region, the earthly rivers flow from East to West or from women's door to men's door; to complete a closed circuit of water, the River of the Dead flows from East to West.

If the maloca is the world so also is it a body, at once the canoe-like body of the Anaconda-ancestor and the bodies of his children contained within. These children are the inhabitants of the house, replications of the original ancestor, the containers of future generations, and future ancestors in their own right. But, if the maloca is a human body, here too things are a matter of perspective. Seen from the men's end, the maloca's painted front is a man's face, the men's door is his mouth, the ridgepole and lateral spars are his spine and ribs, the centre of the house is his heart, and the rear, women's door is his anus. Seen from the women's end and from their perspective, the spine, ribs and heart remain constant but the rest of the body is reversed: the women's door is her mouth, the men's door is her vagina and the interior of the house is her womb.

Once these principles of replication and transformation have been grasped, further elaborations and inferences may follow. If rivers flow through the world-house and the body is a kind of house then it might follow that the human gut and genitals are "rivers" - and even that parasitic worms are "anacondas". An amusing story describes the world from a worm's point of view: when his human host drinks cashirí (manioc beer), the rain is thick and sticky; when he drinks farinha, it rains stones, and when he eats beijú, it rains big rocks. This tale illustrates an important point: sometimes myths make cosmology explicit but more often it is simply taken for granted and people must work it out for themselves.

Life cycle

Índia Tuyuka com seu filho em um evento cultural em São Paulo. Foto: Miguel Chaves, 1998.
Índia Tuyuka com seu filho em um evento cultural em São Paulo. Foto: Miguel Chaves, 1998.

Armed with these basic principles, we can begin to see how some life processes are understood in cosmological terms and how these relate to ritual practices associated with the life cycle.

Digestion, defecation, decay and death all involve a passive flow from high to low, from upstream to downstream, from West to East. Life itself is a movement, sometimes a struggle, against this current: plants grow up towards the sun and people must grow upwards as they mature. The Sun or Yeba Hakü (in barasana language), the "Father of the Universe", the source of light and life, moves constantly against the current, up the rivers of the earth from East to West by day and up the underworld river by night to appear again in the East. The Anaconda-ancestor who brought humanity to the world also travelled Sun-like from East towards the West, stopping when he reached the middle of the world. This move from East to the West was also a move upwards from water onto land. The Anaconda, an aquatic being, was the very river up which he travelled and the beings inside him only took on human form when they emerged onto dry land; before this they were "fish people", spirits in the form of feather-ornaments. Animals are referred to as wai-bükürã, "mature fishes"; logically human beings are also "mature fishes", beings that are half-way between the spirit-fishes they once were and the spirit-birds they will become.

The story of the Anaconda ancestor is a sacred narrative of primordial origins - and probably also a story of the Tukanoans" historical migrations. It can also be understood as a story about ecology, about the annual upriver migrations of Amazonian fish that come to spawn in headwater regions, and one about human reproduction. Human reproduction also involves an upward, "East -West" penetration of a "water door", an upward flow of semen, and a passage from the watery world of the womb to the dry terrestrial plane of human existence. No wonder then that "to be born" is hoe-hea, "to cross to a higher level".

But birth also involves a movement down the birth canal - cosmologically a movement from West to East and, in social terms, a movement from mother to father or from women to men. To understand this we must begin with death. Some Uaupés Indians, the Cubeo in particular, stage elaborate mourning rites with dancers in painted bark-cloth masks become fish, animals and other forest beings who welcome the dead soul to their spirit world. But Tukanoan burial itself is a simple affair: the grave is the maloca floor and the coffin a canoe cut in half.

Tukanoans share a notion of reincarnation: at death, an aspect of the dead person's soul returns to the "house of transformation", the group's origin site, a notion of reincarnation shared by all Tukanoans. Later the soul returns to the world of the living to be joined to the body of a new-born baby when the baby receives its name. People are named after a recently dead relative on the father's side, a father's father for a boy or a father's mother for a girl. Each group owns a limited set of personal names which are kept alive by being transmitted back to the living. The visible aspect of these name-souls are the feather headdresses worn by dancers, ornaments that are also buried with the dead. The underworld river is described as being awash with ornaments and you will remember that, in the origin story, the spirits inside the Anaconda-canoe travelled in the form of dance ornaments.

Buried in canoes, the souls of the dead fall to the underworld river below. From there they drift downstream to the West and to the upstream regions of the world above. Women give birth, not in the maloca, but in a roça located inland, upstream and behind the house - also the West. The new-born baby is first bathed in the river then brought into the maloca through the rear, women's door. Confined inside the house for about a week with its mother and father, it is then again bathed in the river and given a name. Thus, in cosmological terms, babies do indeed come from women, water, the river, and the West.

Persons, animals and objects

Índio Tukano no Rio Uaupés. Foto: Acervo Museu do ìndio, 1928.
Índio Tukano no Rio Uaupés. Foto: Acervo Museu do ìndio, 1928.

Thus far we have been mainly concerned with the life cycle and with descent from ancestors, linear notions of time that are linked to cyclical ideas of reincarnation and rebirth. Now it is time to turn to the other main component of Tukanoan religious ideas, the relations between human beings, animals and the forest.

Masa, the word for "people", is a relative concept. It can refer to one group as against another, to all Tukanoans as against their non-Tukanoan neighbours, to Indians as against White, to human beings as against animals, and finally to living things, trees included, as against inanimate objects. In myth and shamanic discourse, animals are people and share their culture: they live in organised maloca communities, plant gardens, hunt and fish, drink beer, wear ornaments, take part in inter-community feasts and play their own Yuruparí. All creatures that can see and hear, that communicate with their own kind, and that act intentionally are "people" - but people of different kinds. They are different because they have different bodies, habits and behaviours and see things from different bodily perspectives. Just as stars see living humans as dead spirits, so also do animals see humans as animals. To vulture eyes, when humans go fishing, they fish in rotting corpses and catch maggots; to jaguar eyes, humans are dangerous predators who drink blood as beer; to fish it is wonder that humans can breathe underwater. But of course humans see things the other way round.

If the common denominator of all "peoples" is their subjectivity - how things appear to their senses - the differences between them lie more on the surface - in their shape, colour, sounds, bodily habits and diet. The natural differences between animal species are presented in cultural terms as different ritual foodstuffs such as coca, tobacco, and ayahuasca, as distinctive body paints, ornaments and clothes, and as different weapons and ritual equipment. All such items are referred to as küni-oka "weapons or shields", an idea reminiscent of the coats-of-arms emblazoned on heraldic shields - at once identity, clothing and defensive weapon. By the same token, differences between human groups are presented as natural and inherent. Conceptually the various Tukanoan groups are as much different 'species" as the many animal species are different "peoples".

Índios Bara no Alto Papuri. Foto: Jean Jackson, 1969.
Índios Bara no Alto Papuri. Foto: Jean Jackson, 1969.

In everyday life, people emphasise their difference from animals but in the spirit world, one which is also that of ritual, shamanism, dreaming, and ayahuasca visions, perspectives are merged, differences are abolished, the past is the present, and people and animals remain as one. This has important practical implications for, where animals are people, hunting animals for their meat is tantamount to warfare and cannibalism. Many illnesses are thus diagnosed as the revenge of the animals that humans kill and eat as food. The risk from animals is proportionate to their habitat and to size: tapirs are more dangerous than monkeys, animals more dangerous than fish, and large fish more dangerous than small one.

Risk also relates to contact with the metaphysical realm. A birth in this world is a provokes resentment amongst animal-spirits - for them it is a death. Human babies, recent immigrants from the spirit world whose souls are not yet firmly anchored to their bodies, must be protected from jealous tapirs who threaten to ingest them through their anuses - a birth in reverse. As visitors to the spirit world, menstruating women and men who take part in rituals are all temporarily placed in a child-like status and must adjust their diet to avoid dangerous foods. To make fish or meat safe to eat, a shaman must first blow spells to remove the "weapons", the qualities that give a creature its identity and which can cause harm by compromising the consumer's specifically human identity.

The personified, subjective and intentional qualities that apply to animals and fish also extend to the cosmos as a whole. The myths of Uaupés peoples are also myths of their landscape whose features, the hills and mountains, rivers, rocks and rapids, have names that evoke the stories of their ancestral creation. To travel by trail or canoe is to follow these stories and to partake in the acts of creation they describe. Further stories tell of historical migrations so that the landscape is doubly crafted - first by the primordial acts of creation and then by more recent acts of house building and garden making.

The powers of ancestral creation infused throughout the landscape extend to the plants, fishes, animals and human beings that inhabit it and also to the objects that people make from the materials that it provides. In myth, everyday objects such as canoes, stools, baskets and pots emerge as animated beings with a potency and agency of their own - as we have already seen, just as animals may be people, so too can malocas be the bodies of their creators. Crafted objects encapsulate two kinds of potency: the powers of the natural materials from which they are made and the skills and intentions of their makers. It follows from this that making things has an important religious dimension. During their initiation rites, young men and women are systematically trained in crafting, a training that is as much intellectual and spiritual as it is technical. Making things is both self-making and world-making, a form of meditation which gives insight into the interconnectedness of objects, bodies, people, houses and the world.

Religious specialists


Although they might be described as "religion", the cosmological ideas described above also form the premise and taken-for-granted backdrop of everyday life. This is so partly because here religion is not a discrete domain but rather an aspect or dimension of all knowledge, experience and practice. It is also so because life in a landscape imbued with ancestral powers and where ordinary things have an extra-ordinary metaphysical dimension is potentially hazardous. To survive and prosper, and to ensure the well-being of themselves and their families, all adults need some ability to handle and control the creative and destructive forces that surround them. Technical and metaphysical know-how go together and are not sharply distinguished. To sustain themselves in the local environment, adult men must know both the natural resources of their territory and also its spiritual assets and dangers, they must combine routine chores with ritual procedures, and must have a basic competence in both hunting and fishing and in the spells that render meat and fish safe to eat. Likewise women, the "mothers of food" whose manioc tubers are their "children", must manage the material and spiritual dimensions of production and reproduction, of their gardens, their kitchens and their bodies, as a single integrated whole.

In Amazonia, ritual specialists with special powers and access to esoteric religious knowledge are often referred to as 'shamans', a label that can obscure as much as it reveals. As indicated above, in order to operate successfully all adult men must be shamans to some extent. Those who are publicly recognised as such are individuals with greater ritual knowledge and a special ability to "read" what lies behind sacred narratives, who chose to deploy their skills and knowledge on behalf of others, and who acquire recognition as experts. 'Shamans' are thus those who, at any one time, stand out from their fellows - but there are always others waiting in the wings.

A second point relates to gender. With rare exceptions, ritual experts are always men - but the capacity of women to menstruate and to bear children is spoken of as their, female, equivalent of the powers signalled by the men's control of feather ornaments and Yuruparí. It might therefore be said that if men acquire their shamanic capacities through culture, women are already 'shamans' by nature. It thus comes as no surprise that, in Tukanoan mythology, the Universe People, the ancestral heroes who pave the way for the creation of humanity, are created by a female deity who the Barasana call Romi Kumu or 'Woman Shaman', known as the "Old Woman of the Earth" (Ye"pa Büküo, Yeba Büro) in Tukano and Desana.

Finally, the label 'shaman" obscures an important distinction between two quite different ritual specialists, the yai and the kumu. The yai corresponds to the prototypical Amazonian shaman or payé. His main tasks involve dealing with other people and with the outside world of animals and the forest. He plays an important role in hunting, providing animals for hunters to kill by releasing spirit animals from their houses in the hills, a potentially dangerous activity that can cause compensatory conversions, from living to dead, in the human world. The payé is an expert in curing the sickness and diseases caused by sorcery from vengeful creatures and jealous human beings, illnesses that typically manifest themselves as spines, hair, and other objects lodged in the body. Curing is done either by throwing water over the patient or by blowing smoke over the body and manipulating with the hands, but always involves sucking objects or substances from the patient's body.

Yai means "jaguar", a term which gives some indication of the status of the payé in Tukanoan society. The jaguar is a powerful but also a potentially dangerous animal and those who have the power and knowledge to counteract sorcery may also practice sorcery themselves. Whether a particular payé is considered to be "good" or "bad" depends on whether or not he is a trusted kinsman or neighbour. The term yai also has connotations of wildness and lack of control that allude to the slightly marginal position of many payés and to the fact that their powers are individual, idiosyncratic and often associated with the use of potent hallucinogenic snuffs.

Although both yai and kumu are part-time specialists, the kumu is more a savant and a priest than a shaman. His powers and authority are founded on an exhaustive knowledge of mythology and ritual procedures, knowledge that only comes after years of training and practice. This means that those who are recognised as kumu are usually older men, often men whose fathers or paternal uncles had the same status so that the role of kumu may become hereditary. As a knowledgeable senior man, the kumu is typically also a headmen and leader of his community and will exert considerable authority over a much wider area. Compared to the sometimes morally ambiguous yai, the kumu enjoys a much higher status and also a much greater degree of trust, a trust that relates to his prominent ritual role.

The kumu plays an important role in the prevention of illness and misfortune. He is an expert in blowing spells over the flesh of fish and animals to convert their substance to a vegetable-like form. He also officiates at rites of passage and effects the major transitions of birth, initiation and death, transitions that ensure the socialisation of individuals and the passage of the generations, and which maintain ordered relations between the ancestors and their living descendants. It is the kumu who names new-born babies and it is he who conducts the public, collective rites of initiation for young boys and the more individual and private rites that are held when young girls reach puberty. Such transitions involve a necessary and potentially beneficial contact between living people, the spirits and the dead. This contact can be dangerous and it is the kumu who takes on responsibility for protecting people from harm. For those who enjoyed the protection of a particular kumu during their own birth or initiation, he is their guu or "tortoise", an allusion to this animal's hard, protective carapace.

The kumu's other major function is to officiate at dance feasts, drinking parties and ceremonial exchanges and to conduct and supervise the rituals at which the Yuruparí instruments are played, rituals that involve direct contact with dead ancestors. Those involved in such rites put their lives in the hands of the kumu and it is only the most knowledgeable and respected who are entrusted with this role. By the same token, to sponsor such rites is to claim recognition as a kumu.

As "people" and as component parts of an animated cosmos, human beings, animals, plants and fish make up a single participatory system, a system that is engaged and reanimated during Yuruparí rites. These rites promote the reproduction of plants and animals and ensure the regular ordering of the seasons and the continuing fertility of nature. In supervising and promoting these rites, the most important kumus come to embody the life-giving powers and identities of Yeba Hakü, the "Father of the Universe", of Romi Kumu, "Woman Kumu" and of Yuruparí, the source and spirit of plant life. As the masters of public ritual they are life-givers in their own right. It is to these rituals that we now turn.


The yearly round is punctuated by a series of collective feasts, each with its own songs, dances and appropriate musical instruments, that mark important events in the human and natural worlds - births, initiations, marriages and deaths, the felling and planting of gardens and the building of houses, the migrations of fishes and birds, and the seasonal availability of forest fruits and other gathered foods. These ritual gatherings are referred to as 'houses', a term that connotes at once an occasion, a group of people, and a symbolic world. They take three basic forms: cashirís (beer feasts), dabukuris or ceremonial exchanges, and Yuruparí rites involving sacred flutes and trumpets.

Cashirís are primarily social occasions where one maloca community invites its neighbours to dance and drink cashirí, sometimes as a reward for their help in the felling of a new garden or the construction of a new house, sometimes to mark the naming of a child, the marriage of a young woman, or the final stage of initiation for young boys, and sometimes purely for enjoyment and to reinforce social ties. The guests are the main dancers and in return for their dancing, the men of the host community offer them large amounts of cashirí prepared by their women.

Dressed in feather headdresses and other ornaments, the dancers dance all night round and round the large canoe-like cashirí trough that forms the centrepiece of the occasion; it is a matter of honour that they consume all the cashirí before they leave in the morning. Their dances are of two kinds, either relatively slow, formal dances with the men in a continuous line and the women tucked in between them, or much faster, less formal dances where each dancer dances on his own, playing a set of panpipes as part of a chorus, and vying with the others to attract the female partner of his choice. Between these sessions of dancing, hosts and guest sit facing one another, passing gifts of coca and cigars to and fro, as they recite their pedigrees in collective chants led by a specialist chanter. The kumu sits apart from them, blowing spells over gourds of coca, tobacco and ayahuasca; he then offers these substances to the participants to protect them from danger and to allow the dancers to see and experience in their dancing the journeys of origin and mythical events that their songs and chants recount.

Cashirís may involve communities related as either brothers and as in-laws but dabukuris are, above all, occasions that celebrate and reinforce ties of marriage and affinity. The gifts are given in the name of a particular man to his or brother-in-law father-in-law: in the charter myth of the dabukuri, the story of Yeba and Yawira (mentioned in Cosmological aspects), the gift was from Yeba to his father-in-law Fish Anaconda. The ritual begins with the arrival of the guests in the evening. Treated as strangers and potential enemies by their hosts, they do not enter the maloca but remain outside, dancing and chanting on their own. In the morning, they parade into the maloca dressed in their finery and blowing pottery or balsa-wood trumpets. They present their gifts to their hosts and then begin a dance that will last all day and through the night. Remaining aloof, their hosts ply them with cashirí but as the day wears on, they mingle more and more with their guests, dancing and chanting with them, breaking down of the barriers that were established, in dramatic form, at the beginning of the proceedings. In the morning, when the dancing ends, hosts and guests eat together on equal terms in a huge communal meal, the two groups now as a single integrated community.

These exchanges have a double rationale and movement: in the short term, guests dance and offer fish or meat in return for cashirí supplied by their hosts; in the longer term, communities exchange one kind of product for another - fish for meat or meat for fish - and alternate the roles of host and guest. Both exchanges relate to marriage, the first one reflecting the exchange of meat or fish for manioc products between husband and wife, the second reflecting the exchange of different kinds of women between inter-married groups. In more cosmological terms, these exchanges are intimately linked with the breeding cycles and seasonal availability of fish and animal species. The dances not only recall the ritualised displays and dancing movements of migrating fish and birds but also ensure the continuing fertility of nature and the availability of the species on which they depend.

The rituals involving sacred Yuruparí musical instruments are the fullest expression of the Indians" religious life for they encapsulate and synthesise a number of key themes: ancestry, descent and group identity, sex and reproduction, relations between men and women, growth and maturation, death, regeneration, and the integration of the human life cycle with cosmic time. Concerned more with male identity and intra-group relations than with marriage and inter-group relations, and more with the fertility of trees and plants than with the life-cycles of animals, they are the complement of the festivals described above.

The palm-wood flutes and trumpets of each group are at once a single and multiple entity, the group ancestor and his paired bones or sons, the ancestors of the group's component clans. When the instruments are assembled and played, the ancestor comes back to life as those who play them assume the identities of the clan ancestors and enter into direct contact with their father. This process abolishes the normal separation between past and present, dead and living, ancestor and descendant, and re-establishes the primordial order of the myths of origin described earlier. The rites usually involve a clan or clan segment acting as an isolated group and thus serve to establish its identity as collective unit undifferentiated with respect to the outside but segmented in an ordered hierarchy within.

Yuruparí instruments may only be seen and handled by adult men. According to sacred myths, it was originally women who owned the flutes whilst men were charged with the manioc processing and other female chores. The myths add another significant detail: when women had the flutes, men menstruated and when the men took away the flutes, they also caused women to menstruate. These myths, and the rituals that dramatise them, can be understood as a complex and ambiguous discourse on the respective powers and capacities of men and women, one that we have already encountered above in relation to women's shamanic powers. Here the implication would be that the complementary reproductive capacities of men and women, their 'flutes', are at once identical and opposed, at once equal and unequal.

There are two types of Yuruparí ritual, one a more sacred and elaborate annual event that marks the beginning of the year, the other held periodically throughout the year to mark the maturation of different species of tree-fruits. At the tree fruit ceremony, men present large amounts of wild fruits to those of another community, usually their brothers, bringing them into the house to the bellowing sounds of bark-wrapped trumpets whilst the women and children remain hidden behind screens in the rear. In the evening the screens are removed and the women rejoin the men. They dance through the night till dawn then distribute the fruits to the assembled company.

The full Yuruparí rites, where different and more sacred instruments are played, are tied to the movements of the sun and the Pleiades and take place at the end of the summer and onset of the rainy season, the season of forest fruits. They elaborate further on the themes of growth, maturation and periodicity and the integration of human and cosmic time-cycles, but here the immediate focus is on the growth and development of young men who undergo a process of initiation that leads to their incorporation as full adults into the group of senior men.

At the start of the rite, the boys are taken from their mothers and brought to the men's end of the house, out of sight of the women who are confined in the rear. Under the care of ritual guardians and an officiating kumu, they are given ayahuasca and shown the instruments for the first time as they sit motionless and crouched foetus-like on the floor. As the instruments are played over the boys" heads, bodies and genitals they are whipped by the kumu across their bodies and legs, actions which impart the vitality and spirit-forces of the ancestors and cause the boys to grow up hard strong and sexually potent. The men then bathe the boys in the river together with the instruments, pouring water from the flutes over the initiates" heads. This action alludes to the Anaconda ancestor vomiting the first people from his mouth - and also to the bathing of babies after their birth as described earlier. But this time the birth is a rebirth orchestrated by the senior men and, like the Anaconda-ancestor who entered the world through the "water door" in the East, the reborn initiates now enter the house through the men's door. At the end of the rite, the initiates are confined for a month in a special compartment out of the sight of the women. Strictly supervised by the kumu, they bathe each day, keep to a rigorous diet, and learn to make baskets. Their seclusion ends with a big dance. As a sign that they are ready to become husbands and fathers, the initiates give their baskets to female partners who paint their bodies with red paint in return.

Like many initiation rites, this one is replete with symbols of death, rebirth and regeneration. At the start of the rite, the boys are painted black and ritually "killed" with doses of tobacco snuff; following their rebirth in the river, they are secluded like new-born babies, then emerge to be painted red. In the ritual's mythic charter, Yuruparí, in anaconda-form, swallows initiates, digests them in his stomach in parallel to their period of seclusion. then returns them to their parents, vomiting them up as bones. To punish him, the parents burn Yuruparí to death on a fire. But he does not die: his soul ascends to heaven and from his ashes grows a palm tree, the prototypical source of forest fruits and source of the Yuruparí instruments made from its trunk.

As in slash-and-burn agriculture, where fertility and human life come from the annual burning of the forest, this ensemble of myth and ritual implies that life and death follow one another like the seasons, that mortal humans achieve immortality through their children, that the periodicity of women is like that of the seasons, that the growth of men and trees are as one, and that, in the end, the fertility of human beings and the cosmos are linked together as one grand system. As they expand the maloca to cosmic proportions, abolish the separations between human beings and the spirit world, and engage the reproductive capacities of men and women, the Yuruparí rituals thus encapsulate and put in motion much of the cosmology that has been outlined above.

Missionaries, colonists and modernity

The history of Uaupés peoples" contact with outsiders goes back a long way, back beyond through the great rubber boom at the turn of the 20th century, to the massive Portuguese slave raids in the first half of the 18th century. Although the impact of the slavers, rubber gatherers was traumatic and long lasting, these merchants were more interested in the Indians" bodies than in their souls; in religious terms, and perhaps in social terms as well, it was the missionaries who wrought the greatest transformations.

Effective missionary penetration began towards the end of the 19th century with the arrival of the Franciscans. The Franciscans, and the Salesians who followed them, saw all that has been described above through the lens of their own closed religious categories: the Indians" malocas were "hotbeds of license and sexual promiscuity, their dance-festivals occasions of "drunken debauchery", the payés were charlatans who held the people in their thrall, and the Yuruparí cult was none other than the cult of the Devil himself. Without knowing or caring what these things really meant, the missionaries set about destroying one civilization in the name of another, burning down the Indians" malocas, destroying their feather ornaments, smashing their cashirí containers, persecuting the payés, and exposing the Yuruparí to women and children assembled together in church.

As the priests attacked the cornerstones of the Indians" culture, so they transformed their society, herding the people into villages of neatly ordered houses, each for a single family, and forcibly removing their children to be educated in boarding schools or internados. Under the internados" strict regime, the children were taught to reject their parents" values and way of life, encouraged to marry within their own groups, and forbidden to speak the languages that gave them their multiple, interlocking identities. For the missionaries, only one identity mattered, a generic Indian identity that stood in the way of "civilisation".

As an early reaction to exploitation by merchants, pressures from missionaries, and the waves of epidemics that decimated the Indian population, a sequence of millenarian movements broke out in the Uaupésregion in the second half of the nineteenth century. Dressing as priests and identifying themselves with Christ and the saints, prophet-payés led the people in the "Dance of the Cross", a fusion of traditional cashirís and dabukuris with elements of Catholicism that promised freedom from the White oppression and relief from the 'sins" that were believed to be causing the epidemics.

If the missionaries were resented for their attack on Indian culture they were also welcomed as a source of manufactured goods, as defenders of the Indians against the worst abuses of the rubber gatherers, and as the providers of the education that the Indians" children would need to make the most of their new circumstances. From the 1920s onwards, the Salesians established a chain of outposts throughout the region on the Brazilian side of the frontier, reaching the upper Tiquié in the early 1940's and destroying the last maloca in the 1960s. Today, the growing body of Evangelicals apart, most Uaupés Indians would consider themselves to be Catholics. As more and more people now leave their villages and head for São Gabriel in search of education and employment, life in the malocas and the rich variety of ritual life that went with it now persists only in the memories of the oldest inhabitants.

In the villages, a community centre has replaced the maloca as a focus of communal activities. The centre serves at once for morning prayers led by the Capitan and catequista and for the communal meals, cachiris and daburukuris that mark important events in the lives of villagers: collective fishing expeditions, collective work on community projects, the saints days of the Catholic calendar, school graduations, sporting events, political gatherings, etc. Transformations of the beer-feasts and ceremonial exchanges of old, these cachiris and dabukuris still involve dancing and drinking - but the dancing is no longer to the music of homespun singing and panpipes but rather to forro and, instead of the relative restraint of the past, cachaça is freely available and the drinking typically leads to quarrels and fights. With rising levels of alcoholism, the drunkeness that the missionaries imagined they saw in the traditional feasts has now become a harsh reality of the civilisation they brought with them.

On the Colombian side, under the regime of the Monfortians, the policies and effects of the missionaries were much the same as those of the Salesians but, in the late 1950s, the Monfortians were replaced with more liberal Javerians. The Javerians were champions of the new Theology of Liberation that preached tolerance of Indian culture and accommodation with its values and beliefs; this together with the isolation of their region, explains why the inhabitants of the Piráparaná still manage to conserve much of their traditional religion and way of life to this day. On the Brazilian side, change was slower but, following their denunciation for the crime of ethnocide in the Russell Tribunal in 1980, the Salesians finally began to adopt a more liberal and progressive line.

On both sides of the frontier, the past three decades have seen the rise of indigenous political organizations, organizations that were initially sponsored by the missionaries and made possible by the existence of a missionary-educated elite. To begin with, FOIRN was taken up with the issue of land rights but, now that title has been secured, attention is increasingly being turned to issues of culture and to the urgent need to record, rescue and revitalise the Indians" knowledge and traditions. As part of this effort, over the past decade, indigenous authors from the upper Río Negro region have published several collections of their own mythology and sacred histories that present Uaupés religious ideas from an insiders perspective, an important initiative sponsored by ISA.* My aim here has been to complement these myths with a brief account of the cosmology they imply and with a description of some of the ritual practices that bring these myths to life.

For Tukanoan (Desana) mythology see:

  • Umusî Pârôkumu (Firmiano Arantes Lana) and Tõrãmu Kehíri (Luiz Gomes Lana), Antes on mundo não existia. Mitologia dos antigos Desana-Kerípõrã,UNIRT/FOIRN, São João do Rio Tiquié - São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Amazonas, Brasil 1995;
  • Diakuru (Américo Castro Fernandes) and Kisibi (Dorvalino Moura Fernendes), A mitologia sagrada dos Desana-Wari Dihputiro Põrã, UNIRT/FOIRN, Cucura do Igarapé Cucura - São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Amazonas, Brasil 1996

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