From Povos Indígenas no Brasil
Photo: Márcio Ferreira, 1989


Self-denomination Where they are How many Linguistic family
Tikmu´un MG
2.076 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)

The Maxakalí face today the great challenge of overcoming the difficulties created by successive authoritarian administrations, which are reflected in serious problems of alcoholism, social maladjustments and economic marginality. To confront them, the group shows systematic resistance against inter-ethnic marriages and to changes in its social organization and in their cultural universe, giving preference to entropy and isolation as determining factors for their inter-ethnic relations.


According to the ethnologist Curt Nimuendajú (1958), the remaining Maxakalí of the Mucuri Valley, in the State of Minas Gerais, call themselves Monacó bm. However, Joaquim S. de Souza, former chief of the local Indigenous Post and an expert on the Maxacalí language, social organization and history, says that they identify themselves as Kumanaxú. On the other hand, Popovich (1992), who knows their language very well, register Tikmu'ún as the name they adopt for themselves.

The Maxakalí – a word of unknown origin first used in the area of the Jequitinhonha River – cannot be identified as a single group, but rather as a set of several. This denomination comes from the fact that these groups have organized themselves politically as allies and were aldeados (put in villages) together, especially after 1808, when systematic invasion of their lands began to take place and the conflicts with other indigenous groups, particularly those known as Botocudos, increased.

The confederation, also called Naknenuk, was comprised by the Pataxó, or "Parrot"; Monoxó, or "the Ancestors", or Amixokori, "Those Who Leave and Come Back"; Kumanoxó, a generic denomination of the tribal heroes in the Maxakalí religious pantheon; Kutatói, or "Armadillo"; Malalí, or "Small Alligator"; Makoní, or "Small Deer"; Kopoxó, Kutaxó, or "Bee"; and Pañâme.

In the beginning such denominations identified the ritual groups, which, in the case of the Maxakalí, are intertwined with larger units in terms of political organization – small villages where an extensive family lives around its leader, who accumulates political and religious functions.

Because of the advance of the dominating society, such villages ended up becoming isolated from each other in geographical terms, and the various ritual groups began to be identified in official and private documents as different tribes. Such differentiated identification continued to be used until the end of the 19th Century, even though visitors mentioned the fact that their language and their social organization were similar and that these groups always formed villages together, organized defensive confederations and used the same tactic of establishing alliances with the colonists in order to fight the traditional enemies. The Indians themselves claimed to belong to the same ethnic group, as can be seen in the testimony of the Malali to Auguste de Saint-Hilaire, in 1817, in Minas Gerais, in which they analyzed their relations with the various indigenous groups of the region located between the Jequitinhonha and Doce rivers.


The language of the so-called Maxakalí belongs to the Macro-Jê linguistic group. Portuguese is spoken with relative fluency in Água Boa, where the groups that have had more intense contact with the surrounding society live, but even there the Maxacalí speak their tribal language among themselves. In Pradinho, however, only the men speak Portuguese – and not very well at that –, while women and children know only a few words of it.


Foto: Geralda Soares, 1985
Foto: Geralda Soares, 1985

The various Maxakalí groups used to inhabit an area between the Pardo and Doce rivers, comprising present-day southeastern Bahia, northeastern Minas Gerais and northern Espírito Santo.

The remainders of these groups, nowadays known as Maxakalí, live in two indigenous areas – Água Boa e Pradinho – , which have been grouped together to form the Maxakalí Indigenous Land. It is located in the municipality of Bertópolis, on the headwaters of the Umburanas River, on the Mucuri Valley, in northeastern Minas Gerais.

History of the contact

Foto: Curt Nimuendajú, 1939
Foto: Curt Nimuendajú, 1939

The earliest references to a subgroup called Maxakalí date from the 16th Century – the Tupi from the coast referred to them as Amixokori. Until the 19th Century many groups were aldeados in coastal villages such as Prado, Canavieiras, Caravelas, Alcobaça, Itanhém, Poxim, Corumuxatiba, Belmonte, Trancoso, Mucuri, in Bahia, and Itaúnas, Conceição da Barra and Santana, in Espírito Santo.

Around the late 18th Century, with the Portuguese domination expanding to the interior and the official policy giving priority to the conquest of the region between the coast and the mining zones of Minas Gerais, the various indigenous groups that lived in that part of the country became increasingly pressured by the colonial society – between 1721 and 1808, this area had been closed by the Portuguese Crown, as a way of avoiding the access to the mining fields of unauthorized people.

In their efforts to avoid contact and submission, the Indian tribes had to move around the region. This resulted in territorial disputes among them, and each group came up with a distinct strategy towards them. Facing the impossibility of confronting simultaneously the colonists and the Botocudo groups who advanced southwards, the Kamakã-Mongoió and the Maxakalí, which at that time were already known by such name, preferred to accept compulsory aldeamento and to be recruited as workers and soldiers under the orders of civilian chiefs and the commanders of military divisions created to carry out the defensive and offensive “just war” against the Botocudo determined by Royal Letters issued in 1808.

From then on, the aldeamentos of the Maxakalí groups, at this time known also as Naknenuk (a word from the Botocudo language used as synonym of “tame Indians, allied and aldeados"), multiplied. The only subgroup identified as resisting this policy of alliances was the Pataxó, who were considered unsociable and resistant to the advances of the dominating society.

In 1911, the Serviço de Proteção ao Índio – Service for the Protection of the Indian, the first official organ for Indian affairs in Brazil – (SPI) was called to find for a solution for the frequent confrontations between Indians and the men building the Bahia-Minas Railway in the stretch between the towns of Teófilo Ottoni, on the Mucuri Valley, and São Miguel do Jequitinhonha. At the time, there remained in this region two Maxakalí aldeamentos in the Jequitinhonha River Valley – one on the Rubim River, another on the Kran – and seven small villages between the rivers Umburanas, Dois de Abril, Itanhém, Jucuruçu and Jequitinhonha, which were the source of frequent complaints from the dwellers of those localities. There are indications that their inhabitants were runaways from the aldeamento of Itambacuri, founded in 1873 by Capuchin missionaries who were in charge of caring for and aldear the Indians of the left bank of the Doce River and the Mucuri River Valley and one or two groups that had not been aldeados up to then.

When the railroad was opened, in 1914, the Maxakalí of the Umburanas River, as they became known at the time, established exchange relations with the inhabitants of the locality of Machacalis, despite the fear that their presence caused. The SPI, however, did not adopt any measure to ensure the assistance to the Indian population.

The pressure and the conflicts with the aldeados on the Jequitinhonha River made the Maxakalí of the Kran and Rubim aldeamentos, from 1917 on, move to Umburanas, where they joined other Indians that sought refuge there. This can be deduced from the information given by Rubinger and Nascimento regarding a “tamer of Indians” called Fagundes, famous in the mid-19th Century in the vicinity of Itambacuri.

Because of the constant skirmishes between Indians and non-Indians, in 1920 the Minas Gerais State government ceded to the Union 2,000 hectares of lands for the installation of Indigenous Posts on the Umburanas River, with the aim of solving the problem of the “wild Indians” of the Doce, São Mateus and Mucuri rivers. According to the Maxacalí, however, Fagundes sold part of the lands ceded to the SPI as an indemnity for his services, and took the Indians to Bahia. After several epidemics and much dissatisfaction, the Maxakalí decided to return to the Umburanas and join the group that had refused to leave the area, even though they had no assistance or protection on the part of the SPI. It was only twenty years later, in 1940, that the area of the Água Boa Indigenous Post was demarcated. The villages located in what is today the Pradinho Indigenous Post, however, were left unassisted.

The dissatisfaction of the Indians and the confrontations with the landowners resulted, in 1951, in the negotiations between the SPI and the Minas Gerais State government for the creation and demarcation of the Pradinho Indigenous Post being resumed. But the final decision was taken only in 1956, after the murder of the Indian leader Antônio Cascorado. The demarcation, however, had an unexpected outcome: the Indigenous Posts were separated by a corridor of rural establishments, which made difficult the contacts and the displacement of the Indians between the two areas, thus intensifying the conflicts they had with the landowners.

The Indigenous Rural Guard

On this same year, the landowners that were established in the corridor and in areas of former Indian villages began a campaign to legitimize their titles with the State government, for which they had the support of local politicians and of representatives in the State Assembly. In 1966, in order to control the dissatisfaction of the Indians, Capt. Manoel Pinheiro was appointed by the military government in power in Brazil since 1964 as head of the SPI in Minas Gerais.

Capt. Pinheiro had ties with the Serviço Nacional de Informações – National Intelligence Service, the organ of the Brazilian military regime that spied on citizens – (SNI) and with the Serviço Reservado da Polícia Militar do Estado de Minas Gerais – Reserved Service of the Military Police of the State of Minas Gerais. He created, in the Maxakalí area, the Guarda Rural Indígena – Indigenous Rural Guard – (GRIN), charged with keeping order in the villages, prevent the Indians from moving around, imposing work and denouncing infringements to the local detachment of the Military Police. Minor infractions were punished with prison in the Indigenous area itself; infringements that were considered serious resulted in internment in the Centro de Reeducação Indígena Krenak – Krenak Center of Indigenous Re-education –, built in the demarcated area of the Krenák Indians, in the Doce River Valley, also in Minas Gerais. This correctional institution was created by Capt. Pinheiro to receive Indians who resisted the orders of their villages’ administrators or who were considered socially maladjusted. It was resorting to such means that Capt. Pinheiro was able to overcome the resistance and opposition of the Maxakalí to the usurpation of their lands. As a compensation, he was given a farm in the corridor that, for many years, divided the indigenous areas of Água Boa and Pradinho.

The effect of GRIN’s actions was to maintain "the criminal contracts of exploitation of the indigenous lands" (FIGUEIREDO, August 27, 967), to corrupt the Indian leaderships, to encourage internal factionalism, to benefit the posseiros (illegal land settlers) and invaders of indigenous areas and to turn the Indians into marginals and mere spectators of the exploitation of their lands by landowners (TORRES, August 6, 1968).

It was only with the replacement of Capt. Pinheiro as the head of the Ajudância Minas-Bahia – the administration of Indian affairs for the States of Minas Gerais and Bahia –, in 1974, that this repressive system was dismantled. What emerged then was the exacerbation of internal factionalism; heavy alcoholism; the refusal of the former members of the now-extinct GRIN to work; and the fact that the Indians had abandoned their roças (planting fields) and were addicted to the paternalism of gifts distributed in an irresponsible way.

After 1975, the new administration of the Funai – the National Foundation for the Indian, successor of the SPI – took up the question of the regularization of the Maxakalí land. Yet in 1992 the problem was still unsolved, which led to the elaboration of a report and the launching of a national and international campaign for the reunification of the Maxakalí areas. This finally happened in 1993, with the administrative demarcation of the unified area, which was ratified in 1996. The landowners whose farms were located in the corridor between the two indigenous areas demanded – and were awarded – the right to be indemnified for the improvements they had made in their former properties, and the resources for that were given to Funai’s Regional Administration in 1997. However, since the landowners disagreed with the amount they were to be paid, a new judicial dispute is under way over the corridor between the areas of the Pradinho and Água Boa Indigenous Posts.

Social organization

Nakpie/Rio Doce Village. Foto: Curt Nimuendajú/Arquivo Museu Nacional, 1939
Nakpie/Rio Doce Village. Foto: Curt Nimuendajú/Arquivo Museu Nacional, 1939

Historical records from various times indicate that the Maxakalí were semi-nomadic, living predominantly on hunting and gathering and practicing incipient agriculture. These social characteristics can still be seen among the Indians of Pradinho, whose contact with the surrounding society is more recent.

The matrilocal extensive families are grouped into three basic units. The first one is defined by their identity proper, and includes all the individuals identified as Maxakalí and who share the same language, myths, ritual symbols and history. However, the recognition of such uniqueness does not necessarily imply in the exercise of any collective activity or the adoption of common political postures.

The second is the domestic group, comprised of the dwellers of two to five houses – with open access to everyone in the group – where an extensive family lives. It is the basic unit of social integration, since the relationship is established among blood relatives and in-laws. The leader is the oldest man in the group or, exceptionally, a widow. It is a non-perennial group that may break up in times of crises or because of a death or disagreement, so as to cut conflicts short.

The third is the band – or xop in the Maxacalí language –, a unit of consensus, made up of a more complex social combination. It includes all the relatives of a given family, encompassing several domestic groups. It is the unit with the largest social integration. It is established around a leader and a ceremonial center (the House of Religion, or Kukex), which characterizes it as a political and religious unit with a denomination of its own. It requires a minimum number of participants in order to operate successfully. In case the number is reduced, the ceremonials are interrupted and the unit is extinguished.

The Maxakalí classify people in two large categories: the Xape (relatives or allies of the family group, from whom are expected solidarity, goodwill, consideration and respect to property) and Pukñog (the stranger, or the enemy, someone from whom one cannot expect either goodwill or consideration, even if he/she is a faraway relative). Preferred marriages are with the Pukñog and the Xape-Hãptox Hã, the distant or collateral relatives, which makes possible the reduction of the tensions and conflicts among the various social units.

The high degree of dispersion causes the Maxakalí groups to be fluid and ever changing. When internal to the domestic group, dissidences result in the reformulation of the composition of the “villages”, and physical distance is put between the former members, thus dismantling the bands. This tendency towards dispersion is interrupted at times of crises, when the band groups together again in search of solutions for the problems.

The propensity to constant fractioning is accentuated by the manner in which the leadership is organized among the groups – clearly diffuse, fluid and restricted to the village in which the leader lives with his blood relatives and their spouses. Due to the superposition of their political and religious functions, the leaders are expected to ensure to those they lead material and spiritual benefits as well as the maintenance of the balance between the visible and the invisible worlds. However, the frequent internal and external crises, the dissatisfactions and the difficulties in promoting a compromise among the often contradictory interests in the group and in the band require an effort to reach a consensus that is not always successful. The result is the dispersion of the family groups and the appearance of new bands, reorganized and regrouped in accordance to the alliances and political postures adopted by the various family groups regarding what caused the crisis or who is responsible for it. That is the explanation for the frequent appearance of new villages, which get close or move away physically and politically from the others depending on the political moment.

Despite such fluidity, the bands are the most complex social units, presupposing the amplest possible level of integration of collective integration in economic, social, political and religious activities. Thus they are autonomous units, including in what refers to the possibility of physical reproduction in accordance to the rules of marriage, with their own ceremonial and denomination as well as the establishment of specific limits as to the attributions of their leaders.

These markedly dispersive social characteristics in terms of political coordination, as well as the fact that the consciousness of ethnic belonging does not result in collective activities, solidarity or even the idea of a unity ordering the various bands, explain the formation of new autonomous, self-sufficient social units that were observed among the Maxakalí before 1920. If this social process occurred without external interference – the conflicts with colonists and with other indigenous groups dislocated from their territories, the external imposition of compulsory aldeamento, and the choice of the various subgroups of the Maxacalí to do so together –, it is thus possible to suppose that, on a given period of time, new ethnic identities may have appeared, as it has occurred with other Macro-Jê groups.

Insertion in the regional productive system

Foto: Wilson Avelar, 1982 (website)
Foto: Wilson Avelar, 1982 (website)

The Maxakalí of Umburanas develop an incipient agriculture – which they consider an unattractive activity – and raise small and large animals. In an attitude that should be interpreted not only as an economic option based on traditional social patterns but also as a political act, the Maxakalí began hunting, fishing and gathering in neighboring farms and to wander around towns in Minas Gerais and Bahia in search of goods they are unable to buy. But they always return to their villages, where they resume their daily lives and activities.

The insertion of the Maxacalí in the social and economic structure in Umburanas is conditioned not only by the set of options they have, but by the fact that they inhabit one of the poorest regions of Minas Gerais. In an area where small and medium-size properties predominate, landowners stand at the top of the social hierarchy. The Indians are classified below rural workers, even though they occasionally work in the farms, sell products made of wild plants, part of their small agricultural production, arts and crafts and seeds in the street markets of Batinga and Santa Helena, and are considered owners of lands in their reservation. In spite of their participation in the region’s productive system, the Indians are regarded as lazy, dirty, dishonest and drunkards, and are socially excluded from the regional structure which, after the contact, they belong to.

The participation of the Maxacalí in the productive system is limited by a set of factors. Among them are the deterioration of the ecosystem of the indigenous posts, the reduction of the available spaces for economic activities, the dismantling of the group’s social and economic organization, the introduction of new consumer needs that can only be satisfied through the exchange system and which has resulted, for the Maxakalí, in growing dependence. In order to satisfy these new needs, they would have to increase their production and the time they spend in paid work. However, in order to do so the Maxacalí would have to abandon a set of activities that are very important for the group’s social and symbolic reproduction, such as the socialization of the children, the manufacture of handmade objects and performance of rituals. And this, in any case, would only seem to be a more egalitarian participation in the market, not only because of the competition with local farmers – since all of them produce basically the same crops –, but also because of factors such as the difficulties for the Indians to take their products to the towns, the discrimination they are subjected to and the difficulty they have in understanding and mastering the rules of competition and the real monetary value of their products.

As for the increase of the time dedicated to work in the neighboring farms, the social implications would be more noticeable, since it would mean a continuous involvement in paid labor and in the abandonment of the group’s most valued social practices, such as the rituals. Because of their resistance to adopt such solution, the Maxakalí are constantly accused of being lazy and are thus not considered good laborers.

This situation results in a set of contradictions that are hard to be overcome. In order to get the goods they want the Maxacalí need jobs while they wait for harvesting time in their roças. But since the jobs they get are for planting, weeding and harvesting, if they work in a farm they would be unable to perform these same tasks in their own fields and would not have products from their roças to sell later. That is why the preferred solutions are “hunting and gathering” in neighboring farms and begging – survival mechanisms that enable them to maintain the discontinuous and irregular time schedule dedicated to their economic activities while preserving what they consider necessary for the group’s social and symbolic reproduction. Maybe this is the explanation for the failure of SPI and Funai officials in turning them into sedentary farmers and animal raisers and for the choice of the Maxakalí to adapt their traditional economic practices to the new reality, through which they stimulate the prejudices against them and their social marginalization, pushing them towards begging, frustration and alcoholism because they feel unable to satisfy their aspirations of consumption and social recognition.

Despite all the social, political and economic compulsions and the social disorders they experience, the Maxakalí are characterized by an extraordinary ability to preserve the most remarkable traits of their social organization and of their cultural expressions. In addition to that, we point out the maintenance of the rules of marriage and of a social order based on relations of alliance and opposition among the various villages.

As a mirror of the permanence of such social structures, the spatial distribution of the Maxacalí villages is the same as the one described since the 19th Century by travelers, administrators and military officers: unfinished houses distributed around a courtyard where are stuck the ceremonial masts – through which the spirits of the dead, the yãmiy, come down –, disposed is a horseshoe shape, closed in one extremity by the House of Religion and, in the other, by the village leader’s house.

Material culture

The Maxacalí traditional houses are round in shape and are built of thin branches and stakes bent at the top, tied up and covered with palm leaves. They used to be very low, and in their vicinity there used to be a kind of stove made of four forked sticks stuck into the ground, on which rested four sticks crossed by several others, used for cooking and roasting. This traditional way of cooking has been adapted for the use of aluminum pans, which are increasingly common among the Maxacalí.

In terms of material culture, the Maxakalí objects have always been described as of great simplicity. Their traditional weapons are the bow and arrow. The bow, made of pau d'arco (a kind of trumpet-bush) or of the trunk of the airi palm, has a deep longitudinal hole in the front part, where an arrow can be placed while another is being shot. The arrows, made of bamboo may be of three different formats: the first, used in wars and to hunt large animals, is made of burned bamboo carved and scraped, with a sharp lanceolated point; the second, with a harpooned point, is made of airi palm or pau d'arco, with ten or twelve carvings directed towards the back; and the third, used to hunt small animals, is made of straight branches with a knot so as to have the format of a rosette. Bows and arrows are manufactured by men, as well as brooms, large baskets, sifters, maracas and bodoques (a two-string bow), for daily use and for sale in the regional market, and garb for rituals.

Women fish, gather and harvest the roças. They manufacture clay pots of various sizes, hammocks, necklaces, baskets for carrying objects with strings that are placed on the forehead, fishing nets, and sacks and saddlebags made of tucum (a spiny club palm), cotton and envira (a kind of annonaceaous tree) fibers. They are also in charge of transporting the family belongings and the children when the group moves.

In the past, the Maxakalí used to wear no clothes and perforated the lower lip, where small chunks of bamboo were introduced; men tied the foreskin to their belly with a vine. Today, the Maxacalí have adopted the clothes of their non-Indian neighbors. However, they still have a special taste for colorful body decoration, including the use of carbon paper taken from Funai’s office.


The entire social life of the Maxakalí is marked by rites. Despite that, there is no ritual identified with the coming of age of women. The men’s, however, is marked by secret ritual initiations, which is an indication of the clear distinctions that the Maxakalí society establishes for the roles of males and females. Since young boyhood, males go to a small hut where, in addition to learning the proper activities for their gender, including the ritualistic, they maintain close relations with the adult men in their group.

Rituals of cure are performed for children, youngsters and adults. Because they still have no name, newborns do not exist socially and thus are not object of concern regarding the need for interference in case of illness. As for the fact that old people are excluded as well, the Maxacalí explain that, because of their old age, they need to rest from so much work and from the many difficulties they have faced in their lifetimes, and thus their right to die must be respected.

Diseases cause great concern among the Maxakalí because they are interpreted as the result of a voluntary or provoked intervention of spirits that capture the person’s soul, causing them to become ill. In consequence, the rituals of cure are aimed at restoring the balance by pleasing the evil spirits, of which women are particularly easy prey.

The ritual is directed by the group’s leader, whom, along with the sick person’s relatives, sings, dances and asks the patient quietly which spirit is tormenting him/her, and the spirit proper which ones of its desires must be satisfied.

Once that is done, the men go into the House of Religion in order to continue the rites. Once they are finished with everything that has to be done, they return to the sick person and hold a session of chants and prayers, shrouding the patient in a cloud of smoke. The spirit is encouraged to withdraw. When the housedog howls, it is considered that contact with the spirit has been made, and a new phase of the curing process begins: the house is kept dark, the zunidores (a primitive instrument that produces a humming sound) continue to be played and the proceedings go on until the dog howls once more. That is the sign that the spirit has left. Those in charge of the ritual leave the house, the lamps are lit once again and the food offered to the spirits disappears, which is attributed to them.

Death and its consequences are also regarded as responsible for social imbalance, because the dead person’s spirit – yãmiy – may cause diseases in others or turn into a black jaguar and attack the group. The Maxakalí interpret as the most concerning signs of such possibility movements made by the dead body or, after the burial, if the grave is revolved and the body exposed. Poking a stick or an arrow into the dead body is what has to be done in order to avoid transmigration and the transmutation of the soul, because it forces it to stay in its eternal home. To make sure that really takes place and in order to avoid future problems, the Maxakalí pay daily visits to the grave; in case the body is exposed, it is exhumed, burned and then buried again. Other measures may also be taken, depending on how serious the situation is considered: the abandonment and burning up of the dead person’s house, of the village or even of the House of Religion, the killing of the animals, the destruction of the dead person’s belongings and the abandonment of the site where the village is built.

Controlling the evil spirits presupposes, on the part of the religious leader, strength and vast knowledge of the myths and of the teachings of the ancestors, and is regarded as an act of great social dimension. That is the reason why curing rituals are performed by more than one person, with the support of the spirits considered friendly and good. The practice of rituals by just one member of the community, in addition to being considered an anti-social act, is interpreted as witchcraft, which normally results in the death of the accused.

In addition to these curing rituals, the Maxakalí also perform other rites, aimed at solving occasional social or political crises or thanking supernatural entities for the solution of problems that threat the survival of the community.

There are also rituals related to the planting and harvesting seasons, which take place in January and between May and October respectively. In such occasions, the male population above 19 years of age is divided into ten ritual groups, each comprised of between two and seven individuals. Participants withdraw to the woods, where they manufacture their ceremonial garb and paint themselves. Then they return to the village in a line carrying the ceremonial mast, which is placed in front of the House of Religion. Next, they go into it in order to continue their secret ceremonies.

Excluded from this part of the activities, the women stay home preparing the food that will be eaten during the ritual. The animal to be sacrificed is then killed with arrows by the men, and is exchanged with the women for products from the roças or that they collected. The participation of the women is limited to dancing in the village courtyard, and they are not allowed to use the ceremonial musical instruments: maracas made of gourds, bamboo whistles, zunidores and ritual arrows. After the dances and the exchange of food, which solidifies the relationships of solidarity and social interdependence, the ritual ends with a bath of the entire group in the nearest river.

The Maxacalí continue to perform the rituals today, with small innovations such as the consumption of coffee and cookies and the acquisition or donation of an animal to be sacrificed, which is released and then “hunted” by the participants.

All these intricate beliefs are closely associated with the religious universe of the Maxakalí. The myth of creation’s central figure is called Topa, who used to live among humans, but who, having become upset, withdrew and sent them a great deluge. The survivors – either a man or a couple, depending on the version – gave origin to the Maxakalí.

The religious universe of the Maxacalí is comprised also of a great number of entities placed in ten large groups, which in turn are subdivided into two hundred subgroups, the yãmiyxop. This organization is based on a complex hierarchy, which includes the spirits of the Maxakalí, of other Indians and of the non-Indians, as well as of the animals. At the top of the hierarchy is Hãmgãyãgñag, the individual dead soul, sovereign over the forces of good and evil and responsible for the death of the diseased.

The various supernatural beings have different personalities and demands – including of foods –, which require not only their identification during the rituals but also the knowledge of how to please them in order to prevent them from causing evil to the community. That is the reason why, upon returning from the woods and ritually sacrificing the animal chosen by the spirit being honored, the men go into the House of Religion: to listen to the friendly spirits that help them identify the supernatural being they are dealing with it and what its demands are.

When they visit the Earth, these spirits may go to several places, such as the heart of the living, the hollow of trees, the highest peaks of the area they occupy and the top of the trees. However, they prefer the ceremonial masts placed in the courtyard where the ceremonial dances are performed, in front of the House of Religion.

Note on the sources

The earliest references to the Maxacalí date from the 16th Century, when they were known Amixokori. Since then, they have been identified by the various designations of their different subgroups. It was only after 1808 that the name Maxakalí became widespread, always referring to the aldeamentos where several subgroups lived.

There is vast documentation on the Maxacalí, not only regarding the period that preceded 1808, among which stand out the works by Wilhem Christian Gotthele von Feldner and José da Silva Brandão, but also from the years that followed. The latter include both administrative sources – military officers, village directors, priests, missionaries, teachers – and literature produced by visitors such as the naturalist voyagers who traveled in the region located between the Pardo and Doce rivers, in the present-day States of Bahia, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, in the first half of the 19th Century. Among the most important of these are Auguste de Saint-Hilaire, Maximilian Wied-Neuwied, Johann E. Pohl and J. B. von Spix and C. F. P von Martius.

From the second half of the 19th Century the most important documents were produced by the Companhia do Vale do Mucuri (Mucuri Valley Company), directed by Teófilo Benedito Ottoni, particularly its reports for the years of 1853, 1856 and 1857, written by Capuchin priests responsible for the administration of the aldeamentos, by General Directors of the Indians of the provinces of Bahia, Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais and by the Partial Directors of the aldeamentos.

With the creation of a directorship of the Serviço de Proteção ao Índio (SPI) in Espírito Santo with jurisdiction over Minas Gerais, the reports by Alberto Portela and Estigarribia are of utmost relevance.

In terms of academic works, special attention should be given to Marcos Rubinger’s book, the Master’s thesis in Social Anthropology of Nelí Nascimento and Míriam Alvares Martins and to the Ph.D. dissertation in Social History of Maria Hilda Baqueiro Paraiso, as well as an article on the history of the Maxacalí by this same author.

As for the Maxakalí language, a special reference must be made to the works of Francis and Harold Popovich, both researchers associated with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. The latter is also the author of an important unpublished work about the Maxakalí mythology.

Two videos have been made about the Maxakalí. One of them, Maxakali, o Povo do Canto, was directed by Marcelo Brum; the other, Índios, os Primeiros Habitantes, by Joana d'Arc Matias.

Sources of information

  • ALVARES, Myriam Martins. A educação indígena na escola e a domesticação indígena da escola. Boletim do MPEG: Série Antropologia, Belém : MPEG, v. 15, n. 2, p. 223-51, dez. 1999.

(Org.). Campanha internacional pela regularização do território Maxakali. Belo Horizonte : Cimi-LE ; Cedefes, 1995. 51 p.
(Org.). O livro que conta histórias de antigamente. Belo Horizonte : SEE-MG, 1998. 112 p.
. Yãmiy, os espíritos do canto : a construção da pessoa na sociedade Maxakali. Campinas : Unicamp, 1992. 227 p. (Dissertação de Mestrado)
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  • ANTUNES, Marisa Aparecida Domingos. Pequeno dicionário indígena Maxakali-Português/Português-Maxakali. Juiz de Fora : s.ed., 1999. 56 p.


  • ARAÚJO, Gabriel Antunes. Fonologia e morfologia da língua Maxakali. Campinas : Unicamp, 2000. 144 p. (Dissertação de Mestrado)


  • BECHER, Hans. Observações de Wilhem Christian Gotthele von Feldner entre os Maxakali na primeira metade do século XIX. Rev. de Antropologia, São Paulo : USP, v. 9, n. 1/2, p. 61-88, jun./dez. 1961.


  • BRANDÃO, José da Silva. Observações sobre os Índios estabelecidos em Lorena dos Tocoiós pelo Tenente José da Silva Brandão por ordens do Imo. e Exmo. Sr. Bernardo José de Lorena, Governador e Cap. General da Capitania de Minas Gerais aos 21 de fevereiro de 1799. RAPM, Belo Horizonte : s.ed., v. 18, p. 431-5, 1912.


  • CEDEFES. A luta dos índios pela terra : contribuição à história indígena de Minas Gerais. Contagem : Cedefes, 1987. 120 p.


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  • DENIS, Ferdinand. Os Maxacalis. São Paulo : Conselho Estadual de Cultura, 1979. 294 p.


  • DUTRA, Mara Vanessa et al. Krenak, Maxacali, Pataxó e Xakriaba : a formação de professores indígenas em Minas Gerais. Em Aberto, Brasília : Inep/MEC, v. 20, n. 76, p. 74-88, fev.2003.


  • MÉTRAUX, Alfred, NIMUENDAJÚ, Curt. The Mashakali, Patashó, and Malalí linguistic families. In: STEWARD, Julian H. (Ed.). Handbook of South American indians. v. 1. New York : Cooper Square Publishers, 1963. p. 541-6.


  • MOURA, José Pereira Freire de. Notícias e observações sobre os Índios Botocudos que freqüentam as margens do rio Jequitinhonha e se chamam Âmbares ou Aimorés. RAPM, Belo Horizonte : s.ed., v. 2, p. 28-31, 1897.


  • NASCIMENTO, Neli Ferreira do. A Luta pela sobrevivência de uma sociedade tribal do nordeste mineiro. São Paulo : USP, 1984. ( Dissertação de Mestrado)


  • NIMUENDAJÚ, Curt. Índios Maxakali In: --------. Textos indigenistas. São Paulo : Loyola, 1982. p. 209-18. (Publicado também na Revista de Antropologia, São Paulo : USP, v. 6, n. 1, p. 53-61, 1958).


  • OILIAN, José. Indígenas de Minas Gerais : aspectos sociais, políticos e etnológicos. Belo Horizonte : Imprensa Oficial, 1965.


  • OLIVEIRA, Cláudia Ribeiro de (Ed.). Maxakali : resistência de um povo. Belo Horizonte : Cimi, 1994. 34 p.


  • PALAZZOLO, F. Jacinto de. Nas selvas dos Vales do Mucuri e Rio Doce. Petrópolis : Vozes, 1945.


  • PARAÍSO, Maria Hilda Baqueiro. Amixokori, Pataxo, Monoxo, Kumanoxo, Kutaxo, Kutatoi, Maxakali, Malali e Makoni : povos indígenas diferenciados ou subgrupos de uma mesma nação? Uma proposta de reflexão. Rev. do Museu de Arqueol. e Etnol., São Paulo : USP-MAE, n. 4, p. 173-87, 1994.


  • PENA, João Luiz. Os Maxakali e a domesticação do Kaxmuk : a propósito do consumo de bebidas de alto teor alcoólico. Belo Horizonte : UFMG, 2000. 52 p. (Monografia Bacharelado Ciências Sociais)


  • PEREIRA, Deuscreide G. Alguns aspectos gramaticais da língua maxakali. Belo Horizonte : UFMG, 1991. 121 p. (Dissertação de Mestrado)


  • POHL, Johann Emanuel. Viagem no interior do Brasil. São Paulo : Edusp ; Belo Horizonte : Itatiaia, 1976. 418 p. (Reconquista do Brasil, 14)


  • POPOVICH, Frances Blok. A organização social dos Maxakali. Brasília : SIL, 1994. 64 p.


  • POPOVICH, Harold. Large grammatical units and the space-time setting in Maxakalí. In: SIMPÓSIO SOBRE A BIOTA AMAZÔNICA. Atas. v. 2 Antropologia. s.l. : s.ed., 1967. p. 195-9.

(Org.). Kokex. Brasília : SIL, 1992. 30 p. (Cartilha Maxakalí, 2). Circulação restrita.
(Org.). Mõgmõka. Brasília : SIL, 1992. 21 p. (Cartilha Maxakalí, 3). Circulação restrita.
(Org.). Patap urú. Brasília : SIL, 1992. 30 p. (Cartilha Maxakalí, 1). Circulação restrita.
(Org.). Yãyã. Brasília : SIL, 1992. 18 p. (Cartilha Maxakalí, 4). Circulação restrita.
  • PORTO, Reinaldo Ottoni. A bandeira de João da Silva. Rev. do Inst. Hist. e Geog. de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte : IHGMG, v. 2, p. 142-77, 1945.


  • RUBINGER, Marcos Magalhães; AMORIM, Maria Stella de; MARCATO, Sônia de Almeida. Índios Maxakali : resistência ou morte. Belo Horizonte : Interlivros, 1980. 200 p.


  • SAINT-HILAIRE, A. Viagem pelas Províncias do Rio de Janeiro e Minas Gerais. Belo Horizonte : Itatiaia ; São Paulo : Edusp, 1975.


  • SANTOS, Péricles Ribeiro dos. Pioneiros de águas formosas : relato histórico do povoamento das selvas do Pampam. Belo Horizonte : IOF, 1970.


  • SENNA, N de. Nomenclatura das principais tribos do Brasil, quer das extintas quer das ainda existentes. Rev. do Arquivo Público Mineiro. Belo Horizonte : Arquivo Público Mineiro, v. 16, p. 313-21, 1910.

. A terra mineira : corografia do Estado de Minas Gerais. Belo Horizonte : IOF, 1927.
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  • TORRETTA, Oscar. Doenças e saúde : duas pesquisas médico-antropológicas entre as comunidades Pataxó e Maxacali de Minas Gerais. Belo Horizonte : UFMG/FFCH, 1998.


  • URBAN, Greg. A história da cultura brasileira segundo as línguas nativas. In: CUNHA, Manuela Carneiro da (Org.). História dos índios no Brasil. São Paulo : Cia. das Letras/Fapesp/SMC, 1992. p. 87-102.


  • WETZELS, Leo. Prevowels in Maxacali : where they come from? Abralin, São Paulo : Abralin, n. 14, p. 39-63, 1993.


  • WIED-NEUIWED, Maximiliano. Viagem ao Brasil. São Paulo : Edusp ; Belo Horizonte : Itatiaia, 1989.


  • Índios, os primeiros habitantes. Dir.: Joana d'Arc Matias, Vídeo cor. Prod.: TV Minas.


  • Maxakali. Dir.: Marcelo Brum. Vídeo cor, VHS, 1995. Prod.: Intervalo Cinema e Vídeo; Cimi; Cedefes; Solidariedad.


  • Tikmu'un (nós, humanos). Vídeo cor, VHS-NTSC, 60 min., 1999. Prod.: Crystal Vídeo Comunicação Ltda