From Povos Indígenas no Brasil
Photo: Jussara Gruber, 1979


Self-denomination Where they are How many Linguistic family
Maguta AM
53.544 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
8.000 (Goulard, J. P., 2011)
6.982 (INEI, 2007)

The Ticuna are the most numerous people in Brazilian Amazonia. Following a recent history shaped by the violent invasion of rubber-tappers, fishermen and loggers in the Solimões river region, it was only in the 1990s that the Ticuna gained official recognition for the majority of their lands. Today they face the challenge of guaranteeing their economic and environmental sustainability, enhancing their relations with the surrounding society while maintaining the vivacity of their extremely rich culture. Not by chance, the masks, designs and paintings of this people have achieved international recognition.



According to Ticuna oral tradition, it was Yo´i [one of the principal culture heroes] who fished the first Ticuna from the red waters of the Eware creek (close to the springs of the São Jerônimo river). These were the Magüta (literally, ‘group of people fished with a rod´;’ from the verb magü, ‘fish with a rod,’, and the collectivizing suffix -ta), who first lived near to the house of Yo´i, on Taiwegine mountain. Even today, this is a sacred location for the Ticuna, the place where some of the immortals reside and where the material remains of their beliefs are to be found (such as the remains of the house or the fishing rod used by Yo´i).  


Habitação ticuna no Igarapé Belém. Foto: Acervo Museu do Índio, 1930
Habitação ticuna no Igarapé Belém. Foto: Acervo Museu do Índio, 1930

“According to their myths, the Ticuna originally came from the Eware creek, situated on the springs of the São Jerônimo (Tonatü) creek, an affluent of the left shore of the Solimões (Amazon) river on the section between Tabatinga and São Paulo de Olivença. Even today this is the area with the highest concentration of Ticuna, where 42 of the current 59 villages are situated” (Oliveira, 2002: 280).

This people lived on the upper courses of the left-shore affluents of the Solimões, on the section where the latter enters Brazilian territory as far as the Içá/Putumayo river. There was a large exodus towards the Solimões.

Initially they maintained their traditional spatial distribution in clan malocas and, in the 1970s, had more than one hundred villages. Today this distribution of Ticuna villages has changed substantially. Some of the people are also known to have relocated down river as far as Tefé and other municipalities on the middle Solimões, while others settled in Beruri municipality, on the river’s lower course, fairly close to the city of Manaus. On the upper Solimões, however, the Ticuna can be found in all six of the region's municipalities, namely: Tabatinga, Benjamim Constant, São Paulo de Olivença, Amaturá, Santo Antônio do Içá and Tonantins.

According to the Instituto Socioambiental’s data, the Ticuna are distributed in 28 Indigenous Territories, most of which have already been demarcated and/or approved, though some are still in the process of being officially recognized by Funai.

History of contact

Maloca Pêrêtê no Igarapé Preto, Amazonas. Foto: Museu do Índio/Relatório IR-1/SPIc , 1930/31
Maloca Pêrêtê no Igarapé Preto, Amazonas. Foto: Museu do Índio/Relatório IR-1/SPIc , 1930/31

The first reference to the Ticuna dates from the middle of the 17th century and comes from the book Novo Descobrimento do Rio Amazonas, by Cristobal de Acuña. The reference, transcribed below, is found in chapter LI:

“These tribes, located on both shores of the river, are continually at war with neighbouring peoples who, from the southern side, include the Curina, so numerous that they not only defend themselves from attacks via river from the great number of the Água, they also bear arms, at the same time, against other nations that attack them constantly via the forest.

To the north the Água have as enemies the Tecuna who, according to good information, are inferior to the Curina neither in number nor in their mettle, since they also conduct wars with enemies deep in the forest.”

According to Curt Nimuendajú, the German ethnologist who made his first trip to the upper Solimões in 1929, the Ticuna are cited for the first time as enemies of the Omágua, inhabitants of the left bank of the Solimões river. The Ticuna, who had already fled from the attacks of this people, taking refuge along the upper courses of the creeks and affluents of the left shore of the Solimões, did the same following the arrival of the Spanish.

The first contacts with white people date from the end of the 17th century when Spanish Jesuits arriving from Peru, led by Father Samuel Fritz, founded various missionary villages along the shores of the Solimões. This was the origin of the region’s future towns, such as São Paulo de Olivença, Amaturá, Fonte Boa and Tefé. These missions were primarily targeted at the Omágua, who dominated the shores and islands of the Solimões river and whose demographic density, military capacity and economic vigour made a marked impression on travellers and colonial chroniclers. The records from the period speak of many other peoples (such as the Miranha or Içá, Xumana, Passe, Júri, among others, reported as already extinct by the first half of the 19th century by naturalist travellers), who were settled in mission villages alongside the Omágua and Ticuna, eventually leading to a mixed riverine population” (Oliveira, 2002: 280).

From the installation of the Spanish Jesuit mission until Portugal’s hegemony over the region became consolidated in the 18th century (with the construction of a fort in Tabatinga), the two nations vied for control of the upper Solimões. The much feared Omágua (also known as Cambeba), with their warrior tradition, were almost exterminated in this process due to a combination of newly introduced diseases and their active participation in the dispute between the two colonial empires. Over time, the Europeans proved unwilling or unable to populate the region once inhabited by the Omágua, and the Ticuna began to occupy this space, moving down river from the upper creeks where they had managed to avoid more intense contact.

During the final two decades of the 19th century, Amazonia became the setting for an intense period of rubber exploration. The upper Solimões, despite lacking rubber extraction areas as productive as those of Acre, for example, was also included in the rush for ‘white gold,’ as the rubber was called.

With the institution of the barracão (storehouse) system, the ‘boss’ had exclusive control over the trade with Indians, since use of his store as a trading post was obligatory. This enterprise was ‘legitimized’ by the land deeds obtained by a few families, most of them coming from the northeast of Brazil, which laid claim to the lands of the Ticuna, who were then forced to obey these new arrivals. The bosses settled at the mouth of the principal affluents from where they controlled the local inhabitants. To reinforce this control, the boss would also nominate a tuxaua who would lead the Indians, looking after his interests. This form of leadership was not always based on traditional relations, but on the tuxaua’s subservience to the rubber bosses.

Their traditional habitation, the maloca, occupied by members of the same clan, was still in use when Curt Nimuendajú visited the upper Solimões for the first time. However, it was beginning to disappear due to the actions of the rubber bosses, who forced the break up of the malocas and the dispersal of the Indians along the creeks, a demographic situation which met the demands of rubber extraction better. The low productivity of the rubber areas on the upper Solimões was optimized by the dispersion throughout the forest where the various rubber trails where located.

Nimuendajú also reports that a new source of contact appeared on the upper Solimões in 1910. During this period, Capuchin friars coming from the province of Umbria in Italy founded the Apostolic Prefecture of the Upper Solimões. The presence of the Indian Protection Service (SPI) within this setting of near absolute control of the rubber bosses was a mere formality, restricted to reports from an officer from this agency from 1917 onwards. It was only in 1942 that this federal agency set up a post in the region.

Aware that the federal agency's control would be easier to exert with the centralization of power among the Ticuna, the SPI employees worked to establish a single point of leadership in each village – a political function traditionally absent among the Ticuna. Leaders (the toeru) were recognized at the level of the local groups, who possessed the authority to convoke collective work, resolve small disputes and so on among a limited group of relatives and neighbours. The fragmentary nature of this form of leadership was unable to meet the needs of the SPI’s regional administration. The solution encountered was the appointment of a capitão, or ‘captain,’ by the head of the post (Oliveira, 1988: 237-8).

A new historical situation began to take shape in the mid 1960s: Amazonia and its frontier region were gradually transformed into an area of national security for the Brazilian army. The old military garrison of Tabatinga grew in size and importance, becoming the Solimões Border Command (CFSOL), with more authority to intervene locally. This led to a profound change between the bosses and Indians. Unable to use physical punishment as a form of coercion, curbed by the army, the bosses discovered other ways of maintaining their control over the indigenous population (Oliveira, 1988: 211-3).

The work of the Catholic Church – implemented through the Apostolic Prefecture of the Upper Solimões, inaugurated by the Capuchin friars in 1910 – led to the development of a reasonably solid health and education infrastructure, reflected in the fact that Belém do Solimões is today one of the largest Ticuna villages. During the 1960s, American Baptist missionaries also arrived in the upper Solimões with the objective of converting the Indians. As the ‘bosses’ still controlled the region at the time, principally as the ostensible owners of the land where the Ticuna lived, one of the strategies used by the missionaries to mobilize the region’s indigenous population was the purchase of lands, which they made available to those who wanted to live with them, sharing the teachings of their religion. As a result, other settlements formed which today constitute some of the largest populated Ticuna villages, such as Campo Alegre and Betânia.

However, the number of people who relocated to the villages only changed significantly with the appearance of the Irmandade da Santa Cruz (Holy Cross Brotherhood) messianic movement (see Messianic Movements). By the start of the 1970s, the former 'bosses' – seeing their control over the Indians gradually diminish – gave their support to the spread of the ideas of a man called José Francisco da Cruz.

Since these ideas resonated to some extent with the Ticuna tradition, which includes the possibility of divine punishment during periods of intense sociocultural disintegration, and received support from the region’s main political leaders, José da Cruz’s doctrine took hold very quickly and the religious movement founded by him became hegemonic in a short period of time. Indians and non-Indians throughout the upper Solimões converted to the religion and the leadership positions in the Irmandade hierarchy were rapidly occupied by the former ‘bosses.’. This provided them with a solution to the crisis in authority they had been experiencing, providing them with a new moral/religious legitimacy for their local dominance (Oliveira, 1978).

Officers of Funai – the federal government agency that had by now replaced the SPI – also quickly perceived the Santa Cruz movement as a catalyzing force for its project of integrating the region’s indigenous peoples and began to openly support those leaders linked to the movement, spurring the religious factionalism that today splits villages such as Umariaçú and Belém do Solimões (Oliveira, 1987).

At the end of 1981, the principal Ticuna leaders called a meeting in Campo Alegre village where they discussed the demand for demarcation of their lands to be forwarded to Funai. At this meeting, a commission was also chosen to go to Brasília to present this proposal to the President. As a result of this pressure from the Ticuna, in 1982 FUNAI sent a work group to identify the Ticuna areas in the municipalities of Fonte Boa, Japurá, Maraã, Jutaí, Juruá, Santo Antônio do Içá and São Paulo de Olivença.

Also in 1982, the Ticuna created the General Council of the Ticuna Tribe (CGTT), headed by a general coordinator elected in four-yearly assemblies from among all the village capitães with powers similar to those of a foreign affairs minister. Other indigenous organizations were subsequently created: the Organization of Bilingual Ticuna Teachers (OGPTB) (see Education), was founded in 1986 with the aim of implementing teacher training and retraining courses; the Organization of Ticuna Health Monitors (OMSPT); and the Health Organization of the Ticuna People of the Upper Solimões (OSPTAS), in 1990, whose work was focused on combating the cholera coming from Colombia and Peru.

The year 1986 also saw the foundation of the Magüta Centre – the Upper Solimões Documentation and Research Centre, primarily catering for Ticuna populations and assisted by researchers who had already been working there for more than a decade. Its main achievement was developing the process that led to official recognition in 1993 of the indigenous ownership of approximately one million hectares of land in the region. The Magüta Centre also conducted work in the areas of health and development. Between 1996 and 1997, due to difficulties in funding its activities after the demarcation of the main Ticuna lands, the Centre was closed and its offices taken over by the CGTT.

Messianic movements

José da Cruz, líder religioso Ticuna, Amazonas. Foto: Wolf Gauer , 1980
José da Cruz, líder religioso Ticuna, Amazonas. Foto: Wolf Gauer , 1980

Curt Nimuendajú and Maurício Vinhas de Queiroz were the first researchers to observe signs of messianic movements among the Ticuna. According to them, there were seven such manifestations among these Indians from the start of the 20th century to 1961.

The first phenomenon identifiable as a messianic movement occurred in Peruvian territory at the beginning of the 20th century when a young Ticuna woman began to have visions and prophesize, attracting Ticuna from both Peru and Brazil to join her. Observing the young woman’s influence steadily grow, Nimuendajú reports, the 'civilized' whites intervened, launching armed attacks on the group in which various Ticuna died, while others were maltreated and the young prophet herself met an unknown fate (Nimuendajú, 1952: 138).

The second movement took place between 1930 and 1935 when a young Ticuna man called Aureliano, from Lake Cujaru on the Jacurapá river, began to have visions. The Indians built a separate house for him so he could receive the revelations more easily. As his reputation increased and more and more Indians joined him, the “whites intervened again and captured Aureliano under the pretext that he hadn’t been paying tax on a kind of guitar that he manufactured” (Nimuendajú, 1952: 138).

Due to the paucity of the information provided by Nimuendajú, it is impossible to know much about the content of the prophecies made by the young Ticuna woman and Aureliano, nor about the real situation of those who followed them. Likewise there is no way of knowing for certain the identity of the non-Indians who violently suppressed the Ticuna messianic movements. However, since the latter occurred during a period in which the rubber extraction system had already been implanted in the region, it is legitimate to suppose that these attacks were made at the order of the regional landowners who, as is well-known, used every kind of tactic to prevent the flight of the indigenous workforce from the rubber extraction areas.

Another messianic manifestation occurred on the Auati-Paraná around 1932. According to information obtained by Vinhas de Queiroz from the region’s non-indigenous population, a number of Ticuna met at Auati where they awaited the apparition of god. The movement collapsed in the wake of an epidemic that spread through the region, killing most of its members (Queiroz, 1963: 46).

A fourth event took place between 1938 and 1939 on the São Jerônimo creek. The rumour spread that a jaguar had told a Ticuna child that a great flood would inundate everything, including the administrative centre of the seringal (rubber extraction area). In response to this news, the Indians who lived near to the mouth of the creek in question relocated to its upper course where they built a large, traditional-style maloca and cleared large forest plantations. When the announced catastrophe failed to materialize, the Indians eventually returned to their dwellings and continued to live as before (Queiroz, 1963: 49).

Holy Cross Brotherhood

Transferência da igreja para outro local da aldeia, Porto Cordeirinho, Terra Indígena Tikuna de Santo Antônio, Município de Benjamin Constant, Amazonas. Foto: Jussara Gruber , 1979
Transferência da igreja para outro local da aldeia, Porto Cordeirinho, Terra Indígena Tikuna de Santo Antônio, Município de Benjamin Constant, Amazonas. Foto: Jussara Gruber , 1979

All the signs are that the Ticuna messianic movements achieved some success for a while, specifically during their period of effervescence. But as we have seen, their projects, aspirations and desires failed to materialize in most cases because of the violence perpetrated by the ‘bosses.’. However, hope continued to flourish and the frequent setbacks did not culminate in a sense of failure. Instead of giving up trying to find solutions to their situation through messianism – that is, through their heroes and immortals – the Ticuna reinforced this idea, considering themselves a people predestined to receive a Messiah able to show them the path towards salvation.

For this reason, during the final months of 1971 when news arrived on the upper Solimões that a Holy Father, a performer of miracles, was journeying down the Solimões from Peru, the Ticuna population entered a state of alert: the Indians living nearest to the frontier towns spread the news to the more distant Ticuna settlements, including those located deep in the forest.

As time passed and the message circulated from group to group, its original content was also amplified and another period of social effervescence erupted. Even though the feelings at this time were ill-defined and uncertain, they were convinced that the immortals would manifest themselves in their lives again. In some Ticuna areas, the rumour was that the figure set to arrive was none other than Yo´i himself (one of the creator heroes). The degree of excitement continued to increase and when learning of his arrival in Rondinha, in Peru, and later in Marco and Atalaia do Norte, many Indians living on the creeks left their houses and headed to the Ticuna settlements located on the shores of the Solimões to await his arrival.

Not all the Ticuna joined the movement founded by Brother José (José Francisco da Cruz). Most of them were inhabitants of the Baptist Protestant communities, especially Campo Alegre and Betânia, totalling around four thousand people, and a large number of Catholics, a number of them from Belém do Solimões.

Most of the people who joined the Holy Cross Brotherhood were impressed by the prodigious acts attributed to the Holy Father, heard about even before he reached the upper Solimões. We can cite a few examples. After the inhabitants of one settlement had mocked and expelled him, Brother José foretold a castigation from heaven; soon after a violent storm swept the houses and plantations, causing the death of people and animals. Animals and people also died at another settlement due to a drought announced by Brother José after its inhabitants had denied him water to drink. On another occasion he refused a chicken someone had offered him, saying: “give the chicken back to its owner, you stole it.” This was latter confirmed, people pointed out. He was also said to have told one woman: “don’t come near me, you're burning me.” “The woman had killed her son,” the members of the Irmandade added. In addition, the Holy Father was said to have possessed stigmata, and that he did not eat and needed no sleep.

As well as the prodigies attributed to the founder at the start of his mission in this region of Brazil, the setting formed by the caravan of people accompanying his trajectory through the region also contributed strongly to recognition of his charisma. In fact, the flood of people that arrived in May 1972 was spectacular: almost a thousand people, including Brazilians, Peruvians, Indians and non-Indians, on canoes and boats, singing and praying loudly. This fluvial procession accompanied a thin man wearing a long beard and cassock, and carrying a Bible and a cross.

The grandiose nature of the spectacle, combined with Brother José’s reported and indeed visible likeness to the image they had of Christ caused a profound psychological impact on the region's inhabitants, especially among the Ticuna. José da Cruz’s preaching, strongly eschatological, also impressed them because of the resonance of this themes with their own messianic tradition. Brother José announced the imminence of the end of the world and called on everyone to awaken from their spiritual slumber while there was still time and live in communities, built around crosses, where they would find salvation.

Hence the founder of the Holy Cross Brotherhood, having left his home town (Cristina, Minas Gerais) in 1962 and travelled through various Brazilian cities and various South American countries, reached the valley of the Solimões river in 1972. After a year spent travelling through the region’s towns and settlements – in which he invariably erected a cross about five metres in height, held services and treated the sick – he reached the Içá river.

He settled in the middle of the forest on the shores of the Juí creek, a small affluent of the Içá river in a place he named Cruzador Lake, some 250 kilometres from most of his followers’ settlements. He never again left this place. He thought of building a spiritual centre on the site for his Brotherhood and command his followers from there.

It was there that he died on June 23rd 1982, at the age of 69. Before passing away, he was careful to name his successor, a descendent of the Cambeba Indians called Valter Neves. Taking over his position, the latter appointed a new administrative director of the Brotherhood and finally implemented the founder’s project for building the Irmandade de Santa Cruz Spiritual village.

The holy and/or raised crosses of the founder of the Brotherhood - or his emissaries – gave rise either to a new social dynamic among the existing settlements, or to new settlements where the inhabitants sought to live in compliance with the religious movement’s doctrine. The most important of these communities is, without doubt, the one in which Brother José lived and began to build the Brotherhood’s centre and where his successor, disciples and followers continued with the construction: the Alterosa de Jesus Village.

Today members of this religious movement still exist among the Ticuna.  

Social organization

Ticuna society is divided into two unnamed exogamic moieties (a person can only marry with a member of the other moiety), each of which is composed of clans. These patrilineal clan groups (where clan belonging is transmitted from father to son) are recognized by a name general to all of them, kï´a. In Portuguese, the Indians translate the term as ‘nação,’, or nation.

The set of clans or nations identified by names of birds forms one moiety, while the others, identified by names of plants, form the other. Even the Jaguar and Leafcutter Ant clans (see the table below), a mammal and an insect, are associated with the ‘Plant’ moiety for reasons described in Ticuna mythology.

Being a member of a clan confers the individual with a social position, without which he or she would not be recognized as Ticuna. Each Ticuna clan is constituted by other units, the subclans. In this social system, each individual belongs simultaneously and necessarily to various social units (exogamic moiety, clan and subclan) with each level nested in the others.

The table below sets out this system in detail.

Plant moiety




´a-ru: (large auaí) ´ts´everu: (small auaí) ´ait s´anari (marsh genipap)


Buriti palm

´tema (buriti) ny´eni (n) tsi (fine buriti)


´vaira (assai) ´nai (n) yëë (leafcutter) tëku: (leafcutter)


ts´i´va (tallow tree) ´na?nï (n) (mulatto tree) ts´e´e (acapu) ´ts´u: (n) a (caranã) ´keture (ocelot)


Bird moiety




ts´a´ra (blue-and-gold macaw) ño´ï (red macaw) moru: (maracanã) vo´o (blue-winged macaw) ´a?ta (small blue-winged macaw)


ñu?në (n) (crested oropendola) ai´veru: (urumutum)


ba´rï (japu) kau:re (yellow-rumped cacique)


´tau: (toucan)

Cocoi heron

´ñau: (n) a (cocoi heron) dyavï´ru: (jabiru stork) tuyo:y´u (tuyuyu stork)


o´ta (chicken)

King vulture

´e?ts´a (king vulture)

Harpy eagle

´da-vï (Harpy eagle)

Notably, the Ticuna designations refer to the subclans with regional (Portuguese) names being used for the clan names (some of them neologisms). As mentioned earlier, the exogamic moieties are unnamed, though in the above table they are indicated by the terms ‘Plant’ and ‘Bird,’ alluding to a way of classifying the clans by botanical and zoological taxa.

The naming mechanism integral to the system allows an individual's social belonging to be clearly identified. A man’s name – such as kvai´tats´inï(n)-kï, for example, which means ‘macaw flapping wings while perched’ and which refers to one of the qualities of the macaw (which names the clan), more specifically the red macaw (which names the subclan) – makes up part of the repertoire of proper names available to the members of each clan group. Thus the simple enunciation of a name allows its owner to be classified as a member of a certain clan and subclan and of one of the moieties.

We can note, therefore, that the Ticuna clan system contains the following nested sequence of classes: name-quality of the eponym (which provides the clan name; for example, the macaw) – subclan –clan – moiety.

Transformed into signs, the clan eponyms provide a kind of code, an important plane of reference for social behaviour. Hence by pronouncing the name kvai´tats´inï(n)-kï, as in the example given above, the individual’s belonging to a certain clan is affirmed, which precludes him or her from marrying not only people from their own clan, but also those from their moiety. In counterpart, those individuals who are classified as members of the opposite moiety become potential spouses, giving rise to the moiety exogamy characteristic of the Ticuna.

Here we can introduce an observation that helps elucidate the mythic foundations of Ticuna dualism. We have referred to the role of Yo´i as the creator of the clan organization. One of the myths collected by Nimuendajú relates that Yo´i and Ipi, the culture heroes, after they had fished a large number of people from the river (the recently created Ticuna), were unable to distinguish them due to an absence of any classification. “But Yo´i separated them, placing his own people to the east and those of Ipi to the west. Then he told them to cook a jacururu (white-eared puffbird) and obliged everyone to drink the cooking broth. In this way, each person discovered to which clan he or she belonged and Yo´i told the members of the two groups to marry each other” (Nimuendajú, 1952: 129-30). As can be seen, the myth explicates the Ticuna moiety exogamy.

* The orthography reproduced here is that used by the author; however it should be stressed that today the Ticuna use a different orthography in their schools

Political organization

Traditional political roles: tó-ü and yuücü

In accounts of the past, warfare and rivalry appear to constitute essential dimensions of Ticuna existence. Even today the Indians talk extensively about the wars between the different ‘nations,’, stating that the attacks between the groups were frequent with many deaths on both sides. Older people looks to display their displeasure with these aspects of the past, comparing the tranquil coexistence of contemporary life in the villages with the fear and bellicosity of the time of their grandfathers. Cardoso de Oliveira also mentions reports of these conflicts and wars between the nations (patrilineal clan groups) (1970: 59).

Using contemporary accounts, we can establish that all the people living in the same maloca submitted to the same code of authority, which provided for the existence of just two specialized roles, the tó-ü and the yuücü. The leadership exercised by the tó-ü was restricted to a narrow range of contexts. The best translation would be that of a war leader or chief. Each nation had just one chief, who commanded everyone when defending or attacking another nation. The basis for his recognition as a chief “was that he defended the settlements, defended them from the enemies”. This figure could also be called by the name daru, as well as the usual tó-ü.

Due to his specialized function and his excessive strength, the tó-ü could not work in the swidden or fish: “he could not waste his strength on what just anyone could do (...) the others did everything for him.”. His strength was such that any ordinary activity was doomed to failure: “he would grab a machete to clear some forest and he would strike with such force that the machete would break.” The word itself, tó-ü, used to designate this military chief is also used to refer to the ka’apor capuchin monkey, an animal greatly admired by the Ticuna for its great agility, making it very difficult to catch or take by surprise.

Informants also distinguish the tó-ü, as an element from their own tradition, from other titles used by the whites to establish chiefs among any Indian groups:

“The tó-ü was the real chief of the Ticuna, the true one... The tuxaua was not part of Ticuna tradition. He was a chief of the Indians, like the Mayoruna or other peoples have too.”.

In other accounts, the description of the tó-ü as the protector of the people of his nation comes strongly to the foreground, making clear that his function was not only exercised in war, but also in the daily lives of malocas isolated in the forest, maintaining rivalries with other nations.

Because of his defence or affirmation of the group at crucial moments, the tó-ü was undoubtedly closely identified with his nation – an important symbol and factor of this unity. The yuücü on the other hand (currently the terms employed are yuücü for the sorcerer and ngetacü for the shaman) exert strictly private and personal functions and are not identified with the group with the same intensity as the tó-ü. In addition, each nation may have more than one shaman or sorcerer, each possessing a different level of prestige and being attributed with distinct levels of effectiveness.

At all events, the shamans also took part in these wars and conflicts. Generally the transfer of a group from one location to another is explained as the search for “a beautiful place to live,”, a move associated with the fear of the sicknesses sent by the yuücü, as well as the need to flee from epidemics and floods. Nimuendajú writes that a good shaman is capable of using magic to protect his group of epidemics, announced by a green-tinged halo around the sun (1952: 105).

Likewise there was no rigid correlation between a given nation and a certain territory. The borders of a group’s hunting, fishing and resource gathering areas oscillated frequently, depending on the pressures exerted by other clans over the same areas. However, there exist some sites that were not occupied or claimed by any of the nations, although they were (and are) unanimously recognized as points of origin of all the Ticuna. This is the case of the Taiwegüne mountain and the Eware creek, both situated on the upper São Jerônimo river. Usually, though, the rights of a nation to a certain territory were linked to the existence of a real (and changeable) occupation, derived from the need to use the area effectively, as well as the military commitment and capacity to maintain these limits.

The rubber boss era

Following the dissolution of the clan-based malocas (since the 1910s and 20s) and the end of the wars between the Ticuna nations, the role of the military chief, the tó-ü, lost all meaning and was never again filled. The rubber bosses (seringalistas) created a new political role, that of the tuxaua or tuxawa, whose definition had nothing to do with the limits of the tribal tradition, but was designed to act as an instrument for reinforcing and favouring control over the Indians. The most frequent description used by informants makes clear that the tuxawa was seen by the Indians as a representative of the boss: “the tuxawa was like a capataz, a chief. He would tell everyone what the boss’s orders were... when some job needed to be done, he would call and invite everyone… he was like a commander.”. The term capataz was frequently used by informants to define the tuxaua, thereby indicating that the post and the appointment of its occupant were the exclusive responsibility of the boss.

The differences between the tó-ü and the tuxaua were too great and because of this no one could a person who  occupy the two positions. In general, those who were chosen by the bosses as tuxaua were Indians who already exerted some degree of leadership over some family groups, and who, though they had some influence over others, did not possess a specific title, name or mandate which did not stem from their link with the whites.

The tuxaua’s zone of activities was usually a river or creek, but could be amplified to encompass the entire property.

The source of the tuxaua’s influence lay outside the tribal tradition and its limits remained unknown to the Indians themselves (incomprehensible and unrecognized). In fact, his capacity to coerce and take reprisals was merely part of the real power of the rubber boss and his potential to intimidate. The tuxaua served as a direct vehicle of this domination and his mode of action reflected his state of submission.

New political roles – the leader of the local group and the capitão

The local groups are not structural units, in the sense of arising from the direct application of general organizational principles (as would be the case of the nations, which are constituted by the principle of patrilineality). On the contrary, they are circumstantial political units that result from the individual choices made by their members. The constitution and continuance of a local group cannot be deduced from the automatic operation of preferential rules for marriage, residence or descent. In a sense, they correspond to the independent creations of some individuals who, due to their recognized capacities, manage to polarize their closest kin around themselves, by manipulating the rules of residence and encouraging particular matrimonial choices. The formation of a local group requires the combining of these skills and interests in one or more leaders with his or their acceptance by the others. It also involves the crystallization of a preference among its members for living in a group and working in cooperative activities, in contrast to living as an isolated family.

In principle any head of family within a local group can abandon the latter at any time he chooses, leaving to settle with his family in another location or moving to another site within the same area. Staying with the local group is, indeed, an active choice implying a positive assessment of the group’s cooperation in subsistence activities and economic strategies, harmonious social relationships and a sharing of customs, predilections and beliefs. The unit is primarily grounded in the existence of a leader who manages to develop shared aims, mobilize the appropriate resources and provide a certain level of satisfaction to the members of the group, avoiding the emergence of insurmountable antagonisms.

The local group does not possess a specific mark to visualize it, nor is there an expression in the Ticuna language to specifically describe these social units. Likewise, there are no reports of a title being used by the head of the local group.

The function of the leader of the local group is both to communicate with outsiders and whites (non-Indians), representing the members of his group vis-à-vis any external authority (capitão, head of post, military personnel, traders, teachers, missionaries, etc.), and to organize the cooperation between the various domestic groups living close to each other. This is manifested, for example, in economic and religious activities and in some community tasks, such as the ajuri (see Productive Activities).

The local group leader’s source of authority stems from acting in accordance with the group’s consensus, implementing the measures and decisions that the others judge necessary. If he acts without the group’s support, however, he has no power to coerce anyone else, only persuade them through his personal skills. Within the group, even when he can count on everyone’s support, he has no singular or specialized coercive power. If an individual from the group engages in deviant conduct, the maximum that the leader can do of his own accord is to try to advise the person and dissuade him or her from continuing to act in this way.

It is important to observe that the existence of a leader of the local group does not mean the negation of the authority of the head of each family segment. Within each house and the questions relating to its family members, this head of the family is recognized to possess a high level of autonomy.

As Nimuendajú noted (1952: 65), the role of the capitão has its precursors in the tuxaua in Brazil and the curaca in Peru. Today the latter term is almost entirely unknown in Brazil. The few people who use the expression tend to translate it fairly ambiguously into Portuguese either as capitão or as capataz. In recent years the term tuxaua has also fallen into disuse: the meaning most frequently given to it is that of capataz and it is always associated with the idea of a representative of the boss.

The distinction between tuxaua and capitão seems to be determined by the type of externality to which they are linked: while the former directly represents the rubber boss, the latter is recognized by the Brazilian government. In this sense, use of the uniform is a basic distinguishing factor, marking the capitão’s connection with another power separate from that directly emanating from the rubber bosses.

To try to understand the role of the capitão, we need to turn to another role present in the administrative system of the indigenist agency: that of the regional inspector, officer or head of the indigenous post. The capitão was an instrument of communication and control deployed by the employees of the former SPI (Indian Protection Service).

The capitão’s ultimate source of power is always the local representative of the agency, who reiterates or withdraws his support for the capitão, depending on his evaluation of the latter’s performance in the post. The person to chose the capitão is in fact the head of the Post and hence this individual is generally responsible for transmitting to the Indians the demands, prohibitions or proposals from the whites who appointed and empowered him. One of his functions is therefore to provide a regular channel of communication between whites and Indians: he acts as a translator and a messenger, listening to the discourse of the former and translating it to the native universe of customs and language. For the Indians (and for the capitão himself), though, his messages inevitably express the viewpoint of the administration, whether or not the message matches his own personal ideas.

The capitão, however, not only transmits the message: he also tries to execute the decisions it contains; to this end, he normally acts in the village as an arbitrator of conflicts, setting punishments and awards, allocating responsibilities among those he leads.

From the Indian viewpoint, the message is implacable: it cannot be rejected or reformulated. This imperative stems from the means by which it is expressed, formally announced by the capitão and coming from the whites. Every message that complies with this praxis is classified and referred to as an order, with the implicit idea that the capitão is not just communicating a wish, but compelling people’s acceptance of the decision.

Productive activities

A caminho da roça. Foto: Jussara Gruber, 1979
A caminho da roça. Foto: Jussara Gruber, 1979

The Ticuna cultivate native species such as manioc, yam, a species of sugarcane and other root crops. Formerly when the diet was based on game meat, fishing had a minimal importance and was practiced using a technology of barriers and fish poisoning based on timbó juice (Oliveira, 1988). This situation was turned upside down, though, following the Ticuna occupation of the Solimões floodplains. Today fishing is one of the most important productive activities for the Ticuna.

Each Ticuna family possesses a swidden, which it considers its property. However this is not a question of land ownership, nor even of collective ownership. The family’s swiddens are generally worked by the father, his wife and their older unmarried children. However, the older male children may have their own swidden when they marry. Older family members also have swiddens independent of their sons and sons-in-law, even when they live in the same house. When more than one family lives in the same house, they usually work separately, each family in its own swidden.

As well as the family labour force, the Ticuna rely on another form of help from relatives and friends in agricultural tasks. These collective actions are the ajuri, structured around the local groups, which are frequently held in all the villages. In an ajuri, the owner of the swidden is responsible for the food and drink of his guests. He prepares the pajuaru, a fermented drink made from bitter or sweet manioc, and provides fish and flour to all the participants. At the end of the work, the participants go to the house of the ajuri owner where they spend the night singing and dancing.

An ajuri may be held at any stage of production, whenever the owner of the swidden needs the help of members of his local group. Hence there exist the ajuri for the swidden clearance, the harvest, the straw (when the guests take the straw and weave it to make the thatch for the house of the ajuri owner), the canoe, and so on. Work which one family would take various days to complete is completed in a single morning of joint work undertaken by relatives and neighbours.

Índia Ticuna preparando alimento, Belém do Solimões, Terra Indígena Évare I, Amazonas. Foto: Jussara Gruber, 1979
Índia Ticuna preparando alimento, Belém do Solimões, Terra Indígena Évare I, Amazonas. Foto: Jussara Gruber, 1979

The agricultural instruments used by the Ticuna are basically the machete, the axe, the hoe and the flour toasting oven. The work tools used day-to-day are bought from river traders or in nearby towns, principally in Letícia in Colombia. Some axes and flour ovens are obtained from Funai. Small trading stores set up in the villages by residents with more resources and who travel more frequently to town, also provide the tools needed for production, especially the machete, which is the item most in demand.

Ticuna agricultural techniques are no different from those used throughout the Amazon basin, including felling and clearing followed by burning and using the ashes as fertilizer. The swiddens on terra firme are in the ‘middle,’, as the Ticuna usually say. Those located on the floodplains are generally cultivated in the islands and forests flooded by the Solimões.

The most planted crops, in descending order of importance, are: sweet and bitter manioc, banana, pineapple, sugarcane and yam, as well as maize and watermelon during the dry season (summer) when the swiddens located on the floodplains are being worked. The surplus from some of these crops is sold. In addition, we can also list some fruits such as pupunha (peach-palm), mapati (Amazon tree grape), assai, abiu and cupuaçu, which are rarely if ever planted. These fruits are usually located in the low forests formed by abandoned swiddens.

Fishing is men’s work. Collective fishing is very rare even among residents of the same house. Most of the Ticuna fish using rods and arrows; the best spots for fishing are generally the numerous lakes on the margins of the Solimões river.

Hunting, on the other hand, is practiced by few, despite being traditionally closely linked to the Ticuna. In the past they used a blowgun to fire poison-tipped projectiles, but today employ shotguns. The most frequently cited prey are: howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, agoutis, deer, white-lipped peccaries, collared peccaries, tapirs, curassows, guans, macaws, white-faced saki monkeys, woolly monkeys, sloths and ka’apor capuchin monkeys.

The Ticuna raise few animals. Most families own a few chickens, but these are bred freerange and only for sale to the river traders and in the towns: they are not eaten, nor their subproducts. As well as chickens, a few ducks, pigs and sheep are bred.

Fruit is collected by the entire family. The most common fruits in the Ticuna villages are: mapati (tchinhã), umari (te'tchi), inga (pama), abiu (tao), Brazil nut (nhoí), pupunha (itu), cupuaçu (cupu), sapota (otere) and assai (waira). The low forest where the Indians collect the fruits are generally located in abandoned swiddens, which are left to grow back, preserving the fruit trees.

Craftwork is generally the responsibility of the wife of a Ticuna family. Almost all women know how to make the tipiti (a woven tube used to squeeze manioc pulp), the pacará (a lidded basket), the aturá (a large carrying basket), the maqueira (fishing net), sieves, necklaces and some other types of craftwork. Most of these artefacts are not made for sale, though, but for domestic use. Those families who sell some items do so to the river traders or in the nearest towns, though this tends to be infrequent. As with the sale of fruit, the villages closest to the towns sell craftwork more often.

The Ticuna do not usually purchase a wide variety of products. Some families buy coffee, biscuits, rice, beans and oil (all in small quantities) and sometimes pasta, onions and so on. Most, though, buy just matches, sopa, salt, sugar and some kerosene for their lamps. Many people do not even buy sugar and those that do buy very little.

All these products are generally brought by the river traders who pass through the settlements. These transactions are normally conducted through the exchange of the flour and chickens that they produce. Some times the products are bought.

Families with more resources make their purchases in the nearest towns. Some buy in large quantities to sell later in the village, forming ‘little store houses’ with products such as batteries or sewing thread.


The Ticuna diet basically comprises fish with manioc flour. Fish is prepared on an almost daily basis in two forms. The different types of fish are boiled (the resulting broth is highly appreciated by everyone). After eating the cooked fish with a lot of manioc flour, the Ticuna typically drink various plates of the soup-like broth. Fish is also frequently roasted (barbecue grilled) and eaten with a small plate of salt on the side into which people dip their fingers.

Manioc flour is consumed toasted and very often mixed with what they call assai wine, a juice made from this fruit. Another important component of the Ticuna diet is banana, which is boiled into a fairly thick gruel-like juice. Grilled and fried banana is also frequently consumed.

Due to the low quantity of game in the diet of this people, descriptions for the preparations of many game animals are absent. White-lipped peccary meat, like that of the tapir and collared peccary, is usually boiled. Cayman meat, also considered appetizing, is usually cooked in the same way as fish. There are another two ways of preparing fish, less common than those described above. These are pupeca (a roll wrapped with banana leaf in which the fish is roasted) and mujica or massamoura (mashed and peppered banana with bits of shredded fish).


Índios Ticuna durante ritual, Belém do Solimões, Terra Indígena Évare I, Amazonas. Foto: Jussara Gruber , 1978
Índios Ticuna durante ritual, Belém do Solimões, Terra Indígena Évare I, Amazonas. Foto: Jussara Gruber , 1978

The variety and richness of Ticuna artistic production express an undeniable capacity of resistance and affirmation of their identity. These forms include ceremonial masks, sculptured dance sticks, bark paintings, zoomorphic statues, baskets, pottery, weaving, necklaces with tiny figures sculpted in tucumã palm, as well as music and the many narratives that make up their literary heritage.

One aspect that deserves attention is the collection of pigments and dyes. Around fifteen species of dye plants are used to colour the threads for weaving bags and hammocks or painting bark, sculptures, baskets, sieves, musical instruments, paddles, gourds and the body itself. There are also a number of mineral-based pigments used to decorate pottery and the ‘head’ of some ceremonial masks.

During the almost four hundred years of contact with national society, the Ticuna have maintained an body of art that singularizes them ethnically, and the transformations sometimes visible in their material production rarely compromise the aesthetic or technical quality of the works. On certain occasions, on the contrary, the innovations have enhanced the appearance of the artefacts – especially those produced for the craftwork market – making them more visually appealing and better finished.

In the Ticuna language, the root matü designates every type of decoration or ‘adornment’ applied to the surface of objects or the body, as well as blotches, spots or designs found on the skin or on the hide of certain animals. As well as being employed to name the motifs that result from the criss-cross of threads, laths or designs painted on bark, paper or other surfaces, this term is also used to designate the writing introduced with school education.

Rapazes ticuna pintando tururi. Foto: Jussara Gruber, 1979
Rapazes ticuna pintando tururi. Foto: Jussara Gruber, 1979

Woven surfaces used to apply the decorative patterns include lidded baskets, sieves and tipitis, all of which are manufactured by women. Another set of designs is found on hammocks, both those made for sale and those used domestically. These motifs result from a complex technique that demands considerable knowledge, experiences and attention from the weaver, acquired after a long period of apprenticeship.

Weaving is closely connected to women. The fabrication of threads is one of the first tasks developed by girls and in adolescence the importance of this activity acquires ritual expression. During her period of reclusion, the teenage girl, worecü, dedicates herself to work using tucum fibre, especially spinning threads, which are rolled into the shape of a ‘flower,’ differently to the circular balls of thread usually seen.

Pottery making is an ideally female task, though men also produce ceramics. Another surface that enables the pleasure of designing and colouring objects are the screens made from the bark of certain species of fig tree, or tururi as they are called regionally. The tururi, also the name given to this type of screen, is a recent invention and emerged from the re-application of techniques and raw materials traditionally used in the manufacture of masks. The tururis are painted exclusively for sale. The recognized specialists in the art of painting the tururi are men, most of them young or middle-aged.

The list of designed figures is infinite. There is a clear preference for depictions of animals (jaguars, turtles, snakes, butterflies, tapirs, caymans and various species of birds and fishes), which in some cases are combined with floral elements or anthropomorphic figures.

Índio Ticuna durante ritual, Belém do Solimões, Terra Indígena Évare I, Amazonas. Foto: Frei Arsênio Sampalmieri, 1979
Índio Ticuna durante ritual, Belém do Solimões, Terra Indígena Évare I, Amazonas. Foto: Frei Arsênio Sampalmieri, 1979

In the ritual sphere, the surfaces most representative of the graphic arts are the masks, shields, outside walls of the shelter in which young woman stay in reclusion, and the body. In fabricating the masks, the Ticuna use as the basic raw material the inner bark of certain trees and the decorative motifs may cover the entire surface. On the upper part or ‘head,’ the decorations serves to highlight the features of the supernatural entity, though the largest number of designs are found on the bark covering the body.

Manufacture and use of the masks are a male activity. Men are also responsible for making most of the ritual objects, such as some of the adornments of the worecü initiate, musical instruments, the reclusion shelter, the sculpted dance sticks and so on.

Face painting, on the other hand, can be undertaken by either sex and is used today solely during rituals by all participants, including children. This painting, applied on the first day of the festival using genipap, has the social function of identifying the clan or nation, as the Ticuna say, of each person. It is possible to detect various natural elements on some of the facial decorations, representing the animals and plants that give name to the clans. As well as the social function of specifying one’s clan, painting oneself during the festival is a social obligation. The body painting of initiated young people and children, follows rigidly established norms.

Ilustração: João do Carmo Ticuna
Ilustração: João do Carmo Ticuna

The Ticuna skill and sensibility towards art is now displayed in new materials and forms of material and artistic expression, such as the paintings on paper produced by a group of artists who today form the Etüena group. According to Ticuna mythology, “Etüena is the painter of fish. She sat on the river shore waiting for the fish to migrate upriver. She then caught each fish and painted it, giving its colour which remained forever.”. This group of artists was formed during the training courses run by the Organization of Bilingual Ticuna Teachers (OGPTB), in which art played a key role in the curriculum.  


Primeira reunião geral de professores Ticuna, Santa Inês, Amazonas. Foto: Jussara Gruber, 1983
Primeira reunião geral de professores Ticuna, Santa Inês, Amazonas. Foto: Jussara Gruber, 1983

The Organization of Bilingual Ticuna Teachers (OGPTB), created in December 1986 and officially recognized in 1994, acts over a wide area formed by the municipalities of Benjamin Constant, Tabatinga, São Paulo de Olivença, Amaturá, Santo Antônio do Içá and Tonantins, in the region of the upper Solimões river (AM). Over almost 20 years, the OGPTB has provided invaluable support for Ticuna teachers and more recently for teachers from other indigenous groups living in the region, such as the Cocama and the Caixana.

Its importance is related to the development of bilingual education projects and programs (in Portuguese and Ticuna), including the qualification of high school teachers and the provision of courses specializing in indigenous education, initiatives which have been making up for the failure of government agencies at all levels to provide specific training in this area. The courses are run at the Ticuna-Torü Nguepataü Teacher Centre in the village of Filadélfia (Benjamin Constant), with 481 indigenous teachers matriculated on the different courses.

This training has contributed to the creation of new levels of teaching in the indigenous schools located in the OGPTB’s area of coverage and has led to a substantial increase in the number of students, reversing the pattern of educational exclusion observed in past decades, as well as reducing the need for youngsters to travel to schools in the towns or even to abandon their studies. Taking as an example the Ticuna schools located in the first five municipalities listed above, we can note that in 1998 there were 7,458 students with just 841 in the classes from the 5th to 8th grade, while in 2005 the school census presented a total of 16,100 students, 4,580 of which were final classes of Primary Education or on Secondary Education courses.

Another important aspect was the gradual substitution of non-indigenous staff for Ticuna teachers, who took over teaching of all the classes from the 1st to 4th grade, as well as helping teach the final grades of primary education and those of secondary education, where they comprise around 50% of the teaching staff. The municipal schools are run by Ticuna teachers who are also involved in regional supervision and coordination activities in some municipalities. There are 118 municipal schools and two state schools.

From 2002 onwards, the OGPTB’s initiatives began to include the participation of the other ethnic groups of the upper Solimões, primarily through the inclusion of Cocama, Caixana and Cambeba teachers on the training courses and in the meetings set up to discuss educational policies in the region. Inspired by the Ticuna campaigns for a school education adapted to their interests and realities, these teachers, with the support of their respective organizations, have been fighting to implement a new school in their communities and, at the same time, obtain official recognition from the municipal councils.

For the Ticuna, as for the other indigenous groups, there is a strong demand for higher education. On one hand, there is the need to meet the legal requirements for teacher training and, on the other, the need to meet the demand for schooling from the 5th to 8th grade and secondary education. Consequently, specific training at secondary level was insufficient, which led the OGPTB to create the project for a teaching degree course after a long process of discussions with indigenous teachers and leaders.

In order to implement the Teaching Degree Course for Indigenous Teachers of the Upper Solimões, the OGPTB formed a partnership with Amazonas State University (UEA) and presented the pilot version of the project in April 2004. The project was approved by the UEA in 2005, and in July 2006 the first phase was initiated. The course is available to a total of 230 Ticuna teachers with 20 places allocated to Cocama, Caixana and Cambeba teachers.

Four of the ten phases planned for the project have already been developed, and the classes are run at the Ticuna Teacher Training Centre during the school holidays. The OGPTB’s work has helped increase the autonomy of the teachers and communities in managing the educational process in their own schools, and enhanced people’s understanding of the school as a space for the production of knowledge, reflection and political action, protecting the territory and defending social rights, promoting healthcare, and valorizing the maternal language and the indigenous cultural heritage.

Like other indigenous organizations in Brazil, the OGPTB fights for recognition of and compliance with the legislation concerning indigenous school education in the upper Solimões region. Although it faces all kinds of difficulties – a repeated lack of recognition, neglect and discrimination – the persistence and untiring campaigning of the organization’s members has enabled them to overcome obstacles and challenges and fight for the rights of indigenous peoples to manage their projects, schools and proposals for improving their living conditions in autonomous fashion.

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