From Povos Indígenas no Brasil
Photo: Oscar Calavia

Yaminawá

Self-denomination Where they are How many Linguistic family
Bolivia
AC
Peru
630 (1997)
1.454 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
600 (INEI, 2007)
Pano

The Yaminawá inhabit the center of the forest and the miserable outskirts of the cities: they represent the isolated “savage” or the “deculturated” Indian who begs on the streets. They incarnate the most dramatic contradictions of the imaginary and history of Amazônia. We can find the two versions of the Yaminawá on a single page of the Gazeta de Rio Branco [Rio Branco Gazette] (17/09/97): one article informs the reader of their presence in a slum of the capitol of Acre and another attributes to the "Yaminawá" a series of attacks which terrorized the inhabitants of a remote rubber camp.

Name

Yaminawá do Purus. Foto: Oscar Calavia
Yaminawá do Purus. Foto: Oscar Calavia

The term Yaminawá begins to appear in the second half of the last century, and is typically translated as “people of the axe" – now of stone, a sign of their primitiveness, then of iron, a sign of the greed with which they sought metal tools in the rubber-gatherers’ camps. Typically, one knows about them only through other Indians, the Kaxinawá in Brazil and the Shipibo in Peru, who fear their incursions or are victims of them, and who coined the name through which the whites came to know them. The spellings are very variable: besides Yaminawá (in Brazil) and Yaminahua (in Peru and Bolívia) we can find Yuminahua, Yabinahua, Yambinahua etc. Besides the orthographic diversity, we have to consider that the custom of playing on words with the names of neighboring peoples, very common in Pano intertribal relations, can generate other versions.

The suffix -nawa, which characterizes the names of most Pano peoples of Acre, can be spoken either with emphasis on the last or next-to-last syllable, depending on the peoples. "Yaminawá" reflects more accurately the indigenous pronunciation (the Portuguese "j" does not exist in their language, nor does the closed sound of Spanish "hua" or "gua") and thus preserves the historical connotations of the name.

The Yaminawá identify themselves by this name which was given by others. They explain that their “true” names are Xixinawá (xixi = white coati), Yawanawá (yawa = wild boar), Bashonawá (basho = opossum), Marinawá (mari = cutia) and so on, within a virtually infinite series. The -nawa form a constellation of groups which throughout history, have combined in different ways, through successive fissions, fusions, or annexations. Several of these names coincide with genealogically and historically different peoples, although their language and culture may be very close – this is the case of "Yawanawá", which does not allude to the Yawanawá of the Gregorio River. Nawa, it is worth saying, besides being the ethnic suffix, is the word that designates the whites.

Language

The Yaminawá speak a Pano language, classified in the same subgroup along with the other -nawa languages of the region of the Purus, on both sides of the border. It is intelligible to other groups of the area of the Purus, such as the Sharanahua or Marinawá; but not to the Kaxinawá nor to the Amahuaca, who also live close by. With minimum phonetic and lexical variations, the language coincides with that of the Yawanawá of the Gregório River. In general the speakers attribute a much greater proximity to other Panoan languages than is admitted by linguists: Yaminawá and Yawanawá of the Gregório say they can understand, for example, the Shipibo of the Ucayali.

Except for the elder generation, who speak only a few words in Spanish and Portuguese, the Yaminawá are bilingual. They have participated in pedagogical projects coordinated by the Pro-Indian Commission of Acre, with dubious results. The prestige of school activity and of some of the teachers is very low in the group, frequenting classes is uncommon and irregular in comparison with what could be observed in other groups, and, since all teachers belong to the same faction of the group, recent fissions have isolated the greater part of the Yaminawá from educative activities. The implementation of development projects, government or not, has faced special difficulties among the Yaminawá, above all as a result of their political instability.

Location, population and mobility

What would then be the subject and thread of history of these people? We should think of them as a bunch of crisscrossing lines. The Yaminawá of the Acre River situate the beginning of their history in two great villages: one on the Moa River – not the tributary of the Juruá, but of another smaller river, the Iaco – and the other between the Iaco and Tahuamanu rivers. From there they moved to the headwaters of the Chandless, where they had their first peaceful contacts with the whites, Peruvian or Bolivian caucho extractors. On the Shambuyacu River, in Peru, they lived with the Sharanawa, Marinawá and Mastanawa, who served as intermediaries, geographically and commercially, with the whites, as the Shipibo did more to the northwest. The relations with these other Pano groups regularly led to conflict and the flight of the Yaminawá further into the forest. They in turn exercised the same function in relation to other, more “savage” nawa groups whom they ended up incorporating.

After a long period in which peaceful approximations alternated with incursions – in many cases protagonized by the Manchineri Indians allied with the rubber-bosses -- the Yaminawá established direct relations with white bosses, between the Acre River and the Iaco. In 1968 a group over a hundred Yaminawá – debilitated by repeated epidemicas – came to settle in the Petrópolis rubber camp, assuming a certain degree of dependence on the whites, which had never occured until then. The reports from the Funai, which was established in Acre in 1975, describe a classic situation: alcoholism, prostitution, disorganization of the group and economic exploitation. An Indigenous Post was established in that year, which broke the monopoly of the rubber camp. With this support, the Yaminawá settled upriver, in the Mamoadate area, which includes two Yaminawá villages (Bétel and Jatobá) and a Manchineri village (Extrema). In 1989, probably as a result of internal conflicts and of the desire to approximate more to the white world, a considerable group led by the chief José Correia Tunumã migrated to the Acre River, where another group of Yaminawá was already settled. Thus the Indigenous Land called Headwaters of the Acre River was consolidated, and interdicted in 1988. The declaration of permanent possession of the area, which was officialized on 6/3/92, includes a total area of 78.512 hectares, in the municipality of Assis Brasil, border with Peru. In 1998, its homologation was published in the Diário Oficial da União There are other villages with which the Yaminawá recognize close ties of kinship. The first, known as “A Escola" [The School], in Bolivian territory, two hours by canoe from Assis Brasil, is a village organized around a Protestant mission, with a population of close to two hundred Yaminawá inhabitants of the Yawanawá subgroup. In Brasiléia, in the Bairro Samaúma, there was a Yaminawá group which split from the Iaco group in 1987, because of internal conflicts. Since this fission they have been known by the name of Bashonawá. The Bashonawá of Brasiléia, in need of lands, live in a precarious situation with no gardens and no definite sources of income.

On the Iaco and Purus rivers there are more Yaminawá. On the Iaco there is a site called Guajará, which has one community. Upstream, the Mamoadate Indigenous Land includes a little more than a hundred Xixinawá in the village of Bétel. On the Purus River, there is a group of Paumari, in which there are eighty or ninety Kaxinawa and Xixinawá individuals, and nuclear families dispersed and mixed with “Peruvians". Near the Peruvian border of the Purus, several of them have moved to Sepahua, on the Urubamba River, where they are connected to a Dominican Catholic mission. In Peruvian territory there are still some Yaminawá communities on the Purus River and others in the area of the upper Juruá, on the Mapuya and Huacapishtea rivers. The Brazilian Yaminawá have vague information about them. Other groups known as Jaminawa in Brazil, such as those of the Igarapé Preto village, do not have any relations with the Yaminawá described here. The Yaminawá usually have close relations with other indigenous peoples; in Brazil, especially with the Manchineri, of the Arawak language family. Marital relations are frequent between both groups, but they are not considered legitimate marriages. In the same way, the visible mixing with the “whites” has not given rise to a category of "mestiço"[or, halfbreed]: the alterity of the whites is assimiliated into the set of alterities that already organizes the relations between diverse nawa groups.

The reader should be warned of the uncertainty of these data given the frequent re-articulations of the groups. Shortly after the end of my field research, in 1993, the murder of a Yaminawá in Brasiléia, at the hands of a Bashonawá residing in this city, ended up causing a fission in the group of the Acre River. Two numerous groups – who frequented the city of Rio Branco – were in the following years resettled in Santa Rosa – on the upper Juruá – and on the Caeté River; a considerable contingent has settled, more or less permanently, in the capital. The local population of Yaminawá in Brazil is difficult to evaluate: the groups described here must total approximately 500 individuals.

The Yaminawá in Peru have a population of approximately 324 people, according to the census of 1993. In Bolívia, according to the book Amazonia Peruana (1997), there are 630 individuals.

The contacts of the Yaminawá with the missionaries have been sporadic or indirect, first with the Catholic Dominican missionaries in Peru who ventured into the rubber camps, later with the evangelical missionaries of the New Tribes Mission of Brazil, who settled in with the Manchineri on the Mamoadate Indigenous Land, on the Iaco River. In the Village called ‘the School’, on the Bolivian banks of the Acre River, there has been a more systematic catechization. Yet, even today the missions do not seem to have had great impact on the traditional culture.

In the last ten years, the presence of the Yaminawá in Rio Branco has intensified, whether in the House of the Indian, or in the slum areas, or in precarious camps in the center of the city or under the bridges. The consequences are serious: denutrition of the children, serious risk of sexually transmitted diseases, conflicts which end up in the police station or in jail, not to mention the high incidence of alcoholism which comes from the time of the rubber camps and, in the city, this is aggravated by poor nutrition. This lethal attraction for the city is the dark side of Yaminawá collaboration with the indigenist entities: political commitment has led Yaminawá leaders to the cities with exaggerated frequency, depriving their communities of a reference point and an essential institution for conflict resolution. The FUNAI, which has no way of attacking the root of the problem, has reacted by removing the successive dissident groups to other areas, some – such as Santa Rosa and Caeté – being very distant. This dispersion is quite negative for the defense of the territorial rights which have already been acquired by the group.

The Yaminawá have been connected to the UNI-Acre since its creation.

Economy and social organization

The Yaminawá pratice subsistence agriculture which is almost monopolized by sweet cassava and banana. In general they have access to abundant game; fish, at least in the village of the Acre River, is poor for most of the year. Their economic integration into the world of the whites is secondary and marginal; salaries and retirement pensions obtained from FUNRURAL, educative or developmentalist projects are in general used up to pay goods bought on credit from merchants of Assis Brasil. Salaries as day-laborers, or from selling banana, fish or game, in general serve to finance travel and stays in Assis Brasil and Rio Branco. The attempts at raising cattle or pigs or planting rice are individual and of little significance, like extractive activities. The pressure of the Whites on their territories – in general bordering on areas of preservation – amounts to the individual actions of hunters and fishers. The eventual paving of the highway connection between Acre and Peru via Assis Brasil--Iñapari could change this situation.

The Yaminawá villages are an aggregate of small houses, each of which could include an “elder" with his daughters and their husbands, or two “elder” brothers-in-law whose children have married amongst themselves, or a group of brothers with their families. The set of family houses – dwellings built on piles over the banks of the rivers in the style of the rubber-tapper houses, is equivalent to the collective maloca of the past, and is designated by its name, peshewa. The chief of the group could nucleate a larger settlement, bringing together various families and single young men around him; but this concentration tends to be temporary.

The Yaminawá are divided into an indeterminate number of kaio, which would be clans of a “totemic”character and paternal line, and the set of which in general coincides with the ethnonyms: Xixinawá, Yawanawá, Bashonawá, Xapanawa... In its symbolic aspect, this division appears to be an elaboration of the dualism common among Pano groups: this tradition indicates that the relations with eponymous animals observe some of the rules that govern conduct with consanguineal kin. But one should not exaggerate the transcendence nor the objectivity of these “kinship” units: depending on the context, a Yaminawá could be accounted for in different kaio. Residence could also modify it: a kaio predominates in each village and essentially ends up functioning as an ethnonym. Frequently segregated as a result of conflicts, the various villages end up acting like exogamic groups: we could say that the splits end up being a condition prior to matrimonial alliance.

If we look more closely – observing a small residential group, and especially when the women are questioned -- Yaminawá society is dualist: the inhabitants of a peshewa are classified into two halves (for example, Xixinawá and Yawanawá), consanguineal kin and affines, respectively form the point of view of ego. The supposedly “unorganized" Yaminawá thus demonstrate alternative visions of a single organization. One – which gives priority to the halves – depending on a local point of view, "sociological" and predominantly feminine; the other – which insists on the plurality of the -nawa groups – is global, historical, and customarily a part of male discourse.

Chiefs

The Yaminawá chief can be designated by the terms diyewo, “tuxaua”, boss and leader, four terms that summarize Yaminawá political history of this century. A diyewo is a rich man, a powerful head of a family, on whom many young men depend; it alludes to a type of chief which still exists and which still exists and operates on the level of kinship.

The tuxaua and the boss recall the time when the Yaminawá were connected to rubber-camps and ranches. The tuxaua was in general a more or less important diyewo who established client or godparent relations with a white patron, within the "aviamento" [business transactions] system common in Amazônia. The power of the diyewo resides in his skill in dealing with the outside world; and this same skill can convert him into a “patron” in the eyes of his followers.

"Leadership" belongs to the time when the Yaminawá established alliances with the distant whites, beginning with the Funai and ending with national and international NGOs, which allowed them ample autonomy from the local patrons. In a certain sense, and in spite of the traditionalist discourse that characterizes it, it is this version of the chief which is furthest from the model of diyewo: one is now dealing with a younger man, whose weight within the kinship system is low. The Yaminanwa persistence in using the four terms indicates that the four models of authority coexist today, and the contradictions among them perhaps are at the basis of Yaminawá instability. It is important to point out that it is the chief who “constructs” the group beyond the active limits of kinship: his weakness has structural consequences.

Shamanism

Everything seems to indicate that Yaminawá shamanism has suffered recent and profound changes. Up to thirty years ago, it was dominated by the niumuã, consumer of various psychotropic or toxic substances, knower of powerful chants, capable of divining the future of warrior incursions, of travelling and killing at a distance. The Yaminawá claim that the niumuã could no longer exist in times of "peace". The koshuiti, drinker of ayahuasca and singer, owner of a curative art who controls the same arts and the same symbols, took his place—and not without a great deal of ambiguity.

The Yaminawá have several koshuiti, who extend their activities to a white clientele. The "koshuitia"[shamanic art and practice] is acquired through a long initiatory process, dedicated to learning the secrets of ayahuasca and marked by a series of extremely painful tests. It is an art that is ever more restricted, since the younger generation is not learning it.

Art and cosmology

The nearly absolute lack of plastic arts – from body painting to ceramics --, always attributed to the "forgetting" of traditional culture, can be better understood as a wish to omit the signs that, in the eyes of the whites, would characterize them as “Indians". In isolated villages, such as that of the Iaco, they are still practiced.

By contrast, Yaminawá oral and musical art is very rich. Besides the beautiful shamanic chants, known by a few, men and women have their yamayama (so called because of the words or phrases that are used to unite the strophes), individual lyric chants of erotic and passionate content, which describe the sentiments of the author and the events of his/her life. Here are some examples (free versions, based on the translation by Arialdo Correia):

Nazaré, approx. 35 years

Sleep daughter, I will sing you a song that our people always sang; to see the dead in dreams; to see father coming back from fishing.

I am unhappy; I grew up without seeing my father, I only saw foreigners. My father died, I also want to die soon, and my sorrows will come to an end. But I will not go to heaven.

I will turn away my face so as not to see the vulture and I will stay below, there where my dead live.

Luzia, approx. 45 years

I sing because I love you; but you loved me only when I was a girl, when there was no house and we slept on the ground, when I would go away and come back to your arms in tears.

But I do not like a man who wants to taste all the women...

Boys should marry an older woman, who makes them sleep; when they grow up, they will like her.

Poor me; my face is already old, and the boys do not desire me, I would like to ask those younger than I what they do to attract them...

Clementino, approx. 75 years

I liked you little sister, I liked to see you lying down, Your voice made me happy.

How I liked you, little sister – in making love, you pulled my sex, and I laid you down on the soft wood of the fallen tree: let’s make love as two strangers do.

When I die, I want them to bury me with you.

A narrative has one dominant genre: that of the shedipawó, "stories of the ancients". There are several excellent narrators, who make a story-telling into a rhythmic show, with voice changes and sound effects; but the stories are known by everyone. Women and even children also like to narrate, but with a repertoire which is in general restricted to stories of humoristic or zoological themes. The Yaminawá shedipawó could be described as historicized mythology: the same events that other peoples situate in the beginning of time or attribute to more or less divine beings are told by the Yaminawá as the adventures of an ancestor, a dramatic and concrete individual.

The Yaminawá seem to have little interest in exegesis: thus there is no articulate discourse with regard to this or other worlds – besides the narratives themselves.

The shedipawo have three typical scenarios: the bottom of the rivers, the closed forest and the sky. The Yaminawá sky is always a place of deception: human beings get lost on the way to it, the attempts to establish contact with its inhabitants end up in failure. The forest is the place of war and metamorphoses: beings exchange their identities, devour each other and marry amongst themselves; under each visible form there is a “spirit" (nhusi, yoshi) capable of transmigrations. The world of the rivers participates in this same panorama, but the Yaminawá view it with great expectancy: there are the great water snakes, the Ronoá, who offer to the men their riches: iron, merchandise, ayahuasca.

Note on the sources

There are two doctoral theses on the  Yaminawá, one by Graham Townsley (University of Cambridge) on the Peruvian Yaminawá, and the other by Oscar Calavia (USP) on the Brazilians, both of which are unpublished. Besides a chapter by Townsley in the Guía Etnográfica de la Alta Amazonía (volume II FLACSO 1994) pp. 239-358, there are no works published on the Yaminawá. Books on the Peruvian Amazon, such as one recently edited by the GEF/PNUD/UNOPS in Lima, in 1997, always have information on the Yaminawá (Yaminahua). The rare articles published in specialized reviews, and the old references to the Yaminawá appear in bibliographic lists such as that by Sueli de Aguiar, published by the Unicamp Press. A good synthesis on the Pano group is presented in the article by Philippe Erikson, in the volume História dos Índios no Brasil (Companhia das Letras; págs. 239-252).

Sources of information

  • AGUIAR, Maria Sueli de.  Fontes de pesquisa e estudo da família Pano.  Campians : Unicamp, 1994.  282 p.

 

  • CALAVIA SAEZ, Oscard.  O nome e o tempo dos Yaminawa.  São Paulo : USP, 1995.  (Tese de Doutorado)

 

  • --------.  A procura do ritual : as festas Yaminawa no Alto Rio Acre.  Florianópolis : UFSC, 1999.  (Antropologia em Primeira Mão, 33)

 

  • --------.  A variação mítica como reflexão.  Rev. de Antropologia, São Paulo : USP, v. 45, n. 1, p. 7-36, jan./jun. 2002.

 

  • COMISSÃO PRÓ-ÍNDIO.  Nuku kede nuku tsai.  Rio Branco : CPI-AC, 1993.  17 p.

 

  • EGG, Antonio Brack; YAÑEZ, Carlos (Coords.).  Amazonía Peruana : comunidades indígenas, conocimientos y tierras tituladas.  Lima : GEF/Pnud/Unops, 1997.  349 p.

 

  • ERIKSON, Philippe.  Uma nebulosa compacta : o conjunto Pano.  In: CUNHA, Manuela Carneiro da.  História dos índios no Brasil.  São Paulo : Companhia das Letras/Fapesp/SMC, 1992.  p. 239-52.

 

  • FERNANDEZ ERQUICIA, Roberto.  La etnia amazónica Yaminawa y su relación desigual con la economía de mercado.  Rev. del Museo Nacional de Etnografía y Folklore, s.l. : Museo Nacional, n. 4, p. 111-40, 1991.

 

  • FUNDAÇÃO DE CULTURA E COMUNICAÇÃO ELIAS MANSOUR; CIMI.  Povos do Acre : história indígena da Amazônia Ocidental.  Rio Branco : Cimi/FEM, 2002.  58 p.

 

  • GAVAZZI, Renato Antônio (Org.).  Geografia Jaminawa.  Rio Branco : Kene Hiwe/CPI-AC, 1994.

 

  • KELLER, Daniel.  Yamináwa.  In: GONÇALVES, Marco Antônio Teixeira (Org.).  Acre : história e etnologia.  Rio de Janeiro : Núcleo de Etnologia Indígena/UFRJ, 1991.  p. 235-54.

 

  • MONTE, Nietta Lindenberg; SENA, Vera Olinda (Orgs.).  Noko Kede I : I Cartilha de Alfabetização em língua jaminawa.  Rio Branco : CPI-AC, 1991.

 

  • SHEPARD JUNIOR, Glen Harvey.  Pharmacognosy and the senses in two Amazonian societies.  San Francisco : Univers, of California, 1999.  332 p.  (Tese de Doutorado)

 

  • TOWNSLEY, Graham Elliot.  Ideas of order and patterns of change in Yaminahua society.  Cambridge : Cambridge University, 1988.  167p.  (Tese de Doutorado)

 

  • --------.  Los Yaminahua.  In: SANTOS, Fernando; BARCLAY, Frederica (Eds.).  Guía etnográfica de la Alta Amazonía. v. 2.  Quito : Flacso, 1994.  p. 239-360.  (Colecciones y Documentos)

 

  • --------.  Song paths : the ways and means of Yaminahua shamanic knowledge.  L’Homme, Paris : École des Hautes Études en Sciences Soc., v. 33, n. 126/128, p. 449-68, abr./dez. 1993.