Foto: Beto Ricardo, 2002

Kalapalo

  • Other names
  • Where they are How many

    MT669 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family
    Karib

Gender roles

There is a fundamental cultural distinction in Kalapalo life between men and women. This opposition is not only conceptualized at the level of psychological, social, and economic relationships that effect the community’s treatment of the individual as a member of one or the other gender, but is manifested in the spatial arrangement of the settlement, the management of internal household affairs, and, most dramatically, within the ritual life of the community.

In the center of every Upper Xingu settlement stands a small building (called kuakutu by the Kalapalo), in which are kept hardwood flutes, called kagutu, which are played exclusively by men. Women are not even allowed to look at them, or else they would be raped. The kuakutu serves as a storehouse for ceremonial paraphernalia worn by men at the time of a ritual performance, but it is primarily a place where men congregate to work and gossip among themselves, to paint one another before a ceremony, and to receive payment for ceremonial performances. The presence of the kagutu precludes women from entering the kuakutu, and at the same time causes the Kalapalo to think of the plaza as “owned by men.” Spatially, then, the settlement is conceived in terms of an opposition between the men’s plaza and the women’s space, which is that of the circle of houses, the sphere of domestic activity.

Although the instruments are prohibited to women, the language used by the Kalapalo to talk about the kagutu is characterized by metaphors of female sexuality. Mythologically, they are described as female. Discovered in a fish trap together with the smaller flute called kuluta and another instrument called meneuga that is no longer made, the kagutu is called their “younger sister.” Their very shape and appearance are likened to the female sexual organ: the mouth of this flute is called its “vagina” (igïdï), and when the set of kagutu is stored high in the rafters of the sponsor’s house during periods when they are not played, they are said to be “menstruating.” Furthermore, many of the songs played on the kagutu are women’s songs, invested by women in the past and sung by contemporary women on other occasions (although women may not sing while the flutes are being played). These songs clearly reflect a woman’s point of view, for they refer to food taboos that women should follow when their children are sick, the relations between women and their husbands and lovers, as well as female rivalries.

Similar to the kagutu in many respects is the women’s ritual known as Yamurikumalu, during which women – decorated in the feather ornaments and ankle rattles normally worn only by men and associated with their kagutu ritual – sing music referring to male sexuality. There are a number of different types of songs, some of which refer to the events of the origin of this ceremony, others replicating the structure of the men’s kagutu performances, and yet others explicitly mocking individual men for their aggressive sexuality towards particular women. The mythological origin of the Yamurikumalu describes how the original female inventors of the music first acquired male genitalia, the prowess to attract other women, and the ability to control supernatural power by applying various masculine substances to their bodies. These “Monstrous Women,” as they are called, thus became powerful being who, after rejecting their female roles (seducers of men, child bearers, and guardians and nurses of infants) play the forbidden kagutu, hunt and fish like men, and in general exhibit masculine emotions and capacities.

The sexual attributes to which these rituals refer are precisely those that are considered repellent and are thought to pose the most danger to persons of the opposite sex. For the men, these are the insatiable female organ and its mysterious and fearful menstrual processes. (Women follow an elaborate set of menstrual taboos, including avoidance of fish, and the preparation of cooked foods.) For the women, masculine dangers are ever-present in the form of potentially dangerous seminal substance (an excessive quantity from a number of men can rot inside a woman and make her seriously ill, for it cannot agglutinate to form a child), and, even worse, the aggressive sexual passion of men that is ever threatening to turn into rape.

Thus, in these rituals, representatives of each gender enact the threatening aspects of their imagined model of the opposite sex. These feelings include uncontrollable sexual feelings, dangerous sexual substances, and sentiments that emerge in the course of social life (jealousy, excessive modesty, fear of the opposite sex, or absurd passions).