• Other names
    Muteamasa, Ukopinõpõna
  • Where they are How many

    AM111 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
    Colombia412 (1988)
  • Linguistic family

Missionaries, colonists and modernity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Tukanoan (Desana) mythology see:

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