Foto: Camila Gauditano, 2001

Kisêdjê

  • Autodenominação
    Kisidjê
  • Where they are How many

    MT424 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

Myth and History

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The place to begin a discussion of the history and cultural dynamics of the Kĩsêdjê is in their mythology. Differently from some indigenous groups, such as those in the Upper Xingu, Kĩsêdjê society was not established by a creator or by a culture hero, but developed in a series of events involving "normal" human beings. Kĩsêdjê society took form through the appropriation of specific elements of animals and enemy Indians. Thus, fire and cooking were obtained from the jaguar; corn and the practice of planting were obtained from a rodent; and the naming system (basic for social identity and all ceremonies) was obtained from an enemy group that was said to live underground. The Kĩsêdjê said that much later they encountered a group somewhat similar to themselves that used lip discs and scarred their bodies but that were cannibals. They incorporated some of that group's non-dietary customs as well. Songs were learned from mythical enemies, from Kĩsêdjê in the process of metamorphosis into other animals, and from other indigenous groups. Thus the vision the Kĩsêdjê have themselves is of society formed through the selective appropriation of what was good and beautiful of other beings.

Kĩsêdjê oral history is rich and detailed, and what is given below is only a summary of a history they pass on through word of mouth from generation to generation. The closer to the present, the more detailed the commentaries. The Kĩsêdjê say that in a distant past they came from the Northeast and the region of the north of the Tocantins River or from the state of Maranhão. From there they moved in a westerly direction, crossing the Xingu River and reaching the Tapajos River. There they fought with a series of indigenous groups, among them those they identified as the Mundurukú and the Krenakarore (Panará). Always fighting, they moved in a southerly direction toward the headquarters of the river. The Kĩsêdjê then moved to the East to the headquarters of the Batovi River and entered into contact with the Upper Xingu societies. Another Kĩsêdjê group (that came to be called the Tapayuna) eventually moved in the direction of the Sangue and Arinos rivers, where they were subsequently (and disastrously) "pacified," in 1969.

The first contact of the Kĩsêdjê with a nonindigenous society probably occurred during the visit of the expedition led by the German scientist Karl Von den Steinen. He and his expedition camped on a sandbar across the Xingu River from the Kĩsêdjê village from September 3rd to 26th, 1884. The description of the scientist emphasizes the difference between the Kĩsêdjê and the other groups of the region. He described them as painted in black and red ("without art"), sleeping on the ground, in small houses, with a very simple material culture and a "men's house" that, unlike those of the Upper Xingu, had no walls. The Kĩsêdjê said that before permanent contact with Europeans, their ancestors called them "people with the big skins" because their clothing hung loosely on their bodies.

There is no exact date for the arrival of the Kĩsêdjê in the Xingu. From the commentary of some, one could estimate that it occurred in the first half of the 19th century. The relationships between the Kĩsêdjê and the groups that they encountered in the Upper Xingu varied between harmony and hostility. As a consequence of suspected witchcraft (which caused many deaths among the Kĩsêdjê) and attacks, they moved north to the mouth of the Suiá-missu River. There the Kĩsêdjê attacked the Manitsauá and also captured women and children from the Iarumá (neither group survives today). Thus both the Manitsauá-missu and the Suiá-missu affluents to the Xingu were freed for use by the Kĩsêdjê.

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The Juruna (yudjá) and the Northern Kayapó entered this region in the end of the 19th century from the north, under pressure from the expansion of Brazilian frontier settlements. Both of these groups attacked the Kĩsêdjê. The Kĩsêdjê, as a consequence, moved some kilometers up the Suiá-missu River to a new village. It appears that Kĩsêdjê participation in Upper Xingu life diminished during this period. They fought with the Waura and captured some women from them. They recall this first village on the Suiá-missu River as the place where they adopted hammocks for sleeping (before this they slept on woven mats) and as the place where some captured Upper Xingu women taught Kĩsêdjê women an important women's ceremony from the Upper Xingu called Yamuricuma. This event gave the name to the village site, still called Yamuricuma.

After suffering further attacks from their enemies, the Kĩsêdjê moved further up the Suiá-missu to a place near the mouth of the Wawi River. There they constructed a large new village with a Gê spatial layout and two "men's houses." In this village they were attacked by a group of Juruna Indians and their rubber tapper allies armed with Winchester rifles. They killed many Kĩsêdjê and destroyed the village. This attack almost ended the Kĩsêdjê as a separate group. Some Kĩsêdjê went to live with relatives and allies in the Kamaiurá village in the Upper Xingu; others moved further still upstream on the Suiá-missu River to escape further attacks from the Juruna and Northern Kayapó. This period of dispersal is remembered as a time of intense contact with the Upper Xingu and of the "Xinguanization" of the Kĩsêdjê. After a time they resolved to unite again in a new village, but a group of Kĩsêdjê suffered another attack from the Northern Kayapó. This led to a lack of women in the village, and the Kĩsêdjê attacked the Waura to obtain more women (and women who could make pots). The Kĩsêdjê then retreated into a maze of small rivers where they remained almost completely isolated from any contact with other groups. The villages they lived in during this period were in the same region they have returned to in the beginning of the 21st century after recovering the right to that territory.

Life in the Xingu National Park

In 1959, the Villas Bôas Brothers sent a group of Juruna to make peaceful contact with the Kĩsêdjê. The Kĩsêdjê refer to this time as when "the whites came to look for us." The Juruna visit was followed shortly afterward by an expedition in motor boats, and the Villas Bôas and others visited one of the Kĩsêdjê villages. The Kĩsêdjê received at the Brazilians peacefully and sang for them. A little after this, the Kĩsêdjê moved closer to the Indian post, Diauarum, at the suggestion of the Villas Bôas, so that they could receive better medical care. They made a new village at Yamuricuma, on the Suiá-missu. There they were visited by anthropologists Harold Schultz (also a photographer), Amadeu Lanna, and the photographer Jesco von Putkammer.

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In Diauarum they met their former enemies: the Juruna, Trumai, and Metuktire (Kayapó), as well as the recently arrived Kaiabi. They constructed a village in the Xingu style and a number of Kĩsêdjê married Trumai. These new marriages were very different from the earlier incorporation of captives because in this case Trumai men came to live in the village with their Kĩsêdjê wives. Subsequently, some Kĩsêdjê women married Juruna and Kaiabi men. The Kĩsêdjê performed a number of ceremonious of these other communities (photographed by Jesco von Putkammer). In the 1960s, the young men began to cut their hair in the style of the Upper Xingu. The use of ear discs and lip discs was abandoned and children's ears began to be pierced in an Upper Xingu style. The death of all of the older men in the years following contact was another important factor in their Xinguanization, because there were no longer enough older men to continue performing the Gê rites of passage.

The close link between the Trumai and the Kĩsêdjê ended when a Kaiabi killed a Trumai married to two Kĩsêdjê women. As a result of the hostility, the Trumai moved south to Posto Leonardo Villas Bôas, and the Kĩsêdjê moved further up the Suiá-missu River to a new village. They continued to have close contact with the Juruna and Kaiabi, and adopted from them forms of weaving and some crops. They were once again asked to move closer to Diauarum to facilitate medical assistance and constructed a village near the mouth of the Suiá-missu that abandoned both Gê and Xinguano characteristics. The village was neither circular nor did it have a "men's house" in the center. The house walls were made of upright logs and resembled the constructions in Diauarum, which had a strong resemblance to Kaiabi villages.

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In 1969, as a result of the disastrous contact with the "white pacifiers" 41 Tapayuna survivors (or "Western Kĩsêdjê" also known as "Beiços de Pau" because of their large lip discs) were removed from their land between the Arinos and Sangue rivers to join the Kĩsêdjê (who at that time numbered approximately 65). Ten more members of the group died shortly after their transference as a result of diseases. From the perspective of the Eastern Kĩsêdjê, however, the cultural resemblances of the two groups considerably changed the emphasis within their own culture. The Tapayuna looked like, spoke, and acted like their Kĩsêdjê ancestors. The Kĩsêdjê called the Tapayuna "New Kĩsêdjê" and were fascinated by how they appeared to be living ancestors. As a consequence, the Kĩsêdjê felt themselves stronger, more numerous, and with a greater future. In the space of one year, a new village was built in a traditional Gê pattern, with a circle of houses surrounding a large cleared plaza, in which they constructed a men's house. During intensive discussions of their respective ceremonial and musical traditions, the two groups performed a number of Gê ceremonies together. They discovered that they had many traits in common.

The attitude of the Kĩsêdjê with respect to the recent arrivals was, however, ambiguous. At the same time as they were authentic Kĩsêdjê, they were also considered somewhat "backwards" because they did not know the customs and technology as of the Upper Xingu Indians. For example, they did not know how to process manioc in the Upper Xingu style, or how to make or paddle canoes. They spoke in a manner that the Kĩsêdjê considered somewhat strange and archaic even though it was clearly the same language. For this reason, they were treated with considerable humor and they were taught the new technologies.

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In 1980, the Tapayuna felt themselves sufficiently strong to construct a village of their own, above the junction of the Suiá-missu with the Xingu River. Only a few orphans and adults that had married Kĩsêdjê remained in the Kĩsêdjê village. A Tapayuna leader was killed by the Kĩsêdjê and, fearful of further attacks, the few surviving Tapayuna moved to live with the Metuktire, where they remain until today (see Lea, 1997).

Leaving history and returning to mythology again, the adoption of selected culture traits from other peoples that punctuates the history of the Kĩsêdjê is based in their mythology (and the mythology of most of the other Gê peoples). Thus, as in myths, the Kĩsêdjê continue to adopt elements of indigenous and also nonindigenous societies when they appear to be "good" or useful.

In the case of the Upper Xingu, the Kĩsêdjê learned a good part of their technology without, however, abandoning their own. From early in their contact, they adopted Upper Xingu techniques of processing manioc (probably learned from a Tupi group such as the Kamaiura, since the words they use for many manioc species are derived from Tupi words). The Waura captives taught the Kĩsêdjê women how to make pots and griddles for beiju. They Kĩsêdjê also began to use other subsistence techniques: canoes for travel, linguistic elements, housing styles, ceremonies, body ornamentation, and a great part of Upper Xingu material culture. On the other hand, the Kĩsêdjê never ceased to hunt and eat animals that the Upper Xinguanos never ate, to plant corn and sweet potatoes for ceremonial use, and to produce Gê artifacts for ceremonies. Thus, the adoption of elements of Upper Xingu was extensive but they say that they selected the things that seemed beautiful and useful, ignoring the others.