Foto: Camila Gauditano, 2001


  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

    MT424 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

Rituals and Society


Many features of Kĩsêdjê social organization and ritual life were modified after the attack on their village by the Juruna and their rubber tapper allies. Population loss, intense contact with the Indians of the Upper Xingu, and the death of a large number of the older men shortly after “pacification" resulted in profound modifications in Kĩsêdjê social life. In spite of this, it is important to describe their social organization and cosmology before these events since many aspects of the Kĩsêdjê way of life continue to the present.

The Kĩsêdjê live in circular villages, in houses constructed around a large open plaza where one or two "men’s houses" are located, one in the east and the other in the west. In the past, residence was predominantly uxorilocal. When a man married he went to live in the home of his wife's family. After his initiation, a man was expected not to return to live with his family or to eat with his sister because only couples, lovers, or same-sex groups ate together. A man never put his arm around his sister since the very gesture was indicative of the beginning of a sexual relationship. But a man could sing to his sister without going near her house.

According to the Kĩsêdjê, every socialized being has three components. These are the physical body -- which is the result of the father's semen accumulated and developed within the mother's womb-- a social identity transmitted through a group of names given by a mother's brother of a boy (or the father’s sister of a girl), and what might be called the "spirit," (shadow, reflection) unique to each physical objects and essential to human beings, since without it a person sickens and dies.


The Kĩsêdjê are very tolerant with their children, and do not expect them to hear-understand-behave well while they are young. They never strike their children but may tap them lightly on the head, to which children respond with copious tears. When children fight together the mother of each will blame her own child. When puberty begins, however, youths of both sexes are expected to listen to the instruction and exhortation of their parents and chiefs, and to act correctly in accordance with what they hear. At puberty Kĩsêdjê youths are considered "without shame" (añibakidi) if they do not observe the appropriate norms related to sexual activity, the distribution of food and property, and restrictions on eating and physical activities.

For a man, age grades are marked by elaborate initiation ceremonies that stress the breaking of ties with the natal household in the transferal of the young man first to the men's house (as sikwenduyi) and later to his wife's house as a "man with child" (hen kra) where he lives with her and her extended family after fathering a child.


There are fewer age grades and less elaborate initiation rituals for women, who continue to live in their mother's house throughout their lives. At puberty, some women remain for a period of time in seclusion within their houses, a custom adopted from the Upper Xingu. After puberty, a woman continues to live in her maternal household with her mother and sisters. She begins to take lovers and eventually becomes pregnant with a child. When her first child is born. a woman is given an area of her own within the house and her husband comes to live with her. They become a domestic unit separated conceptually from the other units in the large house, which usually has no internal physical walls. The larger residential house is composed of the parents of the woman, her single sisters and her married sisters with their husbands and children, as well as by her unmarried brothers. In addition to these, a house normally also includes orphans and/or captive children, visitors from other groups, and occasionally a visiting non-Indian.

A woman's status is related to her age and the number of children she has. Like a man, she begins with relatively little domestic authority, but this increases as her mother ages and she has more children of her own. With the beginning of menopause a woman’s status changes again, and she gains status in some aspects and loses in some others. Older women continue to participate in economic activities. They are intimately involved in the domestic lives of their children and can still undertake many of the women's tasks, although at a slower rhythm. Older women are also respected for their knowledge and are frequently consulted by younger generations, and are usually taken care of by their daughters and their families.

After they have a child, both men and women are referred to as "having a child" (hen kra). When they have many children both men and women are called "old" or "mature" (hen tumu or hen kwi ngIt). When their children marry and they have several grandchildren men and women enter another age grade and become "old clowns" (wikenyi). When a couple’s children marry they have sons- and daughters-in-law and a new status as central members of the residential houses. The difference between the members of the age grades hen kra and hen tumu is a question of degree, since older men participate more actively in political life. No rite of passage marks the change from "with child" to "mature." Some men begin to act like older adults earlier than others, depending on their personality and their position within various kinship networks. There is, however, a clear difference between the mature adult men and being an "old clown" (wikenyi), marked by a rite of passage and by changes in behavior during ceremonies.

Many Kĩsêdjê rites of passage can be seen as a ritualization of the transfer of a man from his natal residence to the house of his in-laws. When he has his own son-in-law, a man ceases to be an outsider. Male wikenyi complete this passage by becoming fully associated with the residence of their wives. Their complete integration is revealed by the differences between the initiation ceremonies of the "old clowns" from the other initiation ceremonies. Wikenyi change their body ornaments, their style of singing shout songs, no longer go hunting during certain festivals, and begin to receive special food from the rest of the village during ceremonies.

While initiated young men are considered the maximum expression of the ideal of masculinity and self-control, the behavior of the elderly is the opposite, characterized by humor, feigned lack of control, and obscenity. Just as the Kĩsêdjê do not expect children to act in a moral fashion, elders in Kĩsêdjê Society also have distinctive roles outside the norms that apply to younger adults. Certain of them act as clowns in rituals and wikenyi men give a characteristic falsetto cry while the rest of the men are singing. Wikenyi may also perform humorous pantomimes at the end of the afternoon, when the whole village may watch and enjoy their humorous activities.

Men and women who have married children and several grandchildren are candidates for the rite of passage that effects their transformation into old clowns. Women only become "wikenyi" after menopause. In the past almost all Kĩsêdjê became wikenyi, but pre-contact massacres and post-contact epidemics drastically reduced the number of people with the necessary age for this status. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, the characteristic cries of the elderly are once again being heard in ceremonies.

A majority of ceremonies emphasize the relations between a man and his real and classificatory sisters, as well as with his mother, over those he might have with his wife and in-laws . During non-ritual periods men bring fish and game to their wives and affines, and receive cooked food from them. During rituals men give food to their sisters and receive cooked food from them. They give their names to their sisters' sons and their daughters receive their names from a man's sisters. Brothers and sisters are therefore very important relatives for ceremonial purposes. Men sing for their sisters, but they do not sing love songs (there are none) but rather shout songs, songs of individual self-affirmation for their sisters who are socially and spatially distant because of uxorilocal residence and other changes due to family life.

When a Kĩsêdjê man paints his body for a ceremony of Kĩsêdjê origin (rather than Upper Xingu origin), the design he paints on his body is determined by the names he received from one of his mother's brothers at birth. Ultimately, all the members of a group of people with the same set of names paint and otherwise ornament themselves in the same fashion. Moiety membership is determined by names, as are a person's place in the line of dancers and the songs that he will sing with certain others. When they paint themselves for Upper Xingu ceremonies, Kĩsêdjê body paint designs are more individualized.

With respect to political power, the more influential men in a village are usually either leaders of political factions or specialists in ceremonial knowledge. A few others are influential because of how aggressive they are. The Kĩsêdjê say that the two essential features of a political leader are to coordinate the activities of the group and to resolve disputes through oratory. When a leader has finished his public speaking in a loud tone of voice in the central plaza, the whole village is expected to have "heard everything" (bai wha) and to behave accordingly. The authority of ritual leaders comes from their knowledge and their memory for songs. Leadership is generally inherited patrilineally, so that the children of a male leader are themselves potential leaders. Certain men who are "owners" of ceremonies learned from the Upper Xingu also inherit this right patrilineally. The daughters of a political leader also have considerable status, are active in public life, and their opinions are respected by the other women.