Foto: Gustaaf Verswijver, 1991

Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)

  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

    MT, PA11.675 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

Political organization

In Kayapó society, there is no chief who coordinates the whole village. Each association possesses one or more chiefs, who exercises jurisdiction over their own group. Becoming a chief is not a simple task. A potential chief must follow the teachings of a more experienced chief over many years. The latter instructs approximately four youths, not only his direct descendants (sons or grandsons) – a privileged situation – but also non-related people. This teaching occurs during the night, in the house of the veteran chief. Those without any kinship tie to the instructor must offer him food. A night of instruction lasts approximately two hours, but can sometimes prolong for five or six hours. This practice is only interrupted during the long hunt expeditions or treks through the forest.

The knowledge transmitted in this way is enormous. The main teachings concern a particular repertoire of songs and recitals, whose execution comprises an essential part of the different ceremonies. This repertoire frequently involves a series of moral exhortations and encouragements for people to prepare in time for a ritual, dance in the proper way, decorate themselves in an appropriate fashion, etc. These recitals also contain ritual formulas whose purpose is to avoid catastrophes announced by natural phenomena (solar or lunar eclipses, the fall of a meteor, etc.).

Knowing how to perform these songs and recitals correctly in public is one of the chief’s fundamental ritual functions. Similarly, a certain number of ‘songs of blessing’ are chanted publicly by the chief each time that ‘wild’ objects, such as war spoils, are introduced into the village. These songs must be chanted in order to avoid the appropriation of such objects becoming a source of danger, capable of causing misfortune or sickness.

This form of teaching can be found above all in warfare practices – in the case of conflicts with enemies, the chiefs assume military responsibilities – in mythology and tribal history. In-depth knowledge of the latter is extremely important during discourses and decision making. In fact, argumentation in discourses often rests upon comparisons with events or situations similar to those lived through by ancestors. Mythology assumes an important role, since myths invariably evoke moral values that can be used in an argument. As chiefs have no coercive means of imposing their decisions on their followers, their discourses comprise, as far as they go, the only available means of persuasion. It is through discourse, in which the moral values and interests of an association are placed in the forefront, that the chiefs exercise their influence and their prestige in order to put forward their ideas and make them acceptable.

However, a chief never takes a decision in the full sense of the word, he has no power. Nobody pays attention to a chief who imposes his own will and in the event that he wishes to do so, he may even be banned. A chief should be attentive to the ideas circulating within his group of followers and whenever a consensus emerges he should formulate it rapidly, so that other men align themselves unanimously with the idea or action, apparently his own proposal. In fact, it is at this stage that the discourses become decisive: they often give the wrong impression that the chief is proposing something. He just skilfully formulates an idea for which a consensus was about to be reached. In the case of a dispute, the chief generally consults the oldest members of the association.

Eloquence is therefore crucial for the leaders. But if a chief lacks extreme eloquence, this may sometimes be compensated by other exceptional qualities. The Kayapó prefer combative rather than weak chiefs. It is interesting to note that the chief’s function is characterized by an apparent paradox: on one hand, combativeness and toughness are encouraged, on the other hand, eloquence is demanded in order to promote conciliation. The first quality (combativeness) is associated with the male virtues of physical force, indifference to pain, the capacity to be a good warrior and defend the interests of the association and community against threats. The second quality (eloquence) is indispensable for maintaining and promoting unity. This latter quality is also linked to the generosity chiefs must demonstrate in all circumstances: everyone expects them to redistribute immediately everything they obtain (in the past, war prizes; today, the presents given by visitors). The chiefs must put the interests of the group before their own individual interests: generosity is a manifest proof of this feeling of solidarity.

Moreover, chiefs must take care that individual disputes do not generate into quarrels between factions, which would put at risk the unity of the society as a whole. Individual disputes are not tolerated in the men’s house, since the centre of the Kayapó village is the place for the group’s public activities and not the space where individual problems are regulated: these are usually resolved in the family environment. It is because disputes are extremely dangerous for the society’s unity that the chiefs find themselves involved in internal conflicts, either personally when there is an individual disagreement, or as leader of an association when a chief has to defend the interest of his followers. Nonetheless, chiefs from different associations must avoid such involvements wherever possible and seek mutual understanding. The final process of designating a new chief comprises precisely such a promotion of consensus.

The process of training new chiefs means that each Kayapó village always recognizes different aspirant chiefs. After initiation, some youths start to act as leaders of their peers. Others end up deciding that the function of chief does not interest them: they do not develop any political ambition and interrupt their training. The facts and acts of those who possess such an ambition are exposed – and sometimes questioned – during the following years by existing chiefs and by elders in general.

Older chiefs remain at the centre of their organization’s decisions, but as they become older they gradually delegate tasks to the younger leaders from their group of students. It is during this phase, then, that the aspirants may demonstrate their qualities. But as they have not attained an age when they can back up their discourses, since they do not belong to the association’s group of older men, they cannot yet use this powerful means of persuasion to incite their colleagues into action. As a result, during this stage, judgement is essentially based on exemplary conduct. Certain criteria are applied to judge the candidate’s aptitude: his knowledge, interest in the culture, combativeness, solidarity and generosity. The period of apprenticeship continues until the young leader marries and joins one of the men’s associations.

After some years, the veteran chief is so old that it becomes difficult for him to take part in public activities. The young leaders become fathers of three or four children and can then enter into their association’s group of older men. It is at this moment that a successor is designated. The choice is not made through elections. The judgement of the members of the association to which the candidate belongs is an important factor: they indicate their preference. Nevertheless, the veteran chief has the final word, especially if two or more youths are revealed as serious candidates. To avoid subsequent quarrels between the different candidates, he must consult the chiefs of other associations, in order for them to propose the name of the candidate who enjoys the best reputation or who has shown the most suitable conduct. It is the chiefs of other associations who finally decide and officially proclaim their choice publicly in the village.

As stressed above, the chief’s function is characterized by a certain amount of ambiguity: on one hand, the task demands a pacifying demeanour and, one the other hand, a decisive, combative and even aggressive demeanour. In other words, it is necessary to be aggressive towards strangers and a peacemaker within the community. This double role makes the chief’s career very difficult and it is hardly surprising that some candidates for chiefdom withdraw during the preliminary period of their training. Moreover, few chiefs effectively respond to the commended ideal: some are very aggressive, others too pacific or insufficiently generous. Only strong chiefs succeed in attaining an equilibrium between the two roles.

Today’s chiefs are still clearly preoccupied with this problem. In fact, whites generally use them to transmit messages and especially to obtain something from the community. This explains why the current chief’s often find themselves squeezed between the world of the whites and that of the association (or the community as a whole), with each of the parties attempting to impose its will. It is therefore the chiefs’ task to encounter a solution capable of satisfying both parties. These recent developments have inglreasingly led the communities to attribute greater decision-making powers to their chiefs, but only where negotiations with whites are concerned. Within the community, the traditional rules remain valid.