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The Kayapó live in villages dispersed along the upper course of the Iriri, Bacajá and Fresco rivers, as well as affluents of the voluminous Xingu river, outlining a territory almost as large as Austria in Central Brazil and almost entirely covered in equatorial rainforest, with the exception of the eastern section, filled by some areas of scrubland. Their cosmology, ritual life and social organization are extremely rich and complex, while their relations with non-Indian society and environmentalists from the world over are marked by their intensity and ambivalence.
The term Kayapó (sometimes written ‘Kaiapó’ or ‘Caiapó’) was first used at the start of the 19th century. The people do not call themselves by this term, a name coined by neighbouring groups and meaning “those who look like monkeys”, which probably derives from a ritual lasting many weeks during which Kayapó men, adorned with monkey masks, execute short dances. Although aware that this is how others name them, the Kayapó refer to themselves as Mebêngôkre, “the men from the water hole/place.”
The language spoken by the Kayapó belongs to the Gê linguistic family, a branch of the Macro-Gê trunk. Differences in dialect exist between the various Kayapó groups emerging after the splits that gave rise to these groups, but in all of them language is a feature of wider ethnic reach, leading to recognition that they make up part of a common culture. The Kayapó, for whom oratory is a highly-valued social practice, define themselves as those who speak well, beautifully (Kaben mei), in opposition to all the groups who do not speak their language.
On certain occasions, such as council or ceremonial discourses, the Kayapó men speak in a tone of voice as though someone was punching them in the stomach (ben), thereby differentiating this type of oratory from normal speech.
Kayapó knowledge of Portuguese varies greatly from group to group, depending on the depth of contact and the degree of isolation particular to the history of each group.
The Kayapó territory is situated on the Central Brazilian plateau, roughly between 300 and 400 metres above sea level. The area is criss-crossed by river valleys. Small hills with a maximum altitude of 400 metres, frequently isolated and scattered across the entire territory, spread across the plateau. The large rivers are fed by innumerable pools and creeks, so small that some are yet to be discovered by Brazilians and remain officially unnamed.
In Central Brazil, the year divides into two seasons: the dry season (‘winter’), which extends from May to October, and the rainy season (‘summer’), which runs from November to April. The dry season is characterized by hot and windy days, cool nights and the almost total absence of mosquitoes. This is certainly the most pleasant time of year and the Kayapó often refer to it as ‘good weather.’ In contrast, the rainy season is characterized by torrential rains, the inundation of most of the rivers and creeks and by the annoying presence of a large number of mosquitoes and other types of insects. When evoking this time of year, the Indians refer to it simply as ‘rainy weather.’ The annual rainfall index is sizeable, varying between 1,900 mm in the north-east of the territory, and about 2,500 mm in the south-east – to give an idea, Belgium, often taken to be a rainy country, has an annual rainfall index of approximately 1,000 mm.
It is difficult to state with any precision how many Kayapó Indians live in this immense territory. In addition to the 19 communities that maintain regular contact with our society, three or four small isolated groups are known to exist, whose population is estimated between 30 and 100 inhabitants; not even the Kayapó have much direct contact with these peoples.
The earliest clearly reliable data on the Kayapó date from the end of the 19th century and are used as a basis for establishing kinship ties between the different extant villages. An ethnohistorical examination shows that the Kayapó used to live divided into three large groups: the Irã'ãmranh-re (“those who wander on the plains”), the Goroti Kumrenhtx (“the men of the true large group”) and the Porekry (“the men of the small bamboo”). The first two each numbered three thousand people and the last about one thousand, giving a total population of about seven thousand people.
Sharing a common origin, these three large groups once inhabited the region bordering the lower course of the Tocantins river. This territory comprises plains cut by rivers bordered by gallery forest. Villages were never built far from the forest cover, thus allowing the Kayapó to attain the best possible use of resources from totally different biomes. But this mode of economic life was upturned with the appearance at the start of the 19th century of the first explorers and colonizers.
The consequences of the first direct contacts between the Kayapó and the ‘whites’ can be characterized as disastrous to say the least. Bands of conquerors attacked the Kayapó villages causing countless victims. Many women and children were captured and sold as slaves in the towns and urban areas situated to the north. The Kayapó had no means to resist. Although numerically stronger than these devastators, they confronted an enemy much more efficiently armed. It was an unequal combat, muskets versus warclubs. After it became clear that nothing could be done to repel these powerful invaders, the Kayapó abandoned their traditional territory, fleeing to the west and the interior of the country.
The resultant period of calm was brief, though. The colonizing frontier expanded ceaselessly and 30 years later the conquerors reappeared. This time, their imminent arrival provoked discord among the Indians. There was an internal split between those sympathetic to establishing friendly with the “tribe of pale strangers” and those opposing the idea. The sympathizers were clearly seduced by the numerous goods owned by the conquerors: they were led to believe that once the bonds of friendship were cemented, they too would be able to possess those objects (including guns).
Opponents of the idea, for their part, emphasized the dangers involved in such transactions. In fact, the Kayapó had already noted that each direct contact with ‘whites,’ however brief, was followed by a period during which many people died for unknown reasons: a confrontation with western diseases, not infrequently attributed to the sorcery of the whites.
These internal tensions resulted in a series of successive divisions, which provoked the fragmentation of the three main groups into various subgroups. It should be noted that the groups that at the time decided to live on friendly terms with the whites disappeared from the face of the earth: before 1930, two of the three Porekry subgroups were extinct and the entire Irã'ãmranh-re group succumbed to the same fate.
The remaining Goroti Kumrenhtx and Porekry formally refused to establish friendly contacts with the whites, opting to flee instead. In their migration westwards, they abandoned the recently occupied territory, arriving in a transitional region between tropical rainforest and the open plains. Once established, they began to systematically attack all those who approached their territory. They very quickly became known for their aggression, and the inhabitants of Brazil’s hinterland started to classify them among the most bellicose Indians in Amazonia. As an outcome of their frequent and repeated attacks, few people dared to approach the Kayapó territory. This is one of the reasons why a large part of Central Brazil remained almost entirely unexplored until recent times.
But this situation became impossible to sustain. Under pressure from local political figures, the government decided in the 1950s and 1960s to send several teams led by specialists with the remit to pacify these ‘savages.’ The threatened approach by government officials once more led to discord, and the Kayapó divided again into small communities. Some of these groups, such as the Mekrãgnoti (“the men with large red designs on their faces”), withdrew further inland, settling in a territory almost exclusively covered in tropical rainforest. But the government officials penetrated deeper little by little until they arrived at the most inaccessible spots of the Kayapó territory and thus the majority of the surviving communities entered into permanent contact with our society.
Mekrãgnoti (antes chamado Kubenkokre)
Kuben Ken Kam
|Xikrin (Purukarw'yt)||Xikrin (Purukarw'yt)||Xikrin||Cateté (Putkarôt)
Most of the reports dating from the period of discovery and exploration of Amazonia teach us that the majority of indigenous tribes – in contrast to the Kayapó – lived concentrated along the course of the main navigable rivers. This concentration is explained above all by their potential for river transport. Long journeys through the forest are frequently tiring and demand a lot of time. During the rainy season, forest trekking becomes even more difficult due to the floods and the bad state of the pathways. Transportation by motorized boat is easier, represents fewer risks, demands less effort and is possible all year round. But the Kayapó opted otherwise. The so-called ‘river-dwelling’ tribes, located primarily along the navigable waterways, generally live in dispersed settlements, forming numerous small and generally sedentary colonies, which contain at most 80 people per village. Contact between more remote villages is maintained by small groups which navigate ceaselessly up and down river. Settling on the shores of the rivers makes communication easier and more efficient, equally favouring the division of the small local groups across the tribe’s territory, also leading to a lowering of demographic pressure. A weak point to this mode of urbanism is the fact that these riverine groups make themselves relatively vulnerable due to the ease with which they can be located by enemies.
Recent studies suggest that the reason a particular site is chosen to found a community is due not so much to its transport potential but to ecological factors. As well as a larger quantity of fish, the largest rivers provide substantial concentrations of all kinds of animals and, more precisely, the biggest mammals. This phenomenon is strongly linked to the annual seasonal cycle.
The big rivers carry enormous amounts of fertile alluvium. When the water courses overflow, a large quantity of this alluvium is deposited over the temporarily flooded terrain. Consequently, the large tracts of forest bordering the rivers are more fertile zones. Swiddens are more productive there and more fruiting plants and trees can be found. Many species of animals consume these fruits as their staple food and are therefore attracted to these regions. In turn, these herbivores attract many carnivores and scavengers. As a result, life along the important rivers usually offers excellent hunting and fishing, in addition to fertile conditions for agriculture. We can ask, then, why the so-called ‘forest’ Indians, such as the Kayapó, withdrew to the upper courses of smaller rivers and went to live so far from the more fertile regions. How do these Indians manage still today to provide themselves with the food types necessary for their physical well-being?
Traditionally, the Kayapó economy is based on hunting and slash-burn agriculture. The society recognizes a division of tasks based on sex.
Producing the large quantity of high-calorie foods needed by the population is primarily a female task. Women are responsible for managing the swiddens, usually cultivated within a radius of four to six kilometres around the village. Each family possesses its own swiddens containing staple crops such as sweet potato, maize, sugar cane, bananas and manioc, extremely rich in calories. Some tropical fruits, as well as cotton and tobacco, are also planted.
The Kayapó are demanding in the choice of potentially fertile lands: the ideal oasis is a tract of forest without overly dense vegetation, situated at the foot of a hill close to a river. The Kayapó distinguish between various types of terrain and forests. Selecting a convenient site for a new village or a new swidden is not a decision to be rushed into. Specialists carefully examine the soil colour and composition. The existing vegetation is likewise taken into consideration.
The men have the arduous task of cutting down the trees to clear the swiddens. The trees are felled at the start of the dry season (May) and remain there for some months until the rainy season. The nature of the soil poses a considerable problem in the tropical rainforest due to the extremely low concentration of minerals. Hence, as October approaches, the Kayapó burn the trees whose timber has had by now enough time to dry. The minerals contained in the wood remain in the ashes, forming a layer that acts as a fertilizer. After burning, the women start planting. Many varieties of crops are planted in concentric circles. This mixed culture presents a number of advantages; for example, large-leafed plants protect the soil from torrential rain and drying, while tall plants offer protection from the scalding sun. Some plants also help combat insects. Medicinal plants are usually located on the periphery of the swidden. Many of these plants produce a nectar that attracts a particular species of aggressive ant, natural enemies of phytophagic insects. Although it may appear disordered, the Kayapó swidden is organized in accordance with a highly structured logic.
The women go to the swiddens every day to collect the crops as needed. A Kayapó woman's life is somewhat monotonous. But a few times during the year, generally during the dry season, small groups of women go to the forest to gather wild fruits and palm oil. The shortest trips last a couple of says, the longer trips a week. The women never separate completely from the village, remaining within a radius of 30 km, the territory with which they are more familiar and that is continually crossed by hunters.
The life of Kayapó men is marked by an exceptional mobility. Most of men’s activities are undertaken outside the home: hunting, fishing, trekking, the manufacture of objects and tools, or simply conversation in the men’s house. As work in the swiddens is primarily a female concern, men feel under no obligation to perform domestic duties in the village. In fact, they spend most of the days in the forest hunting and fishing.
The Kayapó enjoy fatty meats, such as tapir, collared peccary and deer. But it is not everyday that they happen across these large mammals. Most birds are killed only for their colourful plumage. Jaguars, wild cats and pumas are killed when they cross the hunter’s path, but are not specifically hunted. In fact, the Kayapó believe that consuming feline meat can cause certain kinds of sickness. Monkeys, agoutis and especially land turtles are frequently hunted and form an essential part of the Indian’s diet.
Men generally hunt alone. At dawn, they disappear one by one into the forest. A hunter lucky enough to kill prey straight away will return around midday. Others who end up pursuing a cold trail or who prove luckless will wander in the forest until nightfall. Traditional weapons are increasingly substituted by rifles. Bows, arrows and spears are only used during solemn ceremonies or when ammunition runs out.
A man never returns empty-handed. Even when he fails to bring back game, he will gather medicinal plants, fibres or wild fruits to make utilitarian or decorative objects. On arriving in the village, the successful hunter hands the game to his wife or, if he is unmarried, to his mother or sister. A lot of people soon appear hoping for a share of the meat. All Kayapó men and women are thus continually located in exchange positions with a series of other people in the village. In fact, the successful hunter is morally obliged to cede some of the meat, especially when the animal is of a respectable size. But likewise he will knock on other people’s doors when his luck runs out or when he is too ill to go out hunting. The constant exchanges ensure that the daily influx of meat is shared out within the community. It is thus rare for a family to have no meat to eat for more than a day or so.
Ceremonies often lasting many months require an enormous quantity of meat. Three or four large expeditions are therefore organized each year. In principle, woman and children accompany the men, leaving the village abandoned. A new encampment is made in the forest every day, a few kilometres away from the previous one. From there, the men leave to hunt.
Apart from land turtles, all meat is eaten in the forest itself. Only the turtles are kept for the final festival. It is difficult to conserve large quantities of meat in the tropical rainforest and the turtles thus provide the simplest alternative: these animals can remain alive for a long time without eating or drinking. It is nonetheless true that transportation becomes problematic. To carry them more easily, the turtles are bound side by side between two wooden poles. These structures can carry at most 15 turtles and may measure three metres in height and weigh up to 60 kilos. Making these treks through the forest no easy task. Consequently, every day young men leave before the hunters to clear a corridor through the vegetation with their axes. The hunters, each with his load of turtles, advance slowly through the forest; they do not return to the village before assembling enough animals to hold a banquet. This generally entails finding 200 or 300 animals, which may take one or more months.
Fishing is a year-round activity, but it is above all with the onset of the dry season, when the water level is at its lowest, that fish are caught in large numbers. To achieve this, the Kayapó use timbó vines. The men beat the vines for hours with small clubs (sticks wider at one end). The liquid thereby obtained modifies the oxygen level of the water. The fish rise to float on the surface due to the lack of oxygen and thus become easy prey. But as the Kayapó live close to small rivers, they mostly catch modestly sized species of fish.
In Kayapó society, fishing is not as productive an activity as hunting. As mentioned above, the economy of this people endures a double disadvantage owing to the setting of villages in unfavourable ecological zones and to the high demographic density of the large communities. How do the Kayapó resolve this problem? The other indigenous forest groups who live in similar zones are generally of a smaller size and pursue a nomadic lifestyle. They travel continuously, moving through regions without exposure to intensive hunting activities and able to rely on the products available in the forest. They work in small swiddens that quickly meet their needs, cultivating manioc and potato.
Nomadism is not a solution for the Kayapó. Continually relocating throughout the forest with a population of a thousand Indians or more is impossible in practice, and this would do no more than transpose the problem of a lack of proteins for a lack of calories. For numerous Kayapó groups, nomadic life would only be possible if the community life of the large villages was abandoned – an idea beyond consideration, whether for defensive reasons or for social and ritual reasons.
We have seen that a sedentary way of life is difficult to maintain in unfavourable regions. The Kayapó learnt this lesson themselves when they arrived in their current territory in the middle of the 19th century. After arriving, they remained for a long time in the same place and animal game became increasingly less abundant. At the same time, it was necessary to open swiddens ever more distant from the village. Women’s work thereby became more arduous and with their long daily walks to the swiddens they exposed themselves much more to enemy attacks. When the women began to express their discontentment, small groups made up of small families – composed of immediate or distant kin or through alliance – began to build small temporary villages close to the more distant swiddens during the dry season. The maximum distance between these so-called ‘satellite’ villages was no more than 40 km. Somewhat far for exploring new hunting grounds, but not enough to prevent visits. The ceremonial system is a centrifugal force: certain rituals demand intense collaboration between the different families. Consequently, during the rainy season the small groups reunited in the large village to hold the ceremonies.
However, these small groups were much too vulnerable to attacks by enemies and this economic model was unable to be sustained. At the start of the 20th century, another system took shape. A number of large villages were built, roughly between 30 or 50 kilometres from one another and inhabited in a rotational system. After a village was occupied for more than one or two years and game became scarce, the entire population moved to another village. The advantage of this constant circulation lay in the fact that the Kayapó returned to the village where the existing swiddens were still partially productive. New swiddens were also opened. During the period spent in other villages, the zoological equilibrium was able to recover in the regions where they had hunted intensively for two years. This form of semi-nomadism was made up, then, of two movement cycles: firstly, there were the biennial migrations to other villages, and secondly, the long hunt expeditions required for the final phases of the large ceremonies. The Kayapó had thus developed a way of life where agricultural products were always available to them, and where the possibilities for hunting had increased considerably. They had managed to keep their large villages in regions that were in principle less ecologically viable.
But this model became difficult to maintain when the Kayapó entered into contact in the 1950s and 1960s with government agents and missionaries, who rapidly set up small posts. At this time, transport through the forest constituted a critical problem and so these posts were built as quickly as possible along the wider navigable rivers, thereby faraway from the territory traditionally traversed by the Kayapó. Attracted by the goods and the medical help they were able to obtain, the Kayapó gradually settled closer to these posts.
This process brought about, in turn, a modification to the economic system. After a few years, the inhabitants of the village stopped moving since the posts and their infrastructure (landing strip, radio installation, a small school, s small room for treating sick people etc.) could not be relocated. Today, migrations still take place, but they are shorter and in general only men take part in them, whereas women and children remain in the village to take advantage of the constant medical treatments.
Thus, the Kayapó are becoming gradually more sedentary and the prospects for hunting in the vicinity of the villages are no longer enough to feed the village’s population. This is the reason why fishing is becoming increasingly more important. In the course of the last two centuries, the ancient occupation of a mixed scrubland and forest environment, where the villages were built near to the smaller rivers, has given way progressively to the occupation of an exclusively forest cover habitat, with villages situated close to the large navigable waterways.
Traditional Kayapó villages are formed by a circle of houses built around a large cleared plaza. In the middle of the village there is the men’s house, where male political associations meet on a daily basis. This centre is a symbolic place, the origin and heart of Kayapó social and ritual organization, celebrated for its complexity. Notably, this spatial and symbolic structure can also be found among other Gê groups.
The village periphery is constituted by houses set in a circle, divided in regular fashion and inhabited by extensive families. This part of the village is associated above all with domestic activities, the physical development of the individual and his or her integration into the kinship groups. When the women are not working in the swiddens, they collect fruits and firewood or go to bathe. The rest of the time is spent inside or close to the house, where they weave, look after their children, prepare food or simply pass the time with members of their family. Conceptually, the circle of houses is women’s territory, essentially directed towards ‘female’ concerns. It involves the domain of individual relations, marked by affection and avoidance, as well as relations of reciprocity and mediation. As a whole, this peripheral zone is associated with alimentary taboos, the life cycle, kinship and the bonds of formal friendship.
The Kayapó are monogamic. When a man marries, he leaves the men’s house to live under his wife’s roof. Women, for their part, never leave their maternal residence. Theoretically, a house shelters various conjugal families: a grandmother and her husband, along with their daughters and their husbands and children. When the number of residents becomes too large (40 people or more), the residential group splits and builds one or more new houses next to the first one.
The centre of the village is composed of two parts: the plaza, where most of the public activities unfold, and the men’s house. The incorporation of a young boy in the life of the men’s house takes place through friendship ties that have nothing to do with kinship ties. Thus, his incorporation in the adult men’s political groups (the male associations) is a matter lying outside of kinship, which contrasts strongly with the relations sustained on the village periphery. The centre is, then, related to the male associations and the activities typically reserved to men – meetings, discourses, and the performance of public ceremonies and rituals
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.
The villages is the centre of the Kayapó universe, the most socialized space. The surrounding forest is considered an anti-social space, where men can transform into animals or spirits, sicken without reason or even kill their relatives. Beings who are half-animal, half-people dwell there. The further from the village, the more anti-social the forest becomes and its associated dangers increase. As there is always the danger that the ‘social’ may be appropriated by the natural domain, escaping human control, the Kayapó engage in a symbolic appropriation of the natural, transforming it into the social through curing chants and ceremonies which establish a constant exchange between man and the world of nature.
The section of forest in which the village population hunts, fishes and cultivates land is first socialized by the attribution of place names. Thereafter, human modifcations of the nature world are accompanied by rituals. For example, the opening of new swiddens is preceded by a dance presenting many structural similarities to the war ritual. Opening up new swiddens is indeed a symbolic war against a natural rather than human enemy. Returning from the hunt, men must sing to the spirits of the game they themselves have killed in order for the spirits to remain in the forest. Each animal species designates a song that always begins with the cry of the dead animal.
The Kayapó ritual complex consists of a very particular language: the rites express and actualize fundamental values of the society, reflecting in equal portion the image the group has of itself, the society and the universe. Each rite translates a part of this cosmological vision and establishes a link between man and nature, in which above all the human-animal relationship is reinforced.
Kayapó rituals are numerous and diverse, but their importance and duration varies greatly. They divide into three main categories: the large ceremonies for confirming personal names; certain agricultural, hunting, fishing and occasional rites – for example, those performed during solar or lunar eclipses – and, finally, rites of passage. The latter are frequently solemn affairs, though short and only rarely accompanied by dances or songs: they are organized so as to announce publicly the passage of some people from one age set to another.
Examples of rites of passage include all the ceremonies qualified by the term mereremex (‘people who extend their beauty’), a reference to the highly elaborate fashion in which people decorate themselves on such occasions. Such ceremonies comprise group-based activities whose purpose is to socialize ‘wild’ or anti-social values. This applies to the attribution of names, a central theme of most Kayapó ceremonies; in fact, personal names are borrowed from nature. Shamans enter into contact with the natural spirits and learn new songs and names from them. These names, alongside the songs to which they refer, are elements borrowed from the ‘natural’ world, which must be introduced into culture at the moment of the large naming ceremonies.
On these occasions, most of the ritual sequences take place in the village’s central plaza. Here an inversion of ordinary social space may be noted: the centre of the village, normally organized on the basis of friendship and non-kinship, is converted into the domain of activities in which both personal family bonds and natural – and therefore ‘wild’ elements, such as the personal names or those of killed prey – are central. The true nature of ‘beauty’, referred to by the Kayapó by the term mereremex, is not only visual, but also constituted by an interior beauty that results from the group’s activity, from the common effort required to ‘socialize’ the names of people or of other precious objects.
The Kayapó distinguish two categories of names for people: the ‘common’ names and the ‘beautiful’ or ‘great’ names. The sources inspiring common names are multiple, potentially referring to an element of the environment, a part of the body, a personal experience and so on. The beautiful names have two parts: a ceremonial prefix and a simple suffix. There are eight untranslatable ceremonial suffixes, each corresponding to a ceremonial category.
Some days after birth, the child receives a certain number of common and beautiful names. Both can be used, but it is more elegant for the latter to be confirmed at a later time during a ceremony. This confirmation occurs after the child has developed elementary motor and linguistic abilities, and, especially in the case of boys, before being formally integrated into one of the associations linked to the centre of the village. In other words, the confirmation of names attributed to birth takes place between the age of two and eight years, during a naming ritual.
Each person’s beautiful names are based on different ceremonial prefixes. Ideally, each child should be honoured more than once. But in practice this is rarely the case, due to the large expenditures demanded from the child’s parents. The latter act as sponsors of the naming rites, who must feed the people who sing and/or dance. As the ceremony may last months, enormous quantities of foods have to be assembled and prepared. The father and mother obviously turn to their more distant relatives to request help, but not everyone wants to – or can – contribute towards such a heavy economic sum.
The Kayapó distinguish twelve naming rituals. Each of these possesses a particular name and consists of a long series of specific dances, songs and ritual practices. During one of these ceremonies, between two and five children are ‘honoured:’ these are called mereremex (‘those who extend their beauty’). The honoured children are assisted by two or more ritual friends, non-related people of both sexes who will thereafter have the task of assisting the child during all the difficult phases of his or her future life. The attribution of a name is one of the most crucial occasions when the help of a ritual friend is required. In fact, the ceremonial confirmation of names is considered to be a dangerous undertaking. This is partially explained by the origin of the names which, as we recall, derive from natural – and therefore frightening – elements. But there is also a second threat: during performance of the rites, the spirits of the dead relatives attempt to take away the spirit of the decorated children.
The Kayapó believe that the spirits of the dead live in a secluded village, somewhere in the hills. This village is organized like that of the living: in the form of a circle with one or two men’s houses, possessing male and female associations, age sets, etc. The essential difference resides in the fact that the spirits live by night and fear the light of day. For this reason, the Kayapó are afraid to remain alone in the forest during the night.
Women smoke almost the whole time they stay in the swiddens since the spirits fear the smoke. Without this precaution, many spirits would lurk near them as they went to collect potatoes and manioc and then follow them as far as the village. To confuse the plane of the spirits, the women spit in all directions before leaving the swiddens and surround themselves with a cloud of smoke. Spitting and blowing smoke are acts endowed with the same efficacy as the male songs after a successful hunting trip: both have the aim of driving away spirits.
The Kayapó bury their dead in a very precise space, outside the village circle. The grave comprises a circular well in which the body is placed in a seated position, the face always pointed to the east. The hole is covered after various personal objects of the deceased are placed below, such as gourds, weapons and some ornaments. The spirit will take these objects to its new dwelling place. In the first weeks following the death, relatives leave a small amount of food and drink everyday by the side of the grave, since the spirit does not always immediately find the path leading to the village of the dead.
The spirits may succumb to nostalgia, which provokes a fear among the living that they may try to ‘fetch’ a member of their own family. As a result, relatives of someone who has recently died are extremely prudent: in order to scare away the spirits, they illuminate the house with large fires that produce a lot of smoke. The simple fact of looking at a spirit is mortal and the latter typically awaits for an opportune moment to capture the soul of a sick person or a weak relative.
During the naming ritual, the honoured children are placed in a situation of extreme weakness: at the start of this rite, they are so to speak unfinished beings, submitted to an intense process of socialization by means of body painting, the wearing of very fine ornaments, ritual dances by male or female groups and, finally, by the ritual confirmation of their names. At the end of this process, the honoured children become whole human beings again. For these reasons, the honouring of very young children is avoided during such ceremonies, since this would place them in danger, even when accompanied by adult ritual friends.
According to the Kayapó, humans are composed of internal corporal elements (blood, bones, organs, flesh and water), an exterior corporal element (skin), a spirit (mekarõ), vital energy (kadjwýnh) located in the liver, and finally social elements associated with the vital cycle and the successive phases of the system of age sets, whose critical moments coincide with the attribution of names, initiation, marriage, birth, and the reinforcing of alliance ties or formal friendships between groups and individuals.Blood is a dangerous substance of which the body must retain a precise quantity – its lack induces weakness and sickness, while its excess leads to
ndolence. This explains why the Kayapó sporadically scar the thighs of adolescents. When the village elders think that the youths have become too soft or slow and attribute this attitude to the excessive accumulation of blood in their bodies, a specialist must scarify the thighs of the boys until they bleed. This is done with the help of a triangular piece of gourd edged with extremely sharp fish teeth.This specialist acts with as much care as possible, since contact with another’s blood is dangerous: it can modify the quantity of blood in the body of the contaminated person. Feared above all is contact with
exterior blood (of other people or animals). Consequently, the Kayapó are very prudent; after such contact, they wash themselves as rapidly and carefully as possible. Depending on the intensity of the contact, a series of prohibitions must be observed. After an attack on an enemy village, the chest of the warriors must be tattooed and scraped with the purpose of eliminating the superfluous ‘bad’ and thus dangerous blood. As warriors are increasingly rare, only the oldest people bear these tattoos.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Kayapó became famous in the national and international media as a result of their activism in pursuit of political rights and the demarcation of their lands, as well as the intense form in which they interacted with local markets in search of industrialized products. During the course of this activism, faces such as those of the leaders Ropni (better known as Raoni) and Bepkoroti (Paulinho Payakã), became famous world-wide, snapped by the press next to artists, personalities and renowned heads of state. Their spectacular appearances in Brasília during the process of the Consitutional Assembly and the intense activities of these leaders in events and protests within Brazil and abroad were a pronounced feature of the period.
The culminating point appears to have been the celebrated pan-indigenous assembly in Altamira in February 1989, which had a pronounced impact in the press. This involved leaders from Kayapó communities, along with representatives of 24 other indigenous peoples and environmentalist groups from various countries, gathered in order to stop the construction of an hydroelectric complex on the Xingu river, in particular the Kararaô plant. During the previous year, Payakã had been in the United States at the invitation of the American anthropologists Darell Posey and Janet Chernela, whereat he had denounced the same project and had questioned representatives of the World Bank who were due to finance it. Conjointly, Raoni had gained international help from the singer Sting, which resulted in the creation of non-governmental organizations for protecting the rainforest and the Kayapó, such as the Rainforest Foundation and its Brazilian affiliate, the Fundação Mata Virgem (Rabben, 1998). In November 1989, Payakã was awarded with a medal of honour from the Better World Society, a philanthropic body for the defence of the environment and the welfare of humanity, in the category for Protection of the Environment.In the 1990s, then, the association of the Kayapó with the international environmentalist discourse was at its peak. It is possible that under the circumstances the Kayapó leaders had exploited this representation in order to call the attention of international public opinion to the problems afflicting them, above all the situation of their lands. But the idealized image which part of the environmentalist movement had of the Kayapó prevented them from seeing that the defence made by the Indians of the forest and nature did not possess an end itself, nor was it based on their supposed natural affinity with the forest. The impression remains that many sources of international help were only interested in the Indians in so far as they acted as defenders of nature. As the anthropologist William Fisher observed (1994:229), it was as though the indigenous way of life was only worth preserving to the extent that it benefited the environment, and not due to their rights to self-determination as a people. And while it is true that a simple glance at satellite images of Amazonia reveals that indigenous areas – including those of the Kayapó – are islands of forest cover surrounded by deforestation, this is certainly not due to the fact that the Indians think like the ecologists.
In this context, while at a global level they were seen defending the forest, locally the Kayapó entered into negotiations with those economic forces who most provoke environmental damage in Amazonia: timber and mining exploration. This characteristic cost the image of the Kayapó dear, above all after the incident involving the leader Payakã in an accusation of sexual violence. The news of the Indians’ commercial relations, added to the ideologized exploitation of the episode, resulted in the Kayapó shifting from being ecological heroes to the real villains of Amazonia. The accusation of Payakã fell as a present into the hands of enemies of the indigenous cause, in the middle of Rio-92, a large United Nations conference on the environment and development. Freire (2001) shows how the Brazilian press sought to demolish the ecological version of the Kayapó, in order to replace it with another in which they appeared as rich capitalists, privileged landowners, ‘half-Whites,’ indulging in all the worst vices of civilization and involved in highly predatory activities such as mining and timber exploration.
However, from the Indians’ viewpoint, allying themselves with the environmentalists and negotiating with the local economy alongside which they had lived over many years are equal elements in their strategies for dealing with the white world, part of their way of confronting the new historical conditions faced by them. In the absence of government policies on indigenous issues, the Kayapó have turned to relying on their own means in order to obtain fundamental resources (symbolic, political and economic) for their social reproduction. Not only consumer goods, services and medical assistance, but also potential partners and collaborators. This explains their need to draw international attention to the problem of demarcating their lands from whoever was willing to listen. So too the negotiation of part of the natural resources of their lands in exchange for money.
In addition, the idealizations (positive or negative) of whites prevents them from perceiving that these strategies were never consensual: in fact, they very often provoked internal conflicts and even splits within the communities between those supporting one type of action or another. The Kayapó are not a monolithic block of thinking and attitudes. It is necessary to understand their actions and strategies both in the context of their ‘external politics’ (their fight for autonomy and ethnic affirmation) and in that of their ‘internal politics’, which also involves disputes for prestige between intra and inter-village leaders and age sets.
On the other hand, experience accumulated over time has taught the Kayapó that they cannot always trust the kuben (‘white’), and that the partnerships are intrinsically unstable and conflictual. From their viewpoint, whites do not behave in adequate fashion, since they lie too much (kuben ênhire), or as the Xikrin like to say jokingly, they have ‘two mouths’ (japê kré amé). The Kayapó know that the negotiations with timber and mining interests – despite being important at the time – were ultimately prejudicial and almost always dishonest. Today, they show themselves to be open to alternatives to the predatory economic model that took such strong root in Amazonia, especially during the military regime. The Xikrin, for example, broke all their contracts with logging firms at the start of the 1990s and committed themselves to the development of a model of sustainable and renewable forest exploration, within the standards of international guidelines. They were the first indigenous group in Brazil to have a Forest Management Plan approved by Funai and Ibama, and today are emerging as an example not only for the other Kayapó, but for the entire state of Pará, in terms of the timber issue. Currently, many Kayapó communities are developing alternative sustainable economic projects, in partnership with NGOs and multilateral funding agencies.
So, despite our traps, the Kayapó continue in their efforts to move on the interface between our world and their own. They have learnt a fair amount about us. And ourselves, what have we learnt from them? Perhaps it is time for us to abandon our idealized visions, whether romantic or cynical, in order to try to comprehend who they really are.
The Kayapó are one of the indigenous peoples most studied by Amazonian ethnology. Most of these works were written from the 1960s onward as academic theses in the English language, not all of which have been published. Since then, a significant quantity of texts, articles, theses and books have been produced about the Kayapó, providing a reasonably solid body of knowledge on their history, culture and social organization.
Here we have selected some of these works, classified by the type of production and themes. We also list sources of information on the Kayapó language, as well as audio-visual material, so as to compose a fairly general panorama of the diverse aspects of life of one of the most important indigenous groups in Brazil.
Though the list is not complete, it still allows those interested to acquire an in-depth and comprehensive picture of this people. Through these works, the reader may easily obtain other references not selected here.
The texts below are listed in chronological order (except when pertaining to the same author) and form the main body of knowledge already written on the Kayapó. They comprise academic monographs focusing on history, social organization, ecology, warfare, politics, myth and cosmology.
Highlighted are the works by Terence Turner, who has studied the Kayapó for over 30 years; Vanessa Lea, who provides an alternative interpretation to this author; and Verswijver, who has produced a fairly detailed historical reconstruction, especially from the 20th century on.
The theses by Turner (1966) and Bamberger (1967) were written as part of the Harvard-Central Brazil Project – a broad program of integrated research, co-ordinated by David Maybury-Lewis and Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira, whose aim was to generate a comparative study of Gê-speaking societies.
Unfortunately, some of these texts are not easy to access (such as Turner’s doctoral thesis or the book by Simone Dreyfus). However, almost all of them can be found in the libraries of Postgraduate Social Anthropology courses.
There is a set of earlier texts, produced approximately between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the following century, which are of primarily historical interest, but which also contain good information on the Kayapó way of life and diverse cultural aspects.
The French explorer and geographer Henri Coudreau was responsible for writing the first reliable reports on the Kayapó at the end of the 19th century. During his expeditions along the Tocantins and Araguaia rivers, Coudreau obtained important information directly from the Irã'ãmrajre Kayapó, who at the time maintained peaceful contact with the Dominican mission established in the region of the middle Araguaia river, but also from news passed on to him by Father Gil Vilanova. His record is published in French in a rare edition. However, two other reports by Coudreau exist mentioning the Kayapó, both published in Portuguese.
Later on in the 20th century, texts appear produced by missionaries who sought to establish contacts with the aim of catechizing the Indians. We highlight the report by Father Sebastião (Dominican) and the Reverend Horace Banner (from the Unevangelized Fields Mission), who lived among the Gorotire Kayapó from 1937 to 1951 and from whom Nimuendaju gleaned information in 1940. And Nimuendaju’s own report. The report by Father Sebastião is very interesting, since it tells of one of the first peaceful approaches to a group of Gorotire Indians, living in the area of the Fresco river.
Below is a list of articles translated into or written in Portuguese and more readily accessible to the non-academic reader. We pick out the texts by Turner, since they provide a general overview of the history, social organization and processes of change undergone by the Kayapó in recent years. The article published in the book edited by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha is important, especially for anyone beginning to study this indigenous people, since it provides a synthesis of various aspects of Kayapó society. A complementary study of their social organization is once again presented by Vanessa Lea, who undertook research among the Mekrãnoti groups.
___. 1984. Ciclos nas práticas de nominação Kayapó. Revista do Museu Paulista, 24:97-124.
____. 1993. Da cosmologia à história : resistência, adaptação e consciência social entre os Kayapó. In: VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, Eduardo; CUNHA, Manuela Carneiro da, eds. Amazônia: Etnologia e história indígena. São Paulo: USP-NHII/Fapesp. pp. 43-66.
The themes dealt with in the articles mentioned above are developed in more detail in the set of publications listed below. These texts are recommended to students of anthropology and to readers with a little more familiarity with the ethnological literature.
Standing out in this list are a number of articles by Turner dealing with important contemporary issues of Kayapó life, such as their appropriation of filming and video techniques in order to record for themselves important aspects of their culture (1991 and 1992, c.f. a version in Portuguese in the previous section: 1993b); their involvement with – and later reaction against – the extractavist logging and mining industries (1995); and their involvement in ‘environmentally correct’ economic development projects, focusing particularly on the case of the contract with the Body Shop cosmetic company (1995b).
Below is a selection of varied works, from travel reports in English to recent M.Phil. dissertations in Portuguese. Werner’s book provides a behind-the-scenes account of his research among the Mekrãnoti, containing more personal rather than academic reflections on his experience with the Indians. Another interesting text (though difficult to acquire as the book is out of stock) is the report by Sting and Jean Pierre Dutilleux on the period during which they were in contact with the Kayapó, the leader Raoni acting as intermediary, and their efforts to set up the Rain Forest Foundation and demarcate the Mekranoti Indigenous Territory.
The other three works deal with mostly current issues and the relations between the Kayapó and Brazilian society and the international community. Linda Rabben provides a case study of the ‘rise and fall’ of the leader Paulinho Pajakã in the eyes of the environmentalist community, in a book that also deals with the Yanomami. The dissertation by Inglez de Souza involves a discussion on the present economic and political situation of the Gorotire Kayapó, and about how they are reflecting on their own experience and looking to overcome the challenges to their survival as a distinct ethnic group at a moment of growing interaction with nation states and the global market. Finally, Freire presents a study of the way part of the Brazilian press helped to construct a twisted public image of the Kayapó as ‘capitalist Indians,’ through an analysis of the ‘Pajakã case.’
London: Barrie and Jenkins. 128 p.
___. 1981. O conhecimento entomológico Kayapó: etnometodologia e sistema cultural. (Anuário Antropológico, 81):109-24.
___. 1986. Manejo da floresta secundária, capoeiras, campos e cerrados (Kayapó). In: RIBEIRO, Berta G., ed. Etnobiologia. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1986. p. 173-88. (Suma Etnológica Brasileira, 1).
The three articles below tackle the issue of women in Kayapó society. Vanessa Lea’s texts are situated within the current debates on the gender issue, discussing the opposition between domestic and public domains and the position of Kayapó women.
A large part of the Kayapó Indians’ oral tradition is available to those interested through a set of myths documented by various researchers and published in the collections indicated below. This selection of beautiful narratives is indispensable for an insight into the rich conceptual and imaginative universe of the Kayapó.
The collection by Wilbert is fairly complete, containing more than 180 versions of Kayapó (and Xikrin) myths recorded by Alfred Métraux, Anton Lukesch, Curt Nimuendaju, Horace Banner, Lux Vidal, Gustaf Verswijver and Vanessa Lea.
A number of works and dictionaries exist on the Kayapó language, although they are not easy to find. The Kayapó idiom has been reasonably well studied by linguists, primarily those affiliated to the Summer Institute. In general, these works pass from hand to hand among the researchers and anthropologists who work with the Kayapó, though they may be found in the libraries of some Postgraduate Programs in Anthropology and Linguistics. The work of the linguistic missionaries resulted in the translation and publication of a New Testament in the Kayapó language (Metindjwynh Kute Memã Kaben Ny Jarenh), published in 1996 by the Liga Bíblica do Brasil.
Below is a list of the main works on the Kayapó language:
For those wishing to know something about Kayapó music, there is an excellent CD published in 1995 by Smithsonian Folkways, a division of the Smithsonian Institution specialized in folkloric and ethnic music. It is called Ritual music of the Kayapó-Xikrin, Brazil (International Institute for Traditional Music/Smithsonian Folkways, Traditional Music of the World, 7). The musical research and recordings were made by Max Peter Baumann in 1988 in the Xikrin do Cateté village. Accompanying the CD is a 76 page pamphlet produced by Lux B. Vidal and Isabelle Vidal Giannini, containing information on Kayapó (and Xikrin) society, explanations concerning their ritual life, as well as transcriptions and translations of some songs.
There is also a review of this CD by the ethnomusicologist Rafael Menezes Bastos: 1996 - Música nas terras baixas da América do Sul: ensaio a partir da escuta de um disco de música Xikrin. Anuário Antropológico, 95. Rio de Janeiro: Tempo Brasileiro, pp. 251-63.