Foto: Tiago Moreira dos Santos, 2010.

Munduruku

  • Autodenominação
    Wuyjuyu
  • Where they are How many

    AM, PA13.755 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family
    Munduruku

History of the contact

munduruku_4

The traditional territory of the Munduruku is the inland fields of the upper Tapajós. In their myth of origin, Karosakaybo created the Munduruku in the village of Wakopadi, situated in the central fields, near the headwaters of the Krepori River, a place which is situated in the vicinity of the eastern border of the land demarcated in 2001.

The first information on contact between the colonizing frontier and the Munduruku dates from the second half of the 18th Century, the first written reference being made by the vicar José Monteiro de Noronha, in 1768, who called them “Maturucu”, when they were seen on the banks of the Maués River, tributary of the Madeira River, in the old Captaincy of the Rio Negro – present-day State of Amazonas –, where there still exist communities of this ethnic group whose history of contact and relations with the national society are marked by features which are distinct from the Munduruku communities located in the region of the upper Tapajós. Today, most of the Munduruku population of the Madeira basin dwells on the Coatá-Laranjal Indigenous Land, the physical demarcation of which was also concluded in 2001. There are also records of communities outside the demarcated territories, along the Trans-Amazon highway, near the municipality of Humaitá, in the state of Amazonas.

In the region of the lower Tapajós River, near Santarém, over the last few years several communities who are in the process of asserting their ethnic identity state they are Munduruku.

The territorial expansion of the Munduruku produced different histories of contact, and it is best understood in the approach taken by historians who portray the Munduruku as an audaciously warrior nation, which undertook major incursions from the Madeira to the Tocantins, for the purpose of, among other things, obtaining trophies of enemy heads which were mummified and attributed magical powers. Through war and the imposition of their culture, the Munduruku dominated the Tapajós Valley from the end of the 18th Century, a region which for centuries was known as Mundurukânia, where they live today, whether on officially recognized lands, or in small riverine communities such as Mamãeanã, São Luís and Pimental, the latter being located only an hour by motorboat from the municipality of Itaituba.

The Munduruku were only conquered by the colonizers after several expeditions and ransom troops, organized by the Portuguese, were sent to the region, in retaliation for the resistance that the indigenous peoples presented through their attacks on the settlements. These attacks ended with the adoption of a supposedly friendly relation which several scholars have characterized as “peace agreements” between Munduruku chiefs and colonial authorities of the interfluvial region of the lower Madeira/Tapajós, at the end of the 18th Century, which led, for example, to the appeasement of relations with the dwellers of the town of Santarém. From then on, they were put in missionary settlements, and set to work in the exploitation of the so-called “wilderness drugs” (cumaru, cacau etc.), although several groups continued making war against rival ethnic groups, thereby in a certain fashion favoring the action of the colonizers in the occupation of the region.

As a consequence of the vast areas of their occupation and over which they traveled, the contacts of the Munduruku with the frontiers of expansion varied in accordance with the nearness and ease of access to their territories. These factors resulted in the emergence of differentiated aspects of the cultures of the Indians located on the banks of the Tapajós River, the Madeira and Cururu rivers, and the area of low-forest known as the Fields of the Tapajós, the region where the more traditional villages were located, and which is the setting for a good part of the mythology of these people.

The rubber boom

Beginning in the second half of the 19th Century, the expansion of the extractivist economy became consolidated with the exploitation of caucho (castilloa elastica) and rubber (hevea brasiliensis), giving rise to the so-called rubber boom, which launched the Amazon region into the international capitalist market. This fact accelerated the process of non-indigenous occupation on the upper Tapajós and other areas of concentrations of the latex, especially from the end of the century, when thousands of workers from the Northeast region of Brazil migrated to the Amazon where they were forced to submit to compulsory labor in the exploitation of rubber, within the system known as the barracks, controlled by the owners of the rubber stands. This economic situation caused the invasion of indigenous territories, forcing the constant movement of native societies throughout the Amazon region.

For the Munduruku, these events, together with the first missionary settlement to be established in the upper part of the rapids of the Tapajós, mark a cycle in their history representing the continuous presence of non-Indians in a region which was previously under their control. The first settlement in this region, known as Bacabal Mission, was established in 1872, below the mouth of the Crepuri River, under the control of the Franciscan friars. Even so, the traditional villages located in difficult-to-reach places, that is, in the fields, remained autonomous for a long time, there being records left by travelers and chroniclers who passed through the region about warrior incursions of the Munduruku which continued until the beginning of the 20th Century.

Historical and anthropological studies attribute a predominant influence on the dislocation of the Munduruku from the traditional villages of the fields to the banks of the navigable rivers of the region, particularly the Tapajós and the Cururu, to the commerce of the river merchants who traveled the rivers selling their wares (sugar, cloth, salt, rum etc.) from the end of the 19th Century. According to this analysis, the Munduruku of the villages in the fields began to move in the dry season to the banks of the Tapajós for the purpose of exchanging rubber and forest products for industrialized goods, and thus they began settling on the banks of the rivers.

However, in the oral traditions of these people, the explanation is different. While narrating the seasonal dislocations to the Tapajós and later, to the Cururu River, other factors were decisive in their permanent settlement on the banks of the rivers, for example, a great measles epidemic which occurred at the beginning of the 1940s, when a significant part of the population was decimated, including the deaths of chiefs of large traditional villages of the fields.

This tendency to dislocation, even in the first decades after the establishment of the São Francisco Mission on the Cururu river, in 1911, retained its seasonal character, that is, the journeys of the Munduruku to the banks of the Tapajós and Cururu occurred in the dry season. Later, the Indian Protection Service (SPI) came to the region, establishing the Kayabi Attraction Post, on the São Manoel River, in 1940, and in 1942 the Munduruku Indigenous Attraction Post, on the Cururu River, contributing, along with the Franciscan Mission, to the acceleration and consolidation of the process of dislocation of the Munduruku, as well as the Kayabi and Apiaká. Both institutions exercised important roles in the consolidation of extractive labor in caucho and rubber among the Indians, opening the way for the dislocation of a large part of the population of the fields to the Cururu River.

It is also a fact that both the Franciscan Mission and the SPI contributed to the maintenance of the territorial space of the Munduruku against the assault of the extractivist frontier expansion, which was marked by two periods of major intensity: the first from about 1880 to 1920, when the rubber economy and culture flourished throughout Amazonia, but which went into decline as a result of the competition from British rubber stands cultivated in Malaysia; and the second cycle in the period from the Second World War to the post-war decade, due to the suspending of economic relations with the Far East, when, with the support of the American government, Brazil adopted an explicit policy of encouraging rubber production, establishing credit lines for these activities and stimulating the dislocation of Northeasterners to work as rubber-gatherers, and who were officially called "soldiers of rubber".

Missionary presence

Besides having exercised an influence in the concentration of the population on the banks of the Cururu River, the Catholic mission spread the foundations of Catholicism, such as the baptizing of newborn, which became obligatory, and marriage in the church. Nevertheless, in relation to the world of indigenous religion, even considering that the practices of conversion do not differ in essence from those promulgated in the colonial period, with the condemning of the rituals of shamanism, the advances made in terms of conversion to Catholicism can be considered modest taking into account that the Munduruku are extremely connected to the world of their traditional religion.

The Mission still exercises today important functions in the fields of education and health. Lately, even disagreeing with indigenous beliefs, the Church has sought to contribute to the process of organizing and preparing the Munduruku by helping to implement the demarcation and protection of land and supporting their claims to their rights.

It is worth remembering also that in the village of Sai Cinza, on the Tapajós River, for more than 30 years there has been a Baptist Congregation Mission, which among its objectives, exercises religious activity with considerable efficiency, parallel to the resistance of the Munduruku cultural tradition. The Baptist Mission, like the Catholics, have an important role in school education, contributing to the teaching of writing in the Munduruku language among the young people. Today, despite not abdicating their role as evangelizers, the Mission seeks to integrate its work to contemporary questions and problems that the population faces, thus supporting the struggle of the Munduruku.