Foto: Museu do Índio, S/d.


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    MS, MT, SP26.065 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
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The Terena in History

Chronicle of the first contacts


Last survivors of the Guaná nation in Brazil, the Terena speak an Arawak language and have essentially Chaco culture traits(people from the region of the Chaco). The dominion of the Arawak language groups over the various other indigenous peoples of the Chaco, all of them hunters and gatherers, was due to the fact that they were groups which, from ancient times, were predominantly agriculturalists – and with this economic base they were organized socially into more populous local groups (villages) which were both expansionist and warlike.

All the chroniclers who had contact with the Guaná in the 16th and 17th centuries noted the existence of “captives” among them – prisoners of wars with other ethnic groups of the Chaco, such as the Chamacoco, Chiquito and Guató, mainly. They also noted that these “captives” were treated with kindness and were not humiliated, revealing that they were at the same time employed in domestic and non-agricultural tasks and that they represented social prestige for their masters, more than any economic value strictly speaking (Cardoso de Oliveira, 1968). This observation is supported by the fact that the captives were treated as “foreigners” and the term "kauti" – which is still used today by the Terena – is a corruption of the Spanish-Portuguese term “captive”. That is to say: they were "captives" because the Westerners saw them as such.

These considerations are important because they provide elements for understanding the ethos of the present-day Terena and, above all, the social and political meaning of the alliance of the Guaná with the Mbayá-Guaycuru, an alliance which was responsible for the great Guaná migration to the eastern banks of the Paraguai River in the last two decades of the 18th Century.


The political and social process which involved a demographically superior and stratified society (the Guaná) and another society inferior in population and predominantly hunter-gatherer has as yet been studied very little. However, the relations were clearly based on alliance and exchange of services (gardens x warrior protection) and of iron tools obtained by the Mbayá in their raids on Spanish settlements.

The historical data lead us to suspect that it was Guaná agriculture that allowed the Mbayá to increase their warpower and which, together with the horses taken from the Spaniards, transformed these people into the most skilled war adversaries against the colonization of the banks of the Paraguay River between the Apa and the Taquari.

Scholars of the Chaco peoples maintain that the Chané or Guaná had a much more sophisticated social base than their neighbors, the Mbayá. They were stratified into hierarchical layers: the "nobles" or "captains" (the Naati or "those who order") and the "plebeians" or "soldiers" (Wahêrê-xané, or "those who obey"). And, in the words of Sanches Labrador "...they seek to give continuity to the noble mystique of their blood by those of equal hierarchical status marrying amongst themselves" (apud Cardoso de Oliveira, op. cit).

The Guaná-Mbayá alliance relations were founded in marriage: the Guaná chiefs granted women of their caste to marry with the Mbayá “big men.” In this way, the relations between these two groups over time formed a complex social structure: on the one hand, an autonomous social segment (Sanches Labrador never tires of emphasizing the "independence of the Guaná communities") which occupied the position of provider of women and food; on the other, a warrior caste which had the position of takers of women and which was responsible for the security of the local groups and suppliers of iron tools and horses. Perhaps the female infanticide practiced by the Mbayá and observed by the chroniclers was the result of this same social structure: for, to marry one’s own women would be the equivalent of undoing the basis for the alliance with the Guaná.

The memory of the Êêxiwa and the migration to the East

In the 1760s, the growing pressure of the Spaniards on the Mbayá territories located on the west banks of the Paraguay, together with internal disputes for warrior prestige, forced numerous Mbayá and Guaná subgroups to migrate to the eastern side of the river. This migration probably continued up to the first few decades of the 19th Century. The Guaná subgroups – Terena, Echoaladi, Layana and Kinikinau – which settled to the east of the Chaco, however, maintained the traditional form of organization in moieties and endogamous social strata in the new territory, as well as their gardens and also alliance with the Mbayá-Guaykuru.

The present-day Terena still guard the memory of this migration and crossing over the Paraguay River:

“I have the history with me, the history of my father. Here in Cachoeirinha there was no-one... My father is from here. His great-grandfather came from Êêxiwa (a region covering between the right bank of the Paraguay River and the so-called “ridge of hills” of Albuquerque – today Corumbá – on the left bank of the same river), my father told me. They had been attacked by other different Indians there from the Êêxiwa. Then they came from there, they crossed the Paraguay river to Esperança Port, behind the ridge of hills... They stayed a bit near Corumbá and later they made a village here, in Miranda... In that time there were no purutuyé [Whites], only Indians, the Terena, Laiana, Kiniquinao, Echoaladi, Caduveo...” (Felix, 87 year old Elder, dweller in the village of Cachoeirinha).

Another man describes the way they crossed the Paraguay River:

"My grandmother, my grandfather came from Êêxiwa. They used a really large bamboo to cross the river... They wove vines (hymomó) to make a canoe to cross the huveonókaxionó ("river of the Paraguayans")..."

(João Martins, 83 year old elder, dweller of the village of Cachoeirinha).

The resistance of the Mbayá-Guaykuru to the advance of the Paulistas who moved in the direction of the region of Cuiabá, kept the Guaná at a distance from relations with the Europeans. This situation continued until the last decade of the 18th Century, when, in 1791, a peace treaty was signed between Portugal and the Mbayá-Guacuru.

This treaty gave permission for the Portuguese to make settlements, even though incipient, on the right bank of the Paraguay, at the same time as it resulted in the wearing out of the alliance between the Guaná and Mbayá. One of the props of this alliance, as we have seen, was the supply of iron tools to the Guaná by the Mbayá – which the Guaná began to obtain independently, through direct commerce with the Portuguese.

The new partners: the purutuyé


Having removed the threat of constant attacks by the “Indian horsemen”, small Portuguese/Paulista population nuclei began to form around the frontline fortifications that had been built in the region during the two decades prior to the signing of the treaty, due to the border dispute with Spain: Fort Coimbra (1775), Fort Príncipe da Beira (1776) and the Prison of Miranda (1778).

These relations of friendship between the purutuyé (Portuguese) and Guanás were strengthened by agents of the Crown: in 1797, one of the main Guaná chiefs received an official letter from the General Governor of the Captaincies of Mato Grosso, in exchange for his loyalty and vassalage to the Portuguese Crown. The document recommends to the Portuguese official agents that (the “captain” and “all his people”) “ treated and assisted in all respects as friends and vassals of the Portuguese Crown, allowing them to enjoy all the freedoms, privileges and immunities which all other vassals of the same Crown enjoy...” (original document deposited in the Public Archive of the state of Mato Grosso, in Carvalho &Carvalho 1998).

The relations with the Portuguese and Brazilians, after 1791, varied among the diverse Guaná subgroups. In the 1820s, Hercule Florence described a group which he called “guanás” – probably the Echoaladi and who had their village, “a bit above Miranda” – in the following way:

“Of all the tribes of the Paraguai (the river, we emphasize), this is the one which is most in contact with the Brazilians. Tillers of the soil, they cultivate corn, sweet cassava and manioc, sugarcane, cotton, tobacco and other plants of the country. Manufacturers, they have several mills to grind sugarcane and they make large pieces of cotton cloth to clothe themselves, as well as hammocks and sashes. Industrious, they go, in their canoes or in those of the Brazilians, to Cuiabá to sell their articles of clothing, sashes, suspenders, saddlecloths and tobacco”.