Foto: Vladmir Kojak, 1988

Xavante

  • Autodenominação
    A´uwe
  • Where they are How many

    MT18.380 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

Economy and environment

The Xavante inhabit a central zone of the Brazilian cerrado in a complex ecozone which combine the vegetation of the cerrado and the woods. (mata de galeria? It is a zone with two well defined seasons: the dry season between April and October known as the 'winter' and the rainy season, or 'summer' in the other months. Agriculture, above all maize (used by the Xavante in socio-cosmological ceremonies) beans and squash, has only a secondary role in the economy.  The  crops harvested from each plot belong to each household, and while the men carry out the tasks of clearing and burning, the women do the planting. The traditional basic diet consists of products collected mostly by the women: wild roots, nuts, fruit and other vegetables.

Collecting is supplemented by the men's contribution from hunting and fishing. Game and fish provide proteins and can be preserved by smoking. Up until the intensification of colonization in the 1960s, the Xavante obtained these foods on hunting and collecting excursions: long trips, sometimes lasting months, made by  groups of extended families. In the dry season, the groups of travellers met in large semi-permanent villages to hold their ceremonial activities.

This pattern of occupation, involving prolonged excursions, meant that the territory needed by the Xavantes for their subsistence stretched over an area which  they could explore during the entire year.  On these expeditions, the territory of each group was explored separately by the social segments made up of the households which were most closely linked by kinship. They communicated by means of smoke signals, so they could all meet together at the end of the expedition. Each day they camped to rest. The camps were a miniature version of the base village, the houses being disposed like a horseshoe, and in the distribution of the domestic groups inside.

Today these traditional excursions have all but disappeared, because of the shrinking of the amount of land available to the Xavante and the scarcity of game in it. Nevertheless, short hunting and fishing trips, lasting a day or two, when the hunters ignore the fences of the ranches, are common.

Game has a prominent place in the diet and in social life. For the men, hunting is not only an important economic duty but a mark of male capacity, as it demands qualities of physical resistance, speed, agility, vigilance and agressivity. It is a central component of some ceremonies, like the Wai’a, and marriage celebrations, when the men go out on long hunts. 

The environmental degradation caused by cattle raising and agricultural monoculture inside and around Xavante lands, has led toa sharp drop in the game available. Meat and fish, the main sources of protein, are scarce in most of the present Xavante areas, while in the smallest areas, the lack of game is severe.

In addition, as the present lands of the Xavante are no more than small fragments of the area they once had for their subsistence, to find enough game, especially for ceremonies like weddings, which need large quantities of meat, frequently obliges groups of indian hunters to enter the private ranches, either to hunt or demand that the ranchers give them cattle.  This situation often results in serious conflicts.

Despite the Xavante efforts to maintain their traditional way of life, the intrusion of activities aimed at the market obviously causes significant upsets to it and to their  traditional economy. To accelerate their assimilation into the regional economy and society, government policies introduced first by the SPI and later by FUNAI, encouraged them to adopt different practices like cattle raising and slash and burn agriculture.

As the lands they had been left with could no longer support their traditional way of life the Xavante became increasingly dependent on the crops they grew in this way, and on FUNAI to give them goods bought in nearby towns. 

The need for money used to lead some of the men to work as paid labour on the ranches,  but today many Xavante are employed by FUNAI, either in their own areas, as heads of posts, or in the regional HQ or even in FUNAI's  central office in Brasilia.   The general income of  Xavante communities nowadays includes state pensions, the salaries of teachers and health monitors, and funding from  government agencies for  indigenous associations.