Archive for the 'Heart of Brazil Expedition: Progress' Category



Metuktire 7th June 2007

UPDATED. Triumph! On our return to São Félix do Xingu we find they’ve improved the Internet connection, so I’ve managed to upload some pictures. Click here: www.ipcst.org/Metuktire to go to a slideshow of images relevant to this post. To return, simply close the slideshow window. The slideshow may take some time to load, especially if you have a slow internet connection.

Me being painted ready for our anniversary party in Metuktire village.

Today is our wedding anniversary. We are spending it in the Kayapó village of Metuktire, close to the Von Martius waterfalls. We can hear the sound of water rushing over the rapids towards the Amazon, our final destination; it still seems very, very distant.

This part of the journey is over completely different terrain, full of rocks and rapids. For the first time, the river will form the boundary of the indigenous reserve, instead of passing through it. We will at times have deforested farm land on the right bank and forest only on the left. In this area, the Indians have sometimes come under fire from aggressive fazendeiros, fishermen and gold prospectors (garimpeiros).

Metuktire village suffers from far too many insects which bite, mostly pium, tiny black flies which leave a very itchy and inflamed bite with an alarming, almost black dot of a scab in the centre. Mercifully, these do not carry diseases like malaria, but they bite morning, noon and into the evening.

Repellents are partially effective, but the best protection is a thick application of oil, which the Kayapó use. The flies die immediately they settle on the oil. The problem with this is that it makes doing practically anything impossible, because my hands are permanently slippery. Yesterday, I helped our host, Cacique Waiwai, to repair his boat. I had great difficulty handling the tools, and today my feet look like an angry pepper pot of red with black dots.

A House in Metuktire village.The village follows the traditional circular pattern with a nobe, or men’s house, at the centre. Last night we stood in the middle of the circle, admiring the stars. The cacique joined us to explain some of the Kayapó cosmology; the love affair between Venus and a  Kayapó warrior; and the line of stars climbing skywards which guides the growth of young  Kayapó children.

Metuktire is the closest village to the site of an aeroplane accident last year involving a Gol Boeing and an executive jet which cost the lives over a hundred people. The wreckage of the Boeing came to earth in a remote region of forest, and the people of Metuktire were the first on the scene, arriving the day following the accident after an arduous trek through the forest.

Waiwai Txucarramae, our host in Metuktire village.The scene was terrible. We very quickly realised there were no survivors,” said cacique Waiwai, one of the first to reach the wreckage. “There was very little we could do. There was nobody alive; there were bodies everywhere. It was very sad, and we were very badly affected, because we wanted to help. All we could do was to make a clearing in the forest so that the army could land their helicopters. Once they were there, they sent us away.”

For the Kayapó, to bury their dead properly is very important because they believe that the spirits of their forefathers continue to inhabit the forest. Burial rites continue for may months after a person dies, so the main concern of the rescue party was that the bodies of the victims of the accident would be returned to their relatives for burial.

The village neighbours Kremoro, where recently an uncontacted group made contact (see last week’s report). Kremoro is more than a day’s journey on foot from here, but our hosts are keeping in touch with developments by VHF radio.

A few days ago, two aircraft arrived in Kremoro carrying FUNAI sertanistas and officials. Unfortunately, the arrival of the aircraft panicked the uncontacted group, who fled back into the forest. They have reappeared sporadically, but have not returned to the village. They had told stories of being shot at by white people, so their reaction is entirely understandable.

Sue sharing a joke with Bebkwa TxucarramaeBack in Metuktire, the village has decided to put on a party for our anniversary. I am at this moment sitting in the radio room with Cacique Waiwai, who is now painted in full with strong black lines running from neck to waist, his legs black to the ankles ready for the party. Sue and I feel very honoured that they are doing this for us; the Kayapó are a very proud and confident people, and it takes time to gain their respect and acceptance.

The young men playing football in Metuktire village.Metuktire is the home of Raoni, who travelled the world with rock star Sting to raise support for the demarcation of the Mekgranoti reserve in the early 1990s. Raoni is in Japan this week; he continues to fight for the rights of his people. He will return here, to his recently-completed traditional house of wood and palm thatch, in a few days. If we can, we will delay our departure until he arrives, because we promised to visit him in his house the last time we met, but it is not clear exactly when he will reach the village.

© Patrick Cunningham


⇒Next: The Story Continues

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Uncontacted!

A few days ago, a previously unknown group of Kayapo Indians emerged from the forest to contact their relatives in the village of Kremoro. Although it is only 50 kilometres from the Xingu River, the Heart of Brazil Expedition cannot reach the village because there is no access overland or by river.

The first contact was made by two men who approached the house of Bepro, son of one of the Benajures (village chiefs). He went to find out what was causing noises at the back of house late one evening, to find two strange Indians, who beckoned for him to follow them into the forest. He started to follow, and had a brief conversation before becoming frightened. Having gone out without his torch, he was afraid that these were the ‘wild Indians’ he had heard rumours about, and that they were luring him  away from the village to kill him.

Bep’ and Patxom Txucarramae talking abut the arrival of the uncontacted group.Some days later, the unknown Indians came again to the village, making noises behind another house. This time they disappeared back into the forest before anyone could catch a glimpse of them.

Bepro and his brother Beprytire decided, against the advice of the rest of the village, to go into the forest to look for them. They soon found them and had a brief conversation, during which they established that the strange Indians were Kayapo, though they spoke an archaic version of the language. The newcomers were obviously nervous and asked if the other villagers would come after them and kill them. Beprytire answered that the Kayapo today don’t fight with other Indians, and that they would be safe. Nonetheless, the newcomers became more agitated and disappeared again.

When the brothers returned to their village they were greeted with disbelief, so the next night they went out again, this time with an audio recorder. Again they talked to the newcomers, beginning by now to establish a little more trust. The newcomers told them their people were worried because they knew the forest was being destroyed nearer and nearer to their village, and although they had built it under the canopy of the forest, they were afraid they would be discovered and killed.

Young Kayapo Indians listening tensely to the radio.This time when they returned to the village, the brothers had the tantalising sound of the newcomers’ voices to prove they existed. The village was thunderstruck; the old men re-told stories about a split in the village which happened in the 1950s, when three families disappeared into the forest. One family was later accounted for when they were found dead from disease, but the other two disappeared. Could it be that this group was one of those families?

Benajure Megaron Txucarramae was contacted by radio at the regional FUNAI government Indian agency where he is Director, and the village began to try to encourage their new-found relatives to come into the village. Little by little, they enticed the two Indians to come nearer. The two were joined by others, until there were eleven in all.

Eventually the newcomers ventured into the men’s hut in the centre of the village. The people of Kremoro decided that they should make them welcome in the traditional way, so they painted themselves and began to dance. This brought an unexpected reaction; the newcomers broke down and cried. They said that it was as if they were coming back to life after the years of isolation in the forest.

Little by little, the number of people grew.

The next day there were 36.

Today, Kremoro is hosting 86 visitors, all speaking a strange, old-fashioned dialect of their language, all naked, the men with penis sheathes and seven of them with large lip-plates, the women with their heads shaved on top. The newcomers are talking about long-dead relatives who they had left behind, and the villagers of Kremoro are both excited and at the same time pensive. The newcomers are now more confident, but they will still only talk to the two brothers who initiated the contact.

The few people from Kremoro who are in town are glued to the crackly radio which is the only direct communication with the village. When the radio transmitted a recording of the newcomers’ voices and singing they became emotional, some with tears in their eyes, some with faraway expressions.

Puiu Txucarramae, Megaron’s second-in-command, cried out and thumped the table in excitement:
“Everyone was emotional; I was listening, and I said to myself , no, I have to leave, because it was making me…very…very…sad; so I had to leave, because their words were very old-fashioned, very good words with great weight. So I became very emotional, and I had to leave the radio room and stop listening, because I was almost crying.”

Young men from Aldeia Kremoro crowding round the radio for news.Even the young men were emotional. Bep’ Txukarramae: “It’s as if they are the spirits of our ancient ancestors, and because of the courage of our friends who established contact and spoke to them, they have now come back to bring much happiness to our village and our people. My grandparents told me about the time long ago when there was a disagreement in the village, and some of the people ran away into the forest.”

Patxom Txucarramae takes up the story:
“After they separated, one group – our parents – was contacted by the sertanista Orlando Villas Boas. But the other group, which is the one that has appeared now, remained isolated in the forest. It makes me very happy to know that more than forty years later they have survived, and have come back. It’s good to know this, because these are our relatives. They know lots of things that we have forgotten. Their language is much more original than ours. When I heard them talking on the radio I didn’t understand much of what they said, but my uncle understands them much better.”

Benajure Megaron (facing, left) discussing the uncontacted Indians.Megaron is trying hard to avoid the disasters which have occurred with depressing regularity when other tribes have been contacted for the first time. He has ordered an initial ban on all movement into and out of the village, except for a carefully-selected medical team.

Having lived for so many years free from exposure to infections, these people will have no natural immunity to the diseases of the white man. They are particularly vulnerable to measles, influenza, chicken pox and pneumonia, any of which will kill the majority of infected non-immune people within days.  Even the common cold can be a killer.

It is therefore essential that the hard-won trust of these people is not betrayed unwittingly by the introduction of diseases which may wipe them out. The team establishing contact is using all possible measures to prepare for the eventuality of illness, and to build immunity to the most serious disease by an immediate programme of vaccination. This process will continue for many months – even years – and will without doubt involve periods of intensive caring for the newcomers during bouts of illness.

The Indians who have emerged from hiding in the forest face a tough period of adjustment to the realities of modern life, which even for the Kayapo of Aldeia Kremoro is very different from the lives they are about to leave behind. One day, Sue and I hope to visit them, without the worry that we may be harbouring some everyday illness which could be fatal for them. In the meantime, we wish Benajure Bepkyre, his wife Bekwyjmrati and their people all the best at this difficult time.

© Patrick Cunningham


 ⇒Next: Metuktire

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Dams, Soya, and More Dams

Click here: www.ipcst.org/DamsSoya to go to a slideshow of images relevant to this post. To return, simply close the slideshow window. The slideshow may take some time to load, especially if you have a slow internet connection.

Most of the Xingu river catchment area is now protected as designated areas; Indigenous Reserves, National Forests, Extractive Reserves, Ecological Stations and a variety of other legally delimited areas. But the headwaters, to the south, west and east, all lie outside of the protected areas.

Many of these headwaters were at one time occupied by Indians. But they were moved to new villages closer to the centre of the Xingu Indigenous Park (PIX) during the 1960s, where the famous Vilas Boas brothers could take better care of them. There still remain Indian elders who remember the old villages, and Brazilian law offers the possibility of reclaiming the land; both the Panara and the Kisedje (Suya) have succeeded in recovering land from ranchers.

The area around the PIX is now mostly converted to agriculture, and deforestation of the headwaters is affecting the Indians. As the forest is cleared, the amount of sediment, agrotoxins and other pollution entering the river grows, affecting the fish stocks and polluting the drinking water.

Recently, a dam on the Tanguro River burst, releasing accumulated agrotoxins and sediment into the river. People in Tanguro village witnessed large numbers of dead and rotting fish drifting down the river, and were warned not to drink water from the river.

There are proposals to construct a series of six hydroelectric dams on all of the main tributaries of the Xingu. One, known as Paranatinga II, is already under construction, on the Culuene River, at a location considered sacred by the Indians. This was the exact location of the first Kuarup, an extremely important festival when all of the tribes come together, and it was here that legend says the first Indian was created. There was a Kalapalo village here until the 1960s. To see an aerial view of the construction site, click here.

The dam is presently halted following challenges in the Brazilian courts. If it goes ahead, it will reduce the flow of water in the Culuene, the largest feeder into the Xingu. It will also set a precedent, making it easier for the other schemes to obtain approval.

The Caciques and all of the people of the Xingu are seriously concerned about this development, and with good reason. Arivirá Matipu explains:

“This hydroelectric scheme will destroy our supermarket. Our main source of food is the river, we don’t eat game and we don’t keep animals to eat. Our food is fish, and the river provides it. The river also brings water for our mandioca fields, from which we make beju which we eat every day, and our favourite drink mingau. If the dam is completed, the river will die. And if the river dies, we will have no food, there will be no more Indians and the forest will die.”

In each village we visit we hear the same story. We ask, “What do you see as the major threats to your future?” In each case, the answer is “We are most worried about the dam which is being constructed on the Culuene.”

It is no longer safe even to bathe in the river.The Indians have already seen a marked change in the local climate as a result of the clearance of the forest surrounding the reserve.

“The temperature nowadays is much higher,” says Tata Yawalapiti, sister of Cacique Aritana. “It used to be that we had a cold spell in June and July, but that doesn’t happen any more.”

Cacique Kotoki Kamayura has also noticed the change: “The rain used to start in September, and go on right through to April. Now the rains don’t start properly until December. I’m sure this is because of the deforestation to grow soya. In the last two or three years, the forests around the Park have been disappearing very fast; now there is almost nothing left. It is as though we are on an island of forest in an ocean of barren soya.”

The levels of the rivers are lower than they used to be because of this change in the local climate. The hydroelectric schemes will make them even lower, until the river becomes impossible to navigate and there are no longer fish for the Indians to eat.

The dams might provide electricity for some of the towns in the area, but even this is doubtful. If the forest dies it will affect the climate even more, reducing the rainfall and making the dam fail. Previous schemes have had mixed success, often failing because of silting of the dams and corrosion of the turbines. Today, as solar panel technology is progressing at a remarkable pace, it would surely be more sensible to promote this than to imperil the lives of tens of thousands of people, at the same time undermining the fragile ecological and climatic balance of the entire Xingu basin.

The company responsible for the proposal has been involved in a sustained attempt to deceive the Indians and to divide the different ethnic groups. They have succeeded to some extent, but the Indians now seem to be more united against the proposal. Early on, six of the Caciques in the Park were persuaded to sign a document agreeing to the construction, but all six have now asserted that the document they signed, under great pressure, did not coincide with what had been explained to them.

The site of the dam was the scene of a demonstration by representatives of the Xingu tribes, who occupied the partly-constructed dam and took some workers hostage. They were released unharmed after two days, but the Indians destroyed equipment and took away several valuable items including a car. This has turned public opinion, which had previously been sympathetic, against the Indians, and was very damaging to the actions going through the Brazilian courts.

Ikpeng Warriors show their anger at the construction of the Paranatinga II dam.Ilukotu Ikpeng explains their actions: “We are not thieves, and we don’t take other people’s things without a good reason. Some time ago, our land was invaded by loggers, so we went to their camp and sent them away. We took their Toyota, because they had damaged our land and stolen our trees. That was a fair and just act.

“It was the same thing with the dam, they have damaged our sacred site and they are polluting our river, which is now full of sediment.

“We Ikpeng are warriors. When someone attacks us, we fight back. When my sons went to the site of the dam, I told them to take things, to punish the company for the damage they have done, and to give us some recompense. If they carry on polluting the river, we will go back there and take more things until they stop.”

The construction company is now hiring staff to recommence work. But the cases continue their tortuous way through the Brazilian legal system, and there may still be a possibility of stopping the dam.

Recently, the UK-based organisation Survival International launched a campaign against the construction of dams which affect Brazil’s Indian communities, including Paranatinga II. We can only hope that this project is soon abandoned forever.

© Patrick Cunningham


⇒Next: Uncontacted!

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Daily Life on the Expedition

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It is time to say a little about our day-to-day life here, and the equipment we are using.

Our boat “Coração do Brasil” is a 7-metre aluminium voadeira. It is reinforced to withstand the rocks in the rapids and waterfalls we will be passing in the next part of the expedition. The parts are welded together, which is a stronger method of construction. The boat cuts through the water beautifully, driven by a 40-hp Yamaha 2-stroke outboard motor. Our electronic equipment requires constant charging, and the boat is equipped with a battery and two flexible solar panels, which are mounted on a canopy.

We have been accompanied by local boatmen from the start of the expedition. The first was Aparecido, a genial non-Indian from Canarana who has plenty of experience in the area. He has worked for FUNAI, the government Indian agency, and has a wealth of knowledge of the people, plants and animals of the cerrados. Aparecido was joined by Ari Matipu, who, in addition to being an excellent boatman, kept us provided with plenty of fish, which was always well received when we arrived in a new village. Ari was also able to explain the purpose of our visit in the Karib language.

A typical meal in the XinguThe Indian way is to eat when food is available. The concept of three meals a day is alien, and a meal may occur at any time of day, though it usually happens in the afternoon or evening. Some days, if the fish are not biting, there is no food. Most days there is one meal, and if we are very lucky there may be some fruit in the village.

A meal in the Alto Xingu is simple; fish grilled over an open fire with beju, a kind of manioc bread or pancake which is snow-white. It is crisp on the outside when still hot and fresh, but becomes slightly elastic when it is a few hours old. Many non-Indians find it unpalatable, but for us it is a perfect complement to the fish. The beju serves as starch in the diet, but also doubles up as plate, knife and fork; each person takes a hand-sized piece of beju and uses it to take some fish, then eats beju and fish together. Sometimes in the morning we get some beju on its own.

This may sound a little repetitive, but there is a wide variety of fish, all of which is absolutely delicious because it was swimming in the river only an hour or so before the meal!

Occasionally during the day, someone will prepare mingau, a thick drink based on manioc, sometimes with added banana, pequi or sweet potato. Mingau can be sweet, sour or bland, and varies greatly in flavour and consistency. Mingau with pequi is quite sour and not to my taste, but is highly appreciated in some villages. Only the Yudja (Juruna) of the Baixo Xingu prepare caxiri, a fermented type of mingau which is alcoholic.

In the Medio and Baixo Xingu, beju is less common. The Kaiabi make it from a different type of manioc, and their beju is yellow and much thicker. The alternative here is farinha, coarse toasted manioc flour, which is eaten by the handful, stirred into fish stew or sprinkled onto pretty much any food.

Hammocks in a village houseWe sleep in hammocks, either in a family house or in the medical post. It is usually more comfortable in a family house, but there is very little privacy, and if the house is full we have to take down our hammocks during the day. We sit on low stools, which are occasionally carved but are more often just sections of tree trunks.

The day starts with the dawn. Our alarm clock is the crowing of cocks, the barking of dogs and the sounds of various other species of bird and animal which the villages keep as pets. We swing out of our hammocks and head for the river to bathe in the early morning mist. Most of the Indians in the Alto Xingu are still accustomed to going without clothes, so there is only mild inquisitiveness when we bathe, and occasional giggles about our whiteness – and our even whiter bits – from the children!

Refreshed, we return to the village, where we organise our things for the day. This is much more of a problem for us than for our hosts, who in most cases simply don a pair of shorts.

Sue having her face paintedOur days are filled with activities in the village; visiting houses, talking to the whole village, walking out to the gardens where they grow their food, watching someone working on a house, seeing people making artesanato. Sometimes there is a festival to see, or a football match. We also visit the village schools and first aid posts.

We take part in festivities, having our faces painted at the suggestion of our hosts, dancing into the small hours. We help to collect fruit from the trees in the village, my height being an asset. My feet are the source of much amusement, being size 47.

We remain in each village only a few days, and each parting is hard. Even in such a short time we get to know people. They very quickly become individuals; the names are difficult for us to learn, and there is usually a language gap to bridge, but the faces, the smiles and the characters soon become familiar. In every village there are many people who open their hearts to us and welcome us into their houses and their families.

© Patrick Cunningham


⇒Next: Dams, Soya and More Dams

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Indian-Style House Construction – Alto Xingu

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Aldeia Kamaiura; village of traditional Oca houses.The Indians of the Alto Xingu live in wood and thatch houses called ocas. Each oca houses a family of up to thirty people. The dimensions vary, but a typical oca measures about sixteen metres by twelve, and is around six metres high.

It takes a team of five men five months to complete a house, and each house lasts about ten years, after which it is replaced completely. Conditions in the Xingu are such that it is not worth while repairing; by the time the thatch has deteriorated, the structure has also begun to fail.

The first structural elements to go up are the central posts, which are from six to nine metres long, and number from three to five. These form a row down the centre of the house and carry the weight of the ridge of the roof. They are set into the ground about a metre, and will also serve the very important purpose of being a support for the hammocks in which the Indians sleep. Across the tops of these posts lies a beam of similar proportions, which requires great physical strength and engineering ability to raise and secure in place.

Around these posts at a distance of roughly six metres are arrayed the stakes which form the structure of the walls, and secure the other ends of the hammocks. These are spaced about a metre apart, and typically there will be about twenty  at each end. Again, these are sunk about a metre into the ground.

Aldeia Yawalapiti; structural framework of an Oca house.Once the standing posts have been positioned and are secured upright in the ground by compacting the soil around them, the framework of the house can be assembled. Long, slender trunks of young trees which have grown under the canopy and are straight and virtually free of lateral branches are carefully bent to form four or more horizontal elliptical hoops. The first rings the house at the level of the top of the wall posts, with the others spaced to shape the graceful curve of the roof. Each hoop takes several weeks of constant adjustment until it takes on the desired shape.

Next, more flexible poles are lashed to the hoops, with their lower ends also buried in the earth. These are the uprights of the walls, which slope inwards from the base, curving over to make the rafters of the dome-shaped roof. When the house is complete, there is no apparent separation between the roof and the walls on the outside. Onto these rafters are bound the horizontal bearers over which the thatch is carefully folded.

Once this structure is complete the house is ready to receive its thatch. Usually, this is of sapé, a kind of grass which grows in abundance in many areas of the Xingu, but if this is not available a species of palm can be used. The thatch is thick, and requires huge amounts of  sapé to be harvested, graded and carefully dried. Each bunch of sapé is carefully folded over the bearers and tucked in behind the course below.

The very top of the roof receives an extra structure on one side, made by continuing some of the rafters in a straight line when the main framework curves over to the horizontal. This allows for ventilation, making the whole structure fresh and airy.

There are just two openings in the structure, midway along each long side. These are the front and back doors. Nowadays these are usually made of prepared timber and hung on metal hinges, but occasionally you can still see the more traditional type of removable thatched screens.

Aldeia Yawalapiti; inside of an Oca house.The end product is a very handsome and graceful building, often of cathedral-like proportions. The inside is usually free from any partitioning, except when a teenage family member is going through a period of seclusion, when temporary screens are erected. The family’s hammocks are strung radially at the ends from the centre posts to the walls, and the main fire is usually close to the centre of the house. If the weather is particularly cold, smaller fires are built in the sleeping areas.

There are no windows, so the interior is gloomy to the Western eye. Indians, whose sight is not dulled by constant exposure to artificial light, are more accustomed to seeing in the dark and have no difficulty in completing their everyday activities, even in dull weather.

These houses are ideal for the climatic conditions in the Xingu, being warm during the cold of the night yet cool during the heat of the day. Air circulates freely through the thatch and out through the gaps in the roof, taking any smoke with it. Having the fires burning in the open house allows the smoke to permeate the thatch, helping to reduce the damage done by insects and animals from the surrounding forest.

When a family home is nearing the end of its life cycle, the owner has to assemble a team of five men who are prepared to give up five months to help with the construction. The work is hard and requires the builders to travel far and wide to assemble the necessary materials, dragging large quantities of carefully-selected wood back to the village, where each piece has to undergo further preparation before the house can be completed.

Aldeia Barranco Queimado; detail of lashing used in house construction.Traditionally, the houses use no nails or other fixings. The parts are simply lashed together using the bark of the Imbira tree, which is very strong, flexible and durable. Nowadays, if there is not enough Imbira available locally, the owner may purchase wire in the town for the purpose. This is not popular with the builders because it cuts into their hands.

Occasionally a fire destroys a house unexpectedly, and the family may have to build a temporary house where they can live in cramped conditions until the new house is ready, which can take up to two years.

A year and a half ago, the village of Yawalapiti suffered a catastrophe when a wild fire, fanned by unusually strong winds, burned nine houses to the ground. It has been very difficult for the village to carry on with everyday life while striving to reconstruct the houses, but now three houses are under construction, three are planned for next year and there will be three the year after. This is absorbing much of the time of the adult male population, and is draining the village of resources, but they are determined to continue, and the houses will all be of traditional design and construction.

We have seen traditional houses under construction in many of the villages we have visited. The only brick and tile buildings are occasional schools and medical posts. The Indians recognise that the oca is the most appropriate and comfortable form of construction for the local conditions.

The Indians are, however, finding it increasingly difficult to assemble the materials needed for their houses. In the past, villages would move every twenty years or so, but today most villages are more or less fixed because of the need for modern infrastructure, including wells – necessary because of the increasing amount of pollution in the rivers from activities  on the farms outside of the reserve – and schools. This means that natural resources are becoming scarce within easy distance of the villages, requiring extra effort to haul them beck to the village.

Many nights I have lain in my hammock, cool and comfortable, thinking about the hot, stuffy and dusty conditions we suffered in Canarana. Maybe construction methods are yet another thing we can learn from the Indians!

© Patrick Cunningham


⇒Next: Daily Life

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The Taquara Celebration

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Taquara celebration in Afukuri VillageWe arrived at the time of the festival of Taquara. We were lucky to experience this in two more villages after Afukuri. We also saw the festival of Beija Flor (Hummingbird).

Taquara marks the end of the rainy season, and wakes up the village to happiness. Five or six young men dance through the village playing traditional flutes, moving at a rhythmic pace, stamping their right feet in unison as they go. Because they wear a string of resonant shells or bells on their ankles, the foot-stamping adds a percussion beat.

In one village, a group of boys, learning the tradition of Taquara, start up in opposition, complete with flutes. In the biggest village, Kuikuro, there are two troupes.

Taquara celebration in Matipu VillageIn the afternoon the men are joined by teenage girls. First one or two join, each with a hand on the shoulder of one of the men, following the rhythm. Then another appears, until each man has a girl’s hand on his shoulder.Beja Flor is a larger celebration, involving most of the village. Everyone is painted and wearing feathers, beads and brightly-dyed cotton adornments. One man, Arifira, knowing that we are English, shows us his belt; it has the British Union Jack and the Brazilian flag woven into it in beads. It also has a moon, a heart and stars.

The celebration continues into the night. At one point, a group of women approaches and takes Sue away; later she reappears in the midst of the dancers. In the gloom she adopts the rhythm of the dance until she merges with the other dancers. I can no longer make out which is her. It feels very natural, but very emotional; it is a privilege to have been invited to share this.

Each village has its own character, but the festivals are recognisable from village to village. Teachers, health workers, pupils, young, old; all join in.

Taquara celebrations in KuikuroIn Kuikuro we meet the team which made a video which has won four international awards. “The Day the Moon Menstruated”, despite its title, is a very entertaining and often amusing video. The video makers are painted and several are adorned with feather cokaa headdresses, as are the other men. Afterwards, when we visit the cultural technology centre to see their cameras and video equipment, with shelves lined with video tapes, DVDs, video scripts and log books, it is difficult to recognise them, unpainted and wearing shorts and t-shirts.
Later a large group gathers in the Cacique’s house to view videos. The subject is the Kuarup, the largest and most important festival of the Xingu Indians, when most of the ethnic groups come together. The majority of the viewers are children and young people.

A real Kuarup happens only when an important person has died, but recent years have seen some ‘extra’ Kuarups put on for the benefit of visiting television cameras. Despite their reason, the festival is real enough, and the visiting cameras offer an additional opportunity to reinforce the indigenous culture, rather than diluting it.

Purist views that the very presence of non-Indians in some way debases the integrity of the celebration are shrugged off by Indians. They are keen to invite people they feel will appreciate the spectacle and value the culture.

To the majority of non-Indians the culture of these people is a mystery. The reverse is not true. We have met many Indians who are computer literate, and few who do not have some understanding of Brazilian mainstream culture. Despite Portuguese being their second language – as it is mine – they put me to shame in their grasp of the language. The younger people all go to school, where they study a special indigenous curriculum, starting with their own language but also learning Portuguese, maths and geography.

Indigenous schools are different from schools elsewhere. Because village life is not separated into work, school and leisure, in the way it is in most Western cultures, the school is more integrated into village life. Both children and adults are free to listen in to classes, and all the students seem keen to learn and to share their knowledge.

Warrior painted for Taquara with his daughterMost Indians have visited Brazilian cities, and a surprising number have travelled overseas. Cacique Afukaka of Aldeia Kuikuro has been to Washington, New York and Canada. He has addressed members of the World Bank, and talked to North American Indian Chiefs. Lanoá Kamaiurá has been to France and Belgium. He spent several years travelling throughout Brazil with Orlando Vilas Boas, who gave him the nickname, Barriga, and he has seen more of the country than most Brazilians. And of course Supreme Cacique Aritana Yawalapití, overall chief of the Xingu Indigenous Park, has travelled extensively. Aritana and Lanoá have both appeared in television series.

So far we have visited only the villages of the Alto Xingu, where we have found the culture to be strong and the people well-informed, articulate, highly intelligent and very adaptable. We have been welcomed into their homes and they have entered our hearts; in the few brief days we spend in each village, we gain friends and our respect for our hosts and their way of life grows.

© Patrick Cunningham


⇒Next: House Construction

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Afukuri; 6th April 2007

Launching the ‘Coração do Brasil’I am writing this while sitting in our boat, ‘Coração do Brasil’ moored at the side of the majestic Culuene River. Our location is S 12 deg 25.65 min W 53 deg 06.52 min. The sun is shining, the birds are calling, and our boatman is shaving. A barge laden with the materials to construct three wells in indigenous villages is passing by. It is likely that this will be the only boat we see today.

Spider monkey in the trees beside the riverWe finally departed Canarana on the 3rd April, a full week later than planned. Outside of the Park, we found little deforestation close to the river. Suddenly, the boatman cut the engine, pointing. The trees were shaking; we made out the form of something black, hanging in the trees. It was a spider monkey, idly watching our progress.

Heading downriver, we arrived at the vigilance post where a Kalapalo family group watch over the entrance to the park. The Chefe do Posto is Vanité, and his major preoccupation is the number of fishermen, some of whom try to go into the park. The viw from the edge of the Xingu Park; deforestation reachis right up to the boundarySometimes they are aggressive. He tells us that the fishermen use nets to span the entire river, catching huge quantities of fish indiscriminately, killing the young fish and reducing the stock downriver. He also talks about his concern over the proposed Paranatinga II dam, of which we will hear more everywhere we go.

Caramujo snai shells used to make necklacesThe Kalapalo traditionally make shell necklaces and bracelets, which they trade with other tribes for whatever else they need. They also sell them as artesanato to earn the money they need for the purchases they have to make. The prices they ask seem tiny compared with the hours of work involved.

In the small settlement, we are made warmly welcome once we have shown our FUNAI (Government Indian Agency) permission and explain the purpose of our journey. We leave with two extras; an additional boatman, and the pilot of a barge which arrived late and which left of its own accord at some point during the night, having slipped its moorings.

The escaped bargeWe catch up with the errant barge several kilometres downriver. We pass two small settlements, stopping briefly at one, before pulling the boat onto a beautiful beach to fish. This is important; we should not arrive at our destination empty handed, and the most welcome gift is fish. Our boatmen are successful, and we leave with three good-sized fish.Cacique Luis of Tanguro Village

Soon we arrive at Tanguro, the first large village. The people here are concerned about the pressures from ranchers trying to claim Indian land. They are worried that FUNAI is not putting enough resources into policing the boundaries of the reserve. Vice-Cacique Luis is also concerned that the young men from the village are losing their culture. The village looks a little sad and uncared-for.

Afukuri villageWe spend the night in Afukuri. A more perfect village would be hard to imagine! Sited atop a low bank, the circle of traditional thatch houses is well kept and clean. We explain again why we have come, and Cacique Arifutua makes us welcome. He invites to hang our hammocks in his house.

The village awakes slowly, with the dawn. The low crying of children is quickly quieted; they are never left to cry for long. We bathe in the cool water of the river, avoiding the biting insects as far as we are able. We seem to be much more vulnerable than the people from the village; is it ‘new blood’, or do they have an immunity? Sue is suffering much more than me, but my feet are a mass of red blotches, one or two of which bleed slightly.

Village school, AfukuriWe visit the village school, and see the rudimentary but well-maintained health post. We meet the health worker, who is proud of the certificate he gained at the end of his course; he is from the village, as are the two teachers.

The school operates slightly differently from what we are accustomed to. There are no regular hours, and some students bring their babies and feed their children while sitting at their desks, but the students are keen to learn and the school fits into the life of the village naturally.Preparing for the dance

We are called to the house of the chief flute player, where five of the young men are being prepared for the festival of Taquara. They circle the village, entering each house with their flutes to wake up the village after the rainy season. They are impressive in their body paint, with intricate designs on their faces and bright feather headdresses. They look very exotic as they sway and stamp their dance, playing a rhythmic melody as they go from house to house.

We meet them as they enter the Cacique’s house. They circle inside the house, then stop for a break. One starts to talk to me: “Eh Patrick, do you like the ceremony?” With a jolt I realise it is the health worker. Despite his education away from the village, he still maintains all of the tradition and culture of his people.

Flute players dancing through the village

Before we leave, the teacher asks me for our email address: “I will be doing another course in the city next January and I will be able to email you from there.”

© Patrick Cunningham


⇒Next: Taquara

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