By Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Camila de Caux and Guilherme Orlandini Heurich
The Araweté are a Tupi-Guarani tribe of hunters and gatherers living in dry land woods. About 35 years ago, the tribe migrated southeast from the head of the Bacajá River to the Xingu, in the state of Pará. Their existence was unknown to the officials until the early 1970s. Their “contact” with the National Indigenous Foundation (Funai) dates to 1976. At the time, the tribe sought refuge in the margins of the Xingu while fleeing the besiege of the Parakanã, another Tupi-Guarani group.
The name “Araweté,” invented by a Funai worker, doesn’t actually signify anything in the group’s language. In fact, the only term that could be considered a self-denomination would be bïde, meaning “us,” “the people,” ”the human beings.” All humans are bïde, but the quintessential people are the “Araweté.”
Meanwhile, other indigenous peoples and the “whites” (kamarã) are awi, “foreigners” or “enemies.”The Araweté population at the time of Funai’s contact was less than 200 people. Due to the conditions of the tribe at the time, a high mortality caused by epidemics and malnutrition led the group to diminish to 120 people, in 1977. In September of 1992, the tribe reached 206 people, effectively reaching its population before Funai’s contact.
While still vulnerable to foreign sicknesses, their general health conditions are good. This is mostly due to their relative isolation, not necessarily because of Funai’s assistance.
The Araweté population at the time of Funai’s contact was less than 200 people. Due to the conditions of the tribe at the time, a high mortality caused by epidemics and malnutrition led the group to diminish to 120 people, in 1977. In September of 1992, the tribe reached 206 people, effectively reaching its population before Funai’s contact. While still vulnerable to foreign sicknesses, their general health conditions are good. This is mostly due to their relative isolation, not necessarily because of Funai’s assistance.
Today, the tribe’s territory is threatened by logging companies that are illegally exploiting the Xingu-Bacajá region’s mahogany reserves. The Araweté live today in one village by the Funai’s Indigenous Post “Ipixuna,” named after the creek upon which they have settled. Ipixuna Creek breaks off from the right margin of the greater Xingu. Ipixuna is a black water river, replete with waterfalls, which runs from a rocky bed in the southeast and northeast direction. The dominant vegetation in the basin of Ipixuna is the open forest with calm trees, where the trees rarely surpass 25 meters.
The village’s surroundings include extensive areas of “vine forest,” where thick woody vines and spiky plants make walking difficult. The earth is dotted with granite eruptions covered in cacti, bromeliads, and agave. Hunting is helped by the great number of fruit-bearing trees that attract animals. The dry season runs between April and November, with rain throughout the rest of the year. Between August and November, the river floods over into extensive pits of stagnant water, creating still waters perfect for fishing.
The Araweté say they live now “at the edge of the earth.” Their traditional legends tell of successive migrations starting from a place in the east (the center of the earth), always fleeing from more powerful enemies. The only thing one can be sure of is that they have lived for many years, perhaps several centuries, in the forestal regions of the medium haul of the Xingu and Tocantins rivers.
Although they were classified by Funai in 1976 as “isolated indigenous peoples,” the Araweté have actually known about white men for quite some time. Their mythology makes references to the whites, and speaks of a celestial spirit called the “Healer of the Whites.” For many years, they have used machetes and large knives made of iron, which they took from the abandoned countryside of “civilized” dwellers in the region. Their traditional tales speak of various encounters – some friendly, others violent – with kamarã peoples in the forest.
The history of the Araweté has been, at least since the beginning of this century, a history of successive conflicts with enemy tribes and of constant displacements. The group left the high Bacajá due to attacks from the Kayapó and Parakanã. Then, after arriving at Ipixuna and other rivers of the region (Bom Jardim, Piranhaquara), they chased off the Asurini who had already settled there, who ended up migrating to the Ipiaçava river farther north.
In 1970, with the construction of Transamazônica highway through the nearby city of Altamira, the Brazilian government launched a project of “attraction and pacification” of indigenous groups living in the middle region of the Xingu. The Araweté started to be officially documented in 1969. In 1971, Funai established the “Attraction Front of Ipixuna,” which maintained sporadic contact with the Araweté until 1974. However, Funai never actually visited any of their villages, one farther south in the basin of Bom Jardim, and the other farther north in the high Ipixuna.
Then, in January 1976, the attacks by the Parakanã forced the Araweté from both regions to seek out the margins of the Xingu. Their goal was to “tame” the whites since they do not believe that they were “pacified” by the whites but rather the opposite. The Funai came in May of that year to meet with them.
The Araweté were precariously camped out along the fields of local farmers, starving and sickly due to the contact with the whites of the river edge. Funai’s workers decided to take the tribe on a journey to a post constructed in the high Ipixuna. The 100 km walk lasted 17 days and left 66 dead along the way. With their eyes closed due to infectious conjunctivitis contracted among the whites, many were unable to see the path, lost their way, and died from hunger. Small children, suddenly orphans, were sacrificed by desperate adults. Many people, too weak to walk, asked to be left behind to die in peace.
While it is unknown how many people started the walk, only 27 persons arrived at the destination with the Funai workers. The rest of the survivors arrived gradually over time. Some people left the path to return to former villages, resting there for several weeks. But soon enough another Parakanã attack made the rest of the Araweté rejoin their fellow tribesmen at the Funai post. In March of 1977, the first Funai census counted 120 Araweté people. In total, 36 percent of the Araweté population died in the journey. The following year, the group moved with the Funai post to a location closer to Ipixuna river mouth, where they live to today.
This article is an adaption from the book Araweté: Um povo tupi da Amazônia,
the result of years of study by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro during the 1980s.
Fruto da pesquisa acadêmica realizada na década de 1980 por Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, este livro veio a público em 1992, após uma edição adaptada para atender a públicos mais amplos e não especializados que demonstraram grande interesse pelo modo de vida dos araweté.