Native American Civilizations: Amazonian Tribes

Figure 1.--These Nahukuá children attend a tribe village school. It is in the Indian Reservation of Xingu in central Brazil. The photograph was taken in the late-1980s.

The major cultural groups of the Amazon are the Arawak and Tupi speaking people. Guaraní-speaking people were located to the south in the Paraguay-Paraní basin. Rather than timeless, the Amazon has been the scene of major cultural chnge. About 2,000 years ago, Arawak-speaking people began to migrate north and east into the Amazon and drive Tupí-speaking people to the north and east. The Native Americans today in the Amazon live in small tribal groups. Asessing the various tribal groups once centered on linguistics. Today we have the added tool of DNA studies. It is unclear at this time to what extent these groups are descendents of the priginal pre-Conquest people or new groups after the original Amzonian people were decimanted by European diseases and Portuguese/Spanish slave raiders.

Awá (Brazil)

The Awá or Guajá live in the eastern Amazon rainforest, a 450 sqm reserve in north-eastern Maranhao state. There are only about 350 members left, although this is just an estimate. Some 100 of them have no contact with the outside world. They are called the world's most endangered tribe, primarily because of encroagments by logging interests into their territory. They speak Guajá, a Tupi–Guaraní language. They once klived in settlements, but adopted a nomadic lifestyle to survive incursions by Europeans, especially slave raiding. They also face settlers seaking to clear the forrest and ser up farms. Some Awá began moving moved to government-established settlements (mid-1980s). Most of the tribe continued to maintain their traditional way of life. The Awá live entirely off the forests, but not by cutting down the trees. They have formed nomadic groups of a few dozen people which avoid contact with modern Brazilians. The Brazilian government received a loan of US$900 million from the World Bank and the European Union to protect the Awá and other indigenous peoples (1982). A major condition of the loan was that the lands of the tribe would be clearly demarcated and protected. That was crucial Awá because they were such a small tribe and their forests were increasingly being invaded by outsiders. There were report tribal people being murdered and forests being destroyed by logging and land cleared by settlers. Without continue government protection the Awá can not survive.

Bora (Peru)

The Bora inhabit the upper Amazonian basin, between the Putumayo and Napo rivers--two important Amazonin tributaries. Little is known about their history intil the 20th century. They are one of the more familiar of the Amazonian tribes. This is in part because the Boa live close to San Andrés, a village near Iquitos. Iquitos in northwestrn Peru is the gateway to the upper Amazon, visited by adventure seeking tourists. And one of the attractions is the Bora who live on the Nanay River, an Amazonian tributary. The Bora language is related to Huitoto (Witoto). The Bora the tourists see, however, have been increasingly assisilated into Latin American culture. The tourists are treated to a dance thast has noting to do with the Bora, but tourists expect to see Native Americans dancing. The traditional Bora dancing is done with large wooden batons often with shells attached which they pound in unison as they dance. There ae also drums. Men and women have their own destibctive drums. Real dances can go on all night. About 3,000 Bora have survived to the modern age. The early-20th century rubber boom had a major impact on the Bora who were enslaved by the Peruvian rubber barrons. Most live in Peru and a smaller number to the north in Colombia. The further from Iquitos, the less affected they are by Peruvian and Colombian culture. The exception here is the Bora villasges in Brazil, the people there now speak Portuguese and have been largely assimilted. The Bora are organized into clans which have acquired mosrly animal names. Like many Amazonian tribes, they commonly paint their faces with clan motifs. They use the huito plant (Genipa americana). They have to marry outside the clan. Before modern times the Bora made cloth from bark for their clothing. They use the bark of palm trees which they pound to make the cloth.

Botocudo (Brazil)

Botocudo is the foreign name for a South American tribe in eastern Brazil. They are also known as the Aimorés, Aimborés, or Krenak people. The tribe's original territory was in Espírito Santo. Today, only a few bands remain, almost all of them in rural villages and the Indigenous Territory. The last Botocudos are the Krenak. There were 350 Krenak living in the state of Minas Gerais (2010). The Botocudos were nomadic hunter-gatherers, wandering in the woods and living from the forest. We have a 19th century drawing of a Botocudo chief by Giulio Ferrario. The drawing appeared in a volume published by Giulio Ferrario. He was not the illustrator, but a Milaneselibrarian at the Library Braidense. He prepared a monumental records of the clothing of people around the world, both ancient and modern--Il costume antico e moderno (1828). There were numerous collaborators and the volume was widely praised across Europe. We do not know who did the Botocudo drawing.

Canela (Brazil)

The Canela are found in northeastern central Brazil. It is an area between the rain forest of the Amazonian basin to the south and the more arid Brazilan northeast. The Canela are a hunting and gathering people with some primitive agriculture. This involved clearing trees and brush, They had no metal tools and this was done laboriously with stone axes and fires. Since the land waa marginal at nest, the tribal groups had to move regularly as they exhausted plots and resources. he tribe developed a military culture, warring with neighboring people. Most of the tribes linked culturally to the Canela are found in the Amazon basin. The draining in the Canela homeland is not into the Amazon, but directly into the Atlantic. The Canela today live primarily in one large village in Maranhão state built in the traditional circular arrangement. The Canela language is Gê, a language family spoken by other Brazilian tribes such as the Timbira peoples who lived in Maranhão and Piaui state. The Canela are notable for their destinctive bonding rituals, part of their conflict resolution behaviot which they call 'mending ways'.

Enawene-Nawe (Brazil)

Another Amazon tribe is the Enawene-Nawe. A few primitive tribes survive in remote Amazonian areas. They are very small tribal groups. One such group is the Enawene-Nawe. The Enawene-Nawe are found in the Mato Grosso State of Brazil. They live along the Rio Preto and now consist of only about 400 individuals. So the tribe is in danger of extinction. They subsist through fishing, gathering, and gardening. They live in large communal houses called malocas. The Enawene Nawe are particularly noted for their fishing skills

Huaorani (Ecuador)

The Huaorani are an Amazonian tribe which have several different English languge names, including Waorani, Waodani, and Waos. Huaorani seems the most common, but there is no definitive English term. Ecuadorians often call them the Aucas, but this is an Inca (Quechua term - awqa) meaning enemy which was adopted by the Spanish. Little is know about their history, including why the warlike Inca did not expand into the Amazonian areas inhabited by the Huaorani and other tribes. The Huaorani live in the Ecuadorian oriente, the eastern Amazon basin area of the country. They inhabit areas of Napo, Orellana and Pastaza Provinces between the Curaray and Napo rivers, about 50 miles (80 km) south of El Coca. The Huaorani are ethnically and culturlly destinct. The Huaorani language is a linguistic isolate. No information is available as to their origins and why they are so destinct. The tribe now number only about 4,000 people, this is larger than msny known Amazonian tribes. Their homeland is an area where oil exploration and illegal logging takes place. The Huaorani pursued a primitive hunter-gatering lifestule and in the past aggressively protected both their culture and lands from outsidrs, especially settlers. Since the 1970s, some Huaorani have began to adopt more settled life styles in forest communities, although some bands continuetheir traditional ways and avoid outside contact.

Kayapó (Brazil)

The Kayapó live along the the upper reaches of the Xingu River tributaries in Pará State. The Xingu is a major tributary of the Amazon. It is aoutheastern tributary and one ofvBrazil's longest rivers. Pará is a huge northeastern state including a large area of the Amazonian basin. The The area includes mixed ecosystems, both rain forest and open savanna. The region is located just south of the Equator and the climate is tropical. There is a rainy and dry season. The area is so remore that there was no sustained contact with Brazilians until the late-1950s. The population was estimated at about 4,000 people living in 14 villages. The villages are similar with huts arranged around a large plaza. The most important structure is the men's house in the center. A communal oven at one end of plaza is a favorite place for the women to gather. Their society practices slash and burn agriculture supplemented with hunting and gathering. The major crops are: manioc (sweet potatoes), fruit, tobacco, and cotton. The Brazilian Government granted them formal land reserves, a kind of semi-autonomous territory (1980s-90s). It covers 100,000 square kilometers, the size of a small European country. The discovery of gold has, however, caused many conflicts with Brazilians mining the gold. The photo was taken in 1991 in the village school of Djetuktire, Kayapó tribe (Brazil). Once the education of native children tried to inculcate the western culture. Now it try to respect and develop the local culture. This children are no required to wear clothing at school.

Nahukuá (Brazil)

The Nahukuá (Nafuquá or Nafukuá) speak Matipuhy (Matipú), a Cariban language. It is spoken by 40 Native American peoples in Brazil. The lahguage shows cultural ties with Native American groups far to the north in the Guianas and wider-Caribbean. They live on Brazil's Xingu Reservation in Mato Groso (central Brazil). The Nahukuá live along the Xingú. The Xingú flows north into the Amazon. It is one of South America's longestrivers and in any other coutry would be the major river system. The native American peoples now living along the Xingu River share many cultural similarities. Here both enviromental factors as well as cultural borrowings. They have, however, different ethnologies. This suggests that they have been forced together along the Xingu where tey found refuge from European diseases and slve traders. The Nahukuá live on the Upper Xingu river. The Nahukuá are hunter gatheres. They hunt and fish. They engage in both hunting and fishing. They practice swidden (slash and burn) agriculture. The primary crops are manioc and maize.

Shuar/Jivaro (Ecuador/Peru)

The Shuar/Jivaro people are the second largest and one of the best-known Amazonian Native American tribal groups. They have an extensive history of struggle against outsiders, beginning even before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores. As a result, they have been labeled headhunters and savages. Their homeland is in Ecuador and Peru. In Ecuador they are found in the southeast between the Pastaza and Marañón Rivers. They are also inhabit areas to the east in neighboring Peru. The Ecuadorean population is more assimilated. This is directly over the mountains from the beautiful city of Cuenca. (Cuenca was where Inca Wayna Qhapaq (Atawalpa and Husascar's father) commanded the campaign against the primitive people west of the Andes of the tropical forests in the Guayas Basin.) The area west of the Andes has been fought over by Ecuador and Peru. The location has to some extent protected the Shuar from outsiders. The escarpment of the Andes presented a barrier to the west and unnavigable rapids to the east. The word Shuar as is the case of many Amazonian people means "people". The more common name in Ecuador has been Jívaro or Jibaro. The Shar do not like the term because it is foreign and in Ecuador has a strong association with head hunting. Salesian missionaries assisted the Shuar to found the first ethnic federation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Many Shuar have assimilated and now wear Western clothing. An example is an unidentified Ecuadorian boy.

Waimiri-Atroari (Brazil)

The Waimiri Atroari are one of tge better known Brazilian Amazonian tribes. They have a reputation as a hostile warrior people, calling themselves the Kinja. The Waimiri-Atroari live in northern Brazil. The are found in the states of Roraima and Amazonas, deep within the Amazon Basin rainforest. The first reported contact with Europeans was reported (1732). The Europeans were trportedly interested in spices, but we suspect slave hunting was also involved. They were resisted by the Waimiri-Atroari. For the next three centuries they waged war on the Brazilian Government. For years they confronted and killed any outsiders who approached them or even just entered their territory. Their isolation and remote location made their resistance posible even thojugh they lacked modern arms. As a result, when the Brazilian Government decided to build a highway through their territory, part of the Pan-American Highway, they gave the job to the Army. The army used to overcome the once isolated Waimiri-Atroari. The result was their near exteniction. And further Brazilian activity, including the Balbina hydroelectric dam flooding a large area and minining further threatened the Waimiri Atroari. Only recently did they finally surrender and accept Government efforts at pacificaion (1977). Through all of this, some survivd and as a result of more enlightened government policy, they now have secure reservation boundaries and maintain their culture. They also report a growing population.

Wayana (French Guina/Surinme)

The Aparai and Wayana tribes are often grouped together. They themselves describe distinct origins. The Aparai live along the south bank of the Amazon River. Their origins lay in the area around the lower and middle courses of Amazon tributaries (Curuá, Maicuru, Jari and East Paru rivers). The Wayana have for an extended period lived around the upper and middle course of the East Paru River and its tributaries (the Citaré, the upper Jarí River along with the Litani, Paloemeu rivers and smaller tributaries). The Aparai and Wayana live in three territorial groups spread around the counjuncture of Brazil, French Guina, and Suriname. This is the northeastern Amazon Basin around the East Paru River (Brazil), the Marouni River (French Guiana), and the Tapanahoni River (Surinam). The Aparai live primarily in Brazilian, The Wayana live mostly in French Guiana and Suriname. While physically separated, there is still interactions between the three groups involving both kinship relations and trade.

Xetá (Brazil)

The Xetá (Aré, Seta, Sheta, or Cheta) live along the Paraná triputary the Kaingang River. This places them near, but to the south of the Amazon Basin, although culturally thy may be similar to Amazonin people. They speak a Tupi-Guarani language. There were for several centuries rumors of a very primative people in the sate of Paraná, The Xetá were the last Native American group in the state of Paraná, and perhaps the most primative to be found by Brazilians. Czech scientist Albert Fritsch conducting field research in the area envountered some indians with three captives who identified themselves as Xeta (1906). Fritsch concluded that they were Guarani people. A Brailian settlers in the 1940s penetrated into the area inhabited by the Xetá. A work crew in 1950s chanced upon Native American children playing in a clearing, they all ran away, except for one little boy who was so terrified he climbed up a tree (1950). That was Koi and it is largely because of Koi that the Xetá became known to Brazilian researchers. They largely disappeared in the 1950s. There are only a few known survivors.

Yagua (Peru)

The Yagua are a widely disbursed Amazonian tribe inhabiting a small area in northeastern Peru around Iquitos--the Loretto region. Many of the Native Americans in the areaxwerec brohjt to the region by the rubber brons. ThecYagua are native to the region. While now a small group, it is unclear how large they were before the Conquest. Legend has it that the Yagua are responsible for the mame of the Amaon River. The Spanisg Conquistadores saw the Yagua men with their blowguns and grass skirts and thought they were women warriors. Thus the river was named based upon the Greek myth of the Amazon women warriors. The Yagua have their own destinct language. It is the only surviving living language of the Peba-Yagua linguistic family. The other related languages (Peba, Masamae and Yameo) are now extinct. Yagua is in many ways a unique language. Linguists are intrigued by its morphology and syntax. The tribe only numbers about 3,000 members today. They now live along the Amazonian tributaries (Napo, Putumayo and Yavari Rivers and the tributaries of those ribers. In recent years some Yagua have migrated northward from Peru into Colombia and are living near Leticia in southern Colombia. There are about 30 communities, mostly in Peru. Like other Amazonian tribes, the Yagua have a simple lifestyle. The women engage in small-scale agriculture. The men hunt small game and fish. Traditional clothing is still worn. The men wear skirts made of aguaje palm fiber. The women typically wear simple skirts of red cotton cloth. This is a modern innovation. Earlier the women also wore palm fiber skirts. Girls marry early. Many have achild in their early teens. Yagua society is a large extended family. Each member has his or her responsibility for group welfare.

Yanomamo (Brazil/Venezuela)

The Yanomamo (Yah-no-mah-muh) also called Yanomami, and Yanomama, are deep jungle Indians living in the Amazon basin in both Venezuela and Brazil. They are about 11,000 people. The Yanomami are believed to be the most primitive, culturally intact people in existence in the world. They are literally a stone age tribe. Cataloged by anthropologists as Neo-Indians with cultural characteristics that date back more than 8000 years. They have never discovered the wheel and the only metal they use is what has been traded to them from the outside. Their numbering system is one, two, and more than two. They are hunters and gatherers who also tend small garden plots. They are one of the most successful groups in the Amazon rain forest to gain a superior balance and harmony with their environment. Traditionally, a Yanomamo village is a relatively temporary wood and thatch house called a shabono. The shabono is circular in shape and surrounds a central open space. Each family has their own area within the shabono. As with many other native Americans of tropical South America, the Yanomamo traditionally wear minimal or no clothing.

Yawalapiti (Brazil)

The Yawalapiti are another Brazilian Amazonian Basin tribe. They inhabit the Upper Xingu region. It is not clear, however, where they lived at the time of the Conquest and when they arrived at their resent location on the Xingu. Some Native American scholars believe that the Yawalapiti and other tribes retreated to these remote locations to evade the drepedations of Portuguese slave raiders. Because of this remote location, they were never found in colonial times. The first historical contact with Europeans occurred in 1887. Karl von den Steinen first encountered them in his Amazonian expedition. The photograph on the previous page shows a group of boys playing with their bows and arrows. Like most Amazonian people, the boys only wear waist belts. The adobe hut in the background may reflect Portuguese technology rather than their native technology.

Zuruahá (Brazil)

The Zuruahá people are another Brazilian Amazonian rainforest tribe. The Zuruaha tribe are remanents of the Amazonian people the Portuguese enconterted (early-16th century). The Portugese began slave raids in which native Americans were killed, including tribal leders. Many others perished from exposure to European diseases. The Amazonian peoples retreated into the interior where they were safe from slavers. This also meant substantial cultural change from agriculture to small hunter gatherer groups. Casual contacts occured with rubbertappers (early-20th century. Brazilian authorities encountered the tribe in the pricess of constructing the Transamazonia Highway (1978). The Government relocated them to a small reserve. Some have committed suicide with the poison they make for their hunting arrows. They speak an Arauan language. This seems to be associated with their cosmological system and territorial pressures. They have a standard animistic religion seeing forces within nature. For most of the year, the Zuruahã live as a group in one of the large conical houses built in the centre of their territory. Social life develops within this shared dwelling in a complex web of kinship relations, friendships and multiple forms of co-existence.


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Created: 11:38 PM 2/10/2009
Last updated: 11:15 AM 1/21/2019