Kayapo mother and child. Photo: Glenn Shepard
The Kayapo Indians, also known as the Mbêngôkre (people of the water-hole), are one of the most visible of the indigenous groups in Brazil. This is principally because of their unity and political activity. Despite not being the most populous of Brazil’s indigenous groups (the population is estimated at around 8000), the Kayapo achieved one of the largest Indigenous reserves of the country of 11 million hectares, stretching from southern Pará to Mato Grosso (Eastern Amazonia). Historically a people with strong warrior traditions, they have earned a reputation of being fierce. Today, however, the Kayapo are no longer at war with enemy tribes: their guerreiro spirit is employed instead defending their land from the advances of the kuben, or the 'white man', referring to any non-Indian.
This photo of Tuíra brandishing a machete to protest against the construction of the Belo Monte dam is an emblematic symbol of the Kayapo’s strength and resistance. I was told that the Kayapo view the kuben (white man) as a cupim – an insect which destroys wood, eating everything in its path. Reflecting upon rapid urbanisation and consequent deforestation of the planet, this vision rings true.
As with most indigenous villages, the form of Turedjam is circular. The Casa dos Guerreiros (House of the Warriors), where the men assemble most nights to discuss village politics and Kayapo events, is located in the middle of the circle; the houses – all facing inwards – around the outside. The majority of homes are made of wood or mud with woven palm roofs, each housing an extensive family. The community has around 300 members. Turudjam was formed three years ago due to a conflict of interests in the old village, where apparently a thirst for money had taken hold and land was being sold to miners and lumberjacks. Divisions in Kayapo villages, and the subsequent formation of a new village, have occurred throughout the history of the Kayapo people.
The Kayapo people are incredibly proud of their traditions, which keeps their culture alive and united in the face of adversities. Yet living close to a town means that commercial and technological products have entered into daily life. The village has electricity, many homes have televisions and radios, the Cacique’s house has a mobile phone (attached to an antenna to pick up signal) and food staples such as rice are bought in from the town. They earn money by selling artesan products and açaí (Amazonian super-fruit) in town for minimal prices. Technology is not viewed with contempt as a product of the kuben, but embraced and often used to reassert Kayapo cultural values. Glenn Shepard, an American ethnologist who has been living with and studying the Kayapo (and thanks to whom my visit was possible), is carrying out research into the relationship between the Kayapo and technology. After successfully training up Tatajere in the art of film-making and computer literacy, Glenn noted a change in the viewing patterns of the Kayapo. Instead of watching the novela (Brazilian soap opera, a cradle of transmission of kuben notions of beauty and consumerism), the Kayapo now choose to re-watch their parties and cultural ceremonies on the television screen, filmed faithfully and with minimal editing by Tatajere (for to edit, for him, is to betray reality). See Glenn’s blog: ethnoground.com for a fascinating view on the Kayapo - including the beauty contest 'Miss Kayapo'!
My only experience of a Kayapo party was through the TV screen: I arrived shortly after the Festa dos homens (party of the men) and just before the festa da mandioca. The ceremonies and parties are the pride of the Kayapo, and the entire aldeia gets dressed up (men with feather headdresses; women bare-breasted with straw clothing, all painted copiously with jenipapo and adorned with colourful miçanga beads). Traditional songs are chanted out loudly with the accompaniment of maracas, and are danced to in circular motion with rhythmic steps.
Talk of the festa da mandioca was always accompanied by winks and knowing looks. I discovered that the reason was that the festa, which unites the people of different Kayapo villages, is a time for the young to couple up and for the married to swap partners (only with the permission of their other half), giving rise to the odd mandioca baby. I was upon my departure invited to accompany them to a party taking place in another village a three day journey away, but sadly commitments in the metropolis impeded my way.
Gender differences were striking. From what I witnessed, the men lead a life which crosses frequently with that of the outside world, whilst the women – the real Kayapo warriors – remain true to tradition. Women marry and have babies in their mid-teens, and seem to age rapidly due to the physical exertion of life as a working mother. The majority of Kayapo men have some proficiency in Portuguese due to their interaction with commerce and the world of the kuben, whilst women speak only Mbêngôkre, the language of the Kayapo. Since women are not routinely involved in politics, Portuguese – which is viewed as a tool for political empowerment – is considered of little use to them. The women paint and are constantly painted with jenipapo, a fruit which is crushed, mixed with charcoal and applied in geometrical designs with a straw stick. The men are usually painted only for special ceremonies. I frequently witnessed men sitting around smoking and chatting in the Casa dos Guerreiros whilst the women were hard at work carrying out the daily manual chores of collecting açaí, fetching firewood and digging for mandioca. The logic of this balance is that the women need to be self-sufficient during the times when the men go off to hunt, with hunting expeditions at times lasting for days. However, with the introduction of firearms, hunting is a less taxing job. The only hunted meat that I sampled at the village was monkey, prepared in a soup. It was surprisingly tasty, although I couldn’t help thinking that this was too close to cannibalism for comfort...
Casa dos Guerreiros in the middle
My Kayapo Diary
To get to the village of Turudjam was a mission in itself – a 12 hour overnight bus-ride from Belem to Marabá, and yet more buses to take me from Marabá to Ourilandia do Norte along what seemed to me Brazil’s worst road, jolting up and down as the bus tried to weave its way around pot holes, or pot craters. The flat and humid landscape of northern Pará had shifted, giving way to a dry and mountainous region with deep red soil and blue-green refreshingly cold rivers. The heat, near to 40 degrees at times, was slightly more bearable than the humid swamp that I had been used to in Belem. Instead of cheesy tropical technobrega, sertanejo – Brazilian Country music – was the preferred choice of the masses. I seemed to have arrived in Rodeo-Land.
From the far-out mining town of Ourilandia do Norte to Turedjam was a 40 minute taxi ride. Upon arriving at the village, I was struck by the quantity of litter – generally plastic packaging - strewn on the ground and amongst the plants. To think that the Indians could behave in this way was disheartening. After all, for centuries they have lived in harmony with the forest and hold nature as sacred. However, this is the natural consequence of living close to town but without the education or the infrastructure to deal with the malices of modern life. Coca-cola and powdered juice are consumed ravenously and their plastic packaging is thrown on the ground as if it were the same as organic matter. Two large holes were dug at the request of the village’s nurse (each village is equipped with a health centre), but it seems that there had been no follow-up incentive to encourage people to use it. This gave rise to my first project with the children: a clean-up blitz of the village and environmental education through song!
On my first night in the aldeia, I had to present myself to the Kayapo men at the Casa dos Guerrieros, to explain the reason for my visit. This was slightly daunting and I sensed some apprehensive looks, but I was given a warm welcome. A few days later Glenn and his assistant Rafael had to go into town for a meeting, and I was on my own with the Kayapo. I used the time to get closer to the community through music and had a great time splashing around in the river. The community gradually warmed to me and I no longer felt like an intruder. When walking around the village I was greeted and asked to enter various homes; manically gesticulating with the women (usually about babies and husbands), and conversing with the men. Whenever I was preparing food, somebody would invariably enter into my dwellings to sample a plate. I used this cooking time to find out about Kayapo culture (see the end of the blog for the Kayapo creation myth as recounted beside the stove). As with many indigenous cultures, knowledge of the history, culture and curing remedies lies with the village elders and the pajé, or curer.
I was invited to participate in the Father’s Day celebration, in which the men sat in the Casa dos Guerreiros and chatted whilst the women brought their food to them. My role was as the photographer of the event.
I had naively hoped that I could spend my time with the Kayapos living and working as a Kayapo woman. However, I had not foreseen the sheer difficulty of this task. I was a clumsy hand at chopping wood, and only managed to carry around half the wood that the women carry in traditional baskets on their heads.
My attempt to grate mandioca (to be cooked later and made into farinha) resulted in both of my thumbs and the odd finger being scraped drastically, with one nail divided in two. Seeing the mandioca stained pink with blood, I abandoned the task in hand.
Cooking ground mandioca to make farinha
My favourite woman of the village, who I nicknamed Punkie due to her interesting hairstyle (the shaved strip on the top of her head- a common female Kayapo hairstyle- had grown out to become a spikey tuft of grey hair on top of her sleek long black hair), took me along with her on a four hour round trip in the jungle to collect açaí. She had a remarkable talent for staring up at the berries dangling high up in the treetops and judging whether they were ripe. When an adequate tree was found, she would hoist herself up and zoom up the tree in a caterpillar-like movement, using a piece of material attached to her feet for grip. I attempted to climb a tree in the same fashion, but couldn’t manage to get more than a metre off the ground. Yet again, English girl is inept.
"Punkie" and her husband
Struggling with the weight of the acai basket after 2 hours of carrying the thing on my head
My 25th birthday was spent with the Kayapos – certainly an unforgettable way to celebrate. I had a delightful birthday present that morning. I went into the jungle to do my necessities (there are no toilets in the aldeia) and was attacked by a swarm of wasps, ending up with six stings on my upper legs. Each sting swelled up to the size of a pancake and itched horribly for the next couple of days. The afternoon was slightly more promising: I was to go on a jungle hike with my guide Pymare to a waterfall. Only we never made it to the waterfall. After hours of walking through the forest along paths that were not paths, retracing our steps every half hour since my guide – according to whom we were constantly nearly there – had taken the wrong turning, we finally made it to a muddy stream. We decided to give up on the waterfall idea since it was getting late, so we headed back to the village. His navigation skills were so atrocious that I took the lead following the river and sun and got us back to the village just as dark was settling in. How I managed to find the only Indian who managed to get lost in his backyard God only knows.
When I finally arrived back at the ranch, a beautiful birthday cake was awaiting me!
Education in a Kayapo Setting
I have worked in some tough inner-city London schools and favelas of Rio de Janeiro, but nothing could prepare me for the manic energy of the Kayapo kids! The school was implanted by FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio, the governmental organisation responsible for the protection of Indigenous communities) at the request of the Kayapo community. The policy of FUNAI is to provide health, education and transport when approached by the community as opposed to an invasive insertion of ‘universal’ rights. It consisted of two small classrooms, two worn-out teachers and billions of children.
Classroom 1, taught by a teacher who had been working with Kayapo for years and seemed to be at the end of her tether, was the most difficult teaching situation that I have yet come across. There were around 50 children roughly between the ages of 5 and 10. This is a virtually impossible situation for one teacher to deal with, amplified ten-fold by the language barrier. She spoke a bit of Kayapo, but her fluency was nowhere near enough to provide the education necessary. She was supposedly assisted by a Kayapo man, but he sat at the back and only chimed in as an impartial translator when requested. She would have the children chanting Portuguese words, but after a while their attention started to drift and they would get up from their seats, run around, leave the class and throw paper aeroplanes, deaf to the teacher’s pleas for order.
Classroom 2 was a different scene altogether. There were around 15 children of the ages 11 – 16 who, on the whole, obeyed instructions and got on with the task in hand. I suppose that these children were there because they wanted to be, and school had been abandoned by the rest. Their Portuguese seemed still to be almost inexistent, but it was evident that they had some understanding of what was being said to them and occasionally surprised me with the odd sentence. Perhaps they were able to speak, but unwilling to show too great a knowledge of the language of the conquerors.
What was evident from my time spent in the classroom was that whatever current method of teaching was insufficient to say the least. The classrooms were equipped with the same textbooks used across the nation, but were of little use since the content was in Portuguese. An argument would be to insert bilingual teachers and textbooks, with Portuguese taught as a foreign language by teachers trained in language acquisition. Teaching should be modified to suit the indigenous reality, and should include the history and culture of the Kayapo and other indigenous groups, taking the children outside of the classroom at times for a more interactive and relevant education.
Environmental Education through Music – Working with the Kayapo Kids
The first project I conducted with the Kayapo children was an environmental awareness and clean-up day. What I hoped would be a simple explanation of the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable substances (drawing pictures of all the evil types of rubbish with their corresponding length of time for decay) proved more difficult than expected. Aside from the obvious language barrier and discipline problems, the notions of time, numeric values and preparing for the future are completely different from our own. (The Kayapo language does not have numbers beyond five; to communicate larger numbers they speak Portuguese).
On a mission|: the teachers also got involved picking up rubbish
Putting the rubbish in the hole...
However, when put into practice it was evident that the children understood the task in hand, manically grabbing for plastic gloves and bin-liners and rushing outside to complete the litter-picking mission. After filling up their rubbish bag and throwing the contents in the rubbish dump, they mysteriously dispersed. It was 10.30am, and school was supposed to go on until midday. I looked quizzically at the teacher, asking how we should get the children back. She responded that we couldn’t, and that this was entirely usual.
The following day in the classroom was an introduction to music. They sat relatively quiet for the flute performance and sang along to the melody Freire Jacques, which they knew in both Portuguese and Kayapo. I then attempted to play rhythmic games with the children, which proved harder than expected. They had difficulty imitating rhythms, unable to repeat what seemed to me a simple 4-clap pattern. Could this be because the nature of Kayapo musical time is entirely different? In Western culture, we grow up constantly being bombarded with regular 4/4 rhythms that we can reproduce automatically. However, from what I noted in Kayapo music when the women sung for me, the rhythmic values are irregular, with lyrics taking precedence.
Seeing that the children were getting fidgety, I took the class out to the river and we continued with the musical session there. With pots, pans, sticks and stones, the children accompanied melodies played on the flute. I then taught them a litter-picking song that I had drafted quickly to reinforce the previous day’s activities, sung to the tune of Brazilian folk tune Asa Branca (a forró melody from the Northeast.) The teachers were enthused with the song, and hope that the children will be able to perform it in the birthday celebrations of Ourilandia do Norte.
Respeitamos a natureza/ Cuidamos da nossa aldeia/ Recatamos o nosso lixo/ E colocamos no buraco. Lixo lixo lixo nao nao nao!
Me nyo ba a pijab/ Me nyo krinh a pijab/ Muy a tun oatom/ kam kre lu kam ku dja. Muy a tun, muy a tun, ket ket ket! (nb written phonetically by me, not correct linguistic spellings)
We respect nature / And care for our village / Let’s pick up out rubbish / And put it in the hole. Rubbish rubbish rubbish no no no!
Shortly after, my attention span started to wane and we all jumped in the river. Perfect end to a music lesson!
The Kayapo Recorder Project
The following Monday saw the start of the Kayapo Recorder Project and ten brand new recorders were donated to the community. Lessons started with the older group at school, and continued periodically throughout the day with the adults and whoever felt like floating in and out of the outdoors sessions.
There was one young man Pydjeree who was particularly keen and talented. He had already been taught a few melodies and picked up the new melodies quickly. Using the recordings I had made of the Kayapo women singing, I wrote a book of Kayapo music and a recorder-playing manual, as well as a few tunes at their request (Hey Jude, which had been covered by a Kayapo popstar, and the theme from Dvorak’s ‘New World’ symphony- aka Hovis music). I left the recorders with Pydjeree with the hope that he would learn the melodies and provide music teaching to others. According to Glenn when we spoke a week later, the sound of Pydjeree practicing his recorder was heard every single night after I left. Whether this enthusiasm will last, only time will tell.
Recorder lessons with Kayapo children outside their school
An evening recorder session. Talented Pydjeree is sitting in the middle
My time spent with the Kayapo was truly inspiring. I learned much from the Kayapo – not only music and cultural traditions, but I was introduced to an entirely different worldview. During the meeting at the Casa dos Guerreiros on my final night, they expressed profound gratitude at the work I had carried out and invited me back. How I would love to return!
I shall leave you with a few more snaps and the Kayapo creation myth, told to me whilst my soup was cooking:
Kayapo Creation Myth (as recounted by Tatajere)
There was once a giant sweetcorn plant, full of corn of different colours, in the middle of the South American jungle. All the indigenous communities lived surrounding the sweetcorn in perfect harmony, with all humans and animals speaking the same language.
One day, a rat came along and told a young Indian man that he should destroy the sweetcorn, cook it over fire, and eat it. The Indian was tempted, and started to chop the sweetcorn. The plant was so large that it took five days to be chopped. He then did as the rat told him and placed the corn over fire. The other Indians sampled the cooked food and thought it was delicious. They rushed towards the sweetcorn and grabbed what they could, each person ending up with a different colour. They spread out in the forest, each Indian with his sweetcorn, and cooked their food.
The day the sweetcorn was destroyed meant the end of unity between the humans and animals. From that day onwards, the humans found that they could no longer talk with the animals. Many different languages developed, and the Indians divided into different tribes.
The daughter of "Punkie". She won the 'Miss Kayapo' beauty contest.
The 'Grandpa' of the village in his hammock
Getting painted with jenipapo
With dentist Erika (right) from Belem and her Kayapo assistant Padole. Padole now lives in the town Ourilandia and works as a translator. Each village has a health centre with a nurse, and dentists visit every six months.
Children queuing up to get their toothpaste and brush their teeth in the river
Playing football in the field
This group of young women sung many Kayapo melodies to me
Popstar Pukatire recording his song for Glenn's professional camera. Here's another recording of him:
Painted again, this time with 'single lady' paint (I find out afterwards)