Life, Culture and Traditions of one of the Most Interesting Indigenous Tribe of the Amazon Rainforest

Secrets of the Amazon: The Satéré-Mawê in the Rio Marau Region

The traditional Dança da Tucandeira ("bullet ant dance") ceremony of the Sateré-Mawé

The traditional Dança da Tucandeira ("bullet ant dance") ceremony of the Sateré-Mawé

Overview

9 days/8 nights including Manaus

 

The Sateré-Mawé Tribe 

They call themselves Sateré-Mawé. The first word, Sateré, means “burning caterpillar”, a reference to their society’s most important clan, which traditionally appoints the  the group’s political chief’s successor. The second word, Mawé, means “intelligent and curious parrot” and is not a clan designation.

The Sateré-Mawé are simply called Mawé in the region. They have been called several names, given by chroniclers, pioneers, missionaries and naturalists: Mavoz, Malrié, Mangnés, Mangnês, Jaquezes, Magnazes, Mahués, Magnés, Mauris, Mawés, Maragná, Mahué, Magneses, Orapium.

Sateré-Mawé live in the region of the mid Amazon river, on the border of the States of Amazonas and Pará. With a total area of 788,528 hectares, their territory is located in the municipalities of Maués, Barreirinha, Parintins, Itaituba e Aveiro, situated in both States.

According to a Funai estimate (Fundação Nacional do Índio – National Foundation for the Indian, the official organ for Indian policy in Brazil), the Sateré-Mawé were 4,710 in 1987. Since then, a considerable growth in population has occured, where in 2014 the estimated total population was 13,350 Sateré-Mawé inhabiting 73 villages.

 

History

According to oral traditions shared by tribe elders, Sateré-Mawé ancestors lived in the vast area located between the Madeira and Tapajós rivers, the Tupinambaranas Islands on the Amazon river in the north and the Tapajós headwaters in the south.

The Sateré-Mawé refer to their place of origin, where their mythical heroes live, by the name of Noçoquém. It is located on the left bank of the Tapajós, in a rocky region of dense forest, “where the rocks speak”.

The Sateré-Mawé had their first contact with white men when Jesuits founded the Tupinambaranas Mission, in 1669. According to Bettendorf, in 1698 the Andirá received Father João Valladão as missionary. In 1692, after they killed a few white men, the colonial government declared “just war” (legal, justified) against them, which was partially avoided by the Indians because, informed in advance, most of them ran away, so that only a few offered resistance.

From the time of contact with white men – and even before that, due to the wars against the Munduruku and Parintintim – the Sateré-Mawé’s ancestral territory has been considerably reduced. When Amazonia’s most important insurrection against the cabanagem (the central government after the independence of Brazil)  erupted in 1835, the Munduruku, the Mawé (from the Tapajós and Madeira rivers) and the Mura (from the Madeira river), along with the indigenous groups of the Negro River joined the Cabanos rebels, and surrendered only in 1839. Epidemics and atrocious persecution against the indigenous groups that sided with the insurgents devastated huge areas of the Amazon Region, either forcing these Indians out of their traditional territories or reducing their numbers.

Travellers’ reports confirm that there has indeed been a territorial reduction as of the 18th century, and mention the area between the rivers Marmelos, Sucunduri, Abacaxis, Parauari, Amana and Mariacuã as the Sateré-Mawé’s traditional territory. These reports confirm also that the cities of Maués and Parintins, in the State of Amazonas, and Itaituba, in Pará, were built atop Sateré-Mawé sites, which coincide with passages of this people’s oral history.

Thinking in terms of macro-territory, the occupation of the Amazon region by the “civilizados” (civilized) –the word the Sateré-Mawé use to designate all those who are neither Sateré-Mawé nor do they belong to another Indian group (i.e. caboclos, or mestiços, white men, foreigners) – has significantly reduced their traditional territory. First it was military as well as the Jesuit and Carmelite missions; later came the economic cycle of forest products; next, rubber extraction; and finally the expansion of the cities of Maués, Barreirinha, Parintins and Itaituba into their hinterland, with the establishment of farms, the extraction of pau-rosa (rosewood) and the opening of mineral prospecting fields, as well as the control of the Indian’s economy through the regatões (merchants that ply the rivers of the Amazon Region).
In 1978, when the demarcation process of the Sateré-Mawé territory began, the villages, sites, roças, cemeteries and the territories used for hunting, fishing, gathering and roaming were located between and in the vicinity of the Marau, Miriti, Urupadi, Manjuru and Andirá rivers. The Sateré-Mawé considered that area theirs, although they were aware that it was no more than a small portion of what had been their traditional territory. For them, a privileged part of their territory had been kept.

It should also be pointed out that as of the 1970s, the migratory movement towards Manaus increased. In 1981, the anthropologist Jorge Osvaldo Romano counted 88 Sateré-Mawé living in poor neighborhoods of the city’s outskirts. By the end of the 1990s, the number had grown significantly, and some 500 Sateré-Mawé lived in different housing projects in Manaus’ western edge. This urban population lives, in most cases, from the sale of arts and crafts to tourists.

 

Language

The language spoken by the Sateré-Mawé  is part of the Tupi linguistic branch. According to ethnographer Curt Nimuendaju (1948), it differs from the Guarani-Tupinambá. Pronouns are the same as those of the Curuaya-Munduruku language, and the grammar is, it seems, Tupi. The Mawé vocabulary contains elements that are entirely different from Tupi, and cannot be related to any other linguistic family. Since the 18th century, their repertoire includes many words from the língua geral (the language spoken in colonial Brazil until the late 18th Century, a mixture of Indians languages and Portuguese).

Today most Sateré-Mawé men are bilingual – they speak their own language and Portuguese; women, on the other hand, tend to speak only Sateré-Mawé, despite the people’s three centuries of exposure to the national society.

 

Life in a Sateré-Mawé’s Tribe

The areas in which the Sateré-Mawé live are called sítios. In this space each family unit has its residence,  where the unifying central piece is a fire pit used both for cooking and for keeping the residents warm. A separate kitchen is located halfway between the house and the river, where the men roast guaraná and the women prepare manioc. They also have their porto (port) or iagarapé (small waterway), as they call the site where the family members bathe, wash clothes, soak cassava, wash guaraná and land their canoes.

Sítios also contain  all the family unit’s fields: the guaraná fields and the roças (planting fields) of cassava, pumpkin, yam, sweet potatoes, as well as the orchards.

Sítios are private domains in which the land and other natural resources are taken by family units, who then submit themselves to the authority of the chief of the family group, traditionally regarded as its owner.

The Sateré-Mawé are organized under the authority of the chief of the extensive family, who lives in his sítio together with his children’s and grandchildren’s families. He directs and organises his sons’ and sons-in-law’s economic activities and the sitio’s agricultural production. As well, he determs who to request for help, when needed. This can include hunting and fishing expeditions well as the roasting of manioc in order to provide food for the participants in the collective activities. During the work, the chief keeps a close eye on all operations, from the clearing of the cassava and guaraná roças, the weeding of the guaraná fields, to  the processing of guaraná. He also assists in the sale of his relatives’ agricultural and manufacturing production.

Thus the sítio is the latu sensu, the basic unit of the Sateré-Mawé political and economic organization. It may become a village when the number of family units increases or when, independently from this, one of its members starts to be regarded as a tuxaua (chief). This may occur if he is recognized for his generosity, or his abilities in commercial transactions, or his good relations to other tuxauas.

Currently, the layout of most Sateré-Mawé villages is similar to that of the small towns in the region. Within the villages are the sitios, the churches of various denominations, the school and the infirmary. Surrounding the villages are the cassava roças, the guaraná fields, the orchards and the other planted areas that belong to each family unit.

 

Culture and Traditions

The main expression of the Sateré-Mawé’s rich material culture is the teçume, which is how they call the crafts manufactured by the men with stalks and leaves of caranã, arumã and other Amazon plants, such as sieves, baskets, tipitis (a kind of cylinder used for squeezing the poison out of wild cassava), fans, bags, hats, walls, roofs etc.

Crucial and central to Sateré-Mawé cosmology is the Porantim, a wooden staff measuring approximately 1.50 meters, carved with geometric figures painted in white. In shape it is closest to a carved oar and its attributes are both spiritual and social; an indigenous equivalent to the US Constitution and the Holy Bible, it is considered to have magical powers such as forseeing into the future. It is also used when resolving internal disputes and has engraved upon it both the origin myth and the war myth, the beginnings of Sateré-Mawé history. As such, the Porantim, in all its wooden glory is considered to be the highest institution, representing the political, judicial, religious and mythical spheres of tribe culture.

As per the Sateré-Mawé origin myth, they consider themselves to be the inventors of guaraná culture. Native to the highlands of the Maués-Açu river basin, the plant is located precisely within Sateré-Mawé traditional territory, justifying this historical belief of the tribe being the “Children of Guaraná”.

The Sateré-Mawé have transformed the Paullinia cupana, a wild vine of the Sapindacea family, into a cultivated shrub, and mastered its planting and processing.

A spectacular, frightening and traditional rite of passage in Sateré-Mawé culture is the intentional bullet ant sting, used as a means to prove young men of the tribe’s worth. They join the Dança da Tucandeira, as the ceremony is called, because they seek self-confirmation.

The ants are first rendered unconscious by submerging them in a natural sedative and then hundreds of them are woven into a glove made out of leaves (which resembles a large oven mitt), their stinger facing inward. When the ants regain consciousness, a boy slips the glove onto his hand, the goal being to keep the glove on for a full ten minutes. When finished, the boy's hand and part of his arm are temporarily paralyzed due to the ant venom, and he may shake uncontrollably for some time. The only “protection” provided is a coating of resin from the cashew tree on the hands, supposedly to confuse the ants and inhibit their stinging. During the whole ceremony each participant joins into a group dance supported by the others. To fully complete the initiation, however, the boys must go through the ordeal a total of 20 times over the course of several months or even years.

Prices and Travel Details

Secrets of the Amazon: The Sateré-Mawé in the Rio Marau Region
Travel Time
9 days / 8 nights 
Group Size
minimum 2, maximum 4 participants
Travel Dates
all year round
Prices
2 persons 5,200 US$ p.p.
3 persons 4,250 US$ p.p.
4 persons 3,850 US$ p.p.

 

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