"Where Spirits Speak"

When researching the possibility of visiting one of the indigenous tribal groups in Brazil, it appeared that the biggest obstacle would be The National Indian Foundation or "FUNAI", a Brazilian governmental protection agency for Indian interests and their culture. It is the only government department in the world which is dedicated to the protection of indigenous peoples who have little or no contact with national society and other tribes. Permits for visiting the tribal groups are rarely granted to outsiders and that permission comes directly from FUNAI headquarters in Brasilia. In 2011, I made contact with Pantanal/Amazonas-Tours who in early March of 2010, visited the reservation of the Xavantes and Xingu Indians (Parque Indigenas do Xingu), and, after long and arduous negotiations, they had received all the documents necessary from the Brazilian Indian agency (FUNAI) and the other authorities involved in Canarana, Mato Grosso State. They put me in touch with Barbara Krajewski, of Terra Discovery Tours (ethnological tours & expeditions worldwide).The ability to visit the Xingu Indian Reservation is contingent upon obtaining appropriate permits and a health certificate. My health certificate had to attest that I had all the necessary vaccinations needed, and that I had no contagious diseases. My certificate, signed by a doctor, said that I had been screened, and was immune to measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella. It also stated that I had a negative TB skin test. It was also compulsory to have a Yellow Fever vaccination. A large part of the travel price goes to the Indian community, for making the project possible. It will be paid directly to the tribe's chief. The Wauja, also named: Waura , Vaurá, or Aurá, inhabit the area surrounding Piyulaga Lake, a name which may be translated as ‘place’ or ‘fishing camp,’ and which also supplies the name of the village.  They have the sole rights to the use of their land, and their territory is only open to those who have been explicitly invited. Nearly all (270) of the existing Waurá live together in one circular village.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
     A two day drive takes you to the airport at Canarana. 

    It is about a fifty-five minute flight to the village.

The journey began in Cuiabá, where I was picked up by my Guide Pedro Paulo. After two days of driving, we arrived  in Canarana, with a scheduled morning flight the following day. With final checks, and the weight distributed for all of our supplies we were on our way. Fifty- five minutes later, we arrived at the Waura village.
Xingu flight (Video)
                                                                         Flight to the Waura village
Upon arrival at the village we were welcomed and taken to our accommodations 500 m from the Indian huts. Communication in the village is through a village guide who can speak Portuguese and then translates the Indian language with Pedro, who has an excellent command of English.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved Man on bicycle with his two children©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                   Accommodations and Kitchen                           Waura guide and family
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
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 meters by twelve, and is around six meters high.The central clearing is primarily a male space, where the men gather to smoke and talk. In addition, it comprises a "public" space where the activities concerning the village as a whole are undertaken.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
The Waura basically rely entirely on a diminishing supply of river fish for protein. The fish are shot with arrows, or gathered in baskets. Completing this equipment, they use a series of traps. The various forms of fishing with bows and arrows, small native nets, traps, and hooks, are practiced by one or two individuals, or among members of the nuclear family.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved

The 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. Fish, manioc bread, and porridges, (the latter two being made from the processing of bitter manioc) are the principal items of the diet of the peoples in the southern part of the Park. A meal in the Waura village is simple; fish grilled over an open fire, along 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.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved

The Waura possess a complex and fascinating mytho-cosmology. The links between animals, things, humans, and extra-human beings, permeate their conception of the world and form crucial aspects of their shamanic practices. Body painting gives people meaning, and it is part of their identity. Such painting is also a form of mask that can be used to present an individual's emotion. The act of painting oneself is a first contact with the spirits which will appear during ritual ceremonies. The Waura make balls with roucou dough, and use it to paint the body. Body painting expresses the role of the individual, both in everyday life, and in the spiritual life. The red colour comes from the seeds of roucou (Bixa Orellana); grated, powdered, and then boiled. 

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                    Puberty                                      Seclusion
When a young Xingu girl attains puberty, after her first menstrual period, she is isolated to a corner of the hut, where she is put into an enclosed space, remaining there until her hair bangs grow down covering her eyes. During this period of isolation, she can only be visited by relatives, and she does not speak out loud, only whispers. Even baths are taken in this enclosure. For the duration of the isolation period, she is educated by her mother and relatives about marriage, and her responsibilities as a wife and member of the Xingu community. Women commonly undergo seclusions of half a year or more. The young women try hard to match the aesthetic ideal that prescribes, among other things, very thick thighs. They also refrain from cutting their hair during this period so that when they leave seclusion, (very often timed to coincide with an inter-tribal festival), they are easily recognizable due to the length of their hair, and the paleness of their skin. At the end, she receives a new name, and is considered an adult, ready for marriage.
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Pairs of tight-fitting bands of woven cotton around the knees and ankles emphasize the form of the calves. The girl on the right has recently left seclusion. Girls in seclusion tightly tie cords around their legs to increase the size of the calf. 
Wauja Indian from Brazil grimacing in pain from skin scraping ritual©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                 Skin scraping                       Blood is scraped to the surface
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                     Pumpkin shell and fish teeth                        Leg scraping in seclusion
Skin-scraping ritual is designed to strengthen the body and spirit. The back, legs, and arms are scratched with a sharp 'scarifier' made from catfish teeth; the blood is then wiped away with crushed leaves, and other leaves rubbed on the body to strengthen it. These long and sharp teeth are fixed on dried pumpkin skin, and used to scrape the bodies to make their skin bleed and thus revitalize the muscles and skin.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
Children receive their names (which are a hereditary individual property) from their grandparents. As the pronunciation of the names of parents-in-law is absolutely prohibited, each Waura man and woman has two names, one used by the father and his related kin, the other used by the mother. Names are changed on various occasions during a person’s lifetime. Grandparents, in particular, have to frequently pass on their name to a new grandchild, meaning that they themselves have to assume other names coming once again from their own grandparents.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                           Uluri and feathers                                  Uluri with tail
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                          Uluri and Fish Dance                               Uluri with shell
The "uluri" consists of palm twine worn around the waist. To this band is attached a small piece of bark or shell that sits on the pubis, just above the genitals. A long thin cord from this bark or shell leads from the front of the uluri through the labia of the vagina, and under the buttocks, to reappear as a kind of protruding tail in the rear.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                                                       "Being without anything"
 
If the Waura appear naked to us, it is only because they happen to cover their bodies in ways different from our own. Being naked is "being without anything"; literally, "without feathers," or "without paint," or "without the uluri". To be naked is to be socially incomplete, and it is fitting only at non-public times and places.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved                    Ladies Dance on the central plaza ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved                          Painted for Ladies Dance
Indian dances can be performed by a single individual or group and, with rare exceptions in the upper Xingu, are not performed in pairs. Women do not participate in sacred dances; they are performed by shamans, or groups of men.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved                               Shaman and gourd rattle ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved                                   Fish Dance
The rattle gives the shaman his powers for a particular ritual. The rattle has a spirit inside it that casts away fatal spirits. The rattle he is holding in his hand is called a gourd rattle. The rattle is made of gourd and wood, with little stones inside of it. Gourd and calabash rattles, rattle strings, and bamboo stamping tubes, are valued percussion instruments.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                 Fish Dance                         The dance of the Kagapa

Indians of the Waura tribe imitate fish in the river, as a dance to worship happiness and freedom. The dance of the Kagapa or Fish dance is all about catching fish. Some of the dancers wear leaves and grass skirts as they enact the search for the small bait-fish that hides amongst the leaves. If they find them,  it will lead  to the bigger fish. This dance may also be called the "Parrot Dance" (Taurauanã ), the celebration of the parrot. The men dress up in a skirt, with leaves attached to their arms. They dance in the center of the village, around the singer and the drummer. With the songs, the men start shouting and opening their arms, mimicking the parrots movements. They open and close the circle to bring in the girls, who come from the “ocas” (houses) to dance. Each girl holds on to the skirt of a man, and follows his steps until the song is over.

 

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                     Yell                                     In the water

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
A man rarely dances without the full set of adornments: ear decorations, diadems, and armlets. Even the masks the Wauja use cannot dispense with these adornments. Feathers, and body painting, are expressions of beauty that contribute decisively to the production of joy in their rituals and festivals. Feather work is an essential element in rituals. The most common decorations are the red and yellow feather ear rings. These have important symbolic associations and are bestowed upon young men only after elaborate ear-piercing rituals.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                        Waurá: Mask, Trua                                  Ritual Mask
Waurá: Mask, Trua. Used to invoke ancestor spirits, in order to ensure their benevolence and protection. In order to obtain full therapeutic efficacy in very serious cases, it is imperative to organize a festival for the apapaatai who caused harm to the patient. In general, these festivals demand the fabrication of various ritual objects, which may comprise masks, flutes, clarinets, manioc diggers, pestles, baskets, pans, arrows, etc. For the Indians, the masks have a dual character: while it is an artifact produced by a common man,  they are the living figure of the supernatural being that they represent. The masks are made with tree trunks, gourds, and straw buriti, and are commonly used in ceremonial dances. This relation of reciprocity, maintained between the sick person, and the apapaatai demonstrates that they are not simply ferocious monsters or the enemies of humans. They are indeed enemies, although potentially friendly. Among the Wauja, at least, the reversal of the allied apapaatai’s aggression depends on the skills of the shamans in negotiating the rescue of the stolen soul, and offering them festivals (meaning food, joyfulness, and beauty).
 
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                 Huka-Huka                                   Ritual moves
Huka-Huka is named after the sound that wrestlers make as they circle around opponents, before wrestling begins: they expel air from their lungs, which better prepares them for the bout, and gives them additional strength. Although people in some tribes wrestle  while standing, others start the contest kneeling on the ground (true Huka-Huka stipulates that starting position).Both strength and agility are required; the object being to grasp the opponent by his or her upper leg, or to throw him or her on the ground. Above all other skills, wrestling ability is the measure of a man. Wrestlers circle around, make ritual moves, and deliver sounds, "hu! ha! hu! ha!". A match usually lasts just for seconds, and finishes when one of the opponents is thrown down.

 

I would like to thank Instituto Socioambiental | Povos Indígenas no Brasil  for allowing me the use of their vast knowledge about the indigenous tribes of Brazil. Thank you Barbara for making this trip possible, and a big thank you to Pedro Paulo, guide extraordinaire.

 


Comments

4.Vanishing Cultures Photography
Very kind of you Nevelyn, I really appreciate it.
3.Nevelyn Pimenta(non-registered)
wow, this is amazing and so inspiring !
2.Vanishing Cultures Photography
Thank you Priya, your thoughtful comments are most welcomed.
1.Priya Balan(non-registered)
This is really hard life that they live but they do seem happy in it. Kieron, you have done a great job with recording these findings and also their various rituals. It is not easy and you have done a great job! The information is really interesting and I guess the names are a bit difficult to remember but I will have to come back again to read it and store the information.
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