The Yawanawá (yawa/white-lipped peccary; nawa/people) are a group belonging to the Pano linguistic family who today occupy the Gregório River Indigenous Land. The name ‘Yawanawá’ appears in historical sources written in various ways: Yawavo or Yauavo, Jawanaua, Yawanaua or Iawanawa. The form ‘Yawanawá’ used here follows the orthography employed in school texts books and other documents of indigenous authorship.
The Yawanawá community is in reality a conjunction of people that includes members from other groups: Shawãdawa (Arara), Iskunawa (nowadays known as Shanênawa, who live in a village close to the town of Feijó), Rununawa, Sainawa (generally known asYaminawá, who live in the Bagé river region), and Katukina. This configuration is the end result of a sociological dynamic common to many Pano groups – alliances through marriage, capture of women during warfare conflicts, the migration of families – and a series of historical contingencies, especially those changes brought about by the arrival of non-Indians, including epidemics and demographic alterations. These processes led to the incorporation of people from other populations who in the past used to maintain relations with the Yawanawá.
Among the Yaminawa of the Acre River Headwaters Indigenous Land there is a subgroup that also bears the name Yawanawá. However, the Yawanawá on the Gregório river have no knowledge of this other homonymous group.
The Yawanawá language belongs to the Pano linguistic family and displays a high level of intelligibility with those of other Pano groups such as the Shanênawa, Yaminawá,Shawãdawa and Sainawa. Today most of the population is bilingual, the level of knowledge of the indigenous language and Portuguese being defined by age groups. Use of the indigenous language is preferred among older people, while their fluency in Portuguese is slight and in some cases nil. Three different situations can be found among children and younger people, depending primarily on the families to which they belong: those who are bilingual; those who are fluent in Portuguese but understand the indigenous language without speaking it; and those who are monolingual in Portuguese. The adult population speaks both languages and today is actively concerned with conserving the indigenous language.
The Yawanawá inhabit the southern part of the Gregório River Indigenous Land, sharing its 92,859 hectares with the Katukina of Sete Estrelas village. This indigenous territory, located in the municipality of Tarauacá, was the first to be demarcated in Acre, by decree 89.257/83, and occupies the headwaters of this affluent of the Juruá river. It was physically demarcated in 1984, approved in 1991, registered in the land registry office in 1985 and the National Heritage Service in 1986.
The town of Tarauacá comprises a pole of attraction for the Yawanawá: the town contains the office of the Organization of Yawanawá Extractivist Agriculturists of the Gregório River (OAEYRG – Organização dos Agricultores Extrativistas Yawanawá do Rio Gregório); several Yawanawá families live there; it is the urban nucleus where the Yawanawá demand their rights and fulfil their obligations as Brazilian citizens – receiving pensions and voting in elections –; the town is the closest point for obtaining merchandise; it is also the place where they look to treat health problems which cannot be resolved in the village. Cruzeiro do Sul and Rio Branco are other reference points. Despite the difficulties which urban life imposes on people with scarce economic resources, the existing infrastructure at least allows the Yawanawá to endure their stay in the town with dignity.
The trip to Tarauacá is always difficult and slow: in the dry season because the river is too low to be able to use the outboard motor, and in the rainy season because the road turns into a muddy tract making travel by motor vehicle impossible. The distance from the village to the point where the BR-364 cuts the river is three or four days by canoe, and from there to Tarauacá demands another four days trekking. Some elders, forced to go to this city every two months, see more inconveniences than advantages in receiving the low amount paid by their pensions.
According to the census conducted by the Yawanawá themselves in 1997, the total population amounts to approximately 450 people, about 30 of whom live in the nearby urban centres of Tarauacá, Cruzeiro do Sul, Feijó and Rio Branco, or in other indigenous villages such as those of the Shanênawa on the Feijó river or the Kaxinawain the village of Caucho.
Thanks to the installation of a health post in the village in the early 1990s, and the training given by Funai and CPI/Acre to several indigenous healthcare agents from 1988 onwards, the impact of illnesses such as malaria, pneumonia, whooping cough and measles has been considerably reduced. Since 1992, the year in which they moved definitively to the new village (Nova Esperança), only a few new-borns and a young man of 22 years have died of diseases, the latter a victim of an epidemic that swept the town of Tarauacá and various indigenous villages in Acre during October and November 1998 and which presented the symptoms identical to cholera.
This improvement in health conditions has enabled a sizeable population growth from an accompanying high birth rate and a significant fall in the level of infant mortality: only one new-born died in a six month period, contrasting with the testimonies of various women who stress the high number of infant deaths before installation of the health post. Currently there is a tendency to request surgery for tying the fallopian tubes after the birth of a number of children, along with a constant utilization of traditional contraceptive methods. However, this situation depends on human and material resources which are not always available and which are in large part the responsibility of official agencies.
Social and political organization
The Yawanawá population is not grouped into a single village but distributed between various locations – settlements comprising one or several houses occupied by extended families – on the shores of the Gregório river, the main settlement being the village of Nova Esperança where the current leader lives. Nova Esperança was opened in 1992, after the group abandoned the Kaxinawa rubber plantation occupied during the period of rubber exploration and their work for the rubber bosses in the 19th century. The size and distribution of the settlements depends for the most part on sociopolitical factors: conflicts, alliances and marriages provoke the creation or readjustment of settlements, thereby converting space into zones of interest.
The kinship system follows a Dravidian schema, dividing people, from the viewpoint of an individual, into consanguines and affines, and encouraging marriage with the children of the father’s sister and mother’s brother. Today there still exist some examples of polygamy, predominated by sororal polygyny. After marriage the rule of uxorilocality applies, only ignored in effect if there is a significant disproportion of power between the respective parents-in-law. The husband’s father, if he is a man of prominence, may act as a pole of attraction for his sons’ wives. Twelve marriages exist between indigenous people and non-Indians from the region (descendants of rubber tappers) who also live in the community.
The fact that different ethnonyms are recorded among the members of the Yawanawá community does not imply the existence of a system of moieties, clans or sections, as occurs among other Pano groups, but reflects the successive incorporation of individuals from other proximate groups during the 19th century.
Each person has two or more names, one of them in Portuguese and the others in the indigenous language. All new-borns receive a name from the side of their father, who chooses a name from among his paternal uncles and aunts, and another name from their mother, taken from her maternal uncles and aunts. Names are thereby reproduced in alternate generations.
Hunting and fishing are two of the Yawanawá’s main economic activities. In the dry season fishing trips are organized in which almost the whole community participates and which transform into important social events (‘food festivals,’ as the Yawanawá describe them). They use various kinds of plant poisons (lupine, sandbox tree sap) which once put in the water cause the fish to rise to the surface, making their capture easier. During the rainy season, when large animals leave clear tracks, hunting becomes one of the main sources of alimentation.
The basic foods obtained from the swiddens are manioc, banana and maize, but other produce is also cultivated, such as rice, sweet potato, papaya, pineapple and sugarcane.
Knowledge of the arts – pottery, designs, weapons and baskets – remains in the hands of a select number of people, basically elders, although there has been a recent effort to transmit this know-how to new generations. One of the most arresting features of Yawanawá art is the diversity of body paint designs, extensively used in the mariri festival (learn more at "Rituals"), which are applied with annatto and/or genipap, sometimes combined with a fragrant resin to help fix the dyes to the skin. Burity straw skirts, patterned bamboo head-dresses and straw bracelets are also used as decorations during the ritual festivals. Some people still make weapons (lances, bows, warclubs, arrows and daggers all traditionally used in warfare) made from bamboo and the wood of wild peach palm, and decorated with designs, cotton thread and feathers primarily taken from macaws, toucans and parrots. While weapon making is an exclusively male practice, design is an activity linked to the female sphere in the same fashion as pottery and basketry. The processes for manufacturing weapons and pottery require the fulfilment of various kinds of precautions.
Although today the most notable aspect of Yawanawá shamanism is curing, in the past the shaman’s functions were more varied and touched upon other aspects of culture such as warfare and hunting. In terms of curing, various techniques are practised by the Yawanawá specialists – including curing chants and blowing – the foremost of which nowadays is ‘praying,’ called shuãnka. During the curing sessions, the xinaya – the name given to the practitioner – ingests ayahuasca and intones over a pot full of manioc caiçuma which the patient will later drink.
An interesting aspect of this practice is that diagnosis of the sickness is made on the basis of the dream the patient had before falling sick. Just as different shamanic techniques exist, so too there are various names designating each type of specialist (yuvehu, kushuintia, shuintia). Shamanic initiation comprises four parallel processes: the realization of certain trials (sucking the heart of an anaconda, chopping down a bee hive); the fulfilling of strict periods of precautionary measures which include sexual abstinence and avoidance of certain foods; the ingestion of various kinds of hallucinogenic substances (ayahuasca, pepper, datura, tobacco snuff, rarë – a non-identified plant, and tobacco juice); and learning the specific knowledge involved in each technique, namely the curing chants and ‘prayers.’
Shamanic power is ambivalent since it simultaneously enables the capacity to cure and to provoke illnesses. Accusations of sorcery and poisoning among the Yawanawá occur both between and within groups, provoking periodic social tensions that may give rise to fissions. In 1999 the community possessed two chant specialists and five specialists in plant remedies.
Festivals possess a special importance in the constitution of the sociopolitical relations which the Yawanawá maintain with other groups and among themselves. Saiti (sai means to shout or call) is the generic Yawanawá word for festival. Mariri, which is not a traditional Yawanawá word, is now used with the same meaning and is also employed by other groups in the region. The uma aki (caiçuma festival) lasts for several days and normally focuses on intergroup relations since other communities usually take part in it. This ritual develops into various sequences, some of which may appear as isolated smaller festivals: games, ingestion and vomiting caiçuma, the acting out of warfare, dances and songs.
Two main types of games exist: one in which men and women fight over lengths of sugarcane, papaya or watermelon (mehina, ‘take from the other’); and another in which animals are imitated (kanë, ‘change into,’ transform into’). Rigid kinship norms are observed during the celebration of this ritual, each person playing with cousins and same generation affines of the opposite sex, in other words, those people with whom sexual relations are preferred. When the festivals involve various groups, the opposition between them is dissolved, focusing instead on the opposition between men and women and encouraging alliances through matrimonial unions.
Manioc caiçuma – a drink fermented by women’s saliva – plays an important role in this ritual. Women produce and offer it to men, who in turn must vomit it over the women. The process unfolds in a crossed form: Yawanawá women enter games with the men from other groups, while Yawanawá men receive caiçuma from the visiting women.
Mariri, celebrated at night, consists of a series of dances and chants which have a playful and metaphoric tone. Some people, mostly adult men, drink ayahuasca (uni) during the ritual.
There also exists a winter ritual called yuina yunua (‘send by game’). After a metaphorical petition by women – who ask for the fruits eaten by the game animals they want – the men organize a special hunting trip and on their return exchange meat for ‘pamonha,’ a sweet maize paste.
Current aspects of contact
The Yawanawá have maintained continuous relations with non-Indians for about a century: at first these involved fleeting and violent encounters with Peruvian gum extractors, later they entered into more sustained contact with Brazilian rubber tappers. For decades the Yawanawá worked for various bosses, producing rubber in the Kaxinawa rubber plantation, which was only abandoned in 1992, with the implementation of new projects in partnership with foreign private companies.
This panorama changed abruptly at the start of the 1980s. Young leaders educated in the city and aware of indigenous rights succeeded in forcing recognition and demarcation of the Gregório River Indigenous Land on the part of the federal government and, supported by Funai and the Acre Pro-Indian Commission, expelled the workers of Paranacre, a company which had bought the rubber plantation zone in order to extract timber and exploit the land for ranching. During the same period, missionaries from the New Tribes of Brazil – established in the village for some years – were also expelled from the IT by the Yawanawá themselves. During the time they spent in the village they had provoked numerous conflicts by contending that some indigenous practices, such as ayahuasca consumption or the performance of ritual dances for example, where not suited to the doctrine they preached. Although memory of the missionaries lingers on, today only some people express religious convictions and few maintain a direct relationship with the preachers.
A new phase was begun after demarcation of the IT, marked by the undertaking of new projects which looked to provide an economic alternative that would enable the sustainable development of the village: they agreed a contract with the Aveda corporation for production of annatto, a natural red plant dye used as a colorant in their cosmetic products.
It is also worth mentioning here that the Yawanawá created a school and health post in the village during this new phase, run by indigenous teachers and healthcare agents respectively.
Note on the sources
Currently there exist only a few academic works on the Yawanawá: a report from 1991 on the field research undertaken by the anthropologist Lúcia Szmerecsanyi, at the time an M.Phil. student at the University of São Paulo, and two M.Phil. dissertations completed by the anthropologists Miguel Carid Naveira and Laura Pérez Gil in November 1999 on the Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina. There also exist some reports on projects by Funai (‘Projeto Yawanawá,’ 1988) and CIMI (‘Projeto dos Yawanawá e Katukina do Gregório,’ 1983; ‘Rápido histórico do povo Yawanawá;’ 1984); and journal articles (‘O projeto da Funai para transformar os índios Yawanawá em madeireiros,’ by Terri Valle de Aquino, in the Gazeta do Acre). In addition, the Yawanawá are mentioned in some general works about the Pano groups, including the M.Phil. thesis by Edilene Coffaci de Lima on the Katukina-Pano, a people who also live in the Gregório River IT.
Sources of information
- CALAVIA SAES, Oscar. A variação mítica como reflexão. Rev. de Antropologia, São Paulo : USP, v. 45, n. 1, p. 7-36, jan./jun. 2002.
- CARID NAVEIRA, Miguel Alfredo. Yawanawa : da guerra a festa. Florianópolis : UFSC, 1999. (Dissertação de Mestrado)
- ERIKSON, Philippe et al. Kirinkobaon kirika ("Gringos' Books") : an annotated panoan bibliography. Amerindia, Paris : A.E.A., n. 19, 152 p., supl., 1994.
- FUNDAÇÃO DE CULTURA E COMUNICAÇÃO ELIAS MANSOUR; CIMI. Povos do Acre : história indígena da Amazônia Ocidental. Rio Branco : Cimi/FEM, 2002. 58 p.
- GAVAZZI, Renato Antônio (Org.). Geografia Tawanawa. Rio Branco : Kene Hiwe/CPI-AC, 1994.
- GIL, Laura Perez. Pelos caminhos de Yuve : conhecimento, cura e poder no xamamnismo yawanawa. Florianópolis : UFSC, 1999. (Dissertação de Mestrado)
- --------. O sistema meéico Yawanawa e seus especialistas : cura, poder e iniciação xamântica. Cadernos de Saúde Pública, Rio de Janeiro : Fiocruz, v. 17, n. 2, p. 333-44, mar./abr. 2001.
- LIMA, Edilene Coffaci de. Katukina, história e organização social de um grupo pano do alto Juruá. São Paulo : USP, 1994. (Dissertação de Mestrado)
- --------. Katukina, Yawanawa e Marubo : desencontros míticos e encontros históricos. Cadernos de Campo, São Paulo : USP, v. 4, n. 4, p. 1-20, 1994.
- MAHER, Tereza Machado (Org.). Na Wichipa Nete Tapiwe : I cartilha de alfabetização Yawanawa. Rio Branco : CPI-AC, 1993.
- SENA, Vera Olinda; MAHER, Tereza; BUENO, Daniel (Orgs.). Histórinhas indígenas da floresta. Rio Branco : CPI-AC, 2001. 84 p.
- SMERECSANYI, Lúcia. Relatório de pesquisa de campo. São Paulo : USP/NHII, 1991.
- VINNYA, Aldaiso Luiz. OCHOA, Maria Luiza Pinedo. TEIXEIRA, Gleyson de Araújo. (Orgs.) Costumes e Tradições do Povo Yawanawá. Comissão Pró-Índio do Acre / Organização dos Professores Indígenas do Acre. – Rio Branco, 2006. <http://www.cpiacre.org.br/pdfs/projeto_yawa_visualizacao.pdf>
- WADDINGTON, May. Incorporação de uma nova atividade comercial em uma comunidade indígena Yawanawa. In: ANDERSON, Anthony; CLAY, Jason (Orgs.). Esverdeando a Amazônia : comunidades e empresas em busca de práticas para negócios sustentáveis. São Paulo : Peirópolis ; Brasília : IIEB, 2002. p. 53-66.
- From the heart of the forest : the Yawanawa message. Vídeo Cor, VHS, 3 min. e 7 seg., 1995. Prod.: Aveda Corporation