South American Indians: Indians of the Gran Chaco
SOUTH AMERICAN INDIANS: INDIANS OF THE GRAN CHACO
The Gran Chaco (chaco, derived from Quechua, means "hunting land") is an arid alluvial plain in the lowlands of south-central South America. Approximately 725,000 square kilometers in area, it lies between the Andes in the west and the Paraguay and Paraná rivers in the east, and between the Mato Grosso to the north and the Pampas to the south. The scrub forests and grasslands of the Gran Chaco, though sparsely populated, were the home of numerous indigenous groups. In the main they were hunters, fishers, and gatherers, moving seasonally in search of food and practicing supplementary farming. Few still follow their traditional way of life.
The religion of the indigenous groups of the Gran Chaco can be understood through an examination of their mythic narratives, which contain their primary structures of meaning. These myths give an account of a primordial time in which an ontological modification was produced by the actions of various supernatural beings who shaped present-day cultural reality. This rupture may be caused by a lawgiver (who frequently has the appearance of a trickster), or it may be the result of infractions by ancestors or by the transformations of ancestors. Numerous supernatural beings with avowedly demonic characteristics monopolize the realm of fear and danger; their ambivalent intentions toward human beings are usually resolved through malevolent action that manifests itself in illness, culminating in the death of the individual. The general notion of power, such as the la-ka-áyah of the Mataco, or specific powers, such as the uhopié of the Ayoré, are the structures that ontologically define the supernatural beings as well as people who have been consecrated by them.
The spectrum of supernatural beings encompasses everything from shamans and witches, in the cases of the Guiacurú or the Mataco, to the state of "amorous exaltation" known to the Pilagá. For an integral understanding of the peoples of the Chaco it is important to consider the contributions of these special personages and states of being, which contribute a unique cultural identity to each group's cosmology. In almost all the ethnic groups of the Gran Chaco the shaman occupies the central role in religious tasks, sometimes defending and protecting, and, at other times, injuring. When engaged in healing practices, he can combine various techniques, such as singing, shaking rattles, blowing, and sucking, and can command the collaboration of familiar spirits who are generally powerful owing to their demonic nature. An important aspect of Gran Chaco religions is the idea that one or many souls are incarnated in an individual. Once the individual is dead, these souls, or spirits, enter a demonic state. Although they are directed to an established underworld, they continue to prey upon human communities.
The Zamuco Family
The two members of the Zamuco language group are the Ayoré and the Chamacoco of Paraguay, in the northeastern Chaco.
The religion of the Ayoré (Ayoreo, Ayoreode) is expressed primarily in an extensive set of myths. All natural and cultural beings have their origins related in mythic tales, and in certain cases in various parallel myths. The morphology of the myths centers upon the metamorphosis of an ancestral figure into an entity of current reality. Each tale narrates events that occurred in primordial times and is accompanied by one or more songs, which may be used for therapeutic (sáude) or preventive (paragapidí) purposes.
Despite the abundance of tales, it is possible to classify the Ayoré myths in different cycles as they relate to a particular supernatural being or theme:
- The cycle of ancestors. Each tale in this cycle recounts events in the life of an ancestor (nanibahai). These generally end with the ancestor's violent transformation into an artifact, plant, animal, or some other entity of the cosmos, and with the establishment by the ancestor of cultural prescriptions (puyák ) governing the treatment of the new being and punishments for ignoring these prescriptions.
- The cycle of Dupáde. A celestial supernatural being, Dupáde is associated with the sun; he causes the metamorphosis of the ancestors.
- The cycle of the Flood. The tales of the Flood (gedekesnasóri ) describe an offense inflicted on lightning by the nanibahai, their punishment in the form of a continual rain that inundated the world, and the survival of a few Ayoré, who became the first aquatic animals.
- The cycle of "water that washes away." These tales describe a flood (yotedidekesnasóri ) similar to that that appears in the preceding cycle, which was caused by Diesná ("cricket"), the ruler of water.
- The cycle of the Asohsná bird. This bird (Caprimulgidae spp ) is surrounded by numerous puyák. The central tale of this cycle relates the life of the female ancestor who created this bird. Asohsná is a supernatural being who established the annual ceremony that divides the year into two segments, one of which is characterized by an incalculable quantity of restrictions.
- The cycle of Asningái. This cycle relates the courage of an ancestor named Asningái ("courage"), who threw himself onto the fire, transforming himself into an animal with certain morphological characteristics. It also established the meaning of slaughter, an important institution among the Ayoré, since an individual could rise to the status of chief (asuté) through contamination by spilled blood.
Illness is thought to be caused in almost all cases by the individual's violation of puyák. The cure is entrusted to the igasitái, those who have knowledge of sáude, whose power can undo the illness through the powerful word of the ancestors. The shaman, or daihsnái, arrives at this state through an initiation that involves the ingestion of a strong dose of the juice of green mashed tobacco, which enables him to assume a special potency called uhopié. When an individual dies, the body (ayói) and mind (aipiyé) are destroyed; the soul (oregaté) moves to the underworld (nahupié).
The narrative of the Chamacoco, which recounts sacred events, is called "The Word of Ešnuwérta." This tale constitutes the secret mythology of those men who have undergone initiatory ordeals and contains the social and religious knowledge of the group. Ešnuwérta is the primordial mother. The myth is connected to the women of primordial times who were surprised by harmful supernatural beings (axnábsero ). "The Word of Ešnuwérta" includes the actions of these axnábsero, characters to whom Chamacoco reality is subordinated. The physiognomy of these supernatural beings is similar to that of the Ayoré ancestors in that current reality originates from their transformations and their deaths. The distinctive characteristic of the axnábsero is their malignant power (wozós ) over people.
The foundation of the social order is presented in this myth, since Ešnuwérta instituted the clans as well as the male initiation ceremonies in which the participants identify themselves with the principal deities of the myth.
The Chamacoco shaman (konsáxa ) exercises a power appropriate to a specific region of the cosmos; for this reason there are shamans of the sky, of the water, and of the jungle. The shaman initiation begins with a vision of Ešnuwérta, who reveals the cosmos as well as the practices appropriate to the work of the shamans. Another custom originating from Ešnuwérta is called kaamták and has to do with a ritual offering of food; it relates to the impurity of blood, among other themes.
The Tupi-GuaranÍ Family
The Tupi-Guaraní language family includes the Chiriguano of Bolivia and the Tapuí of Paraguay.
The tale of the mythical twins Yanderú Túmpa and Áña Túmpa is the most prevalent myth among the Chiriguano (Miá) and appears in conjunction with lunar mythology. The celestial supernatural being Yanderú Túmpa made the cosmos and bestowed its goods on the Chiriguano, at the same time instructing them in cultural practices. He conceived and made Áña Túmpa, who, because of envy, attempts to undermine all Yanderú Túmpa's works. Áña Túmpa received from his maker power (imbapwére ), which he in turn gives to other beings (áñas ) who aid him in his malignant activities. As a result the world has undergone a profound alteration. It is now the actions of the áñas that determine the condition of the Chiriguano world, and they have introduced calamities such as illness and death. The expression túmpa is difficult to comprehend, but it appears to designate a quality that transforms the various entities into "state beings." The terms áña and túmpa define the supernatural nature of these beings, that is to say, they emphasize that they are extraordinary.
The shaman and the sorcerer are both initiated by the acquisition of power from the áñas. The initiation itself is centered on the áñas. Due to their ambivalence, an initiate can become a shaman (ipáye ) if their intent is benevolent; if their intent is malevolent, the initiate receives only malignant power that causes misfortune to the people and the community.
Tapuí and Guasurangwe
The religion of the Tapuí and the Guasurangwe, or Tapieté (an offshoot of the former), does not differ essentially from that of the Chiriguano; the same structures of meaning and the same supernatural beings may be observed.
The Lengua-Mascoy language group of Paraguay includes the Angaité, Lengua, Kaskihá, and Sanapaná peoples.
The religious nature of the Angaité (Chananesmá) has undergone syncretism owing to their proximity to the Mascoy and Guaranian groups. Their mythology makes reference to three levels—the underworld, the terrestrial world, and the celestial world—all of which are inhabited by supernatural beings characterized by their ambivalent actions toward humans. The deity of the dead, Moksohanák, governs a legion of demonic beings, the enzlép, who pursue the sick, imprison them, and carry them to the "country of the dead," which is situated in the west. At night it is even possible for them to overpower passersby. The gabioamá or iliabün act as the spirit familiars of the shaman, and with him their role is ambivalent in a positive sense. For example, they are in charge of recapturing and restoring the souls of the sick.
According to Angaité myth, fire was obtained by a theft in which a bird was the intermediary; it was stolen from a forest demon, one of the iekʾamá, who are anthropomorphic but have only one leg. Also anthropomorphic is the soul-shadow (abiosná ), whose eyes are its distinguishing feature. The concept of corporal material as such does not exist, except for the iekʾamá ("living cadaver" or "skeleton"), which is what remains after death.
During the initiation process, the shaman goes into the depths of the forest or to the banks of the river, where the familiar spirits (pateaskóp or enzlép ) come to him in a dream. He communicates with the familiars through ecstatic dreams and songs. His therapeutic labors include sucking harmful agents from the bodies of the sick and applying vegetable concoctions whose efficacy resides in their "bad smell." There are shamans with purely malignant intentions, such as the mamohót, who are responsible for tragic deaths among members of the group. The benevolent shaman is responsible for discovering the identity of the bewitching shaman and for quartering and burning the body of the victim as a restorative vengeance. The Angaité do not have "lords" or "fathers" of the species; the figures closest to this theme are Nekéñe and Nanticá, male and female supernatural beings respectively, who are anthropomorphic and whose realm is the depths of the waters.
The anthropogenic myth of the Lengua (Enlhít, Enslet) attributes the formation of giant supernatural beings and the ancestors of the Lengua to Beetle, who utilized mud as primary material. After giving these beings a human form, he placed the bodies of the first enlhíts to dry on the bank of a lake, but he set them so close together that they stuck to one another. Once granted life, they could not defend themselves against the attacks of the powerful giants, and Beetle, as supreme deity, separated the two groups. Eventually the inability of the enlhíts to resist pursuit and mistreatment by the giants became so grave that Beetle took away the giants' bodies. The giants' souls gave birth to kilikháma who fought to regain control of the missing bodies, and it is for this reason that they torment present-day humans.
The important Lengua myths include the origin of plants and fire and the fall of the world. Ritual dramatizations of the myths are part of the celebrations for female puberty (yanmána ), male puberty (waínkya ), the spring and autumn equinoxes, the summer solstice, war, the arrival of foreigners, marriage, and mourning.
Human reality consists of a "living soul" (valhók ), whose dream existence is important. At death, a person is transported to vangáuk, which is a transitory state that leads to the kilikháma state. The apyoxólhma, or shaman, receives power (siyavnáma ) through visions and apprenticeship to the song of the plants, whose ingestion, though lacking hallucinogenic properties, produces ritual death. Once he obtains siyavnáma, the shaman commands the kilikháma, who control numerous beings and realms of the universe. The territory of the dead (pisisl), situated toward the west, is the destination of the souls of the dead, although some remain close to the living.
The "masked celebration" of the Kaskihá is of particular interest. It is based on a myth that describes the origin of the festive attire following the quartering of the water deity Iyenaník. The practice of kindáian, which is a dance, is the only medium for invoking the power of such deities.
The rich mythic narrative of the Sanapaná focuses on the war between the heavenly world, inhabited by the ancestors (inyakahpanamé ), and the terrestrial world, inhabited by the fox (maalék ). The ancestors, who differ morphologically from present-day humanity, introduced the majority of cultural goods. Among the fundamental structures distinguished by the Sanapaná is the "dream," the soul's life in its wanderings separate from the body. Death is understood as theft of the soul by demonic forces, the souls of the dead that stalk during the night in forests and marshes. The demonic spirits are anthropomorphic. Some are malignant, including those whose mere appearance can cause immediate death. There are also benevolent spirits who are the familiars of shamans (kiltongkamák ). The shaman's initiation involves fasting and other tests.
The Mataco-Makká language family of the central Chaco includes the Mataco, Chulupí, Choroti, and Makká.
The religious universe of the Mataco (Wichí) centers on the notion of power (la-ka-áyah ), which is the property of innumerable supernatural beings of demonic (ahát ) or human (wichí) nature, personifications of such phenomena as the sun, moon, stars, and thunder. The Mataco recognize a dualism of body (opisán ) and spirit (oʾnusék ) in humans. Death changes the oʾnusék into a malevolent supernatural being.
The central character in Mataco mythic narrative (pahlalís ), Tokhwáh, is the one who imposes cosmic and ontological order on the present-day world. The actions of this supernatural being, who has a demonic nature, are incorporated in his trickster aspect; nonetheless, he is perceived by the Mataco as a suffering and sad being. In his lawgiving role he introduces economic practices and tools; humanizes the women who descend from the sky by eliminating their vaginal teeth; institutes marriage; and teaches the people how to get drunk, to fight, and to make war. He also introduces demonic spirits who cause illnesses (aités ) and establishes the shamanic institution (hayawú ) and death. The most important Mataco ceremony is carried out by the shamans, in both individual and communal form, with the objective of expelling illnesses according to Tokhwáh's teachings.
The shamanic initiation includes possession (welán ) by a demonic spirit (ahát ) and the consequent separation of the initiate's soul (oʾnusék ), which undertakes journeys to the different realms of the cosmos. When the initiation is complete, the shaman has achieved an ontological alteration in the state of his soul—he has been transformed into a demonic being. The smoking or inhalation of the dust of the sumac (Anadenanthera macrocarpa ) is a frequent shamanic practice.
The mythology of the Chulupí (Nivaklé, Aslusláy) comprises three narrative cycles on the deities who acted in primordial times, but who then distanced themselves from humanity and the earthly world. The Xitscittsammee cycle describes a supernatural being comparable to an almost forgotten deus otiosus. The cycle of the supernatural being Fitsók Exíts includes prescriptions for the rites of female initiation; myths recounting the origin of women, of the spots on the moon, and of honey, among other things; and the tale of the expulsion from the universe of the supernatural creator. The Kufiál cycle relates the cataclysmic events accompanying the fall of heaven and the subsequent actions of the demiurge Kufiál, to name a few of its themes.
A structure essential to the Chulupí religion is sičʾee, or ultimate power, which defines and dominates a vast group of beings and actions. In effect, sičʾee is the strange made powerful, which can manifest itself in unexpected guises—in human or animal form, by means of a sound or a movement like a whirlwind, or as master of the spirits of the forest. The sičʾee plays a significant role in the initiation of the shaman (sičʾee ): He appears to the shaman in the guise of an old man, for example, who offers the shaman power and grants him the spirit familiars called watʾakwáis. By fasting, enduring solitude in the woods, and drinking potions made of various plants, the initiate achieves a revelatory experience rich in visions, many of which are terrifying. The Chulupí idea of animistic reality is extremely complicated and varied, given that the soul can appear in any number of manifestations.
The principal cycles of the Choroti are five in number. The cycle of Kixwét describes a supernatural being, of human appearance but gigantic, whose role comprises the duplicity of both the demiurge and the trickster. The cycle of Ahóusa, the Hawk, the culture hero par excellence, recounts how he defeated the beings of primordial times, stealing and distributing fire and teaching humans the technique of fishing and the making of artifacts. The cycle of Woíki, the Fox, who partakes of the intrinsic nature of Kixwét and is a very important figure in indigenous cultures, contains myths describing his creation of various beings and modalities of the present-day world. The cycle of Weʾla, the Moon, relates the formation of the world. The cycle of Tsematakí alludes to a feminine figure characterized by her ill will toward men and her uncontainable cannibalism.
The Choroti shaman (aíew ) receives power (i-tóksi) from the supernatural beings (thlamó), and the strength of his abilities depends on the number of familiars (inxuélai ) he has.
The Makká mythology can be classified as eclectic, as it demonstrates cultural contact with almost all the other indigenous groups of the Gran Chaco. The Makká cycle of the fox is similar to the narrative cycle surrounding the Mataco supernatural being Tokhwáh and demonstrates similar themes, such as the origin of women and the toothed vagina. The Makká hero Tippá, who possesses an immense penis, is somewhat reminiscent of Wéla, the Mataco moon deity.
In earlier times, power (tʾun ) was obtained by capturing a scalp, after which a complex ceremony was held in which the scalp was discarded but the soul (le sinkál) of the dead enemy was retained as a personal familiar, or spirit helper. This familiar would manifest itself during sleep by means of a song that even today is sung during drinking bouts. Ceremonies of drinking bouts among adults permit the regulation of power among people. The ceremony of female initiation is also important, as is true throughout most of the Gran Chaco.
The organization of the traditional religious universe was altered through the introduction of Christianity by General J. Belaieff, who brought the Makká from the interior of the Chaco to the outskirts of Asunción. The icon of Belaieff is now a central theme in Makká shamanism. Just as among the Mataco, the shaman (weihetʾx ) is charged with controlling the demonic supernatural beings (inwomét ).
The Guiacurú-Caduveo language family of the Gran Chaco and Brazil includes the tribes known as the Pilagá, the Toba, the Caduveo, and the Mocoví.
Certain mythic cycles may be distinguished in the Pilagá mythology. One cycle describes the celestial deity Dapiči, to whom is attributed the inversion of the cosmic planes and the transference of some animals and plants to the sky. In the past, prayers were offered for his help in the most diverse activities. Another cycle describes Wayaykaláciyi, who introduced death, made the animals wild, and established hunting techniques, modifying the Edenic habits of an earlier time. Among the eminent supernatural beings is Nesóge, a cannibalistic woman who determines the practices of the witches (konánagae ). Such characters and themes as the Star Woman and the origin of women appear in Pilagá myths.
Among the significant structures, the payák is the most important. This notion defines nonhuman nature, which is peculiar to supernatural beings, shamans (pyogonák ), animals, plants, and some objects. Relations with the payák determine conditions in the indigenous world. Either people acquire payák s as familiars who aid them in their customary activities, or the payák s inflict suffering on them in the form of illness, the death of domestic animals, the destruction of farms, or a poor harvest of fruit from wild plants. Such concepts as the "master-dependent" (logót-lamasék ) and the "center-periphery" (laiñí-laíl) allow the Pilagá to classify beings and entities according to a hierarchy of power.
The initiation of women takes place at the onset of menses. The young girl is locked in a corner of her hut and forced to fast rigorously. When males reach adolescence, they submit to scarification of their arms and legs by a shaman, and the young man is given the characteristics of the species of animal whose bone was used as a scarifier. Throughout entire lives, men continue to scarify themselves, especially when preparing for the hunt or going into battle.
The principal themes of Toba (Kom) narrative are celestial cosmology and mythology, which appear in stories about Dapiči and the Pleiades; cataclysms; the origin of specific entities; stories of animals; stories of the trickster Wahayakaʾlacigu, the lawgiver Taʾankí, and Ašien, a supernatural being with a repulsive appearance; and encounters between Toba people and the supernatural being Nowét. The morphology of these characters, all of whom were powerful in the primordial times, fluctuates between the human and the animal.
For the Toba, the central structure of the cosmology is nowét, which appears in the forms of the masters of animals and of the spheres. Nowét, as a supernatural being, initiates the shamans (piʾogonák ) and grants them power that can be used equally to heal or to harm. Outside the shamanic sphere, all special skills—hunting, fishing, dancing, and so on—derive from power given by Nowét. Dreams are structures that have importance in the relations between humans and Nowét. Shamanic power is established by the possession of spirit familiars (ltawá ), who help shamans cure serious illnesses, which are considered intentional and also material. Therapy combines singing, blowing, and sucking as methods of removing the harmful agent from the victim's body.
Some of the important ceremonies of the Toba are name giving, the initiation of young boys, the offering of prayers to Dapiči, matutinal prayers to the heavenly beings, and the supplications of the hunters to some supernatural being in a nowét state.
Go-neno-hodi is the central deity of Caduveo mythology; he is maker of all people and of a great number of the cultural goods. His appearance is that of a Caduveo, and he is without evil intention. In his benevolence, he granted the Caduveo, in ancient times, an abundant supply of food, clothes, and utensils, as well as eternal life, but the intervention of Hawk, astute and malicious, made Go-neno-hodi modify the primordial order. Nibetád is a mythical hero identified with the Pleiades; he greeted the ancestors during the ceremony celebrating the annual reappearance of this cluster of stars and the maturation of the algaroba (mesquite).
The shamanic institution is actualized in two different individuals: the nikyienígi ("father"), who protects and benefits the community, and the otxikanrígi, the cause of all deaths, illnesses, and misfortunes in the group. Celebrations that are particularly worthy of note are the lunar ceremonies, the rites celebrating the birth of the chief's son, and the initiations of young men and women.
Prominent in the scattered Mocoví material is the myth of an enormous tree that reached to the sky. By climbing its branches, one ascended to lakes and to a river. An angry old woman cut down the tree, extinguishing the valuable connection between heaven and earth.
Gdsapidolgaté, a benevolent supernatural being, presides over the world of the living. His activity contrasts with that of the witches. Healing practices among the Mocoví are the same as those of the other shamans of the Gran Chaco, with the addition of bloodletting. The Mocoví, like all the Guiacurú, believe in the honor of war and value dying in combat as much as killing. When they return from a battle they hang the heads of the vanquished on posts in the center of town and they sing and shout around them. The horse plays an important role in daily life and in the hereafter; when the owner of a horse dies, the horse is sacrificed and buried beside the owner to bear him to his final destination in the land of the dead.
The extensive Arawak family of languages includes the Chané of Argentina. Fundamental distinctions cannot be made between the corpus of Chané myths and that of the Chiriguano; similarities abound between them, particularly with respect to the figure of the shaman. There are two kinds of shamans: one with benevolent power (the ipáye ) and another dedicated exclusively to malevolent actions that cause death (the ipayepóci ). The mbaidwá ("knower, investigator") has dominion over the individual destinies of humans.
One of the most important aspects of Chané religion is the carnival of masks (also celebrated by the Chiriguano). Some of the masks are profane, representing animals and fantastic anthropomorphic characters. The sacred masks represent Áña, and these are deadly playthings that cannot be sold to travelers. When the carnival is finished, the masks become dangerous and must be destroyed.
One can find an abundant bibliography on indigenous groups of the Gran Chaco in Ethnographic Bibliography of South America, edited by Timothy O'Leary (New Haven, Conn., 1963). The Handbook of South American Indians, 7 vols., edited by Julia H. Steward (Washington, D.C., 1946–1959), offers general characteristics on habits and customs of the peoples of this cultural area. The Censo indígena nacional (Buenos Aires, 1968) is restricted to the Argentine Chaco. Fernando Pagés Larraya's Lo irracional en la cultura (Buenos Aires, 1982) studies the mental pathology of the indigenous people of the Gran Chaco and then reviews their religious conceptions. Scripta ethnológica (1973–1982), a periodical published by the Centro Argentino de Ethnología Americana, Buenos Aires, contains more systematic information about the aboriginal peoples of the Gran Chaco.
There are only a few specific works that deal with particular groups; among those few are Los indios Ayoreo del Chaco Boreal by Marcelo Bórmida and myself (Buenos Aires, 1982). Branislava Susnik has also given attention to the Chulupí natives in Chulupí: Esbozo gramatical analítico (Asunción, 1968). Also worthy of mention are Miguel Chase-Sardi's Cosmovisión mak'a (Asunción, 1970) and El concepto Nivaklé del Alma (Lima, 1970). Bernardino de Nino wrote an Ethnografía Chiriguano (La Paz, 1912). In reference to the Caduveo culture, see Darcy Ribeiro's Religião e mitologia Kadiuéu (Rio de Janiero, 1950). One can also consult Johannes Wilbert's Folk Literature of the Mataco Indians and Folk Literature of the Toba Indians (both Los Angeles, 1982).
Arce Birbueth, Eddy, et al. Estrategias de Sobrevivencia entre los Tapietes del Gran Chaco. La Paz, 2003.
Clastres, Pierre. Mythologie des Indiens Chulupi. Edited by Michael Carty and Hélène Clastres. Leuven, 1992.
Fritz, Miguel. Los Nivaclé: Rasgos de una cultura paraguaya. Quito, 1994.
Fritz, Miguel. Pioneros en El Chaco: Misioneros oblatos del Pilcomayo. Mariscal Estigarribia, 1999.
Tomasini, Alfredo. El Shamanismo de los Nivaclé del Gran Chaco. Buenos Aires, 1997.
Tomasini, Alfredo. Figuras protectoras de animales y plantes en la religiosidad de los indios Nivaclé:Chaco Boreal, Paraguay. Quito, 1999.
Mario Califano (1987)
Translated from Spanish by Tanya Fayen