South American Indians: Indians of the Northwest Amazon

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In principle, the Northwest Amazon includes, as its southern limits, the region from approximately the Middle Amazon, around the mouth of the Rio Negro, to the Upper Solimões; all of the Rio Negro and its northern tributaries, including the Parima mountain range, up to the upper Orinoco Valley; and an arc connecting the Upper Orinoco to the Upper Solimões. Historically, the societies that inhabited this vast region, at least at the time of Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, were far more numerous than they are today, and far more complex in terms of their social and political organization and interrelations amongst each other. Undoubtedly, their religious organizations and institutions were more complex as well. Sixteenth-century chroniclers left tantalizing notes describing the existence of chiefdoms and priestly societies in the Amazon floodplains region that were similar to those of the circum-Caribbean region.

The usefulness of these notes for understanding native religions at the time of conquest is, however, limited and subject to much guesswork. Scholars are not even certain which languages many of these societies spoke, much less what their religious beliefs were. Modern archaeology is just beginning to uncover the rich complexity of these societies and may, in the future, provide important elements for understanding their religions. In any case, it is certain that the vast majority of the societies of the Rio Negro, the main northern tributary of the Amazon that connects with the Orinoco via the Cassiquiare Canal, were Arawak-speaking peoples. There were also significant numbers of Tukanoan-speaking peoples in the region of the Uaupés River and its tributaries; forest-dwelling Makuan peoples in a vast region from the lower to the upper Negro; Cariban-speaking peoples on the tributaries of the upper Orinoco; and Yanomami populations in the mountainous forest regions north of the Rio Negro.

Early History of the Region

A survey of the first historical sources and the earliest recorded traditions of the societies of Northwest Amazon indicates the widespread distribution of a ritual complex involving the use of sacred flutes and trumpets, masked dances, and the practice of ritual whipping, associated with a mythology the central themes of which included initiation, ancestors, warfare, and seasonal cycles marked by festivals. Early observers noted that this ritual complex was of central importance, and that the guardians of the sacred trumpets formed an elite priestly class with a supreme leader who was also a war chief. There are indications of ceremonial centers where rituals were celebrated among societies of different language groups.

The evolution of this complex was drastically truncated and transformed by the advance of the Portuguese and Spanish slaving commerce in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of the most powerful chiefs were co-opted into destructive wars to obtain slaves, thus irremediably fragmenting political-religious formations, as well as leaving vast parts of the Northwest Amazon region depopulated, as people were herded into mission-run settlements, where they were forced to adapt to Western culture. By the late eighteenth century, even with a brief respite in the advance of colonization, many of the surviving societies had been introduced to Christianity and had adopted its calendric festivals, if not its belief system, into their religious patterns.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, as an early reaction to exploitation by merchants, pressures from missionaries, and the waves of epidemics that decimated the Indian population, a sequence of prophetic movements and rebellions broke out in the Northwest Amazon region. Dressing as priests and identifying themselves with Christ and the saints, prophet-shamans led the people in the "Dance of the Cross," a fusion of traditional rituals with elements of Catholicism that promised freedom from white oppression and relief from the "sins" that were believed to be causing the epidemics. While many of these movements suffered repression, the prophetic tradition continued among both Tukanoan- and Arawak-speaking peoples until well into the twentieth century in areas that escaped the attention of missionaries and government officials.

Contemporary Peoples and Their Religious Traditions

For the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Amazon today, religion is not an institution differentiated from other aspects of their lives. When they use the term religion, they are generally referring to the Christian religions introduced among them in their long history of contact with nonindigenous society. When they wish to refer to their own beliefs and practices that have to do with the sacred, they generally use such phrasings as "our tradition" and "the wisdom of our ancestors." To understand these traditions, it is useful to consider four dimensions that characterize all religious traditions: cosmogony (the meaning of the beginning); cosmology (spatial and temporal structures of the universe); anthropology (the relations among living beings, including "specialists" who mediate relations with the spirits and divinities); and eschatology (the meaning of the end). This entry will seek to provide a minimum understanding of these dimensions from the rich and complex contemporary traditions of the Tukanoan-speaking peoples, the Arawak-speaking Baniwa and Kuripako, and the Maku of the Rio Negro region and its main tributaries, the Uaupés and Içana; the Yanomami of the Parima highlands on the border of Brazil and Venezuela; and the Carib-speaking Makiritare of the upper Orinoco Valley.


Tukanoan-speaking peoples inhabit the rainforest region on the border of Brazil and Colombia. Although they are divided into numerous linguistic groups, they nevertheless share a body of broadly identical mythology. Religious life revolves around these myths; the importance of sacred flutes and trumpets representing the ancestors of each group; shamans and chant specialists; and a cosmology centering on the themes of mortality and immortality, death and rebirth, and the conjunction of male and female principles in the creation and reproduction of culture.

The myths explain the origins of the cosmos, describing a dangerous, undifferentiated world with no clear boundaries of space and time and no difference between people and animals. They explain how the first beings created the physical features of the landscape, and how the world was gradually made safe for the emergence of true human beings. A key origin myth explains how an anaconda-ancestor entered the world-house through the "water-door" in the east and traveled up the Rio Negro and Uaupés with the ancestors of all humanity inside his body. Initially in the form of feather ornaments, these spirit-ancestors were transformed into human beings over the course of their journey. When they reached the center of the world, they emerged from a hole in the rocks and moved to their respective territories. These narratives give the Tukanoan peoples a common understanding of the cosmos, of the place of human beings within it, and of the relations that should pertain between different peoples and between them and other beings.

The universe consists of three basic levels: the sky, earth, and underworld. Each layer is a world in itself, with its specific beings, and can be understood both in abstract and in concrete terms. In different contexts, the "sky" can be the world of the sun, the moon, and the stars; the world of the birds who fly high; the tops of mountains; or even a head adorned with a headdress of red and yellow macaw feathers, which are the colors of the sun. In the same way, the underworld can be the River of the Dead below the earth, the yellow clay below the layer of soil where the dead are buried, or the aquatic world of the subterranean rivers. In any case, what defines the "sky" or the "underworld" depends not only on the scale and context, but also on the perspective: at night, the sun, the sky, and the day are below the earth and the dark underworld is on top.

In symbolic terms, the longhouse is the universe, and vice versa. The thatched roof is the sky, the support beams are the mountains, the walls are the chains of hills that seem to surround the visible horizon at the edge of the world, and under the floor runs the River of the Dead. The longhouse has two doors: the one facing east, called the "water door," is the men's door; the other, facing west, is the women's door. A long roof beam called the "path of the sun" extends between the two doors. In this equatorial region, the underworld rivers run from west to east, or from the women's door to the men's door; completing a closed circuit of water; the River of the Dead runs from the east to the west.

The longhouse is likewise a bodythe "canoe-body" of the ancestral anacondawhich, according to the myth of creation, brought the ancestors of humanity, the children of the ancestral anaconda, inside it, swimming upriver from the Amazon to the Uaupés in the beginning of time. These children are the inhabitants of the longhouse, replica of the original ancestor, containers of future generations and they themselves are future ancestors. But if the longhouse is a human body, its composition is also a question of perspective. From the male point of view, the painted front of the longhouse is a man's face, the men's door his mouth, the main beams and side beams his spinal column and ribs, the center of the house his heart, and the women's door his anus. From the female point of view, however, the spinal column, ribs, and heart are the same, but the rest of the body is inverted: the women's door is her mouth, the men's door her vagina, and the inside of the house her womb.

In the Tukanoan life cycle, there is a notion of reincarnation shared by all Tukanoans: at death, an aspect of the dead person's soul returns to the "house of transformation," the group's origin site. Later the soul returns to the world of the living to be joined to the body of a newborn baby when the baby receives its name. People are named after a recently dead relative on the father's side. Each group owns a limited set of personal names, which are kept alive by being transmitted back to the living. The visible aspect of these name-souls are the feather headdresses worn by dancers, ornaments that are also buried with the dead. The underworld river is described as being full of these ornaments and, in the origin story, the spirits inside the anaconda-canoe traveled in the form of dance ornaments.

Buried in canoes, the souls of the dead fall to the underworld river below. From there they drift downstream to the west and to the upstream regions of the world above. Women do not give birth in the longhouse, but in a garden located inland, upstream, and behind the housealso the west. The newborn baby is first bathed in the river, then brought into the longhouse through the rear women's door. Confined inside the house for about a week with its mother and father, the baby is again bathed in the river and given a name. Thus, in cosmological terms, babies do indeed come from women, water, the river, and the west.

In the Tukanoan view, masa, the word for "people," is a relative concept. It can refer to one group as opposed to another, to all Tukanoans as opposed to their non-Tukanoan neighbors, to Indians as opposed to whites, to human beings as opposed to animals, and finally to living things, including trees, as opposed to inanimate objects. In myths and shamanic discourse, animals are people and share their culture. They live in organized longhouse communities, plant gardens, hunt and fish, drink beer, wear ornaments, take part in intercommunity feasts, and play their own sacred instruments. All creatures that can see and hear, communicate with their own kind, and act intentionally are "people"but people of different kinds. They are different because they have different bodies, habits, and behaviors and see things from different bodily perspectives. Just as stars see living humans as dead spirits, so also do animals see humans as animals. In everyday life, people emphasize their difference from animals, but in the spirit world, which is also the world of ritual, shamanism, dreaming, and ayahuasca visions (ayahuasca being a psycho-active liquid that is drunk on ceremonial occasions), perspectives are merged, differences are abolished, the past is the present, and people and animals remain as one.

In Amazonia, ritual specialists with special powers and access to esoteric religious knowledge are often referred to as "shamans." In order to operate successfully in the world, all adult men must be shamans to some extent. But those who are publicly recognized as such are individuals with greater ritual knowledge and a special ability to "read" what lies behind sacred narratives; they are individuals who choose to use their skills and knowledge on behalf of others, and who acquire recognition as experts. With rare exceptions, ritual experts are always men, but the capacity of women to menstruate and to bear children is spoken of as the female equivalent of shamanic power.

Tukanoans distinguish between two quite different ritual specialists, the yai and the kumu. The yai corresponds to the prototypical Amazonian shaman whose main tasks involve dealing with other people and with the outside world of animals and the forest. The shaman is an expert in curing the sickness and diseases caused by sorcery from vengeful creatures and jealous human beings. Yai means "jaguar," a term that gives some indication of the status of the shaman in Tukanoan society. The kumu is more a savant and a priest than a shaman. His powers and authority are founded on an exhaustive knowledge of mythology and ritual procedures, knowledge that only comes after years of training and practice. As a knowledgeable senior man, the kumu is typically also a headmen and leader of his community and will exercise considerable authority over a much wider area. Compared to the sometimes morally ambiguous yai, the kumu enjoys a much higher status and also a much greater degree of trust, which relates to his prominent ritual role. The kumu plays an important role in the prevention of illness and misfortune. He also officiates at rites of passage and effects the major transitions of birth, initiation, and death, transitions that ensure the socialization of individuals and the passage of the generations, and which maintain ordered relations between the ancestors and their living descendants. The kumu 's other major function is to officiate at dance feasts, drinking parties, and ceremonial exchanges and to conduct and supervise the rituals at which the sacred instruments are played, rituals that involve direct contact with dead ancestors.

The yearly round is punctuated by a series of collective feasts, each with its own songs, dances, and appropriate musical instruments, which mark important events in the human and natural worldsbirths, initiations, marriages, deaths, the felling and planting of gardens, the building of houses, the migrations of fishes and birds, and the seasonal availability of forest fruits and other gathered foods. The feasts take three basic forms: cashirís (beer feasts), dabukuris (ceremonial exchanges), and rites involving sacred flutes and trumpets. The rituals involving sacred musical instruments are the fullest expression of the Indians' religious life, for they synthesize a number of key themes: ancestry, descent and group identity, sex and reproduction, relations between men and women, growth and maturation, death, regeneration, and the integration of the human life cycle with cosmic time. (For a complete description and analysis of these rites, and the symbolism of the sacred instruments, see Hugh-Jones, 1979.)

Effective missionary penetration among the Tukanoans began towards the end of the nineteenth century with the arrival of the Franciscans. The Franciscans, and the Salesians who followed them, saw native religion through the lens of their own closed religious categories. Without knowing or caring about what Tukanoan religion meant, the missionaries set about destroying one civilization in the name of another, burning down the Indians' longhouses, destroying their feather ornaments, persecuting the shamans, and exposing the sacred instruments to women and children. They ordered people to build villages of neatly ordered single-family houses and send their children to mission boarding schools, where they were taught to reject their parents' and their ancestors' ways of life.

If the missionaries were resented for their attack on Indian culture, they were also welcomed as a source of manufactured goods, as defenders of the Indians against the worst abuses of the rubber gatherers, and as the providers of the education that the Indian children would need to make the most of their new circumstances. From the 1920s onwards, the Salesians established a chain of outposts throughout the region on the Brazilian side of the frontier. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the growing body of evangelicals apart, most Tukanoan Indians would consider themselves to be Catholics. As more and more people now leave their villages and head for urban centers in search of education and employment, life in the longhouses and the rich variety of ritual life that went with it now persists only in the memories of the oldest inhabitants. On the Colombian side of the border, the more liberal Javerians preach tolerance of Indian culture and accommodation with its values and beliefs, allowing the Tukanoans to conserve much of their traditional religion and way of life to this day.

Baniwa and Kuripako

The religious life of the Arawak-speaking Baniwa and Kuripako of the Brazil/Venezuela/Colombia borders was similarly based on the great mythological and ritual cycles related to the first ancestors and symbolized by sacred flutes and trumpets, on the central importance of shamanism, and on a rich variety of dance rituals called pudali, associated with the seasonal cycles and the maturation of forest fruits.

Baniwa cosmogony is remembered in a complex set of numerous myths in which the main protagonist is Nhiãperikuli, beginning with his emergence in the primordial world and ending with his creation of the first ancestors of the Baniwa phratries and his withdrawal from the world. Many of these myths recount the struggles of Nhiãperikuli against various animal-tribes who seek to kill him and destroy the order of the universe. More than any other figure of the Baniwa pantheon, Nhiãperikuli was responsible for the form and essence of the world; in fact, it may even be said that he is the universe.

Another great cycle in the history of the cosmos is told in the myth of Kuwai, the son of Nhiãperikuli, and the first woman, Amaru. This myth has central importance in Baniwa culture for it explains at least four major questions on the nature of existence in the world: (1) how the order and ways of life of the ancestors are reproduced for all future generations, the Walimanai; (2) how children are to be instructed in initiation rituals about the nature of the world; (3) how sicknesses and misfortune entered the world; and (4) what is the nature of the relation among humans, spirits, and animals that is the legacy of the primordial world. The myth tells of the life of Kuwai, an extraordinary being whose body is full of holes and consists of all the elements of the world, and whose humming and songs produce all animal species. His birth sets in motion a rapid process of growth in which the miniature and chaotic world of Nhiãperikuli opens up to its real-life size.

The myth of Kuwai marks a transition between the primordial world of Nhiãperikuli and a more recent human past, which is brought directly into the experience of living people in the rituals. For that reason, the shamans say that Kuwai is as much a part of the present world as of the ancient world, and that he lives "in the center of the world." For the shamans, he is the Owner of Sicknesses and it is he whom they seek in their cures, for his body consists of all sicknesses that exist in the world (including poison used in witchcraft, which is still the most frequently cited "cause" of death of people today), the material forms of which he left in this world in the great conflagration that marked his "death" and withdrawal from the world. The shamans say that Kuwai's body is covered with fur like the black sloth called wamu. Kuwai ensnares the souls of the sick, grasping them in his arms (as the sloth does), and suffocating them until the shamans bargain with him to regain the souls and return them to their owners.

In Baniwa cosmology, the universe is formed by multiple layers associated with various divinities, spirits, and "other people." According to one shaman, it is organized into an enormous vertical structure of twenty-five layers or "worlds"(kuma ), there being twelve layers below "this world" (hliekwapi) of humans, collectively known as Uapinakuethe, and twelve above, collectively known as Apakwa Hekwapi, the "other world." Each one of the layers below the earth is inhabited by "people" or "tribes" with distinctive characteristics (people painted red, people with large mouths, etc.). With the exception of the people of the lowest level of the cosmos, and one other underworld, all other peoples are considered to be "good" and assist the shaman in his search for the lost souls of the sick. Above our world are the places of various spirits and divinities related to the shamans: bird-spirits who help the shaman in his search for lost souls; the Owner of Sicknesses, Kuwai, whom the shaman seeks in order to cure more serious ailments; the primordial shamans and Dzulíferi, the Owner of Pariká (shaman's snuff) and tobacco; and finally, the place of the creator and transformer Nhiãperikuli, or Dio, which is a place of eternal, brilliant light, like a room full of mirrors reflecting this light. The sun is considered to be a manifestation of Nhiãperikuli's body. With the exception of the level of Kuwai, all other levels are likewise inhabited by "good people." Some may "deceive" or "lie" to the shaman, but only the "sickness owner" possesses death-dealing substances used in witchcraft.

This world of humans is, by contrast, considered to be irredeemably evil. Thus, of all the layers in the universe, four are considered to be comprised of wicked people. It is remarkable how, in the context and from the perspective of the most elaborate cosmic structure thus far recorded amongst the Baniwa, the theme of evil in this world of humans clearly stands out. In shamanic discourse, this world is frequently characterized as maatchikwe (place of evil), kaiwikwe (place of pain), and ekúkwe (place of rot [due to the rotting corpses of the dead]), contrasting it with the world of Nhiãperikuli, which is notable for its sources of remedies against the sicknesses of this world. This world is considered to be contaminated by the existence of sorcerers and witches. Shamanic powers and cures, by contrast, are characterized in terms of the protective, beneficial, and aesthetically correct: to make the world beautiful; to make this world and the people in it better and content; to not let this world fall or end (meaning, to be covered in darkness and overrun by witches); to retrieve lost souls and make sick persons wellall are phrases that appear in shamanic discourses about journeys to the other world. In all phases of this journey, the beauty, goodness, unity, order, and truthin a word, the "light"of the other world (with the exception of the places of Kuwai) stand in contrast with this world of multiple pain and evil. In one sense, then, the shaman's quest would seem to be one of "beautifying" this world by seeking to create order and preventing the darkness of chaos.

In the 1950s, the majority of the Baniwa converted to evangelical Protestantism, introduced by missionaries of the New Tribes Mission. Their mass conversion was historically continuous with their participation in prophetic movements ever since the mid-nineteenth century; however, evangelicalism provoked a radical break from their shamanic traditions, as well as serious divisions and conflicts with Catholic Baniwa and those who sought to maintain their ritual traditions. Today, after half a century, evangelicalism is now the predominant form of religion in over half the Baniwa communities, although there is a growing movement among non-evangelicals to revitalize the initiation rituals and mythic traditions.


The universe of the nomadic Maku Indians of the interfluvial region in the Northwest Amazon takes the form of an upright egg, with three levels or "worlds": (1) the subterranean "world of shadows," from where all the monsters come, such as scorpions, jaguars, venomous snakes, the river Indians, and whites; (2) "our world"; that is, the forest, and (3) the "world of the light" above the sky, where the ancestors and the creator, the Son of the Bone, live. Light and shadow are the two basic substances from which all beings are composed in varying proportions. Light is a source of life. Shadow is a source of death. In "our world," leaves and fruit are the beings with the highest concentration of light, while carnivores have the highest concentration of shadow. For this reason, it is better to avoid eating carnivores and restrict one's diet to herbivores. In the world of light after death, people nourish themselves with delicious fruit juices and become eternal adolescents.

The main mythological cycle of the Maku relates the epic tale of the Son of the Bone, whose name varies with the subgroup. The myth describes the survivor of a fire that put an end to the previous creation. His attempts to recreate the world resulted in a series of blunders: conflicts, sickness, and death, all resulting from the mess left behind. After his wife is abducted by his youngest brother, the Son of the Bone leaves this world behind forever, going to live in the world of light, above the sky and the thunder, from where he sometimes emits an expression of revenge. Coincidence or not, in real life, brothers often fight among themselves, in dispute over the same women, or with their affines, in accordance with the clan system.


The Yanomami comprise four linguistic subgroups inhabiting the mountainous rainforests of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. Accounts of creation vary considerably among the groups, although a common theme holds that after the destruction of the primordial world by a cosmic flood, humans originated from the blood of the Moon. The souls of deceased Yanomami, whose bone ashes are consumed during the rituals of reahu, are incorporated into the blood-lakes of the Moon, where they are regenerated and later reincarnated, through falling rain, to a new existence on earth.

The Yanomami word urihi designates the forest and its floor. It also signifies territory or the region currently inhabited. The phrase for "the forest of human beings," the forest that Omama, the creator, gave to the Yanomami to live in generation after generation, is "Yanomami land" or "the great forest-land." A source of resources, for the Yanomami, urihi is not a simple inert setting submitted to the will of human beings. A living entity, it has an essential image and breath, as well as an immaterial fertility principal. The animals it shelters are seen to be avatars of mythic human/animal ancestors of the first humans, who ended up assuming their animal condition due to their uncontrolled behavior, an inversion of present-day social rules. Lurking in the tangled depths of the urihi, in its hills and its rivers, are numerous malefic beings, who injure or kill the Yanomami as though they were game, provoking disease and death. On top of the mountains live the images of the animal-ancestors transformed into shamanic spirits, xapiripë. The xapiripë were left behind by Omama to look after humans. The entire extent of urihi is covered by their mirrors, where they play and dance endlessly. Hidden in the depths of the waters is the house of the monster Tëpërësiki, father-in-law of Omama, where the yawarioma spirits also live; their sisters seduce and enrage young Yanomami hunters, thereby enabling them to pursue a shamanic career.

The initiation of shamans is painful and ecstatic. During initiation, which involves inhaling the hallucinogenic powder yãkõana (the resin or inner bark fragments of the Virola sp. tree, dried and pulverized) for many days under the supervision of older shamans, they learn to "see" or "recognize" the xapiripë spirits and to respond to their calls. The xapiripë are seen in the form of humanoid miniatures decorated with colorful and brilliant ceremonial ornaments. Above all, these spirits are shamanic "images" of forest entities. Many are also images of cosmic entities and mythological personae. Finally, there are the spirits of "whites" and their domesticated animals.

Once initiated, the Yanomami shamans can summon the xapiripë to themselves in order for these to act as auxiliary spirits. This power of knowledge, vision, and communication with the world of "vital images" or "essences" makes the shamans the pillars of Yanomami society. A shield against the malefic powers deriving from humans and nonhumans that threaten the lives of members of their communities, they are also tireless negotiators and warriors of the invisible, dedicated to taming the entities and forces that move the cosmological order. They control the fury of the thunder and winds brought by storms, the regularity of the alternation between day and night, or dry season and rainy season, the abundance of game, and the fertility of gardens; they keep up the arch of the sky to prevent its falling (the present earth is an ancient fallen sky), repel the forest's supernatural predators, and counterattack the raids made by aggressive spirits of enemy shamans. Most importantly, they cure the sick, victims of human malevolence (sorcery, aggressive shamanism, attacks on animal doubles) or nonhuman malevolence (coming from malefic në waripë beings).


The Makiritare, Carib-speaking peoples of the upper Orinoco Valley, recount the story of their creation in the great tradition called Watunna. According to this tradition, the primordial sun brought the heavenly creator Wanadi into being. Through his shamanic powers, Wanadi created "the old people" and then, in his desire to place "good people" in houses on the earth, he dispatched three aspects of himself to earth. The first buried his own placenta in the earth, which gave rise to an evil being, called Odosha, who then sought to destroy every creative effort and introduced death into the world. The second aspect of Wanadi was sent to teach the people that dying is an illusion and that dreaming holds the true power of reality. He brought good people, as sounds, inside a stonelike egg to earth, where they would be born, but Odosha prevented this from happening. Wanadi then hid them in a mountain to wait until the end of the world and the death of Odosha. Wanadi's third aspect, Attawanadi, then came to earth to create the enclosed structure of the earth, which was then shrouded in the darkness created by Odosha. A new sky, sun, moon, and stars were created in this house, village, universe. Then there ensued a struggle between Odosha and Attawanadi in which Odosha is initially victorious, but Attawanadi outsmarts the evil being by assuming elusive guises. As trickster, Attawanadi thwarts Odosha's constant attempts to destroy existence in a sort of negative dialectic of the sacred. Thus cosmic history was set in motion.

Other episodes of this important cycle relate the destruction through deluge of the primordial beings and their world, and the origins of periodicity, differentiation, and bounded spaces. The deluge was the result of the killing of a primordial anaconda-monster. After this destruction, Wanadi decided to make houses and "new people," who live in a symbolic world in which, through song, ritual, and weaving, they recall these primordial events. The landscape of the Makiritare world provides constant reminders of the primordial times. The center of the universe is a lake in Makiritare territory where, in ancient times, waters poured forth from the cut trunk of the tree that originally bore all fruit. This lake contains the sea that once flooded the earth and is now bounded at the edges of the world.

Although numerous Makiritare communities converted to Protestant evangelicalism in the 1980s, many others rejected conversion, maintaining firm belief in the Watunna tradition.


Albert, Bruce. "Yanomami." In Povos indígenas no Brasil. Instituto socioambiental (Socio-Environmental Institute), 1999. Available in Portuguese and English from Basic information on Yanomami society, culture, and cosmology.

De Civrieux, Marc. Watunna: An Orinoco Creation Cycle. Edited and translated by David M. Guss. San Francisco, 1980. Major myth cycle of the Makiritare Indians of the upper Orinoco, collected by the author during twenty years of fieldwork.

Hugh-Jones, Stephen. The Palm and the Pleiades: Initiation and Cosmology in Northwest Amazonia. Cambridge, U.K., 1979. One of the earliest and most important monographs on the ritual and religious life of an indigenous peoples, the Tukanoan-speaking Barasana of the Northwest Amazon. Structuralist analysis of initiation rites, myths, and cosmology.

Pozzobon, Jorge. "Maku." In Povos indígenas no Brasil. Instituto socioambiental (Socio-Environmental Institute), 1999. Available in Portuguese and English from Basic information on Maku society, culture, and cosmology.

Sullivan, Lawrence. Icanchu's Drum: An Orientation to Meaning in South American Religions. New York, 1988. Outstanding source on native South American religions by a historian of religions. Examines the cosmogonies, cosmologies, anthropologies, and eschatologies of native peoples across the continent. Masterful work of interpretation of myths, rituals, and beliefs.

Wright, Robin. Cosmos, Self, and History in Baniwa Religion: For Those Unborn. Austin, Tex., 1998. Monograph on the Baniwa peoples of the Northwest Amazon, focusing on cosmogony, cosmology, eschatology, and conversion to Protestant evangelicalism.

Wright, Robin, with Manuela Carneiro da Cunha. "Destruction, Resistance, and TransformationsSouthern, Coastal, and Northern Brazil (15801890)." In The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Vol. 3: South America, edited by Stuart Schwartz and Frank Salomon, part 2, pp. 287381. New York and Cambridge, U.K., 1999. History of three centuries of contact between indigenous societies in three regions of Brazil, and the expanding colonial frontier.

Robin M. Wright (2005)

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South American Indians: Indians of the Northwest Amazon

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South American Indians: Indians of the Northwest Amazon