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ETHNONYMS: Aparai. In historical sources: Aparahy, Aparay, Appareille, Appiroi


Identification. The term "Apalai" is of Tupían origin and means "small bow." This designation is found in sources dating from the eighteenth century and is the self-name of the modern group. The Apalai recognize the Makapai and Inumi as subgroups. The Wayana call the Apalai "Pirixiyana" (parakeet people) because of their rapid mode of speech. Having fused with the Wayana, these groups are referred to by a single term, "Wayana-Apalai"; this is an external (administrative, academic) and not an inherently native appellation.

Location. The Apalai live exclusively in Brazil, in the Tumucumaque Indian Park and the Paru de Leste Indian Area, where they occupy the banks of the Rio Paru de Leste. This region is located north of the state of Para, on the border with Suriname, at 0°3 to 2°30 N and 54° to 55°30 W. Some Apalai remain along the Rio Jari in the state of Amapá.

Demography. The administrative demographic census of the Apalai includes the Wayana. In 1989, 328 Wayana-Apalai were recorded as living in the Tumucumaque Indian Park; about 10 additional Apalai were found living along the Rio Jari.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Apalai language belongs to the Carib Languague Family, more precisely to the northern Cariban of Guiana.

History and Cultural Relations

It is difficult to obtain information about the Apalai of the past because both archaeological data and historical documentation are lacking. Moreover, the few references dwell mainly on the location of villages. The oldest reports go back to the second quarter of the eighteenth century and state that the "Appirois" and Appareilles" inhabited the headwaters of the Jari and Oiapoque rivers. Following a period of silence, references from the second half of the nineteenth century reveal that Apalai communities occupied a vast territory, with concentrations on the lower courses of the Curuá de Alenquer, Maicuru, Paru de Leste, and Jari rivers. During this time, Apalai history can be traced together with that of the other indigenous groups of the Tumucumaque because they have many cultural traits in common, including the fact that most of them spoke Carib languages. They inhabited an area between the basins of the Trombetas and Jari rivers and their respective tributaries. Their almost complete isolation was only occasionally interrupted by hostile encounters with neighboring tribes, sporadic visits of travelers and scientists, and contacts mainly of a commercial nature with Guianese Maroons.

At the beginning of the twentieth century such contacts with the outside world increased, precipitating a drastic decimation of the indigenous population and promoting the regrouping and fusion of the survivors. Alarmed by these events, the Apalai initially retired to the headwaters of the Rio Maicuru and the lower and middle Paru de Leste and Jari rivers, including the latter's tributary, the Ipitinga. Finally, during the 1960s, they concentrated along the Paru de Leste. Their oral tradition recounts long periods of war, notably against the Cariban Wayana to the north and the Tupían Wayãpi to the east of their territory, as well as against certain hunting-gathering peoples whose survivors they incorporated into their own population. The process of fusion with the Wayana seems to have begun at the end of the nineteenth century, when the Apalai were concentrated on the Rio Paru de Este. According to mythical narratives, peaceful relations were established between these two groups when they allied themselves to destroy Tuluperê, a common enemy of supernatural origin.

There were Apalai contacts with nonindigenous populations (Brazilians and Guianese) at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Such contact has increased in the twentieth century and can be characterized as intermittent owing to the seasonal character of the region's extractive economy, which is based on balata, Brazil nuts, feline pelts (e.g., those of jaguars), gold, and tin; the Apalai used to participate in some of these activities and occasionally still do, either as extractors or providers of implements or foodstuffs to non-Indian extractors. In the 1960s the Apalai began to have permanent contacts with both missionaries and institutions of public service. The missionaries, who settled in the area in 1963, are evangelists representing the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a Protestant group, and the Baptist Alliance of the Amazon (ALBAMA). They devote themselves to the study of the Apalai language, which they use in their literacy work and in proselytizing, thereby exerting strong deculturative pressure. Government bodies are represented by the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) and the Fundação Nacional do Indio (National Indian Foundation, FUNAI). In 1969 the former installed a landing strip along the middle Rio Paru in a place known as "Apalai Village" and began a regular line of aerial transport. In 1973 FUNAI installed itself near the landing strip. At first this body's activities were of little effect; FUNAI limited itself to occasional hygenic assistance and the purchase of handicrafts. Later, the Indian post implemented more stable programs concerning hygiene and literacy in Portuguese. At the end of the 1980s, military control of the area was increased with the implementation of the CALHA Norte Project (PCN), and the Indian reserve of Tumucumaque became one of its areas of priority.


Exclusively Apalai villages are rare, but one may speak of predominantly Apalai communties, five of which were listed in the 1989 census. Except for "Apalai Village," where government establishments and the evangelical mission are located, the rest of the villages are sited according to economic, religious, and social considerations. Contemporary villages are located on the banks of the Paru de Leste or on nonflooding islands. The composition of villages is diversified, varying according to the number of inhabitants. Dwellings of several types, generically called tapyi, shelter nuclear families; meeting and reception houses (tukussipanos ) for visitors feature conical roofs. Both are made from local materials. The settlement forms an irregular circle within which the main social activities take place.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agriculture and hunting are the main subsistence activities. Complementary activities are fishing (during the summer months) and gathering. Agriculture is of the slash-and-burn type. The Apalai plant numerous species of bitter manioc, their staple food. The cassava pulp is made into flat cakes that are always eaten with protein food. The juice is used as a condiment for meats, and the flour is made into gruel. Other vegetables are planted and consumed, some in the form of fermented drinks. In the village, the main meals are always communal. Men are separated from women and children when processed foods are shared. Raw foodstuffs are also exchanged, mainly between related women. The main commercial activity is the manufacture of handicrafts for sale. The repertoire of items includes baskets, ceramics, glass-bead ornaments, and objects sculpted from wood. Initially they were traded internally for merchandise in "Apalai Village"; some Apalai undertook to resell them to Artíndia's (FUNAI's) stores and tourist stores in Belém. FUNAI acquires these trade items for their stores throughout the main Brazilian cities. There are constant complaints about underpayment in such transactions. Especially during the 1950s and 1960s, some Apalai turned to prospecting for gold during the summer months. Leasing rudimentary tools, they extracted gold from rivers in the proximity of cleared fields. Contract work became more rare after 1971. Another business, restricted to the villages to the south of the Paru de Este Indian Area, involves selling salted fish to prospectors in the "May 13th" camp established in the vicinity.

Industrial Arts. The women devote themselves to spinning and weaving cotton for body ornaments, hammocks, and fishing nets and making ceramics for ritual and daily use, as well as glass-bead ornaments. Men use lianas, straw, or the cortex of arumâ (Ischnosiphon sp.) stems for more than forty types of basketwork. They work wood to make bows, benches, canoes, paddles, and clubs, and also make arrows, featherwork, and musical instruments (flutes) for ritual use. Apalai men and women are reputed to be excellent pottery makers. An extensive repertory of items is commercialized in order to obtain Western goods.

Trade. The Apalai historically belonged to an extensive trade network that connected many indigenous peoples of the Guiana region. Manufactured goods like glass beads, textiles, and axes were obtained from European settlers on the Caribbean coast. Intertribal commerce reached indigenous groups who lived too far away for direct contact. In times of peace the Apalai received merchandise from the Wayana, who in turn obtained it from the Tiriyó and the Maroons. Until the 1970s and 1980s, traders of these groups came to the villages on the Rio Paru to exchange nets and domesticated dogs for industrial products. Owing to their location, the Apalai had access to items that originated in Brazil and that were traded among the local populations. Barter persists with Wayana and Maroon communities of Suriname and French Guiana, and business transactions take place with FUNAI.

Division of Labor. Daily activities are carried out according to a division of labor by sex. Men provide the daily supply of protein by hunting, fishing, and gathering. They choose an appropriate piece of land and undertake the arduous task of preparing the field for agriculture. Planting and harvesting are predominantly women's work. Women also prepare food and drink, spending many hours in processing bitter manioc. They also carry out domestic chores and take care of small children. Men build houses and work wood, plant fibers, and feathers. Women work with clay, glass beads, and cotton. Both men and women produce items for sale.

Land Tenure. Land is considered communal property and is divided equally between the Apalai and Wayana. Nevertheless, the ancient territorial division is still valid, that is to say, the central and lower portion of the Paru de Este is an area occupied by the Apalai. Therefore, it is precisely in this area that the majority of their villages are located. However, there is free transit on the rivers, in the jungle, and on streams to permit fishing, hunting, and gathering of foodstuffs and primary materials. Legal claims to a given piece of land are only possible after a field has been prepared; the claim lasts as long as the land is considered productive. Natural resources in the field's vicinity are held to be for the exclusive use of the family group that cultivates it, and exploitation of these resources by others is subject to request and permission. The Indian park of Tumucumaque was created by presidential decree in 1968, and the indigenous Paru de Leste Area was delimited in 1984; the boundaries of neither zone have been fixed.


Kin Groups and Descent. The generic term for relative is yekiri, which is used for both consanguinal and affinal kin. Descent is patrilineal and residence uxorilocal. The terminology for age-classes is different for males and females.

Kinship Terminology. The kinship nomenclature of the Apalai follows the Dravidian system. The term i-rui designates Ego's brother and male parallel cousins, whereas the term kono'no is applied to Ego's male cross cousins.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is preferably with bilateral cross cousins; marriage with parallel cousins is considered incestuous. Polygyny is preferred, especially with a mother and daughter or with two sisters. For a woman, marriage takes place following the onset of menstruation and the celebration of an initiation ritual that features seclusion and propitiatory rites. Marriage can also be contracted between a man and a girl of prepuberty age, in which case the consummation of the union is delayed until the girl has reached womanhood. Although cross-cousin marriage is still the ideal form, the low population index forces the Apalai to enter into different arrangements, including alliances with the Wayana. Yet tribal endogamy is upheld whenever possible, mainly because of the linguistic barrier between the two groups; only a few Apalai speak the Wayana language.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family constitutes the residential unit. Co-wives live together but keep separate kitchens. There is a preference for initial matrilocality: couples first live with the wife's parents but move away after a prescribed time to establish their neolocal household somewhere in the vicinity. The elderly and widowed live with their children or with married grandchildren. In the past, communal houses lodged entire extended families. During the day life unfolded in the village, but at night everyone retired to spend the night in the large, totally enclosed dwelling at the edge of the forest.

Inheritance. By request, a deceased person's belongings may accompany him or her into the grave. Otherwise they are burned, broken, or thrown into the river, depending on the materials from which they are made. Lidded telescoping baskets containing feather ornaments are not destroyed but passed on to the deceased's sons.

Socialization. Small children are socialized by their mother, who takes exclusive care of them. From the age of 3 or 4, small pubic covers are worn by boys and girls. This is the time when initial apprenticeship takes place by way of imitative and pleasurable learning. The children are given miniature artifacts such as bows and arrows for the boys and carrying baskets for the girls. Later both sexes begin developing handicraft skills, starting with processing cotton. Instruction intensifies as they grow older and is accompanied by admonishments and activities that are markedly related to the economic cycle. The children accompany their parents to the fields, the forest, or the river, in accordance with the sexual division of labor. The time prior to marriage is employed in refining handicraft skills so as to increase expertise in the manufacture of artifacts and ornaments.

Socialization is only considered complete after the rites of passage, which are different for each sex. Puberty ordeals for girls take place within the homeleaf-cutter ants held in frames against the skin are used to further proper physical development. Male ordeals involve a complex ritual. Framessimilar to those used in the female ritesholding ants or wasps of various kinds are applied to the skin to ensure dexterity in hunting; each man submits to at least seven different wasp ordeals. The missionaries disapprove of the traditional customs and maintain that formal schooling and the evangelical cult are the only appropriate educational options. Thus, puberty rituals are now performed only sporadically.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social relationships are based on consanguineal and affinial ties between individuals, with the village and domestic group functioning as the basic social units. Villages are generally inhabited by a married couple and their unmarried children, the families of their married daughters, and sundry members of their young husbands' kin or even other people. The establishment of an administrative and service center (with a school, walk-in clinic, etc.) in "Apalai Village" has created an atypical arrangement by bringing together a number of unrelated families who live there on a temporary or a permanent basis.

Political Organization. Sources indicate that there used to be an office of supreme warchief. Present-day leaders are restricted in authority to their respective villages and are referred to as tamuru, "old men." In accordance with the rules of political organization, they are the village founders or their sons who have inherited this prerogative. The status of leadership they hold reverts to the members of their families, especially to their sons-in-law (peitó ), who are saddled with heavy matrimonial obligations. Above all, the authority of the tamuru is exercised by giving advice regarding collective labor and by arranging rituals. Nowadays the old men function as their communities' main spokesmen to outsiders.

Social Control. An individual's relations with the other members of the community are dependent on social behavior appropriate to his or her age and sex. Failure to observe the prescribed norms results in sanctionsepithets, disrespectful comments, or ostracism.

Conflict. Family disputes can lead to the abandonment of a house and temporary relocation to a distant village, "Apalai Village," or even communities in Suriname or French Guiana. Many of the disputes are caused by factors related to the misunderstanding and systematic destruction of traditional values and practices by missionaries and government functionaries.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditional Apalai religion is based on the belief in various categories of primal beings, creators, and founders of social norms. Their deeds are recounted in a complex series of mythical narratives, among which those relating to Mopό, a culture hero, are particularly prominent. Myths further recount the origin of natural elements and refer to cultural values. A great deal of influence is exerted on Apalai life by the spirits of the forest, the jorokó, and by supernatural water spirits, the ipore, among whom Okoiimó, the Anaconda, stands out as the paradigm of supernatural beings.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans possess knowledge of curing practices. There is a hierarchy of shamans that includes specialists who attract game animals and ensure a good harvest as well as specialists in herbal medicine and food exorcism. Other specialists lead singers or dancers in rituals. Old men are regarded as keepers of knowledge about myths and traditions.

Ceremonies. Contemporary Apalai ceremonies are indistinguishable from those of the Wayana, because of the small Apalai population and the ongoing process of fusion. There are two main groups of festivities; those consecrated to the flutes, lué, and those of female and male initiation, the latter being the most important. The puberty rituals are referred to as okomoman in Wayanan and as festa da tocandeira in Portuguese. The rituals are conducted according to Wayana custom, although the Apalai now have a similar ceremony where songs are sung to the arrows (pyrau eremiry), masks are worn, and basketry frames containing ants or wasps that represent supernatural beings are applied to the skin.

Arts. The arts, including rhetoric, song, dance, music, and the visual arts, constitute one of the privileged axes of Apalai life. Handicrafts and body decoration assume a multiplicity of forms. Decorative motifs, generically called menurú are of mythic origin. They were obtained from the skin of the supernatural Anaconda and are believed to be its body painting, even though individually each motif represents a supernatural or primal being.

Medicine. Therapeutic practices are related to shamanic cures. In curing, the use of medicinal herbs, food taboos and restrictions in behavior and sexual abstinence are of equal importance. The shaman, piaxi, is a person who acts as a mediator between the world of human needs and the dangerous realm of superhuman forces, especially the jorokó spirits, which cause illnes. Curing shamans use tobacco and rattles; this is a characteristic element of Apalai shamanism, which is recognized and well known in the western Guianas. Western medical examinations, vaccines, and medicines are well tolerated by the Apalai, but surgery and hospitalization are not.

Death and Afterlife. Serious illness and death are believed to be the result of the actions of malevolent beings: shamans, spirits, or supernatural beings. The Apalai traditionally buried their dead in the home or abandoned a shaman's corpse in the forest. The village had to be abandoned after many deaths had occurred or upon the death of a chief or a shaman. Nowadays, the missionaries have persuaded the Indians to have a cemetery in the vicinity of "Apalai Village." After death, the vital elements of a person have different destinies. That which is found in the seat of knowledge, the eye, disappears at death, but that which is found on the back of a person and manifests itself as his or her shadow leaves the body and begins a long and dangerous journey to the land of the dead, where it reunites with the ancestors.


Basso, Ellen, ed. (1977). Carib-Speaking Indians. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Ricardo, Carlos Alberto, ed. (1983). "Wayana-Aparai"; "Aparai do Jari." In Povos indígenas no Brasil. Vol. 3, Ampá/Norte do Pará, 139-181. São Paulo: Centro Ecumênico de Documentâção e Informação (CEDI).

Koehn, Sally (1975). Apalai Kinship and Social Behavior, 81-108. Arquivos de Anatomia e Antropologia, 1. Rio de Janeiro: Instituto de Antropologia Prof. Souza Marques.

Velthem, Lucia Hussak van (1980). "O parque indígena de Tumucumaque." Boletim Musen Paraense Emílio Goeldi, n.s., Antropologia, 76.

Velthem, Lucia Hussak van (1984). "A pele de tulupere: Estudo dos trançados wayana-apalai." Master's thesis, University of Sao Paulo.

LUCIA HUSSAK VAN VELTHEM (Translated by Ruth Gubler)