ETHONYMS: Akuáwa-Asurini, Assuriní, Akwaya, Huriní, Suriní, Uriní
All the Asurini do Tocantins at present live on a reservation on the lower Tocantins river near the town of Tucurui in Pará State, Brazil. When they came into contact with Brazil-nut collectors in the early twentieth century, the Asurini do Tocantins lived in the region between the Tocantins and the Rio Pacajá, a tributary of the Xingu. Another Asurini group, the Asurini do Xingu, live on the Rio Piçava, also a Xingu tributary, but they differ from the Asurini do Tocantins in dialect, in custom, and in history of contact.
The Asurini do Tocantins speak a language of the Tupí-Guaraní Family. Today most of them also speak Portuguese, and young people speak Portuguese almost exclusively.
With the building of a railway, starting in 1927, between Tucurui and Jacundá to facilitate the export of Brazil nuts, hostilities between the Asurini and settlers increased, leading to killings on both sides and intensification of efforts by the federal Indian Protection Service (SPI) to contact and pacify the Asurini. In 1953, 190 Asurini were settled on an Indian post at Trocará, but in the same year 50 died in an epidemic of flu and dysentery, and most of the survivors left the post. The remainder abandoned the post in 1956 but returned in 1962 along with another local Asurini group numbering 30 people. Many of these also died, and the survivors fled. During the 1970s many Asurini lived among Whites and began to collect Brazil nuts for sale. In 1974 most of the Asurini from both groups returned to the post.
In 1984 both Asurini do Tocantins groups, the one settled in 1953 and known as the Trocará group, and the Pacajá group that arrived later, lived in the same village on the Trocará reservation, which has an area of 217 square kilometers. They totaled 132 individuals, of which 55 percent were under 14 years of age, indicating a remarkable population recovery. This is owing in part to high fertility and in part to vaccination and the availability of modern medical facilities at Tucurui, where Indians can be treated in emergencies.
Beginning in 1961, with the opening of the Belém-Brasília highway, southeastern Pará became a region of intense economic development. A major hydroelectric project was built on the Tocantins at Tucurui to provide power for mining and industry, and settlers and entrepreneurs of all kinds entered the region. The Asurini reservation is surrounded by large estates, and a main highway cuts across the center of the reservation. There is little game left and the Asurini must constantly defend their boundaries against inroads by invaders seeking to occupy their land or exploit its resources.
Traditionally, the Asurini lived in small independent local groups, each occupying a large communal house. The shaman was often also the headman. All the male members of a local group belonged to the same patriline. Contact between these groups was limited to forming matrimonial alliances and participating in joint ceremonies. Preferential marriage was between a man and his father's sister's daughter, or his sister's daughter, and kin terminology was of the Sudanese type, which distinguishes between matrilateral and patrilateral cross cousins. With severe depopulation, this system has broken down; young people often use Portuguese kin terms, and polygyny has practically disappeared. Boys and girls marry at around 15 years of age, and normally live for a period with the wife's family before setting up an independent household.
Before contact, bitter manioc was the Asurini staple, but they also grew sweet potatoes, yams, sweet manioc, maize, bananas, sugarcane, tobacco, and cotton. The only hunting weapon was the bow and arrow; bows were very long—some as long as 2 meters. The Asurini, although they preferred mammals such as deer, peccaries, tapir, monkeys, and armadillos, also hunted birds. For fishing, in addition to bows and arrows, they used traps, fish poison, and steel hooks obtained during raids on settlers' homesteads. They collected Brazil nuts and a wide variety of palm nuts and wild fruits for food.
At present, because of the lack of game, fishing is more important than hunting. The Asurini fish in lakes and streams but seldom in the Tocantins itself. Families go on fishing trips lasting several days in parts of the reservation distant from the village, where they also hope to find game.
In July and August men clear the fields, which are burned over in September. They grow manioc in a large communal field, and each household plants a field as well. Men and women participate in planting and harvesting. From manioc grown in the communal field, they make manioc flour for sale in Tucurui and use the proceeds to buy foodstuffs such as coffee, sugar, oil, salt, and other goods like kerosene, cloth, flashlight batteries, and portable radios. They also gather Brazil nuts and other wild fruits for sale. The women make a number of craft products to sell in Tucurui, including animal-tooth necklaces, featherwork, baskets, and pottery. The Indian agent at the post is the intermediary for these sales.
According to Asurini mythology, children are conceived when a woman has sexual relations in a dream with the culture hero Mahira. When she has such a dream the woman knows she is pregnant, and she should have frequent sexual relations with her husband so his semen will make the fetus grow. All men with whom a woman may have sexual relations during this period are considered biological fathers of the child. Only women are present during childbirth, and a woman gives birth reclining in her hammock. Both parents observe couvade until the umbilical cord drops off. This involves refraining from eating tabooed foods, avoiding heavy work, and remaining in the house. A few days after birth the baby receives a name, always that of a dead person.
Formerly, a boy was given a second name at puberty, when his lower lip was pierced for a lip ornament and he received a penis sheath. These traits may have been diffused from the Kayapó, with whom the Asurini were in frequent contact, as they are not typical of Tupían groups. Puberty rites are no longer practiced, and only the old shaman wears a lip ornament. Although the Asurini now wear Western clothing, they paint themselves and wear feather ornaments for ceremonies, sometimes also covering their bodies with feathers and down glued on with resin.
Mahira, the culture hero, made order out of the ancient chaos in which the world began. The creator of humans, he taught them to plant manioc, make flutes, and play music. At some time in the mythical past, Mahira grew disgusted with men and returned to heaven. It was then that illnesses appeared. When a person dies, his heavenly soul joins Mahira but his earthly soul remains in the forest, frightening living people and sometimes causing death. The dead were traditionally buried in the house where they lived, and the village was abandoned. At present, the Asurini bury the dead in the bush, far from the village.
The Asurini celebrate two kinds of ceremonials. One takes place after planting and involves dancing, playing flutes, wearing feather headdresses, and eating manioc porridge. The other is a festival associated with the initiation of a new shaman.
The Asurini make music with panpipes, short bamboo flutes, and the great flutes. The latter may be 1 to 3 meters long, and on them they play different melodies, each of which has a name such as "fire music," "tapir," or "parrot."
The shaman's principal role is that of a healer who extracts from the patient's body objects placed there by a supernatural being that lives in the bush. These objects make a person ill by raising body temperature, and the shaman removes them by blowing tobacco smoke over the patient and sucking the objects out. Only the shaman can cure this kind of illness, but minor health problems are treated with medicinal herbs, the apropriate use of which is generally known. Becoming a shaman involves learning to swallow tobacco smoke, fasting, and learning to dream. In dreaming, the apprentice, guided by the shaman, makes contact with the jaguar spirit and obtains from it the supernatural power needed to be a shaman.
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Matta, Roberto da, and Roque de Barros Laraia (1978). Indios e castanheiros: A emprêsa extrativa e os índios no médio Tocantins, 2nd ed. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra.
NANCY M. FLOWERS