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ETHNONYMS: Bacaeri, Bacaery, Bacairi, Bacayri, Bakaeri, Bakaery, Bakaire


Identification. The Bakairi are a group of Brazilian Indians who speak a Carib language. They consider themselves Indians on the basis of language, occupation of a reservation given to them in 1918, and cultural traditions that set them off from Brazilians. They distinguish between non-Indians, or Karaiwa, and Bakairi. Included in the Karaiwa category are Brazilians and non-Brazilians, or Alemao. In the Bakairi category, they refer to Santaneiros, who prefer to speak Portuguese, marry non-Indians, and deviate from prescribed Bakairi traditions, and Xinguanos, who follow traditional customs.

Location. The Bakairi live in the municipality of Paranatinga in the central Brazilian state of Mato Grosso on an Indian reservation administered by the Fundação Nacional do Indio (National Indian Foundation, FUNAI). Although it is located only 120 kilometers from the village of Paranatinga, the reservation is isolated, with roads so poor that it takes from eight hours to two days to travel the distance, depending on the rains. Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso, lies 530 kilometers from the reservation. It takes from eighteen hours to two days to reach this city. The Indians live in a single village, situated at the intersection of the Paranatinga, Azul, and Vermelho rivers, which provide water for drinking, bathing, and washing clothes. Gallery forests, where gardens are cultivated, line their banks. The rivers cover about 1 percent of the reservation's 50,000 hectares, whereas gallery forests make up about 14 percent. Cerrado, a type of dry prairie, constitutes the remaining 85 percent of the reservation. The climate is hot and semihumid. There are rainy and dry seasons. The rains come between the months of November and March. The dry season takes place between the months of May and September.

Demography. The Bakairi reservation is inhabited by 288 people. Two hundred and fifty-nine live in the village, and the rest are dispersed in distant homesteads. About 47 percent of the population is male and about 53 percent is female. The structure of the population is rectangular, which may indicate that artificial population control mechanisms have been in place. The population is growing at the rate of 3.47 percent annually. The northern Mato Grosso area in which the reservation is located is sparsely populated by Brazilian, German, and Italian ranchers and farmers. Large agro-businesses have penetrated the region. Population density is estimated at 0.5 persons per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. A Cariban language, Bakairi belongs to one of the four major linguistic families of lowland South America. Many men and several women also speak Portuguese.

History and Cultural Relations

The region now known as Mato Grosso was initially part of the Spanish Empire. Jesuits moving north and west from Paraguay in the early part of the eighteenth century created the first settlements. They were followed by explorers and miners. The first recorded European contact with the Bakairi was in 1723, when they were described as being enslaved to work in the local gold mines. Population figures for the Indians during this period are difficult to estimate, although they were probably more numerous than they are now. The Bakairi divided into two separate groups in the early nineteenth century. The western Bakairi were absorbed into the cattle-raising economy that replaced the gold and slave trade of the eighteenth century. Later they exploited rubber in their territory and sold it in nearby towns. In the late 1980s the western Bakairi numbered 120 and lived on a tiny reservation of 9,000 hectares, which they shared with a rubber-collecting firm. The eastern Bakairi fled from contact with the Spanish, and later the Portuguese, into the headwaters of the Rio Xingu. They inhabited that region with at least nine other tribes, who frequently visited and traded with each other.

Eventually the headwaters became known as a distinct culture area. It was first visited in the late nineteenth century by German explorers, who recorded visiting seven Bakairi villages. It is estimated that about 325 Bakairi lived in the area at that time. The eastern or Xinguano Bakairi left the Xingu culture area between 1900 and 1920 when a series of devastating epidemics ravaged the indigenous population. They settled on the Rio Paranatinga. In 1918 a 50,000-hectare reservation was decreed for them. The Bakairi passed from relative isolation to frequent contact after 1920.

The Indian Protection Service, which later became the National Brazilian Indian Protection Service, rigorously pursued an assimilation policy, forcing the Indians to wear clothes and to work on Protection Service lands. In the 1970s the assimilation policy was slightly relaxed, but in 1980 the Bakairi received mechanized equipment and chemical fertilizers for farming the cerrado part of the reservation. The foundation's goal was to encourage mastery of industrial-agricultural skills that would increase participation in the national economy. Results of this experiment are mixed.


The Bakairi village is inhabited by about 260 Indians who live in fifty-five houses arranged in rows close to the banks of the Rio Paranatinga. Houses are square and made of clay, palm thatch, and wood, with a minimum of two internal divisions, two windows that can be shuttered, and two doors. The gardens are an average of 4 kilometers from the village. A small number of families live in households near their more distantly placed gardens. These people visit their relatives in the village on a regular basis. A men's house used for daily gatherings is in the center of the village. The men's house is elliptically shaped and made completely of palm thatch bent over slats. It resembles structures commonly seen in the Xingu culture area. Women are not allowed inside.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Bakairi are horticultural riverine Indians. Slash-and-burn horticulture is practiced in subsistence gardens located in the gallery forests along the rivers. The Indians cultivate manioc, rice, yellow maize, bananas, sugarcane, yams, melons, red beans, green beans, papayas, and squashes. They are learning how to use mechanized agricultural equipment to produce rice in the cerrado parts of the reservation. Fishing, hunting, and cattle herding provide high-quality protein. Garden products provide over 96 percent of the energy produced annually by the Bakairi. Over 62 percent of the protein available to the Indians is from vegetables, whereas less than 38 percent is from animals. Young males leave the reservation for several weeks during the dry season to work on nearby ranches and earn small amounts of cash. The money is used to buy goods such as processed foods, cloth, and ammunition. About 400 head of cattle graze on the Bakairi reservation. The herd is owned by FUNAI and cared for by two Bakairi men with whom the foundation has made special arrangements. Sometimes the Indians are allowed to slaughter a steer; the beef is then evenly distributed around the village. Some Bakairi also raise chickens.

Industrial Arts. A variety of products are made to use, give as gifts, or sell to visiting ranchers. Men carve wooden or bark ritual masks, manufacture shell necklaces, make baskets used in agricultural tasks, and carve bows and arrows used in hunting and fishing. Women weave cotton and palm hammocks, bind together mats used in processing bitter manioc, sew dresses and shirts with sewing machines, and make palm costumes used by the ritual-mask dancers.

Trade. Bakairi occasionally travel to Paranatinga or Cuiabá to shop, to receive medical treatment, or to visit FUNAI. People infrequently enter the reservation to trade because authorization from the Brazilian government is required to do so. One of the Bakairi men has a relative living in Cuiabá, however, who visits, bringing extra goods that the two men sell informally in the village. Sugar, candy, flour, cloth, thread, kerosene, fishhooks, and ammunition are available.

Division of Labor. A clear distinction between work done by men and women exists, although there is some overlap, especially in gardening. Men are responsible for hunting, fishing, clearing land for gardens, harvesting garden foods, working outside the reservation on nearby ranches to earn cash, manufacturing certain goods such as baskets and bows, and dancing with ritual masks. Women do most of the child rearing, especially of infants. They also plant and harvest the gardens, process food, cook, wash clothes, fish, manufacture such goods as hammocks, and keep the house clean.

Land Tenure. Bakairi lands are communally owned. The average size of a garden is about 4,000 square meters. Total land under annual production in the gallery forest areas is calculated to be 44.5 hectares. The industrial-agricultural project of the 1980s doubled the amount of land under cultivation. This land is also communally owned.


Kin Groups and Descent. Nuclear families live together in separate households. At certain times extended families live together. A larger kin group consists of relatives who live in separate households but who are linked together consanguineally. They provide support in such production activities as clearing land and in family emergencies such as death. Descent groups such as lineages and clans are absent. Genealogies are shallow. People inherit bilaterally.

Kinship Terminology. Bifurcate-merging terms are used for individuals in the first ascending generation. Iroquois rules are used for individuals of one's own generation. Relative ages of males, but not of females, are marked by the use of distinct terms in one's generation. Village elders are lumped into two categories, one male and one female. Children in the first and second descending generations are also grouped under male and female terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygynous marriages were previously allowed, but all marriages are now monogamous. Village endogamy exists, although marriages with other Indians or with someone from outside the reservation do occur occasionally. Extended-family exogamy is also practiced in that cross cousins, but not parallel cousins, are possible marriage partners. Parents are normally responsible for the selection of their child's spouse. Temporary matrilocal residence follows marriage, during which time the son-inlaw assists the wife's father. This arrangement often ends after the birth of the first child. At that time the couple build their own home but can be joined later by siblings and/or parents of one of the spouses. Divorce is acceptable but rare. Wives leave their husbands if the men impregnate another woman or if physical abuse occurs. Men leave their wives if the women refuse to cook or wash their clothes.

Domestic Unit. The household is the domestic unit. One married couple makes up the core of the household in most cases, although a few households are organized around two married couples or a widow/widower. Children, aging parents of one of the spouses, and unmarried adults make up the peripheral individuals. The majority of households are composed of between three and six individuals with a mode and median of four individuals. Each is expected to contribute to the production process by farming, hunting, fishing, food processing, or doing other chores. Related households maintain strong ties. Young married couples living in other households frequently visit their parents. Adult male siblings farm and hunt together, and adult female relatives bathe and wash clothes in the river together.

Inheritance. Ownership of land or specific hunting or fishing grounds does not exist. Personal property is divided among the surviving family members. Ritual masks are handed down from mother to daughter.

Socialization. Mothers care for infants. Older children are raised by both parents, and siblings and grandparents participate in daily child care. Older women past the age of childbearing frequently adopt children of relations. Physical punishment is used in child rearing, with children taught the values of hard work, team spirit, and respect for their elders.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Bakairi are an egalitarian society. A village headman, called capitão, is elected informally by the people. He has limited powers, mostly of a persuasive nature. One of his responsibilities is to interface with FUNAI officials.

Social Organization. Bakairi society lacks classes and economic specialization; it is organized on the basis of age and gender.

Political Organization. Bakairi society is politically organized around three or four clusters of fluid composition. These political factions are dominated by men and older women from specific kinship groupings. Alliances between kin groups occur regularly. Shamans are important informal community leaders. They persuade people to support them in political disputes. The Bakairi reservation is overseen officially by FUNAI. Central headquarters are located in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, in the Ministry of the Interior. Regional offices are found in Cuiabá. Bakairi men travel to the regional offices several times a year to meet with foundation officials. The foundation attempts to provide medical treatment and educational facilities for the Indians, with varying degrees of success. A representative of this organization sometimes stays on the reservation, especially if a new project is being organized or if conflict between Indians and Brazilians occurs. This agent works mainly with the capitão to facilitate objectives set by his organization.

Social Control. Social control is maintained by a value system that emphasizes cooperation, harmony, and peace. A series of gradational responses is employed to discipline those who deviate from the norm: the elders of the individual's family talk to the deviate; then overt gossip is used; a shaman tries to exorcise the spirits that are supposedly causing the deviant behaviors; finally, the person is threatened by a group of male villagers. Rule breakers frequently flee the reservation.

Conflict. Warfare between the Bakairi and other Indian groups is absent. Before the pacification of the Xavante Indians in the mid-1950s, raiding between Xavante and Bakairi took place. Kayabi and Bakairi relations were also strained during that period. Warfare between Brazilians and the Bakairi is also absent, although disagreements, for example over who may use indigenous lands, sometimes erupt into open conflict between Indians and nearby ranchers. FUNAI normally steps in to settle such disputes before violence erupts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Bakairi subscribe to animistic beliefs, although some claim to be Christian and make efforts to have their children baptized. The Bakairi believe in spirits that populate the natural world. They also believe in twin culture heroes who are identified with the sun and the moon. A degree of syncretism between animistic and Christian beliefs is evident in that the Christian God is merged with the sun culture hero by some Bakairi.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans are religious semispecialists who have special relations with spirits, allowing them to cure the sick or to cause illness in enemies. Shamans are older males who train for over a year before assuming their duties. Their apprenticeship consists of fasting, self-imposed physical trials, and the use of tobacco to induce trances. There are three shamans in the Bakairi village.

Ceremonies. Ritual-mask dancing takes place between the months of March and November. Men wear huge painted masks and palm costumes while they dance around the village chanting. A corn festival marks the beginning of the corn harvest in January. The anteater dance is performed at that time. Every four or five years boys between the ages of 14 and 19 participate in a rite during which their ears are pierced; this is considered a male ritual, and women are not allowed to attend. Five Brazilian holy days are celebrated by the Bakairithose of Saint Antonio, Saint João, Saint Pedro, Saint Benedito, and Saint Sebastião. The first four festivals occur in quick succession in June and July. That of Saint Sebastião takes place in January. Music, dancing, and feasting mark these holy days.

Arts. The men carve and paint large ritual masks. The women sew palm costumes worn with the masks. Chants used when wearing the masks are handed down from generation to generation, but artistic improvisation and delivery are valued. Some of the younger men who have worked on ranches play the guitar and sing Portuguese songs.

Medicine. Two types of illness are recognized: those attributable to contact with non-Indians and those resulting from sorcery. Non-Indian diseases are treated with Western medicine, whereas other types are treated by shamans.

Death and Afterlife. When a death occurs, villagers visit the home of the deceased and cry and wail. The corpse is then wrapped in his or her hammock and buried a short distance from the village. The grave is not marked, and it is not visited afterward. Belief in afterlife does not exist. Kin of the dead person are not encouraged to mourn.


Lévi-Strauss, C. (1950). "The Tribes of the Upper Xingu River." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian Steward. Vol. 3, The Tropical Forest Tribes, 321-348. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute.

Oberg, K. (1948). "The Bacairi of Northern Matto Grosso." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 4(3): 305-319.

Perniilo, V. (1932). "Primitive Peoples of Matto Grosso, Brazil." Philadelphia Museum Journal 23(2): 83-173.

Von den Steinen, K. (1940). Entre os aborigenes do Brasil central. Sao Paulo: Departamento de Cultura.