Guarani Indians

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Guarani Indians

The Guarani Indians are a branch of the Tupi-Guarani linguistic family of east-central South America. A semi-sedentary people, they lived south of the Amazon between the Brazilian coast and the Río Paraná and Río Paraguay. Immediately before contact with Spaniards in the early 1500s, they were concentrated in the upper Platine region east of the Paraná and Paraguay rivers, when their population of perhaps 300,000 was divided into fourteen subgroups, or Guarás, of which the Carios of central Paraguay are best known. They moved frequently to find fertile land because they supported themselves by swidden agriculture, cultivating manioc, sweet potatoes, maize, and other crops, which they supplemented with hunting and fishing.

In the 1530s, Guaranis sought an alliance with Spanish expeditionaries to strengthen their efforts against their Payaguá enemies, who dominated the Río Paraguay. Guarani chiefs gave daughters and nieces to Spaniards as wives or concubines, which was their way of establishing a relationship of equals. Spaniards were supposed to reciprocate but looked down on Guaranis. Guaranis labored for Spaniards to obtain the iron tools that revolutionized aboriginal work habits.

Iron tools and new allies, Guaranis thought, would make their lives more secure. When they realized that Spaniards regarded them not as allies but as inferiors, some Guaranis in 1545 rose in revolt. Several other Indian rebellions followed but were unsuccessful, partly because many other Guaranis allied themselves with Spaniards. In 1556, to avoid uncontrolled exploitation of Guaranis, Govenor Domingo Martínez de Irala founded the Paraguayan encomienda, the dominant institution of Guarani labor in the early colony; declining numbers of Guaranis labored for elite colonists to the end of the colonial period.

Unions between Guarani women and Spanish men in the early years initiated a process of ethno-genesis. This fusion of Native Americans and Europeans continued to produce mestizo children and a distinctive Paraguayan culture based on nearly universal understanding of the Guarani language.

Guaranis at the margins of settler-controlled land along the Paranapanema in Guairá (now Parána in Brazil), Itaty (in northern Paraguay), and south of the Tebicuari River in Paraguay and Argentina joined Catholic missions staffed by Jesuits after 1610. Guaranis chose missions in order to obtain steady supplies of Spanish artifacts and food and to gain the security from Brazilian slave raiders that Jesuits promised. From such encomienda towns as Yaguarón and Tobatí, Guarani men and women throughout the colonial period escaped the degraded status of "Indian" and moved into Spanish society. Lesser members of Guaranis who left Jesuit missions did the same, but after the departure of Jesuits in 1767 and 1768, mission Guaranis also slowly dispersed into northern Argentina, Uruguay, and western Brazil and became ancestors of the popular classes of those republics. Their descendants in Paraguay form the Guarani-speaking rural population of today.

Guaranis in Paraguay numbered about 40,000 people, or a tenth of the population of the young republic in 1848, when the government of Carlos Antonio López liberated them from their discriminatory status. They officially became Paraguayans. They then were obligated to serve in the military, and their formerly protected lands were available for sale. In the twentieth century, isolated bands of Guaranis provided anthropologists with opportunities to explore their culture, but the lasting influence of the Guaranis lies in the everyday language of Paraguayans. Most of the people of the modern republic are descendants of Guaranis.

In April 2007, eight hundred Guarani from Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia convened at the Continental Assembly II of the Guarani People in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to discuss proposals for self-determination and general improvements of Guarani living conditions. The overarching concerns of the assembly were the lack of land, non-Indian destruction of the environment, and education and health care that respects Guarani traditions.

See alsoGuaraní (Language); Indigenous Peoples; Tupi-Guarani.


Alfred Métraux, "The Guaraní," in Handbook of South American Indians, vol. 3, edited by Julian H. Steward (1948).

Elman R. Service, "The Encomienda in Paraguay," in Hispanic American Historical Review 31, no. 2 (1951): 230-252, and Spanish-Guarani Relations in Early Colonial Paraguay (1954; repr. 1971).

Guillermo Fúrlong Cárdiff, Misiones y sus pueblos Guaraníes (1962).

John Hemming, Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians (1978).

James Schofield Saeger, "Survival and Abolition: The Eighteenth-Century Paraguayan Encomienda," in The Americas: A Quarterly Review of Inter-American Cultural History 38, no. 1 (1981): 59-85.

Branislava Susnik, El rol de los indígenas en la formación y en la vivencia del Paraguay (1982–1983).

                                        James Schofield Saeger