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ETHNONYMS: Carajá, Javaé, Javahé, Shambioá, Xambioá


Identification. The Karajá are an Indian group of Brazil. They are subdivided into the Karajá proper, Javaé, and Xambioá.

Location. The Karajá are established in central Brazil in the region of the Rio Araguaia, where it splits to flow around the island of Bananal. They inhabit the interior of the island as well as the longer arm of the river. Some local groups live off the island, along the Araguaia to the north and south.

Demography. Reliable estimates of the total Karajá population tend to fall near 2,000 for the three subgroups. One of the censuses done by the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio, FUNAI) in 1990 showed a total of 2,200 Karajá.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Karajá language belongs to the Karajá Family of the Macro-Gê Language Branch. Dialect differences, principally phonological, occur among the three subgroups. There are also differences between male and female speech.

History and Cultural Relations

It is probable that the first contacts of the Karajá with "civilization" date to the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, when explorers began to arrive in the Araguaia-Tocantins Valley. They came from Sao Paulo by land or by the rivers of the Parnaíba Basin, looking for Indian slaves and gold. When gold was discovered in Goiás around 1725, miners from several regions headed there and founded villages in the region. It was against these men that the Indians had to fight to defend their territory, families, and freedom. A military post was established in 1774 to facilitate navigation. Karajá and Javaé lived on the post that was called the Nova Beira colony. Other colonies were founded later but none was successful. The Indians had to adapt to a new way of life and were subject to various contagious diseases to which they had no immunity and for which they had no treatment.

A new phase of colonization began in Goiás when the gold mines became exhausted toward the end of the eighteenth century. With Brazilian independence, the government became more interested in preserving the territorial unity of Goiás and restructuring the economy. In 1863 Couto de Magalhães governor of Goiás, descended the Rio Araguaia. He intended to develop steam navigation and to promote colonization of lands along the border of the river. New villages were founded as a result of this initiative, and steam navigation increased along the Araguaia. Only recently has the region been drawn into the national economy, however. The Service of Protection to the Indians (SPI) permitted cattle raisers to occupy the fields that border the river, gradually involving the Karajá, Javaé, Tapirapé, and Avá (Canoeiros) Indians and causing much change in their lives, as the Indian territories were invaded by the cattle herds during the rainy season. When the military government took power in 1964, the SPI ceased to exist, and the Fundação Nacional do Indio (National Indian Foundation, FUNAI) was created, with similar functions. Reports of writers, travelers, government workers, and ethnologists indicate accentuated depopulation among the Karajá from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.


The Karajá have always inhabited linear villages along the river, unlike the other tribes of central Brazil. Houses previously had an elongated rectangular shape and an ogival roof and housed extended families. Now the houses are smaller, built for nuclear families, and have a square shape and four-sided roofs.

The cemeteries are located near the villages, generally at the riverside; some are contiguous to the village. The extended families have the right to use their land in the cemeteries, which are replicas of the villages of the living.

Early in the twentieth century, there were summer camps where entire families would stay while collecting eggs of the tracajá (Padocnemis unifilis ) and other wildlife products and visiting relatives in other local groups. Today, visits to other villages are frequent at all times of the year, especially during the dry season. Beaches are no longer used for camping except as short-term resting places during subsistence activities; they are never used for leisure activities. The Karajá use motorboats belonging to people in the region or boats belonging to FUNAI for their trips to other villages.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Fishing has always been the principal means of subsistence. The Karajá catch, among other fish, pirarucu (Arapaima gigas ), pirarara (Phractocephalus hemilopteros ), and tucunare (Cichla sp.). Today, part of the catch is sold to the local population. In the early 1970s the Karajá worked for commercial fishermen who exploited them. Since then FUNAI has controlled commercial fishing among the Indians. Besides fish, the Karajá sell handicraft products for the tourist trade.

The Karajá also practice subsistence farming, combining slash-and-burn cultivation with modern farming techniques taught by Brazilian government agents. They cultivate manioc, watermelons, bananas, maize, sweet potatoes, and also rice and beans, which are relatively new cultivars.

At one time the Karajá hunted deer, tapir, wild pigs, and other mammals. These animals have now become scarce, and the Indians prefer to eat beef. Birds are captured and killed for their feathers or kept as pets to please the children. The birds hunted most often are macaws and river birds, especially the colhereiro (Ajaia ajaja ) and the jaburu (Micteria americana ).

The Karajá collect seasonal fruits from the underbrush: coconuts, pequi (Caryocar brasiliense ), and fava do jatobá (Hymenaea stigonocarpa ), among others. They also collect honey from bees, formerly from wild bees but now from those introduced as a result of interethnic contact.

The Brazilian government gave them some cattle in 1983; today there are some 5,000 head on the island of Bananal on farms managed by FUNAI. There are approximately 450 cattle directly in the hands of the Indians.

Industrial Arts. Karajá art features several handicraft modalities, there being specialities that are traditionally masculine and others that are feminine. Among the former are sculpture in wood (dolls and anthropomorphic figures), modeling in wax, feather art, the making of weapons with feather tufts, and ornamental weaving. Women's handicrafts include ceramics and the weaving of cloth. Weaving has always been done by both sexes; however, there are types of weaving dominated by males and other kinds by females, depending on the raw materials and the methods used in the weaving. (Today, handicrafts are free of rigid rules with respect to the division of labor by sex.) Currently, weaving is the most commonly pursued handicraft in all of the Karajá villages. The Karajá use these woven articles themselves and also sell some to tourists. The production of ceramics is of greater importance only in the village of Santa Isabel do Morro (Hawaló). Body painting is practiced by both sexes, usually by the young, although individuals of other age groups also ornament themselves on ceremonial occasions. Ornamentation features a number of basic patterns that subdivide into innumerable variants and complex combinations.

In the past, the Karajá hunted and made war with weapons such as clubs, spears, bows, and spear-thrower darts. They would make miniatures for children and weapons for older boys, the dimensions being calculated according to the age of the user. Today, they hunt and fish with Instruments acquired from the Whitesrifles, metal fishhooks, and nylon fishing lines.

Trade. At the beginning of the twentieth century the southern Karajá obtained wood for the making of bows, stones for hatchets, domesticated macaws, and other items from the northern Karajá. The southern Karajá also received raw materials from the Tapirapé, a nearby Tupí tribe, and from the subgroup Javaé; from the latter they imported tobacco plants, manioc roots, and arrows. They also traded with the Brazilian population of the regions and with outsiders: the Karajá supplied with manioc and fish in exchange for salt, farinha (manioc crumbs), tobacco, beads, and large steel knives. Handwork already played a part in this trade, and the Indians made use of river transportation as well. Cash purchases and intratribal barter continue to take place. The production and sale of handicraft items to tourists has acquired major economic importance.

Division of Labor. Men and women perform differentiated agricultural jobs; the more difficult and time-consuming tasks are undertaken by the men, whereas the women occupy themselves with the lighter, auxiliary jobs. With respect to the harder farm tasks, the men of each local group get together and help one another in a communal undertaking. The principal subsistence activity is fishing, which is a male activity.

The collection of wildlife products for food and handicraft materials can be done by both sexes, respecting their specializations. The herbalist medicine men collect the medicinal herbs. House building is male work. Cargo baskets are made by men, as are the weapons that formerly were used in hunting and war but today are intended only for rituals or for the tourist trade. Feather craft is a masculine specialty but women can make certain smaller, less complex pieces. Wood carving and wax modeling are male activities, although some exceptions occur with respect to figurative art.

Land Tenure. The Karajá acknowledge the existence of territorial dominions, proper to each village and historically assured by consuetudinary law. These dominions are characterized by the sum of the possessions of local family groups, which are adequate for hunting and fishing as well as for the collection of raw materials and wildlife products for home construction and the making of handicrafts. If usable natural resources are located outside their territory, interested individuals direct themselves to the chief of the respective territory for authorization to exploit the resources. The Karajá make relatively long trips outside of the territorial dominion of their own village to fish, to collect, and to exchange or buy raw materials and Indian-made and industrial products.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Araná kinship system is classified as being one of double descent. The mother's line is emphasized and defines an individual's ties to the village, whereas traditional chiefhood (the office of isãdinudú ) and inclusion in tribal moieties are patrilineally inherited.

Kinship Terminology. Araná kinship terminology has not yet been clearly classified. One infers that it is of the Hawaiian type, presenting itself, however, in probable combination with other types.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. There are tribal moieties that do not regulate matrimony, having only a ceremonial role. It has been observed by researchers of various Gê groups of central Brazil that, among such segmentary societies, there occur nonexogamic but ceremonial and cosmological moieties.

There do not appear to be impediments to matrimony with parallel or cross cousins, but marriage between people belonging to different generations is censured, even though there are several such unions. The avunculate is important and cases of levirate and sororate occur. There are also cases of sororal polygny. Monogamy is generally prevalent, but there are frequent separations and successive unions. There is a tendency toward village endogamy.

Domestic Unit. Until about 1960 the domestic unit was composed of an extended matrilineal family occupying just one house. Even then, however, there were exceptions to the rule. Today there is a tendency for siblings (or married sons, if the parents are alive) to occupy houses next door or nearby, such nuclear-family households resulting from the subdivision of larger groups. These, according to common law, must always occupy the identical territory inside the area of the village. Individuals of the same extended family have their burial grounds located in the same territory of the general cemetery.

Inheritance. The right to ownership of a house that shelters a household in the territory of an extended family was transmitted from mothers to daughters, even though the constructed dwellings were, and still are, burned after the death of the head of the household, either man or woman. Some objects of individual use accompany the dead person, some are given to the burial party (which may or may not include the person's relatives). The remaining objects go to the family, which, however, generally prefers to give them away, even though they may be very valuable. A man can acquire for his son the right to take part in rituals performed with specific dance masks.

Socialization. The children receive an informal education at home and learn from their maternal and paternal relatives to conduct themselves according to the expectations of Karajá society. Their relatives teach them the techniques of domestic jobs as well as those of subsistence and handicraft. The children start to receive notions about myths, cosmology, and tribal history.

The feminine relatives exercise a great influence on the socialization of the young people, even with respect to the boys, a pattern that continues as they become young men. At times, married men show more solidarity with their mothers and sisters than they do with their wives. Between 10 and 12 years of age, boys start to receive a more formal education on topics concerning religion and ethical questions related to consuetudinary law after their solemn entrance into the men's house at the feast of Hetohokã ("Big House").

Youngsters of both sexes attend regional public schools and/or bilingual schools for the Karajá. Some of the older boys (those over 15 years of age) have attended schools in Goiânia, the capital of the state of Goiás.

The use of corporal punishment has always been rare because the Karajá prefer to treat the improper behavior of youngsters ironically, inducing them to avoid being ridiculed. This method of correction persists with respect to adults: Karajá women normally laugh in a screeching and sarcastic manner at everyday events that involve someone's unacceptable behavior.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Karajá moieties are clearly apparent in the complex Hetohokã ritual, which marks the initiation of 7-year-old boys (piercing of the lower lip to receive a distinctive adornment of the masculine condition) and of 10 to 13 year olds (the solemn entrance into the men's house, or the Masks of Aruanã). In this house are guarded the vestments that represent the supernatural beings of the bottom of the waters, the woods, and the sky.

Three houses are built for these ceremonies: the Big House (already mentioned), the Small House (hetorioré ), and the Middle House, which congregates the ityamahadú (Middle people) and is situated between the other two. Since the Karajá say that everybody belongs to either the Big House or the Small House, the group of the Middle is probably made up of individuals who, besides being bonded to one or the other of the main groups, perform the role of ritual mediators. They impede the competitiveness among the components of the two divisions during the feast from intensifying to the point of disturbing the correct performance of the ritual. Ceremonial pairs occur in the Hetohokã, in which, traditionally, two villages in territorial proximity always associate themselves.

Political Organization. Karajá political organization was based on an equilibrium of complementary functions exercised by different individualstraditional chiefs belonging to the Council of the Elderly and those hereditarily responsible for the houses that congregate the tribal moieties at the feast of the initiation of the boys.

Since the nineteenth century there have been two complementary chieftainciesthat exercised by the isãdinudú with respect to religious questions and that exercised by the idjesudú ("captain of Christian") with respect to problems of a practical nature, especially those pertaining to interethnic contact.

Social Control. Until around the 1960s social control was exercised by the Council of the Elderly, which was comprised of mature men with grandsons, heads of extended families that constitute matrilocal domestic groups. The complementary opposition of age groups is very clear, there being distinct terms among individuals of the same generation that qualify them as "older" or "younger."

Modifications of social structure as a result of interethnic contact provoke dissension between the old and the young, which has eroded the equilibrium of the past.

Conflict. In former times, the Karajá fought with nearby tribes such as the Tapirapé, the Xavante, and the Kayapó. Today the conflicts are individual, factional, or generational. The conflicts are more intense among the local group of Hawaló (Santa Isabel do Morro), which is more exposed to government agents, tourists, and regional non-Indians. Anomic situations occurred there as a result of interethnic contact, which has been eroding the Karajá social structure. Beginning in 1970, FUNAI started organizing the Indian Guard, enlisting in its ranks the boys of the village. A gradual weakening of the power of the Council of the Elderly ensued. The council mediates conflicts between individuals and families. The guard was disbanded in 1981, but, since the traditional authorities and chiefs had lost their prestige, factionalism increased, making individual conflicts more dramatic, sometimes resulting in death.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Karajá believe in supernatural beingsinhabitants of sky, woods, and water. They look like humans but, in the words of bilingual Indians, they are "spirits of animals." Only shamans, who in life and after death hold the power of going to the sky and to the bottom of the river, can see them. The Karajá believe in the survival of the souls of the dead. Souls are classified according to the type of death: uní (in case of a violent deathby drowning, killing, or suicide) and worasã (in case of a death considered normalby sickness, old age, or as a victim of witchcraft). Even though accusations of witchcraft are common on the occasion of someone's death, the supposedly guilty parties are buried in the same manner as their victims, be the suspects shamans or anyone else. Uní souls are dangerous (cannibalistic), as much to the living as to the souls of the dead, which they have the power to annihilate. For this reason they are buried away from family tombs. There are primary burials and secondary burials in funeral urns. Food offerings are deposited in the cemetery by relatives of the dead.

Religious Practitioners. There are men and women who have a wide or specialized knowledge. They are called ohutibedú. There have been instances of shamanism, even though its manifestations (trance and the shamanistic trip) seem less dramatic than those seen in other Indian groups in Brazil. It is characterized by supernatural vision and intense contact with the supernatural world. There are herbalists who treat maladies. Ehrenreich (1948) observed in 1888 that Karajá shamans used suction techniques to withdraw noxious material from the sick person's body, and that they also used the sound of maracas (werú ) to scare away the supernatural causers of disease. Currently, there are also herbalist medicine men who, for a fee, take individuals, from their own village as well as from other local groups, into their houses for treatment. The term hori is applied to shamans with supernatural vision, and the use of their power implies dual behavior that can cure as well as kill.

The isãdinudú (traditional chief) is frequently considered to be a ohutibedú since it is expected that chiefhood be exercised by individuals who were educated for the office, are able to resolve individual and group conflicts, and have a lot of cosmological, ceremonial, and genealogical knowledge. He may be a herbalist, he may or may not have the power of supernatural vision, and he dominates the classifications of fauna and flora. Another authority, the ioló, is responsible for the knowledge of the judicial system and must see that the common law is observed.

Ceremonies. The spirits of nature are personified in rituals in which male dancers, usually in pairs, carry characteristic masks of each of these beings. Such ceremonies are called Aruanã (Idjasó), which is the name of a fish of the Rio Araguaia.

Other ceremonies have the purpose of pacifying the souls of enemies killed by the Karajá a long time ago, such as the Xavante and Tapirapé. The rites de passage are various and elaborate, the most important ritual complex being that of Hetohokã, which concerns the initiation steps to adult life and the religious knowledge of the younger male generation. There are also seasonal feasts, such as the honey feast held in August.

Arts. The Karajá have vocal music associated with dancing, whose rhythm is marked by the maraca (werú), a gourd rattle that accompanies the rituals of Aruanã and is important in the sphere of shamanism.

Chants are sung in falsetto to convey the impression that the beings personified by the dancers are not human. The chants refer to Karajá history, to their everyday life, and to mythical and cosmological affairs.

Iconographe, those related to geometric features as well as those that represent everyday, ceremonial, and other events, are extremely complex with respect to their meaning and formal aspects.

Medicine. There are many types of diseases according to Indian conceptions, including those transmitted by non-Indians: tuberculosis, pneumonia, chicken pox, venereal diseases, flu, and others. The Karajá believe they can be cured by treatment in hospitals and by taking chemical remedies administered by doctors and nurses in regional health posts and in larger cities like Goiânia, Brasília, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro.

With respect to diseases considered to be Indian diseases, many are thought to be the result of witchcraft and must be treated by herbalists and shamans.

Death and Afterlife. The Karajá theory about normal death explains it as resulting from disease, old age, or witchcraft. People who died by violence, whose malignant souls are called uní, besides having to be buried in a place separate from the other tombs, are buried face downward to make it more difficult for them to see, capture, and devour benign souls, worasãs.

The soul of the hyrí (shaman), classified in the modality worasã, meanwhile, has great power over this type as well as over the uní type. Both understand his orders. In addition, the soul of the shaman enjoys special mobility, being able to meet with supernatural beings in the heavens and under the waters.


Ehrenreich, Paul (1948). "Contribuições para a etnologia do Brasil." Revista do Museu Paulista (São Paulo), n.s. 2.

Fenelon Costa, Maria Heloisa (1978). A arte e o artista na sociedade karajá, Davisão de Estudos e Pesquisas, Fundação Nacional do Indio, Brasilia.

Fenelon Costa, Maria Heloisa, and H. B. Malhano (1986). "Habitação indígena Brasileira." In SUMA etnológica brasileira. Rev. ed. of the Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Darcy Ribeiro et al. Rio de Janeiro.

Krause, Fritz (1940-1944). Nos sertões do Brasil Revista do Arquivo Municipal (São Paulo) 66-95.

Leach, Edmond (1980). L'unité de l'homme. Paris: NRS; Gallimard.

Lipkind, William (1948). "The Carajá." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward. Vol. 3, The Tropical Forest Tribes, 179-191. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Melo Taveira, Edna Luisa de (1978). Etnografia da cesta karajá. Goiâia: Ed. Universidade Federai de Goías.