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ETHNONYMS: Cashinahua, Kaxinaua, Kaxinawa


Identification. The Kashinawa are an indigenous people of Amazonia who share a common identity and language. Although they accept the denomination "Kashinawa" (kashi, "bat," and nawa, "outsiders, foreigners"), their autodenomination is "Huni Kuin" ("real men"huni, "man," and kuin, "real") as opposed to "Huni Kuinman" ("notreal men," i.e., any non-Kashinawa). As Huni Kuin they speak a common language, hancha kuin ("real words").

Location. The Kashinawa live in approximately twenty settlements scattered along the upper reaches of two of the main tributaries of the Amazon, the Juruá and the Purus, or their headwater tributaries, in both Brazil and Peru.

Demography. There are approximately 3,000 Kashinawa, 2,000 living in the Brazilian state of Acre and 1,000 in the Peruvian state of Coronel Portillo.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kashinawa language belongs to the Panoan Family.

History and Cultural Relations

The Kashinawa probably have lived in the general area where they are presently located since no later than a.d. 1200, but our knowledge of their presence in the region dates from reports of the English geographer William Chandless in the 1860s. Beginning about that time, Brazilians from the state of Pará began to make expeditions during the dry season to exploit rubber, sarsaparilla, cacao, and copaiba oil. Later, colonists from northeastern Brazil settled in the area. These early contacts seem to have been peaceful. In 1898 Peruvian caucheros (rubber workers) staged planned massacres of the indigenous peoples, which, along with the epidemics that accompanied contact with outsiders, decimated the indigenous population of the region. Beginning about 1910, some Kashinawa worked rubber for Brazilian bosses under the debt-peonage system, as some still do today. Others fled to the headwaters of the Rio Curanja, a tributary of the Purus, where they lived in relative isolation until the late 1940s. In Acre, the Kashinawa lived with Brazilian settlers, tapping rubber and hunting for them. They became Catholics like their Brazilian bosses, the men learned Portuguese, and the residential basis for their sociopolitical organization was lost. They continued to see themselves as Kashinawa, however, because the Brazilians regarded them as índios or caboclos not "civilized."

The building of the BR-364 highway into the state of Acre, beginning in 1970, opened up the state to land speculation and cattle ranching, with an ensuing battle for control over land between ranchers and the seringalistas (rubber tappers), a battle that continues. As a result of the development of an indigenous movement in Acre, some of the Brazilian Kashinawa now live on their own land within "indigenous areas" established by the Brazilian government, with bilingual schools and economic cooperatives. U.S. Protestant missionaries began work with the Peruvian Kashinawa in 1955, resulting in the establishment of bilingual schools under the auspices of the Peruvian Ministry of Education and in the conversion of many of the Kashinawa to Protestant Christianity. Despite these acculturative influences, the Kashinawa continue to maintain much of their indigenous culture, adopting and adapting to Peruvian and Brazilian elements where useful.


Traditional Kashinawa villages consisted of a single large house situated in the middle of a garden near a large stream that provided water and bathing sites. Each house, made of hardwood posts and poles with a thatched roof that came to within a meter of the earthen floor, contained at least two extended families, linked by consanguinity and affinity, with a total population of 25 to 100 individuals. When they moved to the banks of larger rivers that flood seasonally, the Kashinawa adopted local Peruvian-Brazilian architecture with raised palm-bark floors and walls enclosing at least the sleeping areas. Each house provides living accommodations for a single nuclear or extended family. Small cooking huts are constructed near or attached to the house. When a new village is established, it is constructed in a new garden, with additional new gardens being made in areas cleared in the forest surrounding the village at a distance of up to one hour's walk.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Hunting and slash-and-burn horticulture, supplemented by gathering and fishing, are the basis of Kashinawa subsistence. Although horticulture provides the bulk of the diet, hunting is viewed by both males and females as the single most important economic activity because meat, the product of the hunt, is the most highly valued component of the diet. A meal requires both meat and garden products to be complete, however. The significance of meat is indicated by the words for hunger; buni means to be hungry in general, whereas pinsi indicates hunger for meat. After a large repast consisting only of vegetables and fruit, people frequently complain that they are hungry, pinsi.

Industrial Arts. The Kashinawa made all of the material objects necessary for their normal activities. All such objects are gender linked. Women spun and wove cotton into skirts, hammocks, and other textile objects used by men and made ceramic pots, water jugs, toasters, bowls, and the like. They also fashioned several types of baskets and jewelry made of seeds and teeth. Men made bows and arrows, clubs and spears, some types of baskets, canoes, wooden grinding boards and rockers, and wooden mortars and pestles, as well as various wooden objects used by women in cooking and weaving. They also made feather headdresses and all ritual attire. Stone axes and turtle-shell hoes have been replaced by steel axes and machetes, and shotguns have become the major weapon for hunting, although the Kashinawa have not completely replaced bows and arrows.

Trade. Historically, the Kashinawa were not involved in trade. They exchanged goods among themselves and with other villages and tribes, but such exchanges were not the source of items new to their inventory of goods. Contact with Brazilians and Peruvians introduced trade, usually of labor for goods, within the context of debt peonage. In the second half of the twentieth century the Kashinawa have begun to sell or exchange rice and other food products and artifacts to obtain a wide range of Brazilian and Peruvian goods. A cooperative was established in one village, but it has not proven successful because most Kashinawa do not understand the market system.

Division of Labor. Certain tasks are defined as exclusively those of men or women. Kashinawa men hunt, protect women and children from spiritual and nonspiritual dangers, clear new garden areas from virgin forest, and assure the tranquility of their villages through their political and ritual activities. Women bear and care for children, tend and harvest gardens, cook vegetables and meat, and plant and harvest cotton. Fishing and foraging are primarily defined as men's work, but women may join in fish-poisoning expeditions and may forage on their way to or from the gardens. Chopping and carrying firewood and carrying water are primarily defined as women's work, but under certain circumstances men may assist their kinswomen in these chores.

Land Tenure. Land is never thought of as owned by anyone. Garden areas, hunting trails, fishing holes, and the like are frequently identified with a man but he has only rights of usufruct; others use these areas only with his permission. Although men make the gardens and build houses, ownership is vested in their wives. When a marriage is terminated, the wife keeps the house, the gardens, and the dependent children; men keep only their hammock, weapons, and other personal possessions.


Kin Groups and Descent. Every individual is a member of one of the two patrimoieties, subdivided by gender. The male moieties are inubakebu and duabakebu ; the sisters of inubakebu are inanibakebu and the sisters of duabakebu are banubakebu. A woman belongs to the group of her father's sister, and father's father's sister, and/or mother's mother. The patrimoieties are each divided into two marriage sections composed of those members of the moiety in alternating generations. Inubakebu-inanibakebu are members of either awabakebu or kanabakebu; duabakebu-banubakebu are members of yawabakebu or dunubakebu. A man is a member of the same marriage section as his father's father and son's son; a woman is a member of the same marriage section as her mother's mother and daughter's daughter. At the same time, a man's father and his son are members of the other marriage section of his moiety and a woman's father's sister and her brother's daughter are members of the other marriage section of her moiety. Awabakebu marry yawabakebu and kanabakebu marry dunubakebu. Apart from regulating marriage, the moieties function largely within the ritual context.

Kinship Terminology. Kashinawa kinship terminology is of the Kariera subtype of Dravidian. In Ego's generation all individuals are either siblings of the same sex (betsa ), siblings of the opposite sex (pui ), or cross cousins (i.e., either brothers/sisters-in-law, chai/tsabe, or wives/husbands, ain/ bene ). Siblings and parallel cousins may also be classified as older or younger. Older brothers (huchi ) are equated with father's father, younger brothers (ichu ) with son's sons (male speaker) and daughter's sons (female speaker). Older sisters (chipi ) are equated with mother's mother (actual mother's mother is called chichi), and younger sisters (ichu ) are equated with son's daughters (male speakers) and daughter's daughters (female speakers). Males refer to older female cross cousins as xanu, the term used for father's mother; females refer to older male cross cousins as chaita, the term also used for mother's father.

Within the first ascending generation, all individuals are either fathers (epa ), father's sisters (achi [male Ego] or yaya [female Ego]), mothers (ewa ), or mother's brothers (kuka ). Within the first descending generation, sons and daughters are called bake, although men may refer to their sons as beden. Men refer to their sister's sons (also daughters' husbands) as dais, the same term women use to refer to their brothers' sons and daughters' husbands. Men refer to their sister's daughters (also sons' wives) as babawan, the same term women use to refer to their brothers' daughters and sons' wives. All grandchildren may also be called by the term baba.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The ideal is for two male double first cross cousins to exchange sisters in marriage (i.e., each man marries a woman who is both his mother's brother's daughter and father's sister's son and each woman is married to a man who is both her mother's brother's son and father's sister's son. Since the ideal rarely obtains, a first cross cousin is preferred over more distant members of the linked marriage section. Sexual relations with persons other than those in the appropriate marriage section are considered incestuous, but only incest with primary kin is prohibited. Polygyny is considered desirable by most Kashinawa, both male and female, but only seventeen of sixty-four males were in polygynous unions in Peru between 1955 and 1968; one man had four wives, one had three, and fifteen had two wives. The ideal polygynous marriage is for a man to marry two or more actual sisters.

Domestic Unit. The Kashinawa recognize the nuclear family or, in the case of polygynous unions, a woman and her children and the husband she shares with another woman, as the basic building block of the society. But for social, economic, and political purposes, this unit has little autonomy because it almost always operates as part of a larger unit, the extended family. Postmarital residence is with the parents of the wife; the husband is obligated to assist his parents-in-law and support them politically and economically. A man makes a garden for each of his wives and provides each of them with game from the hunt. His wives cook some of the meat but distribute much of it to their mothers, sisters, and other kin. In polygynous families, each wife has her own cooking hearth and utensils and prepares food for herself, her children, and her husband. Generosity and sharing of food is a hallmark of Kashinawa sociality. Men and, to a lesser extent, women share work activities and the products of those efforts. Thus, although the nuclear family is basic to the production process, the extended family and, to a degree, the entire community are the basic unit of consumption.

Inheritance Men and women own the tools they make, use, and/or exchange. They are expected to be generous with these possessions during their lifetime, but at death their possessions are buried with them; steel axes, machetes, knives, and shotguns are often exempt from this practice. Names are inherited; a man gets his names from his father's father, a woman from her mother's mother.

Socialization. Children are socialized within the context of the extended family household. Although parents, particularly the mother, have primary responsibility for training children, the maternal grandparents and paternal grandparents, if resident in the village, play a significant role in socialization, as do older sisters, who have considerable responsibility for assisting their mothers with child care. Corporal punishment is rarely used; it usually occurs when a parent has become exasperated with a child's intransigence. An adult who strikes a child (or even another adult) is thought to have committed an offense worse than the one that precipitated the physical attack.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In addition to the moieties and marriage sections, the most fundamental unit in Kashinawa society is the village (mae ). The ideal village, mae kuin, consists of two extended families related through the marriage of two male cross cousins who have exchanged sisters in marriage and whose sons have exchanged sisters in marriage, plus other kin who have attached themselves to this "atom of social organization." Ideally, the village is simultaneously the basic social, economic, and political unit in the society.

Political Organization. Kashinawa society is highly egalitarian. No person may give an order and be assured that it will be obeyed. Should the order be disregarded, there is little that one can do to get compliance. Cooperation is based on good will and conviction of the rightness of a person's expressed wishes. Although men express their superiority over women, women acknowledge men's right to formal control of politics and ritual but never give assent to male assertions of superiority. Men operate in the public sphere of ritual and politics; women control their households and economic activities. Each village has at least one man whose leadership is acknowledged because of his knowledge and skills. These headmen have no coercive authority; they lead by example and persuasion. Although linked by kinship, marriage, moieties, and marriage sections, villages are autonomous; there is no political organization that unites them.

Social Control. Social controls are largely informal. Norms of behavior are widely shared, and deviations from them result in rebukes (usually indirect), shaming, gossip, and ostracism. Parents often "look through" the misbehavior and tantrums of a child, acting as if the child is not there.

Conflict. Disputes are usually settled by close kin of the parties. Raised voices or resorts to physical violence are sources of great discomfort, and close kin immediately try to separate and cool down the parties and resolve the matter. Where such mediation does not work, the problem is discussed within the men's circle with advice from the women's circle sitting nearby. Myths are used as statements of "legal" precedents on such occasions. Traditionally, the Kashinawa raided other tribes to avenge deaths resulting from physical or magical attacks or to discourage encroachment into their hunting territories, but only those informants who were in their 50s in 1955 could remember such raids during their youth.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, the Kashinawa were animists, believing that all of nature, including humans, has an invisible, spiritual component called yushin. Humans have the right to use the visible, physical part of the world. Spirits use the invisible part. Spirits, like humans, can be capricious and playful or mean and spiteful. They can be seen during dreams, while unconscious, and while under the influence of the hallucinogen nishi pae, a brew made of the vine Banisteriopsis and a species of the shrub Psychotria. Men imbibe a pint or more of the brew in order to communicate with the spirits and learn the causes of illness or of matters occurring elsewhere in time and/or space that will have an impact on their lives. The teachings of Catholic and Protestant missionaries have introduced new religious ideas but have not eliminated these traditional beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. Although all individuals could and sometimes did interact with spirits, only shamans could do so with relative impunity. They served as mediators between members of the community and the spirit world.

Ceremonies. The Kashinawa have three primary ceremonies: initiation rites (nixpu pimai ), fertility rites (kachanawa ), and the headman's ritual (chidin ). Initiation rites are a monthlong series of rituals held every four or five years during the "green corn moon" (between the late December full moon and the full moon of January) to initiate children between the ages of 9 and 12 into adulthood. Children, who are considered adults following the rites, are permitted to participate in the other rituals and are expected to begin to take on adult responsibilities. Fertility rites are held one or more times a year to attract the spirits of fertility to the village and to new gardens. The headman's ritual is held whenever tensions within the village threaten the social fabric; it emphasizes the unity of the men.

Medicine. The Kashinawa have no extensive knowledge of the efficaciousness of herbal medicines (bata dau, "sweet medicine"). Some men, huni bata dauya, have special knowledge and provide herbal treatment when asked. Illnesses not responsive to herbal remedies are thought to be caused by spirits and may be treated by a shaman (huni muka dauya, "man with bitter medicine").

Death and Afterlife.

At death, some of a person's spirits die with him or her. One relives the life of the individual and ultimately dissipates into the mist in the forest. Others join the spirits of the ancestors, occasionally returning to visit the living.


Aquino, Terri Vale de (1977). "The Kaxinaua." In Brazil: Special Report. Cambridge, Mass.: Cultural Survival.

d'Ans, A. M. (1975). La verdadera biblia de los cashinahua. Lima: Mosca Azul.

Kensinger, Kenneth M. (1984). "An Emic Model of Cashinahua Marriage." In Marriage Practices in Lowland South America, edited by Kenneth M. Kensinger, 221-251. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Kensinger, Kenneth M. et al. (1975). The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru. Bristol, R.I.: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.