ETHNONYMS: Mehinaco, Mehinacu, Meinaco, Meinacu
Identification. The Mehinaku village is located approximately four-fifths of a kilometer east of the Rio Kulesau (one of the major tributaries of the Rio Xingu) in the Xingu National Park in central Brazil. The Mehinaku are similar in their technology and culture to tribes of the South American tropical forest, but they are located just beyond the southernmost extension of true rain forest in central Brazil.
Location. The appearance of the environment is heavily dependent on the season of the year. During the dry season (May to August) there is hardly any rain at all. The rivers retreat to narrow channels, which are typically bordered by a narrow band of permanent gallery forest. Beyond the forest is a hard, sun-baked floodplain extending as much as 1.5 kilometers or more to permanent dry forest, where the Indians of the Upper Xingu region make their villages. During the wet season (September to April) the rivers overflow their banks, cover the floodplain, and inundate portions of the forest. The villagers take advantage of the abundance of water by taking shortcuts in their canoes across the floodplain and through the forest.
Demography. As of the fall of 1989 there were approximately 135 Mehinaku, all but a few of whom were living in the village of Uyaipyuku (the Mehinaku name for the Jatoba tree). At the time of first recorded contact with Europeans in 1887, the Mehinaku lived in three separate villages with a population that probably exceeded today's by two or three times. At that time, they were virtually free from epidemic disease. During the following years, waves of illness—including flu, whooping cough, and most devastating of all, measles—swept through the Xingu villages. In one measles epidemic that occurred a few years prior to 1967, at least 15 individuals died. By the early 1960s the Mehinaku population was reduced to approximately 75 persons. Since that time, however, there has been a rapid recovery owing to relatively excellent medical services, vaccination against measles, and, perhaps, newly acquired resistance to outside illnesses.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Mehinaku language is a member of the Arawakan Language Family and is closely linked to the language of two other tribes in the Xingu National Park, the Waurá and Yawalapití. Speakers of Waurá and Mehinaku can understand each other, but their dialects of the Arawakan Family are understood by no other groups.
History and Cultural Relations
The Mehinaku participate in a wider cultural system, that of the tribes of the Xingu National Park. At present, there are ten single-village tribes representing four major language groups. Despite the linguistic differences that separate them, the tribes of the region have developed a similar cultural basis: peaceful trade, participation in one another's rituals, and intermarriage. How this system of indigenous acculturation evolved is a matter of speculation. It is possible, as proposed by Robert Carneiro, that the Xingu tribes are an example of cultural devolution from a more warlike chieftainship that existed prior to Columbus and contact with Western diseases. Alternatively, the Mehinaku and their neighbors may be refugees from more aggressive Gê-speaking tribes who live to the north of the Xingu peoples. In the absence of systematic archaeological evidence, the history of the region will remain somewhat speculative, since the Xingu culture pattern was already well established at the time of the first European contact in 1887, and the villagers' oral culture offers only mythological explanations. It is likely, however, that the Mehinaku and other Arawakan cultures played a particularly central role in the creation of that culture, since many of the intertribal songs are sung in archaic Mehinaku, even though the singers may be speakers of different languages.
The more recent history of the Mehinaku has been one of avoiding warlike tribes outside the Xingu region and establishing friendly relations with Brazilians. Until the pacification of the Carib-speaking Txicão tribe in the 1960s, the villagers lived in fear of attack. Xingu women and children were kidnapped by the Txicão. One of the Mehinaku chiefs still bears a scar from one of their arrows. After a particularly violent assault, the village was moved closer to the Brazilian administrative center, Posto Leonardo Villas Boas. With the pacification of the Txicão and other tribes, the villagers are now returning to traditional Mehinaku territory.
A second factor in Mehinaku history has been contact with Brazilians and others. Until the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Xingu region was a protected area beyond the reach of missionaries, ranchers, and plantation owners. Even in the early 1990s there are no roads through the reservation and neither wage labor nor regular schooling. Native culture persists, yet contact is significant. The villagers are now increasingly dependent on steel tools, fishhooks, Brazilian medical services, and (improbably) bicycles. All of these innovations have had a positive impact on village life and have substantially reduced the work required for subsistence. As of 1989, the Mehinaku had nearly twenty wide-tired bicycles, which are extremely efficient in transporting the villagers across the dried floodplain and along forest paths. The bicycles have revolutionized transportation and communication between the tribes. Interaction between the tribes has intensified, and the villagers now regularly exploit distant gardens and rivers that were once too difficult to reach.
Perhaps the most significant trend in relationships with the outside is the villagers' conviction that they must retain their traditions and control of their lives if they are to survive as a people. Today the Xingu tribes are in charge of the Indian post. They hire and supervise the Brazilian personnel who serve the tribes in the region. They are militantly opposed to incursions on their land, and they are anxious to acquire the skills needed to deal with the outside world. Far more than in the past, the villagers see themselves as allied with other Indian tribes in a struggle for cultural survival in modern Brazil.
Seen from the air, the Mehinaku village is a great circle with paths radiating out to gardens, to boat landings along the river and to other tribes. Around the perimeter of the circle are the villagers' houses. Each house is a haystack-shaped windowless building, with doors facing onto the central plaza and the backyard. The well-built house is constructed entirely of native materials, including a timber-and-pole framework and thatch. Undivided in the interior, the house is some 30 meters in length and 9 meters in width and height. Inside, the villagers live in family groups, suspending their hammocks from a common house pole and having their own water supply and hearth.
The center of the village is a broad plaza in which all of the public activities of the community take place. Here the men wrestle (the main Xingu sport), and the villagers dance, conduct rituals, and organize collective projects. Here, too, is the men's house (see "Social Organization").
Ideally, all Mehinaku communities follow a similar settlement plan. The trail to the major river, "the path of the sun," extends east and west of the village. The houses of the village chiefs, who are the nominal owners of the jointly maintained trails, are adjacent to these paths. The men's house faces the rising sun, which passes across and bisects the village each day.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Mehinaku, like the other tribes of the upper Xingu, are slashand-burn horticulturists of manioc and maize. In older gardens, they plant piquí trees, which produce an oily fruit (somewhat similar to an avocado in taste and consistency) that is an important part of the diet in the fall of each year. Fish is the major source of protein. The rivers around the village are extraordinarily rich in fish, and it is a rare fisherman who returns empty-handed. During the months of the dry season, the retreating waters strand fish in pools of water isolated from the main channels. The villagers use fish poison to paralyze the fish. A successful expedition may bring home 45 kilograms or more of small fish.
Fish are shared among residence mates and distributed to kin in other houses. In contrast, manioc, the staple crop of village life, is produced by families and close kin and is seldom shared publicly. For the most part, however, the village economy is based on reciprocity. Labor, fish, and even valued possessions are freely given, shared, or easily traded.
Industrial Arts. The Mehinaku make a remarkable array of material goods that are typical of a tropical-forest tribe: bows and arrows, baskets of different designs, feather headdresses, wooden benches in the shape of animals and birds, hammocks woven from native cotton, and dugout canoes. In recent years they have also begun to make ritual masks and other items for sale to Brazilian entrepreneurs who visit the Xingu reservation by barge to purchase the villagers' trade goods. In 1989 the prices for these items were extremely high. A moderately competent artisan could earn more than $5.00 per hour, a rate many times the Brazilian minimum wage. The income from these sales was used to purchase fishing equipment, bicycles, beads, and other Brazilian goods.
Trade. Each of the Xingu tribes has a trade specialty, such as ceramics, shell belts and necklaces, or hardwood bows. The Mehinaku traditionally make salt from water hyacinth, which they export to neighboring tribes. The trade monopolies are not based on the variable availability of resources or on secret skills. Rather they are markers of tribal identity and bases for the social relationships that spring from visiting and trade.
Division of Labor. The major division of labor is by sex. A husband and wife are an economic team who have the skill to produce virtually all of the necessities of life. The husband provides the fish, but no meal is complete without manioc bread, which the wife supplies. A husband may affectionately (and humorously) refer to his wife as "my little hammock," simultaneously referring to the sexual-emotional and economic bond that holds them together.
Lanci Tenure. Land is owned only to the extent that it is worked. There are no lines of demarcation around the communities, or even a clear sense of where "Mehinaku earth" begins or ends. Nonetheless, valued resource areas, such as places to dam streams for fish traps or groves of arrow cane, are regarded as belonging to particular tribes. These sites, as well as traditional settlements, cannot be alienated. Hence, the previous Mehinaku village (Jalapapuh, "Place of the Leaf-Cutter Ant") was borrowed from the Yawalapití tribe when the villagers feared a new attack by the Txicão tribe. Even after twenty years of habitation, they never felt it truly belonged to them and were pleased to return to their traditional village in 1989.
Kin Groups and Descent. In the broadest sense, all of the Mehinaku regard themselves as kin and use the phrase "all of us" to mark their special relationship. More narrowly, kinship is reckoned bilaterally, through both parents' lines. "Our grandfathers," the villagers will say in justifying a kinship tie, "were of one group," meaning that they were siblings or at least cousins. In some respects, the system of descent follows lines of same-sex individuals, in that the chieftainship descends from father to son and from mother to daughter. Moreover, children are said to be "the former selves" of their parents of the same sex, replicating the qualities and attributes of their fathers and mothers. Often the Mehinaku are vague about precise relationships, since genealogies are shallow. Individuals are seldom able to name their grandparents' siblings. This pattern, combined with endogamous marriage, makes for an extraordinarily flexible system in which distantly related individuals can choose among the multiple ties that may associate them. Hence, a man and a woman who are romantically involved may choose to be cross cousins (a relationship appropriate for sexual interest) even though it would have been possible to reckon a different tie.
Kinship Terminology. Mehinaku kinship follows a pattern reported elsewhere in the upper Xingu. Grandparents and their siblings are called by terms that recognize differences of sex, as is also true of relatives of the generation of one's grandchildren. One's parents and their siblings, and one's own siblings and cousins, however, are distinguished by both gender and the sex of the linking relatives. Following this form of bifurcate-merging terminology, mother's brothers are distinguished from father's brothers (who are called by the same term as father), and mother's sisters (who are called by the same term as mother) are distinguished from father's sisters. The children of persons called father and mother are labeled by sibling terms, whereas the children of mother's brothers and father's sisters are differentiated by special terms.
Marriage. As the form of kinship terminology suggests, the proper marriage is to a cross cousin. Ideally, this should be a classificatory cross cousin, since a parent's sibling's child is often regarded as "too close" for marriage and sex. First marriages are usually arranged by parents and involve a young woman (of approximately 14 years) and an older man (approximately 18 years). The ritual of marriage is quite simple. The young man's hammock is carried across the village plaza to his bride's house, while the men of tribe, assembled in front of the men's house, imitate the cries of a newborn baby ("wa, wa, wah ...") to ensure that the marriage will be fecund.
Once settled in the bride's house, the groom must provide a wide range of services for his wife's family, including fishing, cutting a garden, and making a canoe. Only after the birth of several children can he move back to his own house. In practice, however, the rules of postmarital residence are quite flexible, so that some of the villagers live in the house of the groom, and others switch back and forth as they and their parents wish.
Socialization. Children are greatly valued. A woman who does not become pregnant is looked down upon and is very much ashamed. As soon as a child is born it is bathed and cradled by the mother in her hammock. The mother and infant will remain in intimate association, sleeping together in one hammock until the birth of a new infant (often about two and one-half years later). Most mothers wean their children very gradually. On occasion, even a 5-year-old will attempt to nurse, although the mother will almost certainly push the child away in favor of a younger sibling. Other separations are also gently managed. Just before the birth of a new child, for example, a mother moves her toddler to his own hammock. This is accomplished by waiting until the child falls asleep and then placing him in the new hammock. If he awakens, he is rocked to sleep in his mother's hammock and patiently moved again.
By the third year, a child is cared for by older sisters, who may carry him about the village. With further development, he or she joins a play group, where many of the activities of the adult world are replicated in the form of games. Children play at being shamans, chiefs, husbands, wives, and even extramarital lovers.
At adolescence, boys and girls enter a period of seclusion during which they must live behind a partition, honor a variety of food taboos, speak in a soft voice, and refrain from going outdoors during daylight hours. They must master various crafts taught them by their parents. The period of seclusion is remarkably long, lasting for several years. The object is growth into a handsome and productive adult. To this end, young men take root medicines designed to make them strong. They are told to direct their thoughts to wrestling, which is the hallmark of masculinity. Both boys and girls are watched over by an invisible spirit, "the master of the medicines," who ensures their development, provided that the rules of seclusion are followed. The villagers believe that physical appearance, personal energy, and success as an adult depend on the choices made in childhood. Failure to follow the rules of seclusion is said to lead to laziness, stunted growth, and weakness.
Social Organization. Other than kinship, the most significant basis of social conduct among the Mehinaku is gender. In the center of the community is the small building that serves as a clubhouse and a temple for the men of the tribe. Here the men work on crafts, organize collective work, and share fish, which they generously bring to the other men. Above all, they joke. "There is no shame in the men's house," they say, indicating that the normal codes of respect owed to older kin and to in-laws are suspended in the men's house. The women are somewhat distant observers of the men's activities, since they are forbidden to enter the men's house or see the cult objects that are stored within.
Political Organization. The Mehinaku community is divided into chiefs and commoners. Perhaps a fifth of the villagers can claim chiefly descent, but only a few are recognized as leaders. They are persons who are inaugurated in a special ritual of ear piercing in childhood, who are well regarded by the community, and who "speak well to people" in addresses delivered to the tribe at dawn. The quality of oratory is particularly important, for the villagers attribute the morale and peacefulness of the community to the chiefs addresses to his people. Although the chief has no coercive authority over his community, the position is of considerable significance to the integration of the tribes of the region. The chief is a representative of his people and is responsible for greeting and negotiating with outsiders. Moreover, the major rituals of the upper Xingu culture region concern the inauguration of new chiefs and the commemoration of chiefs who have died.
Social Control. Mehinaku ideology is generally antiviolent. Although they have participated in retaliatory raids against the warlike tribes surrounding the upper Xingu Basin, war is regarded as an ugly act, typical of "wild" (non-Xingu) Indians and Whites. Within the village, violence is limited to relatively rare altercations between spouses and, more significantly, to witchcraft killings. Allegations of witchcraft are common, and deaths from natural causes are invariably attributed to witches. The impact of belief in witchcraft is twofold. Fearing witches, the villagers avoid confrontations, accede to requests, and conduct themselves more courteously than would otherwise be the case. The same fear limits the power of chiefs, who continually worry about whether they have provoked village witches.
A second mechanism of social control is gossip, which is prevalent in the village. The community is small, everyone is known to everyone else, and privacy is difficult to obtain. In this setting, gossip, with its attendant threat to each person's good name, constrains misconduct.
Conflict. The sources of conflict in the Mehinaku community are familiar. They include sexual jealousies, envy over others' possessions, and competition for status and power. In general, disputes within the village are handled by avoiding confrontation. A victim of theft (which is frequent) responds by gossip rather than by directly seeking the return of the stolen property. If the goods are of great value, the victim may make a speech in the village plaza, but without mentioning the name of the suspect: to do so would be a more serious breach than the act that provoked the speech. As a result, even bitter personal quarrels are worked through nearly invisibly, below the apparently tranquil surface of village life. On rare occasions, however, they have flared up in the form of "big anger": melees of pushing, shoving, and shouting in the village plaza.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefe. The Mehinaku believe that their community is surrounded by spirits in the forest, the rivers, and the air. All of these spirits are potentially malignant, and include those that devour their victims ("spirits that eat") and those that cause illness by stealing away the souls of the villagers. Once induced to return a soul, however, the spirit forms a special relationship with its former victim, who becomes a sponsor of ceremonies on the spirit's behalf. These rituals, in which food and gifts are presented to the sponsor in the spirit's name, are pleasing to the spirit, which refrains from taking the souls of others, and (in some cases) ensures abundant crops. From the perspective of the villagers, there is a reciprocal relationship between them and the spirit world, in which they "take care" of the spirits and are themselves looked after in return.
The Mehinaku are aware of Christian religion and actually had a missionary living in their village for some months during the 1930s. Christianity, however, has had minimal impact on indigenous beliefs. Jesus, for example, is regarded as a spirit like many others in their pantheon. He has, however, a special role in beliefs about the after-life, in that he burns the souls of witches and thieves.
Religious Practitioners. Most of the adult Mehinaku men are shamans. They achieve their status by being taught by an accomplished shaman or by being directly chosen by spirit, who makes the novice shaman ill and remains as a kind of familiar spirit after his recovery. Crucial to being a shaman is tobacco smoking, so much so that the word for smoker is identical to that for shaman (yetama ). Prior to becoming a shaman, the novice enters a period of seclusion during which he "learns how to smoke." Smoke is the "food of the spirits" and is essential for curing the sick (smoking and curing are also called by the same term). Once out of seclusion, the new shaman joins the circle of shamans who meet each evening in the center of the village. He (a woman may occasionally also become a shaman) is the most junior of the fraternity, and the last one in the line of shamans as they move through the village to cure those who are sick.
Ceremonies. Hardly a day goes by when the villagers are not participating in or preparing for a ceremony. Many of the ceremonies are part of an ongoing effort to propitiate spirits. Characteristically, the ritual involves "bringing the spirit" into the community, which is accomplished by dancers imitating the spirit entering the village from the direction of the forest or the rivers. Once in the village, the dancers perform in the center of the plaza. Their songs, dances, and costumes must be aesthetically pleasing to the spirit. The spirit is usually "fed," often with manioc flour produced from a garden collectively made in the spirit's name. Finally, the spirit is formally asked to leave the village and not to make anyone ill: "Go, go, go back to your home in the forest; do not harm us!"
A second type of ceremony is more political and secular in nature. Centering on the inauguration and mourning of the village chiefs, it requires the participation of the other Xingu tribes to be properly conducted and involves elaborate, yearlong preparations and dancing, wrestling, and trading between members of different Xingu tribes. To a remarkable extent, the political integration of the Xingu cultures is based on a common ceremonial life.
Arts. The villagers have a rich aesthetic life. The visual arts are represented by ceramic pots, sculpted benches, the painting on the beams of houses, and the adornment of the human body. Recurrent, conventionalized designs unify these media. A "piranha-tooth" design, for example, may appear on bowls, benches, and on the backs of wrestlers in the form of body paint. To a degree, the system of designs has a meaning when it adorns individuals, signaling age, sex, and whether the individual is a champion wrestler, a chief, or a shaman.
Medicine. Disease is said to be caused by witchcraft or spirits. Shamans cure the sick by restoring the lost soul ("shadow") of the victim or by removing foreign objects (tiny arrows or bits of material) that were shot into the body of the patient. These objects are produced through sleight of hand and shown to the audience of shamans and the patient's family, who are assured that the sickness will now pass. The Mehinaku also attempt to treat illness with herbal medicines and, increasingly, with the assistance of the medical staff at Posto Leonardo Villas Boas in the Xingu National Park.
Death and Afterlife. The dead are buried in their hammocks, in a grave dug in the center of the village plaza. An invisible road leads from the grave to "the village in the Sky" where the deceased return to the house of their fathers. There, in an immense village, they live in abundance without having to work. There is no gossip, witchcraft, or strife.
Gregor, Thomas (1977). Mehinaku: The Drama of Daily Life in a Brazilian Indian Village. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gregor, Thomas (1981). "'Far, Far Away My Shadow Wandered ...': Dream Symbolism and Dream Theories of the Mehinaku Indians of Brazil." American Ethnologist 4:709-720.
Gregor, Thomas (1983). "Dark Dreams about the White Man." Natural History 1:8-14.
Gregor, Thomas (1985). Anxious Pleasures: The Sexual Lives of an Amazonian People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gregor, Thomas (1990). "Uneasy Peace: Why Xinguanos Don't Make War." In The Anthropology of War and Violence, edited by Jonathan Haas, 105-124. London: Cambridge University Press.