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ETHNONYMS: Ethnonyms in the earliest sources that possibly refer to the prehistoric Nivaclé are Guentusé, Mathlelá, and Lateshelechí-Maiceros. Other ethnic groups refer to them as Ashlushlai, Suhín, Sotirgaik, and Wentusij. Creoles call them by many other names that are based on the latter. In Argentina they are generally called Chulupí and in Paraguay Churupí.


Identification. The self-denomination Nivaclé means "human" in a generic sense. The Nivaclé are divided into five large subgroups: the first two have the common name of "Tovoc Lhavos" (River people) and are the "Chishamnee Lhavos" (people from above) and the "Shichaam Lhavos" (people from below). Then there are the "Yita' Lhavos" (Forest people), also called "C'utjaan Lhavos" (Thorn people); the "Jotoi Lhavos" (people of the esparto grass); and the "Tavashai Lhavos" (people of the savanna).

Location. Nivaclé territory covers a large triangle in Paraguay, the base of which is formed by the Río Pilcomayo and the vertex by Mariscal Estigarribia. There are a few Nivaclé living in the department of Tarija, Bolivia, and in the province of Formosa and the Chaco highlands of Salta, Argentina. The Tovoc Lhavos occupy both banks of the Río Pilcomayo. From the middle Pilcomayo, upstream, live the Chishamnee Lhavos and downstream, the Shichaam Lhavos. Deep in the thorny scrub forests of Mariscal Estigarribia are the Yita' Lhavos. The Jotoi Lhavos live in the grasslands of Mennonite settlements, and the Tavashai Lhavos live in the savannas that reach from General Diaz to Tinfunké to the north of the Patino swamplands. This territorial distribution has gone through great changes following the Chaco War (1932-1935). Ecologically and geographically the Chaco is an area of transition between the tropical forests of the north and the arid pampas of the south. The Pilcomayo, which originates in the Andes, shifts its bed frequently, flooding large areas. There the vegetation is relatively rich, but toward the north it becomes stunted, spiny, and serophilous.

Demography. Population estimates vary from 5,195 to 12,628 Nivaclé, but official records give a total of 7,030 for Paraguay. The greatest demographic concentration is in Mennonite settlements and around the Paraguayan central Chaco, where the 1981 census tallied 4,090; on the left bank of the Pilcomayo, 2,152; and in the vicinity of Mariscal Estigarribia, 361. It is estimated that there are 100 Nivaclé in the department of Tarija, Bolivia. In four sites of the departments of Rivadavia and San Martin in the province of Salta there are 526, and there are an indeterminate number in the province of Formosa, Argentina.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Nivaclé language belongs to the Mataco-Macán or Mataco-Mataguayo Language Family. There are small dialectal differences among the groups.

History and Cultural Relations

It is not very clear if "Mathlela" and "Guentusé" were names given to historical Nivaclé or groups that mixed with them during their migration from the Río Bermejo to the north of the Pilcomayo. There are references to commercial routes that linked the Nivaclé to Andean cultures, by way of the Chané, the Chorote, and the Chiriguano. It is possible that in pre-Columbian times ancestral Nivaclé not only worked periodically for Tonocoté and Ocloya agriculturists in exchange for grain, but that they also traded wood and reeds with which to manufacture bows and arrows for Tonocoté and Ocloya stone implements. They may have obtained goats and sheep from the Mataco and Chané toward the end of the seventeenth century and stolen horses from their traditional enemies, the Toba, in the eighteenth century.

Until the Chaco War, White penetration to the north of the Pilcomayo did not extend beyond the Rio Paraguay to the east, nor the Andean spurs to the west, where Franciscan missions were established in the second half of the eighteenth century. "Paraguayan Chulupíes" have been registered in sugar mills and tobacco plantations of Salta and Tucumán since 1920. In winter, the greater part of the Indians from the Pilcomayo migrated, looking for work. Later, small fortifications were built by Bolivians advancing from the west and by Paraguayans advancing from the east. The Nivaclé were in the crossfire of these two forces, and if they tried to escape to the south, the Argentinian army shot at them with machine guns. Eventually, the Nivaclé placed themselves under the protection of the Oblate missionaries who settled in places now called Pedro P. Peña, San José de Esteros, and San Leonardo de Escalante. During the 1940s, because of decreasing work opportunities in northern Argentina, the Nivaclé changed direction and went to look for work in the Mennonite settlements, situated in the ancient territory of the Jotoi Lhavos and the Lengua.


The Nivaclé settled on riverbanks or at lagoons or watering places. They had U-shaped villages. Around the bend were the huts of their head chief, in the open space the water, and in the center, the sports arena and ceremonial plaza (clôija'vat ). The huts (jpôyich ) were dome shaped and had an oval base; they were linked by interior corridors and had several exits to the exterior. Occupied by extended families, they were separated according to territorial clan relationships (tachifas ). Although there was a men's or guest house, a rectangular hut, its presence did not imply the existence of a secret society nor was the hut strictly out of bounds to women. Each extended family had its own pile storehouses. In hunting camps the Nivaclé use screens (vanônilh ) to protect themselves from the wind and the sun. During the 1920s there were more than thirty villages of the Tovoc Lhavos alone, some with 2,000 people. Nowadays, the horseshoe-shaped villages have changed to a lineal form, especially in the Mennonite settlements, although houses are still grouped according to a pattern of factions and territorial clans. There are four agricultural settlements and six in workers' districts. The Oblates minister to twelve less-acculturated villages and the Mormons to one, all of them on Paraguayan territory.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Nivaclé subsistence was based on hunting, gathering, fishing, horticulture, and herding. Minor hunting was collective and major hunting sometimes individual. Rheas are the most important game. Gathering and fishing are always collective except when fishing with large scissor-shaped barring nets. The Nivaclé cultivated their crops on cleared plots of forested land. In the swamplands, they grew two crops per year. Until the 1920s maize fields were said to reach to the horizon. The Nivaclé also planted sweet potatoes, squashes, manioc, and melons (including watermelons). Missionary prohibitions against the performance of their religious ceremonies did away with horticulture. Today there is a renaissance of agriculture for commercial purposes in cooperatives created at Mennonite insistence. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Nivaclé raised llamas (Lama guanicoe and L. Glama ). Because of pillaging by Whites, the Indians lost their vast herds of goats and sheep.

Industrial Arts. Handicrafts in the form of ceramics, weaving, and braiding and dyeing with natural dyes lost their practical use and became items of trade. The Nivaclé have begun to make zoomorphic wooden figurines. The missionaries and Asociación Indigenista have furthered this trade.

Trade. Before contact, the Nivaclé traded intensively with neighboring groups, especially the Chorote. Since the 1920s there has been much trade in furs. Presently, cooperatives sell cotton, peanuts, maize, sorghum, and kafir (Sorghum caffrorum, or Panicum c., a plant originating in Africa but introduced through Asia), with the Mennonites as intermediaries.

Division of Labor. Nivaclé men clear the fields, plant, and weed; women harvest. Men hunt and carve; women cook. Men deal and trade and fish in the river; women fish in watering places with conical baskets. When men have a large catch, women help to carry and clean the fish. Women gather plants; men collect honey. Men braid and manufacture all their tools; women also braid, and they are the potters, spinners, and weavers. Women build and own the houses and the domestic animals that they care for, including the horses used by the men. Nowadays, the men have gained in prestige within the family because they are the wage earners. Now that the women have lost their herds, they are confined to their houses. Their status is further decreased owing to the male chauvinism of the Creoles and Mennonites, who only deal with men.

Land Tenure. Land boundaries, although fixed, were not rigorously guarded by local groups with fraternal ties. The breakup of this territorial distribution and the corresponding aspect of Nivaclé culture was the result of intensive contact with other indigenous groups and migration to the sugar mills; Bolivian military penetration and settlement; the Chaco War; the missionizing influence of the Oblate Fathers; and the establishment of postwar Paraguayan Creole cattle ranches as well as the stern evangelization by the Mennonites and the attraction presented by their work centers. Presently, according to law, each nuclear family has the right to 100 hectares of land, which translates into a total of 140,600 hectares. Thus far 79,801 hectares have been made available with certainty, and 60,799 are still outstanding.


Kin Groups and Descent. The largest Nivaclé kinship group is the territorial clan, a group that originated in a particular geographic region and bears its name. Descent is bilateral, and a distinction is made between male and female kin: ats'avot and ats'ichei, respectively.

Kinship Terminology. In Ego's generation, sibling terminology is Dravidian. The four terms are applied collaterally, whereas terminology for cousins appears to be Hawaiian. Consanguineal and affinal terms are always separate. Consanguineal terminology is symmetrical, with no differentiation between male and female lines; it is ambilateral. There are mourning terms that are applied to relatives who have lost a son and who have gone through the corresponding ceremony.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Residence is uxorilocal, and marriage is generally monogamous except for leaders and shamans, who practice sororal polygyny (within areas of missionary influence this is not practicable). Marriage takes place after long friendship and premarital sexual relations in which the woman must take all the initiative. Men are fought over, with rival women aided by their female relatives. Men have a passive attitude toward sexual matters. Divorce is possible if either spouse wishes it. However, it is generally the woman who, as owner of the house, throws her husband's belongings out and expels him from the home.

Domestic Unit. The Nivaclé domestic unit consists of an extended matrifocal family in which up to four generations live together. The oldest grandmother is the highest-ranking authority. Nowadays, within the Mennonite sphere of influence, the nuclear family is predominant.

Inheritance. The role of shaman is generally inherited, as are some songs, passed down from father to son and mother to daughter. All the deceased's belongings are burned on the grave. Today money is inherited by the spouse or the children. Domestic animals remain in the possession of the daughters, and cultivated fields pass to the sons.

Socialization. Children are the tyrants of the family. There is no punishment other than a smile or ridicule, although reminders of the dangers of retribution by supernatural beings also serve as a means of socialization. Grandparents are in charge of education, which is imparted through discursive lore and examples. From the age of 8 or 9, children are forced to behave correctly. Punishment for misbehavior is meted out by an elderly woman from another domestic unit, who acts at the request of the parents. There is a great deal of school absenteeism, and very few young people go to secondary school.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There are no social classes, but there is a fine line in status differentiationthose having the highest standing are expected to render the greatest service to the community. The preeminence of women has decreased with the loss of the herds. As of the late twentieth century, prostitution with Creole and White men is causing havoc. Young people are dazzled by Western glitter, and the old people weep over their loss of freedom. A deep and heartrending generational trauma is beginning to develop.

Political Organization. Nivaclé political organization is based on distribution and the territorial clan. In leadership the caanvacle, warrior, is most prominent; he acquires status according to the number of scalps he has taken in combat. More than five scalps of various ethnic groups makes him an uj caanvacle, a great chief. His authority is restricted to martial activities. The tsôt'aj has a relationship with the masters of the animals and the forest. At the beginning and end of the day, he harangues the people. He plans and directs work. As the interpreter of the general consensus, he is what ethnographers have come to call the "peace chief." Nowadays, local councils are being formed, a syncretism between the former council of the elders and the Western parliamentary system.

Social Control. Gossip, giving the cold shoulder, and ridicule, as well as the fear of punishment for violating taboos, have been the most common forms of social control. Traditionally, the price for a crime or sorcery was blood vengeance carried out by the victim's clan. In disputes about love, men performed song duels. In many other instances the informal council of elders intervened. Since before the Chaco War, legal matters have been in large part in the control of missionaries or military commanders. Today, the law establishes the value of indigenous customary law "in all that is not incompatible with the principles of public order."

Conflict. Until about 1930 there was conflict with neighboring ethnic groups, especially the Toba, over hunting and fishing grounds and cattle. At the end of the 1940s a "crisis cult" developed, with Pentecostal and healer characteristics. Originating after an earthquake in northern Argentina, the movement extended to Mennonite settlements. Hardly had the cult come to an end, when in 1960, there was an uprising over land rights in the Mennonite colonies. From 1974 to 1978 the Marandú Project supported Indian ambitions of self-determination but it became perverted by the machinations of the Paraguayan dictatorship, which corrupted the principal native leadership with large sums of money given to the Asociación de Parcialidades Indígenas (Association of Native Indian Groups). In 1980 there developed another crisis cult, supported by the Mormons. A group of Nivaclé had migrated to one of their ancient tribal grounds, where they were not allowed to remain because the area had become private property. At the root of these crisis cults are interethnic friction and the struggle for land, in which the Indians have the Oblate Fathers as their main allies.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Fisôc'oyich is the culture hero and original father of the Nivaclé. He was identified with God by the first Christianized Indians. Before contact with the missionaries and with General Iván Belaieff, the Nivaclé had no belief in a supreme creator of the world. The world has always existed and has gone through various cataclysms: the exchange of position of the sky and the earth, the collapse of the sky, a world conflagration, and a deluge. For the Tovoc and Jotoi Lhavos, the cosmos is made up of three levels; for the Tavashai Lhavos, of five, and for the Yita' Lhavos, of seven. The levels are united and supported by four tree trunks, behind which lies the region of darkness. Humans have three souls, sôc'ôclit, which at the same time are only one. The shaic'u egg soul, is the keeper of health and life; the jeche, eggshell soul, is the custodian of moral qualities and health; and the ajplecl, shadow soul, is the seat of the soul. All things have subtle doubles, which are their spirits and possess their powers or qualities.

The P'alhac are the mythical humans who fell on the infraearth when the sky took up the space formerly occupied by earth. The Yina'ôt Lhavoquei (Women of the Water), the mothers of the Nivaclé, lost the teeth of their vulvae through a dance organized by primogenial men. The Sa'ônjalhai (Mangy Ones) are owners of tobacco and brothers who killed their mother, a dema deity, who was the wife of the birdnester; later they ascended to the sky by means of a chain of arrows. The Ôjô'clôlhai are men who were transformed into birds because of the evil acts of women. The Fanjas and Ôjô'clôchat are birds that are owners of rain and lightning respectively. The Chivosis and Chivositaj are spirits of the souls of aborted fetuses and murdered children. The Tsich'es are malignant beings, and the Tsantaj are monsters who eat human flesh. The Catiis (Stars) are supernatural women. Jincuclaai, the Sun, and Jive'cla, the Moon, are men. The latter has an enormous penis with which he deflowers women every month and causes their menstrual flow. Nowadays, a large number of Nivaclé profess a syncretism of their ancient beliefs and Christianity, and some are in the process of accepting a newly indoctrinated faith.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman (tôiyeej ), who may be either a man or a woman, is curer, sorcerer, and soul guide (one who leads the soul into the other world). The male or female caasnaschai is master/mistress of the initiation ceremonies that prepare young people for adult life, giving them tutelary spirits and songs to communicate with them. To ensure success in hunting, fishing, gathering, and horticulture, the tsôt'aj establishes communication with and propitiates the masters of animals and the forest through his song (shich'e ). The souls that inhabit his scalps help the caanvacle against his enemies, by indicating their whereabouts to him. When old and no longer able to fight, he throws away his scalps, but the souls of his victims continue to help him. He communicates with them through his songs, and, through his skill in xenoglossy, animals will reveal to him his adversaries' movements. Nowadays, there are native Protestant pastors and Catholic deacons.

Ceremonies. The caanvacle prepares the scalps, fumigates himself with naranja del monte (Capparis speciosa ), and gives a feast. In old age, when he destroys his scalps, he offers another feast. The most important ceremony is the puberty initiation of girls. Next in importance is the initiation of pubescent boys. Upon becoming a father, men undergo another ritual. There is a ceremony at the beginning and the end of a period of mourning. All ceremonies involve a type of potlatch.

Arts. Plastic arts are the composite of visual forms that express the Nivaclé relationship with their surroundings and their world perception, constituting signs of ethnic identity. In times past, these took the form of string figures, tattoos, body painting, feather ornaments, glassbead embroidery, ceramics, wool weaving, and cordage making. Nowadays, only the latter four survive, but wood sculpting has been added to the repertoire. Songs are composed of alliterative syllables that have no meaning in the Nivaclé language and are learned as glossolalia when communicating with certain spirits. They are performed in vigils, and, more generally, in dreams. Dancing accompanies moments of happiness, and totôn, the marching dance, is for victory celebrations. Ceremonial ritual is the synthesis of all Nivaclé art.

Medicine. The shaman is the healer/curer, and his or her therapeutic methods consist of sucking, massaging, chanting, possession, ecstasy, the externalization of his or her own soul to recapture those of patients, flight to different cosmic planes, and the administration of substances that activate spirit helpers (avtôi ). The three main causes of illness and death are soul loss, spirit intrusion, and abandonment by one of the tutelary spirits (accheche ). Since the arrival of stupendously effective penicillin in 1944, shamanic influence has declined.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the ajplecl becomes an animal. The shaic'u and its shell go to Yincôôp (the Nivaclé paradise), where eternal summer reigns and people dance continuously, drink large quantities of maize beer (niôtsich ), and make love freely. Souls condemned by evil shamans are eaten by their spirit helpers or hidden in inaccessible places.


Métraux, Alfred (1946). "Ethnography of the Chaco." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward. Vol. 1, The Marginal Tribes, 197-370. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Seelwische, José (1975). Na lhasimanash napi nivacle Gramática nivaclé. Asunción.

Súsnik, Branislava (1978). Los aborígenes del Paraguay: Etnología del Chaco Boreal y su periferia. Vol. 1. Asunción: Museo Etnográfico Andrés Barbero.

Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau, eds. (1987). Folk Literature of the Nivaclé Indians. Los Angeles: University of California, Latin American Center.

MIGUEL CHASE-SARDI (Translated by Ruth Gubler)