ETHNONYMS: Ariti, Haliti, Parecí, Paressi, Pareti
Approximately 640 Paresi live on several reservations in the southern part of the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, between the Parecí and Juruena rivers, tributaries of the Tapajós. The Serra dos Parecis, named for the tribe, border their territory on the west. Their habitat is upland savanna with gallery forest along the rivers and streams. The Paresi speak an Arawakan language and are among the southernmost representatives of Arawakan language and culture.
"Paresí" is a general term ascribed to three groups similar in language and culture, living in adjoining geographical areas. The Kashinití (Cashiniti) traditionally lived farthest east, and the Waimaré (Uaimaré) lived to the west of the Kashinití and north of the Kozárene (Cozárini, also Paressí-Cashibí or Cabishí). Members of these groups maintain group identity, although there is a long history of intermarriage.
The Paresi were first noticed in the early eighteenth century when the discovery of gold mines in Mato Grosso brought gold seekers and slavers into Paresi territory. An early observer described them as an orderly, peaceful, and industrious people who were skilled farmers and lived in populous villages. The Paresi population is estimated to have been 10,000 to 20,000 at this time. In spite of the favorable opinion that the Portuguese authorities often expressed regarding the Paresi, numbers of them were enslaved to work the mines of Mato Grosso. The tribe was decimated and driven almost to extinction. By the middle of the nineteenth century, most of the remaining Paresi had retreated into the Serra dos Parecis but sometimes appeared in the towns to trade their crops and handicrafts, particularly featherwork and woven cotton hammocks, for metal tools. Occasionally, they were hired to collect ipecac roots. Late in the eighteenth century the Paresi, especially the Kozárene, were reported to be hostile, raiding farms and even the outskirts of towns.
In 1908 Colonel Cândido Rondon, who later founded the Indian Protection Service (SPI), oversaw the laying of a telegraph line west from Cuiabá. Among the first Indians he met were Paresi, whose labor was being exploited by rubber tappers. Rondon convinced them to move nearer the telegraph line and to set up schools. He trained some Paresi to work on maintenance of the line.
During the 1920s telegraph stations sometimes doubled as Indian posts. Within a few years, however, radio had rendered the telegraph obsolete, and the line was abandoned. A new highway following the route of the telegraph line was built in the 1960s and was paved in the 1980s, opening up the area for development. The highway runs along the southern border of a Paresi reservation and some Paresi live beside the highway, where they sell homemade rubber balls and rhea feather dusters to passing motorists.
Because the region north of the highway consisted of poor land without water, the demarcation of the Paresi reservations was a matter of dispute for some years. Several Paresi villages, on better land, were situated south of the highway. The Paresi had become politically aware, and Daniel Cabixi emerged as a leader in the national Indian movement. Acceding to Paresi demands for recognition of their lands, the government agreed to establish three additional small reservations to protect these villages.
The traditional Paresi were settled swidden agriculturists. In large fields they raised maize, beans, sweet potatoes, pineapples, sweet and bitter manioc, yams, tobacco, and cotton. In the eighteenth century they may have lived in a more fertile region than they now occupy. In the savannas, they make their fields in the gallery forests alongside rivers and move their villages often when the soil becomes less fertile. They also gather cashews, jaboticaba, tucum -palm (Astrocarium sp.) nuts, wild pineapples, and many other plant foods, including tarumá.
The Paresi hunted the savannas using bows and arrows, hunting dogs, portable blinds, fires to drive game, pitfalls, and decoys. They killed deer, rheas, and other animals. Because the rivers in their territory are deep and clear, fishing is less productive than hunting as a food source. The Paresi were among the few South American Indians to domesticate bees, which they kept in gourds with two openings, one for the bees to enter and the other, sealed with wax, for removing the combs. Modern Paresi raise dogs, chickens, ducks, and pigs.
Traditionally, Paresi men went naked except for a penis sheath; women wore a short cotton skirt. Today they dress like rural Brazilians. According to old accounts, the Paresi excelled at featherwork. The women wore beautiful feather aprons and feather headdresses; feathers were also thrust through the pierced septum of the nose. Both sexes were tattooed, a custom that has since been abandoned.
Ancient Paresi villages were made up of ten to thirty round or oval houses, each 10 to 13 meters in diameter. An arched roof of thatch stretched from a ridgepole to the ground. People slept in cotton hammocks suspended from the rafters. Each village also had a ceremonial hut. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Paresi villages consisted of only one or two communal houses, with an average of six families each.
Travel from village to village was by road. According to old documents, these roads were broad and well kept. The Paresi seldom used canoes; instead, they crossed rivers on bridges or makeshift rafts. Each village was autonomous, governed by a chief and a shaman, who were often the same person. Chieftainship was determined through primogeniture. In the past there were chiefs who probably controlled more than one village.
Traditionally, boys and girls were betrothed while still small children. Sometimes a grown man reared a girl from childhood and married her at puberty. Sororal polygyny was common but gave way to monogamy. Only the chiefs lived matrilocally.
The Paresi make baskets and spin and weave cotton for bags, baby slings, and hammocks, as well as armbands and belts. They used rubber to make cylindrical bands that women wore on their legs and to make rubber balls with which they played a game between two teams. Theodore Roosevelt described and photographed this game in 1915 when he accompanied Rondon on an expedition through Mato Grosso, visiting Paresi villages. The two teams butt the ball back and forth with their heads only. A team scores when its opponents fail to return the ball, instead letting it fall to the ground.
The Paresi made different musical instruments, many of which were considered sacred—especially the great flutes, which were kept in the ceremonial hut and which women were forbidden to see.
The Paresi are animists, believing that the woods and rivers are inhabited by spirits. A serpent spirit and his wife were worshiped in the men's hut, where the serpent spirit was represented by a trumpet and his wife by a flute. There, where the men danced and drank, women were forbidden to enter. The Paresi men drank beer to assuage the serpent spirit's thirst and ate large quantities of meat to satisfy his hunger.
Diseases are treated by shamans, who are reputed to be able to fly. The shamans cure the ill by using medicinal plants and by blowing tobacco smoke on their patients. Sorcerers cause illness by throwing poison at their victims, or by putting it in their drinks.
The dead were buried in their huts with their possessions. The souls of the dead had many obstacles to face on their way to the sky, including a large fire and a dangerous doglike creature. If they reached the sky, a supernatural being and his three brothers received them.
The Paresi have a rich cosmology, as shown by the many Paresi myths that have been collected. According to their origin myth, the Paresi emerged from a rock near a place where a natural rock bridge arches over a tributary of the Rio Sangue. Two serpents engendered them, along with many animals and birds, within this rock. The first Paresi remained there, dancing with the sacred flutes, until a little bird flew out from a crevice in the rock, returning later to tell the people how beautiful it was outside. Then Wazaré, the culture hero, persuaded different birds and animals successively to enlarge the crevice until all the people could venture forth. Wazaré named the headwaters of the rivers and designated them as habitats for the different groups. When the Paresi first came out from the rock, they were dark and hairy and had tails; like ducks, they had webs between their fingers and toes. Soon after emerging, however, they cut off their tails, plucked out their body hair, and severed the webs, assuming their present form. But there was one, called Kuytihoré, who did not pluck out all his body hair. This man was rich: he had cattle, horses, and steel tools that he offered to share with Wazaré. This angered Wazaré, who said, "I don't want cattle because they will dirty the space in front of my children's houses. I don't want tools because they are poisonous and will kill my children. You go away across the Stone Bridge and don't mix with the Paresi." Kuytihoré went far away and stayed with the Whites, and he had many children.
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NANCY M. FLOWERS