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ETHNONYM: Canoeiro


Identification. The name by which these Brazilian Indians refer to themselves is "Rikbaktsa," meaning "human beings." They are called "Canoeiro" by the local non-Indian population because of their custom of using canoes.

Location. Their present-day territory consists of two contiguous areas: one between the Juruena and Sangue rivers, the other between the Juruena and Arinos rivers; they total 228,384 hectares and are located in the state of Mato Grosso, Brasil, between 10°30 and ll°40 S and 58°05 and 58°30 W.

Demography. The 1989 population of the Rikbaktsa was 626 persons. In 1957 there were around 1,000 individuals, 70 percent of whom died of measles, influenza, and smallpox during the the early phase of their relatively late contact with the Western world.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Rikbaktsa belongs to the Macro-Gê Linguistic Stock.

History and Cultural Relations

The first reports about the Rikbaktsa date to the decade ending in 1940 when rubber tappers first penetrated the equatorial forests of the Sangue, Arinos, and Juruena rivers. The absence of previous historical references and archaeological studies makes it impossible to determine the antiquity of the occupation of Rikbaktsa territory. Extensive and detailed knowledge about the fauna, flora, and geography of the area and its surroundings exists, however, which leads to the conclusion that human occupation has been rather lengthy. The Ribaktksa, known for their warlike ethos, had hostile relations with all nearby tribal groups: the Cinta Larga and Suruí to the west, in the Rio Aripuanã Basin; the Kayabí to the east and the Tapanhuma to the southeast on the Rio Arinos; the Iranshe, Paresí, and Nambicuara to the south, on the Rio Papagaio and the headwaters of the Juruena; the Mundurucu and Apiaká to the north at the lower course of the Rio Tapajós. The Rikbaktsa fought with the rubber tappers until 1962, when they were pacified by Jesuits who were financed by the owners of rubber-tree plantations. The high mortality rate after contact destroyed Rikbaktsa society. A large number of the children were taken from the tribe and brought almost 300 kilometers away, to the Utiariti Jesuit school on the Rio Papagaio, where they were educated together with children from other tribal groups. The remaining adults were gradually transferred from their original villages to larger and more centralized ones, also under the control of the Jesuits.

In 1968 a small part of Rikbaktsa territory was marked off, the children were returned to the tribe, and missionary activities were centralized on the reservation. From 1970 on, there were several attempts to invade Rikbaktsa territory owing to increasing population density in the general area. This was accentuated during the 1980s by heavy migration, caused by the Programa Polonoroeste, the main activity of which was paving the Cuiabá-Pôrto Velho highway (financed in part by the World Bank). After armed conflict and judicial court action, the Rikbaktsa were able to achieve the demarcation of another area of their territory in 1986. They have had serious health problems and have been devastated by malaria and tuberculosis. Their relations with neighboring tribal groups are those of political alliance in defense of their territories and indigenous rights. Missionary influence has diminished considerably, and the Rikbaktsa will not permit officials of the Fundação Nacional do Indio (National Indian Foundation, FUNAI) to stay in their territory. The Rikbaktsa have bilingual schools staffed by native teachers and try to gain access to Western knowledge as a way of protecting their autonomy.


Traditional villages were composed of one or two dwellings inhabited by extended families, and a men's house (makyry ) where widowers and adult single men lived. In 1957 there were forty-two villages located in the interior of the forest, near the headwaters of small streams and linked to each other by forest trails. After being centralized by the Jesuits, villages became larger and less numerous, located along the right bank of the Rio Juruena. Between 1970 and 1984 there were seven large villages (each with between sixty and eighty people). After recovering part of their territory, the Rikbaktsa increased the number of villages built along traditional lines. In 1989 there were twenty-three villages, accessible only by boat, along the Juruena, Sangue, and Arinos rivers; they were located along the borders of their territory so that the Rikbaktsa could watch over their lands.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Hunting, fishing, gathering, and agriculture are the Rikbaktsa's means of subsistence; they derive revenue from the extraction and commercialization of rubber and the sale of feather ornaments, with which they acquire now-indispensible consumer goods like clothes, salt, coffee, sugar, weapons, and tools. They grow maize, manioc, sweet potatoes, inhame and cará (both yams), beans, cotton, urucú, bananas, pumpkins, squash, peanuts, rice, sugarcane, and other crops, using the slash-and-burn system. Fields are rotated every three or four years. The Rikbaktsa collect Brazil nuts (a very important source of food), honey from various kinds of bees, numerous wild fruits, roots, larvae, and a large variety of plants used for medicine and handicrafts. Hunting is the activity most highly valued by men and a major source of protein and raw materials for ritual ornaments (animal feathers, teeth, bones, and hides). The Rikbaktsa eat almost all terrestrial animals as well as birds, but there are food prohibitions, and some animals must not be killed or eaten. From the rivers they extract a wide variety of fish, two kinds of turtles and their eggs, and fish eggs.

Division of Labor. There is a sex-based division of labor. Men hunt, catch the large fish, clear land, and make arrows and bows, clubs, flutes, and featherwork items. Women catch small fish, gather and prepare food, take care of the children, spin cotton, weave hammocks, sew, and make pottery, seed necklaces, and bracelets from armadillo tails and nut burrs. Planting and harvesting is done by men and women. The sale of market products and the use of money is an almost exclusively male prerogative.

Land Tenure. Land belongs to the entire community. The choice of where to plant, live, and hunt is based on kinship. There is no permanent division of the land. The shifting-cultivation system and the depletion of animals and other resources around the villages results in a constant repositioning of kin groups within the territory.


Rikbaktsa society is divided into exogamous moieties, which are associated with the yellow macaw and the arara cabeçuda a kind of scarlet macawand subdivided into various clans that are associated with animals and plants. In the past the clans were more numerous and had associated body painting, ornaments, and special activities. Nowadays these associations are found only among moieties and apparently no longer exist among clans. Descent and filiation are patrilineal. Kinship terminology is similar to that of the Iroquois system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is between moieties. During the 1970s there were some incestuous marriages among the members of the same moiety, partly because of the drastic population loss after contact and partly brought about by the Jesuits' interference with traditional Rikbaktsa marriage rules. Since the 1980s the Rikbaktsa have adhered firmly to traditional practices. The preferred form of marriage is between cross cousins. Residence is uxorilocal. The norm is monogamy, but polygyny is permitted and occasionally practiced. The marriage ceremony is quite informal. After agreement has been reached between the parents of the pair, the village chief removes the bridegroom's hammock from his house (or from the makyry) and ties it next to that of his wife in his father-in-law's house. The bridegroom will live with his in-laws during the first years of his marriage and later move to live near his married brothers. Divorce is common, especially during the first months of marriage, and is easily obtained by either of the two partners.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is the extended family.

Inheritance. All the goods of the deceased are burned and destroyed after death.

Socialization. Children accompany their parents, helping them with their tasks. They become familiar with the forest and its resources and secrets through shared living and teachings transmitted by myths told by the oldest men of the local group. Of the traditional rites of passage, only boys' ear piercing remains. This is performed during a large feast at the end of the ritual cycle that accompanies land clearing. Formerly girls' faces and boys' chests were tattooed in a rite of passage leading to adulthood. This was followed by a period of ritual seclusion, which could last over a month and during which they could not be exposed to sunshine or seen by anyone who was not a very close relative. Reclusion, tattooing, and boys' use of earplugs (some old men wear light wooden ones 15 centimeters in diameter) were abandoned after contact. Traditionally, after reaching the age of 12, boys lived in the makyry, where their education was completed by a mentor. Nowadays they live with their parents until they marry and then move to the home of their father-in-law, who serves as their tutor.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Each domestic group constitutes a unit of production and consumption, with political autonomy and links to a specific territory where villages are established. Rikbaktsa society, however, is based on a system of reciprocity between clans belonging to the two moieties of the kinship group. They exchange women in marriage, goods, and labor during festivals that the moieties alternately hold for each other, and they reciprocally help one another in felling trees for clearing land. This interdependence is also evident in huntinga hunter always gives his bag of game to his companion, generally his brother-in-law, who belongs to the opposite moiety in the kinship system.

Political Organization. Each domestic group forms a political unit. Traditionally the Rikbaktsa did not have "chiefs," although they had and have leaders whose influence goes beyond their own house or village. Centralized chiefdoms imposed by missionaries were of short duration and not very effective. The most influential leaders are those who have the largest group of relatives or brothers-in-law. In the late twentieth century, another kind of leadership is becoming evident: that of young men who studied in Jesuit schools. They are more knowledgable about the society that surrounds them and can provide better answers to problems raised by contact with outsiders.

Social Control. The main means of social control are gossip, ostracism, and social avoidance. In tense situations there is the threat of witchcraft or poisoning.

Conflict. A disruption of the system of reciprocity (particularly as regards marriage) is causing attrition and discrepancy in the links between the various clan subgroups. Before contact, there were rivalries between the Rikbaktsa who lived on the Rio Arinos and those living on the Sangue and the Juruena rivers. Today the fight for physical and cultural survival has emphasized bonds of internal cohesion.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Rikbaktsa believe in an immanent universal order that harmoniously unites all living things, both in the natural and supernatural worlds. In primordial times all living beings spoke "the same language," but the secret of this compatibility was lost. Nowadays only the initiated can understand and intervene (always for the purpose of restoring original harmony) with forces that govern the world. Rikbaktsa religion is pantheistic, and apparently there is no belief in a Supreme Being. Forests and rivers are the habitat of a large number of mythical and supernatural beings, which are always remembered in myths and songs known to almost the entire community. The Rikbaktsa believe that animals and stars are human beings who in mythical times broke some taboo and suffered for it by being transformed.

Religious Practitioners. The Rikbaktsa have several shamans with considerable influence. Their traditional knowledge is not effective, however, in the treatment of illnesses introduced by Whites. Shamanistic knowledge is passed on, by means of a long and dangerous initiation, to those young men who show the greatest inclination for it. Initiates live in seclusion for over a year, guided by an experienced shaman. During this time they learn about the power of certain plants (with curative or poisonous properties) and how to control specific supernatural forces. Jesuit catechization has not changed traditional religious beliefs but has made their practice more secretive.

Ceremonies. An annual ritual cycle accompanies agricultural activities, during which ear piercing and name giving take place. There is a green-corn festival (in January), one for land clearing (in April), and a large feast (during May/June) when moieties and clans show their body painting and feather ornaments, play their flutes, and sing their characteristic songs. On such occasions mythical episodes or incidents of war, as they were lived by men in historical time, are taught.

Arts. Rikbaktsa are extraordinary flutists, and traditional music is played and sung at all their festivals. Most striking is their featherwork, however, which is multicolored and varied and among the most beautiful made by Brazil's tribal societies.

Medicine. Illness is seen as a bodily imbalance caused by breaking taboos or as the result of magic or poison. In curing, medicinal herbs are used as well as rituals of purification. Nowadays the Rikbaktsa also use Western medicines to combat illnesses introduced by Whites.

Death and Afterlife. The Rikbaktsa believe that the destiny of the dead is determined by the life they lived on earth. Those who lived better lives can make the transition to a happy world in which there is abundance, peace, and youth. Others can be reincarnated as animals (a certain kind of monkey, jaguar, or snake) or even as Whites.


Arruda, Rinaldo (1987). A luta por ]apuira. Aconteceu Especial no. 17, Provos Indígenas do Brasil 85/86. São Paulo: Centro Ecumênico de Documentação e Informação (CEDI).

Dornstaudter, João, S.J. (1975). Como pacifiquei os rikbaktsa. Pesquisas, História, no. 17. São Leopoldo: Instituto Anchietano de Pesquisas.

Hahn, Robert (1976). Rikbakca Categories of Social Relations: An Epistemological Analysis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Schultz, Harald (1964). "Informações etnográficas sôbre os eriqpaqtsá (canoeiros) do Alto Juruena." Revista do Museu Paulista 15:213-314.

RINALDO ARRUDA (Translated by Ruth Gubler)

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