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The Shuar are an indigenous people of the southeast Ecuadorian Amazon. Their native language is Shuar (the word shuar itself means "people"). Often referred to as Jívaro, a term that connotes "savage" and that the Shuar find insulting, they are historically famed as fierce warriors and headhunters. Previously semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, they now raise cattle, practice slash-and-burn agriculture, fish, and hunt. There are about forty thousand Shuar living in a mountainous region of cloudforest with unnavigable rivers, covering approximately 25,000 square miles.

The Spanish first entered Shuar territory in 1549 seeking gold, but the Shuar revolted and expelled them just five years later. Protected from colonizing forces by their impassable locale and fierce reputation for resistance, Shuar remained almost totally isolated for the next three centuries. In the mid-nineteenth century, as Shuar increasingly lost land to colonists, they settled into more stable and centralized settlements called centros. Encouraged by missionaries, Shuar abandoned warfare, the production of tsantas (shrunken heads), and puberty rites and began to participate in the market economy, while still retaining traditional practices of shamanism and polygyny. With help from Salesian missionaries, in 1964 the Shuar founded the Federación Interprovincial de Centros Shuar-Achuar, the first indigenous governing federation of its kind in the Amazon. The federation continues to oversee land distribution, health, and education. A bilingual radio education system transmitted even to their most remote areas has made Shuar schooling and acculturation into a Spanish-speaking society possible. As one of the oldest and most successful organizations of indigenous resistance, the federation remains active, attracts foreign assistance, and serves as a model of self-governance to other indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

See alsoIndianismo; Indigenous Peoples.


Descola, Philippe. The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle, trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: New Press, 1996.

Harner, Michael J. The Jívaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Hendricks, Janet Wall. To Drink of Death: The Narrative of a Shuar Warrior. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993.

Rubenstein, Steven. Alejandro Tsakimp: A Shuar Healer in the Margins of History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

                                          Eric Schniter