Identification. The Suruí of Rondônia call themselves "Paiter," meaning "people," "ourselves." "Suruí" is the name given to them by non-Indians before contact with Brazilian society in 1969.
Location. Suruí territory covers a total of 248,000 hectares, part in the state of Rondônia and part in the state of Mato Grosso, between 10°45′ and 11°15′ S and 60°55′ and 61°25′ W, in an irregular shape. The distance between each of their villages and the Cuiabá-Pôrto Velho highway is about 50 kilometers. The Suruí area is part of the Aripuanã Indian Reservation, legally the biggest in Brazil (albeit considerably affected by encroachment), with 3.6 million hectares.
Demography. In 1989 there were 470 Suruí. The estimated population in 1969 was 700, two-thirds of whom died of measles and tuberculosis in 1971 and 1972. In 1979 there were 270 left. This population is divided into exogamous groups or clans: the kaban, makor, gamep, and garnir.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Suruí language belongs to the Tupí-Mondé Language Family, which in turn is one of the families in the Tupí Stock. Other languages in the Tupí-Mondé Family are those spoken by the Gavião of Rondônia, the Aruá, the Zoró, and the Cinta Larga.
History and Cultural Relations
The Suruí lived in isolation in the heart of the tropical rain forest, occasionally waging war against rubber tappers and other encroachers on their land, until 1969 when the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio, FUNAI), the government agency in charge of relations with indigenous peoples, made the first peaceful contact with them. They then lost half of their territory to settlement projects and companies. In 1976 the remaining portion of their land was demarcated and now has full legal protection, as well as an abundant cover of tropical forest. In 1981 the Suruí succeeded in forcing out the last remaining encroachers, eighty peasant families, but not without violence and some deaths. Between 1982 and 1987 their economic, cultural, and social lives underwent profound changes because of the drastic economic effects and in-migration to the region brought about by the Polonoroeste Program. This project centered on the paving of the Cuiabá-Pôrto Velho highway, which was partially financed by the World Bank. The Suruí have faced grave health problems—malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases—and lack of medical assistance. Even so, the population is growing at 7 percent a year.
The Suruí are seeking economic and political self-reliance. They have organized an association and lend support to other tribes, including the Zoró, who were their traditional enemies. They have campaigned for Indians' rights, protesting against the tutelage and omissions of FUNAI and the Brazilian government. They are seeking access to schools and education.
The Suruí have nine villages, dating from their occupation of the coffee plantations started by the peasant farmers they evicted. Groups of biological or classificatory siblings usually live in the same village, which can have as many as eighty inhabitants. Since 1987 all villages can be reached by car and even by bus. Until 1981 the Suruí lived in only two villages.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Suruí are farmers. A variety of subsistence crops including maize, cassava, potatoes, yams, cotton, tobacco, kidney beans, rice, bananas, peanuts, and papayas is grown on family plots by sibling groups. They use the slash-and-burn system of tillage and abandon a plot after two years. Each man usually farms 2 hectares. The Suruí are also good hunters and fishers. They have eating taboos: there are animals that must not be hunted or eaten. The Suruí are also gatherers of fruit, honey, larvae, hearts of palm, and other foods. After they seized the evicted peasants' coffee plantations in 1981, they began marketing coffee. They also market latex extracted in the dry season (May to October). The income from these products is spent on goods that have become indispensable, such as clothing, tools, and food. In 1987 the Suruí were induced by the Brazilian government and by lumber merchants to sell lumber on highly disadvantageous terms. They then purchased cattle and some vehicles. In 1988 they decided to stop felling trees and selling lumber.
Division of Labor. Whereas the Suruí men hunt, clear forest for planting, and make arrows, the women spin, make pots and baskets, cook, gather, harvest, and take care of the children. Both men and women fish and sow crops. Money is managed almost exclusively by the men. There are no rituals or activities that are secret or prohibited to women. In the past there were female shamans.
Land Tenure. For the Suruí, land belongs to the entire community and any relative arriving from a distant place has the right to farm it. Kinship ties govern the way in which land is divided out for farming, hunting, and dwelling purposes. The main basis for cooperation is the sibling group.
Kin Groups and Descent. All economic activities are organized on the basis of kinship. Descent is bilateral but membership in the groups (clans) is patrilineal.
Kinship Terminology. Nomenclature is similar to the Iroquois type but skewed because of the prevalent practice of marrying one's sister's daughter. Different terms are used for paternal and maternal lines and to distinguish between elder and younger brothers.
Marriage. The Suruí continue to practice polygyny. The preference is for a man to marry his sister's daughter; cross-cousin marriage is also recommended. The couple usually resides with the wife's father (i.e., the husband's maternal uncle) at the beginning; later on, they reside and work with the husband's brothers. Incest between brother and sister is considered the worst offense against the Suruí moral norms. With few exceptions, any children born of such incest must be killed.
Domestic Unit. A group of brothers with their wives and children live together in the same longhouse (maloca ), usually with their father-in-law, who is also their maternal uncle. This is the basic nucleus for cooperative work on the land.
Inheritance. The deceased are buried along with all their belongings, and their dwelling is abandoned. Only the shaman's sacred staff seems to be inherited.
Socialization. The life of a Suruí is marked by rites of passage and confinement in small isolated huts, which are specially built for this purpose. During the menarche, after childbirth, when someone dies, during menstruation, or during any sickness, a woman must be kept in isolation, subjected to eating taboos, and protected from exposure to daylight. The men are also confined on certain occasions. If confinement rules are violated, the entire community is endangered and newborns may die as a result, according to Suruí beliefs. The very presence of a newborn is considered dangerous for anyone who is not a close relative. Rituals for warrior initiation and facial tattooing to mark the passage of both males and females into adulthood have been discontinued since contact with Whites.
The Suruí community is made up of groups or clans. Long before contact with Whites, these clans lived in separate villages and intermarried. Today the struggle for land and Indian rights has accentuated cohesiveness.
Social Organization. The Suruí are divided into halves or moieties, the forest half and the farming or harvest half. The two moieties exchange wives and possessions and cooperate in the work of farming and hunting. A Suruí belongs to one or the other moiety depending on his or her position in the system of kinship. A man always has brothers-in-law in the opposite moiety. During the many months of the dry season, the forest moiety camps in the forest to prepare gifts that it will give the farming moiety at the end of a period of collective sowing or clearing of forest. The latter is performed as a ritual, in which the forest moiety does all the work and receives in exchange food, drink, and celebration from the farming moiety. Every so often the farming moiety changes places with the forest moiety. This mutual help or cooperative labor system, in which the entire forest moiety does all the sowing or clearing work for one of the plots farmed by the harvest moiety, is one example of community rather than siblings collaboration. In addition to this general cooperation, brothers and brothers-in-law have the obligation to help each other.
Political Organization. The Suruí have a diffuse system of government. There are many headmen representing the various clans and villages. Those with the most brothers, brothers-in-law, and fathers-in-law are the most powerful. There are also ceremonial chiefs for collective work. In the late twentieth century, there has been a recent tendency to elect young headmen who speak better Portuguese and are more effective in mediating relations with the Brazilian government and with the towns.
Conflict. The Suruí have a tradition of being fearsome warriors, and they tell stories of cannibalism in remote times. Their fiercest enemies used to be the Zoró, their neighbors; in 1978 they killed a Zoró family in revenge for earlier killings. Since then they have channeled their warring instincts mainly toward the fight for their land rather than toward fighting other Indians. In 1988, during an expedition of various tribes to the Aripuanã Park, a Suruí was murdered by gold diggers and lumber merchants while he was defending the territory of his former enemies, the Zoró.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Suruí have several shamans (pajé ), who either inherited this office from their father or grandfather or assumed it as a consequence of some revelation by spirits in dreams or when they came into close contact with death, through illness or snakebite, and have hence made a visit to the land of the dead. A shaman always carries a naraí, a bamboo staff crowned with brightly colored macaw feathers; it is believed that the staff is inhabited by spirits. The shaman must serve a long period of apprenticeship under an older shaman; he remains confined for several months, during which he is said to learn the chants and stories of his craft directly from the spirits. At the same time, he must overcome terrible obstacles such as fire or monsters, walk along the path followed by the souls of the dead, and visit the kingdom of the waters and that of the heavens. Many lack courage and give up before they are through. The last trial consists of running at top speed in circles around a tree until consciousness is lost.
There are several categories of spirit, ranging from those of the waters to those of the skies and the forest. They comprise hundreds of beings, each with its own history, narrated in the form of a myth and sung as a chant familiar to the entire community, even the children, who can recite or sing it. For example, there is the Moon, the name of which women may not utter and which in mythical times was a man who broke the incest taboo by falling in love with his sister. Or there is the Cricket, which makes people lose their way in the forest but can also help to find a lost person. These beings are both menacing and comforting. They are invoked in ritual festivals (hoeietês ) to confer plenty and cure the sick. The day-to-day life of a village is permeated with fear, prohibition, and ill omens, necessitating the assistance of the spirits and the shaman's magic, in word and deed.
Ceremonies. The hoeietês may last many consecutive days and nights. They are led by the shamans, who, holding their staffs, dance in a circle of men who carry long bamboo poles of up to 4 meters, which are believed to be inhabited by spirits. In another circle, men play reed flutes 1 to 2 meters long, also said to house spirits. These ceremonies are held whenever anyone is gravely sick. Another important ritual is the Mapimai, a feast held to celebrate the harvesting or sowing of crops. Here one moiety is host to the other and receives presents and help with farming its own plot in return. It takes months to prepare for the festivities, which require huge amounts of the traditional fermented drink. The complex ceremonies last several days and involve all members of the community, who wear necklaces, headdresses, and painted cotton waistbands. On the day when the ceremonial beverage is to be consumed, a long procession departs from the forest and walks to the village, chanting and performing ritual drama on the way. The wives of the ceremonial chiefs carry torches, which they must take care to keep alight; if the flames were to go out, this would be a sign both that they are to die soon and that the demiurge and creator of humankind (Palop, meaning "Our Father") refuses to visit and protect the village.
Medicine. The Suruí believe that sickness is caused by the various categories of spirits, which are also responsible for curing or preventing disease when invoked. Each of these beings has a myth of its own, with which all are familiar. The animals, for example, were originally humans; their metamorphosis into animals meant, in most cases, that they became supernatural beings with power over humans. The myths refer not only to these disease-inducing spirits but also to the origins of the moon, sun, night, fire, humanity, and so on. They are considered true as a history of the world, to which the Suruí compare European history, for example, when it is recounted to them.
Death and Afterlife. The Suruí believe that the souls of the dead must travel a long road full of hazards. These include a giant vulture that devours them; a rock that crushes them; the excrement of a huge lizard, which buries them; a man or woman with outsize genitals with whom they are obliged to have sexual intercourse; and many other strange torments. Courageous souls manage to reach the other side, an eternal safe haven inhabited by all the former shamans' souls. Cowards and violators of the incest taboo die a second time or have to remain in villages of useless souls. Death rituals are relatively insignificant. The name of the deceased must never be pronounced, so that his or her soul is not forced to hover among the living and can make the final journey in peace.
Coimbra, Carlos E. A., Jr. (1985). "Estudos de ecologia humana entre os suruí do Parque Indígena Aripuanã, Rondônia: Elementos de etnozoologia, plantas de importancia econômica, aspectos alimentares." Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, n.s., Antropologia, 2(1).
Junqueira, Carmen, and Betty Mindlin (1987). The Aripuanã Park and the Polonoroeste Programme. Document 59. Copenagen: International Work Group for Aboriginal Affairs.
Mindlin, Betty (1985). Nós Paiter: Os suruí de Rondônia. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes.
Mindlin, Betty, Marlui Miranda, and Marcos Santilli (1985). Paiter merewá: Cantam os suruí de Rondônia [LP of Suruí chants with accompanying text]. São Paulo: Memoria Discos e Ediçôes Ltda.
Santilli, Marcos (1987). Are. São Paulo: Sver & Boccato.
"Suruí." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 20, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/surui
"Suruí." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved November 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/surui
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