ETHNONYMS: Beicos de Pau, Mekins ji, Suiá, Suiás, Suyá, Tapayuna
Identification. This article refers to data collected about the Suya between 1971 and 1982 and is written in the past tense for that reason, although the group continues to live in the Xingu National Park. The Suya and Tapayuna spoke a dialect of the Northern Gê (or Jê) Branch of the Gê Language Family, whose members were related culturally as well as linguistically. As with many groups, the names by which they were known were bestowed on them by other Indians. The Suya name for themselves was "Me" or "Mekins ji," meaning "the people" or "the people of the wide cleared village places," reflecting the importance to their identity of their large, circular villages.
Location. Many parts of Brazil, including where the Suya lived, were in turmoil during the previous 300 years, as Brazilian settlers penetrated the interior of the country. The Suya said their original homeland was far to the east of their recent village sites on the Rio Suiá-missu near its mouth on the Rio Xingu, an affluent of the Amazon (11° S and 52° W) within the boundaries of the Xingu National Park, Mato Grosso. They said they moved west from their homelands, separated from the Tapayuna near the Rio Arinos on the Rio Tapajós, and then moved eastward again to the Rio Xingu.
Demography. In 1973 approximately ninety Suya and forty-three Tapayuna lived in a single circular village of six thatched houses; 44 percent of this population was under 10 years old. This relatively small population size can be traced to the effects of violence and disease on the groups—both Suya and Tapayuna had been attacked by Brazilians, their villages burned, and their populations ravaged by infectious diseases. The small population resulted in numerous intertribal marriages with other Xingu groups after 1959.
Linguistic Affiliation. Gê is one of the four large language families in Brazil. It is usually divided into three branches: Southern (Xokleng and Kaingaing), Central (Xavante, Xerente, and Paraná), and Northern (Northern Kayapo, Timbira, Apinaye, and Suya).
History and Cultural Relations
The Suya describe their history as a series of cultural or material acquisitions from hostile beings—animals, enemy Indians, and Brazilians. During their migration from the east to the Xingu region, they met with a number of groups with whom they exchanged items and from whom they often obtained women and children. Around 1840 the Suya entered the Xingu region and encountered a group of tribes who spoke different languages but shared a similar culture, often referred to today as the "Upper Xingu Culture Area." They adopted certain features of Xingu material culture (canoes, hammocks), foods and food preparation techniques (species of manioc and manioc preparation), as well as Upper Xingu ceremonies and body ornamentation but maintained a culture and social Organization common to other Northern Gê societies. The first known contact between Suya and non-Indians was in 1884, when Karl von den Steinen visited. The Suya were peacefully contacted again in 1959 by a Brazilian government "pacification" expedition and subsequently moved back near their earlier villages on the Xingu, where the surviving Tapayuna were moved to join them in 1970. Since then the Suya have been protected from frontier violence and the national market economy by a reservation system that intermittently provides health care and material goods and involves them in a new multiethnic social system. The Tapayuna formed their own village in 1980 and later moved downstream, away from the Suya.
The Suya lived in large circular villages whose layout expressed important cosmological principles and their social manifestations. The villages themselves were temporary—the Suya moved to a new village site on an average of once every ten or fifteen years—but their organization was enduring. Regardless of the population size, the basic village structure was always the same. Extended uxorilocal family houses were built in a circle around a large cleared plaza, in which one or two small men's houses were constructed—one in the east and/or one in the west. The plaza was the public and largely male domain, used for ceremonies, meetings, and dancing. The moiety-based men's houses served as sleeping places for bachelors and clubhouses for the adult men; membership in the clubhouses was determined by names (not by kinship). The eastern men's house was associated with the men of the Amban ceremonial moiety, whereas the western one was associated with the Kren. The surrounding houses were female-dominated domains, occupied by families related through women. Every house had a name and a particular location in the village circle (for example "The White House" was located in the south, and "The House Where the Animal Dances Are Danced" was in the east).
Behind the houses, a zone of scrubby brush where people defecated and threw trash was known as "the dead area," and beyond this were the old gardens (if the village was in a forested area) or the open savanna. The gardens were, in turn, surrounded by the still uncut forest. Each concentric spatial zone was less "social" and more dangerous than the one inside it, and the contrast between the social space in the center of the village and the domain of wild animals in the forest was a central principle of dualism in the Suya cosmology. As the Suya moved and constructed village after village, each followed the same pattern, with the same groups and named houses in the same spatial relationships to one another. Each village reestablished the relationships among enduring social groups and with the natural domain.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Suya lived by hunting, fishing, and subsistence horticulture, supplemented by the gathering of plants, wild fruits, nuts, and some insects. Unlike their upper Xingu neighbors, the Suya ate both fish and game (with certain restrictions by age and status), and their cuisine combined foods from the different communities they had encountered—upper Xingu, Juruna, Brazilian (when the ingredients were available), and Gê. The year was marked by two seasons, a dry season (April to September) and a rainy season (October to March). Within this large cycle were many smaller seasons during which certain fish or game were more plentiful, and specific hunting and fishing techniques were used. The jungle was cleared for new gardens annually. Trees were felled at the start of the dry season, allowed to dry, and then burned before the first rains. The gardens were planted in the ashes with maize, various types of manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, and a few other crops on a smaller scale such as sugarcane and watermelons. In addition, fruit trees, cotton, and some crops were planted around the houses and in the gardens. These were often harvested after the village was abandoned for a new site.
Before their contact with Brazilians, the Suya—like many Gê-speaking groups—would leave their villages for weeks or months at a time after planting and before the harvesting of maize in January. During this period they would go on extended hunting and fishing trips in smaller groups, usually based on kinship, returning sporadically to the village. The entire village would reunite to harvest the green maize and would begin a series of ceremonies that continued through the dry season. Although they loved to raise baby birds and the young of other animals, the Suya did not raise domestic animals for food before they adopted chickens from the Brazilians.
Industrial Arts. With the exception of some Upper Xingu (Waurá) captives who specialized in making ceramic pots, craft specialization was along gender and age lines: most adult men and women could make most implements required for their gender's subsistence and ritual activities. The most important objects in a person's life were his or her ritual ornaments, which made extensive use of feathers.
Trade. After they began to fight with the Upper Xingu and continuing until 1959, the Suya did not trade much with outsiders but took objects in raids. After 1959 they engaged in some trading of artifacts for desired industrial objects with other tribes and Brazilians.
Division of Labor. The Suya divided tasks and knowledge by gender, age, and name-based ceremonial groups. In the gardens, men felled the trees, both sexes planted, women harvested the crops, and both sexes gathered. Men did most of the hunting and fishing. Female children helped their mothers as they grew older; male children formed groups that engaged in small-scale fishing and hunting expeditions prior to their initiation. Different male age grades engaged in different kinds of collective subsistence activities, and the name-based moieties also went on collective hunting and fishing expeditions accompanied by unmarried women. Some types of knowledge and certain songs and singing styles were also specific to a certain gender, age group, or name-based group. So extensive was the raiding and introduction of outside women into the group that in 1970 the Suya had two distinct cultural tendencies—a women's culture resembling that of the Upper Xingu in terms of material culture, body ornamentation, and ceremonies, and a men's culture that in the same features more resembled that of the other Northern Gê.
Land Tenure. The Suya considered their territory to include all of the resources on either side of the Rio Suiámissu above the junction with the Xingu. Other Indian groups were expected to leave this area alone. Within the Suya territory, land was not owned until it was planted. Then the crops belonged to the nuclear family that planted them.
Kin Groups and Descent. There were two fundamental types of groups in Suya society. One of these, the nuclear family, was based on the idea that parents and their children shared a common biological substance. The nuclear family was the basic unit of production and residence but was not stressed in the ritual system and had little temporal depth. The Suya contrasted the bodily relationship that characterized the nuclear family with the other form of group identity—names. Names consisted of fixed sets of words that an individual received shortly after birth from a certain relative, who in turn had received that same set as an infant from an older relative. With the names came an entire public social identity—membership in two pairs of ceremonial (not matrimonial) moieties, body-painting styles, song styles, and even particular ritual privileges that were passed from name giver to name receiver. A boy usually received his names (social identity) from someone classified as his "mother's brother" and a girl from someone classified as her "father's sister" (in what is usually referred to as the extended or classificatory sense). Names could not be passed within the nuclear family, and brothers were usually given names that placed them in opposite moieties. In this dual system, the enduring groups were those formed by name-set transmission, and knowledge and ritual prerogatives were passed through them.
Kinship Terminology. There were several sets of kin terms, the application of which was made more complex by the fact that every individual could trace more than one relationship to most of the other members of the community. The address terms showed an Omaha cross-cousin terminology. Terms of indirect reference revealed the importance of the house unit as a group. Most distant relatives were addressed by one of the words of their name set.
Marriage. Following initiation at about age 16, bachelors lived in the men's house and visited their lovers until they fathered a child, at which point they moved to their wife's house for the rest of their lives. There was a stated preference for marriage with a matrilateral cross cousin. Sororal or captive polygyny was practiced. Couples sometimes separated after the birth of their first child, but after the birth of a second child couples tended to stay together. Both sexes took lovers.
Domestic Unit. The most important domestic unit was the house (or sometimes two neighboring houses) consisting of older women (sisters or co-wives), their married daughters with their in-marrying husbands, and these women's children. The large house would have a single cooking fire on which all food was prepared and shared among household members, but each nuclear family had its own sleeping space in the house. Boys left their natal houses at initiation and lived with their wives' families after marriage. Extensive kinship-based food-sharing networks among houses (especially those of in-laws) ensured a fairly wide distribution of food from one house to other houses in the village circle.
Inheritance. After a person died his or her garden was usually destroyed, personal ornaments and tools were buried with the body, and sometimes pets were killed as well. Knowledge and ritual identity were passed with names before death.
Socialization. Infants and children were raised by both parents, by older siblings, and by other members of the large residential houses, who were all kin. In later socialization the name givers and other ceremonial relations played important roles. The Suya were quite tolerant of children until the onset of puberty, at which point they were expected to listen and behave properly.
The political unit was the village. Every Suya village had one (male) ritual specialist, one or more (male) faction leaders who headed kinship-based factions, and one or more individuals (male, female, or children) thought to be witches. Each of these played important roles in sociopolitical activities.
Social Organization. Suya society alternated between periods dominated by kinship relations and periods dominated by ceremonial relationships, during which the name-based moieties performed extensive rituals. There was thus a kind of "alternating current" of activities based on two contrasting principles of social organization. This was complemented by an age-grade organization that was active in both periods.
Political Organization. Through oratory and example, faction leaders were supposed to lead everyday events and activities; they had few coercive resources other than accusations of witchcraft and witch killing. Ritual specialists were supposed to override factions and speak for the entire village. Witches were said to cause all deaths and to help create ritual specialists by stealing people's spirits (and making them composers); they also served as scapegoats in factional disputes. Witches were usually identified as people who did not live up to their social obligations, were stingy, or unusually demanding.
Social Control. Social control was maintained through public oratory, shame, and occasional witch killings.
Conflict. Conflict with other groups took the form of raids led by faction leaders. Conflict within the group usually resulted in a witch being killed by one faction or by the departure of one of the factions to set up its own village. The Suya village fissioned and reunited in this fashion a number of times during the past century.
Religion and Expressive Culture
The Suya religion was based on the contrast between society and nature, as expressed in the village plan, myths, and myriad details of everyday life, and, to a much lesser extent, on the contrast between the body and the spirit. Nature, in the form of certain animals, was considered to be powerful and transformative. The spirit was said to come into being with the formation of the fetus, but to survive the body's decomposition. The Suya, like other Gêspeaking groups and in contrast to most Tupí-speaking groups in Brazil, did not populate the universe with many types of supernaturals.
Religious Beliefs. Suya religious beliefs were based on the transformative power of natural species.
Religious Practitioners. Whereas male and female specialists led rituals and composed new songs, the rest of the population participated in the long ceremonial cycles based on rites of passage.
Ceremonies. Suya ceremonies were long (a ceremonial period often lasted several months) and organized around rites of passage—especially the initiation of boys into the men's house. The entire village participated in ceremonies, characterized by much singing and dancing, in which kinship-based relationships and food exchanges were replaced by ceremonial, name-based relationships and exchanges.
Arts. Important among the arts were body ornamentation, speech, and song, which were all determined largely by age, gender, and names. There was, however, room for inventiveness and creativity in each of these domains.
Medicine. The Suya used both herbs and highly valued metaphoric songs to ensure rapid growth, strong wind, good health, and fecundity. Serious illness was attributed to witchcraft. After 1959 both Western medicine and shamans from other Indian communities were added to Suya medical options.
Death and Afterlife. After a person died, he or she was painted, fully ornamented, and buried in the dirt floor of his or her residential house amid ritual wailing and angry speech about witchcraft. The spirit was said to leave the house, travel to the east, and climb a tree to the sky where it went either to a large village in which the spirits live in contrast ceremonial activity or to the village of the witches, if it was a witch's spirit. During mourning a person did not paint his or her body or sing. Several months after an adult's death the village would decide to begin a ceremony, and all of its members would take a purifying bath in the center of the village plaza, paint their bodies, and, by singing and dancing, return to full social life once again.
Seeger, Anthony (1987). Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Steinen, Karl von den (1942). O Brasil central. São Paulo: Campanhia Editora Nacional.