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ALTERNATE NAMES: Guajajara and Tembé
POPULATION: 13,000 (estimate)
LANGUAGE: Guajajara (TupíGuaraní family)


The Tenetehara, known also as Guajajara and Tembé, are a numerous Brazilian indigenous peoples. Tenetehara lands are located at the eastern margin of the Amazon region, in Maranhão State. During the last 400 years, Tenetehara contact with another cultures, especially whites, has been marked by tragedy. In 1901 a revolt against Capuchin missionaries provoked the last war against Amerindians in Brazilian history.
The Tenetehara tribes seem to have inhabited the northeastern Brazilian region since pre-Columbian times. The first recorded encounter with the Christian world dates from the beginning of the 17th century, though it is possible they had contact with the Portuguese slave-traders who used to roam the region searching for Amerindians to capture. By the middle of the 17th century, three separate expeditions were organized by Jesuits to find Tenetehara and bring them to their missions. Various mission villages were established with some degree of success. The Colony of Januario, established in 1854, had a population of 120 Tenetehara 20 years later. At the same time, Neo-Brazilians started advancing into Tenetehara territory, a trend that has continued into the early 2000s.

Although the first 50 years of contact between the Tenetehara and Europeans were marked by slave raids, massacres, and epidemics, the Tenetehara made adjustments in their culture and society to changing external circumstances and survived. The story of the meeting between the Tenetehara and the Neo-Brazilians has been generally peaceful, except for several sporadic uprisings. The result of the contact between neighbors becomes evident when elements from one culture, such as clothes, tools, and myths, are found integrated into the other.

Agriculture is the principal subsistence activity of the Tenetehara. Among a wide range of crops, this Amerindian tribe grows manioc, rice, squash, watermelon, beans, sesame, and peanuts. The communities that dwell on the river coast commonly practice fishing. The most common catches are cará (Geophagus brasiliensis), cascudo (Loricaridii fam.), lampreia (Petromyzon fluviatilis), and traíra (Hoplias malabaricus). Hunting has become a less producing activity because of competition with whites for hunting areas and the spatial limitations of indigenous lands. Collecting fruit and vegetables is still practiced by almost all Tenetehara.


The Tenetehara live in the north of Brazil, in the states of Pará and Maranhao, east of the Amazon River. They live close to rivers, surrounded by trees and palms in the dense tropical forest. The palms, especially the babassú, are quite useful as their leaves and nuts provide shelter and nourishment. The nuts can also be sold to outsiders. From December through June, everything is wet: it is the rainy season. Then comes an equally long period that offers completely the opposite: the dry season. In the past, the Tenetehara had sufficient territory to move their settlements when the gardens were used up, every five or six years. Early explorers noticed that Tenetehara villages tended to be large, with each house holding 10 or more related families, under a powerful chief, usually a shaman. There are indications that the villages' average size was approximately 200 people.

Tenetehara people, as well as other Amerindian cultures, have faced the requirements imposed by modernity. In this sense, Tenetehara have adapted their economic organization by exchanging different goods, such as manioc flour, fur skins, babassu nuts, and carnauba, with other people and organizations in order to maintain their economic stability without breaking up the community organization. However, this type of reaction and adaptation goes against cultural tradition. For instance, when groups collect rubber for commercial firms, the gathering of this material obliges the tribe to split into family units and to spread over vast areas, which carries the risk of rupturing tribal bonds.


The Guajajara language belongs to the Tupi-Guarani family and its most closely related languages are Asurini (of Tocantins), Avá (Canoeiro), Parakanã, Suruí (of Pará), Tapirapé, and Tembé. In the villages, Guajajara is spoken as the first language, while Portuguese, which is understood by the majority, functions as the lingua franca. The socio-linguistic situation of the Guajajara who live in towns and cities is unknown.

The language of the Tenetehara is considered by grammarians to be unique because of the characteristic way in which the words are formed and put together. Those traits make it difficult for the language to be learned as a second language by adults whose first language is English or Spanish. To say, for example, "The woman ate the mango," the Tenetehara would say, "Eat woman mango;" "John killed Peter" would be "Kill John Peter."


In one Tenetehara myth, Maira stole fire from the vultures and hid it in the urucú wood so the Tenetehara could use this wood to make fire. Maira also gave the yucca and maize (corn) to them and then abandoned his wife, who was pregnant with his son, Maira-üra (üra is "son"). While she was searching for her husband, Maira's wife stayed one night in the house of Mukwüra and conceived a second time. She gave birth to twins, and they continued searching for Maira.

The other main Tenetehara hero is Tupan, the creator and protector. He was later identified with the Christian God by the missionaries, who emphasized his influence. Among some groups, Tupan was the "demon of thunder."

The Tenetehara also tell many animal stories. One tells about the difficulties of the Gamba when he tries to arrange a good marriage for his daughter. On one occasion she marries a wood tick, and Gamba tries to imitate his son-in-law by floating to the ground on a leaf from a treetop, only to fall hard to the ground.


With the exception of cultural heroes, Tenetehara supernatural beings are dangerous: Maranaüwa, the owner of the forest and animals that inhabit it, for instance, punishes Amerindians who needlessly kill some species, like white-lipped peccaries. Zuruparí, the forest demon, causes hunters to get lost in the forest and then kills them. Uwan, known also as Upóre and Uzare, is the spirit of the rivers and river animals and plants. He is also malignant and causes illnesses. These spirits, though often known by different names, are also part of Neo-Brazilian folklore.

Apart from the spirits, the Tenetehara also have to deal with ghosts (azang). Ghosts are the souls of people who died in adverse circumstances, such as from sorcery or by slowly wasting away, and also the souls of those that broke incest taboos during their life. They wander through the forests and appear in the shape of animals to hunters. They also haunt cemeteries and abandoned houses, so the Tenetehara avoid such places at night.

Because the supernatural world is so menacing, the Tenetehara need their shamans to protect them. A shaman can invoke the spirit that caused the problem in the first place, be possessed by it, and have its powers to solve the crisis. Each shaman can only call a number of spirits with which he is familiar; therefore, the more spirits he knows how to call, the more powerful he is.


There are two major holidays celebrated by the Tenetehara: the Honey Festival and the Maize (Corn) Festival. The Honey Festival is held during the last days of the dry season, after months of collecting enough wild honey to last until the end of the next season. During those collecting months, in the evenings, people gather to sing and bless the honey. As soon as the 20 to 30 gourd containers (each holding 1–2 liters or about 1–2 quarts) are filled, the leader sends out invitations to nearby villages. When the time comes, they sing the songs learned from the animals in mythical times and dance in circles while they drink honey mixed with water. The ceremony lasts as long as there is honey to drink.

Songs and dances are also the basic elements of the Maize Festival. It takes place during the rains of January through March, accompanying the growth of the maize. During the festival, the shamans conjure spirits that will protect the crop.


Through pregnancy and even after the birth of a child, a Tenetehara couple must observe a series of restrictions aimed at protecting the child. Most of these restrictions limit the variety of animals they are allowed to eat or hunt; the Tenetehara believe, for example, that killing a jaguar during pregnancy may cause the birth of an insane child. For the first 10 days after birth, the parents can only eat yucca flour, small fish, and roast maize (corn), drinking only water. And, they cannot have sexual relationships until the child is "hard," at six months old.

Until the evening of the puberty ceremony, children are forbidden to eat some meats, like peccary, guariba monkey, wild goose, and various forest fowls. That night they are given official permission to eat such meats and have their first taste of them, as the men of the village would have been hunting during the previous days for the feast that follows the singing. Because of this, some outsiders called the Tenetehara puberty ceremony the Festival of Roasted Meat. In the past, adolescents of both sexes were isolated for 10 days, after which they would end the isolation by breaking the entrails of an agouti stretched across the door. The boy's penis would have been then checked by the fathers in search of signs of masturbation and, if found, he would have been whipped. The girls were chased by the young men of the village from their doors to the stream or pool where they could have a bath.

Some of this has been lost. The boys are no longer isolated in most cases. The girls do spend some days lying in their hammocks or behind a palm-leaf screen and are still chased. For the ceremony, boys are painted red, and falcon feathers are glued on their chest and arms. The girls are painted black and, sometimes, white falcon feathers are glued to their hair. At dawn the ceremony begins, with songs and dances and sha-mans calling spirits.

After the puberty ceremony, the girl can consummate the marriage with her husband, who would have been living with her family since their marriage. There are no special wedding ceremonies: the young man simply moves into his father-inlaw's house. If the girl is not married yet, her father will find her a husband after the puberty ceremony. Monogamy is generally the rule.

The Tenetehara bury their dead in cemeteries outside the villages. The bodies are wrapped in mats made of babassú palm leaves or placed in boxes. It is reported that formerly they used to bury the first dead person in the house, and after the second death the house was destroyed.


Tenetehara culture and society has been modified through centuries of contact with the outside world. The result is a new culture and social system, a combination of aboriginal and borrowed elements. In 1855 a report from the Brazilian authorities described the inhabitants of some Tenetehara villages as "happily endowed for social life." They were perceived as docile and industrious. The president of Maranhao then said that "these Indians like peace and work: they are docile, hospitable, and faithful." Although they were deemed to be "almost white and intelligent," the Tenetehara retained many aspects of their own culture, among them their sense of community. Their villages vary in size according to resources. If tensions arise between extended families, a group breaks off to form a new settlement where they carry out the cooperative economic and ceremonial activities of the society. Gardening and collecting are two of those cooperative activities that involve large extended families. Children often help when collecting babassú nuts. As for the children, they are loved passionately: corporal punishment or abuse of Tenetehara's young is simply not tolerated.


The size of the villages varies enormously. Tenetehara villages can be composed by one family or can have as many as 400 inhabitants. The houses are occupied by nuclear families. Even though the communities use to maintain their independence, it is also common that the existence of various kinds of kinship among them originated by marriage and ritual. The most important unit is the extended family, which is composed by a number of nuclear families unified by kinship ties. These social units are basically composed by a group of women related by kinship and headed by a man. There are no clans or lineages. Heads of extended families try to keep as many women as possible with them, even by adopting daughters of deceased men. They try to arrange marriages for these girls and women with the aim to attract sons-in-law who should live for some time with their fathers-in-law, rendering various kinds of service.

A Tenetehara village can be as simple as two rows of houses with a wide street between them. Rows are added as the village grows. In the past, a large ceremonial house could be found situated at the end of the village street. Some of the ceremonial houses were erected just for the Honey Feast, during which the villagers danced inside, and then they were destroyed.

A typical Tenetehara house is rectangular in shape, with the walls and roofs covered with babassú palm leaves. There are no inner walls, even if more than one nuclear family lives in the house. Each family (husband, wife, and their children) has its own fire and hangs its hammocks around it, thus creating their own space within the house. Their belongings are hung on the upright supports against the walls, and sometimes there are shelves near the roof to store maize (corn), yucca, or farming instruments.

The traditional Tenetehara doctor is the shaman. Shamans can cure illness by invoking the powers of the spirits that caused the illness and then removing the cause by sucking or massaging the patient. The cure involves songs and dances, the shaman smokes large cigars, and when he is finally possessed by a spirit or a ghost, he shows by his actions which one it is.


The Tenetehara basic social groupings are extended families and widely extended bilateral kin groups. Families are the organizers of ceremonial and cooperative economic activities. Although there are indications of infanticide (only in the case of twins, as they are believed to be the children of dangerous supernatural beings) and knowledge of some formulas to produce abortion, the Tenetehara generally do not limit family size. During pregnancy, long taboos are imposed on the parents, but despite this discomfort, the Tenetehara like large families. Men are proud to father several children, and women are eager to bear children. According to the American anthropologist Charles Wagley, this desire for large families was one of the reasons for their survival. Many Tenetehara died from new diseases, war, and slavery when contact was first established with Europeans. But, new babies were born and replaced their population until they adjusted to the new circumstances.


Covering the body is one of the habits the Tenetehara acquired through contact with other cultures, particularly Christians. Nudity was traditionally the rule. Then they adopted not just clothes from Neo-Brazilians but also the socially attributed values that accompany them: it is prestigious to have new or better clothes than other people. Women always wear skirts now, and men wear pants and shirts.


The Tenetehara are tropical forest horticulturalists, who practice the slash-and-burn system. The staple food of the region is yucca or cassava, which is used to make bread and beverages. Maize (corn) and peanuts were already traditional crops by the time steel instruments were introduced, tools that made it easier to grow new plants, such as rice, bananas, and lemons. As their villages have traditionally been situated near rivers and streams, fishing adds protein to their diets. They also hunt tapir, deer, peccary, monkeys, and various forest fowls for their meat and collect forest fruits and nuts. The Tenetehara drink chicha, a fermented alcoholic drink made from various plants.


Many Tenetehara are bilingual. They have learned Portuguese, and most of them still speak their own language as well. Being able to communicate clearly with the Brazilians is considered very important, not only to carry out trade, find work, and take part in the national life, but also to defend their rights when needed. As some have lost their own language, there are already projects to forward bilingual education in schools where Amerindian attendance is high. There are some primary schools provided by the government agency FUNAI, but secondary education is scarcer. Many schools are still run and funded by missionaries, as they were in the first stages of colonization. As to the level of education achieved, it is difficult to generalize, but as the Tenetehara are one of the tribes that adapted best to the change of circumstances brought about by European settlers, formal education is not alien and, when possible, is readily attained.


Singing and dancing are not only the Tenetehara's most favorite pastimes, but they also play a central role in their ceremonial rites. The Tenetehara are very fond of music, and some of their songs are considered by many to be the most beautiful of the region. Each ceremony has its own particular songs, and they should not be sung out of season because it would upset the spirits. The songs of the Honey Festival are believed to have been brought to the tribe by a young Tenetehara shaman who visited the Village of the Jaguar during the festival of the animals when each animal sang a song.

To be a shaman, it is essential to have a good voice. At shamanistic sessions, the shaman sings the group of songs attributed to the spirit he is calling until the spirit itself enters his body and sings through him. When possessed, the shaman dances, imitating the animal of the spirit inside him; e.g., a toad spirit will make him hop. Meanwhile, men and women dance, usually stamping their feet on one spot. In some ceremonies, they form lines facing each other and approach and retreat. In the Maize (Corn) Festival dance, they make a large circle and move with a skipping step.


Agriculture is a central activity for the Tenetehara. The produce not only provides food for the families but also can be traded for manufactured articles. The task used to be divided between females and males according to the product. Women planted and harvested cotton and peanuts, while men cultivated yucca, maize (corn), and other plants. Nowadays, men do most of the planting and the women help when required. The land is cleared and the dry vegetation burned to create a garden, which is said to be owned by the head of the family but is cultivated and used by the entire extended family. The gardens are planted throughout December using metal tools, such as steel axes, hoes, and bush knives, obtained through trade with Neo-Brazilians.

As with agriculture, hunting and collecting wild foods have a dual purpose: complementing their own diets and being used for trade. Babassú nuts and copaiba oil are good products to sell in order to buy clothes, guns, fishhooks, and salt. Hunting is nowadays carried out with shotguns, when available, or with bows and arrows. The skins can be sold to Neo-Brazilians and the meat kept for consumption. The Tenetehara fish with hooks and lines, though poisoning drying pools with timbó is also known.


No specifically Tenetehara sports have been noted. However, having been close to European and Brazilian culture, popular sports have become familiar. Boys play tops and marbles in the same manner as the Neo-Brazilian children of the region. Many Brazilian Amerindians are very keen on soccer and play it frequently.


Singing and dancing are favorite pastimes among the Tenetehara. New tunes learned from their fellow country people are welcome. But, singing their own native songs is a pleasure in which the Tenetehara often indulge. Many evenings throughout the year, men and women gather for a zingareté, which means "to sing much," and enjoy their secular songs just for the fun of it. No native alcoholic beverages are known, but they do buy the usual from Neo-Brazilians. On the other hand, the smoke of native tobacco and hashish has lingered over many a zingareté, and other activities, since long ago.

The Tenetehara also hold parties in which some play bamboo flutes and skin drums, and couples dance to Neo-Brazilian rhythms, like the samba. Sometimes they hire Neo-Brazilian musicians to play their instruments.


Apart from their leather headbands and wands made of wood with tail feathers of the red macaw, the rest of the Tenetehara crafts are basically necessary utensils made of available raw materials. This does not mean that they do not decorate what they make, for aesthetic reasons or to distinguish one object from the rest. Their baskets, for example, have woven geometric designs. They are made principally with a split flexible creeper, woven also into round sieves, for straining yucca flour, and flexible tipitis, which are used to squeeze the poisonous juice from the bitter manioc (cassava). The Tenetehara also weave native cotton to make hammocks.

Gourds are used to make eating utensils. The gourd is boiled and then allowed to dry. Then a single hole is cut to make a jug for drinking water or wild honey, or the gourd is cut in half and the interior mass scraped out to make a bowl. The inside of the bowl is stained black, and the outside is decorated with geometric incisions and black lines.

Pottery has been largely abandoned as the Tenetehara can now buy metal utensils. Pottery used to be simple, decorated only with incised designs. Their bows and arrows are made of pau d'arco wood, with bowstrings of twined tocum fibers. Both bow and arrows are 1 m (3 ft) long, and today the arrows have steel points.


The northeastern tribes of Brazil have seen their land swallowed up by colonizers in recent years. It is history repeating itself, only this time the many colonizers do not come from lands across the ocean but from Brazil itself. Although the Brazilian government has an organization that takes care of the Amerindian population (FUNAI), another body, the INCRA, has opened the region for settlement. Harried and hemmed in by settlers, the Tenetehara, along with other regional tribes, are running the risk of social breakdown once again.


The shift in emphasis in the economic life of the Tenetehara from the production of use-values to the production of exchange-values has been accompanied by a change in the division of labor, so that the basic economy based upon agriculture, while formerly controlled by the women, is now in the hands of the men. Males formerly planted the chief staple, manioc, leaving flour-preparation and supplementary horticulture to the women. Today, most of the trading and agriculture is man's work and individual gardens are developed as extra holdings. However, a family preference for girls, the addition of a male worker to the family at marriage, women's initiative in sexual affairs, and the earlier, pre-adolescent entrance into household duties emphasize the older patterns of life.

Although a revolution has occurred in the sexual division of labor, the Tenetehara women have preferential treatment within the tribe. Women are revered because they form the core of extended families and they are in charge of attracting wealth-creating males, who have to leave their own families to join that of their wives just at the beginning of their productive years. This marital rule makes boys a burden to the community in which they were born because they will not contribute to the group's economy. After looking at the diagrams of extended families and finding a preponderance of females over males in the contemporary generation, anthropologists have suggested that Tenetehara may engage in indirect male infanticide. In addition, women's powerful position within Tenetehara society makes them aggressive when it comes to sexual relations.


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—revised by C. Vergara