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ETHNONYMS: Etalena, Ethelená, Etnoe, Poké (self-designation, meaning "land"), Terenoá, Terenos, Terenue


Identification. The Terena are a Guana or Chane ("many people" in the Terena language) subgroup that originally lived in the northeast of the Paraguayan Chaco.

Location. At present the Terena are located almost entirely in the municipalities of Miranda and Aquidauana, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, except for a small group living in villages in the state of Sao Paulo. The Aquidauana-Miranda region lies between 20° and 22° S and 54° and 58° W. The elevation of the region is less than 200 meters. The climate is moist-tropical.

Demography. The Terena are among the few native Brazilian populations that have displayed population growth. In the 1840s, when they migrated into Brazilian territory, the Terena numbered about 3,000. At the end of the 1950s, there were around 3,800. Official data note approximately 12,000 village dwellers during the mid-1980s. Informal estimates suggest that up to 8,000 Terena live on the outskirts of the main towns in Mato Grosso do Sul. Birthrates are high, as are mortality rates. This give the population structure of the Terena an appearance similar to that of the Brazilian population in generala pyramid with a broad base and a narrow top. Until the 1950s infectious diseases in general and tuberculosis in particular were the main causes of death. Today the causes of death are mixed, with infectious as well as chronic degenerative causes. Among children, the main causes of death are infectious diseases, especially gastroenteritis and respiratory infections.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Terena language is part of the Arawak Language Family, with elements of the MbayáGuaikuru cultural module.

History and Cultural Relations

The Guana people, traditionally cultivators, maintained a vassalage relation with the Mbayá-Guaikuru of the Paraguayan Chaco: they supplied them with food and textiles, receiving in exchange knives, axes, and protection. From the mid-eighteenth century on, as a consequence of conflicts with the colonial powers, the Guana people began to migrate to Brazilian territoryto the Miranda region where the Terena are located today. Of the four Guana groups that migrated, the Exoaladi disappeared soon thereafter, followed by the Layana in the twentieth century; only a few members of the Kinkinau survive with the Terena. The Kinkinau, who had been cultivators in the Chaco, continued to practice agriculture, bartering or selling excess food or textile articles to the region's Indian and non-Indian population. The Terena fought side by side with Brazilian troops during the war against Paraguay in the 1860s. At the end of the war, the Terena villages lay in ruins and the population had been dispersed to the region's farms, working under quasi-slavery conditions; in the early twentieth century, Terena reservations were established and their territories defined, enabling the population to regroup once again into villages.


The Terena are spread over thirteen indigenous areas totaling twenty-nine villages: of these areas, six have an exclusively Terena population and four have a predominantly Terena population; in three areas the Terena are in the minority. The areas with an exclusively Terena population are Aldeinha, Burity, Cachoeirinha, Nioaque, Pilade Rebuá, and Taunay/Ipeque. Those with a predominantly Terena population are Hraribá (Terena, Guaraní, and Kaingáng); LaLima (Terena and Kinkinau); Limão Verde (Terena and Guaraní) ; and Vanuire (Terena and Kaingáng). Those with a Terena minority are Dourados (Guaraní and Terena); Icatu (Kaingáng and Terena); and Kadiwéu (Kadiwéu and Terena). For the most part, the construction of Terena houses follows a pattern similar to the traditional one, with palm-tree-trunk or adobe-brick walls and thatched roofs; a few houses are of masonry. Houses generally have a living room and a bedroom; the kitchen may be inside the house or separate, in a contiguous shed. The toilet, not always extant, is some 10 meters away from the house. A few villages have electricity and running water, supplied by artesian or semiartesian wells.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Terena continue to be an agricultural people. Traditional crops (maize, cassava, rice, potatoes, beans, and sugarcane) are now joined by soybeans, vegetables, fruit, and the raising of poultry. Cattle and horses, which were also raised traditionally, are bred solely for use by the Terena themselves, rather than for sale. Food gathering continues on a regular basis, particularly of hearts of palm and citrus fruits, which along with mangoes are either consumed or sold at the regional market. Excess food is sold in the major municipalities of Mato Grosso do Sul, to which the Terena travel by train almost daily. A large number of young Terena men are hired to work on the region's farms and in sugarcane and alcohol mills for periods of up to ninety days, during which they are absent from the village.

Industrial Arts. The traditional crafts of the Terena were pottery, basket weaving, and the spinning of cotton to make hammocks, belts, and so forth. At present pottery is still the main activity among the Terena who make, both for sale and for their own use, generally zoomorphic kitchen utensils and decorative objects. In some villages there are artisans who work with natural fibers, making hats and fans; others fashion factory-made threads into armbands, scarves, belts, and necklaces of natural seeds. There are some goldsmiths who work metals into decorative objects.

Trade. Although the Terena at one time bartered their excess foodstuffs and their handicrafts with the MbayáGuaikuru, they started selling them after their move to Brazilian territory, turning them into important components of the regional city dwellers' supply. At present the Terena sell many of their excess farm products, especially beans and citrus fruit. Consumption of orchard, vegetablegarden, and poultry products is small; they are produced almost exclusively for sale. Mangoes are picked and sold while still green, for processing purposes.

Division of Labor. Raising crops, hunting, fishing, and making baskets were men's jobs; women took care of spinning, pottery, and household work. Both men and women were food gatherers. This has remained relatively unchanged, except that women share the agricultural work and there are some men engaging in spinning and weaving.

Land Tenure. Land is used among the Terena in three different ways: for individual or family work; for collective farming; and for collective farming in agricultural projects under the guidance and coordination of the Fundação Nacional do Indio (Brazilian National Indian Foundation, FUNAI). These projects tend to be exclusively of the cashfarming variety, as opposed to the first two, which are oriented toward subsistence farming plus sale of crop surpluses. In some indigenous areas where the population density is high (about 5.5 inhabitants per square kilometer as in Pilade Rebuá), farming is difficult, a fact that prevents the inhabitants from subsisting solely from their own land.


Kin Groups and Descent. Terena society traditionally was of a dualistic nature, being divided into halves called, respectively, Sukirikionó and Xumonó. At the time of first contact, this dualism was reflected only in ceremonials and in social organization, the halves functioning solely as matrimonial classes. Besides being divided into halves, Terena society featured socially differentiated strata. The layers and the halves were endogamous. Today few Terena can say to which half they belong. Because of the great changes that occurred in the social organization of Terena communities, the endogamy of halves and layers has ceased to exist.

Kinship Terminology. The Terena kinship system is of the Hawaiian type. The same term is used to designate brothers and cross or parallel cousins, the only distinction made being that of sex. The same classification criterion appears for the second ascendant generation; in the first ascendant generation the same trend occurs, but there are terms for differentiating mother, father, and siblings. In the first descending generation there is only one kinship term for both sexes.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In traditional Terena society marriage between consanguineal kin was not permitted. There were cases of levirate and sororate as well as cases of simple or sororal polygyny. Today, owing to the influence of Christianity, these unions are uncommon and are also condemned by the Terena community itself; monogamous unions are most common. Marriage traditionally implied certain socially consecrated behavior, which consisted of states intermediate to marriage. The bridegroom was taken by his parents to the bride's house and remained there for some time. Before the wedding, the groom's and bride's families cooperated in the collection of mopó (honey used in the preparation of drinks). The marriage was authorized by the father of the bride. Today these intermediate stages are no longer practiced. Nonetheless, the parents of the bride still exert much influence over the choice of the husband. Interethnic marriages are frequent, generally between a Terena woman and a "civilized" man.

Domestic Unit. The Terena originally lived in communal houses, in extended-family units. The houses were located around a central square. When the Service for the Protection of Indians (SPI) built the indigenous reservations, the familial pattern changed. At present domestic groups are generally made up of nuclear families.

Inheritance. In the past an individual's personal belongings were buried with the corpse. Today this practice is still followed in a few villages, but now that the Terena are part of a market economy, the deceased's children and other close relatives usually inherit his belongings.

Socialization. Children are socialized at home. At age 7 or 8 they start going to the schools on the indigenous reserves. In some villages there is bilingual instruction. While still at home the children are raised by the mother and other women in the family, the men having less contact with them. The treatment of children is generally quite permissive, corporal punishment being rarely used. In traditional Terena society mothers would nurse their children until they were about 6 years old.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Terena society traditionally featured two strata-naati and waherê-txané. The naati were the chiefs and their kin, whereas the waherê-txané were the common people. There also was a third layer, kauti, made up of individuals from other ethnicities absorbed into the Terena society. The term "kauti" comes from the Portuguese word cativo (captive). Each local Terena group had a "chief of the people" and a "war chief." The latter was selected from members of the social group called xuna-xati if he displayed great military ability; consequently the existence of the xuna-xati group also provided a mechanism for social climbing. When the SPI established the indigenous reserves, administration of the villages fell to their appointee. At present there is an administrator for each indigenous post, appointed by FUNAI. As a result the head of the community has the scope of his activities restricted to handling the internal problems of the village. This person, called capitão (Portuguese for "captain," designating a military rank) is elected by the community. One institution that resisted historic and cultural change is the Council of Elders. The community's older prestigious men take part in this council.

Political Organization. Present-day forms of political activity in Terena villages consist of electing Terena representatives to the government's political institutions. Terena Indians are serving as elected aldermen in the municipal chambers of towns adjacent to their villages. This adds a local political dimension to the national level of the Union of Indigenous Nations (UNI). Political expression is still limited, however, since Brazil's indigenous populations are wards of FUNAI, the governmental agency that holds decision-making power in indigenous matters.

Social Control. The village Council of the Elders is the most important institution for exercising social control in Terena communities. Family problems in the villages are discussed by the council, which often has the power to rule on a range of internal community matters.

Conflict. While still in the Chaco, the Terena had frequent conflicts with the Ylái and Yúaeno (cited in the ethnography of the period). After migrating to Brazilian territory, the Terena did not get involved in conflicts either with the regional population or with other tribal groups. Nonetheless, when the Brazil-Paraguay War started in the second half of the nineteenth century, all the Terena villages were destroyed and Terena were recruited to bolster the ranks of the Brazilian army. It was only in 1910, when the SPI was created and the Terena reservations were set up in the southern part of Mato Grosso, that the Terena population could once again organize into communities.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Prior to the imposition of Christianity, the religious life of the Terena was oriented toward shamanism. According to the Terena's conception of the world, all human, animal, and plant beings possessed a soul (hoipihapati ) that survives after death. Personifications of natural forces inhabited the mythical-symbolical universe of the Terena. One of the most important myths is that of the Yurikoyuvakai, the civilizing twin heroes, who gave the Terena their tools. It is this myth that justifies the division into ceremonial halves in traditional Terena society.

Religious Practitioners. In traditional Terena society the shaman (koixomuneti ) was the main figure in activities connected with the supernatural world. In addition to functioning as a healer, the koixomuneti was an important counselor in warring expeditions, since he or she predicted future events. The koixomuneti's apprenticeship took several months, during which the candidate went through a period of solitude and fasting under the guidance of an experienced koixomuneti. A person generally became a shaman after a revelation in a dream or by being selected by a koixomuneti among his (or her) kin. At this time there still are a few practicing village koixomuneti (both men and women), performing a shamanic ritual that combines traditional elements with Christianity. The koixomuneti are always practicing Catholics.

Ceremonies. The great ceremonial feast of the Terena used to be the Oheokoti, consisting of sacred as well as profane rituals. This ceremony was performed when the Pleiades reached their highest point in the skies (April/May) and was linked to the start of the harvest. The ceremony began with shamanic rituals and continued with fun and games, ending in a large feast. At present only the shamanic ritual is still practiced in a few Terena villages. The holidays particularly celebrated in the villages today are the National Day of the Indian (19 April), Christmas, and New Year's.

Arts. Traditional Terena dancers wear special costumes and paint. Skirts are made of rhea feathers, the bird being important in Terena mythology. The dancers are accompanied by a flute player and the sound of a drum. Today, the "wood-beating" dance (kohixotikipahé ) is performed during the National Indian Day celebrations. Two groups of dancers take part in this dance. Another surviving dance is the women's putu-putu.

Medicine. Practically all Terena adults are familiar with the more widely used medicinal plants. The koixomuneti is generally consulted when the more common treatments do not work or if "witchcraft" is suspected. Techniques used by the koixomuneti include suction and fumigation. In addition to the koixomuneti, there are prestigious healers in the villages, who also are frequently consulted. Their treatment generally involves plant therapy. FUNAI operates an infirmary at each indigenous post; however, they have neither supplies of medication nor the structure required to serve the population.

Death and Afterlife. The Terena used to bury their dead with the head facing west. They believed that after death the spirit moved on to the "land of the dead," which is to the west, in the direction of the Chaco, their old habitat. The koixomuneti helped the spirit in its voyage to the land of the dead. The Terena traditionally burn the dead person's house or replace the entrance door so that if the spirit of the deceased returns, looking for company, it would not recognize its old abode. At present burial and mourning follow the patterns current among the Brazilian population.


Altenfelder Silva, Fernando (1949). "Mundanca cultural dos Terena." Revista do Museu Paulista (São Paulo), n.s. 3:271-379.

Baldus, Herbert (1937). Ensaios de etnologia brasileira. São Paulo: Cia. Editora Nacional.

Carvalho, Edgar de Assis (1979). As alternatives dos vencidosíndios terena no Estado de Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo: Editora Paz e Terra.

Oliveira, Roberto Cardosa de (1976). Do índio au bugre: O processo de assimilação dos terena. Rio de Janeiro: Livraria Francisco Alves Editora.

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