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LOCATION: Paraguay; Brazil



RELIGION: Traditional indigenous religions


The Guaranís were once one of the most influential American Indian peoples in the southern part of South America. They were settled in the tropical forests of Paraguay and southern Brazil.

When the Spanish first arrived, many Guaranís helped them in their wars against other American Indian groups. Many Spanish men married Guaraní women during this period. This was the beginning of the long process of intermarriage that produced the Paraguayans of today.

Other Guaraní groups turned against the Spanish and fought to protect their freedom and their way of life. This process continued into the nineteenth century. Many Guaraní groups fell under the control of the Spanish and their cruel encomienda system. This system was similar to the old European system of serfdom. It also resembled the British system of indentured servants. In the encomendia system, the Guaraní were basically enslaved and were forced to work for Spanish landowners. It was a harsh, exploitative system.

Still other Guaranís joined with Jesuit missionaries (an order of Catholic priests). The Jesuits had become a very powerful force in Latin America. In fact, they often were seen as enemies of the Spanish, even though they were mainly Spanish. Spain feared them because their loyalty was to the Catholic Church, and not to Spain.

The Guaranís who allied themselves with the Jesuits were converted to Christianity and moved into missions. For a time, these missions became powerful institutions in colonial South America. Fearing their increasing power, the Spanish ordered the Jesuits out of South America in 1767. The Guaranís who lived at the missions were pushed out, and many returned to their old way of life in the forests. Those who remained had to fight raids on the missions by colonists, who stole land from the Guaranís and destroyed both cattle and plantations.

The Guaranís also participated, as Paraguayan citizens, in the war against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina (186470), and in the devastating War of the Chaco (193235) against Bolivia, in which many Paraguayan men lost their lives.


Today the Guaranís who have kept their traditional way of life live in scattered settlements in Paraguay and in southern Brazil. It is thought that the Brazilian settlements date from the nineteenth century. They also made their way into northern Argentina, especially the province of Misiones.


The Guaraní language is still widely spoken in Paraguay. The Guaranís have a "secular," a "secret," and a "sacred" language. All Guaranís speak the secular language. The sacred language is used only by male and female elders. They receive divine messages and transmit them to the rest of the group. The secret language is used only by religious leaders. It is called Ñe'e pará, meaning "the words of our fathers."

Guaranís often have a Spanish name for everyday use, as well as a secret Guaraní name. It is the task of the group leader to find out the origin of a baby's soul and then give him or her a sacred name.


Guaraní folklore is very rich. Among the mbyás, a group of Guaranís who have preserved much of their old literature and tradition, the Creator is called Ñande Ru. He gave birth to a son, whom he named Pa'í Reté Kuaray. His body was like the sun, and he is said to be the father of the Guaraní people.

Pa'í taught his people not only sacred dances and songs, but also farming and ethics. He is the destroyer of evil beings. He created the honeybee as a sweet offering to humankind. He entrusted the care of his creation to four gods. After Ñande Ru created the first earth, it was destroyed by a great flood through the will of the gods. Then the Creator asked the son of Jakaira, the God of Spring, to create another earth. Since that time, the four gods have sent the souls of boys to earth, and the wives of the gods have sent the souls of girls to earth.


Not all Guaranís have the same beliefs. Among the three major groups that remain today (the Chiripás, the Mbayás, and the Pai-Kaiovás), there are some interesting differences. In general, they believe that every person has an earthly soul and a divine one. Dreams come from the divine soul and are the source of inspiration for the shamans, religious leaders. The shamans are the communicators between the divine and earthly worlds. They also have the task of identifying evil-doers and protecting the group as well as curing illnesses.

Some Guaranís believe in reincarnation. Those who have had more Christian influences believe that evil-doers go to a land of darkness, while good people go to the "Land Without Evil."

The Guaraní believe that all living things, including plants, animals, and water, have protective spirits. They also believe in evil spirits.


The Guaranís do not make distinctions between secular and religious occasions. Most feasts and celebrations have religious aspects. Even harvest festivals include sacred ceremonies.


When a boy becomes an adolescent he undergoes initiation rites with a group of others, apart from the larger group. The rituals are performed under the direction of the shaman. The boy's lower lip is pierced with a piece of wood. He follows a strict diet based on corn for several days. Afterward, he can use adult words and adult ways of talking to people.

During the initiation rites, the boy is instructed in appropriate behavior. This includes working hard, refraining from harming others, being moderate in his habits, not drinking excessively, and never beating his future wife.

When a girl reaches adolescence, she is kept apart for a time under the care of female relatives. Her mother gives her guidance on her future marriage.

Guaranís sometimes have informal marriages. A young man takes a young woman to his parents' house to live for a time, without formal marriage ceremonies. If he wishes to marry her, he asks her father for permission. When a couple forms a family, they are expected to raise their children with kindness and tolerance, and not to hit the children.


Traditional greetings to visitors required the female hosts to wail and mourn, reciting the admirable deeds of the visitor's dead relatives. The guest had to cover his or her face with the hands and show appropriate expressions of sorrow. Some of these traditional greetings have fallen out of use.

Among some groups, there are celebrations that offer young people a way of dating. These celebrations are known as kotyú. They are dances that are meant to celebrate important myths. But at the same time, they allow young men to dance with young women and to express their love. During the kotyú dances, both formal and friendly, or even romantic, greetings are exchanged.

Two anthropologists did a study of Guaraní songs and literature. They report that an official who came to investigate the condition of a particular Guaraní group was greeted in this way during the dance:

An inhabitant from faraway lands do I see. Oh bird!

In truth, I see, oh bird, an inhabitant

from faraway lands!

This is a greeting from the boys to girls during a kotyú, as described by the anthropologists:

Let us, my sisters, give a brotherly greeting,

Oh spotless maidens,

around the Great House

near the Golden Grasses.


War, conquest, and European diseases have destroyed much of the Guaraní population. The more traditional groups continue to live a lifestyle that satisfies their simple and basic needs, such as food and shelter. Some of these Guaranís live mainly apart from the cash economy and produce only enough to keep themselves alive. There is an active trade in basic implements for hunting, fishing, and cooking.

The traditional extended family unit was part of a clan of as many as fifty or sixty families. This required the construction of large houses with screened-off sections and a large group area. During the Spanish colonial period, government and religious authorities disapproved of these houses. Eventually, most of the Guaranís gave up this mode of living.

The Guaranís in Paraguay live along streams and use bamboo rafts, or occasionally canoes, for transportation. In some jungle areas, they walk long distances, especially during hunting expeditions. The Guaranís in parts of Brazil use dugout canoes.


The traditional extended family unit required a cooperative way of living, under the authority of the head of the clan. Guaranís lived in small groups of large rectangular houses built around a square plaza, or courtyard. Today, in many areas, these houses have been replaced by small single-family units.

Some marriage customs are changing. Young people are insisting on having more of a say in the choice of marriage partners. In earlier times, people were betrothed (became engaged) as children. Chiefs also had several wives in earlier times; this is no longer the case.

Some Guaranís keep dogs that they prize as hunting companions, especially in jungle areas where jaguars are still hunted. In some areas, Guaranís keep chickens and other farm animals.


Guaranís who live on the reservations in parts of northern Argentina and Paraguay have adopted the clothing of the rural peasant farmers. This consists of plain shirts and trousers and a cloak or poncho.

In distant areas of Brazil, some of the Guaranís still wear traditional ornaments and very little else. Originally, they wore no clothing at all. They used strands of women's hair around their legs in bands as protective ornaments. They sometimes pierced their lower lips. In distant areas, the women still wear black body paint and the men wear black and red body paint. Some Guaranís still wear earrings of shell or gold.


The whole community participates in clearing land to grow crops. When the soil is exhausted, the community moves on. While this traditional method is still in use in some areas, in other places the Guaranís have become more settled.

The staple foods are cassava and corn. Sweet potatoes, beans, pumpkins, and tropical fruits such as bananas and papayas are also grown. Peanuts provide protein, and sugarcane is a delicacy. In the forests, wild honey is sometimes collected.

Chipas are cakes made from corn flour. The Guaranís also wrap corn dough in leaves and cook them under ashes; this dish is called auimi atucupé. Cassava is often roasted or boiled.


The Jesuits provided the first schools for the Guaranís. After the Jesuits left, many Guaranís took refuge in distant areas and went back to earlier lifestyles. Others went to work as paid peasant farmers on plantations. Still others went into the towns to find work and continued the process of assimilation, becoming like the people around them.

Those that remain today in remote areas, such as some of the Brazilian Guaranís, do not wish to adapt to the Western lifestyle. They also do not want to send their children to school. They fear that this will lead to the destruction of their independent existence.


Some Guaraní songs and poems have made their way into the popular culture of the Paraguayans. Some groups, such as the Mbayás, have preserved many of their legends and stories. Traditional instruments include drums, rattles, and flutes. Sometimes important moral and social lessons are given in the form of short plays staged in front of village children.


Guaranís farm, hunt, and fish. Some Guaranís are also beekeepers. In wild areas, they hunt the tapir (a kind of wild hog), the anteater, and the jaguar, as well as the agouti (a rabbit-like rodent). They capture parrots by lassoing them with a small noose attached to the end of a pole.

The Guaranís are able fishers, and they still shoot fish with bows and arrows in some areas. They also use traps in the form of baskets or nets made of plant fiber. Fish provides an important source of protein in their diet.


Sports begin as the games that children play. Guaraní children especially enjoy wrestling and racing. They also play tug-of-war. Some studies report that the ancient Itatín group of Guaranís played games with rubber balls. Adults still play a game with a shuttlecock made out of corn. The aim is to throw it at each other and try to keep it in the air as long as possible.


Guaranís have always enjoyed celebrations and feasts. Usually they celebrate with generous quantities of a fermented drink called chicha, which is often made from corn. A good harvest and a good fishing expedition are also opportunities for celebration.


Baskets are woven from pindo palm fibers. Some of the Paraguayan Guaranís make bags from leather.

Some still make their own bows and arrows and carve dugout canoes from a single tree trunk. They also weave cotton into white cloth with brown and black stripes. They make their own flutes, sometimes from bamboo. Beads are made and strung into necklaces.


The social problems of the Guaranís vary depending on where they live. Those living in the tropical forests resent the intrusions of Europeans. To keep their simple, sustainable lifestyle, they need to live in small, scattered settlements. These often range over a wide area. This lifestyle clashes with the needs of ranchers and poor farmers, who require land for their operations. Their biggest conflicts, however, are with prospectors searching for oil and minerals.

On the reservations, problems are caused by the economic limitations and the lack of opportunity to preserve the Guaranís' cultural and economic independence.


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Warren, Harris Gaylord. Rebirth of the Paraguayan Republic. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Williams, John Hoyt. The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic. Austin: University of Texas, 1979.


Ruiz-Garcia, Pedro (The Latino Connection). [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Paraguay. [Online] Available, 1998.