Indigenous Cultures Previous - Next


Success Story In Brazil

The Return of the Panará

At the end of the 1960s the attempt to contact the Panará Indians (or Krenakorore, as they were then known) became a national drama in Brazil. They were rumoured to be giants, fierce and elusive. That attempt failed. Later, a contacting expedition led by Claudio and Orlando Villas Boas sought their villages only just in advance of the engineers opening the Cuiabá Santarem highway. Once contacted, they were devastated by new diseases, and reduced to beggary by the side of the new road bisecting their traditional territory. In February 1975, less than two years after the official contact, 79 demoralised survivors were transferred to the Xingu National Park Now, two decades later, with much of their territory overrun by gold mining, ranching and logging, the Panará have returned to the remaining forest of their traditional land in the upper watershed of the Inri River in northern Mato Grosso and southern Pará.

By Stephan Schwartzman

Over the last four years, the Panará have identified an area of 490,000 hectares still forested and unoccupied, reestablished permanent occupation of the region, and filed suit in federal court for indemnification for losses and damages in the contact and the transfer, as well as for demarcation of their remaining land. In December 1994, FUNAI (National Indian Foundation) identified the area, beginning the process of official recognition.

The recent history of the Panará is paradigmatic of larger processes in course among indigenous peoples in Brazil processes of demographic loss and recovery, ethnic and cultural reaffirmation, territorial reintegration. The history of the Panará illuminates tendencies general to indigenous peoples in Brazil, and also contributes to important advances in anthropology.

Who are the Panará?

When the Panará were contacted on the Peixoto de Azevedo river in January 1973, the media portrayed them as isolated stone age Indians. The anthropology of the time viewed groups such as the Panará in more or less the same wayas "subsistence"societies, whose culture and society was best understood as an ancient adaptation to particular ecological circumstances. Some scholars thought that the societies, cultures and economies of contemporary Amazonian societies were the same as those of precolombian groups and thus could serve to ground general explanations of indigenous societies as adaptations to Amazonian ecosystems. Recent historical and ethnohistorical research has demonstrated to the contrary, that the present disposition and circumstances of indigenous societies result from their historical experience of contact with the surrounding society, as well as from their internal social and historical dynamics. The Panará are a case in point.

Most of the Panará alive when the Villas Boas expedition arrived in the Peixoto had never seen a white person. But they preserved the memory of at least two hundred years of war against the Portuguese and then Brazilians.

"I had never seen them but my grand
father told me, 'The whites are very
wild. They killed many of us with
guns. If they come to the village,
club them, they are dangerous!"'
(Ake Panará, interview, November 1991,
Xingu Park)

The nine villages of Panará, with some 350 to 600 inhabitants, that existed in 1967 in the Peixoto de Azevedo and Upper Iriri basins were in fact the last outpost of a much larger people, well known to the chroniclers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Panaráoral traditions relate that they came from the east, from a savannah region, where they fought white people with guns. Linguistic and ethnohistorical research has now shown that the Panará are the descendants of the Southern Cayapo, who in the 17th, 18th and
19th centuries occupied a vast territory between the Triangulo Mineiro, western Sao Paulo, Mato Grosso do Sul, Goias, and southern Mato Grosso. Several bandeiras were sent against them, most notably that of Antonio Pires de Campos, who mobilised Bororo Indians against them, and is reported to have brought 2,000 Cayapo back to Cuiabá as slaves. By the turn of the century, they were considered to be extinct.

In reality, the Panará of the Peixoto and Iriri rivers are the descendants of the westernmost group of Southern Cayapo, who refused peaceful contact and settlement, and withdrew in the later 19th or early 20th century to the region in which the "first contact" occurred in the 1960s. Ethnohistory of both the Northern Kayapo (a distinct group, belonging to the same linguistic subfamily, the Northern Gé) and the Panará attests that the Panará inhabited the Peixoto and Iriri basins by the 1920s, when their war with the Kayapoa living memory for both groups began.

Attempts to explain Panará customs (some of which are reported from mid 19th century settlements in Goias, such as log racing and certain curing practices) as "adaptations" to the forest ecosystem of the Peixoto/Iriri basins would then be futile. Attempts to read from Panará subsistence practices information on precolombian populations are equally misplaced. The Panará in the late 1960s were extremely well "adapted" to the tropical forest ecosystem of the Peixoto and Iriri rivers, practising a diversified, and highly symbolically elaborated agriculture with geometrically designed gardens and fixed locationsin the garden for given crops, as well as fishing, hunting, and collecting a wide variety of forest fruits. By all
the accounts of the older Panará who grew up in the region, their modest technology stone axes, bows and arrows, clubs, basketry, rudimentary ceramics and no canoesprovided an abundant livelihood. But in the 1960s the Panará had lived there for no more than 100 years.

On the other hand, the historical record makes clear that Panará of the 1960s were neither passive victims of the conquest, nor slaves to an inflexible subsistence adaptation. They had on the contrary actively rejected settlement and assimilation, and adjusted quickly and effectively to a vastly different environment in the course of securing their independence. Panará society and culture equally demonstrate this dynamic quality: clearly, elements of the new tropical forest ecosystem (and the economy the Panará devised to make a living there) were integrated into Panará ritual and cosmology and to the process of their transformation. Brazil nuts, for example, which do not occur in the savannah, are a key symbolic reference in Panará myths, as well as in the ritual cycle.

Further, the memory of the two hundred year war that drove the Panará from Sao Paulo to northern Mato Grosso was to have a decisive influence on the Panará understanding of the contact with the Villas Boas expeditions and the tragedy that ensued on it.

First Contact Again

The Panará probably settled in the Peixoto/Iriri because of the region's wealth of natural resources, and its isolation. The life histories of older Panará men invariably include extensive accounts of long expeditions, to visit kin, flee internal conflicts, or found new villages, before the arrival of the Villas Boas expeditions. In these narratives, the men recount that, arriving in a new place, they would search the forest for signs of enemies (hi'pe - 'enemies, others, whites'). Having assured themselves that there were no enemies and no enemies' trails nearby, they would stay and plant gardens.

In 1967, two events presaged the end of the Panará's autonomy. First, the Mekragnoti Kayapo attacked the northernmost Panará village, Sonkénasan, in the Iriri basin, for the first time with a large supply of guns and ammunition. While the Panará had raided, and been raided by the Kayapo for a generation, guns and ammunition turned the 1967 raid into a massacre. Some 26 Panará were killed and the village burned. The survivors fled to another village, and by the time a war party was mounted to avenge the attack, the Kayapo had fled. Then, the incident came to the attention of Villas Boas brothers, then directing the Xingu National Park, who mounted a contacting expedition. When the first aeroplanes
arrived over the Panarávillages, and began dropping trade goods knives, machetes, beadsthere began a debate amongst the Panará that would continue for the next five years. Were the aeroplanes (and later the expedition) "wild" (asár)? Did they mean to kill the Panará, as historic experience suggested, or were the gifts of goods evidence of peaceful intentions?

The elder men (taputunara) argued, say present-day chiefs such as Ake and Teseya, that the whites were wild and dangerous, and counselled attack or flight, while the young men (pientwara) held that the goods left by the expedition showed peaceful intent. and argued for getting the goods left by the expedition, and making contact.

From 1967 to 1973, the elders prevailed. The first expedition was recalled in 1969 when funds were cut off, and a second expedition was only launched in 1972, as an advance team of surveyors was laying out the route of the Cuiaba Santarem highway. The Panará, already having abandoned their easternmost villages, then withdrew south before this expedition, which set out from the Cachimbo airbase. With the abandonment of successive villages and gardens, increasing numbers of people were concentrated in fewer and fewer villages. When the Villas Boas reached the Peixoto de Azevedo, the Panará, after collecting trade goods at the expedition's advance post, crossed the river and occupied the village of Yopuyépaw. The first epidemic struck there. So many people died, and so debilitated were the survivors that they could not bury the dead, and vultures ate them. After the survivors recovered, they returned to the Peixoto, and accepted contact.

In 1974, the road opened. The Panará, fascinated by the traffic on the road, confounded efforts by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) personnel to prevent them from mingling with the army engineers, and passing truckers. Ensuing deaths triggered witchcraft accusations, since witchcraft was the traditional explanation for serious illness. At least 176 people died of epidemic diseases between 1973 and 1975, when the surviving 79 Panará were transferred by FUNAI to the Xingu National Park. The Peixoto de Azevedo was thrown open to gold mining and colonisation immediately thereafter, and the small area reserved for the Panará during the contact was transferred to INCRA for agrarian reform.

They now number about 160, with at least 60% of the population under 20 years old, and more than half under 14.

The Diaspora

The Panará arrived in the Xingu sick, demoralised, and disoriented. The group was settled in the Kajabi village of Prepuri, where several more died in the first months. The Panará began to talk of returning to their land. Instead they were moved to the Kayapo village of Kretire and delivered to their traditional enemies. Before the year was out ten more Panará had died, as new diseases continued. English anthropologist Richard Heelas, who lived with the Panará in this period, described them as walking corpses. They were again removed (although a number of women and children were constrained to stay with the Kayapo), and settled with the Suya. In a less oppressive climate, new leaders emerged, and began to mobilise the Panará to perform traditional dances and songs. Once the Panará founded their first village in Xingu, in 1977, their population began to increase. They began a gradual process of reconstituting their society and culture. When I conducted field work between 1980 and 1983 with the Panará, they described their traditional village as having men's houses in the centre of the village plaza, in the middle of the circle of extended family households grouped into four clans, with fixed locations on the village circle. The Panará said that when there were more boys, they would build men's houses (traditionally the place of residence of pre-adolescent, unmarried boys). In 1991, when I returned to the Xingu, they had built a men's house.

In 20 years in the Xingu, the Panará adapted effectively to a new ecosystem, adopted new technology (learning to build canoes, crucial in the flood plain of the Xingu, and to fish with hook and line, hunt with guns, and grow new cultivars from surrounding groups). They now number about 160, with at least 60% of the population under 20 years old, and more than half under 14. They have recovered as much autonomy as any of the 16 other indigenous groups that live in the Xingu. But the Panará never reconciled themselves to living in the Xingu. They have lived in seven places, in a permanent search forland resembling the region of the Peixoto and Iriri. From the perspective of the Panará, the difference between their land and the Xingu is that between wealth and poverty, and their passage through the Xingu a process of impoverishment.

Their concept of the land changed as well over the last decade. In 1983 when the Panará spoke of land (kupa), they referred to earth or soil. They discussed the Peixoto and Iriri region in terms of places, villages, gardens or rivers, but not as something which could be owned. By 1991 the Panará spoke regularly of "the land of the Panará," (Panará nhó kupa). They had developed a sense of their land, as something to which they had rights.

The resistance of Indigenous peoples, and their capacity for self-recreation even in extremely adverse circumstances, is the sine qua non behind increasing official recognation of indigenous land rights.

The Panará Return
"Where will all the children live that are growing up and will have children of their own? Here in this little piece of other peoples land where we are? When I think of the children I am sad. How will they live when they grow up" (Ake Panará, interview, Xingu National Park, October l991).

By 1990, the Panará found themselves increasingly the victims of their own success. With a growing population and a vital ceremonial life, they had moved to the western boundary of the Park, on the Arraias River, where they found forest that more closely resembled their traditional land. The best hunting territory, however, was outside the Park on private land, where the Panará began hunting and fishing.

In the same year a group of Panará killed a ranch hand in a dispute. Leaders such as chiefs Ake and Teseya became increasingly concerned with the future of the group. With a young and rapidly increasing population, they were caught between the approaching deforestation outside the Park, and the other groups within the Park, also growing, and already long established on much of the best land. Once again, the Panará's attention turned to their traditional land. They sought help from FUNAI and several non-governmental organisations active in the Xingu(which now form the Instituto Socioambiental)as well as my help, as the anthropologist who had lived longest among them.

In November 1991 a group of six Panará men returned for the first time to their traditional territory. They witnessed the ecological effect of nearly twenty years of gold mining in the Peixoto de Azevedo, as well as ranching and colonisation and the boom towns left in their wake. Their territory in the Peixoto had been occupied and very largely degraded. Flying over the region, however, they discovered that the Iriri basin was still unoccupied and forested. From that moment they began to formulate a plan to return to the area. Between 1992 and 1994 groups of men returned repeatedly, to locate former village sites, take cognizance of the processes in course in the area and plan their reoccupation of the region. In 1993, they reached an airstrip near the headwaters of the Iriri, and determined that the supposed owner was subdividing an area of public land under the control of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCRA) for salea process of land fraud. The Panará recognised that they would have to act quickly if the Iriri headwaters were not to succumb to the uncontrolled occupation that had already devastated the Peixoto.

In the dry season of 1994, the Panará identified a new village site on the Iriri, not far from an historic landmark they had recognised from the air, the Great Lake (inkótunsi), the spot where the Panará of Sonkenasan village had intended to make a new village in 1967, before the Kayapo attack. They set to work building a village, gardens and an airstrip to facilitate access for health care. In August 1994, through their attorneys at the Nucleo de Direitos Indigenas, the Panará filed two lawsuits in federal court in Brasilia, seeking indemnification of losses and damages suffered in the contact and transfer, and the demarcation of their remaining traditional land.

In October 1994, a FUNAI and INCRA team lead by anthropologist Ana Gita de Oliveira identified the area, verifying the presence of the Panará in the village and determining traditional resource use and the boundaries of the area. Two days after the FUNAI team had left the village, a group of armed men appeared in the village, alleging to have been sent by the Mayor of the regional town of Guaranta looking for the FUNAI team. After a tense discussion, the group left.

In December 1994, the president of FUNAI published the decree (portaria) recognising the Panará's rights to an area of 488,000 hectares in northern Mato Grosso and southern Para states in the Diano Oficial. Subsequently modified to remove an area titled to private interests, the revised area (490,000 hectares) is awaiting the signature of the Minister of Justice for its demarcation to proceed.

In October 1995, a group of Panará families moved to the new village, brought in successive flights by a FUNAI plane. Their airstrip is in operation, their gardens are growing, and some 65 Panará now reside there. They are engaged in building houses and planting more gardens so that the rest of the group can join them. The Panará are aware that the edges of their land have already been invaded by loggers and that the grileiro maintains a presence in the southwestern corner of the area. But they remain convinced that their future is in the reoccupation of the area, and the defence of its natural resources against depredation.

The Myth of the Vanishing Indian

In little more than twenty years, the Panará have come full circle, from the paradigmatic "victims of the miracle" of the military government, on the brink of cultural if not physical extinction, to protagonists of the successful recreation of their own society and culture. The process of territorial reintegration was the consequence of this: only in reinventing traditional leadership, and satisfying themselves that it could be both adequate to the challenges of life among other people, and legitimate with reference to traditional knowledgeof myths, rituals, songs, dances, the proper ordering of work and sociabilitycould
the Panará form the necessary consensus to take on this task.

The reconstruction of Panará society was in short also its recreation, its transformation. But not for the first timethe historical record of the Southern Cayapo demonstrates that the ancestors of the present Panará undertook an epic migration, involving a radical shift in ecological adaptation from savannah to closed tropical forest, and also changing culturally. Nor was this process of change, impelled by the pressure of the frontier though it was, unique. A longer comparative view of the languages and cultures of the Northern Gé linguistic family shows that for several thousand years, these groups, descended from the speakers of one language, have developed and elaborated a diversity of languages and social and cultural formsmen's societies, age grades, "formal friendship", joking and avoidance relations, kinship, marriage and naming systems, ritual complexes all of which, while distinct, bear "family resemblances" to one another, much like the relations of cognate words in related languages to one another.

It is still common to assume that indigenous peoples in Brazil are a vanishing race, doomed to succumb to the pressure of superior technology and disappear into the surrounding society. Behind this idea is a notion of culture as static and unchangingculture as a sort of laundry list of traits. If an Indian wears clothes, speaks Portuguese, or plants rice, then he is no longer a "real" Indian.

Anthropology has in the past lent credence to such beliefs by, for example, attempting to explain cultural and social organisation as adaptations in an ecological time frame to given ecosystems, or indeed by focusing on the reproduction of indigenous social organisations to the exclusion of history. As both the short and longer views of the history of the Panará demonstrate, culture, rather than a list of traits or institutions, is better understood as the capacity for collective self-creation or reinvention. In this context, what is exceptional about the dramatic story of the Panará is its unexceptionality. Most of the indigenous peoples in Brazil have passed, like the Panará, through a succession of "first contacts," lost population to new diseases, have moved or been removed from traditional territories. Many, like the Guarani in Mato Grosso do Sul, have returned to lands from which they were removed.

The indigenous population in Brazil reached its nadir in the 1970s and has grown since. In 1990, there were some 235,000 Indians in Brazil, while today there are 270,000. The indigenous population is, like the Panará, small but growing. The resistance of indigenous peoples, and their capacity for self-recreation even in extremely adverse circumstances, is the sine qua non behind increasing official recognition of indigenous land rights. When the National Indian Foundation was created in 1967, as the contact of the Panará was starting, an infinitesimal quantity of Indian land was officially recognised as such by the federal government. Today, indigenous peoples have constitutionally guaranteed rights to some 11% of Brazil's territory, although only part of this area has been fully officially documented.
A plethora of histories like that of the Panará have shattered the illusion of the vanishing Indian. In so doing, they have better informed both national indigenous policy, and scientific understanding of the depth and dynamics of indigenous culture and history.

  Steve Schwartzman did field work with the Panará between 1980 and 1983. Since 1990 he has worked to support of the Panará initiatve.

Reprinted from Abya Yala News, Journal of the South and Meso American Indian Rights Center (SAIIC), Oakland, California. Vol.10, No.3, Summer 1997. With permission. Our thanks - Ed.

Previous - Next