Fieldwork research in the Brazilian Amazon
Ritual, Resistance and the Right to Exist
Invisible subjects of their history, the indigenous peoples of Brazil – who had no written language – have left little cues that could help us understand how they resisted 500 years of colonial authority, besides an explicit spiritual connection to non-human worlds embedded in their rituals and myths.
'In a time of repression, and regression of our rights, in a time when a government criminalises our resistance, it is our ritual expressions that will continue to empower our fight for survival.'
— Poá Noke Kuin, village leader
'Everything we need to learn to continue our resistance comes from our ancestors, who channel their wisdom to us during our rituals.'
— Washme Noke Kuin
In the 1880's, at the dawn of the ‘the Amazon rubber boom’ – the Noke Kuin people were forced to disperse themselves across the landscape in order to survive. By the time the ‘boom’ was over the few Noke Kuin families that managed to survive were left to live in a devastated territory.
Without many alternatives for survival, the community continued working for rubber patrons that remained in the region under a credit-debt relation – to pay for clothes they did not need and to live in a land that had always been theirs. The following decades of degrading subordination threatened their group cohesion and sociocultural life.
Their lives were further aggravated with the arrival of religious missionaries who attempted to uproot their sacred rituals from their lives. The religious indoctrination sought do demonise their views of the world, prohibit their rituals, and put an end to their use of medicinal plants. Besides preaching the Christian religion, the missionaries tried to propagate new concepts of discipline and time, with the goal of teaching the Noke Kuin the 'civilised ways' of being human.
In their struggle for social reproduction, and unable to overtly confront authority, the Noke Kuin – guided by their shamans – practiced their rituals hidden from the eyes of the church and their power-holders as a defence against the loss of self. Whether consciously or unconsciously, ritual was their means of resistance when no other protection mechanism existed, allowing them to keep alive the ember of their essence until the arrival of a historically favourable moment for its re-ignition.
When the construction of the inter-state highway BR-364 opened in the region in the 1970s, the Noke Kuin negotiated their manual labour with the state in order to free themselves from the control of the rubber patrons.
Once the road was carved, the remaining 78 survivors were given the authorisation to settle on its margins – putting an end to the physical, mental, and spiritual subordination that had characterised their life for decades.
After conquering the land rights over their new territory, the Noke Kuin saw the reconnection with their traditions and revitalisation of social institutions as an important measure for re-affirming their identity. But with the asphalt-paving of the highway in 2000, their struggle for survival recommenced.
Besides the damaging noise and pollution resulting from the increased circulation of vehicles, the road also opened doors for illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal hunters, and monoculture farming, which together contributed to the near-obliteration of the wild-game they depend on for survival.
Today, with a demographic increase of 300% the Noke Kuin are experiencing concerning food security problems and are increasingly dependent on outside goods.
Nonetheless, the Noke Kuin have chosen to keep their contact with the outside world to a minimum, and despite their proximity to a town they continue celebrating their thriving culture over the ‘glossified’ promises of the dominant society around them.
My fieldwork was conducted in the Satanawa village, home to seven indigenous families, each one of them living in their own private dwelling.
Nonetheless, the community spent most of their time together, either outside engaging in their daily activities related to hunting, fishing, and farming, or preparing food at the communal kitchen where most of the group’s social life took place.
The Noke Kuin maintain a close relationship with the environment they depend on for survival, while orienting themselves in a sustainable way that seeks to secure the future of the next seven generations. Although they keep an eye on the future, they live primarily in the present moment.
Every time I asked how long something took, they looked at me confused, as if I had asked a pointless question. Everything happened organically, and any attempt at predicting next-day activities was futile. Nonetheless, everything that needed doing got done in a kind of uncoreographed dance, without the need for much planning or an authority figure to delegate tasks. People lived in harmony with each other and showed a tremendous capacity to adapt to changing conditions.