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.
The social expectations of cooperation between gender is expressed in explanations about the area of the body where a particular medicine – the kambô, a frog venom – is to be applied. On the men it is applied in the arms, because 'men need strength in their arms and chest to hunt and clear the land', whereas the woman have the medicine applied in their legs 'to give them strength to carry manioc baskets and the children'.
Although there are gender-specific roles, the Noke Kuin is community-oriented and there is a collective participation in activities related to their subsistence.
One morning, after 85-year old Rekân – the village shaman – summoned the spirits for help, I left with five other men into the jungle on a hunting trip. After four hours of foraging through the dense jungle, young Washme dispersed from the group to follow the tracks of a wild-pig, which he successfully hunted down with his rifle.
Although it was Washme that caught the animal, every men helped to prepare the game for transportation back to the village. While some removed the animal’s guts for lighter transportation, others made straps to tie the pig into a rucksack. During the journey back, the animal was carried in turns by everyone.
On our arrival, we were presented with banana-caiçuma that women and girls had prepared in the communal kitchen. Shaman Rekân recited a prayer in respect for the animal before it was collectively prepared for consumption by everyone. While the youth prepared the fire, the men skinned the animal, the women sliced the meat, and children split the leftovers to be distributed equally among everyone in the village.
This day-long process – from the time we left for the hunt, to the moment we shared the meal – was a ritual in and of itself, and served to remind the community of their relationships with nature, but also with each other. If before, abundance served to unite people in week-long celebrations, today's scarcity served to emphasise the importance of principles of reciprocity and exchange.
After a long feast, singing and dancing carried on through the night to thank Kapinhuxari – their God – for blessing them with a successful hunt.
For the Noke Kuin, subsistence goes beyond food for the body to include symbolic rituals as nourishment for the soul.
The Noke Kuin believe that the Earth is alive – in every sense of the word. Every tree, every stream, every animal, every medicine has a spirit, and for that reason every entity is to be worshiped with a dance and a song.
This meant that, as Amazonian peoples, their worship happened everywhere, spontaneously, and with no fixed schedules. There were no monuments or complex structures in the village. No temples, nor altar with deities.
Their 'megalith' was built internally, continuously crafted through ritual, and guided by their journeys to non-human worlds. The Noke Kuin leave no physical heritage for the next generations, but a living testament of their existence as a people encoded in their elaborated rituals, and passed down through holistic, experiential, and communal ways of guidance.
Every painting motif, song, dance, and sacred medicine, has in its essence a symbolic meaning which is embedded in the form of language. Ritual, being what awakens the meaning encapsulated in such performances and substances – a phenomena that cannot be explained by modern science or understood by the limited apertures of the five senses, but felt through a state which Durkheim (1912) calls 'collective effervescence'.
In other words, their cosmovisions are created and re-created through their contact with the spiritual world, and life is to be celebrate in an harmonious communion with these forces. And I am not using the word 'force' in a metaphorical way. The Noke Kuin behave as if those forces were real, and in a sense, they could be understood as material forces capable of generating physical effects. Indeed, Durkheim (1912) talks about ’sacred forces’ as being elements of a 'social energy’ that produces material results.
One of their most powerful allies is ayahuasca, an entheogenic brew made of sacred plants traditionally used by a few indigenous groups living in the Amazon basin. This brew induces a temporary altered state of consciousness in its users, and its effects include the ampliation of sensory modalities, psychological introspection, and can also cause strong purges.
People report having mystical experiences and/or spiritual revelations, which often include the encounter of beings that act as spiritual guides. For the Noke Kuin, ayahuasca is a spiritual medicine and the source for most of their teachings, stories, songs, and art. It was during this ritual that I noticed people’s most intense feelings of union and connection to one another.
It was eight o’clock in the evening when the community started to gather in the Kopixawa for the sacred ritual. With their bodies covered with sacred motifs, men, women, youth and children walked into the space wearing their traditional straw skirt, cocars made of parrot feathers, and necklaces whose complex geometrical patterns were inspired by their visionary quests with the sacred brew.
As the full-moon emerged behind the Samaúma tree, everyone stood in a single file in front of the wooden table where shaman Rekân prepared to serve the sacred medicine – blessing each cup with a different prayer. After drinking the unsavoury tea, we held hands in a circle and danced clockwise around the centre of the Kopixawa, chanting ancient prayers to invoke the forest spirits to guide our journey.
As women's powerful voices echoed in the Kopixawa, a feeling of oneness and timelessness soon permeated the space. Meaning was being transmitted through songs and symbolic movements, which produced a shared awareness of common knowledge. People seemed more in tune with their senses. Their body language transmitted receptivity and openness, and despite our language barrier, there was a social – and perhaps spiritual – approximation.
When the collective – through ritual – triggered a state of 'effervescence', a different space opened, where we were 'neither here or there'. Victor Turner (1987) called this liminal space communitas, an arena where the participants affirm and re-affirm fellowship with the community.
It is in this state of effervescence that the participants re-calibrate common sentiments and develop the social solidarity necessary for their continuation as a cohesive group. This explains the feeling of communal uplifting that both permeated and exceeded the ritual at the same time.
During the colonial era, the Noke Kuin had to consistently resist and adapt to changing conditions. In moments of crisis, the most powerful rituals such as that of ayahuasca – which at the time was only practiced by shamans – was opened to other men in the community.
Poáma, the village leader, tells me that this ritual was what allowed the community to strengthen their identity and remain united in difficult times. When fleeing from rubber-tappers, the common knowledge generated through ritual helped the men coordinate future action when many routes existed.
It was primarily through ritual that a representation of the collective was enabled to persist with some measure of authority in the minds of individuals.
When surviving at sheer basic level, ritual was what gave them clarity to move forward as a peoples. Thus, ritual not only guided them on their path, but also on how they could continue resisting.
With the paving of the inter-state highway BR-364, the youth quickly found their way into the modern world, and with them brought a force that the Noke Kuin did not know how to control – alcohol. This ‘dark medicine’, paired with other outside influences, prompted in them feelings of contempt for their indigenous roots, which led them to slowly distance themselves not only from the communit, but also from themselves.
Women, who also suffered drastic changes in their daily rituals due to the near obliteration of wild-game, also found in alcohol an escape to the disruptive forces threatening their identity. Zigmunt Bauman believed that when the identity of a person or a group is challenged, their dignity, as well as their feelings of belongness need to be restored and re-affirmed, since 'identity does not have the solidity of a rock' (Bauman, 2004). Durkheim (1912) also talks about the importance of reaffirming collective sentiments at regular intervals, but with the interruption of ritual, the collective ideas of the group began to disperse.
Faced with a serious threat to community cohesion, elders of the Noke Kuin rescued the estranged youth and alienated women by doing what their ancestors did in a moment of crisis: open their most powerful ritual – this time to the entire community, including their children.
Today, the Noke Kuin have a strong identity and a thriving culture despite the many threats that surround them, and their contact with the outside world is managed with caution, taking just what they need, no more, no less.