In 1978 Peter Lavery stayed with a tribe in the Brazilian jungle. The Yawalapiti are one of numerous tribes that inhabit the Xingu National Park, near the geographical heart of Brazil. Since this visit much has changed. The jungle in which they live and the river upon which they rely for food is threatened by the Belo Monte dam.
‘When Mavutsinin created the world, which began not far from here, he made sure that our tribes would always live in peace and tranquility’.
’In 1978 Aritana, young chief of the Yawalapiti tribe of Brazil’s Upper Xingu, talks to Sandra Wellington of life in his small Amazon village.
”The special beauty of our lives here is that we still live in the same way as we always have, with the same legends, festivals and beliefs of our ancestors, unlike so many other tribes who have, for one reason or another, put aside their old way of life. We like to keep fit and prepare for our traditional huka-huka wrestling bouts which are held between the different Xinguano tribes. Both strength and agility are required, the object being to grasp your opponent by his upper leg or to throw him on the ground.Visitors are expected to wrestle with everyone in the village when they arrive…Huka-huka is named after the sound we make as we circle our opponent before wrestling begins: we expel air from our lungs which prepares us and gives us additional strength.’‘
“We never hit our children or even scold them. We like to pick them up or ask them what is wrong, because if we punish them they will grow up to be difficult and bad-tempered. So we bring up our children mainly by talking and explaining things to them. You see, here in the Xingu we like to resolve everything with words.’‘
“Mavutsinin taught us to eat simple and clean food: fish and manioc ( or cassava) roots, unlike other tribes who eat all sorts of red-blooded animals and creatures which make them aggressive and warlike… It is not our custom to eat meat, although game is plentiful. Fish is either grilled over an open fire or cooked in a pot with water, while manioc is grated and washed to remove poisonous juices, then made into a flour and baked into beiju, large pancakes, and made into a gruel with water, which is our staple diet. The women prepare the manioc flour and fetch water from the river, while the men are responsible for fishing and hunting.’‘
“Most whites seem to think women are trodden on here or submissive to men. This is completely untrue. All women are respected, especially the older ones, and I would never order my mother to make beiju for me or collect firewood. Everything is freedom of choice. Women have the same authority as men and they are not ordered about, which is perhaps rather different to caraibas (white men). In some villages, women have the same position as white chiefs.’‘
“I am astonished that whites always want to know so much about our personal lives and think nothing of asking about and describing the most intimate details of our relationships, which are no different to anyone else’s, except, perhaps, we are more discreet than whites.’‘
“It is our custom for youngsters to enter a period of seclusion before becoming adults, and I myself spent five years in seclusion which is an important period of learning for us, rather like going to school. My father and uncle taught me tribal myths and legends and also how to make things, like arrows and bows, necklaces. Above all they taught me how to behave and how to treat others and especially how to converse. For we have two ways of speaking here. Profound speech, which is used by tribal leaders when they meet and also by the men when they gather in the centre of the village to talk, it is essentially an educated form of speech and we use it, for instance, when we wish to speak well of others, as opposed to yeyekatualiruru, which is superficial speech used to talk nonsense or by children.’‘
“It is important that we never forget our traditions. I want our customs to last for ever and ever so that my son and his children will continue to live as we do. This is the beauty of Xingu. Why should we forget our customs? We are probably the only “real” and pure Indians left and I want to make sure this life of ours continues.’‘
“When we take part in our festivals, we still dance in the traditional way, unlike our relations in other tribes who only dance wearing shorts, which shows that their lives have changed. Here we paint ourselves and dance without wearing clothes…the young men tie bells around their ankles so they can make a great deal of noise when they stamp their feet.’