I live in the South of Maranhão, in the state of Tocantins, in a village called Aldeia Nova. We are an Indigenous population composed of 180 people. I was born in a village named Galheiro on the 5th of February 1971, at noon, near a jatobá tree (Hymenaea courbaril) also known as tehcré, where my life of suffering began, as it is not easy being an Indigenous woman.
I wanted to be breastfed, and my mom wanted to sleep, but she could not, as she needed to take care of me. She wanted to see me grow, so she took care of me, and did all the needed resguardos(1) and I grew up. I am 5’2 feet tall; I have light brown skin and dark wavy hair. I am a Krahô woman.
And this woman became a wanderer, “hunting” for a better life for my people with no rights. No rights to exist as persons in the world we live in; no rights to escape those who harm us. I was and I still am seeking rights that our ancestors did not have, such as the right to health and education.
Today I have a busy life: I went to Tocantins to study and finished my professorship. I thought I was done studying, but people told me “Keep going, you can do it!”. And, once more, I did. I got approved for a master’s program and had to leave my family. I prepared my luggage and left thinking about all that… I left my children with their father and wondered if he would take care of them the same way I did. Sometimes I would cry from the pain in my heart, so much it would choke me, and I would get away from people so no one would see it.
I was admitted by the Federal University of Goiás and was there for five years. I never got used to it, but I finished the program even though it took a lot of suffering. Sometimes I had no money to eat on my trips back and forth from my village to the city. I couldn’t afford a snack, even the cheapest stuff. I had no scholarship, I had nothing, and I had to watch my colleagues eating. Sometimes, good-hearted colleagues would offer me something: “Would you like an ice cream?” and I would accept it. After we got used to each other, they would help me and share everything with me. I was thrilled with my non-Indigenous friends, whom we call Cupen. It is tough to leave your home to study and work. There is no space for Indigenous people in the city and urban life can get very complicated.
After our first contact with non-Indigenous people, we suffered trying to learn the Cupen culture. The same thing does not happen with many Cupens who have no interest in getting to know us and respecting us. I put in a lot of effort to understand how the Cupen think and live. The majority of Mehi women – as we are called in the Krahô language – do not speak or understand Portuguese.
Even though we mix with the Cupen we never lose our way of being and living and we do not forget the knowledge of the Mehi. We still have the marks on our bodies corresponding to parties, singing, painting, hunting, fishing and the making of baskets. We are Mãkraré, but the whites, the non-Indigenous, call us Krahô. In our culture, the woman never leaves her family, so everything I went through was very hard. But at the same time, my husband was very supportive and so were my daughters; that is why I left to study, because I knew that studying would allow me to have important knowledge in order to understand the Cupen.
All the anthropologists who visit the Krahô do their research with the men. They never research women. The women are left behind, always at the back of the houses. They don’t invite women for their researches. I observed this with my husband. I would ask myself: Why do anthropologists come to our village to study only men? Why do they only walk with men? The messengers in the village are all men; they give out the news. But it is a mistake to think that men know everything.
Women have a lot of knowledge, they make all the adornment the hunters use, because hunters cannot walk around unadorned. If they walk unadorned, they won’t catch anything. This is the way we learn: we know how to paint a body and cut and dye hair Krahô style… The only person who can cut other people’s hair is the eldest woman, who does not get her period anymore. A young woman cannot do it. We participate as observers, watching how it is done, how the hair is cut. But, even so, the men are the ones who take the messages about the women’s work to the anthropologists and then back to the women.
As a researcher, I saw that most things are not how they were registered, because the women are the makers, and the men are the messengers. I could hardly believe the amount of stuff the elder women knew! There was never a book about the stories of the Krahô women, about how they do things; never a book about a Krahô woman. The anthropologist might be a man or a woman, but they only get in touch with the men.
I did research with the women. I went after these women. In the Pé de Coco village, I did research with the women and then with pajé(2)Tejapoc, who died last year. What he told me was different from what the women told me. I had to ask myself: “What is the truth?”. I had the voice recorder playing, listening to a man talk, and I asked myself and the other women “Is what he is saying true?”. The women said “No!”. “So, what should I do? I want to know who is telling me the truth!”. And that is how I kept on my research.
There came the point when women pushed men back. I knew I had gotten something right, and it came from the women. Then I said: “Men also have a lot to do, but there are things that men say are theirs and they are not”. The women anthropologists I’ve seen arrive only talk to men about researching. They look at the women and walk away, they think we have nothing to say. But the ones who really have a lot to say, who do a lot, and who we should learn from are women.
When I arrived at the Rio Vermelho village, the elder Ahcrokwyj died two days later. I was so sad. I still had to talk to her. I spoke to her at the hospital, asking if she was better. The last day we spoke on the phone she told me, “I’m not well. I’m going to tell you the truth, I’m not going to live, I’m going to die.” Wow, that made me weak, and I thought, “I’m not getting my interview now.” Then she died and I had to research how she made the medication to prevent pregnancy. She was the one who made the medicines from plants so women wouldn’t get pregnant. And I missed that part because I didn’t get there in time, as I was involved with other interviews. I had already talked to her about how to get pregnant, but the interview I wanted, about the medicine – what leaf is it, what root is it, what bark is it, how the Krahô women avoid operation – I missed that.
In the village of Rio Vermelho, some women only have one child. I asked tehm: “Why do you only have one child, and not more?”. “Because we take medicine”. “And you don’t want to get pregnant, do you?” “No, because you can’t have a lot of kids.” Then I asked who made this medicine: “Ahcrokwyj”, they said. And Ahcrokwyj told me: “When you get back from the city, you set a date and we’ll sit down, and I’ll show you how it’s done”. But that’s the part I missed. I don’t know if there is another Krahô woman alive who makes that medicine, because I’ve asked several people and I haven’t found another one.
I asked the women about everything. Several resguardos needed to be made. Many kinds of resguardos. I asked about food, crops, how to plant bananas, why plant bananas. Why plant cassava, corn, rice. Then I started to do research with the hunters and the pajés. What does pajé mean? What is the pajé that white people talk about? We call them Wajakà. Wajakà, for us, is a person who sees with another eye. Not with the same eye we see. He has one eye in the back and one in his arms. This is the pajé. It is night and he can see everything, like it was day. But he cannot see during the day because it is night for him. The animals that talk to him are animals of the night.
The older pajés that die turn into animals and talk to the young pajés, who translate, until they come alive, talking about which plant to use for fevers, headaches, and menstruation. They teach the different medicines. So, I researched in order to know who the pajés were. There are two kinds of pajé: one evil and one good. First, I went after an evil one, to understand why he was like that. And he gave me his perspective. He can make a hunter die overnight. This kind of disease inflicted by a pajé cannot be cured by doctors. Doctors may prescribe some medicine or injections, but the patient will remain sick, and the pain won’t stop.
I visited a person with that kind of disease at the hospital. A good pajé had to come to the hospital to cure that person, because he knew it was not something that had come with the wind. A disease that comes with the wind gets to people while they sleep; the disease enters the body. It blows strongly and it enters. In our village, when the wind blows, we cover children’s heads. And we, the grown-ups, walk backward. Among the Krahô, the good pajés are old; it won’t take long for them to die. If the evil pajés get together for a spell, they can kill them quickly.
There was an old lady called Pipi, from the village of Campos Lindos. She retired in Goiatins. I was interested in some things, so I asked her: “Can I record you?”. She asked: “How much will you pay me?”. I joked: “I will pay you when I retire”. “After I record you telling me stories, I will translate it and we can make money! But you have to tell me the stories first.” I wanted her to talk about the resguardos needed to become a runner, because she knew them. Why can’t the running girls back in the village sleep the whole night? Why can’t they date? We talked for three days. We cooked fish. She told the stories and I listened and recorded.
After a week, I went to my small farm to work and said goodbye to her. She said: “I will hug you because I might not be here when you come back”. I asked why she was saying that and she said: “I am scared, Creuza, now that I retired I will go to the Campos Lindos village, and if the people know I retired they are going to kill me”. It was true. She got her money from the bank, bought what she needed and headed back to her village. After a week, at six in the afternoon, I heard someone yelling my name on the other side of the river. It was a message saying Pipi had died. I didn’t have time to go back. It was swift. She had diarrhea, was not feeling good, went to the city and died. The doctor didn’t have time to give her medicine.
Researching women is different from studying men. But I also went after the older men, who knew me, respected me. Some pajés are women. There is a good, very good woman pajé. But she can’t get in the middle of the male pajés or she will harm herself. So, she’s always out. If people tell me that a pajé is not good, I will not go. I cannot talk to him. Bad pajés don’t teach the medicines to anyone but themselves. An evil pajé won’t cure his own family. He only does evil.
In my research about the Krahô resguardos, the older men and women told me stories about the gourd-women and the croá-men.(3) These stories helped me to organize the information I collected. In the story about the first Mehi, the gourd-women were the first to learn from the Sun, our hero creator, about the resguardos.
The Sun taught the gourd-women that, in other to comply with the resguardos they should wear the husks and leaves of the Cerrado biome. It is feminine wisdom: the women keep the resguardo practices alive in the villages, as well as all the care needed for the body; they have this memory. They know what kind of food should be used, how to eat it. They know how to start a resguardo, living through it, and end it, thus renewing lives in the community.
The lives of women, men, girls and boys, everyone, are renewed. For example, a woman, after having her first child, starts a set of resguardos and, when it ends, she will be strong, as she did not get sick and neither did the child. She will now be renewed to feed on other things and to use leaves on her body that will not harm her or the baby. Life is renewed, she leaves the house, reaches the patio, and engages in other activities.
Men also enter a new life after they are done with the resguardo of their first child. But the ones who maintain the resguardos, the transformations of people and the renewal of life in the community are the women. The women organize men’s resguardos, so they can renew their lives and so the village dynamics are in motion. Mehi women learned from the gourd-women to be mentors for men.
Our baskets keep memories. The Sun gave women bodies that carry things, and baskets are used on women’s bodies for this purpose. The Sun taught women how to make baskets, for example, in the shape and design of the armadillo shell. The memory about this making is passed on, and only those who have an excellent memory manage to make the baskets – those who have done the right resguardo for the memory.
There was a village where the memory resguardo appeared. In that village, people were forgetting the Mehi way of being and living and would run off into the woods, turning into creatures of the woods. An elder man was naming these beings. Tewa was one of them; it was a Mehi who had forgotten the resguardos. Thus, he burned his leg, which became pointy and thin. He would go around killing the Mehi in the back with that weapon. That Mehi, who had lost his memory, turned into a forest creature that liked to kill the Mehi.
The memory resguardo also makes good singers. Such training must begin when children are still young, and must be carried on until death. The older men and women pass on this knowledge to the young. This wisdom is passed on to the young through the Mehi chants. Keeping the memory of being Mehi, strengthening oneself, are important elements to prevent the transformation into forest creatures.
The memory resguardo involves learning the songs related to not eating things from pans and plates, but only from a moquém.(4) The person must eat baked food; they must use barks, roots, and grass to clean their heads. The smells, essences, consistencies of non-Indigenous utensils and products must be avoided.
Not all will be singers; many show that they will become singers around the age of nine. Parents and grandparents begin to include the child in this knowledge, and they will not have the same life as other youngsters; they will eat exceptional food, use exceptional crafts, get special body paintings. Throughout life, these children will be trained to be singers and will have mastery over the Mehi memory.
Women singers keep a seed in their heads, which came from the gourd-women. This seed is like a computer that stores memory. For this memory to be kept clean, these women must use dew water, as well as various types of medicinal plants from the Cerrado biome, and they must bathe in the river in the mornings. There are songs for the day, night, midnight, dawn. To remember all this, a woman must make a rigid resguardo that transforms her body so that she will be able to keep the seed. Women singers also use medicine to see better, to see at night and to not feel pain. They follow a strict resguardo, they can only have sex during the day, not at night. Throughout the night, they sing.
My grandmother survived a massacre in the 1940s, perpetrated by non-Indigenous farmers, that killed a lot of Krahô. In fact, we suffered many massacres throughout the history of our contact with non-Indigenous people. Hundreds of people were killed. We were many, and after these massacres we are few. We are from the Mãkrarè tribe, we used to live in a huge village, bigger than the city of Carolina, in the state of Maranhão. These people scattered and each took their own name: Mãkrarè, Kukoikamekra, Panrékamekra… They were many and scattered; they each crossed the Tocantins river and scattered. The Krahô of today came from the Mãkrarè.
My grandmother was ten when the massacre happened, she was there. That day, her older sisters were taking care of the children in the house while the women were in the fields. Two Cupen cowboys came and left a big bull. The Krahô men were hunting for the Ketuaie party, the ending of the resguardo of three men, two women and lots of children.
The Cupen were giving the big bull away and said we should get all the Krahô together for the party. The bull was a gift. Not everyone could understand as they didn’t speak the language, but many people came. Then the two Cupen left. At the end of the afternoon the Krahô killed the bull. The hunters arrived, they ran with the log and bathed. Then, they went to the patio to sing. At midnight they heard a gunshot, and the women started asking what it was, if it was their husbands. Later, in the early morning, they heard a second gunshot and short after that, many more gunshots, one after the other. Many Cupen came, targeting the Krahô, killing everyone, using their knives. And people started running into the forest.
My grandmother ran toward a Cupen called Corá, who knew her. He told her to go and wait at the capoeira, where the banana trees were, because when a bullet enters the banana tree it goes cold, so it wouldn’t hurt them. Corá let a lot of Krahôs escape. My grandmother entered the capoeira(5)and hid in the middle of the banana plantation. They hid the whole day, listening to gunshots and screams. She was there with three small boys, who were crying; they didn’t know if their parents were alive.
After a full day, one of her uncles passed by, recognized her, and asked: “If you are here, where is your mom?”. She said she didn’t know where her mom was. The uncle said they should leave. All the Krahô from the nearby villages were running away from new attacks. They were all going in the direction of Serrona, known as the “pass to hell”, a place with many dangerous mountains where they could hide. They met and ran. She took a basket with a cloth to wrap herself.
They walked for a month before getting there, hiding during the day, walking at night. They didn’t make fires; they only ate raw food and lived hidden, quietly, without making a sound, because the whites were hunting them. They would cover the mouths of small children so they wouldn’t cry. There was an older man with a knife injury, he was quiet, he didn’t complain because he didn’t want them to get caught. When they got to Serrona, she found her mom; her dad had died fighting in the massacre.
They communicated through a gourd, making noises with it. When someone left, they would return and make a specific noise to warn about any danger. Sometimes, they would go back to the villages to get something like a pan and then return to Serrona. When they went to the village, they saw many dead people and felt bad because they hadn’t received a funerary ceremony. The farmers would visit other Krahô villages and say they were next, that they should run. And that is how farmers occupied the land. That is what happened to the Pitoro village. The Krahô stayed in Serrona for a long time.
One day, a priest called Pedro Afonso went to some of the more distant Krahô villages and asked them to seek for survivors. Those Krahô talked to the survivors and asked them to return. They returned, and with the priest’s help, they rebuilt other villages, close to the place where the massacre happened. They buried the dead, the bones and what was left of the bodies. The priest said that would not happen again; then SPI (Indigenous Protection Service) came and demarcated the Indigenous Land in 1945.
After the massacre, the Krahô never finished that party. From that day on, many resguardos were left behind. Almost all the children were killed. From that moment, we became the Krahô. Life resumed, but it was never the same. The knowledge and body resguardos were shaken. After that massacre everything changed, technologies came, health and education services that didn’t respect the Mehi way of life came. People are no longer interested in the daily resguardos. The resguardos are moments that are not lived as intensely and together anymore.
After 1994, I started working with education alongside my people. I want to build a school, Krahô style. Our education should be differentiated, but that never actually happened. As a teacher, I believe the school can teach our youngsters the Cupen knowledge that is needed to fight for our rights and against future massacres. But we must also respect our own education, and that can only happen if we follow our resguardos, if we learn to enter the forest with our elderly.
1 Resguardo is the name given to any period in life that requires special care. It is also how some acts of safekeeping and protection are called, usually done by isolating oneself during illness or temporarily banishing certain foods. It is a traditional practice among different Indigenous populations in Brazil. Some resguardos are done specifically after the birth. Throughout the article the author gives different examples of resguardos.
2 Pajés are individuals responsible for conducting rituals, curing and sometimes invoking spirits, and often have leadership functions. Pajé could be loosely translated to shaman.
3 Croá is an Amazonian fruit.
4 Wood grill used to smoke fish and meat.
5 Capoeira is a place with secondary vegetation composed of sparse grass and shrubs, which grow after the original vegetation has been cut down.