ETHNONYMS: Akw -Shavante, Akwén, A'wé, Chavante, Crisca, Crixá, Tapacua, Xavante

Approximately 6,000 Shavante live on seven separate reservations in southeastern Mato Grosso, Brazil, located between the Rio das Mortes, a tributary of the Rio Araguaia, and tributaries of the upper Rio Xingu. They speak a language belonging to the Central Branch of the Gê Language Family.

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, the Shavante lived east of their present location in what is now the state of Goiás, between the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers. They came in contact with outsiders in the early eighteenth century, when gold seekers from Sao Paulo penetrated the region and discovered gold; a gold rush ensued. Because of the wealth of the mines, of which one-fifth was paid to the king of Portugal, a governor was sent to bring order to the new captaincy. The Shavante and other Central Gê groups soon clashed with the miners. To defend the mining camps, the governors raised militias, but they were seldom successful in finding the Shavante, as the Indians would abandon their villages and disperse until their attackers became discouraged and returned to their settlements. In the late eighteenth century one governor succeeded in pacifying several thousand Shavante and settling them at missions. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the gold mines of Goiás were largely exhausted, and many settlers left the region. The Shavante who remained at the missions after epidemics had reduced their numbers returned to their villages and were again accused of attacks on farms and towns.

Sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century, Shavante groups began to move westward, crossing the Araguaia and thus separating from the related Sherente, who remained in Goiás near the Tocantins. According to one Shavante legend, the Shavante were those who had the courage to cross the great river on the backs of river porpoises, whereas the Sherente were those who were left behind. The Shavante remained isolated for some eighty years: their hostility and bellicose reputation prevented settlement in their territory. The Indian Protection Service (SPI) undertook the pacification of the Shavante in the early 1940s. Although the Shavante killed several members of the first team that attempted to contact them, efforts continued, and within a few years a Shavante group near the Rio das Mortes accepted peaceful contact. Once Shavante resistance began to crumble, collapse was rapid. The lands that the Shavante had once controlled were sold off to private investors by the state government of Mato Grosso, isolating Shavante villages from one another. By the late 1950s all Shavante villages except one were attached either to government Indian posts or to Salesian missions. Eventually, the government allocated tracts of land of various size as Shavante reservations.

During the years after contact, epidemic diseases reduced the Shavante population, estimated at 5,000 in the early 1940s, to less than 2,000 in the 1960s. In spite of depopulation and factional disputes, Shavante social and political organization is largely intact. Delegations of leaders from different villages often go to Brasilia to confront top officials of the Fundação Nacional do Indio (National Indian Foundation, FUNAI) and demand redress from illegal occupation of their lands. In one case, ranchers who had tampered with a survey to obtain land titles within a Shavante reservation were expelled owing to Shavante pressure. Some Shavante work on farms outside their reservations, and others grow dry rice for sale. In the 1970s FUNAI initiated an economic development project for the Shavante to grow rice on a large scale using farm machinery and fertilizers, but this was largely unsuccessful and has since been abandoned. A number of young Shavante have sought education outside the reservation and one, Maria Juruna, was elected by the state of Rio de Janeiro to the national Congress, where he served for several years.

The Shavante habitat is savanna, with pronounced wet and dry seasons; during the dry season, which lasts from May to September, hardly a drop of rain falls. Most of the land that is suitable for swidden agriculture lies along rivers and streams, in the gallery forests. The Shavante clear gardens during the dry months, plant in October and November, and harvest beginning in February. In the 1950s their staple crops were reported to be maize, beans, and pumpkins, and they spent relatively little time on agriculture. Their staple has now become rice, but they also grow sweet manioc, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, papayas, sugarcane, pineapples, and some minor crops.

Before they were confined to reservations, the Shavante used their base villages as centers from which they went on long foraging expeditions, living on wild foods. The most important of these were edible tubers and hearts of palm, but many kinds of wild fruits were also collected. Shavante women still go on collective gathering trips lasting all day, and wild-vegetable foods continue to make a significant contribution to the Shavante diet.

The Shavante consider themselves to be primarily hunters, and men hunt both individually and collectively. During the dry season, when the savanna vegetation is parched, a group of hunters sets fire to the scrub and waits downwind for the game fleeing the fire and smoke. Formerly, the Shavante hunted with bows and arrows, or by running down and clubbing game, but at present shotguns and rifles are the hunting weapons. Large game species, such as tapir, peccaries, and deer are preferred, but the Shavante also hunt smaller animals such as anteaters, pacas, and coatis. Meat is roasted and preserved by smoking, which blackens it on the outside but keeps the inside edible for several days. When a successful hunter returns home, he gives the game to his mother-in-law or his wife, who cuts it up and distributes it among the household members and, if it is a large animal, to women from other households, who crowd around the doorway to receive a share.

Fishing is less important than hunting in most Shavante villages but is often practiced in the dry season, when families make a trip to a river for this purpose. Fishhooks and lines were introduced after contact and are now a popular fishing method; fish poison is also used. When large numbers of fish are taken, they may be preserved by smoking.

Shavante villages are laid out in a horseshoe configuration, usually with the chiefs house at one end and that of his eldest son at the other. A short distance from the other houses is the "bachelors' hut," where young boys live until their initiation. Adult men do not have a men's house, but their open-air meeting place is in the center of the village. Traditional Shavante houses, which are still seen in many villages, are shaped like beehives and are constructed by planting a circle of flexible saplings and tying them to a center pole. In the interior is a central fireplace, and around the perimeter are the sleeping places of the house owner, his wife or wives and young children, and his daughters with their husbands and children. Sleeping platforms are lined with palm leaves and covered with mats. Belongings are kept in baskets of many different sizes.

Shavante women made pottery at one time, but soon after pacification ceramic pots were replaced by aluminum. Gourds are used to hold water and seeds kept for planting. Women make baskets for all carrying purposes; babies spend their first months in a large basket, often slung on the mother's back while she is walking or working. Women also make large mats for sleeping and smaller ones as plates for food. Cotton is grown in the gardens, and women spin it to make the cotton neck cords that all Shavante men wear, as well as other kinds of ceremonial necklaces. Before contact, Shavante men wore only a penis sheath, and women were unclothed. Body paint has ritual significance, and designs specific to the ceremony being celebrated are worn by both men and women.

Shavante social organization is based on principles of kinship and age status. Exogamous moieties, with membership by patrilineal inheritance, exchange spouses. At the time of his initiation, each young man is formally betrothed to a girl of the opposite moiety, but she is usually too young for marriage; consummation occurs when she reaches puberty. The beginning of marriage is marked by a "wedding hunt," when the bridegroom presents game to the mother's brother of his bride. Postmarital residence is matrilocal, but the husband usually only takes up residence in his wife's household after the birth of their first child. When a man marries more than one wife, they are usually sisters, and there is a strong preference for brothers to stay together by marrying into the same household.

The Shavante have eight named age sets, spaced approximately five years apart. Young boys, usually between the ages of 8 and 13, leave their family households when the previous age set is initiated and go to live in the bachelors' hut. After about five years, the age set is initiated. The cycle of initiation rituals takes a year and culminates in a ceremony at which the boys' ears are pierced and a short stick is inserted that symbolizes Shavante manhood. Girls belong to the same age set as their male age mates but have no initiation ceremony; they are usually already married when boys of the same age set are still in the bachelors' hut. However, young women who have had their first child are given their formal adult names in a public ceremony. After initiation, boys enter the young men's age grade; when the next age set is initiated, they will enter the age grade of young mature men, and finally that of elders. As men enter the older age grades, they are expected to participate more in the nightly council meetings, be more involved in factional disputes and in the affairs of the village as a whole, and become skilled orators. The oldest and most respected men develop a special connection with the ancestors, whom they will join in the final age grade, that of the immortals.

Both men's and women's age sets make up teams that participate in log races. The teams are not mixed; men race against men and women against women. In log races, which are rituals as well as athletic contests, two lengths of palm trunk, each weighing 90 to 125 kilograms, are cut at some distance from the village and then carried back to it. Each log is carried on a man's shoulder and transferred as quickly as possible onto the shoulder of a fresh teammate. Women's log races are similar except that the logs are smaller and men run alongside the women and help to roll the log onto another woman's shoulder. The two teams carry their logs into the center of the village and throw them down with a shout. After racing, the teams sing together.

Also central to Shavante society is the Wai'a ceremony, which takes place several times during the dry season. Men, starting as young boys, are gradually initiated into the secrets of the Wai'a. The men go to a special clearing in the forest near the village, and while the older men sing and shake their rattles, the young men paint and put on ceremonial headdresses. Later, the men of the intermediate age grade, who have been hidden in the forest, emerge and execute an aggressive dance in front of the younger men, who must remain still, with heads bowed, not breaking their composure while the others grimace and "attack dance" at them. Essential parts of the Wai'a ceremony are still secret; participants will only tell outsiders that through it, they make connections with the spirits.

Both collective singing and myth telling are important in transmitting Shavante cultural traditions from generation to generation. In dreams, men learn new songs from the ancestors, which they then teach to others to be sung in unison. Collective singing takes place almost every day in a Shavante village, and it is a powerful expression of unity. Myths are usually told by Shavante elders, both as entertainment and to remind the young people of their collective origins and identity. Many myths tell of the creation by the ancestors of things important to the Shavante, such as maize, fire, and clan organization. Leaders may make references to these myths in speeches to illustrate their teachings and to exhort their listeners to continue in Shavante ways, the ways of the ancestors.


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Graham, Laura R. (1990). "The Always Living: Discourse and the Male Lifecycle of the Xavante Indians of Central Brazil" Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.

Lopes da Silva, Aracy (1989). "Social Practice and the Ontology in Akw -Xavánte Naming and Myth." Ethnology 28:331-342.

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Maybury-Lewis, David (1985). "Brazilian Indianist Policy: Some Lessons from the Shavante Project." In Native Peoples and Economic Development: Six Case Studies from Latin America , edited by T. MacDonald, Jr., 75-86. Cultural Survival Occasional Paper no. 16. Cambridge, Mass.: Cultural Survival.

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