ALTERNATE NAMES: Crixá; Curixá; Puxití; Tapacuá
POPULATION: Population estimates not available
RELIGION: Indigenous beliefs
In the late sixteenth century, Portuguese colonizers (foreigners who occupied and ruled the area) in Brazil named the Amerindians that inhabited the north of the Goiás region Xavante, for unknown reasons. The name the Amerindians used for themselves was Auwe, meaning people. The Xavante were numerous, strong, and rebellious. They resisted the invasion of their lands by attacking mining camps and raiding the settlers' cattle and crops. The Portuguese government managed to dominate them for the first time in 1784, when the Xavante were put into mission villages surrounded by military guards. Because the Xavante had resisted invasion and domination so fiercely, colonial governors called the period between 1784 and 1788 the "pacification" (when the Xavante were reduced to submission). Life in mission villages was not kind to the Xavante. A group of surviving Xavante eventually abandoned the missions and settled in eastern Mato Grosso. From that time until 1946, the Xavante repelled any attempt at contact by white people.
In the 1940s, the Brazilian government decided to encourage settlement on Xavante lands. Since then, the Xavante have made adjustments to deal with the settlers, who have different customs. However, the Xavante continue to preserve a strong sense of identity. Until 1988 the Xavante, like all Amerindians in Brazil, were not allowed to vote or make decisions for themselves. All Brazilian Amerindians are now regarded as full citizens.
The Xavante live in the state of Mato Grosso, in southwestern Brazil. It is the size of France, Germany, and Great Britain combined. Mato Grosso in Portuguese means "dense forest." Xavante villages used to be found at intervals for the entire length of the Rio das Montes (Montes River). When the land was sold to private companies during the 1960s, the new settlers pushed the Xavante to the vast wasteland of eastern Mato Grosso. The forest has been destroyed. Xavante land is referred to as savanna (grassland), which they prefer because open country offers more exciting hunting prospects. The savanna is not suitable for growing crops because it is very poor country. Still, the Xavante prefer it to the tropical jungle.
Patches of tropical jungle exist all over their territory. These local jungles provide water and wild roots and fruits, which are the basis of the Xavante diet. Palms and other trees provide leaves and woods used to manufacture various artifacts.
The Xavante, though dispersed through a vast region, share a common language and culture. They are one of the Gê-speaking tribes of Amazonia. They have also been known by the names Crixá, Curixá, Puxití, and Tapacuá. Understanding their language leads to a deeper understanding of their culture. Ro was'té-di, for example, is what the Xavante call local jungle. Ro means "country" and was'té means "bad." They make no secret of their dislike of anything that is not open savanna, which they call ro pse-di or ro we-de: pse means "good," and we means "pretty" or "beautiful."
The Xavante tradition is rich in legends that try to explain natural phenomena and their history. Many legends highlight the value of the qualities the Xavante appreciate most—strength and courage. One tells of two young men who had the power to make new varieties of fruits grow, using only their words. But a time came when they started using their powers to frighten their friends. Finally, they were killed, and in the place where their blood was shed, two trees grew. The Xavante use the wood from those trees to make sticks that they place in their ears to protect themselves from dangers such as jaguars and bad dreams.
The Xavante believe that the stars are the eyes of heavenly people who are watching us from up above. It happened that once a young man fell in love with the beauty of a particular star. When he fell asleep, the star came to earth in the shape of a woman and found him. Their love grew, and so did the palm where they were sitting, taking them up to the sky. When the young man came back to earth, he told his family about his affair and then went back to heaven and stayed with his loved one forever.
Xavante are more concerned with change or discovery than with the question of creation. "The world was created because in the beginning there was nothing" was an explanation given to an interested academic. "Then Aiwamdzú came out of the earth. He was the creator and he was Xavante." By the time Aiwamdzú appeared, the earth already existed, but it was empty. The east—the beginning of the sky—had not been created yet. The north and the south were created afterwards, as well as the whites and their towns. More detailed origin myths tell about people becoming human after being like animals. The beliefs and ceremonies of the Xavante revolve around their reverence for life and fertility.
Xavante holidays are full of joy and happiness. Some holidays are aimed at bringing back the good times, which are known as Roweda. Though in many of their holidays the men have a more active role than the women, some holidays have women as central figures. One of these is the ceremony of the naming of a child, in which many of the staged legends have women as protagonists. They tell about the female contributions to their cultural wealth.
The Xavante are divided into groups according to their ages—Babies; Not-Babies; Children; Boys and Girls; Bachelors; Young Men and Women; Mature Men and Women; and Elders. Passing from one group to the next is celebrated with special rites, songs, and dances. When a group reaches adolescence, the boys leave home and move into the Bachelors' hut. During this transition their ears are pierced and they take long baths in the river, receive presents, and take part in races. Through dramatic representations of legends, they learn the origins and significance of the new role they are about to take.
Among the Xavante, coupling is a process strictly regulated by laws. Marital relationships within families are discouraged. The marriage decisions are made mainly by parents. However, they do listen to their children and take their feelings into account.
The Xavante are full of life. Their artistic, brightly-colored body painting, the joy and energy transmitted through their songs and dances, and the wisdom imparted through their rituals all communicate vitality and a commitment to survival.
The Xavante sense of community is evident in the way they organize their economy. They exchange goods and distribute their wealth to take care of both individual families and the entire tribe. This give-and-take system guarantees the survival of the entire group.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Xavante have ceased to be nomadic (wanderers who follow food sources). They now live in independent, horseshoe-shaped villages on the open savanna. The center of the horseshoe is the setting for meetings of the council of aldermen (representatives) where important decisions are made. Most Xavante live in "beehive" houses. Built by women, the round structures are made of sticks and cane and are covered with palm leaves all the way to the floor. Up to three families can share one house. Inside the houses, the light is perpetually dim, and the smoke and odor of cooking lingers while insects crawl or buzz around.
Women are the queens of Xavante homes. They build the houses, and inside they prepare the food and distribute it. Collecting, the most important economic activity, is primarily a woman's job. Though not regarded as a prestigious activity, it is essential to the household and the survival of the group. It also provides one of the few opportunities for women to go out and have a good time together.
It is quite common to find Xavante men married to more than one woman, a practice known as polygyny.
Like many tribes of the eastern Brazil region, the Xavante originally went virtually naked. They decorated their bodies with an abundance of ornaments (such as ear-plugs), distinctive haircuts, body painting, and tattoos.
Traditionally, men always wore penis-sheaths from the moment they entered the Bachelors' hut. The sheath is a tiny conical spiral of palmito bark. It is worn over the folds of the foreskin, covering only the tip of the penis. Men would take it off only when urinating or having sex. Were it to fall off when they were running or bathing, it would be cause for great embarrassment.
Nowadays, though, men usually wear shorts, and most no longer wear their penis-sheaths or their ear-plugs. Women have taken to wearing clothes and even make-up when they can get it. In traditional Xavante communities, it was the men who did all the preening, but that has changed since contact with whites and with other tribes.
The Xavante have a real passion for meat. The meat that is plentiful is that of deer and anteaters. Pigs, wild or domestic, steppe rats, monkeys, and armadillos, as well as most birds, are also part of their diet. Turtles are sought for their meat and their nourishing eggs.
Preferences aside, the Xavante live primarily on roots, nuts, and fruits, which are easier to acquire. The roots are boiled or roasted. Nuts and palmitos (edible shoots of a palm) are eaten year-round. Nuts, particularly babassú nuts, are a constant in the Xavante diet. Carob, burití (a fruit with a high vitamin-C content), and piquí are the most important fruits. The Xavante also eat honey anytime they catch sight of a beehive. As many bees are stingless, the Xavante simply climb the trees, open the hive, and eat the contents, bees and all.
The level of formal education among the Xavante varies. In some villages only one or two of the younger men speak some basic Portuguese for the purpose of dealing with the outside world. In other villages most children and young Xavante are literate (able to read and write), and some have become teachers in their hometown.
The skills necessary to face life—such as learning how to overcome exhaustion, pain, and fear—are taught by the elders through traditional legends. Many bear the message: "Be strong and courageous, and multiply." The education of children is a shared responsibility. In the early years, the mother is the main figure. As they grow older, grandparents help to educate the girls. Boys are guided by their godfathers, a group of young men about ten years older.
Music and dance are at the core of Xavante ceremonies. Groups of men sing from morning through the day and the following night, hide gourd flutes for the girls to fetch, and beat time with rattles made of pigs' teeth. To make the melodies come to life, the Xavante choreograph dances in a series of highly formalized patterns. These are designed to inspire and delight both the performers and the spectators.
The Xavante practice shifting cultivation. Toward the end of the rainy season, a man fells an acre or two of trees and leaves them to dry. Just before the next rainy season begins, he sets them on fire. The ashes add mineral nutrients to the soil. The Xavante plant crops that require virtually no tending, such as maize (corn), beans, and pumpkins. The primary basis of the Xavante's diet is wild roots, nuts, and fruits gathered in their wanderings.
Hunting is the passion of Xavante men. The traditional way of hunting is using darts with curare (a formula whose active ingredient comes from the sap of the vine Strychnos toxifera). It blocks nervous impulses to the muscles so they become flaccid (limp), and the animal simply falls to the ground. Modern Xavante hunt with guns.
Traditionally, fishing was also done with poison. Sap from forest vines dispersed through the water, paralyzing the breathing apparatus of the fish but leaving their meat edible. The introduction of metal hooks and nylon has simplified fishing a great deal.
The Xavante are superb runners. As often as once a week, teams of relay runners compete in a long race that may begin far out on the plain, ending with a dash into the village. Each runner carries a length of burití palm weighing around 80 kilograms (175 pounds). They decorate their bodies with vegetable dyes and each ties a white cord around their neck, with the tufted ends in the front like a bow tie. The Xavante are reputed to be capable of catching game on foot.
In some communities, the Xavante have developed a passion for soccer. Everybody plays—young and old—and when all the men get tired of playing, the women take over.
Hunting provides not only a means of subsistence but also a source of entertainment. Xavante men spend hours planning treks and telling tales of fights and hunting exploits. Xavante men enjoy all aspects of hunting, especially since it allows them to make a public exhibition of their manliness.
Xavante ceremonies have been compared to classical ballet. Performers try to create a harmonious spectacle where beauty is most important. The Xavante word for "ceremony" is dasïpse, which translates as "something that makes oneself good." The performances are carefully prepared, enjoyed by players and spectators alike, and regarded as a major form of aesthetic expression.
Among the first Xavante artifacts to become known to the outside world were the uibro. Characteristically used by young men, the uibro are war clubs that symbolize power. They are made from a young tree, with part of the root left as a knob at one end. The other end is sharpened to a point, and the club is exposed to the heat of the fire to make it hard.
Body painting is one of the most stunning art forms of the Xavante. Other crafts include making domestic objects out of wood, piranha teeth, and the claws of the great armadillo. Palm leaves and bark from trees are plaited (braided) to make most household utensils, such as baskets, mats, and fans.
Amerindian tribes in Brazil are still burdened by colonization. The groups that survived the European invasion and colonization of the Americas are now being pushed off their land by private companies. Contact with whites has also created the need for the Xavante to learn the national language and culture in order to function in the new, imposed way of life. However, education is not attainable by all. Many are left unable either to retain their traditional ways or to adapt to the new ones.
Nevertheless, the Xavante are recognized as one of the most forceful of the Brazilian tribes. They frequently send their representative to Brasilia (the Federal District of Brazil) to defend their rights and insist on better treatment. The Xavante Mario Juruna, the first Amerindian to become a deputy in Brazil's parliament, spoke of the dangers and the wishes of his people: "Indian wealth lies in customs and communal traditions and land which is sacred. Indians can and want to choose their own road, and this road is not civilization made by whites … Indian civilization is more human. We do not want paternalistic protection [in the style of a more powerful father] from whites. Indians today … want political power."
Bennett, Ross S., ed. Lost Empires, Living Tribes. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Book Service, 1982.
Graham, Laura R. Performing Dreams: Discourses of Immortality Among Xavante of Central Brazil. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
Maybury-Lewis, David. Akwe-Shavante Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Steward, Julian Haynes, ed. Handbook of South American Indians. New York: Cooper Square, 1963