Karajá - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Fishing has always been the principal means of subsistence. The Karajá catch, among other fish, pirarucu ( Arapaima gigas ), pirarara ( Phractocephalus hemilopteros ), and tucunare ( Cichla sp.). Today, part of the catch is sold to the local population. In the early 1970s the Karajá worked for commercial fishermen who exploited them. Since then FUNAI has controlled commercial fishing among the Indians. Besides fish, the Karajá sell handicraft products for the tourist trade.

The Karajá also practice subsistence farming, combining slash-and-burn cultivation with modern farming techniques taught by Brazilian government agents. They cultivate manioc, watermelons, bananas, maize, sweet potatoes, and also rice and beans, which are relatively new cultivars.

At one time the Karajá hunted deer, tapir, wild pigs, and other mammals. These animals have now become scarce, and the Indians prefer to eat beef. Birds are captured and killed for their feathers or kept as pets to please the children. The birds hunted most often are macaws and river birds, especially the colhereiro ( Ajaia ajaja ) and the jaburu ( Micteria americana ).

The Karajá collect seasonal fruits from the underbrush: coconuts, pequi ( Caryocar brasiliense ), and fava do jatobá ( Hymenaea stigonocarpa ), among others. They also collect honey from bees, formerly from wild bees but now from those introduced as a result of interethnic contact.

The Brazilian government gave them some cattle in 1983; today there are some 5,000 head on the island of Bananal on farms managed by FUNAI. There are approximately 450 cattle directly in the hands of the Indians.

Industrial Arts. Karajá art features several handicraft modalities, there being specialities that are traditionally masculine and others that are feminine. Among the former are sculpture in wood (dolls and anthropomorphic figures), modeling in wax, feather art, the making of weapons with feather tufts, and ornamental weaving. Women's handicrafts include ceramics and the weaving of cloth. Weaving has always been done by both sexes; however, there are types of weaving dominated by males and other kinds by females, depending on the raw materials and the methods used in the weaving. (Today, handicrafts are free of rigid rules with respect to the division of labor by sex.) Currently, weaving is the most commonly pursued handicraft in all of the Karajá villages. The Karajá use these woven articles themselves and also sell some to tourists. The production of ceramics is of greater importance only in the village of Santa Isabel do Morro (Hawaló). Body painting is practiced by both sexes, usually by the young, although individuals of other age groups also ornament themselves on ceremonial occasions. Ornamentation features a number of basic patterns that subdivide into innumerable variants and complex combinations.

In the past, the Karajá hunted and made war with weapons such as clubs, spears, bows, and spear-thrower darts. They would make miniatures for children and weapons for older boys, the dimensions being calculated according to the age of the user. Today, they hunt and fish with Instruments acquired from the Whites—rifles, metal fishhooks, and nylon fishing lines.

Trade. At the beginning of the twentieth century the southern Karajá obtained wood for the making of bows, stones for hatchets, domesticated macaws, and other items from the northern Karajá. The southern Karajá also received raw materials from the Tapirapé, a nearby Tupí tribe, and from the subgroup Javaé; from the latter they imported tobacco plants, manioc roots, and arrows. They also traded with the Brazilian population of the regions and with outsiders: the Karajá supplied with manioc and fish in exchange for salt, farinha (manioc crumbs), tobacco, beads, and large steel knives. Handwork already played a part in this trade, and the Indians made use of river transportation as well. Cash purchases and intratribal barter continue to take place. The production and sale of handicraft items to tourists has acquired major economic importance.

Division of Labor. Men and women perform differentiated agricultural jobs; the more difficult and time-consuming tasks are undertaken by the men, whereas the women occupy themselves with the lighter, auxiliary jobs. With respect to the harder farm tasks, the men of each local group get together and help one another in a communal undertaking. The principal subsistence activity is fishing, which is a male activity.

The collection of wildlife products for food and handicraft materials can be done by both sexes, respecting their specializations. The herbalist medicine men collect the medicinal herbs. House building is male work. Cargo baskets are made by men, as are the weapons that formerly were used in hunting and war but today are intended only for rituals or for the tourist trade. Feather craft is a masculine specialty but women can make certain smaller, less complex pieces. Wood carving and wax modeling are male activities, although some exceptions occur with respect to figurative art.

Land Tenure. The Karajá acknowledge the existence of territorial dominions, proper to each village and historically assured by consuetudinary law. These dominions are characterized by the sum of the possessions of local family groups, which are adequate for hunting and fishing as well as for the collection of raw materials and wildlife products for home construction and the making of handicrafts. If usable natural resources are located outside their territory, interested individuals direct themselves to the chief of the respective territory for authorization to exploit the resources. The Karajá make relatively long trips outside of the territorial dominion of their own village to fish, to collect, and to exchange or buy raw materials and Indian-made and industrial products.

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