Karajá - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Karajá believe in supernatural beings—inhabitants of sky, woods, and water. They look like humans but, in the words of bilingual Indians, they are "spirits of animals." Only shamans, who in life and after death hold the power of going to the sky and to the bottom of the river, can see them. The Karajá believe in the survival of the souls of the dead. Souls are classified according to the type of death: uní (in case of a violent death—by drowning, killing, or suicide) and worasã (in case of a death considered normal—by sickness, old age, or as a victim of witchcraft). Even though accusations of witchcraft are common on the occasion of someone's death, the supposedly guilty parties are buried in the same manner as their victims, be the suspects shamans or anyone else. Uní souls are dangerous (cannibalistic), as much to the living as to the souls of the dead, which they have the power to annihilate. For this reason they are buried away from family tombs. There are primary burials and secondary burials in funeral urns. Food offerings are deposited in the cemetery by relatives of the dead.

Religious Practitioners. There are men and women who have a wide or specialized knowledge. They are called ohutibedú. There have been instances of shamanism, even though its manifestations (trance and the shamanistic trip) seem less dramatic than those seen in other Indian groups in Brazil. It is characterized by supernatural vision and intense contact with the supernatural world. There are herbalists who treat maladies. Ehrenreich (1948) observed in 1888 that Karajá shamans used suction techniques to withdraw noxious material from the sick person's body, and that they also used the sound of maracas ( werú ) to scare away the supernatural causers of disease. Currently, there are also herbalist medicine men who, for a fee, take individuals, from their own village as well as from other local groups, into their houses for treatment. The term hori is applied to shamans with supernatural vision, and the use of their power implies dual behavior that can cure as well as kill.

The isãdinudú (traditional chief) is frequently considered to be a ohutibedú since it is expected that chiefhood be exercised by individuals who were educated for the office, are able to resolve individual and group conflicts, and have a lot of cosmological, ceremonial, and genealogical knowledge. He may be a herbalist, he may or may not have the power of supernatural vision, and he dominates the classifications of fauna and flora. Another authority, the ioló , is responsible for the knowledge of the judicial system and must see that the common law is observed.

Ceremonies. The spirits of nature are personified in rituals in which male dancers, usually in pairs, carry characteristic masks of each of these beings. Such ceremonies are called Aruanã (Idjasó), which is the name of a fish of the Rio Araguaia.

Other ceremonies have the purpose of pacifying the souls of enemies killed by the Karajá a long time ago, such as the Xavante and Tapirapé. The rites de passage are various and elaborate, the most important ritual complex being that of Hetohokã, which concerns the initiation steps to adult life and the religious knowledge of the younger male generation. There are also seasonal feasts, such as the honey feast held in August.

Arts. The Karajá have vocal music associated with dancing, whose rhythm is marked by the maraca (werú), a gourd rattle that accompanies the rituals of Aruanã and is important in the sphere of shamanism.

Chants are sung in falsetto to convey the impression that the beings personified by the dancers are not human. The chants refer to Karajá history, to their everyday life, and to mythical and cosmological affairs.

Iconographe, those related to geometric features as well as those that represent everyday, ceremonial, and other events, are extremely complex with respect to their meaning and formal aspects.

Medicine. There are many types of diseases according to Indian conceptions, including those transmitted by non-Indians: tuberculosis, pneumonia, chicken pox, venereal diseases, flu, and others. The Karajá believe they can be cured by treatment in hospitals and by taking chemical remedies administered by doctors and nurses in regional health posts and in larger cities like Goiânia, Brasília, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro.

With respect to diseases considered to be Indian diseases, many are thought to be the result of witchcraft and must be treated by herbalists and shamans.

Death and Afterlife. The Karajá theory about normal death explains it as resulting from disease, old age, or witchcraft. People who died by violence, whose malignant souls are called uní, besides having to be buried in a place separate from the other tombs, are buried face downward to make it more difficult for them to see, capture, and devour benign souls, worasãs.

The soul of the hyrí (shaman), classified in the modality worasã, meanwhile, has great power over this type as well as over the uní type. Both understand his orders. In addition, the soul of the shaman enjoys special mobility, being able to meet with supernatural beings in the heavens and under the waters.

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