Mehinaku - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Mehinaku, like the other tribes of the upper Xingu, are slashand-burn horticulturists of manioc and maize. In older gardens, they plant piquí trees, which produce an oily fruit (somewhat similar to an avocado in taste and consistency) that is an important part of the diet in the fall of each year. Fish is the major source of protein. The rivers around the village are extraordinarily rich in fish, and it is a rare fisherman who returns empty-handed. During the months of the dry season, the retreating waters strand fish in pools of water isolated from the main channels. The villagers use fish poison to paralyze the fish. A successful expedition may bring home 45 kilograms or more of small fish.

Fish are shared among residence mates and distributed to kin in other houses. In contrast, manioc, the staple crop of village life, is produced by families and close kin and is seldom shared publicly. For the most part, however, the village economy is based on reciprocity. Labor, fish, and even valued possessions are freely given, shared, or easily traded.

Industrial Arts. The Mehinaku make a remarkable array of material goods that are typical of a tropical-forest tribe: bows and arrows, baskets of different designs, feather headdresses, wooden benches in the shape of animals and birds, hammocks woven from native cotton, and dugout canoes. In recent years they have also begun to make ritual masks and other items for sale to Brazilian entrepreneurs who visit the Xingu reservation by barge to purchase the villagers' trade goods. In 1989 the prices for these items were extremely high. A moderately competent artisan could earn more than $5.00 per hour, a rate many times the Brazilian minimum wage. The income from these sales was used to purchase fishing equipment, bicycles, beads, and other Brazilian goods.

Trade. Each of the Xingu tribes has a trade specialty, such as ceramics, shell belts and necklaces, or hardwood bows. The Mehinaku traditionally make salt from water hyacinth, which they export to neighboring tribes. The trade monopolies are not based on the variable availability of resources or on secret skills. Rather they are markers of tribal identity and bases for the social relationships that spring from visiting and trade.

Division of Labor. The major division of labor is by sex. A husband and wife are an economic team who have the skill to produce virtually all of the necessities of life. The husband provides the fish, but no meal is complete without manioc bread, which the wife supplies. A husband may affectionately (and humorously) refer to his wife as "my little hammock," simultaneously referring to the sexual-emotional and economic bond that holds them together.

Lanci Tenure. Land is owned only to the extent that it is worked. There are no lines of demarcation around the communities, or even a clear sense of where "Mehinaku earth" begins or ends. Nonetheless, valued resource areas, such as places to dam streams for fish traps or groves of arrow cane, are regarded as belonging to particular tribes. These sites, as well as traditional settlements, cannot be alienated. Hence, the previous Mehinaku village (Jalapapuh, "Place of the Leaf-Cutter Ant") was borrowed from the Yawalapití tribe when the villagers feared a new attack by the Txicão tribe. Even after twenty years of habitation, they never felt it truly belonged to them and were pleased to return to their traditional village in 1989.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: