Mehinaku - Marriage and Family

Marriage. As the form of kinship terminology suggests, the proper marriage is to a cross cousin. Ideally, this should be a classificatory cross cousin, since a parent's sibling's child is often regarded as "too close" for marriage and sex. First marriages are usually arranged by parents and involve a young woman (of approximately 14 years) and an older man (approximately 18 years). The ritual of marriage is quite simple. The young man's hammock is carried across the village plaza to his bride's house, while the men of tribe, assembled in front of the men's house, imitate the cries of a newborn baby ("wa, wa, wah ...") to ensure that the marriage will be fecund.

Once settled in the bride's house, the groom must provide a wide range of services for his wife's family, including fishing, cutting a garden, and making a canoe. Only after the birth of several children can he move back to his own house. In practice, however, the rules of postmarital residence are quite flexible, so that some of the villagers live in the house of the groom, and others switch back and forth as they and their parents wish.

Socialization. Children are greatly valued. A woman who does not become pregnant is looked down upon and is very much ashamed. As soon as a child is born it is bathed and cradled by the mother in her hammock. The mother and infant will remain in intimate association, sleeping together in one hammock until the birth of a new infant (often about two and one-half years later). Most mothers wean their children very gradually. On occasion, even a 5-year-old will attempt to nurse, although the mother will almost certainly push the child away in favor of a younger sibling. Other separations are also gently managed. Just before the birth of a new child, for example, a mother moves her toddler to his own hammock. This is accomplished by waiting until the child falls asleep and then placing him in the new hammock. If he awakens, he is rocked to sleep in his mother's hammock and patiently moved again.

By the third year, a child is cared for by older sisters, who may carry him about the village. With further development, he or she joins a play group, where many of the activities of the adult world are replicated in the form of games. Children play at being shamans, chiefs, husbands, wives, and even extramarital lovers.

At adolescence, boys and girls enter a period of seclusion during which they must live behind a partition, honor a variety of food taboos, speak in a soft voice, and refrain from going outdoors during daylight hours. They must master various crafts taught them by their parents. The period of seclusion is remarkably long, lasting for several years. The object is growth into a handsome and productive adult. To this end, young men take root medicines designed to make them strong. They are told to direct their thoughts to wrestling, which is the hallmark of masculinity. Both boys and girls are watched over by an invisible spirit, "the master of the medicines," who ensures their development, provided that the rules of seclusion are followed. The villagers believe that physical appearance, personal energy, and success as an adult depend on the choices made in childhood. Failure to follow the rules of seclusion is said to lead to laziness, stunted growth, and weakness.

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