Mehinaku - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Other than kinship, the most significant basis of social conduct among the Mehinaku is gender. In the center of the community is the small building that serves as a clubhouse and a temple for the men of the tribe. Here the men work on crafts, organize collective work, and share fish, which they generously bring to the other men. Above all, they joke. "There is no shame in the men's house," they say, indicating that the normal codes of respect owed to older kin and to in-laws are suspended in the men's house. The women are somewhat distant observers of the men's activities, since they are forbidden to enter the men's house or see the cult objects that are stored within.

Political Organization. The Mehinaku community is divided into chiefs and commoners. Perhaps a fifth of the villagers can claim chiefly descent, but only a few are recognized as leaders. They are persons who are inaugurated in a special ritual of ear piercing in childhood, who are well regarded by the community, and who "speak well to people" in addresses delivered to the tribe at dawn. The quality of oratory is particularly important, for the villagers attribute the morale and peacefulness of the community to the chiefs addresses to his people. Although the chief has no coercive authority over his community, the position is of considerable significance to the integration of the tribes of the region. The chief is a representative of his people and is responsible for greeting and negotiating with outsiders. Moreover, the major rituals of the upper Xingu culture region concern the inauguration of new chiefs and the commemoration of chiefs who have died.

Social Control. Mehinaku ideology is generally antiviolent. Although they have participated in retaliatory raids against the warlike tribes surrounding the upper Xingu Basin, war is regarded as an ugly act, typical of "wild" (non-Xingu) Indians and Whites. Within the village, violence is limited to relatively rare altercations between spouses and, more significantly, to witchcraft killings. Allegations of witchcraft are common, and deaths from natural causes are invariably attributed to witches. The impact of belief in witchcraft is twofold. Fearing witches, the villagers avoid confrontations, accede to requests, and conduct themselves more courteously than would otherwise be the case. The same fear limits the power of chiefs, who continually worry about whether they have provoked village witches.

A second mechanism of social control is gossip, which is prevalent in the village. The community is small, everyone is known to everyone else, and privacy is difficult to obtain. In this setting, gossip, with its attendant threat to each person's good name, constrains misconduct.

Conflict. The sources of conflict in the Mehinaku community are familiar. They include sexual jealousies, envy over others' possessions, and competition for status and power. In general, disputes within the village are handled by avoiding confrontation. A victim of theft (which is frequent) responds by gossip rather than by directly seeking the return of the stolen property. If the goods are of great value, the victim may make a speech in the village plaza, but without mentioning the name of the suspect: to do so would be a more serious breach than the act that provoked the speech. As a result, even bitter personal quarrels are worked through nearly invisibly, below the apparently tranquil surface of village life. On rare occasions, however, they have flared up in the form of "big anger": melees of pushing, shoving, and shouting in the village plaza.

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