Nivaclé - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Fisôc'oyich is the culture hero and original father of the Nivaclé. He was identified with God by the first Christianized Indians. Before contact with the missionaries and with General Iván Belaieff, the Nivaclé had no belief in a supreme creator of the world. The world has always existed and has gone through various cataclysms: the exchange of position of the sky and the earth, the collapse of the sky, a world conflagration, and a deluge. For the Tovoc and Jotoi Lhavos, the cosmos is made up of three levels; for the Tavashai Lhavos, of five, and for the Yita' Lhavos, of seven. The levels are united and supported by four tree trunks, behind which lies the region of darkness. Humans have three souls, sôc'ôclit, which at the same time are only one. The shaic'u egg soul, is the keeper of health and life; the jeche , eggshell soul, is the custodian of moral qualities and health; and the ajplecl, shadow soul, is the seat of the soul. All things have subtle doubles, which are their spirits and possess their powers or qualities.

The P'alhac are the mythical humans who fell on the infraearth when the sky took up the space formerly occupied by earth. The Yina'ôt Lhavoquei (Women of the Water), the mothers of the Nivaclé, lost the teeth of their vulvae through a dance organized by primogenial men. The Sa'ônjalhai (Mangy Ones) are owners of tobacco and brothers who killed their mother, a dema deity, who was the wife of the birdnester; later they ascended to the sky by means of a chain of arrows. The Ôjô'clôlhai are men who were transformed into birds because of the evil acts of women. The Fanjas and Ôjô'clôchat are birds that are owners of rain and lightning respectively. The Chivosis and Chivositaj are spirits of the souls of aborted fetuses and murdered children. The Tsich'es are malignant beings, and the Tsantaj are monsters who eat human flesh. The Catiis (Stars) are supernatural women. Jincuclaai, the Sun, and Jive'cla, the Moon, are men. The latter has an enormous penis with which he deflowers women every month and causes their menstrual flow. Nowadays, a large number of Nivaclé profess a syncretism of their ancient beliefs and Christianity, and some are in the process of accepting a newly indoctrinated faith.


Religious Practitioners. The shaman ( tôiyeej ), who may be either a man or a woman, is curer, sorcerer, and soul guide (one who leads the soul into the other world). The male or female caasnaschai is master/mistress of the initiation ceremonies that prepare young people for adult life, giving them tutelary spirits and songs to communicate with them. To ensure success in hunting, fishing, gathering, and horticulture, the tsôt'aj establishes communication with and propitiates the masters of animals and the forest through his song ( shich'e ). The souls that inhabit his scalps help the caanvacle against his enemies, by indicating their whereabouts to him. When old and no longer able to fight, he throws away his scalps, but the souls of his victims continue to help him. He communicates with them through his songs, and, through his skill in xenoglossy, animals will reveal to him his adversaries' movements. Nowadays, there are native Protestant pastors and Catholic deacons.

Ceremonies. The caanvacle prepares the scalps, fumigates himself with naranja del monte ( Capparis speciosa ), and gives a feast. In old age, when he destroys his scalps, he offers another feast. The most important ceremony is the puberty initiation of girls. Next in importance is the initiation of pubescent boys. Upon becoming a father, men undergo another ritual. There is a ceremony at the beginning and the end of a period of mourning. All ceremonies involve a type of potlatch.

Arts. Plastic arts are the composite of visual forms that express the Nivaclé relationship with their surroundings and their world perception, constituting signs of ethnic identity. In times past, these took the form of string figures, tattoos, body painting, feather ornaments, glassbead embroidery, ceramics, wool weaving, and cordage making. Nowadays, only the latter four survive, but wood sculpting has been added to the repertoire. Songs are composed of alliterative syllables that have no meaning in the Nivaclé language and are learned as glossolalia when communicating with certain spirits. They are performed in vigils, and, more generally, in dreams. Dancing accompanies moments of happiness, and totôn, the marching dance, is for victory celebrations. Ceremonial ritual is the synthesis of all Nivaclé art.

Medicine. The shaman is the healer/curer, and his or her therapeutic methods consist of sucking, massaging, chanting, possession, ecstasy, the externalization of his or her own soul to recapture those of patients, flight to different cosmic planes, and the administration of substances that activate spirit helpers ( avtôi ). The three main causes of illness and death are soul loss, spirit intrusion, and abandonment by one of the tutelary spirits ( accheche ). Since the arrival of stupendously effective penicillin in 1944, shamanic influence has declined.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the ajplecl becomes an animal. The shaic'u and its shell go to Yincôôp (the Nivaclé paradise), where eternal summer reigns and people dance continuously, drink large quantities of maize beer ( niôtsich ), and make love freely. Souls condemned by evil shamans are eaten by their spirit helpers or hidden in inaccessible places.


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