ETHNONYMS: Akw , Cherente, Serente, Xerente
Approximately 850 Sherente live on two reservations located on the east bank of the Rio Tocantins in the Brazilian state of Tocantins. Until around 1812 the Sherente were not clearly distinguished from the Shavante, whom they closely resemble in language and customs. The Sherente language, like that of the Shavante, belongs to the Central Branch of the Gê Language Family.
The Sherente and Shavante came into contact with outsiders in the early eighteenth century, when gold seekers from Sao Paulo penetrated the area. Both groups soon clashed with the miners, and the governors of the captaincy made a number of attempts to pacify and settle them. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the gold mines of Goiás were largely exhausted, and many settlers left the province. The Indians, who were still numerous, resumed hostilities and were again accused of attacks on farms and towns. By 1814, the Central Gê groups east of the Tocantins who were raiding eastward toward Maranhão were called "Sherente," and those to the west of the Tocantins were referred to as "Shavante." The Sherente population was estimated to be around 4,000 at this time. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Shavante had moved westward; they crossed the Rio Araguaia and became separated from the Sherente, who remained in the vicinity of the Tocantins. Italian missionaries gathered some 2,000 Sherente into a mission settlement, but their numbers continued to diminish. By the early twentieth century the remaining Sherente, whose villages were hemmed in by White settlements, had become largely acculturated and were living in impoverished conditions. More recently, with the demarcation of two reservations, their situation has become somewhat improved, and they have been undergoing a cultural revival.
The Sherente habitat is upland savanna; most of the land on which swidden agriculture can be practiced is to be found in the gallery forests that abut rivers and streams. In gardens cleared from the gallery forest, they raise their staples—yams and sweet potatoes—as well as maize, bitter and sweet manioc, cotton, and kupá ( Cissus gongylodes ), an original domesticate of the Gê peoples. They do not use the basketry press ( tipiti ) to squeeze the poisonous juice from grated manioc but press it in a band of buriti- palm bast.
They also gather wild-plant products; particularly important are the babassu and the buriti palms, each of which supplies both food and textile materials. So important were palms that disputes over the control of their stands might be cause for warfare.
Using bows and arrows as well as lances and clubs, men hunt all animal and bird species, with the exception of vultures. Women sometimes dig armadillos from their burrows. In former times, collective hunts using grass fires to drive game were common. Deer were sometimes shot from tree stands. The Sherente fish with bows and arrows, traps, and poison. They had no indigenous watercraft; travel was by foot, and rivers were crossed on log bridges.
The Sherente steam or bake food in earthen ovens and use spits for broiling and grates for barbecuing meat. Before they had metal pots, they sometimes boiled palm fruits by placing them in an earthen pit with heated stones. Before contact the Sherente, like other Gê peoples, had no intoxicating drinks. They have adopted pigs and chickens as domestic livestock from Whites and keep tamed peccaries as pets. They probably did not have dogs prior to contact and, even now, seldom use them in hunting.
Sherente villages were laid out in horseshoe formation with a bachelor's hut in the center. Around 1900 the traditional design was abandoned, however, and present-day Sherente settlements consist of scattered houses built in the rural Brazilian style. Most recently, some have adopted a circular formation, probably borrowed from the Craho, a neighboring Northern Gê group.
The Sherente are divided into two patrilineal moieties, each of which has four clans. In the traditional village, the dwellings of the two moieties were on opposite sides of the village horseshoe, and each clan also had its assigned place in the horseshoe.
At about 8 years of age, a boy became a resident of the bachelors' hut, received a name, and had his earlobes pierced. Six age grades were recognized within the bachelors' hut, but only the highest was considered ready for marriage. The patrilineal moieties were exogamous: a young man could only marry a girl from the opposite moiety, and cousin marriage was only allowed with father's sister's daughters; girls who were mother's brother's daughters, and therefore belonged to his mother's clan, were excluded. Polygynous marriages were usually sororal, and there was a preference for a group of brothers to marry a group of sisters. The Sherente stressed premarital chastity and expelled from the bachelors' hut any boy who succumbed to temptation; virginity in girls was also valued. There was a class of women, however, who did not marry but freely engaged in sexual relations. Hunting parties would take along girls of this status as cooks and mistresses. Postmarital residence was matrilocal, at least at first; later a couple might settle with the husband's parents.
The regulation of marriage by the patrilineal moieties has fallen into disuse, and boys no longer live in the bachelors' hut. Men do divide into two moieties for the ceremony at which names are bestowed on children. Male names belong to specific moieties and clans.
The Sherente make baskets and palm-leaf mats for many purposes. They decorate gourds with incised designs and make whistles and flutes. The Sherente traditionally went unclothed but decorated their bodies heavily with feathers and red and blue-black paints.
In former times the Sherente practiced secondary burial. A specific clan was in charge of burials, and in the grave corpses were protected with a roof of mats suspended from forked posts so that the earth should not come in direct contact with the body. One of the most important ceremonies was a feast of the dead honoring distinguished members of the tribe.
Log racing is both a sport and a ritual. The Sherente assign every boy to one of two log-racing teams for lifelong membership. Typically, the logs are made from a section of a palm trunk about a meter in length and about 40 to 50 centimeters thick; they may weigh up to 125 kilograms. The runners start from the place where the log is cut, perhaps 2 kilometers from the village. One man carries the log on his shoulder as rapidly and as far as possible before rolling it onto the shoulder of a fresh teammate, until the last runners arrive in the center of the village. The Sherente have one racing log that is so long and heavy that it has to be carried by two men at a time. Sherente racing logs carried by opposing teams are sometimes painted with contrasting geometric designs.
Each village has a chief, and the position of chief usually passes from father to son. Villages are often divided by factional disputes. Village chiefs sometimes meet in tribal councils. The Sherente were frequently at war with various neighboring peoples, including Whites. They used bows and arrows and clubs, largely in surprise attacks, but also in pitched battles. Those who killed in battle went into isolation for at least two weeks and had to observe food and other taboos.
The major deities of the Sherente are the Sun and the Moon, each of which is associated with one of the patrilineal moieties. They are conceived of as two unrelated male companions, with Sun the superior in power and wit. The Sherente sometimes call Sun "Our Creator." Sun and Moon never appear directly to visionaries, however, who receive revelations from Sun's intermediaries—Venus, Jupiter, and some other planets—or from those of Moon, of which Mars is the most important. Visions of solar associates come to men of the Sun moiety, and vice versa. The Great Fast, the major Sherente festival, was held to propitiate these gods and persuade them to grant rain. Sherente shamans are associated with the planets; those of Mars suck out disease in the form of maize kernels or bits of wood, whereas Jupiter or Venus visionaries own magic wands with which they can eliminate troublemakers.
According to Sherente belief, the dead live in their own village, and to arrive there departed souls have to face many dangers.
Maybury-Lewis, David (1979). Dialectical Societies: The Gè and Bororo of Central Brazil, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Maybury-Lewis, David (1988). The Savage and the Innocent. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press.
Nimuendajú, Curt (1942). The Serente. Frederick Webb Hodge Annual Publication Fund, vol. 4. Los Angeles: Southwest Museum.
Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau, eds. (19781984). Folk Literature of the Gè Indians. 2 vols. Los Angeles: University of California, Latin American Center.
NANCY M. FLOWERS