Waimiri-Atroari - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Traditional beliefs have been largely repressed owing to the presence of an extremely large contingent of FUNAI workers (in 1983 there were 59 male workers for about 332 Waimiri-Atroari, of whom 88 were adult males over 15 years of age). Many of these FUNAI workers are of Indian origin, often with long-term urban experience, and from other ethnic groups that have had centuries of contact with the outside world. They transmitted to the Waimiri-Atroari an ideology and model of the "civilized Indian" ( caboclo ) incorporating all the negative stereotypes of the Indians held by the national society. This has led the Waimiri-Atroari to repudiate their own culture and aspire to follow the life-style of the FUNAI employees. Today their own beliefs are adapted to and combined with the beliefs and worldview of the government employees.

The Waimiri-Atroari refer to the Christian God as "Big Daddy" or "Daddy of the sky." Traditionally, they also referred to the sky as made of stone, and to another world, below the rivers, populated by beings similar to those of this world. Animals come from the sky and replenish those hunted by men. The mythical figure Mawá, who climbed up to the sky on a liana that he cut, is sometimes assimilated to Jesus. The forest is inhabited by various kinds of supernatural beings, referred to as yirkwá, yamaí, and yananá. Both Waimiri-Atroari men and women observe dietary restrictions, especially when they have young children. An extensive body of myths includes such episodes as the first man, the origin of crops, a legendary "great" flood, the first woman (given by the giant watersnake), and the origin of the White man (who came from "the place of fire"), the origin of thunder.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans mediate between spiritual beings ( karaiwa ), which converse with the WaimiriAtroari during sessions in the dark. There are few shamans still alive, and their practice has been censured by government employees and young Waimiri-Atroari captains. The shamans passed through a long apprenticeship in which they learned songs, ritual chants, cures, and ceremonial ritual activities. Tobacco and other drugs are not used by Waimiri-Atroari shamans.

Ceremonies. The Waimiri-Atroari perform many ceremonies, such as those carried out when the gardens have produced abundantly and after killing a jaguar. Some of the most important ceremonies are for the initiation of male children at about 3 years of age, to "make the child grow, and be a successful hunter." This complex series of ceremonies includes whipping rites and the bathing of the child with an infusion of red karowri leaves ( Arrabidaea chica ) mixed with other leaves and tree barks. Each lasts for three days and involves the participation of members of other villages, who are invited and received with ritual chants. The karowri rite emphasized the relationship between the batimki and his ya'wi and wihi (sister's son-mother's brother, brother's son-father's sister), the child's potential parents-in-law. Today the Waimiri-Atroari also observe national ceremonies such as raising the flag on Independence Day and June feasts.

Arts. The Waimiri-Atroari make various kinds of baskets, some with geometrical motifs. The men and women dance separately in rows and circles with separate songs. Modern Brazilian music is popular among the young people, many of whom have radio/tape-recorders. Some mature and elderly men and women are known as singers. The shamans must know an extremely large body of songs. Use is made of cane flutes (now often made of plastic pipe), nut whistles (replaced by small glass containers), and rattles during some dances.

Medicine. Diseases were interpreted as spirit attacks. Today indigenous medicine has been devalued by the FUNAI employees from the dominant society, and the Waimiri-Atroari rely more on Western medicines. Shamanic diagnoses and cures are rarely used. It is believed that sickness was brought about by a foreign object entering the body, fired by a sorcerer.

Death and Afterlife. Death was associated with the separation of the akaha (soul or spirit) from the body. The akaha was thought to return by pathways to the forest and old village sites where it had lived in the past. WaimiriAtroari sometimes express fear of an akaha in the dark or one seen in dreams. Today they refer to death in terms of the Christian God carrying away the spirit to the sky.


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