Wapisiana - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The stratified Wapisiana cosmos has three main levels: the sky, the land, and the underground. In the normal course of life, things, beings, or attributes of one level penetrate the others, simultaneously enabling social relations, production, and change and creating the possibility of illness, death, or destruction. In the distant past, people could turn into animals and animals could talk. The world changed and this is no longer possible, but there are numerous beings that combine human and animal traits and that threaten the well-being of Wapisiana and their communities. Catholic missionaries have worked in the region for two centuries; they had established churches in all Wapisiana settlements by the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, itinerant priests from the Consolata Mission provide services on a periodic basis.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, certain Wapisiana men became specialists in healing; they beat leaves and "blew" cures. They could also use the same techniques to make people sick or to kill them. Nowadays, no Wapisiana admits to these practices and only a few actually follow them, but a number of men and women do perform a sort of curing that is influenced by Catholicism, northeastern Brazilian folk medicine, and other non-Indian practices. In most villages, a Wapisiana man is the catechist who leads the Sunday service in the absence of the priest. Wapisiana boys attend the seminary in Boa Vista but none has yet taken holy orders.

Ceremonies and Arts. Today the only large-scale ceremonies are Catholic rites and celebrations of Christian holy days. On a very small scale, the Wapisiana perform traditional rituals in the course of their daily activities.

Medicine. In addition to "blowing" and curing to restore cosmological balance, Wapisiana use numerous plants to treat physical symptoms. Brazilian Wapisiana also take advantage of malaria testing and treatment and nursing services at White settlements, and they use the Indian hospital and women's facility in Boa Vista.

Death and Afterlife. Deaths were attributed to evil spirits or to kanaima, healers who used their powers for evil purposes or to satisfy a blood lust. Nowadays, Wapisiana use words like "hepatitis," "malaria," and "pneumonia" to identify causes of death, but they often still believe that the true cause is a kanaima or another malevolent spirit. The Wapisiana bury a person's goods with the body for use in the afterlife.

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