Vic Hoyland

The Xingu

Essex-Xingu souvenir programme page 15

Essex-Xingu souvenir programme page 16

Essex-Xingu souvenir programme page 17

Alison Love has compiled some background information on the culture that provided the starting point for Hoyland’s piece, and which he subsequently named after it (1979).

The district known as the Xingu is one of dense forest surrounding the headwaters of the river Xingu, a tributary of the Amazon, in central Brazil, The Indians living there are currently believed to be of Mongolian origin, the descendants of Asians who crossed the Bering Straits into America some thirty thousand years ago, and until comparatively recent time they have remained isolated from Brazilians or any other civilisation. This is largely explained by the fact that the river Xingu, with its many rocks and rapids, is extremely hard to navigate; and potential settlers have also been deterred by the hostility of the Indian tribes they have encountered. There were Jesuit missionaries to be found in the Lower Xingu during the Seventeenth Century, and in the last hundred years or so several explorers have made expeditions into the area, including, in 1887, the German ethnologist Karl Von den Steinen; but not until 1940 was any stable contact maintained between the Indians and the world outside. In 1961 this culminated in the formation by the Brazilian Government of the Xingu National Park, which in 1968 was enlarged to cover an area of 11,500 square miles. The main purpose of the park is to preserve the Indian culture, supplying medical facilities, schooling, and some technological assistance, but protecting the Indians from a sudden exposure to the growing industrial society of Brazil.

Map of Brazil showing the Xingu region

To speak generically of 'Xingu Indians' is misleading, since they consist of a number of small societies divided by a substantial barrier of communications: although there are only four basic languages to be found among these societies, each village often possesses its own dialect, which may be unintelligible even to neighbouring Indians.

However, the Xingu people do share a body of myths and customs which is by and large universal, so that they may in that sense be regarded as a cultural entity. That culture inevitably bears a close relation to their immediate environment, the jungle and the river, on which they still depend for subsistence. The rhythm of the seasons has a strong effect on them: during the months of rain between October and April the Indians tend to be lethargic, and thus it is in the summer that they are most active, hunting, fishing and farming. Their staple crop, cultivated in fields or gardens around the village, is a plant called manioc, the roots of which are harvested to make flour that the Indians use to bake flat cakes. They also grow fruits which can be stored in baskets for the winter, and urucu, a plant which yields a reddish-brown dye popular with the Indians for painting their bodies and house-hold equipment. Fishing is another major activity, using canoes made from cedar logs. The hook and line is a comparatively recent innovation, introduced by contact with Brazilians: traditionally the Indians shoot fish with bows and arrows, or poison them with a substance called liana which suffocates the fish without rendering them inedible. Poison is also used on their arrow heads when the Indians hunt, where again the bow is a major weapon: although some Indians have now acquired fire-arms, with ammunition in short supply they are not much used. Since the Indians have strong taboos about what they may and may not eat, particularly concerning animals, their hunting is somewhat limited, and the usual preys are birds or monkeys. Most other land animals are regarded as inedible: the Indians will not even bait their fishing hooks with worms or insects, but use fruit instead.

These activities are carried out, not in isolation, but as part of a structured community life. Within their villages the Indians live in households which often include several families, as well as unmarried adult relatives, and these households operate each as a unit. Every member is entitled to a share of food, but must equally make a contribution to the family's supplies: the women, for example, are expected to cook and to weave cloth, usually of cotton, from which they make hammocks, and various garments including the bands which many Indians wear around their arms and legs. This habit of sharing resources extends to relatives in other households, and eventually in a network throughout the village. In many ways the Indians, dependant as they are on their environment, rely on each other for survival, and they have thus developed a principle of generosity amongst themselves. Where few households possess all the necessary implements for hunting and agriculture, they are obliged to borrow, and it is considered ill-mannered to refuse any request, however inconvenient. The large family unit is therefore a crucial part of their society: the most important Indians in the village are not wealthy in the obvious sense, but, due to extensive family connections, they are able to command great resources of equipment and labour. Village leaders are frequently the senior members of large families, capable of drawing on these resources for the hunting expeditions and major ceremonies which they sponsor.

Xingu Indians

The other Indians of high status are the shamans, or priests, of which there may be several within a village. Usually they are not in any public sense leaders, but are regarded as intermediaries between their people and the spirit world. The Indian concept of the supernatural is an unusually concrete one: at funerals, for example, they fire arrows from the grave at dawn, to symbolise the soul's flight into the sky. Many of the phenomena surrounding them, animals in particular, are attributed with spirits and emotions, as though they were another species of human being, and the Indian myths, where people often marry or turn into animals, illustrate this uncertain line between the human and his environment. One common aspect of this is the cult, found in many tribes, of the jaguar-demon, who sometimes represents the spirit of the forest, and is a symbol of war. The early cannibalistic Indians used to kill and eat victims in sacrifice to the jaguar, who is at once a god and a predator, to appease him. To a lesser extent this attitude applies to all animals, for their hostile spirits are believed to be the cause of most physical illness. One of the shaman's major duties is to cure sick Indians, and his status may largely depend on his success in this field, which illustrates his power to control the supernatural. Demons are believed to attack their victims by blowing invisible darts into their bodies, which have to be extracted before they can recover; or, in more severe cases, it is thought that the victim's spirit has been captured and the shaman often leads an expedition to the place where the hostile demon is believed to live, in an attempt to recover the lost soul. An aspect of the supernatural of which the Indians are particularly afraid is witchcraft and while it is unlikely that any one actually practises it, nonetheless it is frequently diagnosed as the cause of an unexpected death. Suspects may be driven from the village or, in extreme cases, executed; and some shamans specialise in revenge magic against witches. The shaman's other skills include achieving revelatory trances by smoking tobacco, which is believed to have mystical powers, and making music to drive off hostile influences: where the supernatural is so closely involved with physical realities, the role of the shaman is inevitably an important one.

Both these priest-figures and the wealthy village leaders play important parts in the many ceremonies which are held throughout the year, the one by performing the rituals, the other by sponsoring them. These ceremonies, which last for several days, are characterised by music and dancing: the Indians possess a range of musical instruments, including flutes and trumpets of various kinds, and drums made from gourds, and both their singing and dancing is often derived from imitating the animals around them. They dress colourfully for festivals, painting their bodies red, white and black, and wearing jewellery, particularly belts, of shell and bone, or glass beads. The men, who have their lobes pierced ceremonially at puberty, wear feathers in their ears, and the wealthier Indians have delicate head-dresses also made of brightly coloured feathers. The motive behind these festivities varies, from a celebration of the harvest, to the trade ceremonies held between two villages, where prized objects are exchanged as gestures of courtesy. For the Indians, the festivals represent a peak of communal enjoyment: they believe that after death all spirits go to a Village of the Dead in the sky, where they spend their time singing and dancing in ceremonies.

The Indian culture is unusual in that it has survived intact until the present day, thanks to both to the isolated terrain of the Xingu, and the strict legal codes which now protect it. While the Indians have inevitably been affected by contemporary civilisation in the last few decades, they have so far been able to integrate modern influences, as they integrate the natural environment, into the resilient structure of their society.