Canela man      Video

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The Canela Native Americans of Central Brazil live in grassy, open woodlands with stream-edge forests. They inhabit an area between the wet Amazon basin and the dry Northeast. While most of the Canela's cultural cousins live in the Amazon basin, the waters of the Canela's region flow directly north into the Atlantic. Currently (as of 2002), some 1,300 Canela live in just one large circular village in the center of Maranhão state about 40 miles south of Barra do Corda and about 400 miles southeast of the mouth of the Amazon. The Canela speak Gê, a language family that includes the Timbira peoples, who lived near the Tocantins River as well as across Maranhão state and beyond the Parnaíba River in the center of Piaui state. They inhabited the area mostly between six and eight degrees south latitude.

Maranhão and neighboring states, showing the Canela Region.
The Canela were first contacted indirectly by pioneer military forces around 1700. They survived during the 18th and 19th centuries because no river attracted settlers into their area, and during the 20th century because their territory had no rubber, gold, oil, or brazil nuts to exploit. Their lands are marginal even for cattle and agriculture. They live now on their own federally demarcated reservation in relative security and growing numbers.
The nearest urban community is Barra do Corda, which takes some three hours to reach from the Canela village by way of a winding, jeep-track road. This inaccessibility assures their relative isolation. Nevertheless, their 500 square miles of reservation are completely surrounded by backland farm communities. Before contact the Canela relied far more on hunting and gathering than on settled farming. They put in slash-and-burn gardens in stream-edge forests running one to three miles apart through the closed savannahs (cerrados). Having lost most of their aboriginal lands, they were forced to turn to extensive agriculture. [image]

Barra do Corda, 2001.
Photo by Myles Crocker

The Gê-speakers are well known for their large circular or semi-circular villages, some 200 to 400 yards in diameter. It is estimated that before contact 1,000 to 1,500 people or more lived in each one of these villages. The Gê are outstanding in the professional literature for the great complexity of their social organization. The Canela have five moieties, 12 men's societies, high and low honor ceremonial groups, formal and informal friendship systems, a complicated name transmission system, a Crow-type relationship system, as well as over a dozen festivals. They seldom marry members of other Timbira peoples outside their group/tribe. The Gê are characterized by their dramatic sport of log racing in which two teams compete, with individuals running in relay with logs on their shoulders weighing up to 270 pounds.
Escalvado village from air, 1970.
Photo by Ray Roberts-Brown
Log racing around the village circle, 2001.
Photo by Myles Crocker
Log racing through savannah countryside, 2001.
Photo by Myles Crocker
The Canela were living in what was essentially a pre-contact ecological adaptation up until about 1750. Then indirect contact through other Timbira nations like themselves and direct contact through skirmishes with Brazilian pioneers around 1790 transformed their way of life. After they were decimated in warfare by another Timbira tribe, they surrendered to a Brazilian garrison in 1814 for protection. Thus, some of the aspects of their culture that have to be considered here must come from before the 1750s, such as their food collecting, their annual warfare, and their propensity to share. Other aspects of their ecological adaptation come from after 1840 when they had resettled in peaceful times, such as their forced turning to extensive slash-and-burn agriculture with all of its metal equipment and to their contacts with peasant backlanders and eventually urban dwellers.

Aboriginally, the Canela raised various crops such as bitter and sweet manioc, corn, sweet potatoes, yams, peanuts, squash in small stream-edge gardens cut out of low forests with stone axes and fire. They relied to a far greater extent on hunting and fishing, and on gathering seasonal fruits, nuts, berries, and roots over a large area, possibly about 10,000 square miles. Thus they were psychologically adapted to the mobility of collectors, valuing the tracking of game, racing, and trekking over their vast territory, and had little taste for the more stable aspects of farming such as preparing large fields by slashing thickets, felling trees, burning and cleaning fields, and planting crops. For the Canela, there is something dull and ignominious about the farmer's undramatic, slow, repetitious movements in contrast to the hunter's dramatic and swift reactions to fast-moving events. Men could turn more easily from the dashing skills of warfare to hunting than to farming.

Watering pigs at a farm, 2001.
Photo by Myles Crocker

Man helping wife bring farm produce to their home in the village, 2001.
Photo by Myles Crocker
Around the 1840s, the local ranchers and farmers allowed the Canela to come out from hiding in mountain valleys to settle on a small unoccupied portion of their former lands. Since about 1816, they had been secluded for survival, hiding in small valleys. With the loss of 95 per cent of their aboriginal territory, they were forced by the lack of sufficient land for foraging to turn to extensive slash-and-burn farming in the backland Brazilian manner, using machetes, axes, and hoes. These lands included closed savannahs, dry deciduous woods, and tropical growth-bordered streams and swamps.
In 1938 the first Indian Protection Service family arrived to live adjacent to their village. Gradually the Canela learned to value commercial goods and money and to practice more extensive farming. They learned more about raising chickens and pigs, and sometimes goats, and about caring for horses and mules. However, during the 1970s, they still could not raise cattle because their hunger for meat drove them to kill the calf before it could grow to reproduce. Living for such immediate gratification is more characteristic of food collectors of the savannahs than settled food producers. However, by the 1990s, certain Canela began to raise small numbers of cattle. [image]
Indian Service Post seen from the road to the Canela village, 1978.
Photo by William Crocker
During the 20th century, the attitudes of Canela men have been turning from those needed to hunt tapir, deer, emu, boar, paca, cutia, fox, and other game, to those needed to farm better.
Nevertheless, the Canela have rarely accumulated sufficient surpluses to sell in outside markets because of the small size of their farms, which are from one-third to two-thirds the size of viable backland peasant farms. Fishing was not important because of the small size of the streams in the area occupied by the Canela since 1840.

Increasingly since the 1940s, men have been involved in trade with backlanders for items such as pigs, chickens, oranges, brown sugar blocks, cane alcohol, etc. The six Indian service salaries since the 1940s and the farmers' retirement pensions since the 1970s have brought cash into their economy. Nevertheless, at least since the 1950s, the Canela have relied on extensive support from the government and other agencies, because their farm produce sustains them for only two-thirds of the year or less.
Backlander who has come to sell oranges, 2001.
Photo by Myles Crocker
The Canela in earlier times were outstanding for their generosity of spirit through which they shared most possessions upon request. Not sharing freely was being stingy, which was the same as being evil. This sharing was relatively easy to do, because they had so few and such simple possessions such as bows and arrows and baskets made of plant materials. These days, however, due to the seduction of vast quantities of urban material goods, they have lost much of this compulsion to share. They cannot simply give away to others their items of significant monetary value such as steel axes, cast-iron caldrons, and shotguns. They have developed instead a need to acquire household goods to satisfy a sense of well-being. Before pacification, the Canela ancestors fought annually with other tribes like themselves—other Timbira peoples. Most of these seasonal battles were based on revenge—retaliation. Internally, the Canela focused on peace-making and on problem-solving. Characteristic of this extreme internal focus was the suppression of personal revenge which was believed, along with stinginess, to be evil. [image]
The government recently installed faucets behind nearly every house in the village.
Photo by Myles Crocker

Interpersonal conflicts were and are resolved through meetings of the elders, trials between families, and interventions by ceremonial chiefs. Much individual need for aggression and hostility was dissipated through participation in sports, dancing, and ritually condoned extramarital affairs. Anger and revenge were forgotten by individuals related in certain ways, such as uncles and nieces, engaged in constant joking. The individual was not allowed to sit and mope introspectively, but was cajoled into joining group activities and into entering into the fun of the moment. An individual lived more for the good of the society through the available social activities than for self-gratification. Thus, moping was as much of an evil as revenge and stinginess.

The society was run by orders from the chief, the elders, and the group leaders. Family leaders gave orders to their kin. The society was also run by the precedents set by custom for almost every individual act. To do something according to one's own imagination, judgment, or initiative was considered evil, along with stinginess, revenge, and introspection. Times have changed due to the extensive Canela interaction with Brazilians, missionaries, and anthropologists. The great influx of government money in the form of pensions, school stipends, child support, and also government salaries for Indian service agents, nurses, and school teachers has changed Canela society. Individuals want to be paid in cash before they will do almost anything. They won't even follow many traditional orders unless money is provided. Today the Canela are caught between following ancient custom and constructing a new set of customs in which most things will be done for pay. With new emphasis on education, however, I believe that the Canela will find their way into a social future that is gratifying for the individual.

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