The Canela (Eastern Timbira), I: An Ethnographic Introduction.
By William H.Crocker
Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology,
Number 33, 487 pages, 11 tables, 51 figures, 78 plates, 1990.

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This is a book about a remarkable people. It is a detailed study of the Canela Indians, also known as the Ramkokamekra (Ramcocamecra), in central Maranhão state in northeastern Brazil. It also contains comparative data on the Apanyekra, a closely related tribe living nearby having a very similar language and known as one of the Canela tribes. Both the Canela proper and the Apanyekra, as well as the nearby Krahó, speak languages of the Eastern Timbira branch of the Gê family. The Canela are related linguistically and culturally to more distant Gê-speaking peoples, such as the Sherente, Shavante, Apinayé, and Kayapó, who live south and west in central Brazil, as well as to the Kaingang and Shokleng of southern Brazil. These Gê tribes traditionally live on the bush country of the Brazilian plateau beyond the tropical forest. When I first began to study South American ethnology in the mid-1930s, these tribes were often called Tapuya (the name for “enemy” among the coastal Tupinambá) and were depicted as simple nomadic hunters distinct from the Carib, Arawak, and Tupi tribes of the Amazonian forest.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, our picture of these Gê tribes changed radically with the publication of the studies by the German-Brazilian Curt Nimuendajú. From his studies of the Apinayé (1939), Sherente (1942), and Eastern Timbira (Canela) (1946), the Gê lacked pottery, hammocks, tobacco, alcohol, canoes, and wore no clothing; their domestic dwellings were simple compared to tropical forest peoples. They depended marginally on horticulture in the narrow strips of forest along the rivers and streams but mainly on hunting and gathering in the bush country (the cerrado). However, Nimuendajú’s studies showed them to be societies with exceedingly complex social systems and a very elaborate ceremonial life. In aboriginal times, their villages were surprisingly large when compared to those of the tropical forest peoples. They were an anomaly in lowland South American ethnography. They were similar in many ways to the marginal cultures of the southern pampas and Tierra del Fuego, but they were more complex in social structure and ceremonial life than the people of the Amazonian tropical forest. This apparent contradiction was hardly resolved by the “Handbook of South American Indians” (Steward, 1946), which assigned them to Volume One along with the Marginal Tribes of the extreme southern part of the hemisphere. Others attempted to explain their technological simplicity and their ideological and sociological complexity as “degenerate remnants” of highland South American civilizations. At least one leading anthropologist spoke of a “play impulse” in human culture as the basis for their complex social institutions.

Curt Nimuendajú was not an academically trained anthropologist. He was born in Germany in 1883 as Curt Unkel. Little is known about his formal education or how he was attracted to the study of South American Indians. In 1903, at 20 years of age, he came to Brazil, and by 1905 he was living among the Guaraní Indians of southern Brazil. His first two publications on the Guaraní in 1914 and 1915 were signed Curt Nimuendajú Unkel but afterwards he dropped his German surname and adopted his Guaraní name Nimuendajú, legally and in all his subsequent publications. In 1910, he became an employee of the newly created Indian service, the SPI or Indian Protection Service, which made use of his thorough knowledge of the Indians of southern Brazil. In 1913 he moved his headquarters to Belém, where he was rather informally connected with the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. For many years, he supported himself by occasional missions for the Brazilian Indian services and by making ethnographic collections for European museums. In the early 1930s, he entered into correspondence with Professor Robert E. Lowie of the University of California at Berkeley. Lowie became his scientific advisor, his translator from German into English, and his editor. Lowie seems to have found some limited financial support for Nimuendajú and his work from the Carnegie Institution of Washington and from the University of California. It was this relationship with Lowie that explains the appearance of Nimuendajú’s studies of the Gê tribes in English rather than German or Portuguese.

Nimuendajú was an indefatigable field worker in sociocultural anthropology. According to Herbert Baldus there was not a year between 1905 and 1942 that he did not undertake fieldwork of some kind with Brazilian Indians (American Anthropologist, 1946(48):238–243). In fact, he seems to have been more at home among tribal peoples than in Brazilian society. By 1930–1940 his work was focused on the Gê-speaking peoples, particularly the Ramkokamekra or Canela. His reports were detailed and generally sound ethnographic reporting. Yet his studies left many questions in the minds of anthropologists.

In the mid-1950s, two young anthropologists, David Maybury-Lewis and William Crocker, took up Nimuendajú’s work among the Gê tribes. Maybury-Lewis, now Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University, did research among the Sherente in 1955–1956 and then among the closely related Shavante in 1958 (cf. Maybury-Lewis, 1965 and 1967). Later, the Harvard Central-Brazil Project was organized under his leadership. In the 1960s his students (and Brazilian colleagues) carried out field research among the Kayapó (Joan Bamberger and Terence Turner), Apinayé (Roberto Da Matta), Krahó (Júlio Cezar Melatti), Krïkatí (Jean Carter Lave and Dolores Newton), Bororo (Christopher Crocker), and Nambikuara (Cecil Cook). This research has resulted in many articles and monographs as well as one comparative volume “Dialectical Societies” (Maybury-Lewis, 1979). From this research by the group of the Harvard Central-Brazil Project, we have learned much about the Gê-speaking tribes, particularly about their intricate social structure.

The other anthropologist who took up Curt Nimuendajú’s study of the Gê, William Crocker, now on the staff of the Smithsonian Institution, began his research in 1957. His approach differed fundamentally from the Harvard group. Crocker’s research focused upon a Gê tribe, namely the Canela of the Eastern Timbira branch. The Canela had been the subject of Nimuendajú’s most detailed and lengthy monograph and the group to which Nimuendajú had devoted the most time in field research. Although William Crocker has met with the Harvard group and has followed their work closely, his research has been an individual undertaking.

Between 1957 and 1979, Crocker visited the Canela 10 times and logged 64 months of field research. In fact, William Crocker has devoted practically his whole professional life, in addition to his curatorial duties, to the study of the Canela (and marginally to the related Apanyekra). In addition, he has maintained almost daily contact with the Canela from a distance. In 1964, three Canela men who knew Portuguese wrote daily diaries and in 1970, two of them dictated daily activities and news of the Canela onto cassette tapes. In 1978, a woman was added to the group of correspondents. By 1979, twelve Canela were corresponding with Crocker in the Gê language and in Portuguese. A total of 78,400 pages of manuscript has been collected by William Crocker from his correspondence with Canela individuals. This continuous monitoring of Canela society, added to his long term field research in residence, must be among the most intensive long term projects undertaken by any contemporary social anthropologist.

William Crocker’s time in the field exceeds that of any of the cases included in “Long-Term Field Research in Social Anthropology” (Foster et al., 1979:12). Here, only Alfonso Villa Rojas reports more (100 months) among various Maya villages in Yucatan and Chiapas; but Villa Rojas divided his 45 years between Chan Kom and Quintana Roo in Yucatan and many other years in Chiapas. Only George Foster reports more years (31+ years) for one person devoted to one village (Tzintzuntzan).

In addition to his many months of resident research and his continuous correspondence directly with Canela informants, Crocker made use of a field technique of considerable originality. First, he refuses to use the traditional term “informants” for the natives who instructed and taught the field worker. Throughout this book he uses the term “research assistants.” He does so out of respect for them and to avoid the negative implications of that term in the English context. Furthermore, he turned his Canela assistants into a panel, which often met face to face when he was in residence in the Canela village. During such meetings Crocker posed questions around problems regarding Canela social structure, ceremonialism, and ideology. His panel of assistants did not always agree and there was lively discussion, which he recorded on tape. Such discussions helped the field anthropologist to delve deeply into the past of the Canela culture and society; they also made clear that different individuals viewed their culture in different ways. Seldom have I read a book about a nonliterate people that spelled out in such detail how such a study was done. Taken as a study in field method alone William Crocker’s book is an important contribution to social anthropology.

Of course, the importance of this book is the substance. Crocker selected the Canela for study because Curt Nimuendajú had written his most detailed and comprehensive monograph about them. Nimuendajú’s monograph, based on research in the 1930s, provided him a baseline for a study in acculturation after 20 years. Thus, Crocker’s original motivation for studying the Canela was to calculate culture change. The present study does more than present two cross-sections in time of a society: between 1929–1936 (Nimuendajú) and 1957–1979 (Crocker). Crocker has, with the help of Nimuendajú’s data, written a diachronic history of the Canela from circa 1930 to 1979. Specific changes and directions of change in Canela society and culture are constantly described and discussed in this monograph. For no other lowland group do we have such detailed data on culture change over a half century as we have from the observations of these two highly perceptive ethnographers.

On reading William Crocker’s manuscript, however, I was constantly impressed with the strength of Canela society to maintain its distinctive, indigenous way of life in the face of what seem to be overwhelming odds. Since their first contacts with western man in the 18th and early 19th century, the Canela have experienced epidemics of imported disease, participated in local wars, suffered from attacks of local ranchers, and survived the disruption of their rather sensitive ecological adjustment. The encroachment of cattle ranchers with their herds into the cerrado country reduced the available game on which the Canela depended. Cattle invaded their small gardens situated in the narrow strips of forest along the banks of streams. After an attack by backland ranchers the Canela were transferred out of their beloved bush country to the dry forest of the Guajajara-Tenetehara Indian reservation. They did not adjust “ecologically or psychologically,” and after three years they were allowed to return to the cerrado country where they still live. Despite these events (and many others over two centuries) the Canela have maintained their social institutions, most of their ceremonial life, and above all a strong sense of tribal identity.

This is particularly striking to me, for in 1941–1942 I did research among the neighboring Tupi-speaking Guajajara-Tenetehara (Wagley and Galvão, 1949). The Guajajara-Tenetehara, although clearly Indians speaking their native tongue and maintaining many indigenous customs and a few festivals, were in many ways almost indistinguishable from the local backwoods men. They wore western clothes, made large swidden gardens cut out of the forests, lived in individual family dwellings, and collected copaiba oil and babaçu palm nuts for sale. In contrast the Canela men in their village were nude and women wore only wrap-around skirts; Canela men wore their hair long in their characteristic style and most had large ear-plugs; the Canela village was laid out in its great circle around a plaza; and the Canela seemed constantly to be either celebrating a ceremonial in the village plaza and/or participating in their “national sport,” relay foot-racing, carrying enormous logs.

This monograph answers for me the query as to why the Canela have been so resistant to fundamental change in contrast to the Guajajara-Tenetehara. The social structure of the Guajajara-Tenetehara is relatively unstructured and malleable. There are no institutions that cut across or extend beyond each village-that is, no age-sets, ceremonial associations, nor lines of political authority. Among the Guajajara-Tenetehara the basic social and political institution is the extended family or at best a matrilineal kindred. Although villages often have a chieftain, he is either appointed by the Indian service or recognized as such by outsiders. Real authority lies with the leaders of the various extended families or kindreds. Thus, as villages grow and nearby forest becomes scarce for gardens, Guajajara-Tenetehara villages divide like amoeba. Such amorphous social systems are conducive to factionalism, competition, and lack of cooperation.

In contrast, Canela society is characterized by a plethora of cross-cutting associations and formal relationships that assure maintenance of a village as a unit. In addition to kinship units that live on different sides of the circular village and govern marriage, the Canela are divided into a series of moieties and ceremonial associations. There are the Upper and Lower plaza group moieties, which are further divided into three plaza groups to which men become members by inherited personal names; and the Red and Black Regeneration moieties, which function during the rainy season. Then, there are the age-set moieties of all males divided into classes with membership spanning 10 years. In addition, there are numerous social groups charged with specific festivals. Each group has a varied cast. The complexity of these numerous and interlocking groups and the special relationships of Formal Friends are discussed most adequately by William Crocker. But the reader comes away with the conclusion that to provide sufficient membership for all of these associations to function a village needs to be relatively large (e.g., 500), that is, large for any lowland South American group. History indicates that Canela villages were around 1000 or more in pre-contact times but they were reduced for a time to 300 or 400 people. Furthermore, despite all of the built-in forces in their social system that should guarantee tribal unity, Crocker reports the recent break up of the large village into smaller farm settlements, though the existence of the large village continues for festivals and tribal meetings. One can only account for the remarkable continuity of Canela culture and the strength of tribal ideology by the complex structure of their social system.

In the present monograph, Crocker presents a picture of the functional importance of the various institutions to promote internal harmony. It would seem almost impossible for factions to grow in Canela society. An individual is a member of any one of a dozen kinship units that occupy houses around the village plaza. At marriage a man moves to the dwelling of the wife but he retains important relationships in his natal kin group (e.g., sisters and sisters’ sons). His loyalty is already divided between his natal household and the household of his spouse. But then he belongs to a Red or Black moiety, an age-set moiety, a plaza moiety and one or more ceremonial associations. In each of these groups his associates may be entirely different people. Furthermore, he is tied strongly to specific individuals, such as Formal Friends and those who provided him with his set of names. Thus group loyalties are diffuse and none of these groups provide the basis for factions to take form.

It is not surprising that Crocker describes the Canela as nonaggressive, noncompetitive, and anxious to avoid internal conflict. Even the log races between the various associations seem to be basically noncompetitive. Sexual jealously of spouses is frowned upon and numerous institutionalized occasions for extramarital sex are provided by the society. An expectant mother names publicly the “co-fathers” of her child, that is, the men who have contributed semen to her pregnancy. Yet divorce is made difficult by interfamilial payments and is rare while children are being raised. Then it must come before the judgment of the chief and the council of elders. Still Crocker hypothesizes that in pre-contact times, the Canela were a very war-like people. Thus, their internal cohesion can be translated into external aggression. In fact, they participated in the regional Balaiada battles of the Cabanagem rebellion, after the Independence of Brazil (1839–1840), in the fight against the Gamella Indians in 1850, and in the suppressing (with the Brazilians) of the uprising of the Tenetehara-Guajajara in 1901. Crocker sees the Canela in pre-contact times as almost as war-like as the Kayapó and Shavante were.

This monograph is not only a study of institutions and ceremonies. It is above all a chronicle of a people and their reaction to the institutions of their society. William Crocker is a most sensitive and sympathetic field researcher and a keen observer. Throughout his present book he cites individual cases he has known during two generations. He provides us with rather detailed biographies of his principal Canela assistants. When I read Curt Nimuendajú’s rather formal monograph on the Canela, I kept wondering how an individual would react to the multiple groups and obligations of Canela society. Crocker provides the answer by citing the cases of individuals. In his wealth of information, Crocker has put human flesh and muscle on the bones of Canela social structure.

With the publication of this monograph, the Canela become one of the best known aboriginal societies of lowland South America. If Crocker does provide us with the additional monographs in his planned series, the Canela will become one of the best known cultures of the so-called primitive world. If Curt Nimuendajú were alive, I am sure that he would join me in congratulating both the Canela Indians and William Crocker on the publication of this monograph.

Charles Wagley

Graduate Research Professor

Emeritus of Anthropology

University of Florida

Gainesville, Florida, 1987

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