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In the beginning, the Canela and other Timbira tribes were semi-nomads. Then the Brazilians came, took over three-fourths of Indian lands, brought deadly smallpox, and tended to shoot Indians on sight or take them into slavery, even in violation of treaties that they had signed. Infighting among tribes also hurt the Indians. In 1814 the Canela surrendered to the Brazilians. When settlers tried to infect them with smallpox, they began to steal cattle from the settlers. They eventually went into hiding in the hills.

By the 1840s, they gained their own land on the Santo Estevao Stream, and Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II, whom the Canela believed was an incarnation of the culture hero Awkhêê, declared a ceasefire. In return for having the shotgun and being "superior" in the eyes of the Canela, the Brazilian "backlanders" would have to give the Canela what they asked for. At first, the Canela measured a backlander's worth directly by generosity, holding a grudge against the poorer backlanders, but over a century later, they would realize that the backlanders needed to keep some of their produce to survive, soon after the handouts ceased in the mid-1950s. However, unlike the Dinka with their cattle, the Canela never considered themselves "slaves" to the backlanders.

Their limited form of slash and burn agriculture forced them to move their village from place to place every decade or so.

Between the 1860s and the 1890s, the Canela began to respect their roles with regard to the Brazilians. But once Emperor Dom Pedro II died in 1889 and Brazil became a republic, members followed either of two chiefs: the older engineer Colonel Tomasinho and the younger businessman Major Delfino. (No connection to Super Mario Sunshine.) Those chiefs helped reclaim the Canela's right to travel, which had died with the emperor.

In 1900, the Fox people joined the Canela, performing a ceremony called "tired deer" that symbolized a return of weary travelers to their home. Sexual intercourse greased relations between the Fox and the Canela, just as it tends to within the community. Because only ten percent of the women (those without children) engage in sex ceremonies, each woman does it with several men sequentially.

An execution of a convicted witch in 1903 created a schism in the tribe, with some following Delfino, who was distantly related to the witch, and the rest following Tomasinho. This continued until shortly after Tomasinho's death in 1911; after about 50 Brazilian cowboys shot and killed 50 Kenkateye men in 1913, sending the Canela into temporary hiding in the woods, Delfino reunited the tribe.

But later in the 1910s, the younger generation realized that its military training was useless because there was nobody left to fight in the more stable world, and the elders began to lose some of their power. Then the "group marriage" ceremony, which had taken place every 10 years and created the "age classes", ceased because in both 1913 and 1923, the leader of the age class had a wife with an advanced pregnancy. Young men also began to have sex with young women rather than older women, partly because of the lack of military training and partly because between 1910 and 1940, the Canela stopped their public punishment ceremony, which involved pulling the guilty party by the hair and peeling back the foreskin of the penis, because the visiting Indian Service agents disapproved of the "barbarity". During that time, and for the same reasons, the women stopped having traditional sequential sex with the men of the opposite age class.

In 1956, Brazil's Indian Service turned its back on Awkhêê's social contract and halted the handouts it had been giving to the Canela. However, it did build a new bridge in the region where the Canela lived, which brought trade.

The Canela began to wear some basic clothes in the 1950s. At first, the elders would remove their clothes when going into the plaza for a meeting, exactly the opposite of what the Dinka had done (go naked except in ceremonies). But by 1960, they sometimes dressed in full Brazilian backland styles and were adopting other aspects of backland culture.

The Canela had a crop surplus in 1962 because the younger Thunder had negotiated a work contract with nearby farmers and ranchers. But rising expectations uncovered deeper problems, as a messianic cult sprang up in which a woman's unborn child pretty much ruled everything. The woman, named Maria, usurped the elders' power, in effect becoming the queen, encouraged stealing cattle from ranchers, and even turned traditional ceremonies into punishments. But at the end, instead of a promised messiah girl, Maria gave birth to a deformed, stillborn boy. A new prophecy held the Canela over until July 7, 1963, when some ranchers attacked the Canela. Only five died.

Soon afterward, the ranchers might have hunted the "unproductive" Canela to extinction were it not for the presence of the mayor, who relocated the Canela to the forests of Sardinha. The author actually stepped in to stop the cult from forming anew in the new location: he persuaded the Indian Service to take Maria rather than the younger Thunder. But in Sardinha, the Canela starved because they could not adapt to the different hunting methods needed in the forest, even though the forest was still less harsh than the home of the Dinka. But the younger Thunder again prevented starvation by leading the younger age class to figure out how to grow food and to make trinkets for the visiting tourists. By 1968, when the Canela returned to the savannah, nudity began to pass out of fashion.

Some Canela men who had emigrated during hard times in Sardinha returned, bringing urban culture with them. The Canela land became a government reservation. Missionaries brought literacy and Bibles. Some people began to keep diaries, which improved their critical thinking skills; translating their diaries into Portuguese helped them think from the outsiders' perspective. In the end, the Canela started some moderate political activism.

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