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Who are the Kayapó?

The Kayapó are an indigenous group in Brazil that can be found in Mato Grosso, Pará and Xingu park. In 2003 there were over 7000 Kayapó indians living in over 17 dispersed villages, each trying to safeguard their borders. They have obtained the world’s attention by fiercly protecting their lands from intruders, as well as, by working with celebrities, such as Sting, to gain support in their mission to secure their lands. Their publicized struggle to prevent their lands from being invaded by loggers and miners resulted in the development of organizations such as the Rainforest Foundation. To date the Kayapó have managed to secure over 13 million hectares of land, the largest area of protected rainforest in the world.

The moniker “Kayapó” is not the term the people have called themselves, but rather, was given to them by neighboring tribes at the turn of the 19th century. “Kayapó” refers to a ritual dance they perform in which men wear the head of a monkey and translates to “those who look like monkeys.” Their self-ascribed name is “Mebêngôkre,” and means “the men from the water/hole place.”

Women largely work in the swidden patches, cook meals and process plants in Kayapó villages whereas men take on the roles of hunter, fisher and maker of things. While the women primarily spend their time in the village when not in the swidden patches, the men are largely in the forest hunting. Providing meat for the family is a large responsibility as very few families go more than a day without having eaten some form of meat. Some rituals require a great quantity of meat, specifically turtle meat (which is easier to keep in the humid environment because turtles can go longer without food and water than most animals), and so men may be in the forest for weeks at a time accumulating enough turtles to bring back to the village.

The villages of the Kayapó are formed in a circular pattern with the men’s hut, known as an ngope, being at the center. This men’s hut is where daily meetings are held among the men’s associations and is the symbolic heart of the village. It is said that this circular formation is representative of the circular formation of the beehive, demonstrating the symbolic relationship between the Kayapó and their surrounding environment.

Body painting

One of the most prominent cultural expressions among the Kayapó is that of body painting. The designs adorning various body parts go beyond just the decorative element, they convey familial ties, age, gender, marital status and more as expressive symbols; an element common in many indigenous societies. The paint is mixed from plant material; immature jenipapo fruit produces the black color and ground urucum seeds produce the powder that creates the red. Largely the black is used when decorating the body and the red appears in facial designs.

The designs are applied using both hands and applicators. For thick lines the hands and fingers are used and for thinner lines in more intricate designs very thin reeds are employed to apply the paint. Much like henna, it takes time for the stain to darken once applied to the skin. The sooner it is wiped off the less opaque the image will appear. The Kayapó are skilled artisans in body decoration and create amazingly symmetric designs without tracing a pattern. The staining caused by the paint usually lasts up to a week and must be reapplied.

Women get together every 10 days to aid in the reapplication of each other’s designs and mothers are generally responsible for the application and maintenance of their children’s designs. When Kayapó children are born they are not considered Kayapó until they are first adorned with paint. Immediately upon giving birth the mother will take her newborn to the river, cleanse it and then apply a dot of paint to the child. In this case the ritual application of paint to the body is not only a social indicator of age, gender, etc. but is a sign of individuality and identity.

When a group of women gets together to paint one another they sometimes apply the same designs. It is possible to see several uniformly painted women walking side by side after such an occurrence. A trend in design motifs in women has been observed. Broad oblique bands stretching from the shoulders to mid-calf and broad diagonal lines going from the shoulder to the opposite hip are two such designs. Because such broad designs are applied by hand it is standard to see the Kayapó with black stains on their hands. Once young boys have reached adolescence they no longer rely on their mother to apply their body paint. This change in behavior is indicative of their transition toward manhood and their eventual joining of the men in the ngope. Men, along with adolescent boys, generally apply their own paint.

Paint is not just seen as a decorative element or a social clue, however, but is also used as a magical or healing element as well. Hunting dogs are often painted with a mixture of urucum paste and ground ants, of the stinging variety, because it is believed this will keep them on task. The “determination” of the stinging ant will be absorbed by the dog through the paint. As a healing element body paint is applied mixed with plant ash, charcoals, masticated green fruits or medicinal plants. The red body paint is even seen as protection against evil spirits.

There are many individual designs that make up the composite body decoration on any given Kayapó. There are designs that are specifically relegated to the face, sometimes even more specifically designated as “cheek designs.” There are designs that decorate the circumference of the scalp at the edge of the hairline and there are designs for the torso, arms and legs. Women’s torso designs seem to have a “v-neck” similar to a shirt, more so than men’s designs making them easily recognizable.

The significance of the designs, their names and who wears them becomes clear when you look at different aspects of Kayapó culture. An example of this is the ant design that many Kayapó women wear on their face. Why do women wear the design of a biting insect on their face, and why do they sometimes mix this insect into the red paint when applying it? These questions are answered when the importance of the insect is revealed in their myths.

The myth:
“The trail of the fire ants are long. They are ferocious like men. But the little red ant of our fields is gentle like women; they are not aggressive. Their trails meander like the bean vines on the maize. The little red ant is the relative/friend of the manioc…The little red ant is the guardian of our fields and is our relative/friend.” (Posey, 2002)

In examining the myth surrounding ‘why women wear the ant on their face’ we learn that the mixing of the red ant into the red paint is symbolic and the use of it on the women’s face is reflective of its importance to the culture. As the caretakers of the swidden patches the women are seen as “cultivators of Kayapó culture.” The ant is their friend, then, because it keeps the bean vines from overtaking the manioc plant by chewing through the vines to get at the nectar of the manioc. Relationships between the Kayapó and the environment are not only evident in their myths, then, but also in the very paint they wear on their bodies.

Kayapó body painting is more than “primitive” clothing. It is a tool for communication, advising others of age, gender, marital status and familial ties; it is a vehicle for healing and magic used to apply topical treatments and impart behavioral and spiritual guidance; it is a symbolic art form representative of their culture and environment and heightened by their mastery of technique and control of form; and, it is a form of expression conveying the individuality of each member of Kayapó villages. Without body paint a Kayapó is not a Kayapó.

Boas, Franz 1955 Primitive Art. Dover Publications: New York.

Center for Latin American Studies 2004 Children of the Amazon. University of California, Berkeley. Electronic document. http://www.clas.berkeley.edu:7001/Gallery/zmekhol/page2.html. Accessed December 10, 2005.

Dreyfus, Simone 1963 Les Kayapo Du Nord: État de para-Brésil. Mouton & Co: Paris.

Instituto Socioambiental 2005 Encyclopedia of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil. Electronic document, http://www.socioambiental.org/website/pib/epienglish/kayapo/kayapo.shtm. Accessed December 10, 2005.

San Vitale Cultural Center, 2003 Mostra: Kayapo. Electronic document, http://www.nonsolonoi.e-cremona.it/kayapo/index.htm. Accessed December 10, 2005.

Posey, Darrell A. 2002 Kayapó Ethnoecology and Culture. Routledge: London.

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