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The Xavante


The Xavante are perhaps the most famous indigenous group from Brazil, due to their reputation as warlike, acquired after failed attempts of contact by the national society during the 1950s. Until the mid 19th century, the Xavante lived east of the Tocantins river, together with the Xerente, their closest relatives. They were probably not distinguished by then, speaking dialects of the same language. Colonial pressure forced the Xavante, who refused to maintain peaceful contact with brazilians, to move farther and farther west, until they reached their present location west of the Araguaia river.

The Xavante live in permanent villages, only occasionaly transferred, sustained by slash-and-burn farming. This does not mean they are fully sedentary, since hunting and gathering expeditions are common, as among the Kayapó. These expeditions can last up to four months, and many occur during the year, in such a way that each Xavante village controls a huge territory. In fact, it seems that not much of the Xavante diet consists of cultivated plants, meat still playing a crucial role. A village is built in the common Jê pattern, ring shaped, though among the Xavante the ring is not complete, resembling a horseshoe. In the central clean space, the plaza, is located the bachelors hut or men's house. This is the men's gathering place, where boys live after initiation and before marriage.

Xavante village plan. It can be noticed that the houses (brown)
are not disposed in a complete circle, village plan looking
more like a horseshoe. The men's house in the center
of the plaza cannot be seen in this example.
Modified from satellite image (©NASA).

Xavante villages in the Araguaia river basin (red dots)
and approximate territory (roughly 160 km) explored in the course of one
year by hunting and gathering expeditions of one village (yellow circle).
Modified from Maybury-Lewis 1984.

Each house shelters an extended matrilocal family. Residence after marriage is with the wife's relatives. A man is a strange in his new house and owes respect to his father- and brothers-in-law, remaining in a subordinate position until he himself grows old and becomes the head of the house. Though residence is uxorilocal, Xavante society is patrilineal. There is a number of lineages, whose belonging is inherited from the father. These lineages are, in turn, grouped in exogamous clans - poredza'ono, öwawe and topdató. Each clan is identified, during ritual occasions, by a particular pattern of body painting. These are the blood ties of a boy when he is born. However, as he grows, he is initiated in the men's house () by his mother's brother, who also gives him his name (a recurrence among Jê speakers). He thus is assigned to the age class of the young men ('ritei'wa) together with other boys who were initiated in the same period. When he marries he becomes a grown man (ipredu) and moves to his wife's house. The period in the men's house and the institution of the age classes bind together men from different lineages, acting as an integrative device.

A man must marry a woman from a different clan. The Xavante clans, like moieties in other groups, regulate marriage and are, therefore, in agreement with the kinship terminology, which is of the Dravidian type. A person from a different clan (watsire'wa) is called by affinal terms, since all are potential relatives (through marriage). On the other hand, people from the same clan (waniwimhã) are called by consanguineal terms, and marriage in this circle is forbidden. At least among the western Xavante, two of the clans (öwawe and topdató) do not marry, which means that the clans are actually grouped as exogamous moieties. For comparison, it is important to notice that, among the Xerente, each moiety (sdakrã and siptató) comprises four clans, each with an assigned place in the circle of houses. The actual Xavante distinction between "my people" (waniwimhã) and "other people" (watsire'wa) is more complex than in theory, and for a person to be considered waniwimhã, he should not only belong to the same clan as I, but also to the same lineage.The opposition between waniwimhã and watsire'wa is only one of the manifestations of a dual principle that pervades the Xavante society. Even the age classes group as moieties, forming teams during competitions. The three clans also become moieties when it comes to regulate marriage.

A Xavante village has a chief, elected due to his prestige. He is usually the headman of one of the many factions that divide the village through a complicated logic of alliances. Beyond the chief, an elder's council is the only supra-household institution for decision making. Kinship ties are the only relation that links the many villages, each being politically autonomous. In fact, a Xavante village is very unstable, due to the fact that every household is economically independent and free to leave at any moment and join another village. Integrative institutions like the age classes are thus not efficient in maintaining the unity of the village.

Maybury-Lewis, D. (1984) A sociedade Xavante. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves.

See more references at the Bibliografia Macro-Jê Online.

Jonas Gregorio de Souza,
Aug 25, 2009, 12:21 PM
Jonas Gregorio de Souza,
Oct 6, 2009, 2:55 PM