After residing with the members of the indigenous tribe Tenondé Porã, located in the far South of São Paulo city, we realized that the vital information gathered certified us of beautiful and sustainable aspects within this community: true elements of genuine and timeless indigenous culture.
Following the philosophy of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy, in which chiefs must consider the impacts of every action taken for seven generations ahead, the Brazilian indigenous tribes have been fighting from one generation to another to keep their language and customs alive whilst living amongst colonized ‘white’ civilization.
Long before the arrival of the Portuguese, in 1500, the first inhabitants of Brazil lived in aldeias (villages), deep within the ancient forests, spread across the four edges of the country. It is suggested that in the 16th century, the whole territory was occupied by up to 4 million aboriginals belonging to over 1,000 separate indigenous tribes.
According to the anthropologist and writer, Darcy Ribeiro (1957), during the first half of the 20th century, the indigenous population was estimated to be around 200,000 people. With a quick mathematical calculation, one realizes that in only 4 centuries the native Brazilians had suffered a decline of 95%. Today, this figure is changing. Studies unveil that since the start of the 21st century most indigenous tribes are growing at a rate of about 3,5% per year.
Anthropologists, Demographers and Health Care professionals question if the rise in population is a result of indigenous people living within demarked territories, having better access to medical assistance and keeping a higher percentage of fertility, or whether it is in fact a conscious demographic recovery.
Philosophy in practice
Despite speculation, there is still time for the Brazilian indigenous communities to put their Northern American comrades’ philosophy into practice. Tenondé Porã, one of the three Guarani tribes located in São Paulo city, has been following a similar ethic. In order for EarthCode to enter and document their rich culture, multiple telephone and e-mail conversations were exchanged. After an initial visit and long talk with a tribal ambassador, a period of stay was finally organized for us.
Backpacks packed, equipment tested and a lift arranged. We arrived! But it was not to be as simple as it seemed. Our honesty, integrity and intention all had to be proven during two long hours of eye-to-eye meeting with the Cacique(Chief) Timóteo Verá Popyguá and two other leaders of the tribe.
When the talk was over, the day had already given way to night and, even though it was still unknown if we could stay longer, accommodation was provided for us in an empty village house for that first night. It would not be until the next morning that we would be given the final approval to explore the local culture more.
We woke up at the crack of dawn with the chortling of the roosters. After composing and printing out a contract document stating our intention, we were ready to present ourselves to the Cacique again. The paperwork was contemplated and signed by us all and our passport into the daily life of the community was metaphorically stamped and granted.
Tenondé Porã is the largest indigenous tribe of Guarani ethnicity in São Paulo city. The community was formed around 1930 by a group of 6 families. After 1960, more family members started to arrive from various regions inside and outside Brazil. The current cacique is an example of this migration. Mr Verá Popyguá arrived from Paraná (South Brazil), in 1983, to live in an area that would be demarked and homologated just a few years later, in 1987. Today the aldeia has about 120 families sharing a space of 26ha with a population of 700.
On a rainy afternoon, near the end of our stay, the Cacique Timóteo sat down with us to explain more about the Guarani culture, diffused between Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay. “Traditionally, the Guaranis didn’t have chiefs to govern their tribes. Our leaders have always been the Pajés (shamans). They are our spiritual guides and counselors”.
He explained to us that the term cacique was coined in order to name the person in charge of representing the tribe outside its borders, to the Jeruas, literally meaning ‘mouth with hair’ – making reference to the mustache and beard of the European conquerors. Today Jerua is a generic reference to any non-indigenous person (Ladeira, 1992).
As the cacique of Tenondé Porã, Timóteo’s biggest role within the community is to make sure that the rights of its citizens are respected. He also says that being a representative is an opportunity to act as a voice for their culture and traditions to be correctly understood.
“Culture is what we cultivate. The Guaranis have a millenary knowledge. Our wisdom, as well as our customs and language, have been passed on by our relatives from generation to generation”.
Jaguars, toucans, coatis…
During our stay at the aldeia, the house we were offered on the first night became our home for the following week. With a wood fireplace and simple furnishings, we found ourselves comfortable and self-sufficient, cooking our own meals and happily entertaining visitors with our warm hearth and fresh coffee.
We resided beside a beautiful family who keep many of these traditions alive, instantly noticed by us. Our neighbors were a loving couple and their two children – a smiley girl of 5 and an enchanting boy of 2. The father, Isac, is a timber craftsman and showed us that the art of carving wild animals was in his blood. The proof was clear as we closely followed his skilled work as he metamorphosed pieces of tree-trunk into incredible jaguars, toucans, owls and coatis, to name a few.
Our door was always open, and our new friend, his children and many others who would join us by our fire, visited us regularly. Often the kids would come from school, telling us of their day and questioning us of our western ways.
At Tenondé Porã, children between 1 and 6 years old are taught by villagers – speaking only the Guarani Mbya
language, learning about their traditions, culture and the world around them. After their 7th birthday, combined with their cultural teachings, they also learn Brazilian Portuguese and have external teachers coming to educate them in a more conventional schooling method. In this way the children receive a blended education giving priority to their own teachings and philosophy.
As well as a traditional midwife facility and a modern medical clinic, the educational centre is located at the heart of thealdeia. The mothers are welcome to participate in the school’s activities, including: singing, dancing, story-telling, along with spending time visiting the local Mata Atlântica to study the forests diversity and significance, amongst many other studies.
Whilst visiting the school, we organized to return in the evening in order to share our views about sustainability with the older teenagers, together with the values, mission and vision of our project. But for the time being we needed to be introduced to the other features of the tribal grounds. We were led across the land by Lísio Lima – one of the leaders of the community. Lísio had been the ambassador we spoke to on our initial visit and was also present with us at the two-hour conversation with the Cacique upon our arrival. He himself is a talented craftsman, making many types of jewelry and artifacts, which he uses to promote cultural awareness whilst presenting talks and lectures at conferences and fairs all over the country.
During this walk and talk we got a real feel for the land and found many positive footprints upon it. Upon our return, Lísio arranged for us to be guided through the dense local jungle on a bush walk with Paulinho, the vice-cacique of the aldeia. So, we prepared ourselves for an adventure the following day.
Closer to nature
Paulinho showed us the diversity of the Mata Atlântica: fauna, flora and its cultural relevance, realized by the local vegetation. Amongst bromeliads and exotics insects, a highlight of the expedition was our arrival at a puzzled bridge, constructed with light logs perched on forked branches built without nails or bindings. They use the passage to cross the depths of a reed filled dam called ‘Billings’, which they fish from an elevated platform amongst the frog calls.
Back on the track, we were able to see many animal traps specially designed to catch tatu, the Brazilian Three-banded-Armadillo. We saw hundreds of holes made by them but unluckily for us, none were on display that afternoon! The clean brooks cutting through the valleys glistened with the purest of water, beckoning us to stop here and there to savor the sweet water and sample the natural soundscapes.
Paulinho wisely taught us much about the forest, and just as much about the way of life and importance of the relationship between the community and its habitat, history and practices.
House of prayer
Once we got back to the community centre, it was already time to cook our dinner before preparing ourselves for the evening. Every night of our stay at the aldeia we took part in perhaps the most culturally alive aspect of village life: an extensive ceremony with a large spiritual family who warmly ‘adopted’ us.
On our first night at the casa de reza (house of prayer), where the nightly ritual takes place, the pajé Papa shed tears when mentioning the dream he had about some people coming to stay with them for a certain period of time to understand more about their culture and traditions. We humbly accepted our role as temporary residents and spoke at length to the congregation about our joy with being there.
There are things that happen in a place that words cannot describe and only those who are present can truly understand. These nights, spent clouded by thick tobacco smoke and surrounded by devotion and ceremony, are something we will never forget and have embedded in our mind an understanding of Guarani culture that is as alive as the blood flowing through its peoples veins.