A Sacred Amazon Rainforest Ceremony in Endangered Territory

by Andrew Wright
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Amazon rainforest rite of passage

In the threatened region of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, a significant rite of passage took place. Indigenous adolescents, encircled by a thatched-roof hut, engaged in a continuous dance from dawn till dusk. Along the perimeter, parents observed while some adults indulged in a mixture of tobacco and local tree wood, native to the Amazon.

During the course of six arduous days this month, the procession seemed unending, causing the young Tembé Tenehara participants to suffer from swollen and bandaged feet. With little food and sleeping each night in hammocks within the hut, this challenging experience formed an essential part of their crucial rite of passage known as “Wyra’whaw” within the Alto Rio Guama territory.

The girls involved in this coming-of-age ritual had already experienced their first menstruation, while the boys’ voices had begun to transition into deeper tones. On the final day, the Teko-Haw village would perceive them as women and men, entrusting them with leadership roles to guide the community into an uncertain future.

Sergio Muti Tembé, the leader of the Tembé people in the territory, expressed concern, stating, “We are aware of other Indigenous groups in Brazil that have already lost their culture, traditions, and language. We carry this worry within us.” It is customary for Indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon to adopt their ethnic group’s name as their surname.

Over the past few years, their culture has faced increasing threats. The Alto Rio Guama territory, a 280,000-hectare (1,081-square-mile) area of preserved forest, is surrounded by heavily logged landscapes in the northeastern Amazon and serves as the home for 2,500 individuals belonging to the Tembé, Timbira, and Kaapor ethnicities.

However, the territory has also been occupied by approximately 1,600 non-Indigenous settlers, some of whom have resided there for decades. According to public prosecutors in Para state, many of these invaders engage in logging or marijuana cultivation.

The local Indigenous people have already taken it upon themselves to patrol and expel outsiders. Nonetheless, their limited capacity and authority have left them eager for assistance. Last month, state and federal authorities initiated a plan to address this issue. This operation marks the first step under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to remove landgrabbers, following a previous effort to eliminate illegal gold miners from the Yanomami people’s territory.

According to the prosecutors’ statement detailing the plans, authorities have threatened to forcibly expel settlers who fail to comply, pledging to eradicate access roads and irregular installations. As of Monday, 90% of settlers had voluntarily departed, with the remaining hindered by rain-damaged roads, as reported by Brazil’s presidency general secretariat.

Nilton Tubino, the coordinator of the operation, stated, “The expectation is that, by the end of the week, we can complete the total eviction,” emphasizing the progress made thus far.

Sergio Muti Tembé, the leader, expressed relief, stating that the government’s efforts have come just in time, and his people hold hope that it will ensure the future of their land and customs.

During the penultimate day of the Wyra’whaw ritual, mothers adorned their children’s bodies with the juice of the genipap fruit. Within hours, their skin turned black, completely transforming the girls from head to toe, while the boys displayed intricate designs and an upside-down triangle across the lower half of their faces, resembling a beard.

The following morning, each adorned adolescent received a white headband adorned with dangling feathers. Paired boys and girls locked arms as they joyfully skipped barefoot around the gathered villagers in the center of the circle, symbolizing their final step into adulthood.

Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro. AP writer Mauricio Savarese contributed from Sao Paulo.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Amazon rainforest rite of passage

What is the significance of the rite of passage in the Amazon rainforest?

The rite of passage holds immense importance for the Indigenous adolescents in the Amazon rainforest. It marks their transition into adulthood and signifies the assumption of leadership roles within their community.

How is the Amazon rainforest and its Indigenous people under threat?

The Amazon rainforest and its Indigenous people face various threats, including encroachment by non-Indigenous settlers who engage in activities such as logging and marijuana cultivation. These activities disrupt the ecosystem and jeopardize the cultural heritage of the Indigenous communities.

What measures are being taken to address the threats faced by the Indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest?

State and federal authorities have initiated efforts to remove landgrabbers and protect the territories of Indigenous communities. Plans include the expulsion of settlers who fail to comply and the elimination of access roads and irregular installations. The government aims to safeguard the land and customs of the Indigenous people.

Why is the preservation of Indigenous culture and tradition important?

Preserving Indigenous culture and tradition is vital as it ensures the continuity of unique knowledge, customs, and languages that have evolved over centuries. It contributes to cultural diversity, promotes respect for different ways of life, and maintains the rich heritage of Indigenous communities.

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