BRAZIL: Interview with Professor Massimo Canevacci- Discussing the Bororo Culture and Tradition (Part One)


South American, Brazilian Bororo woman by Patrick de Wilde/ Photo via

In South America, a Native tribe by the name of Bororo intend on keeping their traditions alive in-spite of the many challenges that afflict their communities. Massimo Canevacci is a Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Digital Arts and Culture in the University of Rome "La Sapienza" in Italy, leads a study on women within the Bororo tribe. In part one of this interview, Canevacci discusses the importance of the Bororos' autonomy and how cultural ideals—religion, way of life and philosophy—should take prevalence over outside influences. Their viability is often threatened by missionaries who wish to “save their souls” and powerful landowners who are attempting to covet their soy crops. Yet sometimes, the biggest predator is the lack of remaining sober.

The fascination with the Bororo life and culture may stem from British archaeologist and explorer Percy Fawcett, born in 1867 who went missing after a return expedition to Brazil. The Bororos were encountered during a search for Fawcett. Renowned French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss who’s been honored by universities throughout the world lived with the Bororo people for some time. Somewhat trailing a similar path of ethnographic research, Professor Massimo Canevacci discovers a new approach. Canevacci’s study could be a pathway to unleashing the key to the human spirit. His passion has led to a new publication regarding ethnographic research on the Bororos and their most integral passage to life - the intricate funeral.

My book is focusing the emerging communicational politics, academic challenge, digital cultures: who has the right to frame and to be framed, to communicate and to be communicated, to represent and to be represented. The dialogical and polyphonic  composition between auto and hetero-representation is an attempt  to elaborate an innovative ethnographic research together with Bororo subjectivities. The presence of Catholic missions inside the aldeias (“native” reserve) is a fundamental political and anthropological  problem since colonial and neo-colonial era: it seems that post-colonial studies still did not penetrate such a question. Finally, the funeral is extraordinary…

Tell us about you and your connection to the Bororo tribe and or tell us why has your research been delegated to this particular subject?

Massimo Canevacci: This is a very good question! The ethnographer subjectivity is part of the research, a reflexive methodology... Since the 1990s, I have dedicated myself to examining issues of polyphonic tension, syncretic dialogue and the communicational conflict between hetero- and self-representation in an attempt to address the confrontation between contemporary anthropology and more traditional methods. Today, the methodological procedures anthropologists have traditionally used to represent the Other – with their alien systems of writing or photography, external logic and questionable authority – have been attenuated, if not completely exhausted. This is due in part to a new critical anthropology that goes beyond the prevailing monologism, and in part to the overarching post-colonial movement, which has created a lasting global cultural-political context, while simultaneously impeding upon the social actualization of the ‘post’ state that has been a long time coming.

Anyway, in early 2005, something unusual happened in Rome: six Bororo came to see me at my department, along with a Brazilian museologist (Aivone, a young woman I had previously advised on her thesis). Meaningful words and gifts were exchanged: they offered me a ritual necklace called a bokodori inogi, with a pendant of two large tatu (armadillo) claws, which were joined end-to-end with black resin, hanging from a red cotton strap. After visiting me, the Bororo went on to Paris, to offer another necklace to this same Lévi-Strauss, the great anthropologist. But  before living, Leonida Akirikurireudo (a woman expert in craftwork) invited me to visit her aldeia of Meruri, where she and her fellow Bororo live in Mato Grosso, and where the same Lévi-Strauss did his famous researches. I took the invitation very seriously. I had taught and researched  in São Paulo for many years and I felt this visit would mark the beginning of a new phase for me.

On 19 August 2005 I departed on the journey of a lifetime to participate in the famed Bororo funeral. I left the airport in São Paulo on a flight for Goiania, where Sergio (a student of mine) was to meet me in an SUV and take me the aldeia (village) of Meruri, 112 km by state road BR 070 towards Cuiabá, in the north of Mato Grosso. It is here that the Bororo live, in their two clearly divided villages: in Meruri, the Bororo dwell in brick and cement homes south of the Salesian mission, while the other village of Garças continues to live through great adversity in their ocas (huts) of wood, mud, and straw. This was to be my third trip to Meruri, and my entire team was already waiting for me at the village. The village lies on the cerrado (savannah), with a pretty conical hill covered in green that sets the backdrop. It is this hill, Meruri, that gives the aldeia its name: in front of the morro (hill) was a beautiful tree that would soon bloom with red flowers. Behind it stood a fence leading into a narrow bridge over a small ditch. Beyond the bridge lay the neat and tidy Salesian mission, which seemed demarcated by a strange, vague border. Beyond the tree, the grass immediately turned patchy and unkempt, and the space led to the Bororo village. At the centre of the village lay the baito, the symbolic men’s house, where the men gather apart from the women, made of brick and topped with sheet metal; the other homes were single family houses of brick and cement.

What is the idea of death and how is it represented? Why is the funeral and it's master of songs so important ?

Massimo Canevacci: The Bororo funeral is more than just an affirmation of the past; it is a re-enactment of the past in the present. The funeral’s newly enacted interpretation of the past is precisely what keeps it alive. It is not the opposite – the past assigning meaning to the present – that makes the funeral. Consequentially, present Bororo pragmatics must be challenged, not the restoration of tradition. The rite serves to facilitate this co-presence of death and life, and perhaps the power of the ritual lies in making visible that which should be explicit in daily life … According to the profound and initiatory tradition of the funeral, all the Bororo dead are present throughout the rite, and perhaps they re-enter that basket and go to be newly buried in the lama, the mud of the river, where the skull remains listening to life, waiting for death to return and make them all live again. And so the feathered skull took the form of an arara. In fact, it was an arara; it had been transformed into something or someone who I approximate with an ‘ancestor’. But this view is imprecise: every dying thing is at the same time living. Perhaps the Bororo are moving towards a philosophical meta-fetishism that challenges and dramatizes every dualism or monism through metamorphoses based on continuous mixtures of past-present-future: the mixing of life-death.

One of the issues that the Bororo tribe is facing is the fight with outsiders and predators who oppose their way of life. How is this struggle taking shape today?

Massimo Canevacci: Predators are both fazendeiros (powerful landowners who are interested to cultivate soya inside their reserve) and Catholic or Protestant missionaries (who are interested to cultivate their soul). Missionaries are more  competitive against fazendeiros. The soul of Bororo culture  (I don’t like tribe too!) - or their religion, philosophy or vision of the world – is more fragile because more “immaterial”. I’m trying to support  their autonomous worldview above all in the religious aspect – which is not separable from the rest of their culture – and without forcing them into a neo-colonialist double bind from which they cannot escape: it seems that there is no solution for the Bororo, between surrendering to the fazendeiro offensive, which strives to ‘modernize’ them through soy cultivation, and accepting the protection of the missionaries, who strive to ‘evangelize’ them by cultivating their souls. Unfortunately, such a struggle has a stronger and invincible enemy: alcohol, in particular cachaça, that is the most powerful instrument against their autonomy and their freedom.

How are the Bororo people dealing with modern-day education?

Massimo Canevacci:  Modern-day education is a complex statement. I made many exchanges with  Felix Rondon Adugoenau, who is  the Bororo coordinator of the “Educação Escolar Indigena” throughout Mato Grosso. His point of view about education (that it is mine too) is the following: first, teachers and students have to study the Bororo history, language, religion (or culture); at the same time, they have to study Brazilian and Western cultures.  It is a double effort. With this aim, the professors should be Bororo men and women. 

Computers are often integrated within the lesson-plans so it is important that every student is in possession of his or her own. Finally, an important reform about university was realized by the President Dilma Rousseff: a Bororo student may enter in a public and private university thanks to a ranking (cotas) for afro-brazilian or indigenous people. Before this act, I knew several Bororo with a degree in biology or anthropology.
What is the economic system like today? How do men and women individually play a role?

Massimo Canevacci:  Today, there are some women that are cacique, i.e. the most important political position in an aldeia (village); many are professors in the local school, yet less are students in university. They are also very skilled in the traditional (and very beautiful) art of feather or handicraft. Handicraft products are finalized for their own ritual and for sale in the cities. Recently, a local cooperative organized a complex system for fish breeding, both to eat or to sell. Traditionally, Bororo system of life was based on hunting (for men) and gathering (for women), through a complex system of nomadic movements. Now all these economic patterns are coexisting and often subordinate to a federal subsistence (bolsa familia). There are some small agriculture initiatives. Some are working outside the aldeia. Also there is some level of alcoholism.

Do you feel that the Bororo Indians are attempting to maintain some of their core values in their modern-day culture ( or how is it changing today?)
Massimo Canevacci: First of all, I used to write the word “native” instead of Indians for its colonial matrix, but also “native” is wrong (more natural, original or even  primitive): finally, so I chose to write simply Bororo Culture... Because the ‘other’ – the “Indian” - has de-nativized him/herself. Than, I'd like to make the same question to you (or to me!), and I can imagine that also our cultures have changed in the last 10-20 years. So, the same is happened in the Bororo culture but with a more complex challenge: the only way to support their culture is to face the mutations. In my researches, this is the core of the question: ´Who represents who?’. I try to focus all the implications of power about a possible answer. I began to take up Marx’s criticism of the division of labour, regardless of the inadequacy of his nineteenth-century writings. The current post-industrial period and its acceleration of digital culture has further ‘divided’ subjects belonging to different cultures and experiences. For example, a division exists between those who communicate and those who are ‘communicated’ and between those who historically have the subjective power of narration and those who are in the lonely state of being narrated objects. This is precisely why a specific linguistic (and political) knot binds ‘those who represent’ to ‘those who are represented’, according to what I call the communicational division of labour. A visual hierarchy of the dominant logic has separated those who have the power to represent the Other from those who should continue to be represented as part of an eternal human panorama. It is politically and ethnographically intolerable that a neo-colonialist media has risen within digital communication, hierarchically dividing those who film from those who are filmed, those who narrate from those who are narrated, those who represent from those who are represented.

The new subjects representing themselves as ‘Others’ have a key advantage: the digital technology they use has a decentred, groundbreaking effect incomparable to analogue technology. Digital technology is easier to use and more affordable; it accelerates communication and decentres ideation, editing and consumption. The communicational division of labour between those who narrate and those who are narrated – between self- and hetero-representation – permeates the emerging contradiction between the digital technology developed in the West and the subjects’ use of this same technology in accordance with their own autonomous worldview. I´d like to stress that only a decentred and autonomous politics of communication and self-representation may resolve the problem of “how to be the same leading our changing process”. I stress that the same concept of identity  may be experienced as multiple and mutant instead of unique  and fixed.



The book, The Line of Dust authored by Massimo Canevacci
The Line of Dust. The Bororo Culture between Tradition, Mutation and Self-representation, in English, Canon Pyon,  Sean Kingston Publ. 2013


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