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


Bororo girl (Photo courtesy of Massimo Canevacci)


In Part Two of this interview series with Professor Massimo Canevacci and Flavia Kremer, both professors discuss their research and compassion for the Bororo people in Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Bororos attempt to hold on to tradition. Yet there are many outside threats. They are often terrorized by vicious local predators, westernization (religion and dominance) and modernization. The passing of the late José Carlos Kuguri, the last great Mestre dos Cantos (master of songs) was a blow to many feelings of optimism. José Carlos was a keeper of their tradition's ritual songs. These songs are an essential part to the Bororo rite of passage, the funeral. José Carlos knew every last song. Many departed with his death. Withering the funeral, a central part of their tradition, means dismantling the Bororo existence.

Both men and women share an equal stake in retaining the old approach yet growing a political and social stance. Through modernization, they retain a centric version of their culture. They find love outside the traditional Bororo model, many are university educated and they use digital technology as a means of expression and sustenance.  Time will only tell whether the Bororo will thrive alongside modernization and westernization.


Massimo Canevacci is a Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Digital Arts and Culture in the University of Rome "La Sapienza" in Italy. He has been a visiting Professor in many Brazilian Universities and in the CUCN University of Nanjing, China. Currently he is  a visiting  Professor at the University of São Paulo (IEA-USP) in  Brazil.

Flávia Kremer is finishing her PhD in Social Anthropology with Visual Media at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester in the UK. She also holds an MSc in Gender, Development and Globalisation from the London School of Economics. Before moving to the UK, she studied cultural anthropology at the La Sapienza, University of Rome, having Massimo Canevacci as her supervisor.

Both anthropologists share their experiences with the Bororos.

A Discussion with Massimo Canevacci

What are the new directions that cultural anthropology should embrace and follow to finally surpass a still persisting postcolonial thought and approach?

Massimo Canevacci: My research was conducted according to the following hypothesis: the tensions between mutation and tradition affect a large cross-section of contemporary cultures, each according to its own circumstances; this struggle takes on an even greater meaning in the cultures we call ‘indigenous’, due to the many cognitive and emotive elements that come into play, and serves as a parameter not only for understanding this sparsely populated aldeia in a remote region of Mato Grosso, but also for analysing certain vitally important issues regarding globalization. Processes of visual communication and, to a greater degree, digital culture are integral to understanding these tensions, composed of dialogical polyphonies, partial conflicts, and mobile syncretisms; finally, the producer, or subject representing this processuality must be a participant in the culture. The theme of self-representation is methodologically and epistemologically crucial. As I  have already stressed,  the concept of ‘who represents who’ is a fundamental part of contemporary politics, which is increasingly communicational. Finally, digital communication is not a trait that should be considered merely technological: various heterogeneous flows of culture and individuality permeate the body of the digital. This qualitative difference radically alters the mutation/tradition nexus regarding the self-representation of digital communication. The process of self-representation can connect different cultures that are often in latent conflict with each other, as the Bororo and Xavante still partly are.

Perhaps the only word for this process of hierarchical acculturation is neo-colonialism, an active presence that still lingers within the issue of post-colonialism. Yet, even neo-colonialism may be an insufficient historical concept for addressing this issue. The Salesian treatment of the Bororo funeral proves that postcolonialism – a term widely used to indicate a far-reaching historical-cultural process – is inadequate for many reasons, the main one being that the prerequisite conditions that warrant the post prefix have not yet been met. The historical and political period in which we are now living is a regression from the hopeful past in which we had anticipated a liberation process that should have taken place in all the different contexts subject to colonial rule. The post prefix has managed to confuse the interpretation of various conceptual models (post-modern, post-industrial, etc.) and is glaringly inadequate in the case of colonialism and is perhaps flawed in part of its meaning.
But my criticism lies elsewhere: in post-colonial texts the issue of indigenous cultures is always absent for an obvious reason. In the times of descobrimento, or the discovery of modern-day Brazil by the outside world, many pre-Columbian populations were stateless societies. That is why these societies have not been able to transition from colonial to postcolonial. Within the indigenous context, the historical concepts of state and society coexist with the neo-colonial; they are all co-present, as another form of discrimination that these populations have borne for centuries. In the Americas, colonialism attempted to destroy indigenous cultures, which were not included during the formation of new states as African slaves and European immigrants eventually were. It was not until recently that Brazil adopted a constitution deemed appropriate for the ‘native’ populations. Thus, these cultures – which have survived in the ways that we know – have not been included in so-called post-colonial university studies. This leads me to a crucial conclusion: the Bororo have never been included in post-colonial studies because colonialism continues to rule over them in its contemporary forms, such as the legally sanctioned missionary presence in their territories. The ‘post’ colonial days have not yet arrived in the aldeias, which are simultaneously inside and outside of the state

You stated that, “The presence of Catholic missions inside the aldeias (“native” reserve) is a fundamental political and anthropological  problem since colonial and neo-colonial era.” Can you explain why?

Massimo Canevacci: In Mato Grosso, the Salesians have historically vacillated between defending the indigenous population and simultaneously inserting them within their religious universe through a process of deculturation; though they began by documenting the roots of Bororo culture (vocabulary, mythology, rituals), they proceeded to set them on the moral routes instituted by Rome. Religion, especially Catholicism, does not take the form of a simple superstructure, but rather it takes the form of a complex system of values, beliefs, powers, capitals and worldviews that disseminates a theological truth through the practices of evangelization. Thus the vast and growing Salesian economic powerhouse earmarks specific funding for certain aldeias, personal assistance, ‘urban’ modifications, technological investments, and medical assistance, thereby redesigning the daily way of life.
Though the Salesians had originally launched an offensive against the Bororo funeral, they have since sought to understand and transform it into a ‘tradition’. At face value, it is merely a funeral ritual that survives a now-distant past. Yet, as a fundamental part of the entire Bororo worldview within a culture that is changing, it holds a deeper meaning; it is an effort to hold onto the profoundness of their traditions throughout the constant, tenuous pursuit of equilibrium between the past and innovation, as experienced by so many other cultures. The Bororo funeral encompasses their entire understanding of the living, the dead and the sacred, and goes far beyond institutional religious practice. Eradicating the funeral means surgically removing their history and their place in this world, and imposes a Catholic view, not only of the funeral and of death, but above all, of life. It is an act of violent deculturation, which can only be considered the symbolic violence of a colonial matrix. And this type of symbolic violence is even stronger than one would think.

The Salesian opposition to the fazendeiros (landowners) and local politickers has been and remains notable; yet, the price the Salesians make the Bororo (or the neighbouring Xavante) pay is enormous. I would like all of us to give some serious thought to the continuing practice of evangelization as a ‘symbolic’ exchange for protection, and whether this tradition may in fact be a political move that is not so different from that of the fazendeiros: they ‘protect’ indigenous populations, while continuing to force them into a state of dependence, so that the indigenous must constantly create stratagems for survival. It seems to me that these defensive measures, rather than being a creative part of the indigenous resistance against dominant manipulations, are more like desperate attempts that are destined for failure, due to the enormous disparity of power and even cunning between the different sides involved in the power play. The power and cunning of the politickers, Salesians and fazendeiros far exceed those of the indigenous, as seen in the latter’s desperate attempts to ‘make fools’ of such forces: the dominant always win because they make the rules and know the infractions better than anyone else.

The Bororo were and still are in danger of losing, whether they choose to follow the state-centred productive logic of Brazilian society, or to be defended by the Salesians who indoctrinate them on theological values that are not their own. This is the political double bind of contemporary acculturation, which has spread to many corners of the world and which produces tragic, often perverse effects: the desperate feeling of those within this double snare is that any choice is the wrong choice (they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t). Hence it is possible for an individual, a family, a clan or an entire village to find themselves in this double-bind situation: if they force themselves into the seductive models radiated from Western ‘centres’, they demonstrate an ability to change, yet regret the loss of their past identity; if they refuse to follow these models, they retain their past identity, but they experience the frustration of not living in seductive contemporaneity. If they decide to live out these shifts, they risk losing themselves, since the abandonment of tradition is experienced with a sense of guilt, anxiety and defeat. Yet, an analogue frustration of loss manifests itself if they remain isolated from outside forces, since the inverse bind to innovative models is seductive, and their renunciation – experienced with sorrow, marginalization and resentment – fosters the perception of oneself as a marginal remnant. This acculturative model – which spreads, overwhelming the peripheries, and moving onto the ‘native’ villages of the Bororo – can produce a double bind of an anthropological nature regarding the entire range of explicit and implicit views, instrumental and expressive values, rational and emotional behaviour, and verbal and body language of each village. The transition towards ‘modernity’ is simultaneously perceived as an obligation and as a loss of identity. The too many Bororo that drink excessively and die of cirrhosis are a symptom of the double bind by which the Salesians tie them to a theological anomie. Salesian morality essentially waged a battle for chastity and against nudity, and called for the separation of each family from the totemic clan system, imposing monogamy and mono-familiar homes of brick and cement, which were no longer even arranged in a circular plan: the Salesian mission used urban reform to impose a civil morality.

Why is the arara chosen as the totemic ancestral being in which the human skull is transfigurated after death and exhumation?

Massimo Canevacci: The arara is “something” or “someone” that I approximate  with an ‘ancestor’. The  ‘decarnalized’ skull is living the process of its (or her) transformation into an arara and thus, into a totemic being. The human (skull), the animal (arara), and the divine (ancestor) are reunited, or better yet, connected within the hierarchical order. This part of the ritual signifies a transitional process between different vital orders, an incorporation of the sacred: when the skull became so shiny that it seemed to come alive once again (again? I wondered in what sense the skull was ever dead…). Briefly, along the funeral, someone brought along plastic bags full of different types of feathers, and the three attendees went back to working like artists who modified rather than represented: they placed red, blue and yellow arara feathers soaked in resin atop the urucum, and finished it off by surrounding the base of the skull with white feathers. It was now a glorious skull, translucent, more alive than it had been since the ritual started. It should be apparent from this image of the detached skull – without any trace of flesh, muscle and cartilage – that the transitive process from one identitary condition to another had already begun, as it lay in a cradle of soft, tender feathers. From this moment on, it was the skull that underwent this rite of passage, as an independent being that unified life and death, mixing  different conditions of identity of human and not-human beings. When the feathered skull took the form of an arara,  in fact it is an arara; it had been transformed into one. The deceased woman had not only returned as a child, but beyond that, she had turned back into an arara: that from which she was born, that which she was, that which she ‘is’, and that which she will be once again.

Can you explain how the Bororo people revolutionize themselves with the use of digital technology or would this contradict with some of their autonomy and privacy of rituals and practices?

Massimo Canevacci: I’m used to communicate via Skype,  email or iphone with some friends of mine living in the aldeia. I organized my first empirical research with a Bororo video maker (Paulinho): self-representation was more interesting and experimental than my hetero-representation (see Video nas Aldeias). In general, indigenous rituals were  revitalized  by the desire of record, instead of declining in their memory. It is important to visit their site on aldeia digital in Facebook or many sites in all the Americas (INDIAnet). Finally, they are used to look at TV and to use computers. I think that their autonomy is growing through their use of digital technologies …

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 that 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.

Can share you briefly about your personal experience with Jose Carlos Kuguri. What do you recall the most out of it ?

Massimo Canevacci: The Mestre dos Cantos José Carlos Kuguri is a dramatic figure. He is striking. His personality, his behaviour towards me, is enigmatic. He is a very silent man. After the initiatory ‘line of dust’, I can now say he is a ‘friend’ of mine. He even invited me to his ‘oca’ (hut) for dinner in the aldeia of Garças. During the dinner he didn’t speak a single word, but he smiled as he offered me a dish of dark meat, beans and rice. I was told that it was a rare invitation, a sort of legitimization of our relationship. Kleber, a Bororo friend of mine, told me that José Carlos is the last great mestre dos cantos (master of songs). When he dies, it will be a tragedy, he said. He was trying to learn all the songs, but it’s very difficult. Despite the fact that he has recorded them, it is  important to learn them by heart, and sing them in all the different phases of all the rituals. José Carlos knows them all and he is the last one. And now, the mestre is dead: and his funeral at this moment is in progress and I’ll be there for the last three days...  I will always remember when I met him into the baito, the men’s house at the centre of the village, where women are only admitted during a funeral ritual. José Carlos Kuguri, the mestre dos cantos, sat alone in a dim corner. He must have been around 60 years old and he sat with a large pariko, the quintessential Bororo feather art, on his head. A few metres from the baito lay the tumulus of his wife, which had just been covered with buritì (palm) fronds and a thin layer of earth. I sat in front of him with our legs crossed as he smoked a large hand-rolled cigarette; I sat for a good while in silence, until I spoke with respect to remind him of my donation. So, he livened up, as if he had come back to the present, to his lean, taut physique. He looked me straight in the eyes and reached out his hand, pointing a wooden stick like an extension of his finger towards the dirt floor between me and him: ‘If you are from Rome,’ he said, ‘you are on that side, while I remain on this side. Because of this we will always be different.’ As he spoke, he drew a clear, dry line, raising a small cloud of scattered dust between the two of us. This was the most important challenge of my anthropological and human  existence. And I’m so sadden by his death…
Another fundamental ritual for the Bororo tribe is the piercings of the ears. Can you tell us the significance?

Massimo Canevacci: The furação das orelhas it is not a Bororo but a Xavante rite of passage. The Xavante ritual reunited everyone that had come of age since its last performance, meaning there was a six- or seven-year age difference between the youths. The adolescents performed the sun dance at certain key moments, painted with urucum (a plant whose boiled  juice becomes a  potato-like paste, used for making bright red paint on the body) and adorned with particular ritual ornaments made of feathers and plants, such as the xocalhos (rattling ornaments) on their ankles. The new generation’s coming-of-age ritual affirmed the continuation of the life cycle. During this dance, the youths stomped the ground violently, jingling the xocalhos as they were trained to do by the elders, re-establishing the foundational power of the mythical hero, the birth of water and the creation of the cosmos. Red palitos (earrings) painted with urucum decorated the youths’ ears, which had previously been pierced by their godfathers. The  Xavante word for the urucum () that covers the palitos is similar to the word for penis (by). Only after being pierced can the adolescents become adults and therefore ‘pierce’ women by marrying them.

A Discussion with Flavia Kremer

Do you feel that the Bororo tribe is attempting to maintain some of their core values in their modern-day culture ( or how is it changing today?

Flavia Kremer: The culture of the Bororo people is in continuous process of change in the same way as any other culture of any other human group. These changes are expressed in body language, frames of mind, emotional challenges, dress-code, etc. In European fashion, for example, the use of white-haired wigs by men, or corsets by women, is no longer trendy. By the same token, 'western' styles of clothing have become part of Bororo fashion along with face-paint, piercings and feather art.

In my research, I show how despite the aesthetic, economic and technological changes that lead many to believe (and to claim) that Bororo culture is dying (i.e. because the Bororo wear clothes, use the computer, go to university, etc.); the core values of Bororo culture are strong and alive and they are important referents in the moral experiences of contemporary Bororo. But the significance of these cultural values is not so much linked to an idea of 'trying to maintain' their 'culture' alive. These values are fundamental elements in people's experience of change. They are points of reference that mark the emotional and moral challenges of being Boe (the Bororo word for humans) in our globalized world.  

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?

Flavia Kremer: There are indeed many interest groups with an eye on the land, labor and souls of the Bororo and other indigenous groups in Brazil. Politicians propose laws that favor agribusiness, many times legitimizing the invasion of indigenous land. Besides land disputes, the Bororo are also facing the symbolic violence of religious proselytism from both Catholic and evangelical missionaries. The evangelicals are violent enough to continue to claim that indigenous religious practices are associated with Satan and should be eradicated. It is shocking and sad.

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

Flavia Kremer: There are state schools in Bororo villages where students are taught Bororo language along with other subjects such as Portuguese, mathematics, geography, history and etc. The teachers in these schools are usually Bororo, but they also have non-Bororo teachers. Many young Bororo are doing well in school and attending university. I know Bororo women and men who study psychology, geography and law in Brazilian public universities.

What is the economic system like today? How do men and women individually play a role?

Flavia Kremer: Throughout their history of colonization, the Bororo were deprived from their land and labor. Instead of hunting, gathering or gardening, Bororo people were obliged to work in large agricultural projects implemented by the Brazilian State. Bororo workers, both women and men, had no right over the outcomes of production and no land was allotted to the subsistence of Bororo families. In this process, subsistence activity collapsed and the economy in Bororo villages today is heavily dependent on cash. Hence, the Bororo work for the State institutions that are present in the village, such as the school and the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI). In the case of Meruri village specifically, they also work for the Salesian mission. The majority of the schoolteachers and drivers are men. There are also women teachers, but the majority of women work either as cleaners or cooks.

You explained that there are two cultural prohibitions that remain fundamental elements in the constitution of the Bororo gendered subject. The first one is love and marriage. How is this affecting the prosperity of the village? Are these marriages sustaining themselves and/or the life of the culture?

Flavia Kremer: To answer this question it is first necessary to ask what you mean by “prosperity”? The Bororo concept of wealth goes far beyond money and other material goods. Wealth also includes face paint, ornaments and names, which belong to the clans. In this sense, there are a series of mythical exchanges between clans that inform the morality of marital alliances. The most beautiful unions according to Bororo law, are those that follow the path of feathers and ornaments established in mythical times.

In my film In Search of a Bororo Mr. Right, I explore the relationship between mythical marriage laws and contemporary notions of romantic love. Through a performative engagement with Bororo women and men, the film questions Lévi-Strauss' controversial claim that marriage alliances are the result of the exchange of women. As seen in the film, marriage alliances among the Bororo are most certainly an exchange of men! Bororo women are very much in charge of marital alliances for traditionally it is the woman who proposes to the man. Yet, even if mythical law continues to inform Bororo people's moral decisions, many couples are transgressing these rules and marrying for love instead.

The second prohibition is related to the aije spirits who visit the village during funeral celebrations. Women are prohibited to see these spirits.

Overall, what are the reactions of modern Bororo women to the exclusion of women’s involvement in such a fundamental process that is possibly retaining the life of the culture?

Flavia Kremer: Bororo women are both curious and scared of the aije spirits who visit the villages during funeral times. In fact, it is women themselves who choose to respect the prohibition on seeing the aije. I have never seen men trying to control women or enforce the prohibition in any way. It is rather women who choose to look away from the spirits. Thus, I think 'exclusion' is not a good way to portray women's relationship to these spirits and the funeral celebration. Even if women are curious to see the prohibited spirits, they do not feel 'excluded'. And they are not excluded. They take part on the funeral by cooking the food for the souls and the spirits who visit the village during the ceremony. The notion of 'exclusion' is misleading because it assumes that cooking food for the souls, for example, is not a valuable activity. In this sense, to claim that Bororo women are excluded from the funeral ritual is to reaffirm the particularly western devaluation of women's work.

What is a normal life like for a typical Bororo woman?

Flavia Kremer: In general Bororo women spend their time taking care of children, cooking and crafting artefacts. Usually childcare is shared among women, so a woman is rarely taking care of her own children alone. Many women are also attending school (and they often take their children to class) because they know that through schooling they will be able to get better jobs.

What is the significance of the matrilineage?

Flavia Kremer: Bororo people inherit their clan membership through their mothers. Yet, anthropologists find it difficult to apply the term matrilineage to the Bororo because of its genealogical underpinnings. This is because clan membership among the Bororo is not linked to a common genealogical ancestor, but rather to a particular space in the cosmological and physical village plan. People with no genealogical connections may belong to the same clan and consider each other relatives. In this sense, Bororo clans connect individuals through their association with a particular space in the village circle. Every empirical Bororo village attempts to reproduce its ideal cosmological model. The cosmological village plan is circular and divided by an east/west axis that separates the houses/clans into two exogamous groups, which may intermarry. Hence, a person's clan membership is not so much related to genealogical relations with ancestors, but with the village space, and particularly the space that is occupied by the mother's house.

Tell us about your personal experience living one year with a Bororo family? Can you tell us what the name Arireudo mean? What were some of the most memorable moments throughout this experience ?

Flavia Kremer: I first met the Bororo in 2007 when Massimo Canevacci took myself and nine other students from the university of Rome ‘La Sapienza’ to Garças village for a pedagogical experiment. Since then, I have kept in contact with some of the Bororo through the internet. Living in a Bororo village for a year has certainly been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. In the beginning it was difficult. I was not used to the heat; the mosquitoes had turned me into a banquet and I missed my friends and family. Yet, as time went by, I gradually became a member of the Bororo family until I was ceremonially adopted and given the name Arireudo. The meaning of the name could be translated as ‘that woman who belongs to the moon’. ‘Ari’ means moon and ‘eudo’ is the feminine suffix in Bororo language.

In terms of memorable moments, I really find it difficult to select one in particular. I think the experience is memorable, but there was one party at the village that was very special. Everybody was happy and dancing at the men’s house and I invited the master of songs José Carlos Kuguri to dance forró. José Carlos died recently, but when alive, he was very strict with Bororo youth and condemned their musical tastes, which included sertanejoforró and lambadão (popular rhythms in the interior of Brazil). To dance forró with him was extremely amusing. The entire village was talking about it the next day. That was a fun night!  

Can you explain in a little more in detail about the Aije spirits that women are prohibited to meet?

Flavia Kremer: The meeting with the aije spirits is what marks a boy’s transition from childhood to adulthood. It is after a boy’s encounter with the aije that he will finally be prepared to marry and provide for his family. The aijespirits visit Bororo villages during funeral times. This is when the men will unmake bodies/corpse and mediate the transition of souls between the village of the living and that of the dead. When the boys meet the aije, they also learn the mysteries of this mediation, along with the work of men and their responsibility for the reproduction of life. When they meet the aije, the boys engage with men’s work for the first time. They hunt, fish and acquire the ritual and spiritual knowledge that mediate the making and unmaking of the Boe (human beings).



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


Revised on  3/14/2015

Crossposted from

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