The Bakairf economy is dependent on a combination of gardening using slash-and-burn horticulture, farming with modern technology, working for wages, and receiving government stipends. By far the most significant aspect of their livelihood are the household gardens that they make in the forests that lie along the rivers in the reservation. Harvests provide the Indians with such staples as manioc, as well as other important foods such as rice, corn, banana, squash, and beans.
Their traditional diet is augmented with rice grown using industrial agricultural techniques in the cerrado, the prairie-like part of the reservation. In 1980 FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation in Brazil) began a development project on the reservation (Picchi, 1991). They showed the Indians how to use tractors, fertilizers, and pesticides. The harvests are distributed to households in the reservation, and the surplus is sold in nearby towns for cash. Other sources of cash include nearby ranches where men work for wages and government social service stipends received by some families. The Bakairi also raise cattle herds. In the middle of the 20th century, FUNAI agents began cattle herding in the reservation, and in the 1980s FUNAI distributed these herds to indigenous families.
Traditionally, the Bakairi depended upon headmen to lead their communities. Headmen used to inherit their titles from their fathers, but during the era immediately following contact when large numbers of Bakairi died from diseases, such successors became more difficult, and ultimately impossible, to find. Today, consensual leaders emerge from the ranks of the villagers as they are needed. Those men with large extended families are more likely to assume leadership roles. Headmen use a variety of techniques to lead their communities, but in general they are more persuasive than authoritarian.
In 1999 about 500 Indians inhabited seven villages in the reservation. The largest settlement is called Pakuera which is the name for the Paranatinga River on whose banks the village is located (Figure 2). The 20th century was marked by dramatic changes in the population size and in the number of settlements. In the first part of the century, the Bakairi migrated into the Paranatinga River area from the headwaters of the Xingu River. Epidemic diseases caused their population to decrease, a trend that was exacerbated by out-migration to towns in search of wage-paying jobs. During the second half of the century, better medical attention became available and the number of Indians increased. Simultaneously, as a result of a downturn in the regional economy in the
1970s and 1980s, some Bakairi returned to the reservation to live. Between 1979 and 1989, the number of people in the reservation grew by 36.8%, from 288 to 394 individuals. Between 1989 and 1999 it increased by 26.9%, from 394 to 500. The growing number of people in Pakuera contributed to tension and conflict, and eventually to the division of this settlement in the 1980s and the formation of other villages (Picchi, 1995).
The Bakairi used to practice polygyny. However, FUNAI agents and missionaries actively discouraged this tradition, and the Indians now practice monogamy. Their marital unions tend to be village endogamous, but some marriages with Indians from other reservations and with non-Indians takes place. The Bakairi also prefer marriages to occur within extended families. When such a marriage occurs, it is between cross-cousins, defined as first cousins who are children of opposite-sexed siblings of parents. Immediately after marriage, couples live with the wife's family until the birth of their first child. Then the couple build their own house, usually near one or both of their parents' homes.
The Bakairi are in regular contact with Brazilians. They frequently leave the reservation to travel, work, and make purchases. Some Indians have family members living outside the reservation, with whom they visit. In 1999 the reservation was informed that the government of Mato Grosso planned to provide electricity to remote parts of the state, such as the region in which they lived. They reported looking forward to having televisions and to watching soccer programs.
The Bakairi practice animism—the belief in supernatural spirits who inhabit the world. These spirits can be contacted and even manipulated by shamans, who are village semispecialists capable of curing diseases and practicing sorcery. According to the Indians, guardian spirits of animals and fish exist. The Bakairi make huge oval and square masks to represent these guardian spirits, and men dance inside them during the dry season. Other village festivities celebrate such events as garden harvests.
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