Cultural Overview

Mehinako live in a small village of 180 persons (in 2000), living at the Upper Xingu headwaters.1 The village is still mainly self-sufficient in the cultivation of bitter manioc and fishing. Mehinako, together with Waurá and Yawalapiti, belong to an Arawak-speaking group; Kamayurá and Auetí are Tupi speaking, Kuikuru, Kalapalo, Nafuquá and Matipu are Carib speaking, and the village of the Trumai is linguistically separate. Despite their different linguistic origins, Mehinako and their neighbors within the Upper Xingu region have so many cultural similarities, that they can almost be considered as a single ethnic group (Lindig & Münzel, 1981). However, each village is politically independent, maintaining a monopoly on a particular craft. The predominantly peaceful association of the Upper Xingu villages emerges from the integration of the individual contributions of each group—cooperation, intermarriage, and kinship, as well as the interchange of material and spiritual/intellectual goods.

Mehinako, like their neighbors, live in a single circular village of several communal houses surrounding a central plaza, with a men's house in the middle. Spatial and social segregation of the sexes is one of the most striking characteristics of the whole Upper Xingu region (as well as in northwest Amazonia). This spatial segregation, together with the threat of "gang rape" for those women who dare to see men playing the "sacred trumpets," has lead to the assumption of a "male dominance complex" in this area and a theory of "sexual antagonism" (Quinn, 1977). The notion of "sexual antagonism" became an important research concept in Amazonia and Melanesia during the 1960s and 1970s (Herdt & Poole, 1982).

The segregation of Mehinako men and women concerns above all the gendered village space as well as the traditional division of labor and gender roles. The gendered division of labor and its complementarity is found in every sphere of life. For example, it occurs in the production of the manioc-scraping spatula and the manioc plant-stick. This manioc ritual in a complex interplay of male and female agencies, letting everybody experience the necessity for men and women to cooperate. However, everyday subsistence depends not only on the cooperation of gender groups, but also on kinship support.

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