Cultural Overview

The Canela Native Americans speak Ge, a subgroup of Macro-Carib. Ge speakers live in the central to eastern interior highlands, south of the Amazon River. The Canela are one of the Timbira nations that fought each other annually. These peoples lived in large circular villages accommodating 1,000-1,500 people, interacting almost every day with each other. They intermingled through participation in unusually extensive rituals, social activities, sports, and twice-daily meetings of the elders. Most of these tribes lived in savannah woodlands (cerrados), characterized by bushes and stunted trees rising no higher than 30 feet above poor sandy soils with grass cover. Only by the streams or small rivers, where forests enabled sufficient soil fertility, was their slash-and-burn horticulture marginally successful.

The Canela (i.e., the pre-pacification Kapiekran) surrendered to a Brazilian/Portuguese military garrison at Pastos Bons, Maranhao, in 1814. They had had devastating skirmishes with settlers for some 30 years. Decimated by smallpox during 1915, they hid in the hills of their former lands until about 1840, when the backland settlers of the area allowed them to live on about 5% (about 1,200 km2) of the territory they had controlled. Owing to their drastic loss of lands and their being primarily hunters and gatherers with very little horticulture, they had to adapt to far more intensive slash-and-burn agricultural methods using the settlers' axes and machetes. Even by 2001, they had not fully adapted to settled agriculture.

Thus, even in current times, the Canela do not produce enough on their farms to feed their families during the entire year. The values of the hunter, as formerly those of the warrior, are still highly prestigious, while the values of the farmer are merely respected. They put in about a 1 ha-size farm while the settler cultivates about 3 ha. In these farms, the Canela produce principally bitter manioc, rice, and beans.

Another vestige of their food-collecting past is the unusual extent to which the Canela relied on sharing to distribute the few products of their economy. Aboriginally, if you did not give freely and willingly when someone wanted a piece of your venison or a drink of water, you were considered stingy and evil. Currently, the unproductive person (disabled through illness, mourning, taboos, child-bearing, or by temperament) "begs" from the productive person. This general begging, and the compulsion to share, makes it difficult for any individual to raise sufficient foods. The production of a surplus to trade with other families or to sell on the open markets of surrounding communities or the city is infrequent and not economically significant. The backlanders surrounding the Canela reservation feel that since the Canela do not contribute to the common good of the area commercially, they do not deserve to retain their lands.

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