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The Kayapó Of Brazil: The Body As A Political Tool

Picture of Ella O'Neill
Updated: 13 December 2016
The Kayapó of Brazil are a colourful and influential indigenous Amazonian group, dispersed across the Central Brazilian Plateau. As an extremely politically active community, the Kayapó play a key role in environmental campaigns, using the rich aesthetics of their culture as a political symbol, campaigning for indigenous rights and a cultural identity. In 2003, the population was estimated at approximately 7000 people.

History of the Kayapó

Although they are an indigenous tribe living in the Amazon, the Kayapó have a long history of interactions with outsiders. Such interactions have not always had the best consequences. With the initial arrival of the Europeans approximately 500 years ago, Portuguese colonisation encouraged the forced migration of various Kayapó communities further into the rainforest. Taken from them were vast amounts of land and habitats, accompanied by the introduction of a number of diseases – previously uncommon – from the arrival of outsiders. However, outsider contact has also meant media and commercial influences. Anthropologists such as Bruce Parry, for example, have used their influence and role in the media to promote the voices of the Kayapó in their struggles for indigenous rights. In the 1980s, the Kayap, prospered greatly through employing white outsiders to log species on their lands, yet this ended when logging on indigenous lands became outlawed. But from this point onwards, the Kayapó as a community began to significantly place more importance in the preservation of the rainforest and have since continued to raise awareness about the destruction of the Amazon.

The importance of the environment

Living in such an enriched environment as the Amazonian rainforest means that the community is very much dependent on natural resources and material from the natural environment; their religious beliefs are very much intertwined with this autonomy. In practicing a form of animism, the Kayapó have a deep and spiritual connection to the land and believe that the spirits of their ancestors and other spiritual beings reside in a celestial paradise. Subsequently, the Kayapó have been involved in a number of projects aimed at fighting the destruction of the rainforest.

In 1989, the Kararao Dam Project planned to create a series of six hydroelectric dams on indigenous land, directly threatening their livelihood. The dam would have flooded around 8300 square miles, displacing entire Kayapó communities and destroying whole fish populations across large sections of the rainforest. With the combined support from the media, international figureheads, and celebrities, the Kayapó were able to protest and resist these changes, pressuring the World Bank into denying the loan that was to fund the building of the dam.

Just 20 years later, the Belo Monte Dam project aimed to create an extensive hydroelectric dam, again threatening the homes of a huge number of communities. It is estimated that over 10,000 indigenous communities would have been displaced, as well as affecting a number of small farmers and rural settlers in the area. A response protest was held in the town of Altamira, calling on the help of various electrical companies and anthropologist and documentarian Bruce Parry, who filmed discussions and interviewed some of the tribes people in order to make their voices better heard. The Kayapó were also joined by celebrities such as Sting and the late Anita Roddick in support. During the actual protests, the Kayapó wore traditional warrior dress, including weaponry such as knives, bows and arrows. This became a kind of political statement in environmental protests.

Kayapó culture

The Kayapó have a wonderfully rich and complex culture. They commonly use face and body paint to decorate themselves and beads and feathers in headdresses and on various items of clothing in ceremonial flamboyance. For the Kayapó, social insects such as bees hold great importance for them. They believe that their ancestors learned how to live communally from such insects. As a community with its spirituality grounded in animism, their respect and care for the living environment and other animals only adds to the importance of these insects as a deep rooted aspect of their culture. In ceremonial traditional dress, they subsequently try to reflect the patterns of insects such as bees, lady birds, spiders, beetles and grasshoppers in the patterns painted on their skin.

The headdresses are equally as symbolic for the Kayapó people. Their beliefs centre around cosmological understanding and the relationship between the earth and its inhabitants. They believe that originally people lived on an upper layer of the universe and descended to earth via a rope. The ropes featured on their feathered headdresses represent this rope and the circle shape of the headdress represents the portal through which they traveled to reach earth. These concentric circles are common in Kayapó designs, including that of their villages. The circle is thought to allude to the shape of the cosmos.

At the start of the 1970s, a sort of revitalisation movement within the tribes occurred. Globalisation and increased ease of travel lead to the hybridisation of cultures. The Kayapó began to lose their more traditional dress style and began to wear more Western clothing like t-shirts and basketball shorts. As the people, in a way, began to lose their identity, it became increasingly common for the Kayapó to use the body paints again, still mimicking the patterns of insects. In doing this, the body was used as a canvas and deployed as a political tool. With the Western world as their audience, the Kayapó were able to create a symbol for their culture and use this to fight for their indigenous rights. In creating such a strong traditional and cultural aesthetic for themselves, they explore what it truly means to be indigenous.

Yet now the people face another problem. In using more traditional dress and body paint, and pandering to Western ideals of what it means to be ‘indigenous’, they are placed in a difficult position in navigating the impacts of Western culture. According to anthropologist Beth Conklin, if the Kayapó do not engage in this body painting, they cease to have the ‘power’ as a spokesperson for indigenous rights, they lose their ‘exoticism’ in the eyes of the West. But if they are using it and pick up something like a mobile phone for example, they will be criticised as a group of people. The Kayapó now have to navigate this dichotomy between maintaining their traditional culture and strong sense of identity, whilst negotiating the impacts of Western culture and globalisation.

‘The world must know what is happening here, they must perceive how destroying forests and indigenous people destroys the entire world.’ – Kayapo Indigenous Leaders