Women, men, children: demonstrations of power and resistance are constantly present amidst Xavante's life.
As Brazil’s confirmed overall death toll from Covid-19 passes 68,000, the virus is spreading through the country’s indigenous communities, killing chiefs, elders and traditional healers.
It’s also very hard to imagine how a community who has always been used to do everything in group could change and isolate individuals due to a disease. Dealing with diseases brought by non-indigenous are not something new, of course. At the beginning of the 18th century, the discovery of gold in the then province of Goiás state in Brazil led to the arrival of miners, explorers, settlers and missionaries, causing conflicts with the local indigenous populations. Indigenous peoples reacted in different ways to the outsiders' invasions. Some resisted, with surprise attacks and warfare, others stayed put or migrated.
Although the Xavantes were among the most feared indigenous nations in the region, some were convinced to live in settlements sponsored by Brazilian government, where they catched diseases like measles, flu and chicken pox, that were common between non-indigenous, but non existent n those lands before Europeans arrived. As they've never experienced before, they didn’t have antibodies to react. Thousands of indigenous died. Just like is happening in these recent times.
This essay shows Xavante the way they are most proud of: showing their power. Also known as a’uwe uptabi (“gente de verdade"), they live in the state of Mato Grosso in Brazil. Their culture exhales strength. Body fights such as 'wa’i' and relay races with buriti trunks called 'Ui'wede' are the main demonstrators of rivalry between Xavante's clans. During Ui'Wede, both clans head off to swamps to find the 'perfect buriti trunk' which weight may vary between 60 to 80 kilos. Then, they will cut the tree using a little ax and divide the trunk in logs, that will be carried in this relay race for distances of up to 10 kilometers. Even though only adults can take part on the race, everyone in the tribe is welcomed to watch, turning Ui'Wede into one of the favorite sports activities of the Xavantes.
The photos were taken by me turned backwards on the backside of a moving motorbike in a bumpy dirt road under midday sun. The Xavante says that they prefer making the Ui’Wede at noon, so runners will have to put more effort into it. My camera broke, so I had to use an old one that I had brought to the tribe to give it to teenagers, who are very interested in learning photography to document their everyday life.
Women are also fighters, both literally and metaphorically. "Wa´i", a body wrestling usually performed by women, where they gather to fight collectively against only one man. They say this is an opportunity to 'wash dirty linen in public' while observed by a very excited crowd. “Keep fighting!”, says a young woman when the man lays exhausted on the ground.
Given these glimpses of Xavante's culture, you can see how important group activities are. Everything is shared, from houses to everyday chores. This was one of the reasons that lead a Xavante's child to be the first official case of death amongst indigenous peoples from Mato Grosso state, in May. A strong community culture added to the lack of public health access puts the Xavante's power into threat due to the Coronavirus. But they keep fighting.
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