This article was originally published by Mongabay as part of their ‘Amazon Illegal Deforestation’ series. Written by Thais Borges and Sue Branford. In February, a Mongabay reporting team travelled to the Brazilian Amazon, spending time with the remote Sateré-Mawé, documenting their culture and long-time conflict with mining companies and land grabbers. This series looks at new threats imposed on the Sateré and indigenous groups across Brazil as they’re threatened by the ruralist-friendly policies of President Jair Bolsonaro. The trip was funded by the Rainforest Journalism Fund in association with the Pulitzer Center and Mongabay.
FORTALEZA VILLAGE, Amazonas state, Brazil — The ceremony begins in the late afternoon in the indigenous village of Fortaleza on the Andirá River in the Brazilian Amazon. A Sateré elder blows smoke into special gloves filled with scores of tucandeira ants (Paraponera clavata), up to 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) long. The insects have been dubbed “bullet ants,” because the sting they inflict is so severe it causes pain comparable to being shot, lasting 18 hours and often accompanied by sickness and vomiting.
The rite begins as a dozen participants, all young men, with indigenous designs painted on their bodies, dance in a circle and enclosed by a fence. Eventually one plunges his hands into the gloves. The many bites go deep: the tucandeira’s fangs transmit the poison directly into the central nervous system.
One young man, bent double in anguish, utters a deep, heart-wrenching moan. In time, he withdraws from the circle of chanting Indians and throws himself on the ground, keeping his swollen hands raised to avoid painful contact. He tries not to express his agony, for only those who bear the pain stoically are considered fit to be leaders.
The ritual, known as Waumat, has been practiced by the Sateré-Mawé for centuries. But this rite of passage is now more important than ever, as these young men will be expected to lead their people in resisting illegal loggers, land grabbers, and the Amazon development plans of the Bolsonaro administration, which took over in Brazil in January.
The homeland these Sateré warriors plan to defend is the Andirá-Marau Indigenous Territory, which covers 780,000 hectares (3,011 square miles), straddling Amazonas and Pará states. This sprawling forest reserve shares its border with another large protected area, the 1,066,000 hectare (4,115 square mile) Amazônia National Park —first created in 1974 and later intended as part of a mosaic of conserved areas to act as a barrier to further exploitation and devastation of the Amazon rainforest.
An ancient ritual strengthens cultural resolve
The Waumat ritual definitively marks the transition from childhood to adulthood for these young men. After their first bout with the ants, these Sateré can marry and start families, but they will be expected to go through the painful rite at least 20 times in their lifetime. Each time, they say, they come out stronger, more prepared for the fight to defend their culture and protect their forest.
Sateré girls, after their first menstruation, also go through a ritual, a more mysterious one, that involves being left alone in a hut for two months, only seeing their mothers, who bring food. These young women also emerge as adults, ready to marry and bear children.
The young men, before carrying out the rite, follow food taboos. Some paint their hands with black designs using a dye made from the fruit of the jenipapo tree.
Preparations for Waumat begin early in the morning of the day of the rite, when a small group of Sateré go into the forest to collect bullet ants. After a 40-minute walk, they find a nest at the foot of a tree. Playing flutes, they carefully collect hundreds of the insects, placing them inside the hollow end of a large bamboo stick.
As he collected them, Érik Pereira Batista told Mongabay: “The ants’ bites function like a vaccine, driving off illnesses and making us better warriors and better hunters.”
The ants are taken back to the village and placed in a bucket of water containing chopped cashew leaves. This concoction anaesthetizes them for about half an hour, so the insects can be handled and fixed, one-by-one, inside a pair of large gloves, with the fangs pointing inward. The gloves, woven out of natural fibers, are decorated with red feathers from the arara (macaw) — representing war and other past conflicts the Sateré have experienced — and white feathers from the hawk eagle — representing the courage and resistance of the Sateré people. The young men’s sexual transition is also symbolized by the set of feathers on the glove cuffs, representing pubic hairs and sexual initiation, marking the transition from adolescent to both warrior and husband.
Songs recall colonial brutality
After the young men put their hands in the gloves, they sing and dance late into the night, beating out rhythms with chocalhos, a rattle filled with forest seeds that is strapped to their legs. The men say that getting immersed in the rhythm is the only way of alleviating the pain. As the night progresses, young women join the dance.
No one in the village could literally translate the traditional songs for the Mongabay reporting team, but they told us that the words merge myth and historical fact. One myth concerns the origin of the tucandeira ant itself: “In this myth, the ant represents woman [playing the role] of mother, and as a force that can transform, just as death transforms humankind into nature,” explained anthropologist Gabriel Alvarez, who has studied the Sateré.
One recurring historical theme is the Cabanagem, a huge revolt in the Amazon basin in the 1830s when indigenous groups, blacks and traditional riverine communities rose against the white minority that was oppressing and exploiting them. The revolt was named after a common trait shared by all the impoverished and exploited rebels – they lived in simple shacks (cabanas) made of mud and covered in straw. The revolt, against the Portuguese Empire and the local elite that enjoyed colonial privileges, was an attempt to get better living conditions and to reduce the tyranny of the regional government of Grão-Pará. The revolt was put down brutally by the imperial government. Ravaged by outbreaks of smallpox, cholera and beriberi, the rebels suffered greatly, with at least a third of the population of Grão-Pará dying. The Sateré, who participated enthusiastically in the rebellion, still recall the conflict frequently.
Another song topic recounts indigenous resistance to colonialism. According to Gabriel Alvarez, some lyrics tell how Portuguese rulers took indigenous children away from their villages, promising to educate them, but instead placed them in sacks and threw them in a river to drown. Other songs tell how children were pressed into forced labor or prostitution, said the anthropologist.
Still another song tells how the Portuguese arrived with a boatload of goods, but demanded the soles of the feet of their tuxaua (the indigenous chief) in payment so that he could no longer walk unaided. The anthropologist sees this, along with other allegorical songs, as a criticism and remembrance of the way indigenous people have been persecuted, annihilated and assimilated into the “white” world — and as a means of steeling themselves to unite and resist.
The Mongabay team travelled to Fortaleza at the invitation of Benito Miquiles, a 25-year old Sateré who has lived for the last few years in the river port town of Parintins where he earned a degree in indigenous culture at the local university.
The Waumat ritual that we viewed was Benito’s fifteenth; he wants to complete the required 20 times as quickly as possible. Only then, he said, will he be ready to start training to become a tuxaua, eventually taking over from his father, Bernadino, a widely respected Sateré leader. “It is my destiny to become a tuxaua,” Benito told us.
“I gain much wisdom from the elders in this ritual. Just as you learn sociology, philosophy, and so on, at school, it’s the same with us. Through this ritual we receive our education,” Benito explained. He added that Waumat not only fosters courage and resistance, but also allows participants to interact in a complex symbolic cultural universe and come out of it transformed.
Dico, the tuxaua of Fortaleza village, laments that — after the arrival of Christianity, and particularly the arrival of evangelical missionaries — many communities stopped practicing Waumat. In the neighboring village of Vila Nova, for example, Baptist pastor Maxiko Miqueles denigrated the rite: “The Sateré are committing a sin by believing that they can communicate with their ancestors through a pagan practice,” he said.
However, many young Sateré countered that they continue to benefit greatly from the rite. “At the moment in which we place our hand [in the glove], we get that profound feeling of becoming stronger. We go through a lot of pain and we endure it to show that we are strong enough for the struggle,” explained Benito, whose only outward sign of the anguish he was feeling during the ritual was a clenching of the jaw and vacant eyes, as if he’d been transported elsewhere.
Besides his participation in the ritual, the young Sateré man had a second vitally important reason for travelling to Fortaleza — to seek an alliance with, and the promise of help from, his relatives.
Benito’s home village, Campo Branco, is located to the east, beside the Mariaquã River. The land there was traditionally occupied by the Sateré, but was not included inside the indigenous reserve when it was officially demarcated by the Brazilian government in 1986. As a result, Benito’s family is suffering constant pressure from loggers and land thieves who have benefited greatly in recent years from the efforts of the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in Congress as it has pushed through a raft of new laws that make it easier for outsiders to gain control of public lands like those where Benito’s family live.
As Benito asks for permission to take part in the ritual, he also tells Dico, the tuxaua of Fortaleza village, about the violence that his family is currently suffering. “We need help,” he said. “We are very threatened because we live in an area outside the official reserve.” One after another, men and women stood up and pledged their help.
The struggle that these remote indigenous people are signing up for is important to the survival of the Amazon rainforest. Studies have repeatedly shown that indigenous peoples are the region’s best land stewards. If the Sateré and other groups are driven out by land grabbers, assisted by the policies of the Bolsonaro government, a new wave of Amazon destruction will likely be unleashed on one of the most biodiverse places in the world — degrading and removing forests that scientists say are vital to curbing climate change across South America.
The Sateré, as we will relate in an upcoming article, have not only gained strength from their traditional rituals, they’ve also learned from the recent experiences of indigenous communities fighting to defend their land in other parts of Brazil. Today, they are creating a series of interlinked “vigilance villages” in order to strengthen partnerships and ensure a rapid unified response to invaders. Indigenous people across Brazil see themselves in a perilous situation now, in which they will be fighting for their land, cultures and even their lives against a federal government and wealthy rural elites that have baldly challenged indigenous rights.
As Benito and the young Waumat participants from Fortaleza linked their arms in dance, they unambiguously expressed their commitment to group resistance. Franciel Açaí, a 27-year-old Sateré, putting on the gloves for the 25th time, summarized the experience: “We are the first inhabitants of this land and, for us, landowners and loggers are like a virus. And to get rid of the virus, we practice our rituals.”