MARANHÃO STATE, Brazil — My daughter, Y’Wara, is 15. Last September she became a woman in the Menina Moça ceremony, which our tribe, the Guajajara, has performed for centuries.
The men go into the forest to hunt up to two months before the ceremony. They bring back animals we consider sacred, like the tinamou — a quick, ground-dwelling bird whose call sounds like a whistle. And they also hunt for monkeys, wild pigs and the large rodents called pacas that will be made into a stew to serve to the elders of our community, the girls, and those closest to them the morning after the party. For at least a month, the carcasses are laid out and smoked to conserve the meat.
Before the ceremony, my daughter, along with other girls from our village, each retreated into a small hut made of straw, while we tended to them. We consider water to be sacred. The mother of the river protects the waters, takes illness from us and purifies us. And so on the final day, they emerged from the hut wearing all white. As we sang and danced, they walked to the river to bathe, and the date was set for the celebration in September 2019.
Over three days, our relatives made their way to our village. We spent the day before the festival singing, dancing and preparing the food that would be served the morning after. During the day the girls were painted with genipap and decorated with feathers and dressed for the festivities. Y’Wara wore a yellow headdress, a symbol of beauty and power.
Before the sun set, the singers began to sing and invited the girls to join the party. The girls dressed in long red skirts and colorful headdresses made from the feathers of local birds like macaws or parrots. Each one danced with a male singer who held her by the arm. Their songs rang throughout the forest — they called out to the animals, birds and trees, asking that the girls be imbued with wisdom and protection.
At night the girls retired to eat and rest before the final ceremony at dawn. This time they emerged with white feather headdresses. Their mothers and grandmothers also wore feathers in their hair and on their faces, imitating birds. We danced again until the morning, when the festivities ended and we began to serve the meal.
The girls eat the tinamou meat, so that they can be sharp, move quickly and soar.
In the old days we would prepare a meal for everyone who came to the party. But it takes a lot of food to throw a party like this; around 2,000 people came to my daughter’s ceremony last year. And this tradition has now become a symbolic gesture, because there is no longer enough food in the forest to serve everybody.
We live in the State of Maranhão, at the eastern doorway to the Amazon. My memories of childhood are of abundance. In the old days it used to be easy enough to find monkeys, pacas and tinamou here to eat, but now our government has opened our lands to mine for gold and iron, and to produce timber for paper and soy and cattle. They call our peoples and our traditions primitive and show disdain for our ceremonies. Prioritizing development at any cost is not just poisoning Brazil — it is threatening our way of life.
My community is close to the Buriticupu River. Unlike other rivers in the areas, its waters still run clean, but it’s drying out because of climate change and deforestation. So much of what was available to us in the forest has disappeared. As the birds that are central to our rituals disappear and water becomes scarce, we now have to buy things from outside to subsist. For the festival this year, our people went to small grocers and local farmers in surrounding villages and communities to buy beans, rice, manioc flour and beef to serve the rest of the guests, rather than the animals they would normally hunt — we don’t want to exhaust the dwindling population of the animals left in the forest.
When I was a girl I didn’t get a chance to do my ceremony. At 13 I was sent south, to the State of Minas Gerais, to study so that I could come back and fight for my community. But I chose to do the ceremony for my daughter (as well as a similar one for my sons). It’s important to me that we stay connected to our culture.
Our lives are inextricable from the natural world. The creatures of the rainforest protect us, and in turn we protect them. We are the only buffers protecting our thinning forests. Our battle is not just for the future. It’s for the present.
Sônia Guajajara (@GuajajaraSonia) is an Indigenous activist and the executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil.
Cover photo by Eraldo Peres/Associated Press. Cover inset photo by Adriano Machado/Reuters.
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