Interview - Issue #12
Perpera Suruí is a former shaman of the Paiter Suruí people, based in the village of Lapetanha, Amazonia, Brazil. Contact was first made with the Paiter Suruí on 7 September 1969 with the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway. Perpera stopped practising his shamanism after the community was evangelised in the 1970s. This interview explores how the effects of colonisation has triggered a loss of spirituality and affected the whole worldview of the Paiter Suruí - their connection with the spirits of the forest and with the forest itself.
Firstly, tell us your name.
My name is Perpera. The elders used to ask us not to tell our real names to white people because after death people can’t speak the name of the deceased, and that’s what white people do.
What is the connection between the Paiter and the forest?
The Paiter were always travelling through the forest. They travelled for hours and chose a place near the river to build a maloca (house) and make swiddens. Then planting time began: yams, corn and a big cassava plantation. They were always having parties and taking part in various sacred rituals.
There was a time when some of the people split up. My grandfather asked the senior leader to choose a place for him to live with his family. He opened a new village and a lot of people came to live with him - his son-in-law, cousins and brothers also brought their families along.
He gathered the whole community to make a plantation - all of the work was done together. They cleared a field first and then made a smallholding for the leader and then one for the community. Each head of the family had to make his own smallholding and everyone helped each other. While one group was cutting down the fields, other groups went out hunting, bringing meat from the bush, for the entire community. After clearing the fields, it was time to build big huts - everything had its time to be done. It was the time of green corn and people would go out and cut a specific tree to make pestles and pound corn to make the xixá (tea).
My grandfather gathered the whole community to have a party. There was a lot of food: corn flour, babassu flour and many other things that we consumed before contact [with the yara, the non-Indigenous].
What is the importance of the forest for the spirituality of the people?
Palob, our creator, gave us this culture as people who use the forest to live and feed off of it. Just as there are several medicines for each type of disease in the pharmacy, our medicine also exists in the forest. So, we have to take care of the trees that bear fruit, the palm trees that give us coconuts, the nut trees that give nuts and the animals’ territory. In the forest, everything has its space. There is space for animals, space for bees to make honey and sacred spaces that we cannot interfere with.
Even though we had no boundaries, each person respected the other’s territory. We used to hunt collectively - one passed the game meat to the other. That was our way of life.
My father’s family were the owners of xixá. First, they did the whole healing ritual called ibpagah. People go to the forest in search of various medicinal herbs - very bitter roots, the bark of trees - and we did all the work to pull out the roots which served as a very bitter tea. This is used during the sacred ritual – a ritual to train warriors to be brave - to protect people from enemies. The rituals started at midnight and went on until dawn.
Who can have this tea?
The elders who are responsible for making this tea, call other adults to help, arrive and dance. The elders separate the ants and babassu straw to use in the ritual. When the person in charge of the xixá screams, all the young people come running towards them to participate in the ritual. There are several processes: beating nettles, going under the wasp tree and other processes that were much more difficult. That’s why we were full of health without being afraid of enemies.
After that time, the Mapimai (Feast of the Creation of the world) begins, with various crafts to decorate yourself. This is at the beginning of winter. Body painting was carried out, the whole community participated in the parties and there was a lot of singing and dancing, in addition to drinking xixá.
What did contact with non-Indigenous people bring to the people?
Before the contact, we already knew that the whites were in the region, but we didn’t want to make contact with them. The elders said that the organisational structure of our people would change after we had contact with non-Indigenous people. They said that there would be conflicts between peoples or between the same people, all under the influence of non-Indigenous people. Nowadays, it’s every man for himself, just like the elders used to say. Today, we only take medicine from the pharmacy. Our food was all traditional without chemicals, and now we eat rice and drink coffee but it’s not good.
We only made contact with the whites because colonisation was putting pressure on our people, pushing us into the territories of our enemies. Our people almost became extinct in that period. The contact happened when we were having a party, drinking xixá. The news arrived that a group had made contact with the whites and everyone ran there to see the white people and get machetes, axes and pots [from them].
How did you become a pajé (shaman)? Did the spirits choose you to be the shaman of our people?
I had a stomach ache from early on until dark. I was in a lot of pain. It was the spirits who chose me, that’s why I got a stomach ache - a sign they give. After the pain passed, I could see them. They gave me a name, and from there I was able to perform the ritual and heal people. Four days later, I told my father that I didn’t want to be a shaman anymore. He told me that I could lose my life if I didn’t accept the spirits’ invitation. At first I found it very strange, I didn’t want to, but my father told me that I couldn’t stop. I received a lot of people from other villages. A lot of girls started to like me but I couldn’t engage with women. My father told me that having sex during this period would break the rules. I decided to listen to my dad and even then I had a lot of girls who were crazy about me.
Each person of our people has a guardian, who has direct contact with the shaman. Both are responsible for guarding the life and taking care of the person. And that still exists today.
Do you still practice your pajelança (shamanism)?
The pajelança ended because of the evangelical churches. When I was a shaman more people were also shamans, but few, now, are still alive. During the healing rituals, the shamans gathered. They would take turns for several days. We stayed day and night healing all the people until the last person [was healed]. Each cured person received a stone necklace made by the shaman, a protective necklace. We tightened it onto the arms and legs, and used it as a necklace too.
Are there other shamans among the Paiter people? What happened to them?
Mogeron and I are the only ex-shamans alive and the rest have already died of old age or illness. Today we are without the shaman, the main healer of the people, so we have to continue using our traditional medicine. When I got COVID I used our medicine a lot, it helped me to recover. Our medicine is very strong, we can cure many diseases with it. The best are bitter herbs which are for our whole body.
Do forest spirits still speak to you? What do they say?
I stopped being a shaman in this village, people started going to churches and stopped talking to me. They just wanted to know about prayer. No one spoke to me, so I decided to join the church as well. And I stopped being a pajé. If that hadn’t happened, I would still be the shaman of this community. But the spirits went away after the community started going to church, no one wanted to be consulted by me, and that was the reason I became the ex-shaman. When I started going to church, the spirits would start to come out of me and scream as they left. Since then I am no longer a shaman.
Do you think about doing the rituals again?
I believe that it is very difficult to go back to being a shaman or to have a new shaman in the community because most of our people are evangelicals. That’s how I stopped and lost all healing powers. And I don’t intend to go back to being a shaman.
What do you think is important for youth to learn?
Nowadays young people only think about making money, so a lot of our knowledge is being forgotten. There is a great danger of our history coming to an end if there is no young person interested in knowing what our history was like and the origin of our people - and seeking to learn our traditional knowledge.
The elders need to pass on traditional knowledge to the young. These are things I learned from my father, and these have to be passed on to young people. I always accompanied my father during the clearing of the smallholdings. So we cut down many areas, and we learned to respect the other clans, the owners of xixá at parties and the community in general. These are moments that we learn from our elders. About building the house: the entire structure of the house was ancestral knowledge passed on to someone younger. Only our people build like that, it’s a different structure. Just as there are people who can sing in our language, few people have this gift. [There should be] respect for our colleagues, and society in general, regardless of age group.