Malocas and the Annual Cycle

BY POSTED IN All Projects, Amazon, Isthmo-Colombia

The Tiquié River is one of the regions where we have been concentrating our work in the last two decades, focusing on environmental management, indigenous schooling, indigenous language and indigenous and intercultural research.

This project supported the construction and renovation of some malocas, the traditional longhouses of the Tukanoan indigenous groups, specifically those from the Tiquié River, a tributary of the Vaupés that begins in the Colombian territory and flows to Brazil, where most of its length is situated (its total length is about 350km). The construction of a longhouse required a huge effort from the community to gather all the raw materials like wood for the pillars, joists and rafters; palm leaves for the roof, lianas to tie the parts together, and tree bark for the walls.

This also served as a unique opportunity to document the collective labour of the community’s dwellers, including the construction techniques and technologies and the ethnobotany of the vegetal materials used. We also provided some equipment to help the communities in the construction work (fuels, tools, boots etc.) and to document the various aspects of the building processThis included the management of the caraná leaves, that are used for the roof and the ritual procedures carried out to set up the longhouse as a ceremonial and liveable space, which are scarce in some regions and are also used by neighbouring local groups. 

The malocas are both their ceremonial centre and their collective day-to-day meeting place, representing communities’ sociocultural strength. They are also the ritual centres for the manejo do mundo (stewardship of the world”), a set of shamanic practices that focus on the management of the environment according to the ecological-economic calendar and the ceremonial cycle.  

The heart of the longhouse is the feather box where the main ceremonial ornaments are held when not in use. That box is hanging next to the left front pillar of the house. Both the maloca and the feather box represent the social and ceremonial status of the owner and his co-resident group, as the most valuable richness of the groups. For this reason, the malocas were for a long time the target of the missionaries, who persistently tried to dismantle them in the Brazilian portion of the Vaupés River basin. This kind of colonial practice was left behind, and for the last twenty years, people from the upriver communities have resumed to rebuild the longhouses, mainly in this area. 

Community dwellers from six different places asked for support to finish their malocas, which required their physical mobilisation and significant communal efforts. We hoped to at least document the process in five different local communities – Moo-Poea (Caruru-Cachoeira), Wamuña-Pito (São Pedro), Cachoeira Comprida (Yoariwa), Kairataro (Fronteira) and Pinõ Kope (São Felipe, Igarapé Castanha), that co-participate in annual ritual cycles by taking turns hosting parties and offering rituals (dabucuris).  

The malocas are also a symbol of cultural and cosmopolitical resistance. Thus, the project supports the vitality of the ritual cycles in the upper Rio Negro, by enabling not only local rituals but also the broader networks of ritual offering (for example, getting the groups of Alto Tiquié and Pirapiraná working together again). 

The indigenous school has provided high school students with research training. We will incorporate these sectors to the project in various ways, including:  

– Involving schoolteachers and students in documenting the maloca building process, using photos, videos and paintings 

– Getting indigenous environmental managers involved in the ethnobotanical research of the longhouse materials. This research will be related to the gathering and use of raw materials in the construction of the maloca, as well as the analysis of the risks of extinction of some of them in the region. 

– The indigenous agents of environmental management will journal the activities of the longhouse, especially those that constitute the annual ritual cycles. They will do that in illustrated logbooks. 

Throughout the great region of the Upper Rio Negro, the process of cultural violence has affected regions closer to urban centres and the missionaries’ boarding schools. At the headwaters of the rivers, especially at the border between Brazil and Colombia, ritual protection practices of the territory persist as a means to rebalance or “cure” the aggressions of humanity as a whole, thus re-balancing the relations between beings and the different dimensions of the world. This form of socio-environmental heritage continues among the local population today. 

 

In this whole region, community houses like the malocas are places of assembly, organization, association, and ethnic and political affirmation.However, only malocas near the headwaters keep their unique architecture, which is a communal heritage, as well as a consistent ritual life. In a changing world, this construction is vital to the continuation of the cultural practices of the Negro River basin.