An Evening with the Bacajá Xikrín
February 22, 2012 | Caroline Bennett
Tears swirled with drops of sweat as smoke spiraled up the corner of the dusky hut, its inner walls pierced by a cascade of golden rays shooting through the structure's cracks and casting a warm glow on her crimson painted face.
"For strength!" she gestured me to follow, continuing on in her native Kayapó chant-like tongue. She took my hand with her own, weathered and black with fresh paint, curiously twirling a lock of my blond with the other. I sat down, cross-legged on the earthen floor as her wise eyes caught mine and softened as I smiled. She began to paint my body.
I had read that in the Kayapó myth of the Star Woman, a legendary heroine, the metamorphosis from a star to a human being is realized through the use of body painting and decoration. I closed my eyes and envisioned her, a goddess wrapped in the same intricate pattern emerging on my right bicep. Red and black insect and animal like markings zigzag and speckle the tanned skin of Xikrín men, women and babes, who believe that painting their bodies allows them to more easily connect to the spirits.
We had made it to Potikrô, navigating the vast waters of the Volta Grande to the heart of Xikrín territory on the bank of the Rio Bacajá, an affluent of the Xingu south of Altamira in the northeastern Amazon of Brazil. The Xikrín are a subgroup of the Kayapó, the westernmost group of the Northern Gê. The Kayapó – who call themselves "Mebengnôkre," meaning "people of the big water" – is divided into 15 autonomous groups, each with its own name and distinct cultural characteristics. Our invitation would come from the Bacajá Xikrín, scattered about the river's lofted clay banks in eight communities.
Scrambling up a grassy hill from the river, the village is a central plaza encompassed by spacious thatched huts leading to the surrounding forest. Homes create a nearly perfect circle around a central "Men's House" – a political, juridical, and ritual meeting space where issues are brought about and said to represent the center of the universe. I paused here, realizing the irony of the physical threat posed on the very pulse of the Xikrín by the looming potential construction of the Belo Monte Dam.
Just yesterday I was standing on the bank of a newly constructed coffer dam, a precondition to permanent damming, its menacing red clay wall barricading the life flow of the mighty Volta Grande. Already communities were facing flooding to the east, fleeing their homes as water creeps up through floor cracks. Southern tributaries like the Bacajá would soon suffer opposite effects as the dam sucks them dry.
Healthy, clear rivers are said to be replaced by impassable creeks and stagnant puddles of malaria-birthing mosquito larvae and dying fish. Rural riverine communities who rely on fish for nourishment and livelihood would be forced to the shanty outskirts of nearby Altamira, an industry boomtown already alarmingly overcrowded and taxed by a rapid influx of migrant workers. It is likely that the Xikrín will no longer be able to navigate the Bacajá river to the city, cutting off access to a world they've become dependent on and making medical help unreachable. Having pushed indigenous peoples closer to dependency on the outside world, the government now plans to cut them off, assuaging the region with meager gifts and misleading promises.
"Caroh-lee-não," she whispered, seemingly surprised at the way the sound of her rendition of my name sliced through the quiet with a melodic Kayapó accent. My mind was buried deep by inflated senses provoked by rainforest sounds and smells, the methodical stroke of a wet reed on my skin as she painted, visions of the Star Woman. With projects like Belo Monte looming, I wondered if the Xikrín ever wished they weren't trapped in these human bodies faced with a physical world deteriorating around them; take me back to the sky! Again present, I opened my eyes to find an intricate network of celestial constellations dancing down painted arms.