Foto: Museu do Índio, S/d.


  • Other names
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    MT, MS, SP24.776 (Funasa, 2009)
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Social, political and economic organization



On all the Terena reserves today, the “sector” (as the Indians themselves say, and which they use as synonym for the “village”) is the most inclusive social unit, and is an autonomous political unit, that is, it has a “chief" and a “tribal council" that is responsible for the political relations of each sector. Less in Cachoeirinha, where the figure of the "general chief" still remains in force. Strictly tied to the village seat (the Indigenous Post), therefore, the political control of the Reserve still goes through the leaders of this village; in the other sectors, the “general chief" administrates the election and process of choosing the local “chief”. This political arrangement is still the source of many disputes and tensions among the sectors and the “general chief” (and, consequently, the Indigenous Post of the Funai). In short, contrary to what goes on in the majority of the other reserves, in Cachoeirinha the sectors have only a relative political and administrative autonomy (relative to the specific interests of the areas under their jurisdiction and their inhabitants).

Each sector or village decides, within certain normative limits, the pending legal and political issues among its members. Questions that have to do with the group of sectors of the Reserve are discussed in large meetings, with the required presence of all the leaders of the sectors. In Cachoeirinha, these meetings take place in an area around the seat of the Indigenous Post.

The village (or sector) is comprised of a set of homes located within its borders, established by certain “marks” (geographical features, roads, manmade lakes etc.) and after it is discussed with the leaders of the group of the Reserve in the context of the process of granting autonomy of a given village, since the villages were established over the history of the Reserve – a history which we have summarized above. The common interests, those which constitute the unity of the sector, are strictly political: access to lots for gardens is not in question here (we will see later on that this question is connected to the agnatic kingroup); what is demanded of the inhabitant of a given sector is his respect for certain rules of conduct. There is a certain margin of freedom to establish homes in any sector.

This context of freedom is conditioned by the very situation of the Reserve: for, given territorial scarcity, the space provided by the Reserve does not constitute an indispensable and exclusive base for production which generates income and subsistence for all its inhabitants; rather the Reserve of Cachoeirinha is above all, for most of its inhabitants, a living-place and a place of reference for the continuation of the Terena ethos and identity (cf: Cardoso de Oliveira, 1968). One doesn’t live off the Reserve, but on the Reserve: in Cachoeirinha for example, of the 484 nuclear families (father-mother-young children) whom we censused in 1999, around 87 lived exclusively from work on their gardens (about 18%); another 268 combined work on the gardens with occasional work off the reserve (55%); the remaining 129 (around 27%) families thus lived only off work outside the reserve. Hence the observation made by Cardoso de Oliveira, back in the 1950s, that "the Indigenous Reserve, in the Terena area, has a definite meaning in the regional consciousness: it represents a natural labor reserve(1968).

Thus, the Terena Reserve does not represent an indigenous territory, in the sense this term is usually used when, for example, we refer to Amazonian indigenous groups, that is, as a fundamental place for the social reproduction of a society, in the broad sense. We shall see in greater details further on how the situation of the Reserve has been a determining factor in the process of Terena integration into the regional economy. Summarizing our points: the sector is a social unit open to any Terena (including from other Reserves), different from what happens in other social units, which we will now go on to describe.

The residences, in turn, are established in a given sector through the agglutinating focus of the agnatic kingroups (ienõchapá, or “my kin”) – which are constituted in the social unit of greater political and social density in contemporary Terena society, whether on the Reserve or in the city. This kingroup consists of domestic groups connected through agnatic ties (male line of brothers), their families of procreation (wives, children and grandchildren) and occasional aggregated individuals ( adopted children, "cousins", "or "uncles/aunts"), centered (and organized) around the figure of the chief – the father or (at his death) the eldest brother.

The houses of these groups of brothers, in general, are located near each other. Their garden plots are contiguous, and there is economic cooperation and sharing of foods among the houses, thus constituting a unit of real production which overlaps the domestic groups which comprise the unit of production. Mutual support, including political support, is the rule – which does not mean that there don’t occur problems and fissions. Apparently, what guarantees the unity, growth and political weight of the agnatic kingroup is the capacity for leadership and agglutination of its chief – that is, his capacity for widening and keeping together the group of brothers. It should be noted however, that, while the composition of the agnatic kingroup is reckoned genealogically (hence its “closure"), its unity is constructed through the capacity of its leader to make the political solidarity and economic cooperation among brothers (and their respective conjugal families) effective.

Residences, on the other hand, shelter the domestic group, which is minimally made up of two generations (father and sons) – and, maximally by four generations (grandfather, father, sons, and grandsons). From the technical point of view, the domestic group can be constituted by a nuclear family (composed of a married couple and their unmarried sons) or by an extended family (parents and son(s) and son’s wife (wives) or daughter(s) and daughter’s husband(s); or even by two brothers and their wives or two sisters and their husbands, which is very rare in Terena society). On the Cachoeirinha Reserve, for example, about 13% of the households shelter elementary families; the remaining 87% of the houses shelter extended families, which vary in their composition.

The general rule in Terena society for post-marital residence is patrilocality (that is, the young wife going to live in her husband’s father’s house) – at least during the first years of marriage, until the consolidation of their marriage at the birth of children, when the couple establishes a new residence. This new house can be built in the neighborhood group of the father-in-law or his brothers, depending on the more or less agglutinative role played by the agnatic kingroup. On the other hand, the number of verified cases of uxorilocality (the young husband going to live in his wife’s house, which in general is her father’s house) is high – and it is the factor that “hastens” the building of a new house by the husband, as a rule next to the agnatic neighborhood group where he comes from – given that, in a society which is markedly patrilineal and which does not impose the moral or social obligations of rendering service to the wife’s father – the young husband feels uncomfortable in staying there for a long time (cf. Cardoso de Oliveira, 1968).

Thus, the location of the villages is determined by the distribution of these neighborhood groups, whose unity, we have seen, is a result of the process of the constitution of the agnatic kingroup. But this apparent equilibrium in the social and political situation on the Reserves is maintained above all thanks to the rules of solidarity of the group of brothers, which, today, have been upset by the division between “catholics” and “believers” (and, among the “believers”, among the various churches present today on the Reserves). This ideological division, in the recent past, even contaminated the very nucleus of power on the Reserves (Altenfelder on Taunay-Ipegue and Cardoso de Oliveira [1968] on Cachoeirinha).

The distribution of the residences on the Reserves and in their respective sectors, along with the location of the garden plots, pastures and remaining plant covering well illustrates that the space for the installation of new domestic groups on the Reserves has, for years, reached its critical limit. One observes in the Reserve situation a process whereby, increasingly over time, certain external conditioning factors are imposed on the predominant living conditions there.

This set of factors produces the need to search for work on the outside. And its perverse counterpart, which is the relatively high offer of labor – and the subsequent decrease in wages. For that reason, it is of no interest to the regional elites exploiters of this labor, to change the status quo – for there are very few ranches in the region which have not relied on (or rely on) Terena manual labor (cheap) for their clearing and/or upkeep. To any outside observer, it is obvious today that there is a causal link between the Reserve situation (lack of dignity in living conditions, translated into the high rate of migration and job-seeking), the difficulties of getting better living conditions in the urban milieu and the emergence of land claims actions which are unheard of in recent Terena history: the occupation of lands next to the Reserves, which recently occurred in Buriti.

The changes in the historical landholding patterns of the Terena over the years and in the traditional mode of production (given that Terena society is not immune to innovations), as explained in the previous sections, have been fundamentally due to the situation of confinement on Reserves, as Cardoso de Oliveira observed back in the 1950s. It’s clear that an idyllic and totally unreal return to the socio-cultural bases of what things were like before the war with Paraguay is impossible; but it is very possible to expect that the areas which the Terena may recover in Mato Grosso do Sul will be occupied according to their traditions, customs and ways – taking into account several concepts which are more or less obvious for any anthropologist: that socio-cultural patterns are dynamic and necessarily change due to the vicissitudes of history and that “tradition” here(that is, from the anthropological point of view) does not mean “safeguarding relics” and much less “cultural salvaging” (for the Terena will remain a Terena in any situation).

What we mean is that, with increases in the areas of the Reserves, it is very probable that, afterwards, a series of processes will be initiated that will irremediably change the landscape of those areas – such as the return of the forest covering in the areas of pastures; the restructuring of the presently existing secondary forests; the clearing of new areas for gardens that will alleviate the pressure on the remaining plants in the areas which are currently occupied; the emergence of points for gathering and the re-composition of the fauna – becoming indigenous through its mode of use and appropriation.