“The Mura are everywhere,” a Mura leader, or tuxáua, of Piranha village, said to me. This statement, made during my very first days of fieldwork in Terra Indígena Cunhã-Sapucaia, highlighted the paradox of the Mura territoriality in the Amazon. This essay examines questions of Mura territoriality and mobility, and the construction and implementation of the categories used to describe and delimit Mura space. I begin with an analysis of the anthropological literature and its role in documenting bureaucratic state attempts to administrate Mura affairs. Next, I turn to the work of Mura tuxáua, teachers, and activists, who are disrupting and reclaiming old categories in the service of new claims to sovereignty. Drawing on Gallois’ conception of territoriality (2004), which considers the cultural particularities of Indigenous peoples’ relations to space in the context of contact, I explore how Mura conceptions of space are intimately tied up with the memory and mobility of ancestors, kin whose presence is still felt and known through the land.

The Violence of Colonial Villages

História dos Índios no Brasil (da Cunha 1992) approached the question of Mura territoriality as presented by the colonial documents in two chapters (Menéndez 1992; Amoroso 1992). Eighteenth-century documents indicated the Mura’s presence along the banks of Central Amazonia’s great rivers, an area known by colonial authorities as the “Território do Medo” (“Territory of Fear”) due to reports of Indigenous attacks on colonial vessels or villages. This framing of fear was the justification for a war against the Mura, backed by the full force of the Lei da Liberdade dos Índios of 1755 (Indian Liberty Act) (Amoroso 1991; 1992; 1993; 1998). This collection of colonial documents characterized the Mura as a warring enemy.[1] The documents also revealed how violent colonial processes wrought the transformation of Mura social organization and territoriality.

História dos Índios no Brasil and its essays on the dynamics of Indigenous peoples in the Rio Madeira Basin (State of Amazonas) remain a fundamental reference for the anthropological reports that underwrite the identification of Mura Terras Indígenas. In the late 1990s, ethnographic studies that formed the basis for the demarcation of Mura lands documented a history of dispersion by the rivers, lakes, and streams of the Madeira hydrographic system, as well as Mura migration towards the cities.

These processes date back to the early 1920s, when the administrators and staff of the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI, Indian Protective Service) worked in tandem with extractive industries to advance Brazilian interests in the region, for the harvest of nuts (specifically, the fruit of Bertholletia excelsa, known in English as Brazil nuts)(Amoroso 2013). The government agency implemented the allotment of Mura territory, imposing a model of small estates of discontinuous land, drastically insufficient for the subsistence and physical and cultural reproduction of Mura communities.

As they had with other Indigenous groups, the SPI sought to sedentarize the Mura in aldeias (villages), clearing them off of their traditional lands to allow commercial exploitation. Aldeias were thus an expression of the Brazilian colonial state’s assimilationist policies. Constant Tastevin (1922) and Curt Nimuendaju (1925, 1948, 1950), ethnologists working in the region of Autazes (State of Amazonas) in the early twentieth century, recorded these attempts to sedentarize the Mura. They described local Mura groups, formed by extended families, as occupying (in an arrayed and dispersed way) tens of kilometers along the rivers, streams, and lakes of the region.

Today, throughout the State of Amazonas, the Mura population is estimated at around 12,000 people (IBGE 2010). The Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI, National Indian Foundation) identified the presence of villages and extensive Mura families living on the banks of perennial lakes and streams in the Amazonian municipalities of Borba, Novo Aripuanã, Manicoré, Careiro da Várzea, Autazes, Manaquiri, Anori, Beruri, and Itacoatiara. Adults in the area still recall traumatic memories of dispersion caused by the invasion and devastation of the lands by extractivists’ attempts to occupy the nut forests accessed by the Mura.

Reclaiming and Renaming

In the 1990s, the Conselho Indígena Mura (CIM, Indigenous Mura Council) and the Organização de Professores Indígenas Mura (OPIM, Mura Teachers’ Organization), Mura NGOs based in Autazes, Amazonas, began a discussion on memory, history, and territoriality in their assemblies and schools. At the time, they worked with FUNAI technicians to formulate the principles guiding the regularization of Mura Terras Indígenas. This project indicated village leaders’ investment in recording community memory and dismantling the notion of “community” as marshaled by the state administration. Using the anthropological concept of “culture” and proposing a series of conceptual redefinitions of memory and territoriality, the OPIM adopted the concept of aldeia indígena (Indigenous village) for themselves. They chose this term as a replacement for “community,” which was usually associated with the rural townships of the Amazonian municipalities.[2] The Mura sought to reaffirm themselves as Indigenous and to differentiate themselves from non-Indigenous rural communities in the municipal sphere.

The reappropriation of “aldeia” by the Mura Indigenous movement also made it possible for them to access memories of the traditional territoriality of local groups—which were originally formed by large families living along rivers, lakes, and streams. The term “aldeia” in the context of the Escola Indígena Diferenciada Mura (Mura Indigenous School) was thus an instrument in the service of the memory of kinship. Aldeia was a word associated with “our culture” in Aldeias Indígenas Mura (da Silva et al. 2008), a book that reports the short temporal frame of the existence of villages and emphasizes the way of life of local groups distant from one another.

Similarly, CIM traded the term “captain”— a military concept implanted by the SPI—for “tuxáua” to describe the leadership of the village. Associated with the concept of piwara (tuxáua-piwara), the expression refers to Mura mobility through territory, following the guidance of a leader. The Mura explain that the tuxáua of the local group is the one that establishes their dwelling in a certain territory. It is around this site that the other dwellings of the extended families appear. The polycentrism that characterizes the social dynamics of the Mura Terra Indígena comes from the mobility of the relatives who follow the tuxáua-piwara through the territory. These groups also need the abilities of the shaman, mediator of relations between the Mura and other beings of the cosmos.

OPIM invested in the production of an audiovisual documentary, Yandé Anama Mura. It examined pajelança mura, or Mura shamanistic practices. Carried out by teachers, the project connected to a broader program to document Mura culture. The film proposed the reconceptualization of Mura aldeias, highlighting particularities such as the political centrality of tuxáua, and the knowledge and practices of the pajé: the shaman, healer, spiritual guide, the one who assists in the treatment of diseases.

The articulation of the concepts aldeia, tuxáuai, and pajé (shaman) set new parameters for thinking about memory and territoriality, as well as posing a reinterpretation of historical Mura warfare. Indigenous teachers proposed a revision of the historiography which, according to them, placed too much emphasis on actions “against” the Mura, and stereotypes that fed policies of extermination. For example, and crucially, Aldeias Indígenas Mura highlighted contemporary customs and traditions to “fight against the prejudiced and colonizing ideas that the Mura people no longer exist” (Gomes da Silva et al. 2008, 17).

“The Mura are everywhere”

To illustrate the deployment and use of these emerging concepts, I will focus on the story of the birth of Aldeia Piranha on the Rio Preto do Igapó-Açu, a tributary of the Rio Madeira, located in Terra Indígena Cunhã-Sapucaia. This origin narrative highlights the articulation of tuxáua and pajé in the implantation of a new village. The tuxáua leads the local group formed by an extended family as they travel through their territory. The pajé acts as the village’s spiritual guide who visits villages of the dead, the city of enchanted ones. The narrative introduces us to the Mura shamanic system.

“The Mura are everywhere,” a Mura leader, or tuxáua, of Aldeia Piranha, said to me: here I turn to the ethnographic data of my research, carried out since 2016 in Terra Indígena Cunhã-Sapucaia (TICS) located in Borba, Amazonas. This territory was officially demarcated by the Brazilian state in 2000. My research project explored the theme of Mura territoriality, following Gallois (2008) in examining Indigenous transformations in situations of contact. I asked my interlocutors about their memory of territorial practices. In the field, I followed the building of narratives related to villagers’ memories of the TICS, particularly regarding the agency and political leadership of tuxáua and the practices of pajelança in the lower Madeira.

It was my Mura interlocutors who first recommended I situate questions of territoriality within the field of tuxáua politics. They emphasized the centrality of the tuxáua leadership in the creation and consolidation of their collectives, and so drew my attention to this question. A leader from Aldeia Piranha, Pedro Marques de Sousa, spoke with me about the abilities of the Mura tuxáua, and the contemporary political action of the leadership:

In our language, we old tuxáua from Igapó-Açu are “piwara.” We lead so that the group does not die for nothing, as well as the animals, which also always follow a piwara. The piwara is the one who feels bad, the one who feels the battle. Those who follow must obey his language. It is also like this with animals: when the one that comes in front is killed, the flock spreads; If you want to finish with the pack, kill the piwara (Amoroso 2013).

In the mentioned passage, de Sousa associates tuxáua with piwara. The term piwara appears in the earliest studies of ethnology about Tupi languages speakers ​​as an “animal spirit”, or “master” of animals, an individual of the species leading the pack. The expression Mura-Peara was widely adopted by Mura Indigenous organizations with the purpose of highlighting the political role of the tuxáua, elder leaders of the villages, who guide the Mura in their displacements through a certain territoriality.

Village life in Cunhã-Sapucaia is a relatively recent event, associated with the creation of the Serviço de Proteção ao Índio (Indian Protection Service). Until recently, local groups kept scattered dwellings on the banks of the Rio Preto do Igapó-Açu, a form of sparse occupation of the territory with dwellings far apart from each other, along the 150 km Rio Preto do Igapó-Açu. After the demarcation and the encouragement of the State to create the villages, they now present the aspect of the rural communities of the municipality of Borba, with most of them counting on basic services of health care, schools, and supply of electricity by diesel engines. The most populated villages in the region, Piranha and Jutaí, have two dozen houses each.

The smaller villages, however, are created and then abandoned, their existence owing to the political ability of the old tuxáua who prevent the dispersal of their relatives and strive to retain their married sons and daughters in the vicinity of their original dwellings. Thus, village officials, who introduced the element of outside observers—and the legal figures of Indigenous land, the municipality, the state, the nation—did not reduce the tasks of the tuxáua, to foster the formation of the collective and to dissolve unwelcome initiatives of political action against their village. The tuxáua is the cohesive and stabilizing catalyst of Mura villages—just as, on the other hand, accusations of witchcraft can act as a destabilizing force. This theme leads us to the figure of the shaman.

According to the inhabitants of the village of Piranha, lying above a ravine that bends over the black waters of the Rio Preto do Igapó-Açú and near the entrance of a tributary lives a snake with a piranha’s head. This cannibalistic anaconda gives the village of Piranha its name. The village pajé follows the underwater movements of the anaconda and seeks to unveil her intentions on a daily basis. The story of the village’s foundation in the 1970s introduces aspects of the Mura shamanic system, or pajelança. The village’s residents hold memories of a portal discovered by a pajé, which gave access to the underwater region of “the enchanted ones” and to the anaconda with a piranha’s head. A leader of a domestic group usually accompanied the shaman in visits to the “bottom city” located below the current village, which can only be accessed when its gate-like rock formations are exposed in the summertime.

The Mura inscribe into the landscape memories of the piranha-snake, of places frequented in shamanic journeys and in dreams. Ethnographic inquiry gives access to the auxiliary spirits or caboclos, the caboclos do centro (from the center) and caboclos do fundo (from the bottom).[3] Activated by the shamans, they obtain from the anaconda the knowledge needed to treat assombramento diseases (haunting diseases) or to counteract the abduction of one’s shadow by witchcraft. Shamanism thus bears the signs of a primordial complexity, accessing a true eternity, an absolute time of the origins. Pajés are men and women engaged in “spiritual healings” in villages and outskirts of the cities frequented by the Mura. At dusk, the residents of Piranha follow the travels of the shaman, going upriver with the botos (river dolphins), moving in the deepest waters, in search of answers to the evils that affect their village. They await, with apprehension, the outcome of the shaman’s negotiations with dangerous and vengeful beings. At other times, the pajé’s visits to the villages are motivated by the homesickness of relatives who died, from whom they await news.

Relations with the Land and the Copresence of Ancestors

The villages and the memories of village ancestors inscribe a history of Mura movement through the landscape.[4] In addition to travel motivated by subsistence activities, the Mura describe rivers, lakes, and streams; these are places retained in memory and constantly updated by forming and refoming relations with the beings of the cosmos, such as the characters in the anthropophagic “bottom cities” inhabited by the enchanted ones. In the same way, they turn to the “center,” the forests they explore, which include lugares (places) related to the piwara level of plants and animals. In other words, in the forest, the Mura encounter “fields of nature” associated with the addresses of “masters of animals” and “masters of plants,” domains of interaction that demand respect and appropriate procedures.[5] The origin of diseases, as well as the healing procedures among the Mura, are associated with beings that inhabit diverse levels of the cosmos. The bottom (the river and perennial lakes), the center (the forest) and the border (the lowland) are planes of the cosmos from where diseases emerge (Scopel 2007).

We can take inspiration from the Mura’s methodological suggestions for our ethnographic research. They invite us to think about territoriality in terms of the dynamics of construction and dissolution of relatives and kin relations around a tuxáua. Such dynamics are marked by the displacement and polycentrism of the villages. From the images of the expanded territory of the Mura delineated by the sources that dealt with the colonial war, I propose an alternative interpretation of Mura territoriality that takes seriously the relations the Mura have established with the overflowing landscapes of the Purus-Madeira rivers. These relations with the land seem strongly based on the memory of the displacements of their kinsmen through the territory, which in turn produces resilient images of places frequented by the shamans and which are associated with the presence of the ancestors. Thus, for the Mura, understanding their territory requires an examination of the role of their leaders, the tuxáua, who build around themselves the villages, and pajelança, which reveals a metaphysical landscape shaped by shamanic events, including the visits to the ancestors that inhabit the cities of the enchanted.

 Read another piece in this series.


Works Cited

Amoroso, Marta. 1991. Guerra Mura no Século XVIII. Versos e Versões. Master’s thesis. Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Campinas São Paulo.

———.  1992. “Corsários no caminho fluvial: Os Mura do Rio Madeira.” In História dos Índios no Brasil edited by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, 297-310. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

———. 1998. “Território do medo: Notas sobre a utilização da crônica setecentista como fonte da etnografia Mura.” In Além dos territories: Para um diálogo entre a tecnologia indígena, os estudos rurais e os estudos urbanos, edited by E. Godoy and A. Niemeyer. Campinas: Mercado de Letras.

———. 2013. “O nascimento da aldeia mura: Sentidos e modos de habitar a beira.” In Paisagens ameríndias: Lugares, circuitos e modos de vida na Amazônia, edited byMarta Amoroso and Gilton M. Santos.São Paulo: Terceiro Nome.

da Cunha, Manuela Carneiro, ed. 1992. História dos Índios no Brasil. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

———. 2009. “Cultura” e cultura: Conhecimentos tradicionais e direitos intelectuais.” In Cultura com aspas e outros ensaios. São Paulo: Casac Naify.

Descola, Phillipe. 2006. As lanças do crepúsculo: Relações jívaro na Alta Amazônia. Translated by Dorothée de Bruchard. São Paulo: Cosac Naify.

Gallois, Dominique T. 2004. “Terras ocupadas? Territórios? Territorialidades?” In Terras Indígenas e Unidades de Conservação da Natureza: O desafio das sobreposições, edited by Fany Ricardo. São Paulo: Instituto Socioambiental.

da Silva, A. Gomes, et al. 2008. Aldeias Indígenas Mura. Manaus: UFAM.

Menéndez, Miguel A. 1992. “A area Madeira-Tapajós: Situação de contato e relações entre colonizador e indígenas.” In História dos Índios no Brasil, edited by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, 281-296. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Nimuendaju, Curt. 1925. “As Tribos do Alto Madeira.” Journal de la Société des Américanistes 17: 137-172.

———. 1948. “The Mura and Pirahã.” In Handbook Of South American Indians, edited by Julien Haynes Steward, 255-268. Washington: Smithsonian.

———. 1950. “Les Migrations Historiques des Tribus Tupi-Guaraní…” Journal de la Société des Américanistes20: 390-391.

OPIN. 2009. Yandé Anama Mura. Documentação Audiovisual e Recuperação do Patrimônio Imaterial dos Pajés e Pearas Mura. Autazes, AM. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbnH4n5WSJg.

Roller, Heather. 2014. Amazonian Routes: Indigenous Mobility and Colonial Communities in Northern Brazil. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Scopel, Daniel. 2007. Saúde e Doença entre os Índios Mura de Autazes (Amazonas): Processos socioculturais e a práxis da auto-atenção. Master’s thesis. Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina.

Tastevin, Constant. (1922) 2008. “Os índios Mura da região do Autaz.” In Tastevin e a etnografia indígena: Coletânea e tradução de textos produzidos em Teffé (AM),edited by Priscilla Faulhaber and Ruth MonserratRio de Janeiro: Museu do Índio.



[1] The Indian Directory was enacted in 1757 by the Marquis of Pombal and provided for the emancipation of the Indian settlements as villages and villages run by a director. The Mura were considered enemies of the Portuguese Crown by the Royal Charter of 1798 and treated as a case of “Excession of Freedom.” The documents relating to the territoriality of the Mura in the eighteenth century and the declaration of the Mura as war enemies of the Portuguese Crown are in: “The Cars of the Devout of the Gentile Mura” (1738-1739); the epic poem A Muhuraidaby Henry John Wilckens (1785); “News of the Voluntary Reduction of Peace and Friendship of the Fierce Nation of the Gentile Mura in the years 1784, 1785 and 1786”; and the Royal Charter of 1798. They are analyzed by me in Amoroso (1991, 1992). See also Roller (2014).

[2] On the process and the meanings of the appropriation of the anthropological concept of culture by the Indigenous organizations, see da Cunha (2009).

[3] Caboclo refers to a person of mixed Indigenous and European heritage.

[4] “Apparently deserted, this territory is stranded by a thousand events that, more than specific places, give the anonymous forest the historical substance of its points of reference,” (Descola 2006, 154).

[5] The Mura call them “fields of nature” referring to the special formations that biologists identify as Amazonian meadows. They dot the vast expanse of the Purus-Madeira interflow.

Marta Amoroso: contributions / mramoroso@usp.br / Anthropology - CEstA / USP