Contemporary distribution of Indigenous peoples in the Lower Tapajos and Arapiuns valleys (Leandro Mahalem de Lima, 2018)

This piece is a case study about river-based communities adjacent to the Amazon River, and an account of their claims for Indigenous recognition since the mid-1990s. I focus on the Lower Rio Tapajos and Rio Arapiuns region, in Santarem, Pará State, Brazil, where I conducted ethnographical studies between 2008 and 2015. I trace aspects of the process of Indigenous political mobilization and its connection to Indigenous history and anthropology, focusing on the legendary and historical shaman, Merandolino, whose rediscovered history is now connecting disparate places and times.


To comprehend Indigenous history in the Amazon valley, scholars must understand the historical importance of the Cabanagem, a revolution that occurred in the Grão-Pará Province of the Brazilian Amazon from 1835-1840.[1] The Cabangem was inspired by the American and French revolutions and mobilized Tapuios and other “colored people” subject to class and race oppression through institutions such as the Workers’ Corps.

Because of Tapuio participation, historiographical accounts maintain, the term Cabano emerged as a reference to inhabitants of cabanas (huts”). But among the descendants of those who lived in these huts, that term is commonly understood as a reference to the gerund of the verb acabar “terminate”—acabando—whereas Cabanagem denotes its substantive form, “termination.” In this line of reasoning, it was the Whites in big boats who brought Cabanagem in. Following either tradition, the Lower Tapajos occupies a central place in the Cabanagem. In May 1836, after the rebels lost control of the capital (Belém), many fled to a fortification built in Cuipiranga, between the Amazon, the Tapajos, and the Arapiuns rivers.

Menéndez’s seminal study of Indigenous occupation between the Rio Tapajos and the Rio Madeira was complemented, in the História dos Índios no Brasil ( da Cunha 1992), by Marta Amoroso’s study of the Mura in the Rio Madeira area, a people whose colonial history is similar to that of groups living in the Lower Tapajos.[2] Amoroso showed that chroniclers attributed great importance to the Mura’s ability to turn others into their own. This ability—traditionally enacted to incorporate other native people and expand their territory—was redirected toward marginalized colonizers. It was because of their expanded networks of allies that the Mura managed to continue existing autonomously along the major rivers. As proposed by Peter Gow for the Peruvian Amazon, Indigenous peoples’ history is “the unfolding, within ‘contact situations,’ of possibilities immanent in the ‘traditional’ structure of native society” (1991, 289). To understand these possibilities, sociological and historical changes such as contemporary processes of ethnogenesis must be apprehended as ethnographical problems.


In 1994, Franciscan friars in Santarem assembled students born in these river communities, acquainted them with the rights recently granted to traditional peoples by the Constitution (1988), and worked with them toward their implementation. Two years later, one of these students, Florencio Vaz, currently an influential Indigenous anthropologist and friar, coordinated the studies that would turn the Tapajos-Arapiuns interfluvial region into an “Extractive Reserve.”[3] During this process, Vaz and other students realized that valuing their traditions was a recognition of what they came to understand as their Indigenous culture. This acknowledgement led to the creation of the Grupo Conciência Indígena (GCI, Group for Indigenous Consciousness) in 1996 and the writing of their own “Indigenous History,” inspired by works like História dos Índios no Brasil. Since then, they have highlighted anthropology as “a weapon in the fight for Natives’ rights” (Vaz 2010, 41).

The anthropologist Florencio Vaz and the healer Laurelino in Taquara (Anonymous, 1994)

In the riverine communities, the emergence of this new “consciousness” followed Vaz’s dialogues with an old healer, Laurelino, in Taquara, on the Lower Tapajos River.

Laurelino was respected as a healer due to his training in the Upper Arapiuns with Merandolino—known according to one observer as “the most famous shaman the Lower Amazon had ever seen” (Ioris 2005, 249). Laurelino declared his pride in being indigenous and encouraged locals to do the same. In 1998, his descendants and co-residents in Taquara began to claim a Munduruku identity, in reference to the historic people of the area.[4] Since then, ethnogenesis quickly grew to a regional scale through a series of Indigenous gatherings.  And today, in this region alone, 67 communities or factions declare belonging to 13 ethnic groups.[5]

Munduruku from Taquara arriving at the first Lower Tapajós Indigenous inter-communitarian meeting, in front of a sign that reads: “the Indigenous struggle reinitiates 500 years after the invasion” (Florencio Vaz, 1999)

Historical sources have played a key role in constituting a renewed Indigenous consciousness, as evidenced by internal discussions about which “ethnic group” each community belonged to. One Indigenous anthropologist, Iza dos Santos (2005), suggested all communities in the region should assume Tapuia as their common identity, since they shared a common culture that emerged in the nineteenth century. Others, like Vaz (2010), suggested origins be traced further back in time and chose to assume the names of old Jesuit missions (Arapium, Tupinambá, Tapajo, Borari, Maytapu, Cumaruara) or other references found in historical sources (Cara Preta, Tupaiu). Others still, so as to mark their differences from those who chose historical names, decided to create ethnonyms for the communities they understood as their peoples. That is the case of the Jaraqui and the Arara Vermelha named, respectively, after a fish and a bird common to the region.[6]

Fragment of Curt Nimuendajú’s Ethnohistorical Map: Brazil and adjacencies. Rio de Janeiro: IBGE, 1981 [1944].


The Arapium, Jaraqui, and Tapajo came together in 2005 to form a council called Cobra Grande or “Anaconda.” In this case, anaconda refers to the famous sacaca “shaman” Merandolino—Laurelino’s teacher, who had turned into an encantado, “enchanted being,” and went to live in the encante “enchanted city” in the fundo or “bottom”—a cosmological domain that exists underneath lived landscapes. Now he occupies the position of dono “master” or mãe “mother” of the Rio Arapiuns and its fishes, a key category in Indigenous cosmologies in Lowland South America.[7]

To travel between cosmological domains, Merandolino wears the body of an anaconda. Some elders also highlight that as a human, he was a white man who in addition to his role as a shaman was the owner of the only steamboat that existed in the Arapiuns. Narrators also describe him—the enchanted being—as one of two twin anacondas, Merandolino being the good twin and the other, an evil trickster. Merandolino is also said to appear in the river in an “illuminated boat,” celebrating with his people. The specifics of these stories resemble peasant tales documented by folklorists in the Amazon valley since the 1920s as well as variations of Indigenous myths.[8]

These narratives presuppose a reality in which shamans and enchanted beings are capable of voluntarily donning different bodily forms in order to circulate between cosmological domains. This metamorphic capacity is understood as a vanishing one, which means that shamans of the past, such as Merandolino, were stronger than healers nowadays, such as Laurelino. These notions of inter-species transmutation in primordial times are virtually universal across Amazonian Indigenous cosmologies.[9]

That time in the past, when living creatures could transmute at will, was succeeded by the epoch when “ancient Indians” began to produce, through slash-and-burn gardening, the fertile “black soils” full of ceramic remnants and (re)discovered by archeology in recent decades.[10] That epoch ended with the Cabanagem, when the blood of the dead turned into “red sand” in combat zones like the beaches surrounding the old fortification of Cuipiranga.[11]


During my ethnographic research, my interlocutors suggested that I find other stories about Merandolino in libraries to contribute to the sort of collaborative research that interests them. I found a reference to the famous shaman in an account written by a local Cuipiranga historian.[12] In this account, “Merandolino Ferreira Miranda, who already had domiciles in Alenquer (Amazon River) and Santa Catarina (Upper Arapiuns),” appears as the third buyer of Cuipiranga’s drylands. The chain of transmission begins after the period when “local Indians allied with the Cabanos,” here a reference to the foreign white rebels. Digging further, I noticed that Miranda, one of Merandolino’s family names, is the same as that of Braz Corrêa Miranda, commander of Cuipiranga’s fortification during the 1830s. Their places of domicile in the Amazon, Upper and Lower Arapiuns also coincide. These connections suggest that Merandolino was probably a descendent of the Cabano leader. If this hypothesis is correct, new connections between life stories and in-depth regional histories, accounted by oral tradition and archival documentation, might be unfolded.

I found another reference to Merandolino in an article by geographer Joseph McCann about agricultural biodiversity in anthropogenic black soil gardens in Amazonia.[13] In this comparative study of different areas of Amazonia, McCann examines three situations in the Upper Arapiuns: (1) new colonists’ houses (Aruá); (2) an ancient Caboclo community (Mentai); and (3) an isolated house (Santa Catarina) “recolonized in the second half of the nineteenth century by a healer known as Mirandolino, famous in the region until today” (Clement et al 2009, 150). According to the authors, the house was still inhabited by Merandolino’s “great-grandson’s family,” who were also “approached by locals for botanical treatments” (ibid).

Typical house surrounded by household gardens (Leandro Mahalem de Lima, 2010)

McCann verified that in more traditional places (Mentai and Santa Catarina), black soils, also named “crop soils,” are typically used to cultivate fruits, medicines, and fragile tubers that feed inter-community exchange. The ability of residents of black soil areas to cultivate manioc in sandy soils caused them to stand out in Santarem’s market as suppliers of manioc flour. Things were different among the “new colons” because black soils were typically used to plant fast-growing maniocs to produce and sell more flour.[14]

Moreover, McCann concluded that the gardens of traditional dwellers function as “laboratories of experimentation, introduction of novelties and accumulation of diversities” (ibid). The major contrast between the old healer’s laboratory and the Caboclos’ gardens was the presence of unique species commonly cultivated in distant areas. To explain their presence, McCann suggested that “Merandolino travelled a lot” or that species like Ipadu and other rare plants were “inherited from [past] Indigenous dwellers” (ibid). For Indigenous descendants, the relevant question might be whether he brought the diversity of life from distant geographical places using a steamboat or else from the “enchanted city” using an anaconda body.

To conclude these notes, I hypothesize about a key topic highlighted by the people I worked with in the Rio Arapiuns region. Why has Merandolino’s story become a means by which they narrate their own history? I suggest it is because he is both an insider who knows deeply about their world (where Cobra Grandes and sacacas exist) and an outsider—a white merchant who turned into an “enchanted master”—who brought new partners, knowledge, and artifacts.

As highlighted by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha twenty-five years ago, white people occupy a privileged place in Indigenous thinking because they introduce “the theme of the inequalities in power and technology” (1992, 18). Merandolino makes sense for the locals, amongst whom History is cultivated like black soil gardens, functioning as a laboratory of experimentation for the introduction of novelties and accumulation of diversities. Merandolino and other historical characters such as the Cabano commander he may have descended from represent cases of success, in which a powerful white man turned into one of them, positively complexifying their world. In the same way, contemporary Indigenous anthropologists, like Florencio Vaz, represent the successful incorporation of scholarly research as powerful weapons in the fight for their rights.

 Read another piece in this series.


Works cited

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[1] Large indigenous, peasant, and urban revolt occurred in the 1830s in the vast territory that comprises the Brazilian Amazon. For more than a year (1835-6), rebels succeeded in controlling provincial government and town councils. For a recent detailed study in English about the theme, see Mark Harris (2010).

[2] For an introductory account about the Mura, see Amoroso’s (1999) entry in the virtual encyclopedia Povos Indígenas no Brasil, edited by Instituto Socioambiental.

[3] An extractive reserve is a type of protected area that guarantees sustainable-use rights to traditional populations, formally established in 1990 to attend rubber tappers claims in the Acre State (close to the border with Peru) and following suggestions provided by anthropologists. For a detailed account of the national implementation of policies that combine environmental protection and collective rights to traditional peoples, see Almeida and Carneiro da Cunha (2000). A short account provided by the same authors is available in the website Conservation Areas in Brazil maintained by the Instituto Socioambiental.

[4] The Munduruku are numerous in the Upper Tapajos. For an introduction to this people, see the entry “Munduruku” available in the virtual encyclopedia Povos Indígenas no Brasiledited by Instituto Socioambiental.

[5] Numbers provided by indigenous representatives (cf. Vaz et al. 2017)

[6] In short, it may be said that ethnonyms were incorporated more as a mean to highlight internal differences than similarities. The “historical names” firstly mobilized by indigenous anthropologists soon opened the way for local leaders to use internal differences between “natural kinds” for the same end. These elements show ethnicity as an expression of totemic-type logic. This argument will be explored in future work.

[7] For more about the widely disseminated notions of dono “master” or mother “mãe” in Amerindian cosmologies, see the comparative study by Carlos Fausto (2008).

[8] For classic folkloric versions see Luís Camara Cascudo ([1945] 2001) or Galvão (1952), or more recent studies by Candace Slater (1994) and Emilie Stoll (2016).

[9] See the recent comparative study by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2012, 55).

[10] For studies in the archeology of the formation of the anthropogenic “black soils/earths of Indians,” see Petersen et al. (2001) and Heckengerger et al. (2007). For studies about the meaning of these soils in the Upper Arapiuns and other sites in Amazon valley, see Raffles (2002).

[11] See Harris (2010, 221-255) for a detailed historical account of “The United Brazilian Encampment at Ecuipiranga, 1833-1837.”

[12] The account, written by Francisco José Corrêa in 1991, was published by Ana Renata Pantoja in the appendix of her doctoral thesis (2010, 326-320).

[13] For an English version of these studies on Agrobiodiversity in Amazonia and its relationship with Dark Earths (with no mention of Merandolino), see Clement et al (2003).

[14] That market strategy, the authors concluded, has more in common with other new settlements throughout Amazonia, as in Novo Airão, near the capital Manaus (Amazonas State), or in Santa Izabel, in the Upper Negro River (Amazonas State).

Leandro Mahalem de Lima: contributions / / Universidade de São Paulo