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Stories from the Field

The Path to Pij Dëh — Part Two
By Patience Epps
Associate Professor of Linguistics, University of Texas at Austin

[Editor's Note: This month sees the second part of The Path to Pij Dëh, a four part series by Professor Patience Epps, recounting her experiences with the Hup people of the northwest Amazon.  You can read the first part by clicking here.]

… Our camp was awake before dawn the next morning.  People drifted down to the stream to bathe, babies cried, women prepared the spicy pepper broth and mingau, or thickened manioc drink, for the morning meal.  Even though the bulk of the buriti fruits had still not been fetched from the forest, there were many of the fruits around, and someone already had a basket full of buriti paste processed the day before.  We drank more c’ak dëh and children ran around eating big fistfuls of the paste.  We were joined by a few late-comers, including Americo’s wife Isabel with her baby, who had come all the way from Tat Dëh village that morning.  The men continued their basket-weaving, and no one seemed to be in a hurry to leave.

By mid-morning the men had finished their baskets and we were packing up camp.  Rosalino took me aside and told me that the men were all going to fetch the buriti, and that I must be sure to stay ahead with the women and children.  The men would come along after, he said, but they would be accompanied by a ‘bicho-do-mato’, a forest creature, and women could not be present.  So I took up my pack and set out with the group.  We were about ten women and nine or ten children, ranging from the three babies to a girl of about twelve.  The older children carried their own little bundles on their backs in a piece of sacking tied with a string, and most were barefoot.

We walked all day, but we stopped often to rest, sitting on leaves and swatting at the hordes of flies and mosquitoes that visited us.  Sometimes we would stop near a stream and bathe, or drink a little shibé (manioc meal soaked in water), or eat some flatbread with hot pepper broth.  Early on, Teresa took out a cigarette of loose tobacco wrapped in notebook paper that had been imbued with a spell by her old father-in-law Filomeno, and blew tobacco smoke over all of us to ward off poisonous snakes.  Once we all stopped abruptly on the path, halted by Paulina, and waited while she poked around in the leaves in front of us with a stick—she had thought she had seen a snake.  At a few points on the path someone spotted a certain kind of ant that has a particularly fierce sting; “cawd’äh! cawd’äh!” the cry would go up, and one by one we would run tiptoeing and giggling through that section of the path.

The children never complained, even when they grew tired and stubbed their bare feet on roots in the path.  Only once did little four-year-old Reynaldo cry: when he reached to pick up a beautiful, enormous yellow flower that lay beside the path, his mother shouted at him and slapped him away from it, and then carried him for the next half hour.  Teresa explained to me later that the flower was poisonous, enough to kill a person who touches it and then puts his hands in his mouth.

Sometime not long before dusk we stopped.  There was no sign of the men, and we had no machete with us, but it would soon be dark.  We all began making a clearing by pulling up small plants and breaking off little saplings.  We searched the woods nearby for firewood and for the big sheltering palm leaves, but could only find a kind of leaf with thin fronds that did not offer much protection against rain.  It was already getting dark, so we strung up our hammocks from the trees around us, and left the leaves in piles nearby; presumably if it did rain they would be better than nothing.  One of the women had already gotten a fire started with the soggy wood we had gathered, and the children played around us, seemingly unfazed by their long day of walking.  Little Rosamere had taken a cipó vine and strung it between two trees like a hammock, and lay on it, swinging herself back and forth and humming.

It was already dark when Filomeno, Paulina’s husband, joined us.  He had left the other men and come ahead to find us.  With his machete he cleaned up our little clearing, and with some of the big leaves built a makeshift roof over his and Paulina’s hammocks.  Our fire was burning cheerfully, but no one seemed to have any food.  I dug into my pack and found a tin of sardines and half a package of spaghetti, so Teresa and I cooked this and everyone got a mouthful or two.  The children still did not complain.

The night air was cold in the forest and we soon rolled up in our hammocks and fell asleep, although it was too cold to sleep soundly and few of my companions had brought a blanket.  The long equatorial night was not yet over when we awoke and blew life back into our fires, and sat huddling around them.  It was then that we first heard the Yurupari trumpets with their low, pulsing drone, far off in the forest.

Priests and anthropologists alike have written about the sacred horns of the peoples of the northwest Amazon, which women are not allowed to see on pain of death.  The various indigenous groups in the region played the instruments in the Yurupari rituals, where the horns and their music were said to embody ancestral spirits.  Priests considered the rituals and beliefs surrounding the horns as “devil worship” and did everything they could to eradicate the practice.  The Salesian Brüzzi Alves da Silva, who spent decades in the region in the mid-20th century, described the Yurupari practice among the Tukanos. He noted that the sacred horns were played “only during the poosé or the dabacuris for fruit… Early in the morning, perhaps around three o’clock, some men sound the mysterious instruments, at intervals… The women and children… run quickly for the longhouse and close themselves inside”.[1]

However, due largely to the efforts of the priests, the Tukanos and other river-dwelling peoples living along the Tiquié River today have for the most part given up the practice.  Nevertheless the Hupd’äh, who live further back in the forest and have thus escaped at least some of the pressure of the priests and missionaries, continue to play the Yurupari instruments from time to time.  Yet they complain that when river-dwellers are nearby they sometimes forbid the Hupd’äh to play the horns, mocking them for being old-fashioned and superstitious.

But the forest is the world of the Hupd’äh, not of the River Indians.  The one Tukano present, the teacher Rosalino, had made Tat Dëh community his home and seemed to have a certain respect for his fellow villagers and their ways.  So this dabacuri, in which the villagers of Tat Dëh would make a ritual presentation of buriti fruits to the people of Pij Dëh, was to be accompanied by the sacred horns and the forest spirits they embodied.

The women and children sat around our fire in the dark forest, listening to the distant drone of the horns.  “There is the Mohõy, the Deer horn,” Paulina said.  There were at least two instruments, their pulses intertwining and getting gradually louder.  The men were getting nearer.  An air of excitement, tinged with fear, surrounded our camp.  A bird called out in the forest nearby, and Isabel, Americo’s wife, said something in a low voice.  “Döh’ãy niiy mah! Curupira is around!” Teresa whispered to me, “Isabel said she heard him during the night.”

Curupira, as Told by TeresaTeresa began to describe the creature Curupira, one of the most feared spirits of the forest. [Click the icon at left to hear Teresa tell the story in her own language!]  “Here in land of the Hupd’äh, the forest up at the headwaters of the streams, lives Curupira,” she told me.  “He has long, reddish hair, and his feet are turned backwards, pointing behind him.  When he wants to eat people he screams just like a puppy, or an inambu bird, or a jacu bird; he can imitate all the animals.  Once a woman went to her manioc garden, and someone who looked just like her husband came to her there.  ‘I’ll check your hair for lice,’ he told her, and she let him open her hair…but she did not realize that when he did so he opened her skull as well and sucked out her brain.  “Let’s go down to the river,’ he said then, ‘and you wash your manioc.’  So she followed him down, but when she reached the riverbank he had disappeared.  She returned home and lay in her hammock, drained of all energy.  Then her husband entered and she asked, ‘did you come to me in the manioc garden?’ ‘No, he replied, I was fishing, you know that!’  She told him what had happened and he parted her hair and looked at her scalp, where a tiny sore remained.  ‘Curupira has sucked out your brain!’ he exclaimed, but his wife was losing consciousness, and by morning she was dead.”

The darkness was getting faintly lighter.  Suddenly the noise of the horns stopped, and a few minutes later the group of men came striding into our camp.  They had left the horns hidden in the stream, Teresa told me; likewise there was no sign of their burden of buriti.  The eerie atmosphere of a few minutes before was broken by the loud jokes and laughter of the reunited group, as someone produced some flatbread and powdered hot pepper, and one of the women stirred tapioca into a pot of water to make mingau, the thick morning drink of the region.  One of the men had caught a small alligator, about half a meter in length, and he toasted it over the coals of the fire…

To be continued in March…

[1] “somente nos poosé ou dabacurís de fruta… Muito de madrugada, talvez pelos três horas, alguns homens fazem soar no pôrto os instrumentos misteriosos, a intervalos… As mulheres e crianças…dirigem-se logo para a maloca e fecham-se dentro” (Brüzzi, A. da S.A. 1977:314, A Civilização Indígena do Vaupés, Rome: LAS).

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Popular Linguistics Magazine, Volume One - 2011