Txopokods and Clay Pots

March 5, 2003

Betty Mindlin and indigenous storytellers, Barbecued Husbands, London: Verso, 2002.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

barbacuedhusbandsBetty Mindlin is an anthropologist living in Brazil, and a founding member of the Institute of Anthropology and the Environment.  IAMA has been involved in extensive fieldwork with Brazil’s indigenous communities since the early 1990s, promoting native languages through multicultural and multilingual programs. The compellingly titled Barbecued Husbands is Mindlin’s new collection of stories recording the extraordinary myths of tribal peoples from Rondonia, a remote area of the Amazon near the Brazilian border with Bolivia.  Mindlin arranges the short, frequently shocking stories according to six tribal groups, representing the oral storytelling of the Macurap, Tupari, Ajuru, Jabuti, Arikapu, and Arua peoples.

To a Western reader the stories contained in Barbecued Husbands appear fantastic. Human heads detach from their bodies at night and fly through the air in search of food.  Tapirs strip off their fur and transform into seductive humans.  Mothers turn upside down and become cooking pots for slow boiling chicha (an intoxicating drink best made by women – because vegetables chewed by women make a sweeter fermented drink than anything masticated by men).  Piranhas spring fully formed from the severed head of a devoted, but discarded wife.  And the disappointed dead ascend as newborn stars or constellations.  Yet these seemingly extraordinary oral narratives are coherent tales of origin, identity and instruction within indigenous societies.  This rich collection of myths provides a wide range of stories explaining natural phenomena, human skill, and social mores of interest or practical application to tribal people.  Various storytellers relate why Brazil Nut trees are tall, why thunder roars, or why women menstruate. (In ancient times men used to menstruate and women would tease them about it, but since the day men retaliated by flicking menstrual blood at their tormentors it has been women who suffer.)  These stories explain the origin of cool rivers and the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes.  They narrate how the tribe survived disaster, and the origin of clay pots.  These stories also warn against incest and the dangers of spirit lovers sneaking about at night.  And young girls are counseled not to reject short suitors or they might end up with a snake for a husband!

The myths are often brutal, direct, and yet dreamlike, with sex, food and death constant preoccupations.  Hunting and foraging skills, body painting, drinking parties, love in a hammock, and the medicinal snuff associated with shamanism mark positive dimensions of life for the peoples of the jungle. But the Amazon is no idyll.  Jealousy, vengeance, cannibalism, wild beasts, and malevolent spirits mark the dangers and despairs of tribal life.  A number of the stories deal with the near extinction of the tribe.  Ghosts populate the jungle, and villagers need to be constantly alert and aware of danger.  Significantly, in some tribal languages the word for evil spirit is also the word for white man, but many of these stories predate contact with Europeans. The villages also have their own endogenous problems unrelated to the historic disaster of colonisation, making life in the primal Amazon less an Enlightenment-era State of Nature – populated by nakedly happy noble savages – and a little more Hobbesian in prospect: nasty, brutish and short.  Adultery or unrequited passion leads to murder or rape; scarcity brings theft, slaughter and cannibalism; and the Stubborn One, as is painfully apparent in many communities, ruins things for everyone.  At times the narrator of a gruesome moral tale links the old story with current practice and past – often violent – behaviour, such as the Tupari legend of a girl who refused to get married.  She was killed, roasted, and eaten.  “Even today, when a girl doesn’t want to get married, they tell her the story of Piripidpit.  In the old days, if a girl didn’t want to get married, they had her killed.”

A small number of the indigenous narrators of these marvelous legends were born in remote areas of the Amazon before contact with white people.  They suffered the decimation of their communities from introduced diseases like measles, or were forced into near slavery on rubber plantations in the 1920s and 1930s.  Many were dispossessed, moved on from their tribal lands, or required to work on the plantations before some groups attained land rights in the late twentieth century.  The six tribal groups represented in Barbecued Husbands represent a total population of 750 people.  In some of these tribes only five or six people retain knowledge of the traditional language.  Mindlin has had contact with one tribe, the Kanoe, where only one native speaker remains.

While a few of the native storytellers spoke to Mindlin in Portuguese, most used their native language. Some of the stories in this collection have passed down a complex path of translation from one indigenous language to another, then into Portuguese and finally rendered in English.  They remain vibrant and challenging for the non-indigenous reader, with striking imagery and occasional echoes or themes repeated in the stories and across tribal groups. Mindlin has sought to be true to the mood of the narrations rather than literal, although she has been careful not to invent material.  She is keen to have her collection live as a resource for indigenous peoples, and Mindlin has retained over three hundred hours of tape-recorded stories for others to use for education, further research and translation.  The Jabuti, among other tribal peoples, believe in the transformative power of words: “In those ancient times, what was said happened.”  With Barbecued Husbands and other collections like Mindlin’s living archive, things will continue to happen.

And finally, some practical advice: Whenever confronted by a ravenous Txopokod, do not be foolish enough to believe that handing over all the fruit from an apui tree will satiate this evil spirit.  A Txopokod certainly loves apui fruit, but your flesh will remain irresistibly desirable.  Unless you arm yourself with pepper; then you should be relatively safe.

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