The Rikbaktsa, also known as “Orelhas da Pau” (Wooden Ears) or “Canoeiros” (Canoe People) inhabit the Juruena river basin in the northwest of Mato Grosso. Today their population is approximately 1300 people and their territory covers over 400,000 hectares of Amazon forest. Reputed as ferocious warriors in the 1960’s, they experienced a depopulation of 75% of their members with a low of just 300 people. Now recovered, they still have the respect of the regional population in recognition for their persistence in the defence of their rights, territory and way of life. 

Their language is called either Rikbaktsa or Erikbaktsa which is part of the Macro-Je linguistic branch. It is interesting to note that there is a difference between the male and female speech, in such a way that the ending of several words indicate the gender of the person who is speaking. Currently there are 33 villages in the Rikbaktsa territory, traditionally villages used to be comprised of one or 2 houses but now some have more than 10. 


Village Life

Natural resources are the Rikbaksta’s main asset. The ancestral knowledge regarding plant / animal species and reproductive cycles which has been passed down from generation to generation has ensured strength in the group. The sharing of such knowledge and the universal access of all members to the resources in their territory is responsible for the high degree of internal egalitarianism. There is no need to accumulate surplus, since the recourses are stocked up in the forest and everyone knows how to retrieve them when it is needed. The Rikbaktsa see themselves much more as hunters and gatherers than as farmers, even though agriculture and the ritual ceremonies associated with it play a central role in their social life’s pace and organisation. 

Each residence generally produces and consumes its own food with coorperation among a larger group occurs during rituals and a few other occasions. Traditionally, the Rikbaktsa have had no chiefs and each domestic group is theoretically is its own political unit. Despite the lack of official leaders, there are influential community members that shape others’ behaviour. The society is structured around reciprocity relations established amongst the clans. They exchange women through marriage, and goods and labour are offered in exchange for help in clearing of planting fields. Such interdependence can be observed also in hunting, in which the hunter always gives the prey to his companion.

Agriculture & Subsistance

The Rikbaksta use use slash and burn agriculture where 1 - 2 hectare planting fields are cleared by fire every 2 - 3 years. They plant rice, cassava, maize, yams, beans, cotton, nuts, sugarcane and a wide selection of fruit. Men take part in hunting and the Rikbaktsa eat almost every animal available to them with their most frequent prey being monkey. They also eat all kinds of fish, birds, turtles and their eggs. Children as young as 3 years old can be seen playing and killing fish with their bows and three-tipped arrows. In general, the tribe are constantly aware of what nature offers them, directing their diet, their activities and their rituals in accordance to the rhythm of growth and animal and plant cycles which they take advantage of at the appraise time of the year. 

The Spirit World

The Rikbaktsa believe in reincarnation and an exchange of “souls” among beings of the physical world; the fait of the dead varies and is dependent on the life they lead a human beings. The virtuous may be reincarnated as human beings or night monkeys (which are not hunted by the tribe), while the villainous are reincarnated as dangerous animals such as jaguars or poisonous snakes. The hundreds of stories that make up the myths that gives form and sense to the lives of the Rikbaktsa are told over and over by the older indians. Even the children use them as reference in their relations with the surrounding physical and social environment, in an effort to maintain the harmony between their activities with the immanent order of the cosmos, portrayed in their myths. 

Sickness is seen as resulting from the breaking of taboos, from spells, or from poisoning by enemies. Rikbaktsa traditional medicine uses plant matter and ritual purification. For the Rikbaktsa, music, rituals, and traditional dress have served as a unifying element in the face of contact with the outside world. Hunting, fishing, gathering, and agriculture are ritualized with ceremonies throughout the year. The two largest ceremonies are the January green maize ceremony and the May forest-clearing ceremony. Ceremonies often involve body paint, feather ornaments and the performance of mythical stories and recent fights. The Rikbaktsa are excellent flute players and the appropriate traditional songs are performed at each ceremony. 


Date accessed 01.04.15

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