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The Yaokwa ritual of the Enawenê Nawê indigenous people is the main ceremonial ritual of the Aruak ethnic group, whose traditional territory, covering an area of 742,080 hectares, is located in the state of Mato Grosso in the centre west of Brazil. The Enawenê Nawê people live in a single village in the valley of the Juruena River and have a population of nearly 700 people.
Orientated by the cosmology of the Enawenê Nawê and regulated by the cycles of nature, the Yaokwa Ritual integrates complex relationships of a symbolic order and link different domains of their society, culture and nature. The start of the ritual signals the start of the Enawenê Nawê calendar year, when the majority of the men from the village embark upon the task of building dams and traps where large quantities of fish are collected and preserved to be taken to the village and consumed over six months.
The ritual runs for all of the dry season, a period marked by interactions with the feared beings of the subterranean and celestial worlds, the Yakairiti and Enore Nawê, respectively. The Yakairiti are, from the perspective of the indigenous people, condemned to live with an insatiable hunger and depend upon the Enawenê Nawê to satisfy their voracious desires for vegetable salt, fish and other dishes derived from maize and manioc. And so, the Enawenê Nawê must establish a relationship of constant exchange with these spirits in order to maintain the social and cosmic order of things. An exchange that occurs through a complex ritual cycle across the calendar year. The Yaokwa ritual begins in January with the collecting of manioc and raw materials such as tree barks and seed pods, for the construction of the “Mata” - a central feature of the fishing traps that will be connected to the fishing dams to be constructed along the length of the rivers. Each year from February to April all the males, including boys of all ages, leave the village to head for the fishing camps. Only women, babies and the men who belong to the clans that act as hosts for that given period remain in the village.
The exact moment of departure is dictated by both the blossoming of the “gramínia ohã” flower and by the lunar cycle. These signs mark the start of the “piracema”, the migratory movements of the fish from the river delta back to the river beds where they spawn. Arriving at the camps, the fishermen and their sons, begin the construction of the fishing dams, which must follow strict procedures to avoid breaking under the force of the water. At the camp the preparation and ritual distribution of the vegetable salt and the curing of fish take place.
At the dams, the fishing lasts two months and is directed by the elders, those knowledgeable of the signs emitted by nature that indicate each stage of the rite. The fish and the vegetables produced and stored provide for the festive banquets that occur daily for a few more months, on nights illuminated by bonfires and accompanied by songs with flutes and dances. The festive banquets feed both the people and the subterranean beings, the Yakairiti, who, once satisfied, influence the natural world in favour of the wellbeing of the Enawenê Nawê people.
On the return journey, all of the boats coming from different camps converge at the meeting point, near the village, one or two days before the triumphal return of the fishermen to the village via the “Path of the Yaokwa”. Some hosts come to this meeting point with welcome offerings and arrange the details of the big arrival at the village.
The fishermen at the port and the hosts at the village, the women and the babies will all be dressed and decorated appropriately for this moment. The arrival is also marked with the commencement of musical performances and dances in the village.
It is of interest to note that the children actively participate in the tasks related to the Yaokwa, the boys accompany their fathers to the dams and are allocated certain tasks according to their age, as well as keen observation of the adult proceedings. The youngest ones entertain themselves with games that simulate the building of dams, in the case of the boys, and the preparation of the food dishes, in the case of the girls.
The Enawenê Nawê distinguishes themselves by being skilled fishermen, divers and navigators of their waterways. Experience of the network of waterways is in itself a field of knowledge (one of spatial and temporal orientation), a vital source of resources for the Enawenê Nawê, as most of their pathways are by water. Traditionally and until today they do not hunt nor consume red meat. And so the fish collected from the Yaokwa Ritual constitute their principal source of protein.