By Barbara Arisi
Tëpi Pajé was a powerful shaman of the Matis people. He was called xó’xókit, a word that names the one who cooks xó, the one who carries, owns or works with too much xó. The Xó is the shamanic substance of power for the Matis. Tëpi was the only matis to be called xó‘xókit. On March 7th, Tëpi died.
He was fishing with his family when a snake bit him, near Bokwat Paraíso village, on the Branco River, Vale do Javari Indigenous Land, the second largest in the country, with 8.5 million hectares, in the Amazon.
Tëpi Pajé arrived alive in the village, but there was no anti-venom and there was no nurse. There was no helicopter or boat so he could not be removed to a hospital to have increased his chance of being saved. Health care in the indigenous territory is very precarious, drugs are lacking, health workers and nurses work in poor conditions.
The Javari Valley is a unique place, thanks to its diversity and socioenvironmental richness. It is home to the largest number of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in the world: Kanamari, Tsohom-Djapá, Kulina, Marubo, Mayoruna, Matsés, Korubo and Matis people. This vast land was demarcated in 2000.
When I heard the news in Amsterdam, I remembered the night I was afraid to die, also from a snakebite, from a surucucu or a jararaca – nobody caught her, so we will never know for sure. It happened in the Tawaya village, on the same Rio Branco, in 2014, when I was helping Celine Cousteau’s crew to make a documentary about health. I suffered in my own body from the lack of care and abandonment.
Binan Chapu Chunu, herboralist, and nurse Felipe Machado took care of me. There were only two ampoules of anti-venom, so in the pitch dark night, the Matis went by boat with their 8HP engine canoe to get more medicine. I got another dose, plus hydrocortisone and other drugs. Binan Chapu Chunu calmed me down, he negotiated with the snake.
More than 25 hours afterwards, we arrived by 200 HP motor boat in the city of Atalaia do Norte. There was no doctor in the city, so we had to travel another hour. Finally, a doctor gave me five more doses of anti-venom. I was hospitalized more than 20 days, running the risk of thrombosis or leg amputation.
All these memories came to visit me when I learned of his death. I sang to him, in the indigenous way to cry without tears. Tëpi minbi kuanaremá. It is painful to sing the death of a shaman.
As I learned, snakes only bite who they choose. It was the second time that he was chosen, a true xó’xókit! The first bite put him in closer contact with the dunu tsussin – the disembodied force of the snake – that lives in the forest. When I stayed in Beija-Flor village on the Ituí river in 2009, Tëpi offered me half of his family house. The shaman is the one who deals with foreign affairs.
Tëpi asked me to sing for them and in return he taught me songs of jaguar and songs of corn. He made drawings to explain me about the non-physical forces. Much of what I wrote in my PhD thesis, I learned from him. We had met in 2003, he worked at the Vale do Javari Ethno-Environmental Protection Front Base.
Tëpi was a child when the Matis made contact with non-Indians in 1976 and 1978. Petrobras was busy with oil drilling tests in the region. The military dictatorship had plans to build a road in the forest. Tëpi survived the enterprise that turned out in killing more than two thirds of his people. He also lived the experience of being one of the four Matis men who helped to establish non-violent contact with the Korubo group in 1996.
Once, Tëpi told me about his near-death experience and how he became a shaman. He was hunting when he felt the pain of the snakebite. He fainted, and the man who tried to carry him on his back chose to leave him resting in the woods and run for help in the village. When he returned with other people to pick him up, he came upon Tëpi walking very close to the main longhouse. He fell to the ground and his companions carried him. Later on, Tëpi said that the spirits of the forest had carried his body there.
Xó is the substance of power that penetrates the body of people with the tattooage, the distinguishing mark of the Matis people: parallel lines that rise from the mouth along their faces, two parallel lines on each one of the temples and two long lines on the forehead. Xó is applied by those who, older men or women, tattoo the face of the young ones. This is how the ancestors’ xó runs between generations, inscribed ink in the faces of everyone. Tëpi tattooed and left his mark. Xó also enters through the bites of animals that carry it, like snakes, scorpions, bees, spiders, among others. Pajé again received the xó of the snake and this time he left.
We, who remain, will remember forever this man who had a special shine in his black eyes, the color of xó. His gaze illustrated a cover of National Geographic, when he was known as ‘Tëpi the Hunter’.
His death is an immense loss to the Matis people and to all of us who have had the pleasure of learning and living with this man who always brought food, care and lessons from the forest into our homes. The strength of our shaman became a tsussin. We will cry and remember him for years, we who follow trying to be firm in rowing, while hunting and singing.
(An earlier version of this article was published in Amazonia Real)
Barbara Arisi is an anthropologist and journalist, a professor at the Federal University of Latin American Integration (UNILA), and currently a visiting researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands.