Death of Tëpi Pajé and the disembodied strenght of the snake
Tëpi Pajé is the name of a powerful shaman of the Matis people. In the Matis language, Tëpi was called xó’xókit, word that names the one that cooks the xó, the one that carries, owns or works with too much xó. The Xó is the shamanic substance of power for the Matis. Tëpi was the only one in his people to be called xó‘xókit, a healer whom many Indians of other ethnicities also visited. On Tuesday, March 7th, the xó’xókit matis died and became tsussin (a disembodied force).
Tëpi was fishing with his family when the snake stung him, near his village Bokwat Paraíso, on the Branco River, heart of the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land, the second largest in the country, with 8.5 million hectares in the state of Amazonas.
Tëpi Pajé arrived still alive in Bokwat Paradise village, but there was no anti-snake serum 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, where the largest number of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in the world, such as the ones known by the name of Flecheiros live, as well as housing the Kanamari, Tsohom-Djapá, Kulina, Marubo, Mayoruna, Matsés, Korubo and Matis. The indigenous land was demarcated in 2000 and approved in 2001.
In 2016, one young Matis man became the first elected municipal councilor of this indigenous ethnic group in Brazil. Funai considers the Matis people as being of recent contact with the national society. Already working in the City Hall of Atalaia do Norte, councilman Marcelo Markë (PSDB) reported that contracts of the Ministry of Health for helicopter transport services were not signed. There was also no boat for the removal of Tëpi to the hospital in Atalaia, a city on the Javari River, on the border with Peru and more than 1,300 kilometers west of Manaus.
“Tëpi always respected the young people, he always fought for us, he was our deputy cacique in Bokwat Paraído village, I’m too sad,” wrote Markë, who is a nephew of the shaman.
When I received the news about Tëpi’s death, I remembered the night I was afraid to die, also from a snakebite, or from a surucucu or from 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 the filmmaker Celine Cousteau’s crew to make a documentary about the lack of health care and the disrespect of the Brazilian government towards indigenous peoples. I suffered in my own body from the lack of care and abandonment.
Binan Chapu Chunu, especialist on plants and herbs, and nurse Felipe Machado took care of me and saved me. There was serum, but only two ampoules, so in the pit dark night, the Matis went by boat with their 8HP engine to get more medicine in the village where Tëpi lived. The nurse gave me another dose, plus hydrocortisone and other drugs. Binan Chapu Chunu was monitoring me, he asked me from time to time if I was dizzy, if my head was turning, he calmed me down by asserting that I would be fine and that he would talk to the snake. I think he was negotiating for me.
More than 25 hours after being bitten and after receiving a negative answer via UHF radio to a helicopter request, by the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (attached to the Ministry of Health), I arrived by 200 HP motor boat in the city of Atalaia do Norte. There was no doctor in the city. We had to travel another hour in the 25 kilometers to Benjamin Contant, where a doctor gave me five more doses of anti-snake serum. I was hospitalized more than 20 days, ran the risk of thrombosis and of having my leg amputated.
All these memories and fear came to visit me today when I learned of the death of Tëpi Pajé. I sang to him, an indigenous way to cry without tears and to repeat to myself that he will not return. Tëpi minbi kuanaremá. It is painful to sing the death of a shaman.
As I learned from Tëpi Pajé, snakes only bite who they choose. It was the second time that the snake chose Tëpi, a true xó’xókit! The first bite put him in closer contact with the dunu tsussin – the disembodied force of the snake – that live in the forest. When I stayed in Beija-Flor village on the Ituí river in 2009, Tëpi offered me half of his house, where he lived with his young wife. For months, I was his guest, because the shaman is the one who deals with foreigners. I paid for his kindness by bringing water to his wife to cook, helping her wash clothes and peeling manioc.
Tëpi asked me to sing for them and in retribution he taught me songs of jaguar and other songs, such as corn songs, jaguar songs, bird songs. He made drawings to explain how he saw the world of 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, at the confluence of the Ituí and Itacoaí rivers.
Tëpi was a child when the Matis made contact with non-Indians in 1976 and 1978. At that time, Funai helped Petrobras in oil drilling activities in the region. It was a military dictatorship, there were spectacular plans to build the Perimetral Norte Road in the middle of the forest, a road that would cut the territory full of rivers and streams from Acre. Tëpi survived the genocidal enterprise carried out by the Brazilian government when attempting to contact the Matis and 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 and intermediated to Funai’s workers to establish non-violent contact with the Korubo group, known as the Mayá group, in 1996. Tëpi taught me a lot about shamanism, about animals, about myths and about tsussin (disembodied forces) villages. But he never wanted to talk about the episode of contact with the Korubo. He was also the one who initiated the women to drink the tatxik vine beverage, a drink previously reserved only for men.
Once, in his house, 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 and he survived this first near-death experience. He fainted, the man who tried to carry him on his back chose to leave him resting in the woods and run for help towards 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.
The xó is the substance of power that enters the body of people by the tattoo, the distinguishing mark of the matis people, with the parallel lines that rise from the mouth along their faces, plus the two parallel lines in each one of the temples and the two forehead long lines. The xó is applied by those who, older men or women, tattoo the face of the young ones. This is how the ancestors’ mark is passed between generations, the xó is inscribed with the ink on the faces of the youngest men and women, everyone receives an injection of xó. Tëpi tattooed the younger ones and left his mark. The xó also enters through the bites of animals that carry it, like the snakes, the scorpions, the bees, the spiders, among others. Pajé received again the xó of the snake. And this time he left.
We, who remain, will remember forever of this man who had a special shine in the black eyes, the color of the xó. His image and his gaze illustrated a cover of National Geographic magazine, at the time he was known as Tëpi The Hunter. The Matis have always recognized him as one of their best hunters.
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 their homes. The strength of our shaman is now a tsussin. We will cry and remember him for many years, we who follow trying to be firm in the rowing, while hunting and singing.
Ilustration by Alberto César Araújo on Frank Koopman’s drawing.
Barbara Arisi is an anthropologist and journalist, a professor at the Federal University of Latin American Integration (UNILA), currently a visiting researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands.