May 30, 2015

A Welcome of Tears, and Farewell to Chief Mro’ô

When you cry for someone you’ve lost, you cry for everything you’ve ever lost.

Although it is perhaps the most universal human emotion, grief weighs uniquely upon each of us, and we each must find our own way through the wastelands of loss and bereavement, shadowed by the patterns and compulsions of our distinctive personalities, families and societies. Modern American society seems bent on classifying, five-stepping and pressing on through grief; other societies across the globe give witness to a wide diversity of strategies, from strong repression
[1] to cathartic indulgence.[2]

The Kayapó people of Brazil enact the lingering toll of grief through the ritual “welcome of tears,”[3] in which friends or family members who haven’t seen each other for some time cry, wail, embrace and wipe tears away as they remember loved ones they have lost since their last meeting. This custom attracted international attention in 2011, when a photograph of Kayapó chief Raoni in tears was circulated widely with a caption stating (incorrectly) that he was crying over the approval of the Belo Monte dam project. In fact, he was enacting the tearful ritual of greeting with a relative

Kayapó chief Raoni greets a relative in the traditional "welcome of tears"

When a young Kayapó filmmaker called me at 2 AM on the second of January this year to tell me that the chief of Turedjam village, Mro’ô, had died, I thought I must have misunderstood. This just couldn’t be: Mro’ô is younger than I am. I had seen him a little more than a month before, if ever preoccupied with the burdens of leadership on a violent frontier, still alive, healthy and happy, surrounded by his grandchildren at an idyllic small village where one of his daughters had moved. 

Mro'ô Kayapo, 1969-2015

When I had last seen him, Mro’ô was proud to learn that yet another of his many ambitious dreams would soon come true: three Kayapó film makers, including one novice cameraman from his own village, had been invited to travel in March of 2015 to represent his people’s concerns and show images from Kayapó culture at an international event on digital media in the United States. I had come to Turedjam in late November of 2014 with anthropologist/journalist Felipe Milanez to convey the good news to the people of Turedjam, and to begin the complex and time-consuming arrangements for obtaining passports and U.S. visas for the Kayapó film makers who would be traveling.

A soft-spoken yet determined leader, Mro’ô had first approached me at the Goeldi Museum in Belem during my first month curating the ethnographic collections there in 2009. He was visiting the museum with French anthropologist Pascale de Robert, and asked me for help to obtain ongoing support for this exchange with the Goeldi Museum. He was especially eager to equip and train a cohort of Kayapó youth to use video cameras and digital editing equipment to record Kayapó culture, both material objects preserved in the Goeldi Museum collections, and the living culture of traditional dances, songs, orations and ceremonies that still take place regularly in modern Kayapó villages : “The old people are all dying,” he had said. “We need to register our culture so that our children and grandchildren will not forget.” 

Mro'ô supervising construction of a ceremonial mask at the Goeldi Museum, 2009

Mro’ô was grandson of the legendary (and controversial) Kayapo chief “Colonel” Tutu Pombo, who, faced with large-scale invasion of Kayapó territory in southern Pará by loggers and gold miners—Brazilian government agents were partly inept at halting such invasions, and partly complicit in facilitating them—ultimately struck deals with resource extractors so that the Kayapó could at least benefit economically from the inevitable exploitation of their lands.

Mro’ô, originally from the village of Kikretum founded by his grandfather, broke away from that community in 2010 to establish the new village of Turedjam. He left his home village partly to escape ongoing conflicts around logging and mining, but also partly to occupy and safeguard the eastern edge of the Kayapó reserve — penetrated by an access road, surrounded by cattle pastures, and rendered all the more vulnerable by the recent opening of the Onça Puma mine project — from invasion by ranchers, loggers, miners and land speculators.

In Mro’ô’s vision, cameras, televisions, computers, cell phones and other modern technologies shouldn’t be seen as undermining “traditional” lifestyle, but rather, they can, used properly, become tools for documenting Kayapó culture, learning about threats as well as opportunities that surround them, and communicating Kayapó values and demands to Brazil and to the world. The funding proposal I submitted to Brazil's National Science Council with colleagues at the Goeldi Museum was successful, and for the next three years I worked closely with Mro'ô organizing visits of Kayapó elders to the museum, choosing and training film makers from several villages, and developing a museum exhibit that was inaugurated in Belém by Mro'ô and a large cohort from Turedjam.

In this short interview from June 2013, Mro'ô describes his view of electronic technology in Kayapó culture

When I first arrived at Turedjam in September of 2010, the settlement consisted only of a small opening in the forest for ceremonies and community meetings and dozens of tents scattered in the overgrown secondary forest around the clearing. Mro’ô had arrived only 10 days before, bringing several hundred relatives and allies to re-occupy the site of a 1980s gold mining camp. Within a few months, the village was already starting to take shape according to traditional Kayapó geometry, with a large “warrior’s house” at the center of a ring of houses arranged around the central ceremonial space.

Each time I returned to the village every few months over the course of the three-year project, that ring of houses grew, and the village infrastructure improved. By the end of the first year the village already had a rustic well and several pump-fed water taps. In the second year, the village was provided with a government-administered health post and twenty-four hour electricity from the main power grid. And yet this quintessential modern convenience was adapted to the Kayapó mold, with the power lines, respecting traditional architecture, forming a circle around the ring of houses, and two lamp posts illuminating the central plaza beside the warrior’s house in exactly the same position as two ceremonial masts erected during the harvest ritual. The hastily installed initial water system was replaced by a deep well and an automatic pump-fed water tower furnishing each household with clean running water in a practical outdoor tap. A sturdy bridge was built across the river demarcating the edge of Kayapó territory to facilitate access, and a large new primary school was inaugurated to replace the improvised shacks that had been used for schooling. 

Turedjam, 2013

In less than four years, scraggly secondary vegetation from an abandoned mining camp had been turned into a model village reflecting indigenous modernity at its best, integrating modern conveniences and sanitary installations with traditional architecture, social organization and ceremonial life. And yet none of this came easily, nor much less automatically. It was all achieved by Mro’ô himself, from his altruistic and incorruptible vision, through his tireless dedication to his community, and by his relentless negotiations with local government agencies and politicians.

In 2012, Mro'ô traveled to Rio de Janeiro accompanying chief Raoni to represent Kayapó concerns at the Indigenous Peoples' Summit as part of the "Rio+20" manifestations. In June of 2013, Mro'ô traveled to Brasilia with a large group of Kayapó and other indigenous leaders as part of a nation-wide protest movement.

Kayapó and other indigenous warriors faced riot police during massive protests in Brasilia, 2013 (photo: Krakrax Kayapó)
Mro’ô’s personal triumph as chief, and Turedjam’s collective triumph as a model village and emergent power center, was crowned in 2013 and again in 2014 when the community hosted a huge inter-village festival to celebrate Brazil’s “National Indian Day” on April 19th. Over 800 people from five or more different villages participated in the three-day event which included traditional dances, the hybrid “Miss Kayapó” beauty contest, sports competitions, and glitzy nighttime performances by Kayapó pop stars Bepdjyre (in 2013) and Tewakrã (in 2014).

Mro’ô seemed to be at the peak of his prestige and achievements. And yet he had begun to have health problems, and to complain of the burdens of leadership and the growing dilemmas he faced as powerful economic interests, both legal and illegal, encroached ever more onto Kayapó territories and way of life. Mro’ô handed over formal leadership to a same-aged relative, but he remained engaged in political and ceremonial life and his opinion was still valued and sought out. His sudden death, perhaps due to a heart condition, came as a shock to everyone who knew him. 

I have returned to Turedjam twice since he passed away. First, in February to take two of the Kayapó cameramen I had trained to Brasilia to get their U.S. visas, and now in May, to discuss the results of the trip to the United States, and to develop strategies to continue training Kayapó film makers and build on Mro’ô’s dream.

Kayapó film makers trained in the project envisioned by Mro'ô to show their work at an international event on indigenous media in the U.S.

As soon as I arrived in February, I went to visit the new chief, Kupato, at his house. I hadn’t even stopped to think about the traditional “welcome of tears.” One might ponder the psychological function of funerary customs, or question the emotional sincerity of ritualized wailing, or examine the embodiment of social practices, etc. and so on. But none of that was necessary. I reached out to shake Kupato’s hand in greeting, he embraced me, I embraced him, he started crying, I started crying, and the memory of Mro’ô’s gentle voice and the enormity of his absence filled the house, the neighboring houses, the whole village, and together all of us wailed.

When we were done, Kupato led me around the village, first to Mro’ô’s widow, then to his daughters, to his heartbroken son, and finally to the cemetery where his fresh grave was piled high with personal objects and trophies of his chiefly achievements. At each stop along this pilgrimage of grief, we embraced, cried, and wailed all over again, the high-pitched keening of the women piercing ever deeper into the well of loss.

When I returned to the village in May, the tearful welcome was repeated, the white-hot pain of immediate loss having receded somewhat to a dull ache. Mro’ô’s widow’s hair, shorn after his death, has begun to grow back. The village maintains a quiet, pained atmosphere, just beginning to organize itself for a summer harvest festival, but not fully reconciled with having to celebrate without him.

On my second day there, his widow pointed out one of Mro’ô’s granddaughters to me, bathing in the tap stand Mro’ô’s work had made possible. “She won’t remember her grandfather’s image, she won’t hear his words. You must keep those images you made of him safe for a long time. Not now, it is too painful to see. But some day, later, when this child is older, you must bring these images back so she will be able to see her grandfather’s image and hear his voice and remember who was her grandfather, the great Chief Mro’ô.”
Mro'ô with his grandchildren in November, 2014 (photo: Felipe Milanez)

References and notes:

[1] Mourning practices among the Yanomami of Brazil and Venezuela aim at erasing all traces of the dead person, including their name (which can never again be mentioned by loved ones) and cremated bones, which are consumed in a post-funerary ritual. Grieving practices among the Matsigenka of Peru are likewise severely restrained lest the dead person's spirit carry loved ones with it to the land of the dead. See: Three days for weeping: Dreams, emotions and death in the Peruvian Amazon, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 16(2): 1-30.
[2] Lea, V. 2004. Mebengokre ritual wailing and flagellation, a performative outlet for emotional self-expression, Indiana 12: 113-125.
[3] Charles Wagley's book Welcome of Tears: The Tapirape Indians of Central Brazil (Oxford University Press, 1977) describes this practice among the Tupi-speaking Tapirape, who appear to have adopted the custom from their Karajá neighbors who, like the Kayapó, belong to the Gê cultural-linguistic family. See also Vanessa Lea's 2004 article, above, on Mebengokre-Kayapó  ritual wailing.


  1. I very much enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Thank you for your comment. I hope you continue to enjoy the blog! Glenn

  2. In college, I read Charles Wagley's Welcome of Tears and the way of life moved me then and now. It is reassuring to see how someone like yourself is bridging the generations and enabling them to preserve their culture through technology. Such amazing people. Thank you.

    1. Dear Gail, Thanks for writing, and for your thoughtful comments. Glad to hear that anthropology touched your life and continues to do so. Sorry for the delayed response, I've been traveling quite a bit. Thanks once again for writing and I'm glad the piece inspired you to remember Wagley's wonderful book, Glenn

  3. Kayapo didn’t like Brazil’s FUNIA budget cuts. Starts Indian war in the Amazon.

    Check out photos in this link. Kayapo Amazonian protesters launch SPEARS and ARROWS at Brazilian riot police after being blasted with tear gas as they demand their land back

  4. A very troubling situation indeed as Brazil threatens to dismantle hard-won indigenous rights guaranteed under the 1988 Constitution. And if it weren't for the indigenous lands demarcated especially in the Amazon these past 30 years there is no question deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change would be even worse. Indigenous peoples and their allies must mobilize at national and global level to halt these destructive policies. Thanks for posting the link, Glenn