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Fulni-ô Indians

Lúcia Gaspar
Joaquim Nabuco Foundation Librarian
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The Indians from the Fulni-ô tribe live in the municipality of Águas Belas, in Pernambuco, in a village of 11,500 hectares, located 500 metres from the centre of the town. Its population is approximately 3,600 Indians.

They were formerly known as Carijó or Carnijó and it is not known for how long they have been in existence.

The origin of the name Fulni-ô is extremely ancient. It means “people on the river’s edge” and is related to the Fulni-ô River which runs beside the village and Águas Belas.

The Indians live together with non-Indians, are all bilingual, dress in western-style clothes but have not lost their identity. They are the only indigenous people from Northeast Brazil who keep their native language, Yaathe (or Yathê), alive.

The Yaathe language, which means “our mouth, our talk, our language” is oral and has no written form. It is learned by the Indians at home or with family members, in daily life and, according to Prof. Alieta Rosa, through a bilingual school the village has*. Also, there is a book with the grammatical records of the language.

Besides the village, the community has another living area on the reserve where they spend three months of the year during the ritual period of Ouricuri.

Ouricuri is a secret religious retreat held annually in the months of September, October and November, where the entry of non-Indians is not permitted (even those with some type of family relationship with Fulni-ô), as it is a sacred space to them. During this period, the indigenous people move to another village, also called Ouricuri, approximately five kilometres from where they live, taking everything with them, even their livestock.

What happens in Ouricuri is a mystery. Not even the children reveal what happens at the event. It is known that during this period the men sleep in a reserved place, the Juazeiro Sagrado, to which the women have no access. Rivalries are forgotten. Sexual relations and the consumption of alcohol are strictly forbidden.

Until the 1930s, Fulni-ô houses were constructed exclusively of ‘palha do ouricuri’ (a plant in the palm family). Today the village is made up of individual dwellings made from dried earth bricks or masonry, similar to the poor populations of Northeast Brazil.

The Indians earn a living from handicrafts made from ‘palha do ouricuri’, sold in open markets throughout the region, subsistence farming and some rearing of cattle and pigs. They still hunt and fish, but these activities are almost extinct due to deforestation and the pollution of the region’s rivers.

Their cultural manifestations include music and dance. Fulni-ô dances are inspired by various birds and animals, with the most traditional being the ‘toré’. There is also the cafurna, a cultural dance resulting from the influence of other groups, and one known as ‘coco de roda, danced with its own style and having origins in black culture. The music and dances are sung in Portuguese and Yaathe.

Musical instruments used by them are maraca (rattle), toré and flute. They also play European instruments like the clarinet, cornet, trombone, guitar and electric guitar. They even have groups and bands.

The Fulni-ô use many plants that have survived the deforestation to cure diseases. They have a Reproduction of Seedlings and Medicinal Essences Phytoterapic Centre, maintained with the support of the National Health Foundation and UNESCO, where various plants that serve as popular remedies are cultivated and distributed in the village.

Along with ornaments and decorations, stone axes, cudgels, bows and arrows are produced.

The uses of cockades, body paint or headdresses are not marks of the Fulni-ô. For them, the origin of the people is its language, which is why they continue to keep it alive to this day.
Recife, 19 August 2003.
(Updated on 28 August 2009).
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2011.


CAVALCANTE, Simone. Ouricuri: o mistério Fulni-ô. Brasil Indígena, Brasília, D.F., a . 2, n.11, p.18-19, jul./ago. 2002.

AS COMUNIDADES indígenas de Pernambuco. Recife: Instituto de Desenvolvimento de Pernambuco-Condepe, 1981.

SÁ, Marilena Araújo de. "Yaathe" é a resistência dos Fulni-ô. Revista do Conselho Estadual de Cultura, Recife, Ed. especial, p.48-54, 2002.


Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Fulni-ô Indians. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at:  <>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.


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