Documentation of a nearly extinct register in an endangered language:
elders’ speech forms in Marubo (Panoan, western Brazil)

Javier Ruedas
University of New Orleans

The Marubo are a group of about 1000 indigenous people, living in the Javari River Basin in western Brazil.  Their language, classified in the Panoan language family, includes a variety of specialized discourse genres such as ceremonial dialogues, shamanic songs, and sung myths called saiti.  These discourse genres are performed using a specialized register, usually called Asãkiki, that includes distinct lexical items, grammatical constructions, and metaphoric double meanings.  Asãkiki is currently well known only a few very elderly men, none of whom has a formal apprentice; nor is their linguistic knowledge being taught in Marubo bilingual schools.  Asãkiki is thus a nearly extinct speech form.  Yet, the Marubo corpus of sung myths—with approximately 100 songs—is surely one of the major mythologies of lowland South America, and perhaps of the world, and other Marubo discourse genres are equally rich forms of knowledge expressed with poetic beauty.  I learned about this impending linguistic disaster during my doctoral  fieldwork in 1997–98. The thought of so much knowledge disappearing without a trace was so distressing to me that it often kept me awake at night. After discussions with Marubo speakers I decided to carry out a language documentation project focused on Asãkiki, and especially on the saiti.

Marubo longhouse belonging to José Barbosa, Maronal village, upper Curuçá River. 29 June 2009.
Photographs with captions

A major characteristic of contemporary Marubo life is frequent travel by river between their villages and the town of Atalaia do Norte near the confluence of the Javari and the Amazon itself.  The Marubo villages are located in the upper reaches of two affluents of the Javari River, the Ituí and Curuçá.  At times, over half the population of any given Marubo longhouse may be downriver in Atalaia and other towns, where Marubo obtain social benefit payments, health care, and education, and often also settle down to live and work.  This frequent traveling disrupts the social network and is a major factor in the impending extinction of Asãkiki.  It strongly conditioned the process of fieldwork itself.

Atalaia do Norte and the
I arrived in Atalaia do Norte on 25 April, 2009.  Two years had passed since beginning the permit application process, and it became necessary to spend time in Atalaia discussing the Asãkiki project with Curuçá Marubo communities.  I thus began to work in Atalaia and neighboring towns.  I visited a clinic where several Marubo, including one of the project’s main supporters, were undergoing a year-long course of treatment for hepatitis.  They had a computer in the clinic, and began transcribing saiti recordings from my doctoral fieldwork.

In early May, several Marubo descended from the upper Curuçá to attend a regional conference on indigenous education.  I took the opportunity to present my gift to Alfredo Barbosa filho, son of the upper Curuçá’s leader and the main Marubo participant in this project.  In the months leading up to fieldwork, I had carefully digitized all the recordings, photographs, and video that I made during my doctoral fieldwork and assembled the files in an external hard drive.  This proved a very useful present, since just a few months previously the upper Curuçá Marubo political organization, ASDEC, had purchased a laptop with a CD burner, and Alfredo had bought a smaller netbook.  Thanks to the terabyte hard drive, they were now able to access all audiovisual materials that were in my possession, and I was easily able to share recordings, texts, and images throughout my fieldwork.  Rather than burning CDs for them, I assisted them in developing autonomous CD-burning capacity.

Presenting Alfredo Barbosa filho with a hard drive containing all Marubo audiovisual materials then in my possession.  8 May 2009.

Alfredo brought with him a folder of typewritten and handwritten saiti transcriptions that he had made over the previous ten years.  I began digitizing these transcriptions in Atalaia.  In addition, Marubo schoolteacher Amélia Barbosa came to attend the education conference.  I began to work with Amélia on translating the Marubo texts to Portuguese, as well as training her in basic morphological and syntactic analysis and grammatical terminology.

On 6 June, I began the trip upriver to the Curuçá.  In contemporary Marubo life, the canoe is not merely a mode of transportation, it is a major locus of social life.  A trip to the upper Curuçá takes at least nine days, often more.  There are always many Marubo waiting in Atalaia for a ride upstream, and they are rarely turned down.  On this occasion, we were eleven passengers on a ten-meter canoe.  With a portable solar energy system, I was able to keep my laptop operational during the 11-day trip to my field destination.  I worked daily with Amélia, concentrating on saiti translations, but also carrying out basic Marubo language analysis.  This work locale allowed me to better understand saiti passages dealing with canoe travel.  For example, in one saiti the Ceiba Shaman travels by canoe to and from a destined encounter with warlike stranger peoples.  The moving canoe is described metaphorically as a tapir that does "sho, sho."  I asked Amélia what this meant.  She pointed to the front of the canoe and explained that sho denotes the sound of the swell that results as the surging canoe breaks the water.  This would have been difficult to describe in any other context, but in this particular workplace, the translation was easy and gave me a clear sensation of the song's poetic beauty.

Our ten-meter canoe, crowded with travelers’ hammocks. 14 June 2009.
matsi awá, matsi awá pewãvo, reso tavi inai, shó shó inai Like a great river-tapir, the canoe’s stern surged forward, creating a swell. 15 June 2009.

            When I arrived at Maronal village on the upper Curuçá, a major feast called Shavá Sai Aká was just beginning.  My host, José Barbosa, had invited two of the remaining Asãkiki specialists to sing.  Recording a Marubo feast, however, is physically and technically demanding.  The elders start singing in the late evening and do not stop until after dawn.  The songs are long and there are few pauses.  Although it is much better than flipping a cassette every 45 minutes, I still found myself having to change out the memory card in my digital recorder, sometimes more than once a night.  The feast lasted twelve days and by the end I was utterly exhausted, but I had made some very valuable recordings. 

Youths dance in the longhouse interior
The parallel benches (kenã) in José Barbosa’s longhouse during the Shava Sai Aká feast.  José sits on the left side.  On the other bench, from left to right, Cassimiro sings; José’s brother Pedro and Cassimiro’s brother Raimundo listen to the singing.  In the center of the longhouse, youths listen and respond to the elder’s words.  18 June 2009.

            Following the feast, I entered the last phase of the field project.  Two of the major knowledgeable elders, Cassimiro and Raimundo, stayed behind.  Alfredo and I reviewed all the recordings I had made in 1997–98.  We then asked the elders to sing the songs that had not yet been recorded.  They agreed, and over the next month I recorded almost every remaining song in the Marubo corpus.  By early August, we had either complete or partial recordings of nearly all Marubo saiti.  In addition, I finished digitizing Alfredo’s handwritten transcriptions and, together with Alfredo and one of his cousins, produced new transcriptions.  Unfortunately, the process of translation and language analysis came to a stop when Amélia accompanied her daughter back to Atalaia to attend to health problems.  In early August, the lead transcriber also left the village. With the main objectives of the project accomplished and the translation, transcription, and language analysis ground to a halt, and since I was having serious health problems, I decided it was time to head home.  On 13 August 2009, I departed.

My “office” at Maronal village.  A trash can and a shutter serve as desk.  The Macbook and hard drive receive power from a solar panel on the roof, via a charge controller, auto batter, fuse, and inverter.   7 July 2009.
Alfredo and I digitize one of his handwritten transcriptions.  3 July 2009.

Fieldwork had been difficult, as I contracted malaria twice, and suffered numerous other health problems. However, my problems were small compared to the critical health situation faced by the Marubo.  Malaria was so endemic that it was common for Marubo to contract it monthly; almost as soon as one case was cured they were infected with the next.  In addition, hepatitis was endemic and there was no effective procedure in place for diagnosis, treatment, or prevention.  On 23 June, a man died of complications from malaria, hepatitis, and prostate disease.  Throughout the summer, the Maronal Marubo protested the lack of government support for health care in the Javari indigenous area. On 1 August, the village’s entire stock of falciparum malaria medicine expired; from that point on, cases of falciparum malaria went untreated.  Although the Marubo — particularly the elders and politically conscious youths — were happy to have me working on this project, language documentation was not the Marubo’s top priority; the health crisis menaces their physical survival.  In the end, I was very happy to have contributed to securing the long-term survival of Marubo saiti, but the fieldwork experience was sobering.  Important though it is, language documentation is very difficult work when conducted in the midst of multiple deadly epidemics.

Much work remains to be done. I plan to establish a digital language archive that will be accessible and useful to the Marubo, to carry out further research on Marubo language and cosmology, and to assist in producing Marubo-language educational resources. Throughout the project, I have shared all digital recordings and texts with the Marubo. I hope that my work will contribute to the development of autonomous language documentation capacity in the Javari basin, and I hope to extend my work to other indigenous groups in the area.

Text, map and photographs © 2010 Javier Ruedas