Dec 7, 2010

Tradition in the Present: Amazonian Oral History at Schools

Many Amazonian Indians dream about better possibilities for participating in school education. They want to fortify their own languages and traditions at school, but also wish to learn new skills and knowledge, to which access is still limited to the dominant society.

Participants in the workshop with the representative of the local Secretariat of Education and the Brazilian co-partner

Participants in the workshop with the representative of the local Secretariat of Education and the Brazilian co-partner

This social action project had the aim to give new tools to a Brazilian Amazonian indigenous people, the Manchineri, for the creation of a publication for their schools in their own language and in Portuguese. Sylff Leadership Initiatives assisted in the accomplishment of this objective, as it offered the Manchineri community the possibility to organize a workshop in order to prepare this publication, provided the participants of the meeting with full boarding, transportation, technology to record and edit the mythic narrations, and also covered the publication costs of the edited material. The final publication was on the history and myths of the Manchineri people.

The Manchineri live in Brazilian Amazonia, in the state of Acre. From the end of the 19th century, the Manchineri were forced to work in the rubber industry. Today they live in the largest demarcated indigenous territory of the state, the Mamoadate reserve, and number some 900 people. The Manchineri’s language belongs to the Arawakan linguistic family.

The representatives of the Manchineri’s organization, Mapkaha, and Manchineri community members had expressed at various times that they would like to register their history as an educational material for their schools: some elders remember well the mythic narratives and the ways the group lived in the past. Now years later, the recording of this legacy became possible by the Sylff Leadership Initiatives. The production of the educational material for Manchineri schools was a collaborative effort between the Manchineri, two Sylff fellows from the University of Helsinki (Pirjo K. Virtanen from Latin American studies and Tuija Veintie from the Education department), and the Pro-Indian Commission (CPI-Acre). The CPI-Acre has been a pioneer in creating training courses for indigenous teachers, indigenous agro-forestry and health agents. In indigenous education it has 30 years’ experience. The CPI-Acre was represented by its coordinator, Malu Ochoa, and the organization’s consultant, linguist Edineide Silva, who had previously worked with the Manchineri.

New tools

Manchineri teachers from different Manchineri villages were invited to participate in the workshop in a municipality close to the reserve, Assis Brasil. They were provided with transportation and full boarding. Manchineris selected their participants for the workshop. The local Secretariat of Education offered a place for the event and some other materials. The workshop was carried out during one week in September, 2009. Many other Manchineris were in Assis Brasil at this time of the summer period for their personal visits, such as making purchases, attending to health care needs and other interests. Teachers writing the texts.

Teachers writing the texts.

Teachers writing the texts.

During the workshop, the participants were introduced to previous material and old recordings that had been produced in past years through the training courses of the CPI-Acre. All the participants then discussed the previous material, revised the Manchineri language, and transcribed the recordings. The participants also documented some new narratives by old people present in Assis Brasil through digital recordings that were also transcribed later. The narratives were about the origin of the world and other Manchineri myths. The participants also wrote about stories concerning the foundation of villages and their indigenous territory.

Teachers with more experience worked together with new teachers on revising the myths, adding some information they thought was missing, and correcting the written form. For each oral history the participants drew a picture. These artworks were used as illustration for the educational material. The Manchineri contributors compared and discussed actively and enthusiastically the narratives and their oral traditions: what kind of versions they had heard and what was probably missing. They also agreed on the written form of Manchineri language. This was done together with Brazilian linguist Edineide Silva, who also continued discussions about the Manchineri grammar, which was an important contribution to the meeting. In previous courses for teachers the linguist had also designed exercises and reading comprehension assignments with the teachers, and these were included in the manuscript. 

Editing the texts and preparing the illustrations.

Editing the texts and preparing the illustrations.

As the aim of the project was to give new possibilities for the Manchineri to reflect on and document their own history, tradition and myths, during the workshop the community was given one mini laptop, two digital recorders, and two cameras. All Manchineri teachers and researchers were taught how to use this equipment, how to type, and they were very motivated in learning. The equipment will remain in Assis Brasil in the center of the Manchineri organization, as was decided by the Manchineri themselves. From there, all the Manchineris interested in doing more research or documenting can use them.

The workshop was finished with a closing ceremony organized by the local Secretariat of Education in the auditorium of the local university and attended by the members of the Manchineri community present in Assis Brasil and the town mayor. All the results of the workshop were presented at this ceremony.

Completed edition of the material

The name of the book is Tsrunni Manxinerune hinkakle pirana (Stories of Manchineri elders). It is produced by the CPI-Acre and the Manchineri’s organization, Mapkaha, and published by Sylff of the Tokyo Foundation. The authors and pre-editors of the texts are 15 Manchineri teachers and collaborators. They had discussions with 11 elders, in particular, who are the narrators of the publication. The Manchineri elders, ancestors, and Mapkaha organization have all authorial rights, as decided by the Manchineri.

The completed book has 140 pages. The photographs, selected for the publication from different archives, and the Manchineri teachers’ drawings form the illustrations of the book. Contents are as follows: Presentation, Origin myth, Traditional ways of life, History of the Mamoadate reserve, Festivities, Myths narrated by Manchineri elders, Exercises, and Afterword. In each oral history, the authors wanted to mention the person from whom they had heard the story, as the stories vary from person to person. Moreover, it was acknowledged that the stories always differ in some ways when told orally.

Final editions to the texts by the teachers.

Final editions to the texts by the teachers.

In April 2010, the pre-edited work was taken to Manchineri representatives to receive their feedback for the compilation. The texts were once more revised by the Manchineri teachers, who were in a city for a federal training course. After their corrections, the manuscript with all illustrations was given to a professional graphic designer and then taken to a printing house in Brasilia. It took a long time to receive an ISBN-number for the book, but the book was finally printed in October 2010. There are a thousand copies of the book, and it is available only for the Manchineri community and the promotion of indigenous education.

Overall evaluation of the project

The immediate result of the social action is the educational publication prepared for the nine indigenous schools in the Manchineri reserve. The publication strengthens the Manchineri language and contributes to the standardization of its written form. The material benefits Manchineris in the reserve and in cities.

The project has given a new forum for the Manchineri teachers and researchers to discuss their history and traditions. And, there was no lack of Manchineri humor and laughs! The participants were very happy with the opportunity to work on their own traditions in the workshop. They claimed that this was important, because in previous courses or workshops that they attended with other indigenous groups, they did not have the opportunity to concentrate on their own oral history so intensively.  

Cover page of the book

Cover page of the book

The project has been important for the Manchineri community as it supports their self-esteem as indigenous people with living traditions. Participation in the workshop has also given the teachers new technological skills for reflecting on and documenting their oral history. The creation of this educational material has helped to valorize the knowledge of Manchineri elders and the oral history of the indigenous people, the first inhabitants of Amazonia.

As Sylff fellows, this social action gave us an opportunity to contribute to society, and it offered us a way to respond to the needs of the indigenous people I had studied previously. Many people contributed to this project, but our warmest gratitude goes to the Sylff Program of the Tokyo Foundation.


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Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen

Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen*

University of Helsinki


SLI2009: Tradition in the present.
Amazonian designs and oral history at schools
Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen is a researcher in Latin American Studies at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Since 2005 she is a Sylff fellow and since 2008 a chairperson of the Sylff alumni association in Helsinki. Her first visit to Brazil was in 2000. Her current research project is “New Native Leaderships and Forms of Power in Amazonia”.

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