The Matsés (Matsesën)
Table of Contents
Territory and Demographics
The Matsés (Matsesën) inhabit the border region between Brazil and Peru. Their communities are located along the Javari river basin. In Brazil, they are also known as the Mayoruna and live in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory (IT) along with other peoples from the Pano and Katukina language families.
Their total territory covers 8,519,800 hectares, being the largest of the current groups belonging to a subset within the Northern Pano (Erikson 1992). This subset also includes the Matis, Kulina-Pano, Maya, Korubo, and possibly other groups who still avoid any permanent contact with non-natives.
In Perú, The Matsesën Tsused pabon Nidaid, or the The Matsés Ancestral Territory, has been declared an ICCA (Indigenous and Community Conserved Area) that extends over approximately 5,120 km2 of terrestrial area. It is inhabited and managed by the Matsés Native Community, consisting of 15 annexes (villages recognized by the community) representing 3200 people, all members of the Matsés ethnic group. The Matsés have lived in and managed the area for time immemorial.
The families shift between the villages frequently, often crossing the frontier between Perú and Brasil. Hence it is difficult to establish precise data for the Matsés populations in each country.
The Matsés territory contains enough resources to live sustainably indefinitely using natural resources in a traditional way. The territory of the Matsés is very large and their population is relatively small, so although some species of hunted animals close to the communities may decline, the areas far from the communities have abundant populations and serve as a natural reserve to repopulate the community area.
The Matsés also make farms and abandon them after 2-3 years, allowing these areas to regenerate rapidly. Within 10 years they are already secondary forest, and in about 50 years they are almost indistinguishable from primary forest. The area that is used for farming is less than 1% of the total territory of the Matsés Native Community.
From the global conservation perspective, the Matsés protect over 3 million acres of rainforest in Perú alone. This area includes some of the most intact, biodiverse, and carbon-rich forests in the country.
The Matsés communities on the Brazilian side of the Javari and Yaquerana rivers frame the western borders of the Vale do Javari indigenous reserve, a region roughly the size of Austria that contains the largest number of ‘uncontacted’ tribes in voluntary isolation remaining the world.
At the southern margins of the Matsés territory, in the headwaters of the Yaquerana river, lies La Sierra del Divisor, a region of staggering natural beauty, biodiversity, and also uncontacted tribal groups.
For these reasons, although the Matsés may only number a little over 3,000 in total population, they are strategically positioned to protect a vast area of rainforest and a number of isolated tribal groups. Empowering them is high-yield conservation.
Management and Governance
The Peruvian side is wholly governed by the Matsés Native Community via a governing council of elected people. The ICCA is nationally recognised in federal law, and the land belongs to and is managed by the Matsés Native Community. They have legal rights to the resources within the ICCA (with some limitations).
The current elected head of the governing council of the Matsés Native Community is Mr. Daniel Vela.
The Matsés Native Community were contacted peacefully for the first time in 1969. Before that, the Matsés did not want the Peruvians to enter their territory.
A few years ago, the main threat was oil companies trespassing their land. The Matsés fought for them not to enter, and in the end they withdrew. Now the main threat is logging companies that want to work in their territory as well as laws that are not compatible with their traditional way of life.
Another problem is that most young people are not learning traditional knowledge and skills, partly because of the national curriculum they teach at school. Education needs to be adapted to their reality, so that they can govern their territory with compatible skills.
Furthermore, new diseases have now been introduced that they cannot cure with medicinal plants. They feel that they do not receive good quality education and health services. That is why they want support to improve recognition of their human rights, and to carry out projects to strengthen their education systems, combining their traditional knowledge with Western knowledge.
Wars undertaken by the Matsés in the past century and the resulting incorporation of captives from other indigenous groups meant they became the largest of the northern Pano peoples.
Like the Marubo, today’s Matsés population is the result of the merging of various peoples who had previously inhabited different malocas and did not always speak mutually intelligible languages. The formation of the ‘ethnic’ group defining itself as ‘Matsés’ mainly derived from the gradual incorporation of captives (principally women and children) from other groups in the region.
The goods and cultural practices of these captives were absorbed by the Matsés and today form part of what distinguishes them from other local groups. For example, they attribute the substitution of the blowgun (Matis style) by the bow and arrow to a people associated with the contemporary Marubo.
Similarly, their myths tell how other cultural goods were acquired from enemies or ‘foreign’ allies: agriculture from the curassow; names from the water people; forest remedies from a people who lived downriver.
Outsiders began to be an important part of this warfare dynamic around the 1920s when they intensified their expeditions and attacks on the headwater regions of the Gálvez, Choba, Javari and Curuçá rivers. One of the emblematic events of this period was the acquisition of firearms by the Matsés, who recount how they were taught how to use them by a woman captured from the Peruvians.
At the peak of the rubber boom on the Javari, roughly between the 1870s and the 1920s, the Matsés lost their access to the river, frequented in the dry seasons to collect yellow-spotted turtle and giant Amazonian turtle eggs from the beaches. There is no mention of malocas or groups that could be Matsés in the documents produced by explorers of the Javari during this period (Melatti 1981:69).
At this time, the Matsés were avoiding conflicts with outsiders, withdrawing to interfluvial areas, and maintained a pattern of dispersal that enabled them to keep away from the rubber extraction areas.
Direct conflicts began to appear in the accounts from the 1920s onwards. In 1926, a Peruvian non-native worker on the Gálvez river was interviewed by Romanoff (Romanoff 1984) and claimed that the rubber bosses were unable to set up on the Choba river due to “the attacks by the indians”.
The response to these attacks were punitive expeditions – the so-called ‘correrias’ – in which Matsés women and children were captured. Undoubtedly this only helped intensify Matsés warfare activities. Today some older people tell how their grandfathers launched a revenge raid against outsiders in the town of Requena. In these attacks they captured women and acquired firearms and metal tools.
The expansion of commercial logging in the region coincided with the creation of the Peruvian Angamos border platoon (1947) and the Brazilian border platoons of Estirão do Equador (1958) and Palmeiras do Javari (1965) along the shores of the Javari river. Documents from this period confirm the involvement of the Peruvian and Brazilian military in punitive raids against the Matsés, accompanied by civilians who had lost relatives to the conflict.
In Peru, Romanoff (1976) cites the 1964 punitive expedition that left the town of Requena for the Gálvez-Choba interfluvial region, organized by the mayor and the town’s ecclesiastical authorities. They reached a Matsés maloca were they were surprised and attacked. The injured were rescued by helicopters from the US Navy. After the rescue, Peruvian airplanes bombed the location. Some men and women who today live in Brazil, childhood survivors from the bombed maloca, have impressive recollections of this episode.
These events reveal how it is impossible to draw a clear dividing line between a traditional way of life and a way of life defined by the arrival of westerners during this period of intense warfare. Dispersal and warfare were occurring long before direct contact with outsiders. At the same time, colonization indirectly made itself felt through epidemics and the territorial readjustments enforced on the region’s different native peoples.
From the 1970s onwards, though, the cessation in armed conflicts and the relative sedentarization of most of the Matsés – enabled through the gradual establishment of pacific relations with some outsiders – can be interpreted as factors that brought about profound changes, experienced as such by the Matsés themselves.
The Matsés are unanimous in asserting that the process defined by themselves as ‘being tamed’ began in 1969 with the arrival of American missionaries from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). However, we should be careful not to be misled by this enemy-derived expression of ‘taming.’ Though the end of the armed conflicts coincided with the arrival of the missionaries, this was not because the Matsés adopted a Christian ‘pacific’ morality, quelling their potential conflicts with other peoples.
Without fully adopting the Christian ethos (evidenced by their subsequent dispersal after an initial period of agglomeration around the mission), the Matsés succeeded in preventing attacks on their malocas by outsiders, which ceased after the arrival of SIL with the support of the Peruvian government. Given the size to which these attacks had grown, to the point, incredibly, of an aerial bombardment, the presence of missionaries in the area was undoubtedly important in terms of protecting the natives.
This fact enabled a gradual approximation of the group contacted by the missionaries through the common practice of offering industrialized goods left close to the Matsés houses.
As is common during the first years of contact with outsiders, a series of epidemics struck the population following the establishment of the missionary settlement. The medical care offered by SIL then became another lure for the more isolated groups who received news (and diseases) from visitors coming from the mission base. The Matsés say that some groups refused to make contact with the outsiders and still remain in voluntary isolation today.
As well as the medical and commercial services, SIL’s main activities were: “linguistic research, Bible translation, evangelization (…), acting as intermediaries between the Matsés and outsiders, and teaching literacy.” The anthropologist also claims that the missionaries who worked among the Matsés had been contracted by the Peruvian Ministry of Education and therefore “also carried out administrative tasks” (1984:51).
The Matsés knowledge and the accumulated wisdom of generations stood on the very precipice of extinction. Fortunately, there remained a few elder Matsés who still held the ancestral knowledge as sustained contact with the outside world only occurred within the past half century. The healers were adults at the time of initial contact and had already mastered their skills before being told they were useless by missionaries and government workers. At the time we started the project, none of the elder shamans had younger Matsés interested in learning from them.
One of the most renowned elder Matsés healers died before his knowledge could be passed on so the time was now. Acaté and the Matsés leadership decided to prioritize a project to put together a compendium of medicinal plants for the region before more of the elders were lost and their ancestral knowledge taken with them. The project was not about saving a traditional dance or costume, it was about their health and that of future generations of Matsés. The stakes could not be higher.
Helping the Community
Before, the Matsés did not need money because they did not use items like clothes and metal pots, and they did not travel far down the rivers. However, now they feel they need to find ways to make money for purchasing these items. The Matsés want to market their resources and crafts in a sustainable way, because when men leave their community to work, their families suffer and do not make much money because there are no good jobs.
Acaté Amazon Conservation
More than 10 years ago, Acaté first engaged and partnered with the Matsés people in the Galvez region of Perú, setting a new standard among conservation organizations in financial and operational transparency.
Copies of all monetary transactions for Acaté are always available for review by local communities. Not a dollar or sol of a private donation or foundational grant will remain unaccounted for – that is our commitment to our supporters, staff, and partners for complete operational and financial transparency.
- Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia
In September 2017, Volume II of the Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia, Neste Tantiaquidon Chuibanaid 2, was delivered to all 14 Matsés villages! 537 pages in length, the second volume is divided into 5 chapters, is hardbound and beautifully illustrated.
- Matsés COVID-19 Emergency Relief Effort
Acaté and partners coordinate emergency relief efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic and safe return of Matsés to their communities
- Matsés Historic Mapping of 3.7 Million Acres of Ancestral Lands
On the 50th anniversary of sustained contact with the outside world, leaders of the Matsés tribe of the Peruvian Amazon assembled to unveil the first completed maps that demarcate their ancestral territories.
- Cultural Preservation through Literacy
Publication of an innovative reader developed to provide a tool for Matsés families to impart literacy in their native language to their children.
- Preserving Traditional Ecological Knowledge through Supporting Literacy
The fate of a culture is inseparably bound to its language. In Acaté’s latest field update, Dr. David Fleck reports on the milestone completion of eight reader books, illustrated and written by Matsés authors based on narratives provided by Matsés elders.
- Acaté and Matsés Complete First Dictionary and illustrated taxonomic encyclopedia of rainforest animals developed for Phone App for an Amazonian Indigenous Language
The Matsés are in many ways the most traditionally conservative indigenous group in Peru, yet a traveler might be surprised to observe the widespread use of cellular telephones in Matsés villages, particularly among the youth. Young adults hand down their outdated phones to children. While not all Matsés own one, they all have access to them and, despite the lack of internet or cell phone service in Matsés territory, they spend a lot of time using cell phones to listen to music, watch videos, take and edit photos, and play video games. This is actually a trend in indigenous communities throughout the world, mirroring non-indigenous communities. Linguists are taking advantage of this technological opportunity to create dictionary applications and other electronic pedagogical materials for indigenous languages.
Successful sustainable economic projects are the Holy Grail of conservation initiatives. They are the hardest to develop yet offer the best hope to stem the tide of rainforest destruction worldwide. Too often, international rainforest conservation efforts aiming to combat destructive economic activities, such as logging and poaching, place little or no attention on creating viable economic alternatives for local communities. Even the most recently contacted indigenous people, such as the Matsés, are increasingly drawn into the cash economy. Even though they still largely subsist on traditional activities and retain a high degree of self-sufficiency they need cash to obtain basic household items such as clothes, blankets, pots, and medicines. If real economic alternatives that support local livelihoods are absent, then conservation efforts are doomed to ineffectuality.
For this reason, sustainable economic development has been the first pillar of Acaté’s programs since its founding. The genesis of the Matsés Handicraft Initiative occurred in a meeting with the Matsés in May 2016. Toward the end of the meeting, Carmen Rodriquez Lopez, a Matsés woman from the village of Buen Peru, stood up and powerfully addressed the assembled leaders from the 14 villages. She pointed out that the economic programs developed with Acaté so far, such as the sustainable harvesting of the valuable resin from the heartwood of large copaiba trees, have centered largely on activities done by men. She pointed out that Matses women have valuable skills and want to contribute to developing economic opportunities for their families. Carmen held up a fistful of beautiful woven friendship bracelets called uitsun by the Matsés. Although these bracelets are still worn by the Matsés as accouterments of daily life, Carmen lamented that the knowledge of their craft was not being passed down to the younger Matsés women.
While the passion and commitment of the Matsés women is strong, the market demand for their exquisite and beautiful handicrafts did not exist. Over the decades, conservation organizations in the Amazon have launched well-meaning handicraft projects. Sadly, many fall short of realizing true economic viability due to the lack of demand and never get past the development stage. Furthermore, handicraft initiatives with other indigenous groups living in remote areas of the Amazon typically source from only a small handful of individual artisans located in the most geographically accessible villages. The Matsés are a remarkably egalitarian people and they have reiterated to us on many occasions the importance of involving as many members of their communities as possible so that the benefits can be equitably shared.
It was in this spirit that the Matses Handicraft Initiative was launched in 2016 in close partnership with Xapiri. Xapiri is committed to providing an economic outlet for indigenous communities in the Amazon through developing a global market for their handicrafts and promoting awareness of indigenous culture. Since the first order of uitsun bracelets from the Matsés, the project has now expanded to nearly all the Matsés communities in Peru and involves dozens of Matsés artisans.
The initiative has brought renewed interest and economic opportunities to the Matsés and has expanded to include almost all of their traditional handicrafts including black palm wood spears crafted by Matsés elder warriors and beautiful ceramics created by the last remaining artisans who hold knowledge of this vanishing art.
Last year, Jack Wheeler, Tui Anandi and Mike van Kruchten of Xapiri joined Acaté in a trip to the Matsés territory and spent a further several weeks visiting Matsés communities across their lands in Peru, meeting Matsés artisans and documenting the processes behind the art. Their reporting and beautiful photography in the Ancestral Transmission series that followed provides an intimate glimpse into Matsés culture and daily life as never seen before. We recently sat down with the Xapiri team to learn their impressions of the Matsés, the genesis and future directions of their work.
Xapiri Ground is a contemporary art house that powers the autonomy and perpetuation of Peruvian Indigenous communities’ lifeways and cultural traditions through equitable cross-cultural exchange, inquiry, collaboration, skill share, and special projects.
Visit Xapiri Ground and purchase beautiful Matsés hand-made crafts.
Meeting Members of the Matsés Community
Urbano Pemen Dunú
By William Park
Urbano lives in the Matsés village of Buenas Lomas Antigua with his wife and two children. Urbano is fiercely independent and lives a very traditional life. He is highly skilled in hunting, fishing, climbing and finding his way in the dense jungle. Even among Matsés he is exceptional.
Most of Urbano’s time is spent hunting or on gathering trips in the remote jungle near his home. He prefers to hunt with bow and arrow as shotgun shells are expensive and the noise scares animals away from an area for days. Urbano also uses his bow to shoot fish that feed near the surface of the river. How he sees and hits fish in the dark river water while standing in a tiny, unstable dugout canoe remains a mystery to outsiders.
Luis “Lucho” Dunu Jiménez Dësi
By Christopher Herndon
Lucho lives with his wife Marina in the Matsés village of Estirón. He is a meticulous worker and it shows in everything he does. Lucho is renowned as a great healer among the Matsés. People often travel great distances to Estirón to receive his treatments.
Marina Ëshco Bai Unan
By William Park
Marina lives in the Matsés village of Estirón with her husband Lucho, four of her seven children and four of her grandchildren. She is an incredibly industrious person, tending up to three farms at any time. In addition to being a master farmer, Marina also enjoys weaving and craft making. A master weaver, she weaves carrying straps for her family and makes her own hammocks, strainers for banana drinks, baskets and fishing nets. She is expert at weaving the kinship bracelets, known as tasiuinec, that are specific to the Matsés tribe. These woven ornaments are tied on the wrist or ankle. A sister puts on her little brothers ankle ornament by slipping the knotted ends through little loops. As she grows, a girl will weave for her brother, her husband and then for her children, just as the boy will grow to ask for ornaments from his mother, his sister, and eventually his wife.
Her favorite food is the Greater Long-Nosed Armadillo (Dasypus kappleri) meat and she often accompanies her husband on hunting trips to help corner the animals. Marina is still fond of fishing despite the painful memory of being shocked by an electric eel as a young woman.
In the afternoons, Marina can usually be found in her home preparing pots of food and strained banana drink big enough to feed her entire family. In the evenings she sings traditional lullabies to her children and grandchildren and spends time relaxing with her husband. Like other Matsés, her mother was captured from the Mawi faction of the Kulina tribe on the Curuçá River by her father Bai during a raid in the late 1960s.
By Tigre Pickett
Lucinda is the daughter of Arturo, a famous Matsés warrior and plant medicine expert who wrote Chapter 3 of the Matsés Medicine Encyclopedia. She lives with her family in Buenas Lomas Nueva. She is a prolific farmer and is very fond of showing off and sharing her bountiful harvests. Her house is a hub of activity in the community, and no one ever leaves hungry.
In addition to farming and taking care of her family, Lucinda also loves making bracelets and other Matsés traditional crafts on her homemade looms. She is expert at weaving the kinship bracelets, known as tasiuinec, that are specific to the Matsés tribe. These woven ornaments are tied on the wrist or ankle. A sister puts on her little brothers ankle ornament by slipping the knotted ends through little loops. As she grows, a girl will weave for her brother, her husband and then for her children, just as the boy will grow to ask for ornaments from his mother, his sister, and eventually his wife.
Lucinda is committed to preserving the Matsés territory and traditions while incorporating outside necessities like electric lights to help improve their standard of living.
Joaquin Tëca Rojas René
Joaquin Tëca Rojas René – natural history expert. Joaquin is an accomplished hunter and an avid observer of nature. He is particularly talented at explaining animal natural history in clear terms, and pointing out interesting or comical aspects of animals’ behavior. Among his useful skills is identifying the local fauna in field guides, whilst older Matses have trouble recognizing species portrayed in two-dimensional images.
Salomé Unan Dëis Huanin
Salomé Unan Dëis Huanin – master craftswoman. Salomé was captured by Matsés warriors from the Kulina-Pano ethnic group when she was a young woman. The Matsés often comment that she has mastered the fabrication of traditional Matsés handicrafts to the point of surpassing the Matsés themselves. Salomé knows all the wild forest plant that the Matsés use, including some that most Matsés no longer know. Salomé is also renowned as one of the best female hunters among the Matsés.
This article is a compilation of excerpts from other articles found in: