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Brazil Indians Craft Pride From Nuts and Feathers

Women of the Makuxi tribe revive their traditional arts to hold onto their culture and way of life

The women of Maturuka, a Makuxi Indian village in far northern Brazil, were not happy. As modern Brazilian society pressed in on them in their rocky, white-washed enclave, they saw changes they did not like coming gradually into their way of life.

Giving up their traditional dress was the least of their worries. Years before they had donned T-shirts and blouses, relenting to the warnings (unfortunately, following some violent experiences) that the miners and cowboys invading their lands found their traditional dress provocative.

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What concerned them more was that they saw their people losing their traditions. The village's vitality was being sapped by the gradual departure of many of the community's young for the cities.

The women decided to act.

No longer would they simply lament the passing of the days when their grandmothers designed beautiful jewelry from the nuts and seeds the land around them offered. They would string beads. No more would they only dream of the pots they knew as children. They would work clay. And no longer would they regretfully shuffle aside the old bobbins that made the colorful rugs and wall hangings they so loved. They would weave.

These days the chatter is lively and the smiles are broad in the simple, one-room building where the women of Maturuka work their traditional crafts. They make feathers into festive tiaras, string nuts, seeds - and sometimes a few colorful feathers - into necklaces, and fashion local woods and handmade beads into wall coverings.

And as they do so, they say they find a sense of Makuxi pride growing throughout their village.

The women's blossoming interest in their traditional culture has permeated their community and led to more than just new strings of beads around their necks.

Now fewer children are leaving Maturuka when they grow up. Tribe leaders are noticing that fewer boys are cutting their hair to look like mainstream Brazilians. And Makuxi songs are sung in the village school.

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The women sell their crafts at Boa Vista, the state capital. But they save their best creations for the crafts fair they hold every six months or so in the ring of trampled earth at the center of their village.

Other Indian communities in the Raposa-Serra do Sol region of Brazil's Roraima State are invited to come and exhibit their artisanry and participate in a friendly competition.

The rest of the year, the little white-washed building where the women of Maturuka create their crafts is filled with the smiles and satisfaction that come from the pleasant work of keeping one's heritage alive.

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