The Cubeo, who live along the forested banks of the Uaupés River in Brazil and Colombia, traditionally held three-day funeral ceremonies called Óyne, or “Weepings.” Suppressed by missionaries in the 1940s, the ceremony was partially revived in 1970, but the Óyne is not known to be practiced today.
When a relative passed away, he or she was wrapped in a hammock, provided with travel necessities, and buried in a canoe under the family longhouse. The most precious possessions were preserved in a basket and kept by close kin. The Óyne took place up to a year after the burial. The timing not only allowed distant guests to be notified but also coincided with the ripening of peach palm fruits during the brief dry spell in January and February.
A close relative acted as the chief mourner and master of the Óyne, inviting the guests and coordinating the ritual sequence. The three-day ceremony opened with a predawn lamentation conducted by the Óyne master and an elderly clan sister. As the chief mourner chanted in angry, punctuated syllables, calling for revenge on the sorcerer responsible for the death, the female leader sobbed softly from her hammock at the rear of the longhouse. The two relatives mourned in heartfelt, melodic counterpoint.
A decorated basket with the deceased’s possessions was set in the center of the longhouse. As close relatives gathered around the container, the clan brothers paid homage to the deceased by shouting vows of revenge, brandishing weapons and shamanic rattles as they railed against the sorcerer. As the sun rose, others joined the group, forming a large semicircle around the shrine, mourning their common loss.
In the predawn hours of the third day the Óyne took a dramatic turn, as dancers dressed in painted, knee-length, hooded masks burst abruptly into the longhouse, most of them impersonating animal spirits. The enactors, all men and boys, accompanied their movements with songs associated with their characters, mimicking the sounds and movements of the animal spirits and beating the ground with batons.
Dancers wearing jaguar masks entered first, with vigorous leaps and mock feline gestures. The jaguars were followed by butterflies carrying small gourds of beer. They, in turn, were followed by butterfly larvae (caterpillars), who hoisted themselves onto poles and swung from the rafters. Several masked dancers depicting ancestors such as Grandmother restricted their activities to mourning. Eventually a crowd of performers gathered, their clownlike antics shifting the collective mood away from somber grief and loss, toward play and laughter.
As the sun rose, the closing ceremony began, and the company moved outside. The masked performers encircled the house, singing, “We are going home to our Kuwai House [the house of a creator deity], following the flight of the white butterfly who… shows us the way.” They then removed their masks and placed them on upright poles in the open plaza before the longhouse. There, with ceremonial flourish, the masks were burned in a bonfire and the spirit of the deceased released into the River of the Dead, which flows through the underworld. With this act, the departed kinsman was said to be forgotten, and his or her name was never again spoken.
Although the Óyne Ceremony is no longer known to be held, the Cubeo continue to make Óyne masks for exhibition and sale. The painted masks, or táwü, are made from the white inner bark of a tree of the same name. They represent a pantheon of forest spirits, known as takahédekokü (bark-cloth spirits), which are said to be visible only to shamans. Most of the masks depict animals, including the jaguar, sloth, parrot, dragonfly, frog, dung beetle, butterfly, vulture, hawk, and fish. Each is painted with a pattern that reflects the animal’s signature features: fish have triangular scales, jaguars are adorned with spots, and birds and insects feature painted wings. Masks also depict the species’ juvenile and transitional life stages, such as larvae, eggs, and tadpoles, evoking the theme of rebirth and regeneration so integral to the Óyne funerary rite.
The Cubeo divide the cosmos into three distinct layers: sky, earth, and underworld. While the masks depict creatures from each of these realms, spirits that transcend the layers are especially important: the jaguar and sloth, who ascend into the trees; the butterfly and fish, whose young are transformed from larvae or eggs; and the carrion vulture and burying dung beetle who consume or bury dead substances. In this way, the Óyne Ceremony refers to the worlds of both the living and the dead, emphasizing transitions between the two.
—Janet M. Chernela
Janet M. Chernela, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Latin American Studies Center at the University of Maryland since 2004, is widely regarded as a leading scholar of indigenous peoples and protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon. Her research interests include indigenous rights, NGOs, and intergovernmental processes as well as gender, language, and performance. After receiving her doctorate from Columbia University in 1983, she served on the faculties of Brazil’s National Amazonian Research Institute (INPA) and Florida International University. Her principal publications include a book, The Wanano Indians of the Brazilian Amazon: A Sense of Space (1996) and the article “Talking Community in the Northwest Amazon” (American Anthropologist, 2003). She is the founder of AMARN, one of the oldest ongoing indigenous associations in Brazil, and past president of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America.
During the Óyne, male dancers appeared wearing táwü, or knee-length bark masks. The masks were painted to represent forest spirits known as takahédekokü, which were seen only by Cubeo shamans. Among other spirits, the masks represented jaguars, sloths, parrots, dragonflies, frogs, dung beetles, butterflies, carrion vultures, hawks, and fish. They also depicted the animals’ early life stages—such as larvae, eggs, and tadpoles—evoking the theme of rebirth and regeneration so important to the Óyne funerary rite. The head section of the mask was typically painted with a diamond-shaped face. When included, mouths were shown with sharp teeth. Ornamental details such as feathers, ears, and braids were sometimes sewn on as separate, movable elements.
1966. Amazonas State, São Gabriel da Cachoeira Municipality, Rio Uaupes, Brazil. Bark cloth, vegetal dye. Photograph by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. 23/7047
Cubeo Óyne dancers, Brazil, ca. 1903. From Zwei Jahre unter den Indianern: Reisen in Nordwest-Brasilien, 1903–1905 by Dr. Theodor Koch-Grünberg. Stuttgart: Strecker & Shröder, 1909