William H. Crocker Collection EAR PIERCING and
SOCIAL KNOWLEDGE

Ear piercing forms part of a series of rites, including the khŕŕt˙wayŕ and pepyŕ festivals, that promote the physical and social maturation of Canela boys.

But unlike other Canela male rites of passage, which are collective and public events, the ear piercing rite is performed individually and in the relative solitude of the youth's home. If other youths undergo the rite at the same time (as sometimes happens for the ear piercing specialist's convenience), they do so in their own homes, attended to by their own families.

The ear piercing both symbolizes and enables the boy's maturation. Canela say that boys with open ears are more receptive to the knowledge revealed to them by their elders. Bill Crocker, an anthropologist who has studied the Canela extensively, notes that their expression for advising and counseling, or lecturing and warning, is to hapak khre ("to open up someone's ear hole"). According to Crocker, "ear piercing apparently creates in the boy socialized responses to hearing and understanding, namely, to receiving orders and obeying them. The Canela are a very order oriented society. Attention to the ears and to receiving aural information epitomizes the compliance required in the socialization process." William H. Crocker Collection

William H. Crocker Collection Curt Nimuendaj˙, the great German- Brazilian ethnologist of Brazilian Indians who lived with the Canela in the 1920s and 1930s, wrote: "Such disks (kui) are the youth's pride and the women's delight. In describing the handsome young man of a tale the narrator will stress the size of his plugs: there is a story about one hero whose disks were so large that he would take them out to sit on them as a stool." These intimately related aspects of ear piercing -- knowledge and aesthetics -- are also revealed in Canela accounts of the ear opening rite, which invariably emphasize that knowledge derives from the experience of shame and respect:
Raimundo Roberto:

"Our elders thought that an ear decoration made young men beautiful, and that those who received them would become even more handsome to young women. And when women like him more, a man would feel a sense of shame and therefore wouldn't touch anything with restrictions, nor would he always be jealous. He wouldn't act foolishly, nor talk badly to anyone, because he knew that the women were always watching him. So, a man's earring indicates that he is a tribesman of the highest caliber. That's why I think earrings were a very serious matter for our elders.

When the ear is not pierced, there is no shame. A man has no respect!"

Photo by Carl Hansen

 

Canela ear disk.
Cat. 404791

Canela men frequently liken their ear piercing to the act of childbirth, saying "a man receives pain in the ears while a woman experiences pain in childbirth." Men say the earlobe holes, and the pins inserted in them, have just been born.

Each day the holes and pins increase in size, facilitated by the food and sex restrictions the boy, their "parent," is maintaining for their health and growth. Later, these wooden pins will be replaced by small spools and then larger ones. According to Raimundinho Beato, "The Canela treat the ear like a child. You have to care for it well."

The piece of white cloth that is placed over the boy's head at the conclusion of the rite encloses the newly born holes and pins, just as the special mat partition in his mother's house encloses the boy himself for a two-week period. The ear's symbolic transition is also marked by the cloth's white color, which recurs in the diet of white rice the boy maintains during his internment.

But how shall we interpret the mask of urucu that is applied over the boy's mouth at the start of the rite? It seems out of place in a rite devoted to the ear, the principal sensory organ associated with knowledge, unless we understand it as a message about the relative importance of speaking.

Perhaps the urucu mouth covering conveys to young men the message that they are, ideally, the passive recipients of older men's knowledge, but not conveyors of knowledge themselves. This message would reflect the positive values that Canela perceive in old age -- a hardened body, fully open head orifices, public speaking ability and knowledge.

Ear piercing is seldom performed today. Although Bill Crocker photographed the rite in 1959, 1966 and 1979, very few of the youths born in the late 1950s or the 1960s have had their earlobes pierced.

Raimundinho Beato (a middle-age man):

"Most Brazilians treat us like beasts, they call us "people who don't know." They don't understand why we would do something that causes pain in the ear, and so this practice then becomes ugly. It's primarily the word of the Brazilian people -- we listen to it very much. We have to change in such a way that the Brazilian people like us because if we don't, we will always live amidst violence. I believe this very strongly.

"I think education is now important for the Canela because we no longer have pierced ears."

Photo by Carl Hansen
Suggested readings:

Crocker, William H.

1986     Canela Body Painting. Review: Latin American Literature and Arts 36: 24-26.

1990     The Canela (Eastern Timbira), I: An Ethnographic Introduction. (Smithsonian
            Contributions to Anthropology 33)  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution               Press.

1994     The Canela: Bonding through Kinship, Ritual, and Sex. (Case Studies in
            Cultural Anthropology.) Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Nimuendaj˙, Curt

1946     The Eastern Timbira. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Seeger, Anthony

1975     The Meaning of Body Adornments: A Suya Example. Ethnology 14: 211-224.

Turner, Terence S.

1979     The Social Skin. In Not Work Alone, edited by Jeremy Cherfas and Roger               Lewin, pp. 112-140. London: Temple Smith.

1995     Social Body and Embodied Subject: Bodiliness, Subjectivity, and Sociality
            among the Kayapo. Cultural Anthropology 10(2): 143-170


 

Written by William H. Crocker and Robert Leopold. Designed by Robert Leopold. Portuguese translations by Kalanit Baumhaft. Special thanks to Gail Solomon and Elizabeth Vance. Copyright ę 1957-1999, William H. Crocker, Carl C. Hansen, and the Smithsonian Institution. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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