In Brazil, an indigenous group is turning a day of mourning into a celebration of life

  • Carved out of wood and painted with tar, Saint Bilibeu is believed to bring fertility to the land, animals and women and is venerated every year in the Akroá Gamella area of ​​the Brazilian state of Maranhão.
  • The ritual, which contains Catholic elements, lasts four days and sees a procession of people dressed as hunting dogs gather food and drink to offer to Saint Bilibeu.
  • Once celebrated during Carnival, the ritual now takes place on April 30 in recognition of an attack on the community of Akroá Gamella by ranchers during a land dispute in 2017.

It’s called Bilibeu, Saint Bilibeu or even Bilibreu. Carved from wood and painted with tar, this saint is said to bring fertility to the earth, animals and women. He is worshiped every year by the indigenous people of the Akroá Gamella, who live in the countryside between the municipalities of Viana, Matinha and Penalva in the Brazilian state of Maranhão.

“Bilibeu lives in the forests, the streams, in the sky and among us,” says Maria Roxa Akroá Gamella, a local shaman.

The ritual, made up of elements of Catholicism, lasts four days and includes a race that lasted 12 hours this year. The idea is to travel through all the villages of the territory and do justice to the Akroá Gamella by saying: “Our feet are our writings”. took place, has not invalidated the property of the native people since time immemorial. “People used to do that. They visited all four corners of the territory on foot every year,” says Borges Akroá Gamella.

When the Bilibeu “dogs” visit their homes, people offer “game”, usually chicken, pigs and cachaça liquor. Image by Ana Mendes.
The carved saint watches from the lap of Maria do Carmo Akroá Gamella as the mast is lowered in the village of Cajueiro Piraí. Image by Ana Mendes.

For decades, the Akroá Gamella, considered extinct by the Brazilian government, were referred to as mulattoes or half-breeds. With their identity – and consequently their culture – censored, the Akroá Gamella have kept secret their worship of the spiritual entities they believe inhabit their territory. But Bilibeu didn’t have to hide: he remained public because he became part of the carnival celebrations. “He survived because this is a time when everything is permitted,” says Domingos Akroá Gamella, one of those responsible for praying the saint’s novena.

Thus, during the festival, Bilibeu was always allowed to exist in the streets, when dozens of children and adults, painted on their bodies with charcoal, embody “Bilibeu’s dogs” and “hunt” from house to house, from village to village. The dogs, led by the figures of a margay and a jaguar, both wild cats, collect food and drink from each house to offer to the saint. At a certain point in the ritual, Bilibeu dies, is buried while the women weep, and is reborn the next morning to continue to bring abundance and fertility to the Akroá Gamella people. “I’ve been going out as a Bilibreu hunting dog since I was 12,” says Pyn Capric Akroá Gamella, now 24.

One of Bilibeu’s most important roles is as a fertility supplier. Under his clothes he wears a phallus, and when women become pregnant, Bilibeu is considered the father. In the rituals after the birth, mother and child give thanks by keeping their promises. The mother offers Bilibeu breast milk as promised. When they are big enough, the children become hunting dogs in his pack. The need to stay alive (and be born) has kept the ritual alive year after year since time immemorial.

The ritual was accepted during Carnival but has always been considered odd by outsiders. It survived on the border between the playful and the whimsical, because on the day of the hunt, the hounds sublimate their humanity and eat raw meat in plain sight. The chickens sacrificed to the saint are torn apart in a fierce battle between humans embodied as dogs. The victorious dog runs away, carrying the head of the won bird in its mouth. Bilibeu drinks from his dogs cachaça, a sugarcane liquor, and will eat pigs and fowl or anything else the owner of a home frequented by the pack can offer. During the race, the offerings are thrown in the air or buried for the dogs to dig up with their paws.

Gleidson Akroá Gamella, in the role of the jaguar, the leader of the pack of dogs, thanks a chicken before it is handed over to the pack. This is a way of respecting the sacred nature of Bilibeu’s hunts. Image by Ana Mendes.
Water is an important part of the ritual, poured either to end fights between the dogs or to help people cool off. In this photo, Preta Akroá Gamella’s face is doused with water. Image by Ana Mendes.

“Are they really Indians?”

In recent years, the Akroá Gamella have chosen a different date for the Bilibeu ritual, which does not fall within Carnival week. Since 2018, they have held it on April 30 – a day marked by much pain, sadness and anger. On this day in 2017, two Akroá Gamella men were maimed and another two dozen injured in a clash involving about 300 ranchers and suspected landowners in the area. “They wanted it to be a day of mourning, but we turned it into a day of struggle,” says community leader Kum’tum Akroá Gamella.

The attack happened in the late afternoon of April 30, 2017. “It’s 5 p.m. right now. It was around this time that we were attacked, exactly five years ago,” Kum’tum says in a speech during one of the parades the dogs held during the hunt. “Today’s race is fundamental to teach our youth our ways. We only fight for the things we know,” he explains to the young people around him.

Cohtap Akroá Gamella, member of the Akroá Gamella Leadership Council, holds a cartridge case from a police shot in November 2021, when 18 Akroá Gamella were detained for blocking the construction of power lines without the necessary impact assessments. Image by Ana Mendes.

At the time of the 2017 attack, it had been three years since the Akroá Gamella had publicly declared themselves an indigenous people. By that time, they had taken possession of about a dozen properties, prompting an outcry from alleged landowners, anti-Indigenous political groups and local religious leaders. The “opposition,” as it refers to its political opponents, began to organize to respond to the Akroá Gamella’s land repossession.

According to Akroá Gamella, the attack was planned during a series of meetings at Protestant evangelical churches where religious leaders, including one identified only as OS, would ask for money or weapons to respond to the seizure. “OS went to the churches asking for money or guns. if [a person] didn’t have 300 reais [$55]they could donate a gun,” says a person from Akroá Gamella who used to visit one of the evangelical churches and asked not to be identified or to give the full names of those involved, fearing retribution.

Two days before the attack, Brazilian Congressman Aluisio Mendes, now a member of the evangelical Christian Social Party (PSC), and the same local religious leaders called for a protest called the “March for Peace” over a local radio station. At a rally the following day, Mendes railed against the indigenous people. In one of the few videos available on the internet, he says: “No one here has cockroach blood, no one will accept this provocation.” For many, it was a foreshadowing of what would happen hours later.

“It was a really tough time, I really don’t like to think about it,” says Zé Canário Akroá Gamella, who lost the clockwork in his right hand after it was almost severed during the machete attack.

“I was shot in the back and my arm and leg were cut,” says Aldeli Akroá Gamella, whose limbs were also chopped off. “They had to operate on my mouth and head. You didn’t hit me.”

The episode was so brutal that it drew global media attention. The self-proclaimed ethnic identity of the Akroá Gamella has been challenged mainly by local media, society and government officials. “Are they really Indians?” was the question echoing behind the April 30 newscasts. Government officials compounded the uncertainty by using terms such as “allegedly indigenous peoples” and “pseudo-indigenous peoples” to refer to them, and “allegedly indigenous land” to refer to the land they were dealing with as theirs own claimed.

The Akroá Gamella estimates that about 250 people left on the third day of the ritual. The march to collect wild animals for Bilibeu lasted 12 hours. Image by Ana Mendes.

Supernatural beings

Many of the Akroá Gamella were Protestant evangelicals. But when they declared themselves Indigenous, they had to choose between the evangelical community and their identity as a people. Some went one way and some the other. “So I explained that I am an Indian, a member of the Akroá Gamella people,” says a former evangelical member of the congregation, who asked not to be identified. “When I showed up with paint, they thought it was weird and said it wasn’t something a believer would do, that it was from the devil.”

On the final day of the ritual, the mast is brought down and bananas and drinks are taken from it one at a time. In the photo, Zé Boda hands Akroá Gamella a bottle of cachaça from the pole. Image by Ana Mendes.
The dogs also pour water over the people who give them game for Bilibeu. The recipient of the effusions here is Rosa Quebradeira. Image by Ana Mendes.

Bilibeu is not the only supernatural being of the Akroá Gamella; Their territory is home to many spiritual entities. In fact, her 2017 repossession of traditional lands was aimed at reclaiming the Fragato, a sacred place she believes is home to a mermaid, or “water mother,” who was in danger of dying because the land around her was parched and a farm .

But Bilibeu is the most iconic of the spirits. The rich details of his ritual have been preserved over the decades, even when his people were thought to be extinct. “Bilibeu is neither here nor there,” says Pjhcre Akroá Gamella. “Ask him softly in his ear where he lives and he will tell you,” she teases, dodging questions about the ritual that takes on new meaning after her people’s self-declaration amid the sacred traditions of the Akroá Gamella.

Banner image of a Bilibeu dog wearing a mask Pindoba Palm Leaves, by Ana Mendes.

This story was reported by the Mongabay Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on July 4, 2022.

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