Kapot, 1997; Foto: 
Andres Pablo Salanova

Mebengokre is one of the five extant languages of the northeast branch of the Jê family, the others being Timbira, Apinayé, Suyá and Panará. Two nations, Xikrin and Kayapó, speak this language. The speakers number approximately 10000, making Mebengokre one of the languages with most speakers in the Eastern Amazon region. Language use is vigorous in all villages. Bilingualism in Portuguese is common, though in some villages only some of the younger men speak it fluently.

Mebengokre is actually the self-denomination of both Xikrin and Kayapó, and could be translated as the people that are (from) the hole in the river, though this putative translation has apparently no connection to current Mebengokre oral history. It has been suggested that, with some poetic license, the term could refer to the "land between the rivers" Tocantins and Araguaia, whence they migrated west in the mid XIX century.

Mebengokre villages are circular, with the houses in the circle belonging to feminine lines of descent. In the center of the village is situated the ngà, which was traditionally the residence for the unmarried or divorced men, a "boarding school" for adolescents, a sort of clubhouse for the elder men, and the center of ceremonial life. Only the latter use is still current in all villages. In Mebengokre ceremonies, dancers of both sexes and of all age groups congregate in the ngà, and dance inside it and out though one of the doors to the half of the village plaza between the ngà and the house of the sponsor of the ceremony (mekrareremex).

The Mebengokre entered permanent contact with the surrounding non-indigenous population at various times, in most cases with catastrophic consequences. The Irã'ã mrãjre, now extinct, were first contacted in the second half of the XIX century. Of the extant Mebengokre groups, the Kayapó Gorotire were contacted first, in the 1930's, suffering a loss of population estimated at almost 80% in the first few years after contact. The Xikrin were contacted in the late 1950's, after fleeing a raid by white settlers on their village of Kàkàrekre, now the site of the Brazilian town of Parauapebas, and nearly became extinct before regrouping and rebounding in population. The Mekrãknõti Kayapó were contacted in the 1950's and 60's. Smaller groups of Kayapó resisted contact with outsiders and may still roam the region between the Xingu and the Curuá rivers.

I've worked with the Mebengokre since 1996. In recent years, I've carried out my fieldwork in the village of Djudjêkô, with both Xikrin and Kayapó speakers. Some papers of mine on different topics of the grammar, including a short grammatical sketch, are available in the research section of this site. Though there is very little published on the Mebengokre language, there is a vast anthropological literature about the Kayapó and Xikrin. The Kayapó and Xikrin entries in ISA's database give some pointers to sources.

The Jê language family has a central branch, which includes Xerente and Xavante, and a southern branch, which includes Kaingang and Xokleng. Several more languages compose a Macro-Jê stock, which would have once spanned most of the Brazilian Highlands, though the connection of some Macro-Jê languages to Jê proper is still to be demonstrated. The Tupi and Carib stocks have also been linked to Macro-Jê, though bona fide correspondences are very scarce, especially with Carib. A very thorough bibliography of works on Jê groups is avaliable as a PDF file here.

The picture: Kapôt village, northern Mato Grosso, 1997.