The Guarani Altar

The Guarani Altar: A Donation Tells a Deep Story

The altar looks simple. A wooden “box” is surmounted by a “rack,” from which hang several ceremonial objects. But the sacred installation, constructed specially as a donation to the National Museum of the American Indian, comes with multiple dimensions of meaning, involving many actors.

The altar evokes the struggle of a Guarani Indian group from Paraguay, the Pai Tavytera, for recognition and survival in a national environment that tends to ignore their rights. This group is part of an indigenous movement demanding respect for sacred sites such as the Amambay Hills near the border of Paraguay and Brazil, where the Pai Tavytera mostly reside. This movement is rallying for a more sustainable and ecologically friendly use of resources but it faces a government biased in favor of powerful economic and political interests. More broadly, indigenous groups are leading a cultural and religious revival movement. They seek to protect basic aspects of their lifeways and ethos against the harmful effects of hired-labor and western influence.

The Pai belong to a larger ethnic group named Nande Pai Tavytera. The name Pai Tavytera comes from two sources, Pai, which is the way the gods refer to them, and Tavytera which means “the inhabitants of the center of the earth.” The wood altar is considered a sacred sanctuary and a focus of the community. Called the Mba’e Marangatu (meaning sacred, privileged object in Guarani), it is the central institution of the Pai Tavytera’s religious system. Lacking the sacrificial function that most altars have, the Mba’e Marangatu is more of a sacred “place” to keep the instruments and objects used in ceremonies. These objects are sometimes called santos (“saints” in Spanish). It represents what anthropologists call the axis mundi, a point in space where the natural and supernatural worlds intersect or are connected. As the best location to conduct ceremonies, it is also the focal social point of the community. The altar is a place where the community gathers to worship or to discuss important matters.

The Museum of Donation

An effort to preserve this community led to an offer in 2014 to donate a Pai Tavytera altar to the National Museum of the American Indian. The initiative came from the Solar Map Project (SolarMapProject.com), founded and led by Frank Weaver, a Paraguayan filmmaker residing in the U.S., with his brother, James. This project is producing a documentary about ancient rock art located in the Amambay Hills and the rich culture of its guardians, the Pai Tavytera Indians. The tribe is besieged by modern development. The Amambay Hills area has a long history of encounters between the natives and national political and economic interests. A great majority of these cases have ended to the detriment of the environment and the Guaranis. Today, the region is heavily deforested. Cattle ranching and soybean farms have forced the Pai Tavytera to abandon some of their traditional subsistence strategies and look for other ways of life.

The desire to have a permanent record of Pai Tavytera survival in the Museum inspired the idea of commissioning a new altar. The native community of Ita Guazu agreed through their leaders.

Stella I. Gonzalez de Olmo, a researcher of the rock art, commented on the significance of this donation:

“This altar conserves the value of a tangible and intangible heritage that, in a certain way, represents the culture of the Pai Tavytera; the message it conveys is also a contribution to the whole world. The donation of the altar to this Museum will allow the world to value this heritage and to give it its true meaning. It will facilitate the understanding and appreciation of these ancestral places [the Amambay Hills and the rock art] so rich in intangible heritage and will foment the public awareness and the commitment for their protection and conservation.

“This way of presenting the Pai culture is by its own nature a communicative act. It will increase public awareness and will allow peoples from very different regions to learn more about Paraguay, which to date does not have a program to protect and value the culture of the Pai.”

L. Antonio Curet is an archaeologist who specializes in Caribbean and Mesoamerican ancient history. He is currently the Curator of Archaeology at the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian Institution. Frank Weaver is a native Paraguayan filmmaker who resides in Florida. His project, the Solar Map Project on the rock art of the Amambay Hills, has led him to live and document the culture of the Pai Tavytera for several years. The interview with Leonido Benitez Romero was conducted in Guarani by Osmar Valenzuela, the first Pai Tavytera to attend college. It was translated into Spanish by Rita Carolina, and into English by the authors of this article. Ethnographic information was provided by Stella Isabel Gonzalez de Olmo.