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Brief Introduction to the Canela

The Ramkokamekra-Canela are part of the Je language family in Brazil. They number about 1,500 and are closely related to the Apanjekra-Canela, population 800, and the Kraho-Canela, population 1,500. The Canela population tripled during the 22 years the Popjes' worked with them.

Canela People

In the last forty years the fortunes of the Canela have fluctuated wildly. In the late fifties a language survey was done which determined that a linguistic/literacy/translation program was needed. In the early sixties they survived an attempted massacre by local ranchers. This language program started in 1968 with the arrival of Jack and Jo Popjes. In the early seventies many Canelas died from tuberculosis. In the mid seventies they started learning to read and write in their own language with great enthusiasm.

The Canela educational process was interrupted because of national political turmoil for three years in the late seventies, but in the early eighties the Popjes' were able to return to the village and many Canela people began to learn to read and write again. They also demanded reading sessions in the newly translated, but not yet published, Scriptures.

Right from the start in 1968, the program included developing materials and training teachers for the education system. The project was completed by August 1990. Along with the translation project a great amount of medical and dental work was done throughout the 22 years the Popjes' were involved, particularly in the late sixties and early seventies. They also trained Canela medical and dental helpers, who then took over this work.

Numerous Canela reading teachers were also trained during the early seventies, and eighties. By the early nineties at least one adult in every household of the main village could read Canela fluently. Most of these approximately 100 readers had become Christians. The completed 773 page partial Bible is about one-third Old Testament, mostly a verse by verse translation of key passages, with something from every book in the OT. The rest of the book is a verse by verse translation of most of the New Testament.

The Canela people continue to maintain a complex system of festival cycles, indigenous singing cycles, and have a circular layout for their villages. The Canelas live in the state of Maranhao, in north east Brazil and currently number about 1,800. The closely related Kraho, in the state of Goias, number about 1,500. The Kraho speak a dialect that is very closely related and are thus able to read the Canela translation of the Scriptures.

The Canela peoples live in large circular villages that from the air look like giant wagon wheels with all the houses around the rim facing inwards, and a central village plaza with paths radiating from the centre to each of the houses, much like spokes radiate from the hub in a wheel.

Canala village

They are a matrilocal society where at marriage the man leaves his parents' house and goes to live with his wife in or next to his mother-in-law's house.

They practice slash-and-burn agriculture, using a piece of ground for two years as a garden field and then abandoning it to let it grow up again for twenty years or so while they slash and burn another five to ten acres of forest.

Bilingualism has increased, especially among the men and those families that travel to town a lot or who have opportunity to interact with Portuguese speaking people in the area. A number of young people are now studying in the Brazilian school system in the nearest Brazilian town, Barra do Corda. The language spoken in the village and with one another continues to be 100% Canela.

By the way, consider it a compliment if a Canela Indian ever tells you that you have a big hole in your head. That means you are a fast learner, take in knowledge easily and quickly—you're really a genius.

Jack and Jo Popjes were the only linguist/translators/missionaries assigned to do language work in the main Canela village from 1968 to 1990. For the past ten years several teams from the Unevangelized Fields Mission have worked with the Canela promoting literacy and basic health practices for the entire village, and providing material for Bible classes to those who are interested.

The number of Christians has increased noticeably in the last ten years, and their Bible knowledge and spiritual maturity has deepened considerably.

For more detailed ethnographic information about the Canela, click on the Smithsonian Institution link below.

Canela Peoples

Feel free to browse the photo page containing many pictures taken while Jack and Jo were working with the Canela people.


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