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Mbaya Indians

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A predatory tribe formerly ranging on both sides of the Paraguay River, on the north and northwestern Paraguay frontier, and in the adjacent portion of the province of Matto Grosso, Brazil. They are one of a group of equestrian warlike and savage tribes, constituting a distinct linguistic stock, the Guaycuran, formerly roving over northern Paraguay and the upper Chaco region, and of which the best known are the Abipon, made famous by the missionary Dobrizhoffer, the Guaycurü proper, or Mbaya, the Macobí, and the still savage and powerful Toba. The Lengua, sometimes included under the same name, are now known to be a branch of the Chiquito of Bolivia. The name, Mbaya, given to them by the more peaceful Guaraní, signified "terrible", "bad", or "savage". The name, Guaycurü, now most commonly used, is said to mean "runner". They have also been called Caballeros by the Spaniards, on account of their fine horsemanship. According to Father Lozano they had three main divisions: Epicua-yiqui (Epiguayegi) in the North, Napin-yiqui in the West, and Taqui-yiqui in the South. Iolis, another authority, gives a different list of six divisions.

The Guaycurü were accustomed to prey upon the more sedentary Guaraní tribes, making sudden raids with quick retreats into their own country, where tangled forests and treacherous swamps made pursuit difficult and subjection almost impossible. In 1542, Alvar Nuñez Cabeça de Vaca, governor of Buenos Aires, with a detachment of Spaniards and contingent of Guaraní, inflicted upon them a signal defeat, chiefly by the terror of his field guns and horses, with both of which the Guaycurü were still unacquainted. The acquisition of horses soon transformed them into a race of expert and daring equestrians, and for two centuries they continued their raids upon the Spanish settlements on the Paraguay River and the neighbouring missions. As early as 1610 the Jesuits unsuccessfully attempted their conversion. About the middle of the eighteenth century a peace was arranged which, according to Dobrizhoffer, was faithfully kept by the Indians. The Jesuit Joseph Sanchez Labrador was then sent, at his own request, to work among these Guaycurü, who had been considered the wildest and most dangerous tribe of the region. Having made good progress in their difficult language, he established for them, in 1760, the mission of Virgen de Belen (now Belen), east of the present Concepción, in Paraguay. They were impatient of restraint, and, although many infants and dying adults received baptism, according to Dobrizhoffer, "the rest did little else than wander over the plains". The mission influence, however, effectually tamed their ferocity. At the expulsion of the Jesuits, in 1767, the Belen mission contained 260 Christian Indians, eight of the nine bands still remaining in the forests.

In this same year was established by Father Manuel Duran the last of the Paraguay Jesuit foundations, the mission of San Juan Nepomucino, on the east bank of the river, among the Guana, or Chana, a numerous agricultural or pedestrian tribe of the same territory, subject to the Mbaya. When the missionaries were driven out, this station contained 600 Indians. The conversion of the Guana had been undertaken more than a century before by Father Pedro Romero, who lost his life in 1645 at the hands of a neighbouring wide tribe. Among the Guana, infanticide, polygamy, and intoxication were unknown, and the men and women worked together in the fields. About the close of the eighteenth century, the Franciscans took up the work begun by the Jesuits, and in the next fifty years gathered a number of Guaycurü and Guana into missions, which continued until the tribes themselves diminished or were assimilated. Lieutenant Page, who commanded a mission sent by the United States Government to explore the Paraguay river, gives an interesting and extended account of his visit to one of these mission, Nossa Senhora de Bon Conselho, near Albuquerque, Brazil, in 1853 (Page, "Report to the Secretary of the Navy", Washington, 1855). Here the Christian Guanas cultivated vegetables for the market afforded by the neighbouring white settlements. Under the care, both temporal and spiritual, of a Franciscan Father, these aborigines who, only a few years earlier, had been wandering savages, now were a remarkably neat, orderly, and thrifty community of husbandmen. Fronting upon a public square, there stood the village church, a school house, and a number of well-constructed thatched dwellings, each dwelling having a frontage of twenty feet, with interiors partitioned with curtains and fitted with raised platforms to serve either as tables or beds. Among the vegetables cultivated was a native rice, which they harvested in canoes. Cotton, too, was grown, spun, dyed, and woven by the women of the settlement. The men wore trousers and ponchos; the women, a chemise girdled at the waist; the boys were exercised in military tactics, and the children in general were not only taught "the rudiments of a general education, but made some progress in music and dancing". A few of the Mbaya proper still exist on the western bank of the Paraguay in the neighbourhood of the town of Concepción. Other bands known as Guaycurü roam over the adjacent districts of Matto Grosso, Brazil and may number perhaps 1500 souls as against and estimated 15,000 or 18,000 a century ago. The Guana, on the Taquari and Miranda Rivers in the same region are now labourers among the whites, although still claimed as dependents by the Guaycurü.

In their primitive condition the men of the Guaycurü went entirely naked, while the women wore only a short skirt. The men trimmed their hair in a circular tuft. Girls had the head closely shaven. The men painted their bodies and wore rings in the lower lip. Boys were painted black until about fourteen years old, then red for two years, when they were subjected to a painful ordeal, before taking their station as warriors. War was their chief business, their weapons being the bow, club, and bone knife. The children born of captives were sold as slaves. Their chief tribal ceremony was in honour of the Pleiades, and was accompanied by a short battle between the men and the women, ending with general intoxication. They buried their dead in the ground, and voluntary human victims were sacrificed when a chief died. Polygamy was unknown, but separation was frequent, and infanticide common. They subsisted by fishing and hunting. Their villages consisted each of a single communal structure in three large rooms, the middle of which was reserved for the chief and head men, and for the storage of weapons. The chief had great authority, and with his head men, seems to have belonged to a different clan, or gens, from the common warriors. Captives and their descendants constituted a permanent slave class. As a people they were tall and strongly built. Those still remaining show the admixture of white captive blood and are gradually assimilating to the settled population.


BRINTON, American Race (New York, 1891); CHARLEVOIX, Hist. of Paraguay, I (London, 1796); DOBRIZHOFFER, Account of the Abipones (London, 1822); HERVÁS, Catálogo de las lenguas. I (Madrid, 1800); LOZANO, Descripcion Chorographica de la Gran Chaco (Cordoba, 1733); PAGE, La Plata, the Argentine Federation, and Paraguay (New York, 1859); RECLUS, South America, II: Amazonia and La Plata (New York, 1897).

About this page

APA citation. Mooney, J. (1911). Mbaya Indians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Mooney, James. "Mbaya Indians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by M. Donahue.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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