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Guarani People: History, Religion & Missions

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

The Guarani are the ancient people who occupied parts of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. In this lesson, learn about their ancient and modern lifestyle, as well as their unique religion and the role it plays in their lives.

The Guarani: Ancestors of Paraguay

Like many other native groups throughout the Americas, the Guarani people, located primarily in modern-day Paraguay, have faced much adversity in an effort to continue their culture and legacy. The Guarani are the aboriginal group who inhabited eastern Paraguay and parts of Brazil and Argentina when the Spanish arrived in South America. In this lesson, learn about the history of the Guarani, the most important aspects of their religious legacy, and the struggles they face today.

Historic Overview of the Guarani People

The Guarani people initially populated eastern Paraguay and parts of Brazil and Argentina. Women of the culture primarily cultivated fields where they grew maize, cassava, and sweet potatoes. Men spent much of their time hunting and fishing. These gender roles were also traditional in other native tribes in South America.

The Guarani used slash-and-burn agriculture techniques, so they had to move their homes every five to six years. Their villages were composed of four to six houses, each of which held up to 60 people. Can you imagine that many people in a house? The families that lived together were connected through the paternal bloodline.

By modern terms, the Guarani were very violent people. They took captives as both human sacrifices and for cannibalism. However, these violent practices were not enough to scare off the Spanish who arrived in the sixteenth century.

The first Spaniards to make contact with the Guarani were in search of gold and silver in the area. The Guarani had three major reactions to the Spanish. Some chose to help the Spanish fight other native groups. Others were subjected to the encomienda system, in which they were essentially enslaved by the Spanish. The remaining group joined the Jesuits.

Those who helped the Spanish built ranches around Asuncion, where the Spanish men procreated with the Guarani women. Their descendants, who were ethnically Spanish and Guarani, became the modern population of rural Paraguay.

Traditional Religion: Quest for Peaceful Land

The Guarani are very spiritual people. Each community has its own prayer house and religious leader, who derives his power based on status, not a formalized election. In fact, the Guarani language has three forms - one for everyday use, one for use by elders, and one that is regarded as a divine, religious language.

As legend has it, the Guarani have been looking for a place revealed by ancestors. In this place, people live without suffering and pain; they call it the ''land without evil.'' The Guarani, both ancient and modern, travel in search of this land. A 16th-century record says that they always look for new lands where ''they imagine they will find immortality and perpetual ease.''

Today, the traditional Guarani religion has had a few changes in comparison with the ancient religion. All Guarani believe that a person has two souls: one on earth and one that is divine. The divine soul creates the dreams a person has. These dreams are especially important to the shamans, who are religion leaders tasked with the responsibility of identifying evil, curing disease and protecting people. Shamans are also the form of communication between the earthly and the divine. Guarani who were most influenced by Christian missionaries believe that, upon death, a person either goes to a land of evil or to the ''land without evil.''

Jesuit Missions

As we learned earlier, when the Spanish encountered the Guarani, some Guarani joined the Jesuits. Jesuits are an order of Catholic priests known for their missionary work. In the 17th-century, the Jesuits established their first mission in eastern Paraguay near the Parana River. From this first mission, a total of thirty mission towns were built, making the area known as ''Jesuit Utopia.''

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