For the tiny Maka culture of Paraguay, political authority has passed from father to son for generations even as the band has struggled for survival, its way of life uprooted by war and migration from a vast, isolated countryside to an urban neighborhood near the capital.
So the death in February of Andrés Chemei, a widely respected figure who led the group for 40 years, posed a problem. He had no son.
The solution has been at least a small advance for women in Paraguay: Maka leaders chose his widow, Tsiweyenki to be one of the first female chiefs of an indigenous people in the South American country.
“The Maka are respectful of women and in this case we have placed our trust in Chemei’s widow,” said Yelukín, director of a dance company that performs traditional Maka dances at cultural events.
While she still breaks down in tears at times thinking of her late husband, Tsiweyenki expressed thankfulness at her new post. “I feel good because the community shows me respect,” she told The Associated Press in the Maka tongue, speaking through an interpreter.
The 68-year-old Tsiweyenki — known to the Paraguayan state as Gloria Elizeche — has a warm smile, but a difficult task.
Most of the roughly 2,000 Maka live in a 35-acre (14-hectare) colony in a city bordering the capital, Asuncion. Many live in wood or block houses and make a living selling bags, bracelets and other handicrafts.
They’re also carrying on Chemei’s battle to assert ownership of 830 acres (335 hectare) of lands a little way down the Paraguay River where the Maka lived for four decades before flooding forced most to move into town.
Only a century ago, the Maka were largely hunter-gatherers in northwest Paraguay’s remote Chaco region. And only a few decades ago, census figures counted their population at less than 1,000.
Chemei had been a link to the Maka’s history. The son of a chief himself, he spent time as a boy in the home of a Russian emigre general, Juan Belaieff, who established warm ties with the Maka ahead of the 1932-1935 war against Bolivia and then oversaw their move from the remote Chaco region to lands closer to the capital.
Tsiweyenki herself was born in the Chaco and as a girl dedicated herself to household tasks and learned to make handicrafts. As an adolescent, attended a Baptist missionary school where she learned to read and write in the Maka language, into which parts of the Bible have been translated.
Due to a lack of experience, the Maka are giving Tsiweyenki several months to learn the new role before being formally taking over her duties. In addition to the standard political tasks, she’ll be principal of a primary and secondary school, lead a labor union and soccer team and even head the local Baptist church.
In the meantime, the community’s assembly has appointed Mateo Martínez, who was Chemei’s secretary for 35 years, as interim chief. Martínez is close to signing a deal with the Paraguayan government to build 150 units of social housing, but he said that Tsiweyenki is “consulted about all matters” and that “she must approve or reject all of them.”
Her position is something of a landmark for Paraguay as a whole. Women gained the vote only in 1961 and the country still trails neighboring nations in the number of women in major political posts, according to the U.N. women’s agency.
The Maka is one of 20 indigenous communities that still survive in Paraguay with a combined population of 120,000 people, according to the government’s statistics agency. Most live in extreme poverty.
The first female indigenous leader in Paraguay, at least in recent times, was Margarita Mywangi, who led an Ache community from 1992 to 2014 and was director of the Paraguay’s Cabinet-level Institute of Indigenous Affairs. However, Mywangi led just one of several Ache communities while Tsiweyenki will be chief of an entire ethnic group.
“Generally speaking, all indigenous people have a great deal of respect for women because they are decision-makers,” said Marilin Rehnfeld, director of the Department of Anthropology at the Catholic University of Asuncion. “They organize the community, educate the children and deal with all important matters. The title of chief was invented by our society, not the tribes.”