The Maku (or Kamã) are a broad ethnic group of native people who live in north-western Brazil and in Colombia.
Among regional populations and the ethnographic literature in the north-western part of the state of Amazonas, it is usual to distinguish Indians of the rivers, who speak Tukano and Arawak languages, and Indians of the forests, who speak Maku languages. The Maku usually migrate across the watershed regions, establishing temporary settlements when they find a suitable environment.
The Maku people consider themselves separated in six distinct groups, each one with its own territory, language and self-designation.
With the exception of the Boroa, who use the term 'tayra' more than the term 'kakwa' ('people') as a self-designation, all the other Maku use the term 'people' in their respective languages.
The term 'maku' is Arawakan in origin, which means 'serf' or 'savage', and it is understood by all of these people as derogatory and pejorative.
Due to the influence of the indigenous movement in the region of the Negro River from the 1980s, the pejorative names for the tribes (boroa, pohsá, wirapoyá, kamã, guariba and the term maku itself) are falling into disuse. The term Maku has nonetheless become established in ethnographic literature, as there is no other term used to designate these Indians as an overall group.
The Maku population is distributed within an area bordered to the north-west by the Guaviare river, to the north by the Negro River, to the south by the Japurá and to the south-east by the Uneiuxi. The land covers an approximate area of 20 million hectares, but the population density is low because of the presence of the forest. The Maku live in the patches of land where game is more abundant and the forest is richer in plants and trees from which they can obtain food or material.
It is possible that humans occupied the area in two waves. The first wave saw the Maku settling between the rivers in lands with favorable soil; the seconda wave saw the Arawak and Tukano settling on the high banks of the rivers, in the middle of the igapó (a lowland area bordering the river, periodically flooded during the rainy season from April to September). The fairly ancient contact between these peoples which originated from distant and different places, and who spoke different languages, helped the creation of a complex system of commercial and symbolic exchanges.
There are more or less three thousand Maku, distributed over a vast bi-national territory, and it is difficult to make a correct estimate of the total number of the population. Studies which are still in progress show that the population has reached a stable number of individuals (Pozzobon, 1998). Matrimonial exchanges with foreign groups are negligible, because the Maku are ranked poorly in the region's intertribal system.
There are six Maku languages all belonging to the same family. This family is completely separate from the Tukano and Arawak families.
All the Maku speak their own native languages. Due to the proximity of the Tukano people, the Maku of the Vaupes River area (the Bara, Hupdu and Yuhupdu tribes) also speak Tukano languages. Since the Tukano act as intermediaries during contacts with Whites, only about 20% of these Maku are able to speak Portuguese or Spanish. The Nukak were contacted for the first time in 1988 and speak little Spanish. The Dow and Nadub were contacted during the 18th century and learned to speak Portuguese and Nheengatu (a language which descends from a variant of Old Tupi spoken in the Amazon forest, and that is related to Guarani).
*Maku ethnic groups at socioambiental.org