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The Legend of Acai

Translated from Portuguese by Dr. Tim S. Hollingshead

The legend of acai is a story of sacrifice and love unrequited. It is a bitter sweet story that has its roots in the resplendent lush green jungles that once covered the land where the Brazilian town of Belem now lies. Belem is the capital of the state of Para in the northern part of the country. It sits as a sentinel at the mouth of the world’s greatest and most mysterious river the Amazon as it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

Many years ago in this region lived a most prosperous tribe of Indians. They had grown so numerous that none dare attack them. They owned “a Boca do Rio Amazona” or the mouth of the river. Because this is a tropical rain forest near the equator the thought of drought in such a bio-diverse and water rich region seems preposterous. However, as we well know, weather cycles exist and although we see them turn more rapidly in these our days it was a rare and completely unexpected occasion for this tribe of Amazon River basin Indians to experience a drought.

The tribe began to suffer from the unusual circumstances brought on by this very rare drought. The rivers and streams used for travel were shriveled to mere trickles. River banks were treacherously deceiving with their pockets of quicksand. The fish were left high and dry to die. Patches of forest dried up and caught fire. The tribe had not prepared for such a time. Life had been so easy when the rains fell regularly and the fish were plentiful and the fruits grew from every tree. Now food became scarce and life became increasingly more stressful and difficult.

The great hunter of the tribe named Chief Itaki worried much over the worsening conditions. His tribe had grown so large and he was unable to feed them all. They were slowly starving to death. Ultimately he came to a very difficult decision. He gathered his tribe together and announced that from that day on any child born would be sacrificed to prevent the tribe from growing any larger. Shortly after Chief Itaki pronounced his decree his own daughter discovered she was pregnant. Her name was Iaca. She was very beautiful with dark piercing eyes and was the chiefs’ only daughter. He adored her and showered her with the most beautiful gifts of the jungle from the rare blue feathers of the blue macaw to the skin of an onca or black leopard. She truly was a princess of the Amazon. The day finally came when Iaca gave birth to her own beautiful daughter. It was a day of joy and a day of terrible sadness. She wanted to hide the baby and send her down river or runaway to the depths of the jungle. But sadly she was unable to protect her baby, Chief Itaki’s only granddaughter from the cruel and harsh decree.

The sweet baby was sacrificed. Iaca was inconsolable and distraught as she cried for three straight days and nights. She remained in her hut praying to Tupa the jungle God that she might show her father another way to help her people and save the tribe without sacrificing any more babies. Then one night as she prayed broken heartedly in her tent she heard the cry of a baby. As she came to the door of her hut she thought she saw her baby smiling, sitting at the base of a great palm bathed in the radiant light of the full moon. At first she was startled by this vision, then without hesitation she darted out into the moonlit night to hold her baby whom she had so dearly loved and missed. She felt her as she held her in her arms and pulled her in tight. Iaca cuddled her tenderly then mysteriously her baby disappeared. Iaca was crushed as she cried mourning for the loss of her baby once again, only this time was too much and Iaca succumbed to a broken heart.

The next day Chief Itaki found her lifeless body, her arms wrapped around the trunk of a palm tree, her face was peaceful with a smile and her eyes were open and strangely fixed upon the upper branches of the palm. The great chief wept. Then Chief Itaki through the tears in his eyes followed the gaze of his daughters’ eyes up into the upper reaches of the palm tree. There to his surprise he saw thin finger like branches covered in dark purple and black berries. He immediately ordered that the fruits be brought down from the top of the tree. They pulled the black pearls of fruit from each fingerling of a branch and mashed the berries into a deep rich purple porridge. They found the berry porridge to be palatable and sustaining. It dampened the pangs of hunger that had haunted the tribes’ people. More berries were found and the tribe was saved from malnourishment and death.

In honor of his daughter he named the berry Acai (Iaca spelled backwards) and rescinded the decree of death saving the babies and the tribe from complete destruction. The tribe honored the great Chief Itaki as he lived the rest of his days in humility and gratitude for his daughter and granddaughter who had sacrificed their lives for the tribe.