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This article explores the relation between beliefs and practices manifest in the interaction between indigenous people and outsiders in contact situations. Drawing on oral history, myth, and written documentation, it seeks to reconstruct the experience of the Parakanã, a Tupi–speaking people of Southeastern Amazonia, in their early stable contact with national society. It focuses on some apparently implausible events in order to address the question of how certain beliefs about the nature of the whites were put into action during the contact process. The article also employs historical data from South America and comparative ethnography from Melanesia to suggest new perspectives on the Sahlins–Obeyesekere debate, making use of the Peircian notion of abduction to account simultaneously for the flexibility and the resilience of magico–religious ideas.