Tribal warfare, anthropology, and the Awajún

Awajún protestors with spears near Bagua, Peru, 2009
Awajún protesters with spears near Bagua, Peru, 2009

One of the biggest challenges of writing Upriver was finding a way to talk about the history of Awajún interpersonal violence and warfare without falling into the rhetorical traps that afflict contemporary debates about tribal societies. Tribal violence is an intensely polarizing topic among anthropologists, a situation famously expressed in the nasty point/ counterpoint over Napoleon Chagnon’s books on the Yanomami people of Brazil and Venezuela.  Others have leveled similar criticism at the work of Jared Diamond.  I had hoped, perhaps naively, to stay out of this crossfire.

Anthropologists influenced by sociobiology and evolutionary psychology often accept tribal violence as an intrinsic or at least widely distributed aspect of non-state societies.  Some focus on the selective reproductive advantage allegedly conferred on violent men in such societies (assuming that they aren’t killed first by their ever-widening circle of enemies!).  Anthropologists committed to this position are likely to foreground high levels of interpersonal violence and to accept uncritically the notion that it is ubiquitous.

Opposed to this perspective are two main counter-arguments that sometimes interweave:

  • Many, perhaps even most, tribal peoples found to have high levels of conflict-related mortality are essentially victims of expansionist colonial states. This argument is compellingly laid out in the SAR Press volume War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare, edited by R. Brian Ferguson and the late Neil Whitehead, published in 1992.  (Full disclosure: my friend Eduardo Fernández and I contributed a chapter to this book: PDF here.)  The argument is that colonial expansion destabilizes local mechanisms for keeping the peace, provides access to more lethal weapons, introduces valuable trade items, such as steel tools, that foster competition between communities, and creates a situation in which tribal groups become pawns in a colonial game (e.g., via “ethnic soldiering”).
  • Regardless of whether tribal peoples are warlike, their endangered status trumps public discussion of violence by anthropologists. In other words, today they are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Making a big deal about the violent tendencies of a given tribal people is morally repugnant because (1) it gives states an excuse to persecute them and (2) it continues the colonialist tradition of “othering” peoples whose rights and cultural values continue to be trampled upon.

Both of these arguments are marshaled by Stephen Corry in a take-down of Steven Pinker and his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Finding middle ground in this ideological duel is challenging. The “tribal zone” model has compelling evidence to back it up. And it’s fair to say that some of Pinker’s evidence has been cherry-picked to support his argument that small-scale societies are significantly more violent than modern nation-states.  (PDF of R. Brian Ferguson’s analysis of the evidence is downloadable here.)

That said, it strikes me as implausible to contend that tribal peoples rarely fight one another or that the well-documented existence of warrior cultures in Amazonia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere is entirely an effect of state expansion. Whatever the root causes of violence, many small-scale societies have developed elaborate mechanisms to foster and institutionalize aggression against other communities. These values are encoded in rituals, myths, and everyday behaviors.  When such situations are encountered, it seems reasonable for anthropologists to report and analyze them in a balanced way.  Sweeping unwelcome facts under the rug for political reasons raises serious ethical questions in a discipline that aspires to some degree of objectivity.  (Whether anthropology does still aspire to objectivity is a matter of debate.)

What makes the Awajún case different from many others is that the Awajún celebrate their history of feisty independence.  To the extent that they are violent today, it is mostly in defense of their lands and way of life.  And thus far, their resistance has provided some protection from a predatory state.  Not enough, certainly, but some.

Suicide among indigenous Amazonians: News from Brazil

Credit: Michael F. Brown, CC license, Attribution CC BY
Two Awajún girls, Alto Río Mayo, Peru. Credit: Michael F. Brown, Creative Commons license, Attribution CC BY

The New York Times (4 January 2015) has just published an op-ed piece by the journalist and filmmaker Charles Lyons that describes a shockingly high rate of suicide among Guaraní people of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

Lyons and the experts that he consults blame the suicides on the Guaraní’s removal from their traditional territories as well as the emotional despair arising when indigenous peoples are forced to straddle two cultures, one scorned by the national society and another to which they are granted only partial membership thanks to persistent discrimination.  This pattern, Lyons notes, is found among the countless indigenous peoples who have been forced to deal with colonial dispossession.

This argument is compelling for the peoples mentioned in the essay, although it’s worth noting that there are a fair number of indigenous peoples among whom suicide has a long history that cannot  be blamed entirely on the effects of colonialism.

The Awajún of northern Peru represent one such case.  References to frequent suicide by Awajún women can be traced back to early twentieth-century sources.  This doesn’t, of course, entirely rule out colonialism as a factor, since the Awajún had been in sporadic contact with people of European descent since the sixteenth century.  But the distinctive pattern of Awajún suicide, which is vastly more common among young women and, to a more limited extent, young men than among others in the society, suggests that internal cultural factors help to shape the practice’s epidemiology.

As I explain in considerable detail in Upriver, the prevalence of female suicide among the Awajún with whom I lived in the 1970s and -80s took me entirely by surprise.  Back in the U.S., I tracked down an excellent report on this phenomenon by the Norwegian anthropologist Henning Siverts as well as detailed records of specific suicides documented by Jeanne Grover, a missionary linguist with the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Mourning women surrounded the body.  One climbed on the platform and kissed her dead brother’s face, keening in a high-pitched wail . . .  We saw a sudden scramble as a female mourner tried to run outside.  “She wants to kill herself!” someone shouted.  A man grabbed the woman by the hair before she could slip away.  She kicked, struggled, and screamed frantically . . . The suicidal behavior was more than ritual drama: family histories included many cases of women who had committed suicide in the throes of extreme grief (From Upriver, p. 147).

In 1984 I combined case-study material from Siverts and Grover with my own observations and presented an interpretation of what appeared to be one of the world’s highest rates of indigenous suicide at a session of the International Congress of Americanists in Manchester, England.  The response of the audience shocked me: I was challenged not for the plausibility of my interpretation, which I was prepared to debate, but for the accuracy of my figures.  “There’s no way these people could be killing themselves that often,” one audience member remarked.  “They must be disguising murders as suicides.”  No matter that many of the case studies had been recorded by others from different parts of the Awajún homeland.

Eventually my analysis found its way into print.  My work then moved in other directions, but the subject of Awajún suicide, especially by women, was researched in great depth by Astrid Bant and more recently figured prominently in a 2012 study of indigenous Amazonian suicide sponsored by UNESCO (available in Spanish).  The Awajún themselves recognize this as a major social problem in their society and are doing what they can to deal with it.

Although most observers of this sad and disturbing phenomenon recognize that rapid social change is a contributing factor, there is little question that traditional values sometimes bear on the matter as well—a humbling reminder that not every social ill of indigenous societies can be blamed on European colonialism (even if most can).