Accounts from Peruvian media sources indicate that loggers and miners from Ecuador are illegally exploiting Awajún natural resources in the frontier region known as the Cordillera del Cóndor. This is likely to lead to a violent confrontation unless the Peruvian government takes immediate action.
Because the invading miners and loggers are from Ecuador, the Peruvian press has given this situation significantly more attention than it devotes to illegal use of these same resources by Peruvians.
“Growing old ain’t for sissies” is an adage one hears a lot from the AARP set, a group to which everyone over 50 automatically belongs, One unsettling aspect of working in a discipline for decades is that some truths once regarded as self-evident reveal themselves to have been misguided or false. Depending on the situation, this reversal of fortune may be discouraging or uplifting. But for anyone committed to reality-based understanding, unexpected outcomes can be of great interest. They are also humbling.
An anthropological assumption that now looks less tenable than it did in the 1970s and -80s concerns the impact of evangelical missionary work on the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Arguably the largest and most successful Protestant missionary organization of this period was the Wycliffe Bible Translators, whose sister organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International), sent trained linguist-missionaries to scores of remote indigenous communities for the express purpose of creating an alphabet for previously unwritten languages, providing literacy training, and using this understanding of the local language to translate, print, and distribute bibles. WBT and SIL were once two faces of the same organization. As far as one can tell from their websites, they now appear to have taken divergent paths, with SIL International focusing on language documentation and preservation (although it continues to describe itself as “faith-based”), whereas Wycliffe retains its explicitly evangelical mission.
In the 1980s SIL was controversial for several reasons. Critics felt that the imposition of Western, Christian ideologies on vulnerable indigenous peoples represented a form of cultural imperialism, which it surely was. The U.S. origin of the SIL and the organization’s sophisticated infrastructure of radio communications and air transport in remote parts of the Amazon inevitably raised suspicions that it was a covert arm of US intelligence. More broadly, aggressive proselytizing by a minority religion in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Latin America was considered a threat to the region’s national cultures. In these contexts SIL downplayed its link to WBT in ways that critics found deceptive. These factors led several Latin American nations to expel the SIL, although it continued its work in Peru by muting its religious commitments and providing invaluable services to a Ministry of Education grappling with the challenge of providing bilingual teaching materials to children in Peru’s jungle villages.
Two books helped to frame anthropologists’ overwhelmingly negative view of American missionary work in the Amazon: Søren Hvalkof and Peter Aaby’s Is God an American? (1982) and David Stoll’s Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? (1983). Both have a polemical tone in places, but they also provide detailed historical and ethnographic information on the impact of American evangelical missionaries on a diverse set of indigenous communities. Neither book may have influenced popular opinion about American missionaries as much as the late Peter Matthiessen’s novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), which was brought to the screen in 1991 by director Hector Babenco.
I shared some of those negative views when working with the Awajún in the 1970s and -80s despite my minimal contact with American missionaries in the field. In the years since then, however, circumstances have made my prejudices look simplistic and in some cases misplaced.
For one thing, the work of the SIL brought literacy and bilingualism to the Awajún much earlier and faster than would have been the case had SIL not been there. The Awajún have embraced literacy with great enthusiasm and today have one of the highest literacy rates of any Amazonian community in Peru. Literacy in the Awajún language, which might not have been promoted by the Peruvian government if it had been in control of Awajún education in the early years, is now a significant factor in Awajún cultural survival and political mobilization.
A more subtle effect of Awajún contact with American missionaries is the sense of cultural separateness—the idea that the Awajún are technically Peruvians but have their own distinct identity and destiny. I can’t prove that this was explicitly promoted by the SIL, but it seems like a probable result of long involvement with powerful outsiders who thought of themselves as distant from Peruvian national culture and values.
It’s true that evangelical missionary work had negative consequences as well. For a time it promoted factionalism between traditionalists as well as converts to Roman Catholicism. It caused many Awajún to abandon traditional rituals and related cultural expressions, including the search for visions by young people. As I report in Upriver, this reflected a genuine desire of some Awajún to break out of the cycle of revenge killings with which the vision quest was strongly associated. But in the years since those early missionary contacts, more sophisticated Awajún are starting to return to the visionary language and practices of their ancestors while focusing more on the constructive, life-affirming possibilities of ayahuasca visions. A few are even converting to the Baha’i faith on the grounds that it is more ecumenical than Christianity and therefore more open to the Awajún’s own cultural traditions.
Thoughtful Awajún intellectuals recognize the positive as well as the negative impact of the missionary work of Protestants and Roman Catholics in Awajún country. They value the literacy and bilingualism promoted by both groups, as well as the global contacts that involvement with missionaries promoted. At the same time, they are critical of the paternalism of missionary organizations and their past reluctance to fight for Awajún civil rights and political self-determination.
Thomas Hobbes wrote that “science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another.” In my case, growing recognition that things often turn out differently than expected, both in good ways and bad, has made me more wary of the sanctimony and moral certainty that pervades the discourse of cultural anthropology today. My personal convictions remain firm. What has changed with age is my certainty that “doing the right thing” (as understood at a particular moment of history) inevitably leads to the results for which one hoped. What anthropology and other social sciences need today (Are you listening, economists?) is a large dose of humility tossed back with a chaser of ironic sensibility. And we all need the willingness to revise our views in response to the lessons of history.
It’s worth noting that David Stoll followed up his book on SIL with Is Latin America Turning Protestant?, a work that revolutionized anthropological thinking about the direction and significance of Protestant conversion in Latin America.
This site offers information about the book UPRIVER (Harvard UP, 2014), other books by Michael F. Brown, issues related to Amazonian peoples, events at the School for Advanced Research–Santa Fe, and occasional meditations on anthropology and human social life in general.