A decade ago I participated in a small international symposium focused on indigenous peoples and their strategies for cultural survival. When someone suggested that it might be useful to undertake a systematic comparison of these strategies, a prominent scholar in the group announced sententiously that comparison is inherently colonialist. There being no one in the room who wanted to be suspected of colonialist leanings, comparison was swept off the table.
Comparison’s status remains low in cultural anthropology, and yet it is hard to imagine a meaningful or useful anthropology that completely abandons it. Although comparison may be disparaged in some quarters, anthropologists continue to traffic in generalizing terms (“neoliberal,” for instance, or even “colonialism” itself) that cry out for comparative attention—and sometimes manage to get it.
So it was with considerable pleasure that I recently read “Conflict, Peace, and Social Reform in Indigenous Amazonia: A Deflationary Account,” an essay by Carlos Fausto, Caco Xavier, and Elena Welper (trans. by David Rodgers) published in the journal Common Knowledge (downloadable here).
Fausto et al. grapple with an important question: is there a middle ground between classifications of Amazonian social movements as millenarian or messianic, terminology read by some scholars as implying that social actors are irrational, and strictly political readings of these movements based on the conviction that the people swept up in them must be seen as rational actors? Fausto and his co-authors shift the focus from dramatic, revolutionary change to what they call “more finely grained processes,” the “deflationary” element in their article’s subtitle.
[Full disclosure: As Fausto et al. note, the contrast between religiously and politically motivated social movements was central to a 2003 article by Hanne Veber that questioned arguments made in a book that I co-authored with Eduardo Fernández, War of Shadows. WoS traced messianic currents in Asháninka social movements and uprisings over a period of more than two centuries. Veber contended that studies such as ours exoticize Asháninka motivations, which in her view were strictly political. Where our book is concerned, her argument is flawed for two principal reasons: (1) We never claimed that the movements were only religious; and (2) Veber’s assertions violate the ethnographic principle that one should take the statements of one’s interlocutors seriously unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary. So when Asháninka participants in a 1965 uprising said, as they did to Eduardo Fernández on multiple occasions, “Some of us thought that the guerrilla leader was the Son of the Sun,” Fernández and I felt obliged to honor their view. This debate is ancient history, and I mention it only to contextualize the essay under consideration, which challenges the notion that religion and politics are always distinguishable categories or frames of reference.]
Fausto et al. attempt to escape the straitjacket of a resistance-focused subaltern perspective that leads to a stripping out of every factor other than the narrowly political: “If one may suspect that a past religious discourse is merely a varnish hiding more fundamental motivations of power, one equally may suspect that our present-day political vocabulary is no more than a varnish hiding more fundamental conceptions about being and agency (which is to say, an ontology).”
Their analysis then reviews in considerable detail several cases of indigenous Amazonian social change in Brazil: among Parakanã of the Xingu-Tocantins; Marubo of the Javari Valley, Amazonas; and Koripako of the Upper Rio Negro. Two of the cases had strongly religious dimensions, either shamanic or Christian. But all three were reformist in nature, with results that have served their communities well in later years.
Comparison of these three beautifully documented cases echoes a point that I made some time ago in the context of a similar comparative project: that Amazonian revitalization movements should in some cases be seen as indigenous auto-critique rather than solely as expressions of resistance to colonialism. But Fausto et al. bring to this observation a more sophisticated and nuanced perspective as well as the benefit of fresh case-study material. “[W]e need to avoid the Eurocentric illusion that history and social change befall indigenous peoples only when they are subjected to the encroachments of nonindigenous society,” they assert. Indigenous peoples, in other words, make their own history by asking questions such as “How shall we live?” and then putting the answers into practice.
In works such as this we see the enduring value of comparison and its vital role in countering colonialist assumptions. If you’re interested in Amazonian history, social movements, or theories of agency, this essay belongs on your summer reading list.
A related article co-authored by Fausto and Emmanuel de Vienne, “Acting Translation: Ritual and Prophetism in Twenty-First Century Indigenous Amazonia” (2014), can be downloaded full-text from the journal HAU.