All posts by Michael F. Brown

In 2014 I became president of the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, NM, after serving more than thirty years on the faculty of Williams College. SAR is a 110-year-old research center dedicated to supporting innovative scholarship in anthropology and related disciplines as well as Native American art. My academic interests include the indigenous peoples of the New World (especially the Amazon), religion, medical anthropology, ethnobotany, and the ethical dilemmas of intellectual property. "Upriver" is my sixth book.

The Peruvian Ashaninka and Leftist Guerrillas

ashaninkaThe Guardian (UK) has just published a story about the release of more than fifty Ashaninka held captive by remnants of the Shining Path guerrilla organization for decades and used as slave laborers and perhaps as fighters, too..

This is the latest chapter of a story that began in 1965 when a Castroite revolutionary group, the MIR  (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), opened a guerrilla front in Ashaninka territory.  Their effort did not end well.  Under-equipped and completely unprepared for a sustained guerrilla struggle in the rainforest, all members of the revolutionary cell, including its leader, Guillermo Lobatón, were killed by the Peruvian armed forces by early 1966.

Eduardo Fernández and I told the story of the MIR struggle in our book War of Shadows: The Struggle for Utopia in the Peruvian Amazon (1991), which is also available in a Spanish-language edition. Based on Ashaninka oral histories, we concluded that at least some Ashaninka willingly assisted Lobatón and his men thinking that they represented a spiritual force that would end the exploitation of the past five centuries and restore the Ashaninka to a world of plenty.  As the counterinsurgency gathered strength, however, Ashaninka support waned in response to mounting casualties and evidence that the guerrilla struggle was doomed to failure.

Two decades later, elements of the far more resourceful and persistent Shining Path entered Ashaninka territory.  Again it appears that some Ashaninka initially saw the Shining Path as allies in a liberation struggle (see especially the work of Nelson Manrique and, more recently, Mariella Villasante, on this point), although this was quickly superseded by hostile relations in response to the insurgents’ ruthless behavior.

Few of the insurgents involved in these conflicts seem to have had a serious interest in the Ashaninka or anything more than superficial knowledge of their culture.  The Ashaninka were used, in other words, although in a few instances and for short periods they may have turned the tables by using the outsiders in pursuit of an indigenous agenda. In general, though, countless Ashaninka suffered violence and extreme privation as guerrilla fighters conscripted them as proxies in an alien ideological struggle.

Review of “Upriver” in Indian Newspaper . . . and More

pioneerThe Indian newspaper The Pioneer published an interesting review of Upriver on July 26.  The reviewer, Kumar Chellappan, uses the book to make explicit comparisons to the situation of India’s “tribals.”  “Suppression and oppression of the Awajún by the city folks who come to the Amazonian region for plundering the forest wealth and rubber cultivation are no different from the sufferings of the tribals in India at the hands of city dwellers who colonise the tribal territories for monetary benefits.  Whether it be in Peru or India, the evangelists subjugated and destroyed the tribals and their culture under the pretext of introducing civilisation among them,” Chellappan writes.

There is much truth in this, although here we see a smart reviewer, whose heart is in the right place, miss the book’s principal message:  The Awajún have most assuredly not been “destroyed” by missionaries or resource-seeking outsiders.  Damaged and disoriented, yes.  But destroyed?  Hardly.  Upriver is above all about Awajún resilience, grit, and resourcefulness in the face of formidable odds.


Months after it appeared in February 2015, I discovered another review of Upriver in a blog post written by Chad Thatcher, who is involved with production of a documentary video called The Primary Source that focuses on Peru’s Marañón River.  (Scroll down a bit to find Thatcher’s assessment of Upriver, which doesn’t have its own URL.)  In many ways this review is more nuanced and thorough than trade reviews the book has received elsewhere.

Can Academic Writing Be Like Jazz?

barron
Kenny Barron. Munich, 2001. Image by Sven Petersen, Wikimedia Commons.

Last night I caught a memorable concert by Kenny Barron and Stefon Harris at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, part of the annual New Mexico Jazz Festival.

When witnessing the awe-inspiring chops of a master pianist such as Barron, I sometimes wonder what it would take for writing in academic disciplines like anthropology to offer the visceral pleasures of jazz.

To some degree this is a preposterous question. Jazz has an intellectual and analytical dimension, but when it swings it has a fully embodied quality that leads audience members to tap their feet or move in time with the rhythm–behavior not commonly observed at academic conferences nor, I suspect, when people read academic essays in private. An ensemble such as Barron’s is also fundamentally interactive. One of the great pleasures of jazz is watching performers respond instantly to subtle shifts in time or timbre explored by another member of group.

Jazz typically starts with a theme—perhaps one from the Great American Songbook—then tears it apart via improvisation, new voicings, and chord substitutions, only to put it back together in the closing bars.   When listening to any proficient jazz artist, the audience grants the performer license to do this—expects and demands it, in fact. Kenny Barron doesn’t have to stop in the middle of the piece and say, “Okay, you’ve heard the theme.  Now I’m going to change the meter for awhile and perhaps throw in a few references to something by Ellington.”  He just does it, and we take pleasure in the creative variations.

Academic readers grant such license grudgingly, if at all.  We typically expect relentless sign-posting on the order of, “First I did this and now I’m going to do that.”

My tolerance for the tedious quality of most academic prose has declined over the years. This is in part the result of working with Joyce Seltzer, a demanding, experienced editor of non-fiction who refuses to allow her authors to be boring.  I remember vividly my first project with Joyce, at the beginning of which she told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to traffic in such tired formulations as “In this chapter I will . . .” or “In this chapter I did . . . .” The challenge was to begin and end convincingly without shifting to the didactic meta-level or posting a billboard that tells the reader where the project is headed.  At first the task seemed impossible, then it became habit, and now I find myself unable to stop the mental equivalent of eye-rolling when I see pedantic signposting in the prose of others. The worst cases drift down to the paragraph level: “In the last paragraph I looked at X; in this one I’m turning to Y,” which assumes that readers are too dense to follow the argument without a helping hand.

That’s one reason why I started using space-breaks in place of chapter subheads in long-form writing. They signal a change of direction without beating the reader over the head. The challenge, of course, is to convince the reader that the jumps make sense. A reviewer once complained that chapters of one of my books seemed to be organized “randomly.” That prompted a ROFL response from me, since absolutely nothing about the chapters in question was random. But it did suggest either that the reviewer had a low tolerance for narrative fluidity or that I failed to make the implicit case for my narrative transitions.

Another way to emulate jazz is to pay attention to the rhythm of phrases and sentences. Reading drafts aloud is a good way to test this.  Does the prose swing, however modestly, or does it plod down a dusty road like the Bataan death march?

Finally, there’s the question of silence, of things not said. Miles Davis famously complained that another ambitious jazz musician “played too many notes.”  I once attended a concert by the aging drummer Max Roach and was struck by the strategic way he used silence to make his musical point, a rare quality among percussionists. Perhaps age had cost him some of his dexterity, but he managed to turn that into a virtue that I’ve never forgotten. In academic writing, as in jazz, less is often more.

Genre and audience are important, of course. I don’t claim that all academic writing should aspire to the improvisational quality of jazz. There is a place for explicitly didactic writing and relentless clarity. Still, one of the charming attributes of ethnography is the latitude it offers for genre-bending and imaginative forms of writing. This is not without risk, and one can think of a number of less than convincing experiments in literary ethnography. But this space for creativity, however risky and given to self-indulgence, is one of ethnography’s enduring gifts.


Addendum, 9/11/2015

As usual, John McPhee says it best.  Read his New Yorker piece, “Omission: Choosing What to Leave out.”

“Uncontacted? “Voluntarily Isolated”? “Sovereign”?

bowmanA lively debate has erupted on the listserve of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA, registered members only) and elsewhere.  It builds on long-simmering tensions involving Amazonian indigenous groups living on the border between Peru and Brazil. In press reports, these peoples are almost always referred to as “uncontacted” because they lack most items of industrial technology, change the the location of their settlements frequently (if they have stable settlements at all), and mostly avoid contact with outsiders. In a few instances they have had violent encounters with more settled indigenous peoples as well as non-indigenous outsiders.

The most recent debate was sparked by the publication of an editorial by Robert S. Walker and Kim R. Hill in the June 5, 2015 issue of Science under the title “Protecting Isolated Tribes.” It was published in association with a longer cover story addressing the same topic. Walker and Hill focus largely on the known vulnerability of such populations to Western epidemic diseases to which they presumably have had little prior exposure. The authors advocate the initiation of systematic contact focused on providing vaccinations and, when needed, appropriate medical support to protect isolated indigenous communities from the high mortality that will almost certainly afflict them when epidemics arrive.

Their editorial provoked a critical response from Stephen Corry of Survival International. Corry argues that the kind of “protection” proposed by Walker and Hill misses the point: that the risk faced by these populations is primarily the loss of territory in which they can continue their way of life. Their land and livelihood are being taken from them by the expanding Amazonian frontier, which includes miners, road-builders, loggers, and farmers. Corry feels that indigenous peoples deserve protected lands in which they can live any way that suits them. “It’s time to stand in resistance against those who just can’t abide that there are some who choose a different path to ours, who don’t subscribe to our values and who don’t make us richer unless we steal their land,” he writes.

The choice, then, comes down to humane—some would say “paternalistic”—interventionism (“Intrude in their lives to save them from catastrophic epidemics”) versus Corry’s insistence on honoring indigenous sovereignty and a people’s right to remain free and independent on their own terms.

Although the latter position has a powerful moral resonance, it is undermined by two major flaws. First, there’s little reason to believe that the lands currently occupied by such groups represent their ancestral territory. The evidence suggests that these are refuge communities that moved into zones vacated by previous indigenous occupants. Second, and more importantly, the relevant nation-states have exhibited neither the political will nor the ability to defend such communities from invasion. Is this just? Absolutely not. But I wouldn’t bet a nickel on the likelihood that Peru and Brazil will do what needs to be done to seal off these indigenous territories to protect their isolated occupants from outsiders.

The SALSA debate most recently focused on whether these populations should be called “uncontacted,”“voluntarily isolated,” or perhaps something else altogether. “Uncontacted” turns out to be improbable: they most likely have had some prior contact with outsiders, probably hostile. To call them “groups in voluntary isolation,” in contrast, suits the current push to acknowledge agency, a people’s ability to make their own decisions, however constrained by circumstance. Both options strike me as having romantic undercurrents. “Uncontacted” implies that these people are the last vestiges of societies uncontaminated by capitalism, processed foods, and Sponge Bob. “Peoples in voluntary isolation” suggests that they have made a conscious choice to maintain their traditional ways and collective independence at any cost even though there are reasons to believe that these are communities on the run, however resolute and resourceful they may appear to be.

Experts with considerable knowledge of frontier realities have checked in on both sides of the debate. From my vantage in the high desert of New Mexico, I can only encourage readers to explore the issues on their own. Whether we like it or not, this is a human last-stand: resisting the final step toward a fully interconnected world.


For more on the ethical and practical dilemmas presented by uncontacted/voluntarily isolated peoples in Amazonia, listen to the podcast interview of Professor Jonathan Hill (Southern Illinois University) on BBC radio, beginning at about the 7 minute mark.  [A tip of the snap-brim fedora to Glenn H. Shepard’s blog for the BBC link.]


August 10, 2015.  See this article in the New York Times, which does a decent job of assessing the situation:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/opinion/sunday/do-the-amazons-last-isolated-tribes-have-a-future.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0

September 21, 2015.  Indigenous groups issue a statement on this contact issue:  http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10909

Open Access and magical thinking

oa_logoIn late May of 2015, the board of the Society for Cultural Anthropology issued a statement about the society’s shift to  Open Access distribution of its journal, Cultural Anthropology. The statement is reasonably judicious  considering that many OA partisans insist  that anthropology has an overriding moral duty to make its findings available at no cost to the world at large and that any distribution model settling for less than this is ethically indefensible.

The SCA deserves praise for its courage and the skill with which it has created an attractive, lively platform for topical discussion and distribution of its articles.  I have considerable respect for the SCA staff and leadership who have undertaken this effort with such élan.

That said, Cultural Anthropology‘s move to OA is not irony-free. The funds used to launch this experiment were the fruit of Cultural Anthropology’s royalties from the for-profit publisher Wiley-Blackwell’s contract with the American Anthropological Association.  In a recent editorial, Michael Chibnik, editor of the American Anthropologist, notes that only two journals in the large publishing portfolio of the AAA realize a profit. Strictly speaking, a few other titles generate modest gains (in the hundreds of dollars), but these gains would not be able to carry the burdens of the 15 titles that lose money each year. Resulting net profits from across the portfolio are shared among all journal-publishing sections of the AAA.  In going OA, Cultural Anthropology is forsaking most future revenue from the Wiley-Blackwell alliance.  Whether the society’s new model will prove financially sustainable remains to be seen; we’ll know for sure in three to five years.  I have my doubts . . . but will be pleased if my skepticism proves to be misplaced.

After serving for three years on the AAA’s Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing, my feelings about the role of OA in anthropology have moved from strong support to far more tempered enthusiasm.

Before I explain the roots of this apostasy, let me make two things clear.  My expression of doubt about OA fundamentalism should not be interpreted as a defense of the excesses of some for-profit publishers.  At their worst, they have turned the work of writing, editing, and peer-review (“service to the profession”) into a Southern plantation in which we academics work for free and the publishers and their shareholders reap handsome profits from the fruits of our unpaid labor.

Second, thanks to my involvement with the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA), I’ve seen how digital-only OA can offer an attractive solution to the scale problems of small-society publishing.  SALSA’s peer-reviewed journal, Tipití, which published for seven years as a conventional print journal, was losing money at an unsustainable rate, in part because of rising international postage rates and the difficulty of managing subscriptions. (SALSA is a truly international society, with many members in Latin America and Europe.)  Once the journal shifted from paper publishing to digital-only, gold OA, its viewership increased from the hundreds to the many thousands in a matter of weeks. That welcome change has not been without financial challenges, however. The journal’s viability depends on free web hosting, no-cost access to the bepress publishing platform, and technical support offered by Trinity University in San Antonio.

Continue reading Open Access and magical thinking

Reflections on Nick Bostrom’s Lecture, “Can We Reshape Humanity’s Deep Future?” 7 June 2015, Santa Fe

superintellAs part of a series of occasional lectures that we’re calling Dispatches from the Edge, on June 7 the School for Advanced Research sponsored a public lecture by Professor Nick Bostrom (Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford, UK), “Can We Reshape Humanity’s Deep Future? Possibilities & Risks of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Human Enhancement, and Other Emerging Technologies.”  Bostrom’s talk was a snapshot of his research on existential risk, large-scale events or processes that could lead either to complete extinction of humanity or some form of “permanent stagnation.” bostrom-podium-6588

Bostrom opened his lecture with a thumbnail history of our species: our emergence as bipedal primates living in small, mobile groups of foragers; the role of the agricultural revolution in supporting larger populations and fostering the emergence of social hierarchy; beginning roughly 250 years ago, the transition to industrial economies and their acceleration of technological innovation; and finally, the digital revolution, which along with the rise of new genetic technologies makes possible (and in Bostrom’s view, inevitable), the emergence of “superintelligence,” cognitive assets that surpass those of contemporary human beings.

Although Bostrom couldn’t rule out the possibility that existential risks can arise from natural phenomena such as supervolcanos or asteroid collisions, he argued that in light of the absence of near-extinction events during the last 100,000 years, the odds of such natural catastrophes presenting a significant existential risk are low.  Far more salient, he argued, is anthropogenic risk, the possibility that our own technological activities will prove uncontrollable and ultimately lethal to humankind.

Superintelligence could conceivably emerge in human form through systematic use of enhancement technologies that would increase human IQ to levels significantly in excess of current norms.  But Bostrom leans toward machine AI as the more likely site of superintelligence, perhaps emerging as early as 2050. In this scenario, AI agents approaching human cognitive levels launch a self-perpetuating process that would quickly bring them to a point at which they could assert their own survival priorities over those of their human creators.  As the situation was described by Elon Musk in a Washington Post interview, “If there was a very deep digital superintelligence that was created that could go into rapid recursive self-improvement in a non-algorithmic way … it could reprogram itself to be smarter and iterate very quickly and do that 24 hours a day on millions of computers . . . .”

Continue reading Reflections on Nick Bostrom’s Lecture, “Can We Reshape Humanity’s Deep Future?” 7 June 2015, Santa Fe

Regarding Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”

bureaucracy Today anthropologists talk constantly about the need for “public scholarship.”  There are programs that promote it and a handful of anthropologists who successfully publish in popular venues such as the Huffington Post (e.g., the indefatigable Paul Stoller).  The problem is that the textual tics and high-mandarin vocabulary  of contemporary social science are hard to unlearn after decades of trafficking in them.  This makes it especially challenging for academics to write theoretically rich accounts capable of engaging ordinary readers.  We think we know how to do it, but few of us succeed.

An exception is David Graeber, an anthropologist and self-described anarchist who moved to a position in the UK after a high-profile departure from Yale a decade ago.  Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, was widely reviewed in the trade press and is described as an “international best-seller,” although what that means in actual sales isn’t clear to me.  Perhaps it’s enough to say that it doubtless beat the average lifetime sales of a typical work of anthropology (well under a thousand copies these days, I’m told) by several orders of magnitude.  Not every review of Debt was glowing—a book covering so much history is bound to violate the understandings of some experts—but many reviewers found it witty, accessible, and convincing.

What is distinctive about Graeber’s writing, aside from its anarchist underpinnings, is its conversational quality.  He sometimes grapples with the work of major theorists (Lévi-Strauss, Jameson, Weber, Marx, etc.) but always manages to represent their thinking with refreshing clarity.  Whether critics find his arguments right or wrong is less interesting than is his ability to make the ideas seem worthy of contemplation because of what they tell us about contemporary realities, including the multiple ways that capitalism shapes our experience and understanding of the world.  And he’s often funny, which helps.

These gifts are on display in Graeber’s latest work, The Utopia of Rules, a collection of  essays on bureaucracy—its history, key features, and impact on societies and individuals.

Continue reading Regarding Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”

New Conflict Over Illegal Exploitation of Awajún Territory

imagen-awajun
Photo credit: AIDESEP

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.

Sources
El Comercio
La República (but note that this story describes this Awajún as being armed with bows and arrows, which is hilariously inaccurate in light of the fact that the Awajún have never been bow hunters)
AIDESEP
A Peruvian TV report


On a more uplifting note, a story about Awajún students enthusiastically applying for fellowships for post-secondary education recently ran in Horizonte Perú, a publication of the Archdiocese of Chachapoyas.

Pondering the Law of Unintended Consequences

Awajun_bible
Sample page from 1973 SIL translation of bible (mostly the New Testament) ,Yamajam Chicham Apu Jisukristu Pachisa Etsegbau,.

“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.

For additional information on the impact of evangelical missions on the Awajún written from the perspective of committed Christians, readers may want to track down a copy of Mildred Larson and Lois Dodds, Treasure in Clay Pots: An Amazon People on the Wheel of Change (1985) as well as scholarly papers by Robert J. Priest, including this one.  Sections of the Bible translated into Awajún can be found online in various locations, including here.


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.

An Awajún funeral, 1977

man-sitting
Man sitting on platform bed, Alto Río Mayo, Peru, 1978. Photo by Michael F. Brown

The following excerpt from Upriver brings together several of the book’s key themes and narrative strategies:  (1) close-in description of an emotionally charged event; (2) my attempt to unpack the complex interweaving of grief, loyalty, rage, and suspicion that characterized many important events; and (3) the difficulty of separating any one of these events from the history that preceded it, including previous deaths that were either overt revenge homicides or illness-related deaths thought to be caused by hidden sorcerers.

One thing worth noting is that the emotional tone of this funeral for an adult contrasted markedly with funerals for infants.  Infant mortality was so common that only the dead child’s parents seemed strongly affected by it.  –MFB


 [Abridged from pp. 146-150 of Upriver.]

Even a hundred yards short of the settlement the sounds of grief were unmistakable: the keening of dozens of women punctuated by shouts and wailing from men. The tumult failed to convey fully the intense anguish visible in and around the dead man’s house. Adults and children milled about outside, some peering inside through gaps in the palm-wood slats. Inside the house, which was divided in half by a partition, fifteen people paced back and forth, the women weeping or screaming, the men talking in loud voices about their sadness and their willingness to avenge the death if it was shown to be the result of sorcery.

The body lay on a sleeping platform in the second room, covered by rags and scraps of blankets. Only the lifeless face was visible, flanked by two burning candles. A copy of the Awajún translation of the New Testament, open to one of the color illustrations, rested on the blankets. Mourning women surrounded the body. One climbed on the platform and kissed Héctor’s face, keening in a high-pitched wail. Men walked in from the adjacent room and shouted, as if to the dead man.  Approaching the door, 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 most stricken women, including the dead man’s widow and sister, were shadowed by male guardians. Once or twice these women made sudden dashes toward the edge of the settlement, but they were dragged back before they could harm themselves. 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.

Outside, visitors continued to arrive from other communities. Mishít, alone with Héctor’s body, fanned his face while moaning, “My little brother, my little brother.” Late in the morning there was a flurry of activity around another house in response to a rumor that Héctor’s widow had tried to hang herself there. This proved untrue. A more credible story was that a grieving relative had attacked her for failing to take care of him properly. Others intervened to stop the assault, including a pregnant woman who took a blow to the stomach.

The dead man’s relatives debated how to bury him. In the past, adults were often interred in their houses, which were then abandoned and allowed to collapse on top of the grave. It was said that the corpse of a kakájam, a senior man whose success as a killer identified him as a vision-bearer, was left seated upright on his wooden stool, lashed to a house post. Young vision-seekers who could overcome their fear of the dead and endure the stench of a rotting corpse would spend a watchful night in the house in expectation that the deceased’s vision might pass to them. Resettlement in tightly clustered villages made such customs impractical.  In the absence of other options, Úwek, the dead man’s uncle, recruited some youths to help him carve a rough coffin from a trunk of balsa wood. Where it would finally rest was a matter to be resolved later.

Within a day, information about Héctor’s medical history trickled into Alto Naranjillo. Some stories described the death as a sudden, catastrophic affair. A more informed version came from a bilingual paramedic, the only indigenous health care worker in the region. She had treated Héctor for chronic dysentery for months. He recovered from a previous acute episode but was showing signs of malnutrition. When the second attack came, she sent an emergency request to the Rioja hospital for medicine to control Héctor’s vomiting. What arrived instead was two ampules of a pharmaceutical used to treat rheumatism.

Héctor’s death was tailor-made for accusations of sorcery, but his status as an innocent victim was complicated by the recent murder of the accused teenage sorcerer from the Río Potro. Héctor, too, had been named as an accomplice to the alleged sorcerer, which made him a target. He managed to elude a posse of would-be killers after being tipped off by relatives that an assassination plot was afoot. When the other accused sorcery culprit was murdered a day or two later, interest in killing Héctor seemed to have waned . . . .

The convoluted stories associated with Héctor’s final months defied efforts to make sense of his death. Was he killed by a sorcerer from the Río Potro region, perhaps to avenge the death of the young man who had been murdered earlier that year? Or was the sorcery a local matter engineered by one of the men involved in the failed attempt to assassinate him? There were wheels within wheels of grief, mistrust, divided loyalties, and simmering grudges. They overwhelmed people’s capacity to assign blame or settle on a compelling explanation. In the end, perhaps the maze of conflicting narratives was more consoling than a banal fact: that the immediate cause of Héctor’s death was a pharmacist’s clerical error.