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.

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

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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.

Interview on KSFR, Santa Fe Public Radio, Feb. 5, 2015

I was interviewed about Upriver by Mary-Charlotte Domandi, whose regionally famous talk show is recorded daily from Mary-Charlotte’s corner table at the Santa Fe Baking Company.  The interview precedes my lecture for the Southwest Seminars on February 9 at the Hotel Santa Fe.

Link to podcast of interview.

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).

Regulating ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca being prepared, Río Napo, Peru. Attribution: HEAH, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

A fascinating debate has erupted concerning the use and proposed regulation of the Amazonian hallucinogen ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi, sometimes supplemented by other plant substances).  As explained in Upriver, consumption of ayahuasca was once an integral part of individual spiritual development among the Awajún, and its use may be undergoing a revival despite the Awajún’s significant rate of conversion to Christianity.

A non-profit organization called the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council, apparently based in the United States but with institutional support from the Netherlands, is calling for regulation of ayahuasca cultivation and use in the interests of sustainability and the safety of users.  “We will compile existing screening documents and scientific evidence to offer ayahuasca centers a comprehensive, open-source document to keep ayahuasca drinkers safer. To develop consensus, we will invite you and other stakeholders to comment on the draft document on the ESC website,” they declare.  (Full report on the proposed ayahuasca program downloadable here.)

Although the ESC website emphasizes the importance of dialogue, the ESC provides scant evidence that it has consulted extensively with the indigenous peoples who are the original stewards of this ancient healing plant.  The ESC proposals have sparked a skeptical response from a distinguished group of anthropologists with long experience working among Amazonian peoples.

Their arguments against the ESC’s approach are worth examining in detail. In essence, however, they can be boiled down a question posed in the group’s summary statement:  “The fundamental question remains: What mandate do they [i.e., the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council] have to impose Western, hegemonic, neoliberal norms upon communities in Latin America of which they do not have a detailed understanding?”

The skeptics’ rhetoric may be heavy-handed, but it makes a crucial point.  Although one may applaud the ESC’s declared commitment to environmental protection and the safety of those drawn to the use of ayahuasca and related entheogens, the organization seems to take for granted (1) that a group of professionals drawn mostly from the developed North is  empowered to develop rules about the use of traditional indigenous plant medicines by people in the developing South, and (2) that the “problem” of ayahuasca–if there is one–can be solved by developing formal regulations that appear to be designed primarily to accommodate the growing number of vision-seeking, fee-paying spiritual tourists from the North.  Which makes one wonder whether the problem is tourism itself rather than the activities of the sometimes disreputable ayahuasca shamans who have set up shop to serve affluent spiritual seekers.

Read the documents and draw your own conclusions!

The maca frenzy

 

Pucuhuaranga family showing me maca, Dept. of Junín, Peru, 1973.  Credit: Michael F. Brown. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Pucuhuaranga family showing me maca, Dept. of Junín, Peru, 1973. Credit: Michael F. Brown. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with Upriver or the Awajún, but I can’t resist reflecting on a small but fascinating agricultural crisis afflicting highland communities in Peru’s Department of Junín, which at an altitude of 14,000 ft above sea level or higher offers an entirely different ecological regime than one finds in Awajún country.  The crisis concerns an obscure cultivated plant called maca (Lepidium meyenii), a member of the mustard family.  The story is sufficiently interesting that it recently merited an illustrated article in the New York Times.

More than forty years ago, while working as a journeyman ethnobotanist on the shores of Lake Junín (second only to Titicaca in size), I collected samples of maca and interviewed members of a family that was among the few still cultivating an obscure plant that had the distinction (among other things, as we’ll see) of being the world’s highest-altitude domesticate.  I don’t know whether that record still stands, but it surely ranks among the top two or three.  Maca survives the cold and dryness of Junín’s climate by keeping most of its tissue underground as a nondescript tuber.  Above ground, one sees only a small rosette of leaves.

Maca specimens, Junín, 1973.  Credit: Michael F. Brown.  (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Maca specimens, Junín, 1973. Credit: Michael F. Brown. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

My maca tutor was a wizened Andean man named don Mauro Pucuhuaranga,  whose face was darkened by decades of life at an altitude where the thin atmosphere offers scant protection from the sun’s rays.  Don Mauro and his wife showed us their small maca harvest and were kind enough to give us a few tubers to eat that evening.

“Some scientific studies claim to show a link between consuming maca and an increase in libido. Such beliefs go back centuries. One historical account says that the Inca emperor fed maca to his troops to give them energy but removed it from their diet after victorious campaigns to tame their sexual desire.”–William Neuman, NY Times, 6 December 2014

The owner of the house where our research team boarded agreed to cook the tubers for us to try.  As he served them, however, he called out to his family, “Lock your doors tonight.  The gringos will be on the prowl!”  Thus we learned that maca had for centuries been regarded by Andean people as a powerful aphrodisiac and fertility-enhancer.  Its consumption was typically accompanied by lewd joking.  We were also told that during the colonial period Spaniards routinely fed maca to European livestock, which had difficulty reproducing at high altitudes.

I can’t attest personally to maca’s reputed effect—although there is some sketchy scientific data to support it—and our crew was altogether too tired and altitude-impaired for nocturnal prowling.  My maca samples eventually landed in the ethnobotany lab of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Anthropology, my photographs filed for future use in the classroom.  My assumption was that maca, as one of the world’s most endangered crops, might soon disappear from Andean diet and the world’s roster of obscure domesticated plants.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  With the growth of world demand for traditional remedies and organic “super foods” since the 1990s, maca, “the Andean Viagra,” leapt from near-extinction to rock-star status among plant medicines.  Now, according to the Times, it is the target of biopiracy by the Chinese and a product subject to large-scale smuggling and theft thanks to exploding world demand.

I can only hope that don Mauro Pucuhuaranga’s children and grandchildren are benefiting from growing demand for a plant that once seemed destined for obscurity.

“Upriver” in the Utne Reader . . . and Hau

utne-logo

The Utne Reader  has published a long excerpt from Upriver in its website.  Utne carried a review by Will Hermes of The Channeling Zone back in 1997, and it’s great to back in their pages again.

The excerpt is headlined “The Aguaruna struggle to retain tradition,” which is okay, I guess, and probably right for Utne’s readership, which seems to be drawn to topics dealing with sustainability, right living, spiritual development, and progressive politics.  But what interests me about the Awajún/Aguaruna is the extent to which they aren’t chained to tradition in the way Anglo-Americans often think about such things  Yes, they are committed to their language (but to bilingualism, too), to the retention of many traditional understandings and values, and to maintenance (and recovery) of the political autonomy and right of self-determination that they once enjoyed.  At the same time, however, they are hungry for formal education and flexible in their religious commitments, which now include Baha’i, evangelical Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism.  Some actively aspire to professional careers and, as I recount in Upriver, a handful have achieved them.

Despite their Amazonian location, the Awajún remind me of a new generation of American Indian thinkers and artists who are deeply committed to decolonizing their societies and yet aren’t afraid to pour at least some elements of tradition into the cultural blender with hip-hop and other global influences.  Last week at SAR we heard a talk by  Ehren Kee Natay (Kewa/Diné), who has been working hard in the SAR artist studio as a Rollin and Mary Ella King Fellow.  Ehren’s work encompasses rock music, painting, sculpture, and video, including the unforgettable “Rock Your Mocs,” filmed in front of several of Santa Fe’s public symbols of Western conquest.

The Awajún aren’t far behind, although the style of music and videography may be jarring to an American audience.  Compare this short ethnographic video of an Awajún woman recording magical love songs to (1) a social dance and song in traditional dress, but with electronic backup, and (2) an Awajún cumbia video, one of scores that can be found uploaded on YouTube.  At this point, it’s probably fair to say that Latin cumbias are “traditional” to the Awajún.


On a radically different front, the open-access anthropology journal Hau has just published an article by the distinguished ethnologist Anne-Christine Taylor (Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparatives (LESC); CNRS, Paris). “Healing Translations: Moving between worlds in Achuar shamanism.”  Upriver snags a spot in Taylor’s citation list.

ANPE FOTO/ Patricio Realpe/www.conaie.org
Achuar shaman, ANPE FOTO/ Patricio Realpe/www.conaie.org

The Achuar—like the Shuar, a group closely related to the Awajún in language and culture—practice shamanism.  Taylor’s sophisticated but accessible paper assesses “how illness is transmuted through shamanic practice into a condition that is readable in terms of the history of interethnic relations, a process involving an ordered sequence and combination of “trans-lations” (i.e., shifts from one plane to another and the “harmonic” effects thus created)  . . . as it occurs among and between the northern Jivaroan Achuar and the Quichua-speaking forest groups that have developed in post-conquest times in their neighborhood.”  One way of looking at the paper is that it considers how a traditional practice of great antiquity and symbolic significance, shamanism, is negotiated and renegotiated in light of the ever-changing ethnic relations in which the Achuar are embedded.  An article not to be missed by anyone interested in Amazonian shamanism and Jivaroan and Quichua-speaking peoples in general.

Two reviews of “Upriver”

NSlogo

The linguist Daniel Everett has just reviewed Upriver for the online and print versions of New Scientist.

Everett describes the book as “even-handed and insightful,” and “one of the best books I have read on Amazonian peoples in a long while”—written, he says, with “flair and clarity.”

This is high praise from a scholar whose own recent books, including Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, and Language: The Cultural Tool have garnered both a wide popular readership and sparked one of the most interesting and fiercely fought debates in modern linguistic theory.  (A 2007 New Yorker profile of Everett and his research lays out many of the insights of his work in the Brazilian Amazon and why it has generated so much controversy among linguists.)

Everett correctly points out that Upriver concerns itself, among other things, with the question of what it means to be “civilized,” both historically and today.  Indeed, an irony central to the book is that the violence that was once so prevalent in Awajún society, and which lives on today in attitudes if not in actual practice, has arguably outfitted the Awajún people to withstand and sometimes prevail over the interventions of a developed world that smugly considers itself more advanced and “civilized” than the indigenous peoples it would happily steamroll into extinction.

As for the broader problem of civilization and violence, one is tempted to ask: How “civilized” is a United States that accepts as inevitable the firearms-related deaths of tens of thousands of people annually based on the pronouncement of a legal document written over two centuries ago at a time when the only firearms to which most people had access were black powder muskets?

There is one aspect of Everett’s review that merits correction, however. He states that [according to Brown] “more than half of all deaths of Awajún men are due to murder, while more than a third of deaths among Awajún women are suicide.”  These percentages should be reversed: the book notes (p. 214) that my small and largely retrospective sample of remembered deaths found that about a third of male deaths were reportedly due to homicide and slightly more than half of the deaths of adolescent and adult women were attributed to suicide.

The book presents those figures as rough percentages based on a total of 134 cause-of-death reports, a tiny sample by the standards of modern demography.  More important still, these data were recorded in 1977-78 and document deaths that stretch back in time to the 1940s. So they do not accurately reflect Awajún circumstances today.

More unsettling than the prevalence of homicide in the distant past, which has numerous parallels in other societies living in what Brian Ferguson and the late Neil Whitehead called the “tribal zone”—that is, the often chaotic interface between indigenous peoples’ heartlands and the expanding state frontier—is the suicide rate.  Suicide, especially among young women, remains a problem in Awajún country to this day, although there is reason for cautious optimism about its trajectory according to some reports.  (A recent UNESCO-sponsored study of suicide in Amazonian societies considers the Awajún case in some detail.  The report, published in Spanish, is downloadable here.)  As Everett notes, suicide threats and attempts are not uncommon in Amazonian societies where women have limited power to influence their husbands, although the Awajún seem to have developed this strategy to an exceptional degree.


The second review appears in the October 24, 2014, edition of the Times Literary Supplement, which unfortunately remains behind a pay-wall for the time being.  The reviewer is John Hemming, a prolific and distinguished historian of the Amazon.

Hemming judges Upriver to be “powerful, moving and entertaining,” an assessment that I’m happy to leave unchallenged.  There is one contextual problem that grates a little, though.  Hemming quotes me as claiming that a village in which I lived was “a breeding ground for sorcery, lechery, and drunkenness.”  In that passage I am not expressing my own opinion but that of a moralistic Awajún teacher who had converted to evangelical Protestantism (p. 135).  In Upriver I take great pains to communicate my admiration and affection for the Awajún among whom I lived even if, like the rest of us, they have their share of flaws.

Anyone who has had a book reviewed in the trade press, even by first-rate thinkers such as these, knows that there are often disconcerting problems of contextualization and emphasis.  Given the current state of publishing, I feel fortunate that Upriver and the ongoing story of the Awajún people are receiving attention in publications of this quality.