Category Archives: Ethnography

Social change (millenarian and otherwise) in Amazonian societies

Depiction of Juan Santos Atahualpa and Asháninka warriors expelling Franciscans, 1740s

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 the Asháninka’s 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 the Parakanã of the Xingu-Tocantins; the Marubo of the Javari Valley, Amazonas; and the 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.

“Secret Reserves”: An article not to be missed

Image from the Pachamama Alliance,

At a time when so much of the utopian promise of the Internet seems to have soured thanks to ubiquitous trolling, corporate surveillance, and blatant commercialism, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the pleasant surprises that it still can offer.  One of these was my discovery of the article “Secret Reserves,” written by  the journalist Pablo Calvi and recently published in the magazine The Believer, a publication previously unfamiliar to me but which I intend to visit often.

Calvi’s article deals with the circumstances of an indigenous people of Amazonian Ecuador known as  Sápara (or Zápara or Záparo).  In some ways the piece is a conventional cautionary tale of a society struggling to survive amid the scramble for natural resources—in this case, petroleum, arguably the most sinister substance of all with respect to its economic power and poisonous effects—in an environmentally fragile frontier zone.  But the author brings to the story an unusual level of descriptive brio as well as attention to the complexity of the situation.  Contributing to the latter are conflicts between and within indigenous populations over the best strategy for dealing with the Ecuadorian state and the corporations whose activities it relentlessly promotes.  Descriptions of Sápara prophetic dreaming are interwoven with assessments of Ecuadorian politics and development policies.

Some passages that capture the flavor of the article:

There’s a steel vein running through the Andes from east to west, a warm, hollow line that sucks out the guts of the jungle, four hundred thousand oil barrels at a time.

Francisco is short and fibrous. The Sápara call him Tio Rango (Uncle Rango), which gives him an aura of familiarity and kinship. People say that, back in the day, he was Manari’s father’s bodyguard. Whether he was or not, he is certainly the village’s muscle. He has curious black eyes and a staccato voice tuned to give orders but used mostly to crack jokes in Kichwa that everybody seems to love.

I’m naive enough to believe that such evocative writing might do more to change minds and hearts and policies than does anthropological prose, either of the strictly utilitarian variety or high-flown ruminations on Amazonian ontologies and the like.  Each kind of writing has its place, I suppose. And each is afflicted by a degree of political impotence.  The current free-fall of world oil prices probably does more to help the Sápara than anything that Pablo Calvi  or anthropologists might write.   Which of course is not sufficient reason to forsake hope or the responsibility to witness or a commitment to struggle when points of political leverage present themselves.

For more on the Sápara, see the page of Anne-Gaël Bilhaut, which includes downloadable publications in French, Spanish, and English.

“Upriver” now available in German

Brown_Upriver-GermanUpriver is now out in a German edition published by Konstanz University Press.

Information on Stromaufwärts: Das bewegte Leben eines Amazonasvolks, translated by Laura Su Bischoff.




20 December 2015.  A review of the German edition appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 18 December.  (PDF copy here: faz_review_reduced.)  My German-speaking friends tell me that it’s a favorable review.  It contains a factual error, however:  Evaristo Nugkuag does not serve as a member of the Peruvian parliament; it’s Eduardo Nayap as stated in the book.

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?

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.”