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

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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”

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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.

This site offers information about the book UPRIVER (Harvard UP, 2014), other books by Michael F. Brown, issues related to Amazonian peoples, events at the School for Advanced Research–Santa Fe, and occasional meditations on anthropology and human social life in general.

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