Tag Archives: indigenous Amazonians

Digital Awajún

NuwaThe rapid improvement and falling price of electronic equipment have put video in the hands of indigenous peoples worldwide and made it easier for film crews of modest means—whether indigenous or not—to document native  music, stories, rituals, and political aspirations.

In Amazonia, work on this front was pioneered by the late Terry Turner, who introduced video equipment and training to the Brazilian Kayapó, who use it to document their culture and fight for their rights to land and a voice in Brazilian politics.

The Awajún of Peru have been uploading videos to YouTube for at least a decade.   Based on my admittedly unsystematic survey, I’d say that a solid majority of these are music videos showcasing Awajún rock bands specializing in música tropical, especially cumbias.   (See this one from the Alto Mayo community of Shimpiyacu, for example.)  None of these are strong candidates for an MTV video award, and I’m not sure that they provide much reassurance that the Awajún are protecting their traditional heritage—but then young Hopis of Arizona have long been fans of reggae, which hasn’t prevented their Indian nation from being one of the most religiously conservative in North America.

In the last few years, however, some video material focused on other aspects of Awajún life has begun to emerge.  The production quality varies but appears to be improving.

The 30-minute video Awajúnti Takatji, “Awajun Style,” includes songs, myths, and views of everyday life in the community of Chipe-Cuzu.  A shorter video entitled Yumi (“Water”) focuses on the environmental threat to Awajún territory posed by government-approved mining activities.  For hard-hitting indigenous political messages, it’s hard to beat this raw but effective video that draws on rap music and images of violence taken during and after El Baguazo (2009).


A recent Paris Review interview of Sarah Thomason, a linguist on the faculty of the University of Michigan, focuses on “language leakage”—how words move from one language to another, or don’t—as well as the factors that cause languages to persist or respond positively to efforts to renew them.

I’m no longer close enough to the pragmatics of spoken Awajún to comment on how the language is dealing with new lexical demands (names of car parts, say, or terms used when working with computers), but I remain cautiously optimistic about prospects for continued use of the language in general.  The Awajún were among the earliest groups to work with missionary-linguists of SIL/WBT, and bilingualism has been central to Awajún primary education since the late 1940s.  Their cultural pride and large population bode well for the language’s viability in the immediate future.  It’s harder to say how the language will fare farther along, however.  Even large Indian nations in the United States—notably, the Navajo—struggle to ensure that young people continue to speak their native language.

IdiomaAwajunA short video demonstration of spoken Awajún, part of a series called “Todas las voces,” is available here.  Among the increasingly educated Awajún there is ongoing debate about whether the Awajún alphabet developed by SIL effectively represents the language’s sound system.  Fermín Tiwi Paati, a young Awajún intellectual whom I interviewed for Upriver in 2012, discusses proposed alternatives here.

It wouldn’t surprise me if within the next five years or so there begin to emerge Awajún videos with higher production values and more ambitious goals.  Like many expressions of modernity, the rise of globally accessible media is a double-edged sword for Amazonian peoples.  It exposes them to powerful outside images and ideas that may lead young people away from traditional values and modes of expression.  At the same time, it potentially offers small indigenous communities the opportunity to communicate their experience and aspirations to a global audience.


Minor Awajún-related media footnote.  A 54-minute feature film about the life of Church of the Nazarene missionaries Roger and Esther Winans, The Calling, is now available on YouTube thanks to the Oklahoma Historical Society.  Roger Winans established the first Protestant mission among the Awajún in the 1920s.  The video was made from worn 16mm film, and everything about it is low-budget.  Still, it expresses a particular moment in Awajún (and U.S.) history.  The Awajún portion begins at about the 30-minute mark.

Awajún now dealing with HIV

Awajun_saludAccording to an article published in El País, Lima, on 27 November 2015, the Awajún of the Province of Condorcanqui are struggling with an incidence of HIV-AIDS that exceeds that of Peru’s general population.  “The percentage of infected individuals as percentage of the total population has fluctuated over the past four years between 1.32% and 2.1%, well above the 0.23% incidence for Peru as a whole  . . . .”

Among the factors contributing to this high incidence, according to the article, are increased contact with outsiders, frequent travel to urban areas by Awajún youth, a tolerant attitude toward male homosexual behavior, and the early onset of sexual intercourse among young men and women.

In some cases AIDS fatalities have been attributed to sorcery.  “Saúl Sejekan, vice-apu of Huampami, the capital of the Cenepa valley, tells of a recent case of the death of a young man.  Extra-officially he was known to have had AIDS, but his relatives assured him that he had been killed by sorcery.  As is common in these cases, the community gathered and decided to expel the person who had supposedly caused the harm . . . Sejekan considered the accused to be innocent in this case, but he couldn’t oppose the community’s decision.”

Advocates for the Awajún are arguing for implementation of a policy of intercultural medicine that would integrate local communities with treatment strategies and campaigns of prevention.  So far, the government’s response has been slow.  “This policy has already gone through all channels of consultation and approval, but it’s not known why the president has the Supreme Degree in his hands and still doesn’t sign it.”

Other stories on the Awajún and HIV-AIDS:

http://rpp.pe/politica/actualidad/minsa-reporto-114-casos-de-vih-en-comunidades-nativas-de-amazonas-noticia-719718

http://larepublica.pe/24-08-2014/amazonas-mas-de-200-indigenas-infectados-con-vih-video

Thanks to my friend Manuel Cornejo of the Centro Amazónico de Antropologîa y Aplicación Práctica for bringing this story to my attention.

“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.

“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

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.