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.
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.