During the rainy season of 1977, when it was difficult to hunt or work in their gardens, my Awajún hosts consumed copious amounts of manioc beer in large social gatherings. The beer was made by peeling and boiling sweet manioc and smashing the cooked tubers in wooden platters prior to fermentation in clay pots.  While the cooked manioc was being pounded with a club-like wooden pestle, women chewed mouthfuls of it and spit them back into the mash.  Their saliva turned some of the starch into sugar, making the beer stronger.

[pp. 75-76] ” What I remember most about those rainy-season drinking parties was their atmosphere of good humor. Some of this was directed at the resident alien, who served as the butt of countless beer-fueled pranks. When the need to relieve oneself arose during a party, it was customary to say to the host, “Brother, I’m going out to urinate.” The ritual response was, “Ayú (all right), go ahead and urinate!” Once when I told my host that I was leaving for that purpose, he replied, “Ayú, go ahead and urinate squatting!” The insult escaped me because of my limited command of the language. When I failed to respond with the local equivalent of “Hell no,” the assembled men roared with laughter, which continued until someone explained the affront to my masculinity in painful detail. Months later I was able to turn the tables on the jokester through a similar linguistic trick. Such are the small victories of fieldwork.”

The author dances with an Awajún friend at a beer party, 1977.  The shotgun belonged to his dance partner.
The author dances with an Awajún friend at a beer party, 1977. The shotgun belonged to my dance partner.

“On another occasion I had the bright idea of asking Tiwi and several other men to tell me about Awajun sexual practices. This sparked stories of increasingly bizarre and anatomically improbable ways of coupling that had most of the men and many of the women laughing to the point of tears. In due course, I was asked to reciprocate by demonstrating how my people, the kirinku aidau, did the same thing. If I’d been a contortionist or yoga master I might have been able to top their flights of erotic fancy. As it was, they left convinced that we are as boring in our sex lives as my pedantic questions showed us to be with regard to the life of the mind.”

This passage describes an Awajún discussion of sorcery, a divisive force that even today leads to social conflict and sometimes violence.

[Pp. 103-104] “This legacy of suspicion erupted in bitter recriminations after Tíwi and one of his wives, Chapáik, took their gravely ill infant son to an shaman named Táki in the community of Dorado and returned days later with the lifeless baby in their arms. A paramedic had earlier diagnosed the child’s illness as anemia, but the medicine he prescribed did little good. Táki took yáji [ayahuasca] and, once his visions began to intensify, discerned that the real cause of the child’s illness was sorcery. “Táki saw that the baby’s stomach was filled with something black, like dark clay or pitch,” Tíwi said to those gathered in his house. “This black clay is hard to cure. It makes the victim’s stomach become bloated until it explodes.” They fed the baby mashed gingerroot in water to make it vomit or defecate the substance revealed in Táki’s vision. In the baby’s feces the shaman found small pieces of clay, bits of something that looked like rice husk, and fragments of the rough bark of a manioc tuber. This was sorcery, he confirmed. For those who crowded around him in Huascayacu, Tíwi unwrapped a small banana-leaf packet. Inside lay the incriminating evidence. To me it looked fresh, undigested. Tíwi also showed us a lock of the dead baby’s hair.”

From a 2012 interview with a prominent Awajún leader and intellectual, Gil Inoach, in which he comments on a renewal of the traditional vision quest, but with a new focus.

[Pp. 263-264] “This shift parallels the expressed desire of Gil Inoach and others to revitalize the traditional vision quest in a new form that sheds its association with violence. In addition to killing visions, the Awajún have long believed in tajímat (prosperity) visions. ‘The ancient version of tajímat signified abundance: to be a visionary, to have well-behaved children, to have gardens, to be a hunter and a fisherman, to be respected for one’s reputation, to have wives and a large house,’ Inoach said. A modern tajímat is different. ‘What we’re looking for is to become a people with our own system of education, developing our own technologies, a people who express their understandings to persuade the world of the value of protection and conservation, of the values of development and reciprocity.'”

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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