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Volume 51 / Social Sciences


South America: Lowlands

JONATHAN D. HILL, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

RESEARCH ON INDIGENOUS SOCIETIES of lowland South America continues to grow most rapidly in the areas of historical analysis, interpretation of religions, and studies of indigenous legal rights. In addition, a few studies focus on indigenous social organization.

Among South Americanists, the concern for integrating historical knowledge and methodology into anthropological research forms part of the more general shift in social theory during the 1980s. On a more practical level, accurate, long-term historical knowledge on lowland South American societies has become increasingly important in the context of contemporary Latin America, since the patterns and processes of neocolonial domination of indigenous minorities are deeply rooted in colonial and republican historical periods. Researchers have approached the history of inter-ethnic relations in three general ways: 1) studies of missionary organizations, military campaigns, and other means of establishing State control within and over indigenous societies; 2) accounts of specific indigenous societies and their adjustments to historical relations with Western society; and 3) analyses of indigenous modes of historical consciousness of inter-ethnic relations.

Studies in the first category include John Hemming's Amazon frontier (item bi 90010843), a major work that synthesizes information on the historical growth of political control over Brazil's indigenous peoples between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Manuela Carneiro da Cunha provides a detailed historical overview of Brazilian legislation dealing with indigenous lands and legal status in her comparative analysis of the Indians' legal situation under Brazil's new constitution (item bi 90010934). Other studies focus on the history of missionary and government programs for assimilating indigenous minorities into national political communities in Colombia (item bi 88000820), Venezuela (item bi 90010967), and French Guiana (item bi 88000813). In addition to such general analyses of State-level policies and their implementation, several studies examine missionization as a process of implanting State control directly into the interior of indigenous social organization at regional and local levels (items bi 90011002, bi 90011020, bi 90011050, and bi 88001991).

A second major focus of historical research is the study of specific indigenous societies and their strategies of adjusting to the dominating presence of Western society in colonial and more recent periods. Major works of this type include Françoise-René Picon's study of changes in Goajiro society and economy (item bi 88000821), Bartomeu Melia's history of Tupi-guarani peoples in Paraguay during the colonial period (item bi 88000817), and Expedito Arnaud's historical study of the Northern Cayapo (item bi 89000587). Important shorter publications on specific indigenous histories are Audrey Colson's article on the spread of Hallelujah religion among Carib peoples of Venezuela and Guyana (item bi 88002824), Sven Isacsson's analysis of Embera leadership strategies in 17th-century Colombia (item bi 90010986), and Mariella Villasante's report on the Ashaninca of Peru (item bi 90011072). These studies demonstrate that it is often possible to reconstruct indigenous histories in far greater detail than was previously supposed through critical, anthropological analyses of written documents.

A third major category of historical studies aims at exploring and comparing the histories of specific South American societies in relation to indigenous modes of social consciousness. Narratives, rituals, political oratory, and other genres of cultural performance are studied as modes of interpreting and acting upon the history of inter-ethnic relations between indigenous and Western societies (items bi 90010848, bi 88002730, bi 90011051, bi 90010930, bi 90010984, bi 90010938, bi 90011053, bi 90010949, and bi 90010946). These studies demonstrate that indigenous peoples of lowland South America are capable of formulating their own histories by integrating historical events and persons into mythic understandings of the original coming-into-being of nature and society.

Along with the increasing attention to, and awareness of, historical processes in lowland South America, ethnologists have begun to rethink their approaches to indigenous myth, ritual, and cosmology. The intrinsic connections between historical change and religion in lowland South America are perhaps best illustrated by studies of millenarian movements as creative processes of incorporating elements of Christianity into the dynamics of indigenous worldviews (items bi 88002824, bi 90010984, bi 90011027, and bi 89000247). Lawrence Sullivan's powerful new synthesis, Icanchu's drum: an orientation to meaning in South American religions (item bi 90010850), brings together the results of several decades of ethnographic field studies to argue for a more dynamic, open-ended approach to South American religions as multilinear processes of creation, destruction, and regeneration. In particular, Sullivan's treatment of the irreducible contradiction between an undifferentiated mythic primordium and symbolically constructed orderings of human society is likely to have a major influence on future research. Several shorter publications (items bi 90011074, bi 90011022, bi 88002801, and bi 90010891) on ritual and cosmology explore the dynamics of the mythic primordium and its regenerative powers in specific societies. In the ethnology of lowland South America, myth and ritual are coming to be understood as complex, historically situated processes of symbolically constructing and transforming human social worlds rather than static models of an unchanging cosmos.

The shifting theoretical orientation of South Americanists has been accompanied by important new developments in methodology. The emerging interest in ethnopoetics, or the study of indigenous ways of speaking as genres of literary discourse, has generated a search for more practical ways of transcribing, translating, and interpreting the meanings of cultural performances. In Native South American discourse (item bi 90010845), editors Joel Sherzer and Greg Urban have assembled three studies of verbal art among the Gê-speaking peoples of Central Brazil (items bi 90010952, bi 90010947, and bi 90010937) and samples of discourse from the Kalapalo of Brazil (item bi 90010856), the Toba of Argentina (item bi 90011082), and the Shuar of Ecuador (item bi 90011047). Another major study applies discourse theory to a Kalapalo cycle of trickster narratives (item bi 90010854). These works suggest that a more sophisticated, and accurate, understanding of indigenous narrative and ritual genres can be reached through giving equal attention to the formal, musical patterning of language and the semantic meanings of verbal performances.

Documentation and analysis of population, land, and legal status of indigenous peoples in lowland South America has continued to expand in response to the deteriorating political situation of indigenous minorities in most countries. In Brazil, the passage of a new constitution giving greater political leverage to indigenous minorities has not helped to mitigate the effects of road building, hydroelectric dam projects, gold mining, land invasions, and other threats to indigenous groups' physical and cultural survival (items bi 90010857, bi 90010934, bi 88000810, and bi 90010927). In fact, the Brazilian government's Calha Norte ("Northern Corridor") project has brought about a disappointiong reversal of the long struggle to create a reservation for the Yanoama and, at least temporarily, has put a halt to all research among indigenous groups living in areas to the north of the Amazon River. In this context, the Centro Ecumênico de Documentaç˜ao e Informaç˜ao (CEDI) has contributed a series of precise, systematic documents on Brazil's indigenous populations and their lands (items bi 90010895 and bi 90010901). In Venezuela, anthropologists and other researchers have compiled a statistical analysis of the 1982 census of indigenous populations (item bi 88000809). The precarious legal situation of indigenous minorities in both countries is clearly reflected in the low percentage of peoples whose lands are officially recognized and protected with written titles. One of the only bright spots in lowland South America is Colombia, where the current administration has approved the creation of a five million hectare reserve for the Witoto living along the border with Peru and Ecuador.

Relatively few publications on indigenous social organization have come out during the biennium. In a comparative study of 50 lowland societies, Alf Hornborg (item bi 90010844) provides a new model for understanding dualism in lowland South America by demonstrating a strong correlation between moiety systems and uxorilocal postmarital residence. Through comparsion of Tukanoan and Guayanan societies, Peter Riviere (item bi 90011024) argues that differences in postmarital residence rules account for contrasts in the sexual division of labor and the amounts of time women spend processing manioc in the two areas. Shorter publications on social organization include Alcida Ramos' analysis of social identity among the Sanuma (item bi 90010945) and Jean Pierre Chaumeil's interpretation of Yagua social relations as part of a regional system (item bi 90011043).

Publications on the ecology of indigenous societies have continued to decline in proportion to other topics discussed above. Only three short studies of ecological adaptation appear in the following bibliography (items bi 90010855, bi 88000542, and bi 90011044).

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