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Volume 53 / Social Sciences


South America: Lowlands

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

IN THESE TIMES OF RAPID POLITICAL and cultural change, it is difficult and perhaps even risky to assert that any field of study as topically diverse and internationally based as the ethnology of Lowland South America can be understood in terms of a unified core of concepts and practices. Despite this caveat, there is overwhelming evidence that a new synthesis is beginning to crystallize around the concept of ethnogenesis, or the processes of constructing and transforming social identities in changing historical conditions. In part, the emergence of this new center results from the resurgence of indigenous Amazonian ethnicity in the late 1980s and the attempts of ethnologists to find more pragmatic, historically informed modes of theoretical discourse for describing and interpreting indigenous cultures (item bi 93006486). The concern for developing pragmatic, historically informed theories of culture has also emerged as one of the most central projects in general sociocultural anthropology in the 1990s, and the field of Lowland South American ethnology is playing a major part in this theoretical shift within the discipline as a whole. Also, the nation-states of Latin America can no longer rationalize policies of domination and cultural assimilation of indigenous Amazonian peoples on the grounds of "national security interests," since the world communist movement has abruptly ceased to pose any credible threat to governments in the Western hemisphere.

The emergence of ethnogenesis as a core concept in Lowland South American ethnology is not reflected in any single book or edited volume but can be inferred from the number of conferences, symposia, and short publications that deal with indigenous cultures as practical ways of historically constructing social identities. At the Wenner-Gren Conference called "Amazonian Synthesis" (Teresópolis, Brazil, June 1989), Anna Roosevelt organized a number of European, North American, and Latin American ethnologists to discuss historical transformations resulting in contemporary social, ecological, and demographic patterns that profoundly contrast with precontact Amazonia. In a double session held at the American Anthropological Association meeting (New Orleans, Nov. 1990) and co-organized by Jonathan Hill, Alcida Ramos, and Waud Kracke, ethnologists focused on the consequences of indigenous advocacy in Brazil and other Latin American countries for anthropological theory and method. During interdisciplinary sessions held at the 1989 and 1991 Congresses of the Latin American Studies Association (Miami, Dec. 1989, and Crystal City, Va., April 1991), specialists in Lowland South American ethnology met with historians and literary critics to analyze the structures and epistemologies of national and international power that are employed against indigenous minorities and other marginalized groups in contemporary Latin America. Because of the time lag between original presentations and finished publications, only some of these papers have been published to date (see items bi 93006413, bi 93006067, bi 93006748, and bi 93006835). An edited volume based on the 1989 Wenner-Gren conference is in review at the time of this writing.

The emerging interest in dialectical processes of nation-state formation and ethnogenesis expands upon seminal works such as Michael Taussig's Shamanism, colonialism, and the wild man (see HLAS 49:1065) and Norman Whitten's Sicuanga Runa (see HLAS 49:1085) that brought critical anthropological inquiry to bear on national structures of power, their role in ethnogenesis, and the symbolic and material means employed by indigenous minorities in order to cope with situations of powerlessness. New studies on warfare (item bi 90011314) and the ecology of subsistence (item bi 93005854) persuasively argue for the importance of including the effects of Western contact for understanding contemporary practices. Other studies focus on the importance of understanding colonial regimes and nation-states in interpreting contemporary Amazonian societies (items bi 89016167, bi 93006067, bi 90009990, and bi 90009971). Another group of articles is concerned with indigenous interpretations of colonial and national power structures and the multiple ways that these interpretations have influenced interethnic relations, migratory histories, and economic trade (items bi 90011934, bi 90009966, bi 93006463, bi 90010071, bi 93006454, and bi 93006315). Again, no single book or edited volume stands out as the most central, exemplary work on ethnogenesis, but the large quantity and high quality of publications dealing with State power and indigenous social identity indicates that these topics are rapidly becoming a central core of Amazonian ethnology.

In parallel with the intellectual shift towards pragmatic, historical approaches, a growing number of studies focus on legal and bureaucratic structures that are supposed to protect indigenous lands and human rights in Lowland South America. Major works on this topic include Shelton Davis' comparative analysis of human rights violations against the Guahibo of Colombia, the Aché of Paraguay, and the Yanoama of Brazil (item bi 89016166); David Price's autobiographical account of his experiences as an outside consultant for the World Bank's Polonoroeste Project (item bi 90009960); Carmen Junqueira and Betty Mindlin's report on Tupi-speaking peoples living in the Aripuana Park of Central Brazil (item bi 90009985); and Jo˜ao Pacheco de Oliveira Filho's political analysis of Tucano social institutions (item bi 90009986). Shorter but equally important are two summaries of the recent situation of Brazil's indigenous populations (items bi 90009987 and bi 93006278) and a concise overview of indigenist policies in Venezuela from 1922 to the present (item bi 90010489). A short report by Florencia Lindey (item bi 90009959) provides valuable information on the tragic situation of the Brazilian Yanoama in a time when government interference has resulted in a dearth of up-to-date knowledge. Finally, two studies examine conditions of health and nutrition in specific Brazilian populations and highlight the difficulties inherent in programs of medical assistance (items bi 93005856 and bi 90009975).

Taken together, these works on indigenous lands, human rights, and health conditions have great potential for reforming and improving indigenist policies in Lowland South America. The massive social and ecological destruction of Amazonian rain forests and their indigenous inhabitants can only be halted if protectionist policies are not just formulated but consistently implemented by Latin American governments. Recent events such as the Northern Cayapo's successful attempt in 1989 to stop the building of a hydroelectric dam on the Lower Xingú River give reason to hope that indigenous Amazonian peoples will be able to join forces with anthropologists and other outsiders to insist on protection of their lands and human rights.

Although not quite as voluminous as the spate of publications on ethnogenesis and history, new works on language-to-culture interrelations have continued to appear at a rapid pace. Ethnopoetics, or discourse theory, is concerned with developing pragmatic, context-sensitive approaches to language, which is studied as a performance process of constructing meaning that is both constitutive and reflective of broader sociocultural and historical relations. Discourse theory provides ethnologists with a means for going beyond mere collection and analysis of narratives, speeches, songs, and the like to practice in situ participation in and interpretation of indigenous genres of performance.

An important contribution to ethnopoetics is Greg Urban's A discourse-centered approach to culture: native South American myths and rituals (item bi 91006034), in which examples of narrative and ritual discourse taken from the author's fieldwork with the Shokleng of Central Brazil are compared with examples from northern and western regions of Lowland South America. Urban's book provides a useful stimulus to other scholars interested in the ethnography of performance, several of whom gathered at the Congress of Americanists (Amsterdam, 1988) for a symposium on "Native Latin American Cultures Through Their Discourse" organized by Joel Sherzer and Ellen Basso. A special issue of the Journal of Folklore Research bearing the same title and edited by Ellen Basso (item bi 93005752) includes chapters by three Lowland specialists (items bi 93006668, bi 93006418, and bi 93006059) as well as a state-of-the-art theoretical introduction by Basso on discourse as an integrating concept in anthropology and folklore research. These papers are important because they show how a concern for discourse and micro-analysis of performance features need not result in a narrowing of focus that loses sight of broader social and historical significance.

Overlapping with the concern for discourse and indigenous poetics is the study of musical dimensions of ritual speech. A collection of articles dealing with Amazonian musical cultures came out in the Peruvian journal, Shipihui (Vol. 13, Nos. 45-46, 1988), giving general recognition to the importance of musical sound in the pragmatics of indigenous social life. The most important of these new articles go beyond a concern for musical sound as an isolated phenomenon to show how ethnomusicology can make vital contributions to the sociology of knowledge (item bi 90011421) and to anthropological theories of ritual process (item bi 89008715). This convergence of interest in the poetics of speech and music reflects the centrality of language and musical sound in Amazonian societies. Lowland South American ethnologists are clearly at the forefront of the anthropological movement towards a pragmatic theory of discourse, and it is reasonable to expect this multifaceted, overlapping set of approaches will continue to expand during the 1990s.

The longstanding interest in religion and mythology has continuted unabated during the biennium. David Guss' To weave and sing (item bi 93006407) provides valuable insight into Yecuana religion as a process embodied not only in such overtly sacred contexts as rites of passage but also in more everyday activities of housebuilding, gardening, and basket-weaving. The growing body of new literature on Tupi-Guarani religion is supported by a Portuguese translation of Kurt Nimuendaju's classic monograph on prophetism and religious migrations among the Apapocuva-Guarani of Brazil (item bi 90009983). Also worth noting is Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff's new historical synthesis on the religion of Arawakan and Eastern Tukanoan peoples of the Northwest Amazon region (item bi 90010774).

A few articles examine social organization in different areas of Lowland South America. Renate Viertler contributes an important refutation of "closed system," village-level models of Bororo society and argues instead for a more "open-ended," inter-village model of Bororo society as an historical process of constructing hierarchical relations between"in-groups" and "out-groups" (item bi 90011436). Two articles (items bi 93006074 and bi 90012549) focus on gender relations as the key to understanding how potential conflicts between the sexes are organized into forms of cooperation and cultural creativity.

Studies of indigenous Amazonian adaptations to nature have undergone a minor resurgence over the past two years. Although these ecological studies do not include any major, single-authored works, two edited volumes and some important articles address cultural ecological themes. Emilio Moran provides a useful synthesis of cultural and ecological knowledge to develop a new, tripartite classification of Amazonian geographical areas (item bi 93005758). Janet Chernela contributes a valuable overview of indigenous forest management and fishing practices in the Northwest Amazon region (item bi 93006065). Indigenous management of forests and other natural resources has emerged as the central concept of recent ecological studies, replacing the earlier focus on environmental factors as negative constraints on human social life. In Resource management in Amazonia: indigenous and folk strategies (see HLAS 51:3302), co-editors Darrell Posey and William Balee argue that many forest types previously treated as "natural ecosystems" are in fact "managed forests," or vegetational communities that have resulted from past economic activities (items bi 93005855 and bi 93005854).

The new emphasis on resource management in place of adaptive constraints marks an important shift in ecological approaches to Lowland South American ethnology to a more dynamic, historical understanding of indigenous societies as transformers of nature. If this new line of ecological inquiry were to be connected with theoretical and empirical studies of indigenous social organization and history, it could become a major new theoretical development. However, proponents of the "research management" approach have largely failed to examine broader theoretical implications of their research. In at least one case, the concept of "forest management" appears to be an a priori concept of the investigator grafted onto indigenous economic practices with little or no understanding of sociocultural contexts (item bi 93006258). This lack of concern for historical, social, and other theoretical implications has stimulated a critical response within Brazilian anthropological circles, including an edited volume on Biologia e ecologia humana na Amazônia: avaliaç˜ao e perspectivas (see two papers from this volume, items bi 93006218 and bi 93006282).

In conclusion, the ethnology of Lowland South America continues to grow most rapidly in studies of indigenous historical processes and the pragmatics of discourse. The new focus on indigenous resource management has led to some beneficial new applications of ethnological knowledge but has not yet resulted in a significant contribution to theoretical understandings of indigenous Amazonian societies. In the context of heated debates over the Quincentennial celebration of Columbus' voyage to the New World, practicing ethnology becomes an increasingly complex and challenging activity. Perhaps the key question for ethnologists of Lowland South America in the 1990s is the one posed in the title of Jean Jackson's recent article: "Is There a Way to Talk about Making Culture Without Making Enemies? (item bi 93006486).

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