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Volume 59 / Social Sciences


South America: Lowlands

SILVIA MARÍA HIRSCH, Professor of Anthropology, Princton University
ROBIN M. WRIGHT, Professor of Anthropology, Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Brazil)

PUBLICATION TRENDS IN THE FIELD OF AMAZONIAN ETHNOLOGY at the turn of the millennium continue to indicate a scholarly emphasis on religion and politics. Under the category of "religion," a broad spectrum of studies ranges from focused analyses of indigenous cosmologies and rituals to more conventional anthropological interpretations of Catholicism and its local versions among rural populations. The "political" studies cluster around issues related to indigenous political movements and the construction of ethnic identity. Additional studies reviewed here are scattered over the following areas: medical anthropology, history, social organization and kinship, and ecology and development.

Of the 60 items reviewed, more than half examine indigenous societies in Brazil, reflecting continued growth in the number of superior-quality publications by both Brazilian and foreign ethnologists. The remainder of the items are divided between Venezuela, Peru, the Guyanas, Suriname, and Colombia. Production in these countries has been markedly less, perhaps due to the current lack of research monies available in Latin America.

Certain geographical regions stand out in the literature reviewed. In particular, the Northwest Amazon of Brazil and Colombia, about which five important books were published in the late 1990s: two collections of myths organized by indigenous narrators in collaboration with anthropologists (items #bi 98013540# and #bi2001004816#); a major book interpreting important myth cycles by a leading South American ethnologist (item #bi 98013539#); a book interpreting millenarian traditions and historical conversion movements (item #bi2001004808#); and a book/map by a leading South American nongovernmental organization in support of the indigenous movement to demarcate a reserve for the 25,000 Indian people of the Brazilian Northwest Amazon (item #bi2001005469#).

In Northeastern Brazil and in the Peruvian Amazon—two other areas about which important studies have been produced—ethnology has focused on indigenous movements, the resurgence of ethnic identities, and anthropological interpretations relevant to the study of these phenomena. Pacheco de Oliveira's edited volume presents a series of in-depth studies exploring the utility of such concepts as ethnogenesis, the invention of traditions, and "mixed Indians" in the context of Northeast Brazil, a region where there is little apparent difference between indigenous and rural populations, but where distinctive markers of ethnic identity appear in unexpected ways (item #bi2001004803#). One study shows how ethnobotanical knowledge for medical and ritual purposes is related to ethnic identification among the Shokó of Sergipe (item #bi 98013940#). Another study argues that, for the Fulniô of Pernambuco, maintaining their principal rituals in extreme secrecy has been fundamental in conserving ethnic identity, despite a history of brutal contact (item #bi 97016177#).

In an insightful and innovative study of the Ashaninka of the Peruvian Amazon, Veber explores indigenous capacity for agency and empowerment, which occur through collective action (item #bi 99001300#). Utilizing new social movements theory, the study goes beyond the notion of "cultural resignification," showing how the process of indigenous political organizing has led to changes in the social order that define a differential distribution of power and access to resources among conflicting social groups.

Synthesizing anthropological reflections on the evolving political situation of indigenous peoples of Amazonia, a dossier published in the Cahiers de Amérique Latine focuses on apparently contradictory tendencies: the "nationalization" of indigenous societies; the creation of transnational, pan-indigenous identities; and the consolidation of new, regional indigenous political organizations (item #bi 98008961#). Authors analyze the implications of these tendencies for such critical questions as territoriality, the legal status of indigenous peoples, systems of education, NGO support, and the proliferation of local political organizations.

Various articles explore the impact of mass media and image marketing on movement politics. One study examines the effective use of radio, television, and the internet by the Shipibo and Ashaninka in political organizing (item #bi 99004447#). Conklin's study of Brazilian indigenous leaders draws attention to the potentially damaging consequences for indigenous identity politics when exotic indigenous body images are presented to Western audiences in the mass media (item #bi 98004194#).

By far the richest elaboration of ethnological research and reflection has been in the area of religion, including collections of myths; myth interpretations; and the relation of myth to history, cosmology and ritual, and popular Catholicism.

Increasingly, indigenous peoples, as part of their political projects, have sought the collaboration of anthropologists in producing collections of myths and oral histories (items #bi 98013944#, #bi 98013945#, and #bi2001004816#). In some cases, indigenous narrators have written and organized texts (item #bi 98013540#). In other cases, the anthropologist has intervened in the translations, even rewriting the narratives, and may, therefore, introduce strong elements of interpretation (item #bi 98013935#). Reichel-Dolmatoff's analysis of the Yurupary tradition among the Tukano in Colombia, while exemplary in its detailed linguistic, ethnographic, and ecological treatment of native texts, nevertheless injects a strong dose of sociobiology in its interpretations (item #bi 98013539#). Other studies of myths explore their epistemological foundations relating society, culture, and ideology; and representations of alterity (items #bi 96014789# and #bi 98013934#).

A monograph on the Arakmbut of the Peruvian Amazon presents myths as windows to different facets of social, political, and spiritual life, seeking to trace the relation of history to myth (item #bi 98013940#). Wright's monograph on the Baniwa similarly focuses on myth in history by interpreting millenarian consciousness and its relation to shamanism, witchcraft, and conversion to Christianity (item #bi2001004808#). The studies presented in the volume organized by Wright explore how indigenous mythologies and cosmologies have shaped the nature of their relations with various forms of Christianity (item #bi2001004816#).

Several works consider the historical formation of popular Catholicism in rural regions. For example, two studies on the formation of Brazilian popular Catholicism in the Northeast and lower Amazon show diverse influences, including shamanism, on religious beliefs. Both also explore the tensions between popular and official Catholicism (items #bi 98013936# and #bi 98013946#).

In a notable article, Viveiros de Castro analyzes the frequently noted "hyper-relativism" of Amazonian cosmologies which engenders what he calls "perspectivism": the ideas concerning the way in which humans, animals, and spirits see both themselves and other world beings (item #bi 98013933#). After considering Descola's symbolic ecology and Riviere's discussion of the notion of transformation (item #bi 96014948#), Viveiros de Castro suggests a reformulation of the classical categories of nature, culture, and supernature. The article has enormous potential for reformulating ethnological understanding of Amerindian cosmologies, rituals, ecology, myth, and the history of contact (item #bi 99000804#).

Two other notable contributions on religion focus on the little studied institution of "weather shamanism" among the Warao (item #bi 98013931#), and the extraordinarily complex transformational worldview of the Emberá of the Chocó, Colombia (item #bi 98013923#).

Excellent work is being done in the area of medical anthropology and the anthropology of illness. Outstanding examples are an ethnolinguistic manual of Yanomami health (item #bi2001004821#), and the encyclopedic compendium of Warao phytotherapy (item #bi 98013940#) both of which, besides offering a wealth of descriptive and linguistic material, discuss indigenous theories of illness and its treatment.

Finally, significant advances are being made in the study of indigenous kinship systems in Brazil. The volume organized by Viveiros de Castro offers new and sophisticated analyses of a variety of systems encountered in Amazonia and Central Brazil (item #bi 98013933#). Various published articles by Viveiros de Castro's students, not reviewed here, extend this pioneering work. [RW]


A review of the literature for HLAS 59 reveals a significant increase in publications, yet still a modest amount compared to other regions of ethnological interest. There is no significant shift in research themes from the last volume, although some new topics are covered here. The main research areas are general ethnographic descriptions, religiosity, ritual and religious practices, narrative and myth, the struggle for land claims, and self-determination.

The publication of several ethnographies brings attention to understudied indigenous groups. The ethnographies on the Tsimane (item #bi 97017402#), Tapiete (item #bi 97015703#), Baure (item #bi2001001795#), Sirionó (item #bi2001001801#), and Manjui (item #bi 99004419#) provide basic ethnographic information on lowland groups that have not been studied since the early 20th century. The study of native religions, in particular myth and mythic narratives, continues to increase and several publications include long and detailed texts (items #bi2001001801# and #bi2001001796#). However, many of these works do not include in-depth interpretations of narratives which would make them more accessible. A few of these studies do include a description and analysis of myth and narrative in conjunction with ritual cycles and esthetic representations (items #bi2001001791# and #bi2001001796#).

The study of shamanism, which has been a central focus of research among lowland groups, continues to receive attention. Recent studies explore changes in shamanic practices and the incorporation of native peoples into Christianity and the emergence of hybrid forms of religiosity (items #bi 98004853#, #bi2001001797#, and #bi 99008571#). These works examine the emergence of new types of religious leaders and healers and explore the dynamic and creative process of conversion and reinterpretation of Christianity by indigenous peoples.

Ecological and demographic studies remain significantly understudied for this region. However, Hill and Hurtado's work on the life history of the Aché constitutes an outstanding contribution (item #bi2001004139#). A few articles address the transformations in subsistence strategies as a result of ecological and socioeconomic pressures by the national society and the state. One study links changes in subsistence strategies with national development practices and policies (item #bi 99000379#); others focus on different mechanisms for procuring a livelihood while resisting the pressure for wage labor in agriculture (items #bi 97004913#, Alvarsson and Mendoza's chapter in item #bi 99008571#, and Kidd's chapter, also in item #bi 99008571#).

The growing trend of studying indigenous movements and revitalization in other areas of Latin America is also present in this region. Hirsch examines the transnational contact between indigenous groups across geographical borders and the impact of this contact on the emergence of indigenous organizations (item #bi 98009075#). Several articles explore new forms of political organization at the community level and their links with Pan-Indian organizations (Hirsch's chapter in item #bi 99008571#, #bi 97015703#, and #bi2001001795#). However, scholars have not yet sufficiently addressed the influence these organizations have at the community level or their level of representation.

Since the last volume, there has been an increase in the studies of rural-to-urban migration of indigenous peoples. One article examines the impact of urbanization on the leadership structure of the Toba of Argentina (item #bi 98004239#), while two studies address the interplay of migration and gender and the significant role of women as migrants and wage earners (items #bi 97017020# and #bi2001004806#).

Although the publication of works on ecology, gender, and urbanization is a step toward expanding the field, it has not diversified sufficiently in terms of topics, approaches, and theoretical orientations. [SH]

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