Tsewa's Gift: Magic and Meaning in an Amazonian Society

Tsewa's Gift: Magic and Meaning in an Amazonian Society

by Michael Brown

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 "A well-written and carefully crafted account of Aguaruna magic and its practical applications [that] diverges from more traditional approaches by focusing not only on the symbolic realm of magic but also on the instrumental intent."

—American Anthropologist

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 "A well-written and carefully crafted account of Aguaruna magic and its practical applications [that] diverges from more traditional approaches by focusing not only on the symbolic realm of magic but also on the instrumental intent."

—American Anthropologist

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“An outstanding and innovative study on hunting, gardening, and love magic among the Aguaruna. . . . [It is] both highly useful ethnographically and an important contribution to the understanding of a how a primitive culture conceptualizes its transactions with nature. The book touches on cosmology and religion as well as the ethnoecology of hunting and agriculture—with an interlude on sex.”—American Ethnologist

“A well-written and carefully crafted account of Aguaruna magic and its practical applications [that] diverges from more traditional approaches by focusing not only on the symbolic realm of magic but also on the instrumental intent.”—American Anthropologist

“An excellent ethnographic account. . . . This book is highly original, imaginative, and readable. It should be popular among specialists of Amazonia, as well as useful in a broad range of anthropology courses.”—Latin American Anthropology Review

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University of Alabama Press
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Tsewa's Gift Magic and Meaning in an Amazonian Society

By Michael F. Brown The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1986 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5364-3

Chapter One Alto Mayo

The Mayo is a river with two lives. The Alto Mayo moves sluggishly, doubling back on itself constantly in the manner of old Amazonian watercourses. Below the town of Moyobamba, this list less meander becomes the Bajo Mayo, a torrent that drops through a series of formidable rapids until it empties into the Huallaga near Tarapoto. The available maps of the region place the entire river within the Department of San Martin in north-central Peru.

It is only the first of these two incarnations, the Alto Mayo, its physical features and its native people, that shall concern us here. The limits of the Alto Mayo valley are defined on the east by a narrow chain of mountains, to my knowledge nameless, that form the final barrier to the Amazon Basin. To the west lie the Andean foothills, and beyond them the eastern cordillera. Despite its altitude (800-1,500 meters above sea level) and its relatively modest rainfall (1,500mm per year), the native vegetation of the valley is tropical rain forest. Unlike many other parts of Amazonia, however, there are no clearly marked rainy and dry seasons. Precipitation peaks between January and April, but significant amounts of rain may fall during any month. Owing to the favorable climate and soil, vast portions of forest have been removed to accommodate cash-crop agriculture in the past ten years. Undisturbed forest is now primarily confined to land belonging to Aguaruna communities and a few upland watershed areas protected by the government.

Alto Mayo Ethnohistory

Little is known about the early history of the Alto Mayo except that in late Peruvian prehistory (A.D. 1100-1470) it was inhabited by a group of Indians known as the Muyupampas, who were apparently allied with the small pre-Inca state of Chachapoyas to the northwest. The Muyupampas, along with the people of Chachapoyas, were eventually conquered by the Inca Tupac Yupanqui shortly before the arrival of the Spanish (Garcilaso de la Vega 1966:480). The fate of the Muyupampas subsequent to the arrival of the conquistadores remains a mystery. Like the Cumbaza and Suchichi Indians of the Bajo Mayo, they may have been assimilated or eliminated soon after contact. Spanish settlers arrived in the Alto Mayo in the 1540s, but despite the political importance of Moyobamba in the early years of the colonial Province of Maynas the Spanish established settlements only in the immediate vicinity of the present-day towns of Moyobamba, Rioja, and one or two smaller villages. Thus the upper reaches of the Mayo had little direct contact with non-Indian settlers until the twentieth century. Information is scarce as to what native population, if any, lived in the more remote forested areas of the Alto Mayo between the sixteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Recent ethnohistorical research conducted by Grohs (1974:84) has produced fragmentary evidence suggesting that some Cahuapanas and Chonzo Indian populations may have inhabited the forests immediately east of the Alto Mayo.

Permanent Aguaruna settlements in the Alto Mayo were established in the 1940s, although individual families may have been using the Mayo as a hunting and refuge territory since the early twentieth century. The first families to settle in the area came from the Potro, Cahuapanas, and Apaga rivers, tributaries of the Alto Rio Marañón. Those who were among the earliest to arrive recall that the area was uninhabited and, as a consequence, rich in fish and game. The abundance of fish and game is one of the most frequently cited motives for the migration to the Alto Mayo, although a desire to escape intratribal vendettas in the Potro-Cahuapanas area is also mentioned. As they came, Aguaruna families settled along the Mayo and its tributaries, including the rivers Huascayacu, Naranjillo, Túmbaro, Cachiyacu, Naranjos, Valles, and Huasta.

Adults who participated in the migration to the Alto Mayo say that it was some years before they come into contact with local "Christians" (kistián), that is, non-Indians. Santiago Pijúsh de scribed what he was told about the first encounter with the man who was to become his family's patrón:

Long ago, no one lived here. In Putjuk [the Río Potro] my relatives heard that there were many peccaries and spider monkeys here. Some people came to see if this was true. They found many fish in the rivers. They made gardens way upriver, on the Rio Huascayaquillo. Little by little, they moved here from Putjuk, settling upriver. One day they found a trail made by Christians. They were afraid, but my grandfather Kujak followed the trail until he arrived at a place where the Christians had tied a machete to a tree with a vine. He took down the machete, examined it, then left it where he had found it. When the Christians returned, they noticed that the machete had been moved. They followed my grandfather's tracks until they came upon my relatives. Both groups, Aguarunas and Christians, ran away because they feared one another. Then one of the Christians, Rosalio, said, "I'm going to talk to them. They aren't our enemies. I'll see if they'll work for me." He went to look for my relatives, but couldn't find anyone. One day he found Grandfather Kujak, and they talked. My grandfather had learned a little Spanish in Majanú [the Alto Rio Marañon]. They made friends. Rosalio invited Grandfather Kujak to his house. They talked a lot. Kujak and the others began to buy things from Rosalio. Rosalio traded them cloth for meat. Little by little they came to know the Christians.

These first contacts were established in the early 1950s, and they intensified as the mestizos sought to take advantage of the forest products and cheap labor provided by the Aguaruna. Some households relocated so that they could work for patrones on a daily basis. Much of the Aguaruna-mestizo trade was controlled by four or five men from Rioja and Moyobamba. Some of these patrones engaged in the abuses that are so common in trade relations throughout the Amazon. The Aguaruna were allowed to become indebted and then forced to work at far below the going wage labor rate to pay off their debts. Several patrones established unions with Aguaruna women, fathered children, and then abandoned them. Still, the Aguaruna were spared the overt violence inflicted by patrones elsewhere in the Peruvian Amazon, and some older people recall this period as a time of relative affluence when they could obtain boxes of beads or ammunition in exchange for only a few animal pelts.

Events broke the hold of the patrón system in the early 1970s. A series of laws favorable to native peoples was issued by the left-leaning military government of Peru following the coup of 1968. These laws outlined procedures by which Indians could have their villages designated as "native communities" (comunidades nativas) and obtain inalienable land titles to be held in common by community members. In 1970 the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) sent two bilingual Aguaruna teachers to survey the Alto Mayo villages in preparation for the establishment of primary schools. The two teachers, Adolfo Juép and Israel Katíp, convinced community leaders that they no longer had to brook the abuses of the patrones. Meanwhile, the patrones denounced Juép and Katip before the local authorities, arguing that the SIL had sent in "outside agitators" to stir up the Indians. Both teachers were detained, and Israel Katip spent two months in the Iquitos jail until the trumped-up charges against him were dismissed in court. The happy conclusion of this case marked the end of patrón influence in the Alto Mayo.

Most of the communities petitioned for, and were granted, land titles in the mid-1970s. (One community, San Rafael, was not awarded its title until 1983.) Land grants in the Alto Mayo were much more generous than those awarded Aguaruna communities elsewhere: the average size of the Alto Mayo communities is 6,400 hectares, as compared to approximately 3,000 hectares per community in the more densely populated Alto Río Marañón.

The population of the nine Alto Mayo communities was approximately 1,100 in 1978. Although the relatively favorable man/ land ratio enjoyed by the Alto Mayo Aguaruna has allowed them to maintain an adequate standard of living, it has also attracted Aguaruna immigrants from the Marañón and excited the envy of non-Indian colonists hungry for land in the wake of the extraordinary influx of peasants from the highlands.

The turbulent past of the Alto Mayo Aguaruna is summarized in a long narrative by Miguel Daicháp, an elderly and highly respected resident of Shimpiyacu. This account, which I present in abridgéd form, is a delightful concatenation of local history, rhetorical embellishment, and acute observations of the peculiar and sometimes dangerous world of non-Indians. The precise identity of the imposing "gringos" of the narrative-whom Miguel describes as great speakers and jokesters-remains a mystery.

Back then we lived on the Rio Cahuapanas. All my family lived there. Then the kurínku (gringos) arrived. They came from where there are churches, from where cloth is manufactured. Then they went on to Moyobamba. When they got there, the Christians put them in jail. But people from Iquitos came to Moyobamba and asked the gringos, "Why have they put you in jail?" The Iquitos people said to the Moyobamba people, "Why have you done this to those who make cloth? Now where are you going to buy your cloth?" The Moyobamba people were afraid and ran away. They had to pay compensation to the gringos. The gringos were tall and substantial-looking. They wore special coats, and when they walked the coats sounded like this: "saku, saku, saku." They were great talkers and they loved to joke around. When there was a lot of feuding in Cahuapanas, my friend [unidentified] said to me, "Come here to the Río Huascayacu [a tributary of the Alto Mayo]." We left our gardens in Cahuapanas and came here. I came here, and made my garden in Pumpu, where my son-in-law and daughter lived. That's how it was. Then we went farther upstream on the Huascayacu to cut gardens, and there we stayed permanently. But I'm from Cahuapanas originally. One day my friend went hunting, and he discovered Sullaquiro [a mestizo hamlet]. The Christians tried to grab us but we escaped. Later we lived closer to Sullaquiro, but the "lieutenants" [soldiers? police?] began to bother us. A lot of lieutenants arrived to fight. They grabbed us one after another to cut our hair. They took my friend prisoner. They wouldn't let him alone, not even to urinate or defecate. The lieutenants took him out to defecate, but they held on to him all the while. He let down his trousers, but all of a sudden he stood up and shouted, "Carajo, carajo, sacha curaka, senchi senchi!" [Loosely translated, this means "Damn, damn! Forest chief! Strong, strong!"] He began to run away. He fought with the lieutenant. The lieutenant shouted, "Listen, friend, listen!" He knocked the lieutenant down. He hit him with his elbow. The lieutenant groaned "Ayau!" and didn't move. My friend escaped. They sent a paper. The head of the Moyobamba Christians wrote a paper and sent it to the government. The government said, "Why do you bother the Aguaruna? They suffer a lot and come only to buy cloth." The lieutenant had died. Another had died, too. Their families began to talk, saying, "When people fight with the Aguaruna they end up getting killed." Then the government said, "If you Christians kill the Aguaruna, then the Aguaruna can kill you in revenge. Why do you bother them?" Now we walk safely in Moyobamba.

The Alto Mayo Aguaruna, 1978

Although the Aguaruna lived in semidispersed neighborhoods rather than in villages until the mid-twentieth century, contemporary communities are more centralized, often consisting of a group of houses around a school and soccer field. Average village size in the Alto Mayo was about 120 people in 1978. The formation of nucleated villages reflects several factors: the need for houses to be near the village school so that children can attend classes regularly, an increasing emphasis on communal work projects, and pressures from government officials, who feel that the "natives" should adopt a settlement pattern more in keeping with the patterns of Hispanic culture.

The Aguaruna themselves have mixed feelings about village life. They seem to like the opportunities for convenient socializing that settlements offer. At the same time, they are sensitive to the drawbacks of living at close quarters with neighbors. Philandering is infinitely easier in a village than it is in a dispersed settlement, which leads to suspicion and edginess on the part of men. Fears of witchcraft increase as well. People in populated settlements find it more difficult to carry out agricultural tasks as the swiddening cycle moves gardens farther and farther away from their houses. The Aguaruna are also fastidious about what Americans primly call "waste management," and some people find villages simply too dirty for their tastes. In every community I visited, there were one or two households of people who preferred to live at some distance from the village so that they could enjoy greater privacy and easier access to gardens and game. The need to defend community lands against appropriation by non-Indian colonists has also contributed to a centrifugal movement of households in recent years. After consultation with other community residents, household heads build a house near the community's boundaries so that they can keep a careful watch on neighboring colonists who might be tempted to establish themselves on Aguaruna land.

Individual households are the most cohesive social unit in Aguaruna society. Approximately 60 percent are independent nuclear families, while the rest are a mixture of independent polygynous families and extended families, the latter typically consisting of a man, his sons-in-law, and their respective wives and children.

Aguaruna communities consist of households linked by ties of consanguinity and marriage. The Aguaruna reckon kinship bilaterally-that is, they see themselves as being equally related to their mother's and father's kin. Individuals consider themselves to be members of loosely structured, egocentric kindreds rather then permanent corporate groups such as clans. A person's kindred (patáa) may include people in all the villages of the Alto Mayo, but there is a tendency to reside with genealogically close or "true" kinsmen (dekás patáa) rather than more distant relatives. Given the flexibility of Aguaruna kinship reckoning and patterns of residence, it is difficult to make normative statements about the composition of Alto Mayo communities. The most stable communities seem to be organized around groups of agnatic kin (people related through males), typically a middle-aged man and his brothers and sons. Nevertheless, men may also enjoy cordial and solidary relations with their mother's brothers, brothers-in-law, and male cross-cousins. Women prefer to settle as close as possible to their sisters and, if possible, their fathers, brothers, and mother's brothers. The preferences of men and women regarding residence are not entirely incompatible, owing to a pattern of marriage to bilateral cross-cousins that gives some communities an endogamous character. Various strategic factors, however, may make marriage outside the community, or even outside of the region, attractive to some men.

Through interregional marriages and frequent visits, relations are maintained with distant Aguaruna communities in the departments of Amazonas and Loreto. Residents of some Alto Mayo com munities are also in almost daily contact with non-Indians. As of 1978, though, there was little intermarriage and no cases of ethnic "passing," that is, a shift of self-identity from Aguaruna to "Christian."

Political authority in Aguaruna communities is formally vested in a village headman, called apu or kakájam, who represents the community in intervillage meetings and in relations with agencies of the government. The real influence of headmen depends upon such factors as the number of their close kinsmen in the community, their leadership abilities, and their personal temperament. Communities usually have several adult men who take prominent roles in decisionmaking. Relocation of households is a common reponse to disputes, and political alignments in the Alto Mayo are constantly undergoing revision as new conflicts develop and old ones are forgotten.


Excerpted from Tsewa's Gift by Michael F. Brown Copyright © 1986 by The University of Alabama Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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