Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond


For more than fifteen years, Mario Blaser has been involved with the Yshiro people of the Paraguayan Chaco as they have sought to maintain their world in the face of conservation and development programs promoted by the state and various nongovernmental organizations. In this ethnography of the encounter between modernizing visions of development, the place-based “life projects” of the Yshiro, and the agendas of scholars and activists, Blaser argues for an understanding of the political mobilization of the Yshiro...

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For more than fifteen years, Mario Blaser has been involved with the Yshiro people of the Paraguayan Chaco as they have sought to maintain their world in the face of conservation and development programs promoted by the state and various nongovernmental organizations. In this ethnography of the encounter between modernizing visions of development, the place-based “life projects” of the Yshiro, and the agendas of scholars and activists, Blaser argues for an understanding of the political mobilization of the Yshiro and other indigenous peoples as part of a struggle to make the global age hospitable to a “pluriverse” containing multiple worlds or realities. As he explains, most knowledge about the Yshiro produced by non-indigenous “experts” has been based on modern Cartesian dualisms separating subject and object, mind and body, and nature and culture. Such thinking differs profoundly from the relational ontology enacted by the Yshiro and other indigenous peoples. Attentive to people’s unique experiences of place and self, the Yshiro reject universal knowledge claims, unlike Western modernity, which assumes the existence of a universal reality and refuses the existence of other ontologies or realities. In Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond, Blaser engages in storytelling as a knowledge practice grounded in a relational ontology and attuned to the ongoing struggle for a pluriversal globality.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is an important contribution to anthropological efforts to go beyond critical analysis of development towards a deeper understanding of such projects.” - John Gledhill, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“With a sensitivity to the political nature of the politics of representation, the author passionately argues for a dialogue of knowledge in order to make visible the “anomalies” experienced by Yshiro-Ebitoso communities in Paraguay since 1986, and the political consequences from development interventions beyond the Chaco.” - Alberto Arce, The Americas

“A timely contribution to the ethnographic record of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, this book … about the Yshiro, also known as Chamacoco, of the Alto Paraguay Chaco constitutes an innovative anti-totalizing text inspired by border theory and postwestern thought... The book strengthens studies on Native American Societies, specifically the stunning resilience of South American Indians, complementing an experience of survival with other socionatures around the world.” - Guillermo Delgado-P., The Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Storytelling Globalization: From the Chaco and Beyond is a creative—and to some lengths courageous—attempt to demonstrate a different kind of ethnography. . . . Blaser is attempting to tell stories of globalization from and with the Yshiro, and the result will prove an important model for practitioners interested in producing knowledge that in a nonreductive register.” - Jeremy M. Campbell, American Anthropologist

Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond is an anthropological tour de force with strong philosophical, political, epistemic, and ontological implications. Mario Blaser shifts the geopolitics of knowing and reasoning by looking at globalization not only from the south but also and mainly through the eyes of those who endure its consequences. In the narratives Blaser presents, border thinking takes on new dimensions and is shown to be an essential aspect of de-colonial thought. Notions about ‘objectivity’ and ‘universal truth’ necessarily give way to a recognition of ontological diversity.”—Walter D. Mignolo, author of The Idea of Latin America

“In this instructive and original work, modernity and the drama of globalization offer a historical horizon in relation to which both the activity of the anthropologist and the problems faced by the Yshiro communities in Paraguay are explored. Border dialogue (perhaps even border anthropology) is born precisely in the encounter between modern globalizing tendencies and the opening up of a different global imaginary, one rooted in the reality of there being many epistemic and social worlds.”Nelson Maldonado-Torres, author of Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity

“Mario Blaser’s talented and deeply insightful storytelling opens up paths into the transition from modernity to globality. Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond is a work of depth, scholarship, and hopefulness. Blaser’s years of learning and collaborating with the Yshiro people of the Paraguayan Chaco have pressed him to ask questions that destabilize much of the taken-for-granted knowledge of the Euromodern academy. With his research interlocutor Don Veneto Vera to prod him into dialogical investigations of relational ontologies in the pluriverse, Blaser brings us, the readers, into places where incisiveness, analysis, and passionate commitment converge. This book demonstrates and enacts the power of strong stories: to change our understandings, to open other worlds, to give us untamed glimpses of substantive alternatives for life on Earth.”—Deborah Bird Rose, author of Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation

“When ‘the rest’ meets ‘the West,’ are the modern stories enough? In this deeply disturbing and thought-provoking book, Mario Blaser shows that for the marginalized and exploited, the world is storied and materialized quite differently. Forced to recognize that hegemonic Western knowledges, institutions, and worlds deny those realities, Blaser tells a destabilizing but ultimately affirmative story that is simultaneously analytical, political, and ontological. This superb book will be compulsory reading for all students of anthropology, development studies, postcolonialism, and science and technology studies.”—John Law, author of After Method: Mess in Social Science Research

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Mario Blaser is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. He is a co-editor of In the Way of Development: Indigenous Peoples, Life Projects, and Globalization.

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Table of Contents


About the Series....................viii
Map List....................ix
Introduction Globalization and the Struggle for Worlds and Knowledges Otherwise....................1
Chapter 1 Laissez-Faire Progress: Invisibilizing the Yrmo....................41
Chapter 2 State-Driven Development: Stabilizing Modernity....................63
Chapter 3 Sustainable Development: Modernity Unravels?....................80
Chapter 4 Enacting the Yrmo....................107
Chapter 5 Taming Differences....................126
Chapter 6 Translating Neoliberalism....................149
Chapter 7 A World in which Many Worlds (Are Forced to) Fit....................171
Chapter 8 Becoming the Yshiro Nation....................188
Chapter 9 Reality Check....................209
Conclusion Eisheraho/Renewal....................227
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First Chapter

Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond



Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4545-9

Chapter One

Laissez-Faire Progress Invisibilizing the Yrmo

The standard storyline of the European encounter with indigenous peoples in the Americas begins with a shallow prelude, a snapshot at best, of what was supposed to be here before the wheels of history were put into motion by the arrival of the settlers. In lieu of written records are archaeological, linguistic, and ethnohistorical hypotheses (compare Wolf 1997:52), rather than indigenous (hi)stories; after all, we moderns use those hypotheses when the written record falters for our own (hi)story. Precisely the inescapable gap between the written record and the "beginning" of our (hi)story is a key point at which the modern myth does its work. All those hypotheses that retrieve our remote past are neither more nor less than a translation of the modern myth expressed through the science it enables. The written record then just fills in with content a genealogy whose structure has already been traced by the myth. Considering this, the implicit claim that the encounter with modern Europeans sets history in movement for "others" is actually an index of another kind of movement, that through which the myth of modernity makes invisible other stories, other myths, and the worlds emerging from them. Tracing a genealogy that makes visible that which the modern myth effaces thus requires a different beginning, one that refers to a different myth and a different world. In this case, the genealogy begins with the Esnwherta au'oso, the core narrative of the porowo stage, for it informed in the most immediate ways how the Yshiro imagined the early contact.

The Yrmo: Reciprocity and the Possibility of Coexistence

The Esnwherta au'oso narrates the encounter of the proto-Yshiro and the Anabsero, and how from this encounter emerged the actual Yshiro and their social orderings. After an initial encounter with the women, the Anabsero decide to meet the men in a secluded place in the forest, the tobich (lit. "place of the dead"). There, they transmit to the proto-Yshiro eiwo, a fine-tuned discerning capacity, thus making them fully Yshiro. The relation between the Anabsero and Yshiro is nevertheless ambivalent since many Anabsero are unpredictable in their behavior, at times showing great consideration and at others displaying reckless anger toward humans. Eventually, in response to an Anabsero's excessive display of anger, the Yshiro indiscriminately massacre the Anabsero. Only one Anabsero, Nemur, survives, and he creates the Paraguay River, which he puts between himself and his Yshiro persecutors. Nemur curses the Yshiro, and together with Esnwherta, the lata (mother) of the Anabsero, he commands them to replace each clan of the Anabsero, generation after generation, by initiating young males into the society of the tobich exactly as the Anabsero had done with the proto-Yshiro. Failing to perform the ritual, or performing it in an inappropriate manner, would spell the extinction of the Yshiro.

The Esnwherta au'oso simultaneously depicts these events, works as a template for the male initiation ritual (debylylta), and structures the male secret society instituted by the Anabsero. According to the recollections of the Yshiro elders, in addition to the initiation ritual, food-sharing rules were one of the most visible ways in which the Esnwherta au'oso was embodied in everyday life. Food sharing, based on the complementarities of taboos corresponding to different age ranks, genders, and clans, indexed a person's place in a web of social relations encompassing humans and nonhumans. The strict observation of food taboos and their associated rules for sharing was among the key strategies for managing the negative element of wozosh (the dynamic or energy which results in Being or indistinction). Although by all accounts these rules were extremely detailed and extensive, food taboos were only one of the more visible expressions of the social labor the Yshiro porowo invested in the management of wozosh; according to many contemporary Yshiro, the social arrangements originated after the encounter with the Anabsero were characterized by the severe vigilance-some would call it tyranny-of the elders over males and females of younger generations. Keiwe, an Ebitoso elder who passed away in 1996, at the age of at least eighty, once told me,

The Yshiro porowo have many agalio [advice, rules] for their youth, they don't want them to eat this or that, they don't want them to fuck with old people, they don't want them to talk nonsense, they don't want them to walk at night, they don't want them to go alone into the bush ... those elders were very strict. If the youth do not follow their advice they warn them once, twice, three times, then they kill them. (14 June 1995, field notes)

Asked why the ancient elders were so strict, most contemporary elders answered that if they did not kill the offender, disgrace would fall not only over the offender but over the entire residential group. While the elders' strict vigilance assured the proper management of wozosh, it also created tensions between generations. Food and other restrictions were progressively lifted as an individual aged, yet indirect evidence (in stories as well as in the ways in which contemporary Yshiro narrate how their ancestors lived) suggests that some younger people experienced the restrictions imposed on them by the elders as unjust. These tensions, especially in critical circumstances such as a scarcity of food, produced schisms. Indeed, a quarrel between elders and youths over food consumption is one of the reasons Yshiro commentators give to explain why the Tomaraho and the Ebitoso splintered from each other and became enemies (see also Cordeu 1989a:72).

The sharing of food is central in both Tomaraho and Ebitoso versions of the story about contact with the whites. "This is the way our elders tell us our history. It is not like that of the whites, because we do not write it on paper. My father's father told it to him and he told it to me and me to my children. In that way we know our history." Thus began Tamusia (Don Bruno Sanchez Vera), a Tomaraho elder, in telling the version of the story about the Yshiro's first encounters with the whites with which he was familiar. While there are different versions of this story, the core of the narrative remains the same across them. Few elders know this core well, and bits and bites of it have become part of other stories about the early interactions with the whites. As this story speaks of something new (i.e., the whites) that came up in the yrmo, it has a puruhle tone, punctuated by the "anomaly," in relation to the contemporary reality, that no diseases were supposed to have existed at the moment where the events narrated begin. I have chosen Tamusia's version because it most clearly conveys this puruhle tone.

After his introductory remark about the difference in how whites and Yshiro pass on their history, Tamusia said,

At the beginning it was not like now. In the old times we did not have diseases. People died because of snake bites or because they were too old. When one was too old, you asked your children to make a hole and to put you inside. "I am too old, I cannot see or chew, leave me to die now," said the old people. An old man decided to die but his children were not around, so another man dug the hole to bury him. But later the son of the dead man did not share his food with his agalo [lit. "they eat together"], the gravedigger. The gravedigger then said, "It seems that I buried an animal. His son does not remember that I buried his father." The son of the elder was very angry at being criticized and decided to kill the gravedigger. When everybody moved to another village, the son remained hidden in the forest and ambushed the gravedigger, killing him. Then he was afraid of that man's family and escaped with his friends and family toward the river. (June 1994, tape recording)

Knowledgeable Tomaraho and Ebitoso elders tell this story in remarkably similar terms up to this point in the narrative, but then they diverge. According to the Tomaraho version, the runaway group encounters a soldier who is shooting birds. Faced with this strange entity, the group forgets its fears and decides to go back and tell the elders of the main group about what they have seen. The elders send a scouting group of four warriors to the soldiers' camp, where they are given food, blankets, and mosquito nets, which they like very much. The commander of the soldiers tells the warriors to bring the rest of their people to the camp to receive more gifts. The whole residential group comes and stays with the soldiers, trying their food and other goods. But after two months the Tomaraho begin to die of an unknown disease and thus return to the bush, avoiding permanent contact with the whites until the late 1930s.

In 1993, Bruno Barras, then a forty-five-year-old Ebitoso leader of the Karcha Bahlut community, related the Ebitoso version of these events in the context of explaining the relevance of the place where his community was settled. In this place, the Anabsero beings established the original tobich. But, interestingly, Karcha Bahlut is also where the Ebitoso and the whites met for the first time. According to Bruno, after the runaway group met the soldier shooting birds, and then informed the main group that something strange was taking place, a party of warriors was sent to investigate.

[The Ebitoso warriors] came to Karcha Bahlut and found these white men living there. The Ebitoso attacked them. However, one of the whites made it to a garrison they had established in [what is now] Bahia Negra. The soldiers from the garrison followed the Ebitoso and began to shoot to scare them. But the Ebitoso were not scared-rather they decided to attack because they thought that otherwise the soldiers would follow them to their settlement and would take over their territory. They prepared their arrows. In the afternoon the cavalry came and surrounded them. The Ebitoso killed some soldiers, and the soldiers wounded several Ebitoso. The Ebitoso took one of the dead soldiers and, following the advice of the elders, split him apart and put the body in a barbecue. When the soldiers found the body they said, "We better stop following these people, they are cannibals and they are probably going to eat us." From that time on there were no longer persecutions. When things cooled off, some elders met the commander of the garrison, and they agreed not to fight and to befriend each other. They made a pact and the commander gave them food.... That's how the relationship with the white men began. The Yshiro would work and the whites would share their food.... The elders were who first came near the white men. Then the younger people stayed working with them while the elders went back to the "bush." This is a story told to me by my grandmother Yilipe. (15 July 1993, field notes)

The similarities and the differences between the two versions are illuminating. That a breach of reciprocity is the immediate antecedent of the encounter with the whites signals that this event is very dangerous. Yet it is also an ambivalent event insofar as it introduces the Yshiro to new things that they quickly come to appreciate. What follows in the story after the emergence of the whites in the yrmo is, in both the Ebitoso and Tomaraho versions, an attempt to grapple with this ambivalent entity. For the Tomaraho, the ambivalence of the situation quickly resolved when they began to die and thus decided that the best way to deal with the new entity was to avoid it entirely. For the Ebitoso, the situation was less straightforward. Informed as they were by their experience of laborious but nevertheless successful coexistence with the Mbya-Caduveo, the Ebitoso were not easily discouraged by the initial violence of their encounter with the whites. From the early nineteenth century, the Mbya-Caduveo, who were from the (now) Brazilian side of the Paraguay River, obtained horses and firearms from the Portuguese (see map 3). Using the advantage conferred by these technologies, they began to raid the indigenous groups in the Chaco, taking captives to be traded with the Portuguese. The Ebitoso fought the Mbya-Caduveo with mixed results, and eventually a working arrangement emerged: the Ebitoso would take captives from other communities and exchange them for manufactured goods to which the Mbya-Caduveo had access. The Tomaraho, being among the groups targeted by the Ebitoso's raids, retreated into the Chaco and returned to the Paraguay River only sporadically.

Many Ebitoso stories tell of betrayals and ambushes while the Ebitoso were trading with the Mbya-Caduveo, and thus show that the agreement between these two groups was not always honored. Yet the stories also suggest that while their relationship was at times antagonistic and at other times cooperative, they consistently renewed efforts to establish some sort of reciprocity. The experience of coexistence with the Mbya-Caduveo played an important role in shaping the imaginations that mediated the Ebitoso's relation to the whites. Indeed, the Ebitoso initially dealt with the whites much as they had with the Mbya-Caduveo; that is, they fought them until they could establish a working arrangement for coexistence. The stories that portray this scenario illuminate why contemporary Ebitoso intellectuals reject portrayals that suggest that the ancient Yshiro responded with simple resistance and were defeated during the whites' drive to integrate the Chaco into the nation-state. On the contrary, many of the intellectuals with whom I spoke insisted that the Ebitoso were cheated, rather than militarily subjugated into the subordinated position that they feel they occupy in contemporary Paraguayan society. As Bruno Barras argued, "Our people helped the whites in their works, but in their thoughts there was never the suspicion that the whites would take all the land for themselves and leave us with nothing. They [the ancient Yshiro] did not know that words on a paper were the only ones with value" (15 July 1993, field notes).

The Ebitoso's persistent reference to working with rather than working for the whites indicates that they perceive work to be a more equalitarian bond that implies reciprocal duties (see also Susnik 1995:83-85). Thus, from the stories told by the elders, one can infer that working with the whites was, for many Ebitoso, an appealing way to obtain goods, which were quickly incorporated into their daily life (see also Susnik 1995:52-112). However, this does not mean that the Ebitoso graciously incorporated working with the whites as just another subsistence activity. On the contrary, the terms of this form of engagement with the whites were matters of contention and conflict.

To begin with, working with the whites had an impact on the intergenerational tensions that already existed among the Ebitoso. The prescriptions regarding food consumption contained in the Esnwherta au'oso had no provisions for the whites' food, the consumption of which was therefore, in principle, unregulated. This opened up a space of uncertainty regarding the reciprocal duties and rights related to sharing the whites' food. Many stories, like Bruno's, that describe the early times of contact with whites suggest that the younger Ebitoso preferred to remain near the whites rather than return to the "bush." For both male and female youth, these stories emphasize, working with the whites created a space of freedom from the heavy impositions of the elders. Other stories and recollections recount that the elders tried to regulate the consumption of the whites' food without success. Thus, gradually, working with the whites became integral to the younger generations' daily tasks for subsistence. Yet, working with the whites was not free from conflicts.

From most stories about the early contacts, one can conclude that the Ebitoso imagined the whites as strangers with whom they could coexist on the basis of reciprocity. Perhaps the relationship would not always work harmoniously, but, at least from the Ebitoso perspective, it would be based on the equal status of all parties. It is clear also that the Ebitoso had their own ideas of how to respond when this assumption was challenged. Don Vaso, one of the oldest Ebitoso men at the time of my research, said that in his childhood he heard his elders narrating how they had killed a patron. Noticing my interest in the story, he continued in a matter-of-fact way,

The Yshiro killed many patrones. Yes, they killed them because the patrones were stingy. At night they [the Yshiro] would go where the patron was sleeping and with an old musket, pum!! Down like a bird.... Once there was this patron, the Yshiro gave him many wood logs. The patron gave them a little piece of material. Just a little piece for each one. One of the Yshiro came and said, "You have to give me more." "No, that's enough," said the patron. That Yshiro man refused to accept anything at all. He was angry. That very same night they killed the patron. (15 August 1999, tape recording)


Excerpted from Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond by MARIO BLASER Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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