In 1956, in the Brazilian state of Rondônia, a group of Wari’ Indians had their first peaceful contact with whites: Protestant missionaries and officers from the national Indian Protection Service. On returning to their villages, the Wari’ announced, “We touched their bodies!” Meanwhile the whites reported to their own people that “the region’s most warlike tribe has entered the pacification phase!” Initially published in Brazil, Strange Enemies is an ethnographic narrative of the first encounters between these ...
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Strange Enemies: Indigenous Agency and Scenes of Encounters in Amazonia

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In 1956, in the Brazilian state of Rondônia, a group of Wari’ Indians had their first peaceful contact with whites: Protestant missionaries and officers from the national Indian Protection Service. On returning to their villages, the Wari’ announced, “We touched their bodies!” Meanwhile the whites reported to their own people that “the region’s most warlike tribe has entered the pacification phase!” Initially published in Brazil, Strange Enemies is an ethnographic narrative of the first encounters between these peoples with radically different worldviews.

During the 1940s and 1950s, white rubber tappers invading the Wari’ lands raided the native villages, shooting and killing their victims as they slept. These massacres prompted the Wari’ to initiate a period of intense retaliatory warfare. The national government and religious organizations subsequently intervened, seeking to “pacify” the Indians. Aparecida Vilaça was able to interview both Wari’ and non-Wari’ participants in these encounters, and here she shares their firsthand narratives of the dramatic events. Taking the Wari’ perspective as its starting point, Strange Enemies combines a detailed examination of these cross-cultural encounters with analyses of classic ethnological themes such as kinship, shamanism, cannibalism, warfare, and mythology.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Aparecida Vilaça’s book, first published in Portuguese in 2006, is an excellent contribution to the anthropology of Amazonia and Melanesia. . . . Vilaça’s book is recommended as important reading to anthropologists, students, and the general reader interested in understanding’ the Other’ in our modern world.” - Colonial Latin American Historical Review

“Not the least merit of this fine ethnography is that it provides important materials for the debate.”
- G.E.R. Lloyd, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“The book is a well-written, highly readable, profound and original ethnographic and analytic contribution to Amazonian ethnology and ‘first encounter’ literature, such that any divergence in interpretation will also need an extended argument: it should be read by everyone interested in the subject.”
- Edwin Reesink, European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

“[B]road scope makes Strange Enemies a book that should be read even by anthropologists who have little familiarity with Amazonia. It is a compelling example of the vital work that has been emerging from Amazonian anthropologists for the past decade. Like the best of that work, it offers us glimpses into worldviews and practices that are nothing if not mesmerizingly ‘far out.’ And it uses those worldviews and practices to develop insights and conclusions that are unexpected and exhilarating.” - Don Kulick, American Ethnologist

This work has profound and far-reaching implications for anthropologists and historians who examine the frontiers of colonialism and globalization. . . . This is contemporary ethnography at its best, skillfully weaving together nuanced theoretical arguments, rich prose and storytelling, and insights that can only be gained by immersion in local settings. . . . Vilaça’s remarkable depiction of the coherence and resilience of native Amazonian peoples even in the face of catastrophic change is a must read for anyone interested in colonialism, globalization, and the place of indigenous peoples in the modern world.” - Michael Heckenberger, American Historical Review

“Thanks to the excellent anthropological work of Aparecida Vilaça and colleagues studying Amazonia and Melanesia, it becomes increasingly apparent that the incorporation of otherness—in practices ranging from marriage and shamanism to warfare and cannibalism—is an essential condition of human being. It follows that the relationship between societies is an essential condition of their respective cultural orders as well as their historical development. Now Vilaça has produced a landmark ethnography of these processes, with an unparalleled documentation from the inside of the assimilation of the outside, highlighted by a stunning analysis of the cultural reciprocities of the colonial encounter.”—Marshall Sahlins, author of The Western Illusion of Human Nature

“This intimate portrait of a remarkable people who insist on encountering modernity on their own terms challenges us to think beyond outmoded notions about acculturation and loss of tradition. Deftly weaving the insights of Amazonian perspectivism with history, myth, and personal experience, Aparecida Vilaça shows how Wari’ choices to live with whites and adopt many of their ways are part of the logic of being indigenous. Empowerment derives from seeing the world through the eyes of others. Strange Enemies invites us to see the world through Wari’ eyes. The view is fascinating.”—Beth A. Conklin, author of Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822391289
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2010
  • Series: Cultures and Practice of Violence
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Aparecida Vilaça is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology in the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology of the Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro. She is a co-editor of Native Christians: Modes and Effects of Christianity in the Americas.


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Read an Excerpt


By Aparecida Vilaça


Copyright © 2010 English Language Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4573-2

Chapter One

The Foreigner

The priest asked, "What tribe are you from?" "My tribe is OroEo. My kin are OroEo." -Mijain (1992)

The Wari' have no word for the group as a whole-what we would call a tribe or, more recently, an ethnic group. Pakaa-Nova was the name given to them by travelers exploring the area of Pacaás Novos River in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Wari' is used by the whites living with them: FUNAI agents, missionaries, and anthropologists. It is also used by members of the group to refer to themselves-or any "Indian"-when talking to whites. The name Wari' originates from the word wari', "we," an inclusive first-person plural pronoun, which also means "human beings," "people."

The broadest ethnic unit defined by themselves is what I shall call a subgroup. There is no generic term for subgroup, only for "someone from another subgroup," tatirim, which I translate as foreigner. Each subgroup has a name: OroNao', OroNao' of the Whites, OroEo, OroAt, OroMon, OroWaram, and OroWaramXijein. Sometimes the Wari' refer to another two subgroups: the OroJowin and the OroKao'OroWaji. Oro is a collectivizing prefix translatable as "people" or "group." These subgroup names translate, in order, as "bat people," "bat people of the whites," "belch people," "bone people," "feces people," "spider monkey people," "other spider monkey people," "capuchin monkey people," and "unripe-eating people."

As Mijain reveals in the epigraph above, the Wari' use their concept of subgroup to translate our concept of tribe. This was how they identified themselves-insisting on the fact that they comprise distinct units-when they decided to approach the whites during the episodes of what the government agents called "pacification." This fact reveals the importance that the Wari' attribute to these units, presenting themselves to outsiders as a set of groups rather than a single group, a level of reality that they know exists, but prefer not to emphasize.


No single discourse emerges when the Wari' are asked about the origin of the subgroups, yet a historical dimension is always present even when they turn to myth to explain their remote past. The core idea is that the subgroups did not originate simultaneously; rather, some were formed from others as the result of divisions and migrations.

The myth to which I (and the Wari') refer does not center on the origin of the subgroups; instead, the theme is developed as an appendix to just some of its versions (see chapter 6 for an analysis of the Nanananana myth). These versions recount that the different subgroups arose from couples formed by Wari' women, survivors of a deluge, and enemy men, the couples later spreading out across geographical space.

Rather than each subgroup deriving from one of these couples, as we might suppose, the subgroups are usually conceived to have emerged from each other gradually. This does not imply, though, that one of the subgroups gave rise to all the others. For the Wari', what matters is not the precise historical moment when a subgroup emerged as a physical entity (a set of people), but its genesis as a social unit determined from the outside. In other words, more important than knowing, for example, whether the OroNao' emerged from the OroEo or directly from the descendents of the marriages between the Wari' and their enemies, is knowing that they were recognized as a distinct unit by members of another group-a unit that only really came into existence at the moment of this recognition. It is this event that leads to a group acquiring a name, given by people from outside based on some feature peculiar to the group.

Thus, the OroNao' received their name-from another, unspecified Wari' subgroup-because the men stayed awake at night like bats, clutching their war clubs, ready to strike anyone who tried to have sex with their wives. The OroAt liked to eat bones. The OroEo belched after singing and speaking. According to some people, the OroJowin were likened to capuchin monkeys because their penises were always erect. The OroKao'OroWaji had sex with very young ("unripe") girls. The OroMon defecated near their houses and were also known as OroMin (min': tapir) because, like tapirs, they abducted women.

The subgroups do not just come from the remote historical or mythical past, though. Some were created recently, such as the OroWaraXirim and the OroNao' of the Whites. The history of the OroWaraXirim is interesting and provides a good illustration of the emergence of the subgroups as a historical process founded on an externally recognized alterity. Until 1992 I had never heard of this subgroup. One day in Ribeirão village, a man who previously called himself OroMon told me he was actually OroWaraXirim. I asked him which subgroup this was, since I had never heard it mentioned, and he explained.

Everything began with his father, when he (my interlocutor) was still a child. Unlike the other OroMon, who changed their village site constantly in typical Wari' fashion, his father insisted on remaining at a particular locality with his family. Every year, people would go to his house to invite him to live with them elsewhere. He always refused. After a while, these people began to call them-the father and his family-OroWaraXirim (wara meaning "old," and xirim meaning "house"): the "old house people." I asked him whether the OroWaraXirim had become extinct with his father's death. He replied yes, to some extent, though the main factor in this disappearance was pacification, which had taken place during this interval and altered everything. In other words, the OroWaraXirim had lacked sufficient time to reproduce and constitute themselves as a group extending beyond the nuclear family. It was the aborted beginnings of a new subgroup. Most of the people I asked had never heard of the OroWaraXirim, a fact showing that the genesis of a subgroup is gradual, acquiring substance through its recognition by others over time.

The OroNao' of the Whites comprise a different case. At the end of the nineteenth century, some OroNao' families, as well as some OroEo, OroAt, and OroJowin, decided to live on the affluents of the left shore of the Pacaás Novos River, an area visited by the Wari' for hunting and fishing, but not previously used as an area to live. Some people claim that this relocation was prompted by the constant attacks by bats inflicted on the Wari' on the right shore. They wanted to escape these annoying-and sometimes fatal-bites, and so resolved to leave. After crossing, they initially continued to communicate with the Wari' still living on the right shore, facilitated by the fact the Pacaás Novos River was easy to traverse. Between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s, though, the whites started to use this river intensely, effectively preventing the Wari' from crossing. Three decades passed before these OroNao', who comprised the largest portion of the now isolated group, came into contact again with the Wari' from the other subgroups, who had continued to interact with each other. This was only possible thanks to the whites, who had previously prevented them from traversing the river. The first peaceful contact between the Wari' and the whites involved precisely these OroNao' from the left shore, and it was through them, who served as guides and interpreters during the pacification process, that the whites contacted the other Wari'. Or, more importantly from the Wari' point of view, as we shall see later, it was through the whites that these OroNao' were able to regain contact with the others. The Wari' name OroNao' of the Whites was given to them by the other Wari', who saw them arrive, after such a long time absent, in the company of the whites, as though white themselves. From their own point of view they are simply OroNao'.

If new subgroups can emerge through historical circumstances, then clearly others may disappear. This was the case of the OroJowin and OroKao'OroWaji subgroups. Once distinct units, today they number a handful of people, who either identify themselves with one of these groups, or claim to be OroMon, OroNao', or OroWaramXijein. The OroJowin lived on the upper courses of the Laje, Ribeirão, Mutumparaná, and Formoso rivers in a mountainous region. Some people suggest they are the descendents of the enemies who married the Wari' in the Nanananana myth and that they lived in caves. The OroJowin dwindled in number until just a dozen adults remained; these joined the OroNao' and the OroMon. At first I thought that this extermination had been caused by the whites, but the Wari' rejected this idea. Some said that the OroJowin had simply died out without reproducing. Others claimed they were killed by OroNao' sorcery. The demise of the OroKao'OroWaji, who lived next to the OroJowin, is explained in similar fashion. I am unsure when these subgroups effectively vanished, nor am I sure that the whites had no involvement in their disappearance. What matters, though, is that the Wari' conceive the extinction and emergence of subgroups in the same way: as something that happens in the course of events.

Other myths not directly concerned with the origins of subgroups touch on this topic implicitly, providing an insight into how the Wari' comprehend this process of internal differentiation. One of them is the Oropixi' myth describing the origin of the whites (see chapter 4). As this myth shows, the foreigner is above all a kinsperson and a coinhabitant (coinciding categories, as we shall see) who fell out with the group and moved away. The close relations of everyday commensality and living together are replaced by relations of ritual exchange-festivals-as an essential element in the relationship between subgroups. The foreigner is a pre-enemy. The process of internal differentiation, or "foreignization," forms part of the process of "enemization," which may occur when the rupture is more radical, involving the total cessation of exchanges of festivals and women. Nonetheless, this process is still reversible; in other words, people who become enemies can be reincorporated if they resume exchange relations.

Consequently, one of the key features of the subgroup is precisely its historical determination, a unit circumscribed in time and dependent on the relations sustained with other similar units. The subgroups are not ephemeral, though: the genealogies show that people situated three generations above present-day adults were already classified as OroNao', OroEo, and so on, revealing the persistence of these subgroups over time.


In geographical terms, each subgroup was constituted by a set of local groups of varied composition, each occupying a named swidden area, or xitot. The local groups circulated through these areas, remaining in a location for one to five years. A set of named areas located in the same region formed a subgroup's territory. Before turning to this wider territory, it is worth examining the minor units, the named areas, and how they were occupied.

From the earliest recalled times to pacification, the Wari' have lived on Amazonian terra firme, usually in villages located close to small creeks, far from the big rivers. They never traveled by water, sticking exclusively to forest trails. Village sites were chosen according to their suitability for maize swiddens, their main crop.

Xitot is the Wari' name for swidden. It means not only the cultivated land but also any potential sites within the forest where maize can be planted. The Wari' do not conceive these areas as part of the forest, called mi or nahwarak, but as something separate and to a certain extent opposed to it. A swidden area is identified primarily through its vegetation. The most typical xitot species are, for the Wari', the aricuri palm (torot, in Wari': Cocos sp.); the pupunha palm (temem': Guilielma speciosa); the to tree, possibly the calabash tree (Crescentia cujete-Bignoniaceae); the nain palm (Astrocaryum sp.); the karapakan (Ficus sp.); and the pija and aro trees, which I was unable to identify. Another feature of xitot is the fertility of the usually dark colored soil.

All the xitot are named, even those left unoccupied for one or two generations. As a result, adult men, particularly elders, possess a mental map of the traditional territory based on the localization of each of these xitot, some of them cleared and planted in the past by themselves. Others are known because their parents and grandparents lived there. Some sites closer to the current villages are occupied for seasonal periods when families clear, burn, and plant the swiddens (September and October) and later during harvesting. They are also used as a base to gather Brazil nuts from nearby areas during January and February.

Living at the same location was more common, the Wari' say, before the influx of metal axes. Prior to the latter, they would clear the swiddens earlier in the year when it was still raining. The swiddens were smaller and only the lower vegetation was cleared, along with the branches of taller trees. Fire was used to clear the rest. Some people would use the same site two years running in order to avoid the work involved in clearing the swidden. Old maize stalks and weeds were cleared before burning.

After metal axes began to be obtained during raids on white settlements in the 1920s, agricultural work became much easier. Changing xitot each year, which implied building a new village, became more common. Once the swidden site had been chosen, the group of people who were set to live there-not necessarily the same as the previous village-began felling, which today takes place in the dry months of July and August. Before this work started, though, they constructed temporary shelters, basically a covering of patauá palm leaves (Oenocarpus bataua), which all of the village's future inhabitants would use to sleep. When the old swidden was close enough, a wide path was sometimes cleared between the two locations to facilitate the use of maize still stored in the former village. Usually, though, the maize had already been used up by this point in the yearly cycle, leaving only a stock for planting. Sometimes even this maize was exhausted, meaning seeds had to be sought from neighboring villages.

Each married man cleared his own swidden (which still happens today) adjacent to those of the other village inhabitants. Young bachelors living in the men's house sometimes also cleared their own swidden, planted by their mothers and unmarried sisters. This practice was more frequent among young men already set to marry and who had to ply their parents-in-law with presents, including game and maize-based foods produced by their mothers and sisters. Once the swiddens were cleared, the Wari' spent a while in the forest fishing and hunting, waiting for the right time to burn the cleared areas, just before the start of the rains (fig. 1).

After burning the swiddens, they would wait some days for the rain to soften the ground for planting, an activity traditionally undertaken by women only (see Conklin 1989, 66). When the maize had sprouted, reaching around 10 centimeters, the Wari' moved away: people explained that if the maize was seen while growing, it would die before producing any cobs. The verb used to express this movement is pixi', meaning "to relocate." The period spent away from the swidden is called ka pixi' wa, "relocating." All the inhabitants of the new village left. Some people preferred to return to the former swidden site until it was time to return to the new site. However, this was not common practice since the stored maize had usually already been consumed, leaving nothing to eat. In general, the Wari' took off into the forest where different local groups could meet up and stay together until returning to their respective villages. They trekked through the forest until discovering a site where they could live temporarily. This often meant visiting distant areas of their territory, regions where they did not usually produce swiddens. Here they constructed proper houses rather than temporary shelters.

In the forest, the Wari' essentially lived off game and wild foods. Estimating from the maize cycle, they must have remained in the forest for about three months, the time needed for the first maize ("green maize") to ripen after planting.


Excerpted from STRANGE ENEMIES by Aparecida Vilaça Copyright © 2010 by English Language 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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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Orthography xvii

Introduction 1

Part I Other Becoming

1 The Foreigner 27

2 The Enemy 70

3 The White Enemy 110

Part II In Myth

4 The White Enemy 135

5 The Foreigner, the Dead 146

6 The Enemy 164

7 The Brother-in-Law 175

Part III We want People for Ourselves: Pacification

8 The Motives of the Whites 197

9 The Widening River: Contact with the OroNao' of the Whites 209

10 "The Enemy Says He's OroNao'": Contact with the OroWaram, OroWaramXijein, and OroMon 229

11 The Great Expedition: Contact with the OroNao', OroEo, and OroAt on the Negro and Ocaia Rivers 255

Conclusion 301

Notes 321

Bibliography 341

Index 357

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