Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death

Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death

by Neil L. Whitehead

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Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death by Neil L. Whitehead

On the little-known and darker side of shamanism there exists an ancient form of sorcery called kanaimà, a practice still observed among the Amerindians of the highlands of Guyana, Venezuela, and Brazil that involves the ritual stalking, mutilation, lingering death, and consumption of human victims. At once a memoir of cultural encounter and an ethnographic and historical investigation, this book offers a sustained, intimate look at kanaimà, its practitioners, their victims, and the reasons they give for their actions.

Neil L. Whitehead tells of his own involvement with kanaimà—including an attempt to kill him with poison—and relates the personal testimonies of kanaimà shamans, their potential victims, and the victims’ families. He then goes on to discuss the historical emergence of kanaimà, describing how, in the face of successive modern colonizing forces—missionaries, rubber gatherers, miners, and development agencies—the practice has become an assertion of native autonomy. His analysis explores the ways in which kanaimà mediates both national and international impacts on native peoples in the region and considers the significance of kanaimà for current accounts of shamanism and religious belief and for theories of war and violence.

Kanaimà appears here as part of the wider lexicon of rebellious terror and exotic horror—alongside the cannibal, vampire, and zombie—that haunts the western imagination. Dark Shamans broadens discussions of violence and of the representation of primitive savagery by recasting both in the light of current debates on modernity and globalization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822329886
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/07/2002
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Neil L. Whitehead is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author and editor of numerous books, most recently Beyond the Visible and the Material: The Amerindianization of Society in the Work of Peter Rivière (coedited with Laura Rival) and War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare (coedited with R. B. Ferguson). He is the editor of the journal Ethnohistory.

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Dark Shamans


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2002 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0822329883

Chapter One

The Ethnographer's Tale

As I got off the plane in Paramakatoi in 1992, I had not a thought of kanaimà in mind. The purpose of my journey was to make, in collaboration with the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, a preliminary survey of archaeological sites, in particular cave occupation sites, urn burials, and old villages. I hoped with that survey to begin to counter the exceptionally negative view that the region was sparsely populated and devoid of cultural time-depth, a view that had been promulgated in the archaeological literature outside of Guyana. I was accompanied by a Lokono man from the Mahaica River who was a highly experienced field archaeologist. He had been through the region a couple of years previously and had already examined the kinds of sites-old villages, burials, battle sites-that we were now interested in documenting as systematically as we could. We planned to walk out from Paramakatoi, south toward the Ireng River, then follow the north bank of the Ireng to Puwa village, turn north to Kurukabaru and then south again to Kato, where we would be able to catch a flight to Georgetown. Logistically and physically this was a difficult itinerary since we would have to carry most of whatwe needed over a terrain that features numerous mountains covered in dense tropical forest alternating with savannas. However, with the aid of various Patamuna who were enthusiastically behind the project, it seemed feasible to accomplish within the six to eight weeks we had planned to be away.

I want to emphasize the active participation of Patamuna individuals, both at the outset of this project and in subsequent ethnographic investigations. I do so to indicate not only their interest in my work but also the way in which my research was shaped by their priorities. While this may sound ideal, it meant that my research risked becoming partisan as it became more closely identified with the interests and ambitions of certain individuals, albeit that they were legitimate leaders of the community. This is not to suggest that there can be any "unpositioned" viewpoint; clearly any researcher is necessarily part of one kind of social network and therefore not another. However, the public authority of the individuals involved-or, later, their lack of it-became a particularly significant factor in the history of my fieldwork in the Pakaraimas between 1992 and 1997. It also fundamentally influenced my ability to gain otherwise relatively obscure, and even dangerous, knowledge.

Although this was not my first visit, Guyana had been relatively off-limits to anthropologists and most outsiders during the years of the Peoples National Congress government. Policies of self-reliance and an understandable antipathy to intellectual colonization by the United States and United Kingdom meant that foreign researchers were often judged superfluous. However, the Walter Roth Museum, under the directorship of Denis Williams, provided invaluable support for my field trips into the Pakaraimas, and without that assistance it is doubtful I could have worked in Guyana at all. I was therefore doubly pleased to not just be in Guyana but to have the opportunity to reach an interior region that was largely unknown in recent archaeology or ethnography.

Unknown to me at the moment the plane touched down, but soon apparent, the kanaimà would come to dominate that trip's research, as well as subsequent fieldwork in the region. Within thirty minutes of landing, we were visited by the Nurse for Paramakatoi, who politely listened to our plans, then launched into a startling account of what we "should really be investigating"-the kanaimà, especially because of the interest (not all of it favorable) that the earlier work of my Lokono companion had aroused.

It is hard now to reconstruct how much I knew or had heard of kanaimà before that moment, as it has come to dominate my thoughts over nearly the whole of the last decade. However, being reasonably well read in the anthropological and historical literature of northeastern South America, I had certainly heard the term. I had also at some point read Walter Roth's classic synthesis of materials on the kanaimà and so vaguely recalled kanaimà as some peculiar revenge cult that was probably in substance a colonially projected idea of native savagery. I had even referred to Brett's account of an "unappeased" kanaimà in a publication on Karinya warfare, but only as a possible example of the results of colonial suppression of warfare in the nineteenth century (Whitehead 1990b). I was therefore intrigued and surprised to find kanaimà being almost the first topic of conversation, since I had assumed that the phenomenon had simply faded away, which had seemed to be the implication of Roth's account. I could not have been more wrong.

The sequence of my own intellectual interest in kanaimà seems, as an anthropological issue and category of ethnographic description, to closely reproduce the history of anthropological debate about "cannibalism." As will become evident, normative ideas about kanaimà, as with cannibalism more widely, cannot be taken as simply reflecting impartial results of an encounter with some objectively present form of native savagery or exoticism. Rather, our interest in the savagery of others, in particular when it appears to take the form of cannibalism, clearly has served an ideological purpose in both politically justifying and morally enabling violent conquest and occupation of native South America (Arens 1979; Hulme 1986, 2000; Hulme and Whitehead 1992; Whitehead 1988, 1995a, 1995c). Nonetheless, ideological agendas aside, some cultural practices are undeniably challenging to interpret, in that they apparently give meaning and value to acts that we might abhor or simply deny as "real." However, this lack of "reality" often reflects our own lack of understanding, and what we actually mean is that those acts are "incomprehensible."

Kanaimà perfectly instantiates such a category, for the term invokes truly strange and troubling acts. In both the colonial literature and native oral testimony, kanaimà refers to the killing of an individual by violent mutilation of, in particular, the mouth and anus, into which are inserted various objects. The killers are then enjoined to return to the dead body of the victim in order to drink the juices of putrefaction.

The ... victim will first become aware of an impending attack when the Kanaimàs approach his house by night, or on lonely forest trails [asanda], making a characteristic whistling noise .... a direct physical attack might come at any point, even years thereafter, for during this period of stalking the victim is assessed as to their likely resistance and their suitability as "food." ... In some attacks the victims may have minor bones broken, especially fingers, and joints dislocated, especially the shoulder, while the neck may also be manipulated to induce spinal injury and back pain. This kind of attack is generally considered to be a preliminary to actual death and mutilation; ... fatal attack will certainly follow but, informants stress, many months, or even a year or two, later. When a fatal physical attack is intended, victims are always struck from behind and physically restrained.... A variety of procedures, intended to produce a lingering death, are then enacted. The victim has their tongue pierced with the fangs of a snake, is turned over and either an iguana or an armadillo tail is inserted into their rectum so that the anal muscles can be stripped out through repeated rubbing. Then, pressing on the victim's stomach, a section of the sphincter muscle is forced out and cut. Finally, the victim's body is rubbed down with astringent plants ... and a thin flexed twig is forced into the rectum, so that it opens the anal tract. Packets of herbs are then rammed in as deeply as possible. This is said to begin a process of auto-digestion, creating the special aroma of Kanaimà enchantment, rotting pineapple.... As a result of the completion of these procedures, the victim is unable to speak or to take any sustenance by mouth. Bowel control is lost and the clinical cause of death becomes acute dehydration through diarrhoea.... the Kanaimàs will try and discover the burial place of their victim and await the onset of putrefaction in the corpse that usually occurs within three days.... [When] the grave site is discovered, a stick is inserted through the ground directly into the cadaver, then the stick is retracted and the maba (honey-like) juices sucked off.... If the corpse is indeed sufficiently "sweet," it will be partially disinterred in order to recover bone material and, ideally, a section of the anal tract. The use of previous victim's body parts is necessary to facilitate the location and killing of the next victim. (Whitehead 2001b)

One can readily appreciate, then, how issues of "representing others" are brought forcibly to mind by apparently "objectively encountering" such a ritual complex not as a textual remnant from colonial days but as the earnest testimony of living individuals. Moreover, I was to learn that the idea of kanaimà exercises a constant and intense influence over the cultural imagination of the Patamuna and their neighbors, the Akawaio and Makushi. However, my initial reactions to the Nurse were to try to fold her testimony into that more general discourse on "witchcraft" and to see her declarations as a performance of Patamuna alterity and desire to differentiate and distance themselves from others, especially white anthropologists.

However, the Nurse's-and later other's-absolute insistence on the physical reality of kanaimà, coupled with her sophisticated acknowledgment of its wider discursive properties, was unsettling; it challenged me to truly confront a kind of cultural difference that it had been easy to assume had been eroded by the long histories of colonial contact in this region, even if the Patamuna had not been in the forefront of that process. Indeed, I found that my hesitation to immediately acknowledge the reality of kanaimà put me alongside the British missionaries who had, according to the Nurse, assumed that kanaimà was just part of the "superstitious nonsense" cooked up by "primitive" peoples. The missionaries, lacking cultural competence, simply dismissed kanaimà as some kind of spirit, an example of Wittgenstein's observation that "Wherever our language leads us to believe there is a body, but no body exists, there is a spirit" (1953, 1:36).

Nonetheless, if I had not then encountered something more "real" than "just talk," presumably I, too, would have remained within the standard view of the anthropological literature, that is, that whatever may have been true in the past, accusations of kanaimà exemplified the social functions of belief in witchcraft as a mechanism for community inclusion/exclusion. So they may be, but that by no means exhausts the matter-and not just because such a discourse might serve as a rich realm of cultural performance and signification, but because people actually die in ways consistent with the notion of kanaimà attack. I have never witnessed such an attack, nor have I attempted to do so, even though the lack of eyewitness accounts has rightly been adduced as an ethnographic weakness in anthropological discussions of cannibalism. Nonetheless, a moment's reflection should indicate that to witness physical violence is in itself extremely dangerous and necessarily entails complex ethical judgments as to how (and whether) such events should be described or published. Yet it is equally clear that the only difference between my position and that of the missionaries would be a willingness to take seriously what was so evidently being impressed on me-that kanaimàs are real people who do real killing of specific and identifiable individuals.

We were due to leave Paramakatoi early the day after next in order to keep to our itinerary, and though I made copious notes of that first conversation, I did not yet seriously entertain deviating from our original plan. So we walked from Paramakatoi, which is on a small savanna at the top of a mountain at the end of the Yawong River valley, down into the valley to search for our chief Patamuna collaborator, whom I call "Walking." It was on this day that archaeology and kanaimà came together in a startling way. We learned that, at the head of the valley, there was a small cave, Kuyali'yen (Macaw Cave), in which an urn burial had recently been found. This was exactly the kind of information we had hoped to gather, and it immediately justified our decision to organize the research in a way that directly involved Patamuna. To have uncovered this site through physical survey would have been much more time-consuming and uncertain. We decided to visit the site immediately so that we could walk out of the valley, as planned, the following day.

When I first saw the "burial" I was disappointed as it was evident that the "burial" vessel was very small, not nearly large enough to contain a complete human set of remains. It was accompanied by a small tumi (offering bowl). It had not been my intention to collect archaeological materials; we not only wished to be alert to Patamuna sensitivities about the handling of ancestral remains, but we were also in no position to carry heavy and fragile ceramics for the remaining six weeks. However, what happened next was to become, both in my mind and that of others, a defining moment: as the Patamuna with us would not "trouble" the pot in any way, my Lokono companion moved the pot to the cave mouth where I could photograph it-and where I, too, without thinking, touched it.

This act came to define my identity to many Patamuna in many ways. Indeed, I believe I was to some degree manipulated into this "archaeological discovery," since I was not the first non-Patamuna to see it. It also transpired that the reasons for showing it to me were substantially more connected with contemporary conflicts than with the archaeological past, for the pot was in fact a ritual vessel still being used by a kanaimà, as was evident from the contents of the pot-it contained human skeletal and tissue material that appeared, and was later verified to be, very recent indeed, not at all archaeological. As yet, though, none of this was apparent.

At the time, and despite the obviously ethnographic nature of the context, we nonetheless had given an archaeological commitment to the Walter Roth Museum, which we honored by measuring and photographing the pot and, unfortunately, by removing a sample of the bone material to determine its age. I say "unfortunately" because this act, as far as can be said with certainty, may have been the immediate reason for an apparent attempt to poison me. The less-than-favorable light in which the earlier archaeological survey was held by some Patamuna thus came to have a real and definite consequence.

On our way back from the cave, my Patamuna companions suggested that this was something "kanaimà" and that we should return via the benab of an individual whom I call "Pirai." At that moment, I presumed that this was because Pirai was living the closest to the cave, but it transpired that he had a much more substantive connection with the vessel. I could not follow the initial part of the conversation with Pirai on arriving at his benab, but it was obvious that he was very excited and upset about something, and the word kanaimà occurred a number of times. We climbed back up the bump to Paramakatoi to find that news of the "discovery" was already in the village and that, in the opinion of those villagers who spoke to me about it, it was an excellent development and should enable the museum "to let everyone know the truth of those kanaimàs." But, whatever the intriguing ethnographic aspects, the implications of the ritual vessel seemed to be something I could better pursue on a subsequent visit and that anyway might not please the museum, on which I was reliant for future permissions to work anthropologically in the interior. All that was changed dramatically by the events that followed.


Excerpted from Dark Shamans by NEIL L. WHITEHEAD Copyright © 2002 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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. The Ethnographer's Tale 11

2. Tales of the Kanaima: Observers 41

3. Tales of the Kanaima: Participants 88

4. Shamanic Warfare 128

5. Modernity, Development, and Kanaima Violence 174

6. Ritual Violence and Magical Death in Amazonia 202

Conclusion: Anthropologies of Violence 245

Notes 253

Works Cited 285

Index 299

What People are Saying About This

Donald Pollock

An exceptionally fine ethnography of the kanaimà, Dark Shamans will fill a large gap. As an ethnography located in ethnohistory and processes of modernization, this book is an outstanding example of new anthropological work at the leading edge of the discipline.

Norman Whitten

Ethnographer Neil L. Whitehead enters this realm of reality and mythology, of story telling and first-hand experience, by accident, and his opening tale sustains the horror-filled storytelling power characteristic of such authors as Bram Stoker to Stephen King. As such, the Kanaimà, long known to explorers, poets, and ordinary people of northeastern South America, take their place in the history of modernity along with Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Wolf Man."-Norman Whitten, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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