The Aguaruna Struggle to Retain Tradition

An anthropologist’s portrait of the Aguaruna, who are fighting to keep their place in the Amazonian rainforests in the 21st century.

  • “Upriver,” by Michael F. Brown, chronicles Brown’s time with the Aguaruna, a tribal people at the forefront of South America’s struggle for indigenous rights.
    Cover courtesy Harvard University Press
  • The Aguaruna were poorly documented in the past because of their legendary belligerence and the highly dispersed nature of their settlements in the Amazon.
    Photo by Fotolia/jkraft5

Upriver (Harvard University Press, 2014), by Michael F. Brown, is the story of Brown’s encounter and residence with the Aguaruna — also known as the Awajún — an indigenous people of Peru, and their struggle to defend their rainforest home and live life on their own terms. In the following excerpt from the introduction, Brown discusses anthropology’s fascination with so-called tribal societies and gives us some background on the Aguaruna people.

On a bitterly cold winter day in 1995, I received a telephone call from a stranger. Her name was Sandra Miller, she said, and she was calling from New Hampshire. She told me that her twenty-six-year-old son, Patchen Miller, had recently been murdered by men who were almost certainly Aguaruna, a people native to the mountainous rainforest region just east of the Andes in northern Peru. She had found my name in the card catalog of her local college library, whose holdings included a book about the Aguaruna that I had written a decade earlier. She hoped that I could help her make sense of the killing. As a practicing Quaker, she insisted, she bore no grudge against the Aguaruna. She simply wanted to understand who they were and why some of them had killed her son.

I knew nothing of the circumstances of the murder other than what Sandra Miller told me. News reports of the attack were only beginning to circulate, and the information they conveyed was sketchy. I fear that I offered little that could have set her mind to rest. Under the circumstances, perhaps no one could.

Later I was able to speak to Patchen Miller’s traveling companion, Josh Silver, who had been brought up in a town close to my home in western Massachusetts. Josh explained that he and Patchen, inspired by books about adventure travel in Peru, had decided to raft down the Río Marañón to Iquitos, Peru’s major Amazon port city. On the third night of the river journey, they tied up at an island not far from an Aguaruna village. A young man rowed out to the raft and spent time chatting with them in Spanish. Later they were visited briefly by two men who were less friendly. At about nine-thirty that night, they heard a noise in the forest near the raft. Patchen went to investigate and was hit by a blast from a shotgun. The force of the buckshot spun him into the Marañón. Josh was wounded in the leg by a second blast but managed to swim away and hide in dense vegetation on the riverbank. After a night of moving cautiously toward what he hoped would be safety, Josh was rescued by a boatman, also Aguaruna. This man led him to a military post, from which he was rushed to a regional hospital. Josh eventually recovered; Patchen’s body was never found.

The motive for the crime and the identity of the perpetrators have not been revealed, although it is likely that the Aguaruna themselves know the killers’ identities. Their goal may have been robbery. It might have had something to do with the border war brewing immediately to the north, along the contested frontier with Ecuador. Deeper conspiracies may have been in play, involving indigenous leaders determined to demonstrate their control over outsiders’ access to their communities. The two unlucky travelers were pawns in a larger game—or so some Aguaruna intimate today. In the end, all one could say was that an appealing, idealistic young American, someone who hoped to devote his life to progressive causes, fell victim to members of the kind of society he was determined to defend.

This was not just any indigenous society. It was the Aguaruna, who today prefer to be called Awajún, their own self-designation. In what the historian John Hemming calls the Amazon’s “tree of rivers,” the Awajún can be counted among those who occupy the highest branches, where the heat and moisture of the rainforest collide with the eastern slopes of the Andes. They are upriver people. The trails in their country are steep and mudslick, the rivers pitiless and mercurial. It is hardly surprising that this place gave rise to men and women renowned for their physical sturdiness, self-confidence, and pugnacity. These qualities have served them well, and their rapidly growing population now exceeds 50,000. Because of their numbers and their reputation for combativeness, the Awajún have come to represent tribal Amazonia for many Peruvians: proud, uncompromising exemplars of life on civilization’s unruly edge.

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