The Aguaruna Struggle to Retain Tradition

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“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.
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The Aguaruna were poorly documented in the past because of their legendary belligerence and the highly dispersed nature of their settlements in the Amazon.

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.

As long as there have been hierarchical societies governed by powerful leaders and formal institutions, thinkers have commented on the life of those living just beyond civilization’s reach. Their view of such people has been an unstable mix of disdain and envy. The uncivilized are said to live in a state of near anarchy, with too few chiefs and laws, too many gods and wives. Alternatively, they are seen as virtuous innocents unburdened by the tyranny of property or a ruling elite. In Western social thought, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau hold squatters’ rights on the extremes of this spectrum. Countless other thinkers have pondered the contrast between the civilized and the not, either directly or by implication: Montaigne, Spencer, Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Simmel, Boas, Benedict, Lévi-Strauss—the list is long and distinguished. There is no more foundational question in the social sciences.

Fascination With Tribal Societies

There may be no more tiresome one, either. A case in point is the endless fussing over what we should call civilization’s counterpoint. Today “primitive” is allowed on the catwalk only when dressed in scare quotes. “Preindustrial” or “preliterate” define societies in terms of qualities that they lack or haven’t yet acquired. “Simple societies” gets us partway there, but anthropologists are quick to complain that many attributes of such societies are far from simple. Jared Diamond has settled on “traditional societies,” an expression so vague that its chief virtue is inoffensiveness.

The most serviceable label for an age hypersensitive to linguistic slight is “tribal,” which at least denotes a particular scale and set of social arrangements. Its clarity is blurred by the notion of “tribe,” a term that has fallen from favor because of its imprecision. But if we specify that tribal societies are primarily defined by small-scale, family-based relationships and shallow social hierarchies, then the word does useful work.

The philosophical contest between civilizations and tribal societies persists because it serves many ends. Critics of civilization use the intimacy of tribal life as a foil for civilization’s grasping ambition, its suffocating hierarchies, and its hivelike specialization. Civilization’s boosters, in contrast, portray tribal societies as fated to drift aimlessly while the rest of humanity moves toward mastery of the natural world and more refined ways of organizing social life.

These debates show few signs of slackening. Tribal peoples continue to be put forward as role models of “living lightly on the land” and practitioners of a spirituality that stands allied with nature rather than being committed to its domination. Environmental activists routinely deploy images of the Kayapó, the San, the Cree, and other indigenous peoples as icons of sustainability. This provokes would-be debunkers to claim that these same peoples are guilty of overhunting and other environmental sins.

One version of this contest uses the alleged shortcoming of tribal societies as a platform for attacks on relativism and multiculturalism. The Australian anthropologist Roger Sandall alleges that “culture cultists”—his unflattering term for defenders of tribal lifeways—“forget that modern civilization . . . allows changes of government without bloodshed, civil rights, economic benefits, religious toleration, and political and artistic freedom.” A more nuanced assessment is offered by Robin Fox, whose book The Tribal Imagination considers the persistence of tribal values and modes of thought in the modern world. For Fox, this is because tribal structures are the “default system of human nature.” He is coy about whether he believes this default system to be encoded in our genes or perpetuated by more indirect means. Perhaps it is enough to say that a pattern of social life that has served our species through more than 90 percent of its history is not easily supplanted by the demands of civilization.

Fox recognizes that the tribal and the civilized are as much ideal types as locatable societies. Key elements of the tribal include an inclination to treat existing practices and social arrangements as divinely ordained and to value loyalty to kin over the whisper of individual conscience. Civilizations—or, at any rate, modern civilizations—have moved from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from kinship to more utilitarian forms of association. They tend to foster habits of mind that question existing practices in the interest of achieving greater understanding or technical virtuosity. The founding thinkers of modernity, according to the sociologist Anthony Giddens, were convinced that “the claims of reason were due to overcome the dogmas of tradition.” Yet these are no more than tendencies or predilections. No tribal society is completely closed in its outlook, nor are civilizations always intellectually open and self-critical. The psychological burdens of civilization prove intolerable to many. Hence the lure of more primal forms of solidarity, especially in difficult times. We don’t have to look far to find members of complex industrial societies who are willing to abandon principles of universal citizenship in favor of identities based on shared tradition, imagined racial similarity, or a common language. They are equally inclined to spurn the findings of science in favor of more comforting doctrines based on received truth.

Fascination with tribal societies persists not just because their lifeways lend themselves to tendentious arguments or gratify someone’s sense of cultural superiority. Contrast and comparison are fundamental to human understanding. Social norms are notoriously inclined to naturalize themselves. We become aware of the arbitrariness of deep-seated practices and beliefs only when forced to confront other societies whose customs differ from our own. Any exploration of other social worlds, whether informal or systematic, relies on this simple truth.

Visiting the Aguaruna

Late in 1976 I began a journey into the tribal world that lasted roughly two years, encompassing a single twenty-one-month period of research followed by several shorter visits in the 1980s. It was a conventional apprenticeship in cultural anthropology: immersion in an alien society with the goal of collecting enough information to complete a degree. By the standards of the time, my stay in the field was about average and my location only of middling remoteness. The circumstances might appear precarious from the perspective of an era marked by frictionless communication, yet I don’t recall feeling that way most of the time. Months passed without access to a telephone. Mail, of the old-fashioned, handwritten variety, was slow and unreliable. Personal computers and the Internet existed only in the minds of technovisionaries. Left to my own devices, I improvised.

The Awajún were the focus of my attention. For reasons to be explained shortly, I knew almost nothing about them when I was allowed to settle in one of their villages in the valley of the Alto Río Mayo in Peru’s Department of San Martín. Landing there was a lucky break. Because the Alto Mayo was distant from Peru’s contested border with Ecuador, the region lacked the military posts that often sparked conflicts between indigenous and nonindigenous Peruvians. Villagers in the Alto Mayo had received few visits from missionaries, prospectors, or scientists, and they expressed no overt hostility toward me. If anything, they were curious about foreigners, whose role in the changes taking place around them they were eager to comprehend.

Awajún life was poorly documented then. The main reasons for this were their legendary belligerence and, for much of the modern era, the highly dispersed nature of their settlements. These consisted of large households located in isolated, defensible places, sometimes fortified by log palisades. A visitor lived entirely at the sufferance of his host, hardly an ideal situation for someone committed to spending the months or years required to learn a difficult language. The indefatigable Finnish anthropologist Rafael Karsten, who visited several Awajún households on the Río Apaga in 1929, was able to stay with them only a few days because his frightened boatmen convinced him that they would bolt if he did not return to safer territory immediately.

Beginning in the 1950s, these loosely organized neighborhoods began to coalesce into more compact villages. Many had elementary schools whose bilingual curriculum was the fruit of decades of work by American missionary-linguists and the indigenous teachers they trained. Christianity, especially its evangelical Protestant strain, had become familiar to most Awajún and embraced fervently by some. New highways and the quickening pace of jungle colonization forced the Awajún to defend their lands and the forests essential to their way of life. Yet aside from having added certain manufactured goods—trade cloth, steel tools, firearms and ammunition—to their material culture, they still maintained a largely independent economy based on farming, hunting, and the collection of wild forest foods well into the 1980s. In common with all tribal societies that survived into the latter half of the twentieth century, the Awajún had been drawn into the orbit of a nation-state and were struggling to accommodate themselves to it or, when necessary, learning how to resist its meddling.

It is to these irascible, independent-minded, energetic people that I attached myself in late 1976. When my first long stint of fieldwork concluded in October 1978, I returned to my university, completed my doctoral degree, and joined the faculty of a liberal arts college in New England. I continued to make summer research trips to the Alto Mayo in the 1980s. During two brief sojourns I served as consultant to a World Bank–funded development project that helped to transform the Alto Mayo into a major agricultural production zone, a process that by the 1990s had allowed some Awajún to achieve levels of prosperity rarely seen among indigenous South Americans. My advisory role consisted largely of ensuring that Peru complied with policies designed to protect Awajún land rights and access to project services.

Development work nudged me into the fractious arena of Awajún politics. As a short-term consultant, I had little direct influence on policy decisions. But to the Awajún I had become a player, which meant that I instantly acquired critics. The ensuing squabbles were neither surprising nor consequential. They did, however, dull the sense of wonder that animated so much of my early experience. By the late 1980s, a decade after my first visit to the Alto Mayo, I felt depleted of fresh insights into Awajún life. Meanwhile, Peru’s intensifying political violence made further visits unacceptably risky for me and anyone who might offer me shelter. By the time the guerrilla wars of the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement had dwindled to insignificance, the thread of my Awajún research had been broken.

Renewed Interest and Goals

The Awajún were never far from my mind, however. Another anthropologist, Shane Greene, began fieldwork in the Alto Mayo in 1998, and he occasionally passed along news of happenings there. During a trip to Lima in 2002, I met several Awajún university students at a public event. Their infectious energy and commitment to an indigenous identity were inspiring. I also interviewed a feisty Awajún leader whose organization was then embroiled in a high-profile conflict over the search by American scientists for new drugs based on indigenous medicines.

Several years later, while digitizing photographs and handwritten field notes, I was forced to reacquaint myself with events that had taken place during my first sustained period of residence with the Awajún. This was not the gauzy exercise in middle-age nostalgia that it might seem. I was disappointed by the callowness of some of my observations about people whose depth of experience exceeded my own. Having by then endured a share of life’s vicissitudes—serious illness, the joys and anxieties of family life, and the pain of losing loved ones to disease or misadventure—I could understand more viscerally what it meant to live one misstep away from hunger, crippling injury, or death.

More important, I found myself drawn in by stories of generosity, cruelty, resourcefulness, and intercultural misunderstanding about which I had never written. I had long regarded these observations as outtakes from research focused on what social scientists rather grandly call cognition: how the Awajún organized their thinking about everyday activities such as gardening and hunting, as well as their efforts to influence the world through the application of practical knowledge and magic. It was Awajún life as seen from an altitude of 30,000 feet. Looking at the same notes decades later and with fresh eyes, I found a story closer to the ground and more fundamentally human. My conversation with Patchen Miller’s grieving mother led me to the recovery of an Awajún pentimento, images and patterns lying beneath the surface of ones with which I had lived for decades.

My curiosity about the Awajún aroused anew, I visited several Alto Mayo communities in 2012 to take stock of their current situation. I also interviewed university-educated Awajún and prominent Awajún political figures to gain a sense of their aspirations in a period when Peru grapples with the growing militancy of indigenous citizens, who find themselves excluded from the fruits of their country’s booming economy.

What emerged from this return to earlier interests—a kind of homecoming, although, like many homecomings, an unsettling one—was a vision of how one tribal population struggled to order social life in the absence of formal institutions, including secure leadership and well-defined customary law. Equally important were the efforts of a formerly sovereign people to respond to the new realities of the nation-state, including its relentless promotion of a market economy and its vision of indigenous citizens as childlike primitives fated to join the lowest ranks of the rural working class. The Awajún remain convinced that their destiny is separate, that their pride, ambition, and assertiveness set them apart from others. The evidence suggests that their optimism may be warranted, in part because they have proven adept at seizing powerful elements of civilization—literacy, formal education, and a questioning attitude, among others—and using them to advance their own interests.

I revisit the Awajún with several goals in mind. The first is to offer an accessible account of Amazonian life that shuns both Hobbesian and Rousseauian stereotypes. This is harder than it sounds. Accounts that present tribal peoples as saintly victims invite accusations that the author is peddling advocacy clothed in the trappings of academic rigor. Given the precarious circumstances of most indigenous groups, however, some anthropologists judge it unethical to report disturbing practices that might give governments a pretext for denying indigenous peoples their civil and political rights (as if governments needed such a pretext).

These conflicting currents converged in a widely publicized dispute about the research of Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist who for four decades studied the Yanomami, a people whose territory straddles the border between Venezuela and Brazil. In the late 1970s Chagnon became one of the best-known anthropologists in America thanks to an ethnography whose first edition was entitled Yanomamö: The Fierce People. Chagnon’s book, along with a series of related documentary films, made the Yanomami famous. They became known especially for their spectacular club fights, one step in a graduated series of aggressive displays that occasionally included homicidal raids on other villages.

By the 1980s, some anthropologists had begun to question the ethics of Chagnon’s research methods and his representation of Yanomami culture. These complaints, mostly limited to professional circles, became a matter of broad public discussion in 2000 after the publication of a journalist’s account that accused Chagnon of exaggerating Yanomami violence to advance a theory that linked interpersonal aggression to reproductive success. More disturbing still was the claim that Chagnon and a distinguished geneticist, James V. Neel, knowingly vaccinated hundreds of Yanomami with an early version of the measles vaccine that might have induced transmissible cases of the disease, thereby exacerbating an epidemic that produced many fatalities. Upon investigation, the latter allegation proved completely false. Lesser complaints—for instance, that Chagnon had failed to meet prevailing standards of informed consent when collecting Yanomami blood samples—remain credible to some anthropologists. Others disagree. A particularly thorny question is whether Chagnon’s books and films somehow injured the Yanomami by presenting them as a violent people. Should he have emphasized this aspect of their society to the extent that he did, especially when advocates for indigenous peoples were mobilizing support to defend the Yanomami from invading gold miners and other threats to their survival? Evidence of direct harm is thin, but the critical firestorm rages on. Chagnon’s fame and his embrace of sociobiology, a form of Darwinian thought that many anthropologists regard as scientifically unsound, make him an especially attractive target for critics.

Chagnon is not the only anthropologist who has written about raiding and other disturbing practices in Amazonia. Scholars have documented the execution of accused child sorcerers among the Asháninka of eastern Peru, high levels of violence among the Waorani of Ecuador, narratives of homicidal big men among the Ecuadorian Shuar, and ritual consumption of dead relatives among the Wari’ of Brazil. To my knowledge, none has evoked significant criticism. This is due to the delicateness of touch that they bring to their controversial subject matter and their efforts to contextualize such practices within a larger social whole.

Circumstances sometimes require that an anthropologist remain silent about things witnessed in the field. Members of a study population may feel strongly that certain religious understandings are nobody’s business but their own. They might voice risky political opinions. They may have been promised anonymity in exchange for sensitive personal information. Ethical protocols require that fieldworkers consider the possible impact of their books and articles on the people about whom they write. Against this must be weighed the ethical implications of distorting the truth, even when this is effected through strategic silence. In this book events are described as I witnessed them out of a conviction that presenting the Awajún as complex people, with admirable qualities and troubling ones as well, is the best way to honor their robust self-confidence.

Although the Awajún offer a window on the dynamics of tribal life, they cannot be considered typical. Many Amazonian peoples display far less aggression in their attitudes toward outsiders and one another. They have worked out clever ways to settle conflicts peacefully and strike a balance between individual ambition and group unity. Why some societies are more prone to violence than others is a question that continues to puzzle social scientists. The public, and even some scholars, love simple answers to this riddle: “Their warlike tendencies were a response to colonialism.” “They fought to gain access to sources of protein, which are scarce in the tropics.” “Sorcery killings were a product of social suffering brought about by dispossession and environmental destruction.” “Raiding expressed a Darwinian imperative: killers had higher status and more wives, which increased their reproductive success.” Anyone seeking monocausal explanations for the Awajún’s pugnacity will not find them in this book. The ultimate causes of violence interest me less than do its effects: how the Awajún manage aggression—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—and how they are now reshaping their martial tradition to counter the multiple threats that confront them. It is these distinctive expressions of ambition and assertiveness that set the Awajún apart from other peoples in the region.


Excerpted from Upriver: The Turbulent Life and Times of an Amazonian People by Michael F. Brown. Published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Michael F. Brown is President of the School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe.

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