There is not much to set the Yaminawa apart from other small Nawa groups of the Jurua-Purus and Urubamba-Ucayali rivers in the southwestern Amazon. (1) They all belong to the Panoan linguistic family, live in a dense, sparsely populated forest, subsist through hunting and agriculture, and are only marginally integrated into their respective Brazilian, Peruvian, and Bolivian national societies. Within this ethnic kaleidoscope, the several groups known as Yaminawa (also spelled Yaminahua, or Jaminawa) are not differentiated either linguistically or genealogically. The name 'Yaminawa' is, however, identified with political instability and a self-destructive bias toward the Western world, in marked contrast to more conservative tribes such as their Kaxinawa neighbours. The recent history of the Yaminawa of the Cabeceiras do Rio Acre [Headwaters of the River Acre] Indian Village is therefore commonly understood as a pre-eminent example of cultural loss. (2)
This view, which I have discussed in previous works (Calavia Saez 1995; 2001), is predicated on widely shared and enduring ideas about the fate of indigenous societies, but it seems to me to be defective. (3) In reality, Yaminawa have many different and highly flourishing forms of social order. This rich diversity exists without there being any domestic or political authority with the power to exalt one particular social form over the others. Yaminawa life thus lacks anything akin to a traditional public arena. There is nothing like the time-honoured Panoan rituals, such as the Kaxinawa's Kachanawa, the Sharanahua's 'special hunt', or the Shipibo's and Kaxinawa's girls' initiation ceremonies. (4) Nor do the Yaminawa seem to feel the lack of such festivals. Whenever I found memories of past rituals among the Yaminawa, they consisted of vague descriptions, suggesting something similar to what the Kaxinawa would call 'amusements' (brincadeiras), involving heavy drinking and dancing (McCallum 2001: 130), and lacking the totalizing aspect of the great Panoan rituals. Even these 'amusements' seem to have disappeared some time ago, perhaps when the Yaminawa migrated to the laco River. (5) Among the Yaminawa of the Cabeceiras do Rio Acre Indian Reservation there is nothing that a conservative lexicographer would call 'ritual'. This is not surprising, considering the Yaminawa ethos, which is characterized by a lack of formality which might almost seem 'modern'. Yaminawa have no traditions, complains their chief.
This idea of the Yaminawa as a riteless people springs from a somewhat pedantic use of the word 'ritual'. Of course, the Yaminawa people enjoy getting together to feast, although they do this in a markedly low-key manner. A broader notion of 'ritual' is adopted here to analyse the two largest feasts that I attended during my fieldwork. The main features of these feasts were improvisation and contingency, neither of which conforms to most common notions of ritual. (6) The flexibility of the outer shell, however, may conceal some comparatively stable elements, as will be seen below.
The first feast was held on 31 October 1992, in the home of the Yaminawa chief, Ze Correia, in the area known as the 'Indian slum' (Portuguese, 'Favela dos Indios') at Assis Brasil, the Brazilian town near the Indian Reservation. The feast was occasion for a two-fold celebration: the home-coming of Julio Isodawa, who had been in Norway attending a meeting of indigenous schoolteachers organized by an NGO, and the birthday of Correia's daughter.
The second feast was held on 17 August 1993, on the Indian Reservation, to celebrate the first birthday of Julio's baby. One could say that the feast was also intended to honour the new leader, who had replaced Correia a month earlier. Both feasts contain very similar elements, so they must be compared and understood together. As it is useful to name them, I will refer to the first feast as 'Scandinavian Feast' and the second as 'Restrained Forro'. In the ethnographic description that follows, it will become clear why I regard these as apt rather than whimsical titles for the two rituals.
The 'Scandinavian Feast'
At the time of the Scandinavian Feast most Yaminawa were present in the village of Assis. Some were waiting for Julio's arrival from Norway. Some were bidding farewell to Correia, who was going to the city with other Yaminawa in search of study or medical treatment. Some were waiting for their retirement pensions at the post office. Others, as it was near All Souls' Day, went to Assis to light candles for deceased Yaminawa buried there. Others were in Assis for more incidental reasons: Chico de Raimundo (Julio's elder brother, thus his closest kin) was there on account of a snake-bite. There were, in fact, too many individual causes to account for the general migration that occurs regularly every month.
Julio arrived in Assis on 30 October, and was received with mourning chants by female kin. The women's mourning songs are commonly related to kin absence, and are always loaded with bad omens, whether or not any explicit danger exists. Julio himself cried the next day during the feast, when he was told that his brother had been bitten by a snake. Such displays of emotion always seem to be related to distance from loved ones: when the brothers finally met, they did not go off alone with each other, but rather joined a group of Yaminawa who spent all night roaming from bar to bar.
Julio's arrival provided an added incentive for the drinking festival that was already underway. At the beginning of the feast (the afternoon of 31 October), some people were already reeling from one, two, or three days of drunkenness. Some barely managed to wake up before getting another drink and falling virtually unconscious. In addition to the Yaminawa, other people gather at the 'Indian Slum': rubber-gatherers, farm-workers, and some Piro Indians. By noon, Ze Correia began to provide meals at his house. For several hours he dispensed fish (which he had bought from his father in-law), manioc flour, canned meat mixed with flour, and some twenty bottles of cachaca (sugar-cane brandy). It was only to close kin that the food was offered. The serving was carried out by Correia's wife, assisted by her children, and was meant for those considered to be close kin. The drink, however, was more publicly distributed, and acted as the life-blood of the whole feast.
This drinking warrants further attention. The heavy cachaca consumption indicates a degree of sophistication in the Scandinavian Feast. The common drink among the Yaminawa (and among all the rural proletariat in the western Amazon) is 97 per cent alcohol, highly toxic, sold in plastic bottles, and intended for use as a cleaning agent. That is what I mean when I speak of 'alcohol'--not the array of alcoholic beverages. Alcohol in Assis is a good deal more expensive than cachaca. It is not a matter of taste; its potency is the only serious criterion. Obviously, 194-proof alcohol is much stronger than cachaca, and it is possible to dilute it with water when the drinking-circle grows. Cachaca in no way approaches the strength of even diluted alcohol, and carries something of a stigma, being regarded as a 'lightweight' drink. Those with weaker stomachs prefer it, however, and glass and plastic bottles sit side by side on market shelves and account for a good deal of the income of local traders. The cost of beer is much higher and Indians rarely drink it, outside the brief prosperous moments when wages and pensions are paid. Some Yaminawa drink beer-and-cachaca or beer-and-alcohol cocktails, these being much esteemed for their intoxicating effects.
During the Scandinavian Feast alcohol played a secondary role, appearing mainly at the end of the party. Even so, several hours of 'weak' cachaca drinking made Correia's house a scene of diverse and almost surreal activity. By sunset, one group could be observed playing cards. Another group were gathered together strumming country songs on a guitar, while an elderly man ran unsteadily around the house, leaning on people's shoulders and speaking loudly in their faces. A hunter in his 30s made loud pronouncements in unintelligible slurred Portuguese while dancing and calling out hurrahs to the chief's daughter. She, with a gang of children in tow, swung across the room on a fishing-net suspended from the roof. The singing, calling, and speeches were in Portuguese: alcohol consumption calls for the white man's language. A young Yaminawa man fainted. He was immediately laid in a hammock and covered with blankets, and slept peacefully while the party continued around him. When another man collapsed, his friends tried unsuccessfully to carry him, but finally lowered him to the ground, and continued the …