Cubeo Hehénewa Religious Thought
Schmidt, Titti, Ibero-americana
Irving Goldman, Cubeo Hehénewa Religious Thought. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Cubeo Hehénewa Religious Thought is the last book by the anthropologist Irving Goldman, posthumously published and edited by Peter Wilson. It is about the Cubeo Hehénewa, a group of Tukanoan-speaking Amerindians in the Vaupés region, located in Northwestern Amazon, Colombia. The first studies on the Amerindians of the Vaupés date from the late 19th century and the early 20th century by the naturalists Alfred Russel Wallace (1870) and Richard Spruce (1908) and the ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grunberg (1909). Goldman, however, must be accredited for being the first modern anthropologist working in the Vaupés. His first fieldwork was done during the years of 1939 and 1940 and more fieldwork periods followed in 1968, 1969-1970, and 1979. His work has been a major inspiration for new generations of anthropologist. Today the Amerindians of the Vaupés are among the most documented of all South American Amerindians.
This book has two introductions; one written by the editor and the other by Goldman. It takes up, in order: Cubeo myth of creation, social order, daily life, cosmic order, ritual order, death and morning, shamans, concepts of power, and gender. One major theme of the book is Cubeo metaphysical thinking, which Goldman sees as a key for understanding the Cubeo culture. He shows that there is a core of mythic consistency that the Cubeo draws upon for synthesising a coherent ideology and which they do not separate from social organisation, economy, and politics. It is an organised form of knowledge that has its own rationale (conforming to rules in the same way as scientific precepts do) and which is intricately interwoven with other aspects of life.
Power, another major theme of the book, is also framed by Cubeo cosmological reasoning. By comparing the power of the payé (the shaman) with that of ordinary persons, Goldman aims at revealing the underlying principles of Cubeo conceptions of power, showing how power is linked both to deeper Cubeo religious sentiments and to patrilineal descent. The latter is important because Cubeo ritual life is a masculine world. The primordial and initial force of life is masculine and in the Cubeo mystical past the creation deities and the first human ancestors are all men. This masculine force stands for human initiatives, intellectual capacity, and stability in all forms. The feminine force, on the other hand, is according to the tradition something destabilising, capable of turning the social order upside down. While the men are firmly connected to an imagined, mystical past, the women are seen as the reproducers of the real world, both biologically and symbolically. In fact the presence of women is ambiguous in Cubeo thought and constitutes a major intellectual problem. This is so because it is the women that move the social order away from the mystical past into the real world, anchoring the "sacred" to the "secular".
Cubeo Hehénewa Religious Thought is a book rich in ethnographic details. Written in the spirit of anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) of whom Goldman once was a student and research assistant, it may come as no surprise that the book lacks an explicit theoretical discussion. Boas, famous for his rigorous focus on ethnographic fieldwork, made a deep impact on Goldman who in this book declares that "[ethnography is itself sufficiently theoretical" (p. 8). However, this is not to say that Goldman's work lacks a theoretical basis. He offers both explanations and comparisons that are interwoven with the ethnography. He is, as the editor points out in the introduction, only "very discreet about it" (p. xli). Another Boasian characteristic of Goldman's work is the attempt to depict the Cubeo from their own perspective, with the aim of letting the reader "inside the minds" of the Cubeo.
For anthropologists specialised in the ethnography of the Vaupés region, this fine piece of work will for sure be received with open arms. Today we are not spoiled with such meticulously presented empirical data. The book allows for extensive comparison between the different Tukanoan, Makú, Arawakan-speaking groups in the area. Despite the multilingualism present in this area, anthropologists commonly treat the Vaupés as a single cultural area. This is so because many Amerindian groups have much in common. Many of them have, for example, a similar social structure as that of the Cubeo, who are organised in patrilineal exogamous sibs (groups of descendants of a common ancestor who do not intermarry) which are grouped into various exogamic phratries. Common for this area is also the tradition to live in the maloca (longhouse), the major centre for social and religious activities. Many of these groups also practise shamanic and hallucinogenic mysticism. Important here is the use of the yurupari instruments (sacred flutes), which are associated with central themes in the mythology, initiation, ancestors, warfare and seasonal cycles.
Apart from Amerindian specialists, this book will probably have an appeal on those Cubeo concerned with cultural revival. As is underlined by Stephen Hugh-Jones in the afterword, Goldman's book has to be seen as being part of this revival. Interestingly enough it was one of Goldman's main informants who, in the 1970s, was the head of CRIVA, Consejo Regional de Indigenas del Vaupés, one of the main indigenous political movements in the area working for territorial and cultural rights.
However, for those readers who lack a special interest in this area and who are accustomed to present-day reflexive ethnography, a book written in the classic tradition of the 1970s will probably appear somewhat problematic. Capturing a kind of abstract Cubeoness and presenting the reader with a lot of details about Cubeo life, does not reveal much about the actual life of real, living human beings. If it furthermore is a book where no individuals are present, where the observer is absent, and where the author gives voice to an anonymous collective of speakers by consistently using utterances such as "Cubeo claim," "Cubeo believe," "Cubeo recognise," one can not help but perceiving this book as somewhat old-fashioned. Suppressing alternative voices is, as the postmodernist writers have taught us, a rhetorical device used by anthropologist to convince the reader that what is written is the truth valid for all. It does not help that Goldman in the introduction insists that there is no single interpretation and says that the Cubeo themselves disagree on issues, when what he presents in the book is a single version. What I wonder is: Who is Goldman actually speaking for? Is this the view of a few well-informed informants or is it a view shared by all Cubeo? From Goldman's own statements it has already become clear that the women are not part of what he refers to as Cubeo Hehénewa religious thought. However, he refuses to provide us with any further information. Do women lack religious thoughts altogether? Or is this just the view of women presented by men? Goldman never raises such questions.
There is another problem with this book, for which we can not blame the author. Although Wilson has made a meritorious work by breaking up long chapters into sections and subjects, adding helpful diagrams, and a few cross-references, I always get suspicious when an editor's introduction amounts to over 20 pages (in this case 27 pages, the acknowledgement and the preface not included). It makes me wonder what the problem is with this a book? In this case it is clear that Wilson has an ambition to provide the reader with detailed information about how Goldman has appropriated theoretical ideas from anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), and Margaret Mead (1901-1971). He also wants to do justice to Goldman's anthropological career by presenting five of his major works. However, an examination of books like First Men, which Goldman wrote together with his wife Hannah, on human evolution from a paleoanthropological perspective, published in 1957, and his book Ancient Polynesian Society, published in 1970, runs the risk of killing the reader's interest altogether. Instead of embarking the ship and set sail, the editor forces us to take a detour in what appears to be a rather dull harbour. I write, "appear" because the information is in fact both relevant and interesting. Sadly though it feels misplaced, at least for us who are not familiar with the work of Goldman.
If I had been the editor I would instead have made Hugh-Jones' excellent afterword into an introduction. Hugh-Jones' reflective commentary is actually what a non-specialist needs in order to understand the work of Goldman. It is an appetiser, well written and informative. Hugh-Jones not only situates the Cubeo in a broader cultural, social and political context, bringing the reader up to date, but he also convinces us about the relevance of Goldman's work on new generations of anthropologists. Wilson's introduction, on the other hand, would have severed better as an afterword, allowing interested readers to deepen their knowledge about Goldman's lifework.
Independent of the style of the time when this book was originally written, it has a lot of merits that should not be neglected. What stands out as Goldman's major achievement is foremost his capacity to make us aware of the splendid complexity of human thought.
I'll end this review with Goldman's own words taken from a conversation with Enid Schildkrout in American Ethnologist (1989:556-557):
Religions have their professional modes of reasoning and defining, as do our sciences. As Lévi-Strauss had so brilliantly observed, they confound us by trying to go too far. They try to link up more than we dare to in a single system. I will not condescend to praise what they do, especially if I do not really understand it. I am saying only that we should take native religious thought as seriously as we take varieties of philosophical thought in our own tradition. As anthropologists we have no business indulging in racist or ethnic assumptions about the inferiority of primitive religious thought. I am reminded now of the complaint of a Pueblo Indian savant to an American academic philosopher, who had engaged him in a serious discussion of philosophical issues, that no anthropologists had ever talked about such matters with him before. What goes on here? Since when are natives dummies entitled to our compassion but not to our respectful attention as thinkers?
Franz Boas (1925), Contributions to the Ethnology of the Kwakiutl. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, vol. 3. New York: Columbia University Press.
Irving Goldman and Hannah Goldman (1957). First Men. London and New York: AbelardSchuman.
Irving Goldman (1970), Ancient Polynesian Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Theodor Koch-Griinberg (1909), Zwei Jahre under den Indianern. 2 vols. Berlin: Strecher and Schroeder.
Enid Schildkrout and Irving Goldman (1989), "A Conversation with Irving Goldman". In American Ethnologist, vol. 16, no. 3, pp.551-563.
Richard Spruce (1908), Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes. 1 vols. London: MacMillan and Company.
Alfred Russell Wallace (1980), A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro. London: MacMillan and Company.
Department for Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Cubeo Hehénewa Religious Thought. Contributors: Schmidt, Titti - Author. Journal title: Ibero-americana. Volume: 35. Issue: 2 Publication date: July 1, 2005. Page number: 39+. © Institutte of Latin American Studies, Stockholm University 2001. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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