Made-from-Bone: Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon

By McDowell, John H. | Western Folklore, Summer/Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Made-from-Bone: Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon


McDowell, John H., Western Folklore


Made-from-Bone: Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon. By Jonathan D. Hill. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Pp. xxii + 195, maps, photos, appendices, notes, glossary, index. $65.00 cloth, $22.00 paper.)

The hero of this story is Made-from-Bone, Iñápiríkuli, the Wakuénai trickstercreator assembled from the finger bones of his slain father and entrusted by his Arawak community to defeat the forces of destruction, bring the world into existence through a process of musical naming, and establish channels for the proper conduct of human life, that is, for "the new people in the future world" (165). In tracing the exploits of Made-from-Bone through three cosmic ages, Jonathan Hill provides an accessible, entertaining, and informative portrait of this Amazonian society's cosmogony and manages to suggestively connect this corpus of Wakuénai mythic narrative to currents of history that have buffeted this transitional zone from pre-historical to modern times. An important dimension of the mythic narratives is their account of the origins of the pudáli ceremonials, formerly rites of gift-exchange, now occasions for communal celebration; Madefrom-Bone often vivid accounts of the ceremonial life previously at the core of the Wakuénai ethos and more recently at the center of efforts to revitalize, reclaim, and repossess this constitutive ethos, much diminished in the rush to modernization promoted by agents of the Venezuelan state and by Protestant missionaries.

The Wakuénai, known to the outside world as the Curripaco (9), are a group of five communities living along river headwaters in the Northwest Amazon where the nations of Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil meet. This book features twenty-one mythic narratives recorded by Hill and his Wakuénai associates in Venezuela during the 1980s and 1990s, presented in very readable English translations that feel somewhat removed from the source performance contexts. FIiIl had the good fortune to link up with a respected Wakuénai elder, Horacio López Pequeira, during his initial fieldwork in the upper Rio Negro region of Venezuela in 1980; then, in 1991, when this master chanter and storyteller died, Hill continued working with his son, Félix López Oliveiros, who had busied himself learning much of his father's repertoire. The twenty-one narratives are grouped into three sections: "Narratives from Primordial Times," "The World Begins," and "The World Opens Up." The task of ordering the corpus fell, as it often does, on the shoulders of the mythographer. Here, Hill worked collaboratively with López Oliveiros, his primary Wakuénai partner, to establish a grouping that is "not a simple, linear chronology" but still "tends to move from earlier, undifferentiated times to later periods of cultural separateness" (xviii). (Did the mythographer also give the stories their titles, as often happens? We are not told.) Interspersed as framing around these three sets of narratives are a preface, an ethnohistorical and an elhnomusicological interlude, and an ethnological coda. The upshot is that Made-from Bone is both a collection of stories and a treatise on Wakuénai civilization; perhaps we should call it a thoroughly contextualized corpus of mythic narrative.

In my classes on ethnopoetics at Indiana University (and in the interests of full disclosure, I mention that Jonathan Hill did study with me here), I encourage my students to keep an ethnopoetic scorecard, to ask themselves, with regard to any study of verbal performance: how much of the original texture and force are recoverable from this study? And, how transparent are the procedures of the scholar in producing this representation? Applying this test to Made-from-Bone produces mixed results and I think it worthwhile to examine these briefly in this review. Confining our vista to the book itself, one senses, as I previously stated, a considerable distancing from the spoken Wakuénai in the Rio Negro settlements. …

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