The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes
Leibsohn, Dana, Anthropological Quarterly
The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes. JOANNE RAPPAPORT. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1998; 250 pp.
Historical truth, legal truth. How does one become the other? This question opens The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes. By tracing Nasa historical consciousness across three centuries, Joanne Rappaport supplies a compelling analysis of indigenous struggle and the power of words to forge resilient meaning in both colonial and modern times. Post-Rigoberta Menchu, the political contingency of indigenous histories, especially those that transform oral accounts into written ones, is no small matter. The Politics of Memory thus contributes substantially, and eloquently, to current discussions about the historicity-and truth-in indigenous accounts of the past.
Originally published in 1990, and now available in paperback, The Politics of Memory provides an superb case study in how archival and ethnographic research might inform each other. Rappaport's primary concern lies with the historical vision created by Nasa, formerly known as Paez, intellectuals from the eighteenth century to the present. Her analysis treats colonial resguardo (reservation) titles, political treatises, contemporary historical interpretations, and oral narratives. Through close readings of the works of three Nasa historians, Don Juan Tama, Manuel Quintin Lame, and Julio Niquias, Rappaport explicates symbols, concepts, and biographies that have been remembered and renegotiated in the production of persuasive histories.
The historical renovations Rappaport charts, however, are not strictly intellectual exercises. Nasa histories were (and continue to be) deeply rooted in the political debates of their time. This engagement-of historical vision and struggles for political and economic autonomy-emerges as a central theme and motive in Nasa history-keeping. The three historians Rappaport examines all served as political activists, and all operated in myriad ways as cultural brokers. Their histories are therefore histories built to change, in fact, improve, the world. The larger questions raised by this book, then, concern the ethics and objectives of history-making. Rappaport's arguments that cultural and historical continuity are a conscious strategy make provocative reading.
The Politics of Memory unfolds chronologically, moving from Nasa experiences under Spanish rule through nineteenth and twentieth-century events (breaking off in the 1970s). Each section explores the ways that later histories selectively draw from and elaborate upon the works of their predecessors according to current needs and circumstances. Rappaport thus shows how Nasa history-writing and recitation maintain fidelity to the past yet preserve interpretative flexibility in the present. Equally significant are the counter-hegemonic objectives of these histories, for the Nasa produced these accounts as they fought to maintain their identity and territory. Consequently, a major contribution of this volume stems from its analysis of both the constancy and contingency that undergird Nasa historical record-keeping.
The book's first section, "Interpreting the Past," establishes the economic and textual ground for later historical developments. Key here is the seventeenth and eighteenth-century development of the colonial cacique, the resguardo (reservation) system, and associated documents. Rappaport compares two resguardo titles (Pitayo and Vitonco), both produced by Don Juan Tama, an eighteenth-century cacique, showing how continuity between older practices and newly formed chiefly lineages was secured. She also explains the reciprocity between colonial events and Tama's vision of the past. Throughout this analysis Rappaport makes fine use of evidence, teasing broader implications from the archives. Indeed, one of the book's real strengths is its ability to move from specific documents to a larger set of debates. In working this way Rappaport brings forth the particular nuances of Nasa history and she argues for the wider significance of these works.
The book's mid-section, "From Colony to Republic," highlights the historical and political work of Manuel Quintin Lame, a Nasa sharecropper who played a leading role in the indigenous resistance movement. In 1939 Lame completed Los pensamientos del indio que se educo de las selvas colombianas ("The Thoughts of the Indian Educated in the Colombian Forests"). Rappaport reads Lames work alongside his political actions, the spread of the printed word in Colombia, and nineteenthcentury representations of Indians in Latin America. Her analysis, which considers local and national issues, reveals,
the Nasa preoccupation with a moral continuity from the times of the beginnings to the present, from Juan Tama to the context of contemporary action (p. 138).
Thus Lame gains significance for the ways his acts and works bind colonial history into modernity, shaping current assessments of both.
In the book's final chapters, "Contemporary Historical Voices," Rappaport addresses the period from 1940 to 1980. Here Rappaport features Nasa oral histories, giving particular attention to those of Julio Niquinas, an activist and associate of Lame, whose histories were recorded early in the 1970s. Perhaps the most interesting topic in this section is the discussion of how modern Nasa histories engage specific topographic sites. For instance, Rappaport shows how ritual actions, like refreshing cabildo staffs, and the circulation of visual images, such as political logos, extend the scope of Nasa historical consciousness. She demonstrates that these acts and images not only enliven Nasa history, they transport history through space and across the landscape. In addition, Rappaport articulates why Niquinas emerges as a model historian: because he so skillfully weaves personal political experience and the knowledge of Nasa geography that activism engenders through his accounts.
Apart from updating the Nasa name (from Paez), the 1990 text remains largely intact. In a new preface Rappaport astutely situates her book vis-avis recent anthropological writing; she also identifies the debates she would take up were she to write the book anew. These reflections enhance the Duke edition, so much so that other additions would have been welcome. For instance, all of the Spanish quotes appear only in English. Had the Spanish been included, readers would have had a chance to grasp something of the original texts. Too, an epilogue addressing post-1980 events would have strengthened the poignancy of Rappaport's observations. Her research has not gone unnoticed by Nasa intellectuals: it now forms another link in the chain of histories sustaining their political struggle. More discussion of this, or analysis of the divergences between Rappaport's own political vision and that of the Nasa who rely upon her work, would have contributed a new layer of reflexivity.
Yet as is, The Politics of Memory is beautifully written. Scholars and students of Latin America should find the topics discussed here-indigenous land rights, modes of constructing and maintaining social memories, and the roles played by indigenous intellectuals and political leaders-stimulating. Readers open to comparative material should also find much to work with. Moreover, Rappaport maintains an impressive balance between theoretically rigorous analysis and indigenous voices and experiences. Never does her work crowd that of Nasa historians, nor does it oversimplify their actions or accounts.
For many reasons, then, The Politics of Memory demands serious attention. Methodologically and rhetorically it represents exemplary scholarship. Beyond this, the book raises two critical questions. First, are Nasa patterns of historical transformation aberrant or paradigmatic of history writing more generally? And second, given recent endeavors to redress prominent activists and intellectuals such as Rigoberta Menchu and Edward Said, what is at stake in analyzing the contingencies of indigenous historical process-particularly for those committed to counter-hegemonic action? These queries are, I believe, ethically and epistemologically significant. Some will not share Rappaport's convictions, nevertheless her book offers discerning insight into the construction of a binding historical vision. Whether the historical landscape she presents will persist depends upon what happens in the future. Which is why this book is worth reading and debating now.
Reviewed by DANA LEIBSOHN
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes. Contributors: Leibsohn, Dana - Author. Journal title: Anthropological Quarterly. Volume: 73. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2000. Page number: 52+. © Institute for Ethnographic Research Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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