In Search of Ritual: Tradition, Outer World and Bad Manners in the Amazon

Article excerpt

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'. …