Academic journal article Ethnologies

Odours and Boundaries: Bora-Mirana Construction of Territoriality (Amazonia)

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Odours and Boundaries: Bora-Mirana Construction of Territoriality (Amazonia)

Article excerpt

Le concept de territorialite est souvent lie a une apprehension plus globale du sol considere comme etant limite par les frontieres avec les groupes voisins. Chez les Amerindiens Bora-Mirana de l'Amazonie colombienne, il semble que cette notion de territorialite n'est pas tant liee a la delimitation factuelle et spatiale des frontieres de fait qu'a une notion plus vague d'odeur ou de senteur territoriale. Cette notion repose sur la perception de la sante des individus et des maladies considerees comme etant repandues par d'autres groupes ou par des animaux percus comme ennemis. La virulence des << Autres >> ne peut alors etre contenue que par une odeur locale plus forte qui caracterise le soi.

The concept of territoriality is often linked to a more global apprehension of land seen as being limited by borders with neighboring groups. Within the Bora-Mirana Amerindian group of Colombian Amazon, it seems that this concept of territoriality is not so much linked to delimitation of factual and located boundaries as it is with a more vague notion of territorial odour or smell. The notion relies on the perception of individual healthiness and on diseases seen as been widespread by other groups or by animals seen as enemies. The virulence of "others" can thus only be contained thanks to a stronger local odour that characterizes the self.


It is only when we come to represent local differences in terms of a globalising discourse that the centre from which each perspective is taken is converted into a boundary within which every local view is seen to be contained. The idea that the "little community" remains confined within its limited horizons from which "we"--globally conscious Westerners --have escaped results from a privileging of the global ontology of detachment over the local ontology of engagement. (Ingold 200: 216)

The main topic of this article is a presentation of concepts of border and territory as found in an Amazonian Amerindian society. This presentation is possible thanks to an ethno-historical survey that permitted a brief sketch of the social and cosmological variations created by forced deportation of a Northwest Amazonian indigenous society into three different countries.

Boundaries and memories

I will begin this article with the evocation of some fieldwork anecdotes. When I was visiting the Mirana of the Colombian Amazonia for a stay of long duration in 1992, the local leader, following a cycle of shamanic cures, had decided to carry out a great ritual (the Snowy Egret Egretta thula ritual). During this ritual closely tied groups (mainly of other Mirana clans and the Yukuna groups of the Caqueta River) were to take part. This time, however, benefiting from the presence of the son of a Bora living on the upper waters of the Cahuinari River and moving through the Igara-parana, the invitations arrived with their intermediary to the Bora of Peru. Nobody really thought that the Bora would come. A few days before the beginning of the ritual, one month after the invitations were issued, the community in which I lived saw some Bora from the Peruvian territory disembarking from a big river canoe to accompany the Mirana in their ritual.

These Peruvian Boras took a stroll around the community village of Puerto Remanso del Tigre. They stopped opposite the house of a North American missionary of the New Tribes Mission and, amazed at the palisades which surrounded it, could not keep from making the following comment: "It is sure, here lives a White!"

The Bora were perfectly aware of the successive limitations with which they had just been confronted: borders of the national states on one side, and the division between two worlds, theirs and that of the Whites, on the other. Finally, within this latter, White "nationals"--Colombians or Peruvians, with whom they were asked to identify themselves--and others, foreigners, North American or European. …

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