Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Postshamanism (1999)

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Postshamanism (1999)

Article excerpt

For Mick


One of these nights I am going to sit at my wooden desk and I will recall that other night in which I met Liberato and Jacobo and some of the events that have happened since. And I will write down the words that you are reading at this instant.'

It was late at night in Buenos Aires, in the midst of the winter, my father and I were walking through the dark streets in the centre of the city toward the building of the national Congress, where my mother, a lawyer who had been working for decades with indigenous political organisations, held the post of secretary of Indigenous Affairs.

When we arrived in the large, dimly illuminated office, all of a sudden I entered into another period of my life. My mother was sitting on a chair, beside her desk. So was my younger brother. Some people were standing around them, walking slowly about the room, whispering distant words. Two Indians, dressed in ragged clothes, dark pants and dirty white shirts, were standing next to my mother and brother. They were leaning over toward them: they were blowing on their heads, gesturing with their hands, every once in a while whispering some words. Suddenly with the velocity of lightning they would suck their foreheads or necks, and utter a dry, dark, shout-aahhhhjjj!. They would do it several times. They were healing them.


Jacobo Ortiz and Liberato Salvatierra, two Toba men from the province of Formosa. Angled faces, ancient gestures.2 They are in their seventies, though they look strong. Now they are healing me. AAAAAHHHJJJJ!! I am sitting on a wooden chair, sinking in to the night of Buenos Aires, facing the window toward the square in front of the Parliament. I have my eyes closed. I just met these men minutes ago. They want to heal you too, someone said. Yes, grandson, you too. And now one of them is blowing and at times spitting on my head. Then suddenly he sucks, until he sort of swallows something. It is located in his throat now. Bicho, he says, in a low voice: an insect. He shows the bicho to me, the insect, that is. It is a very small orange stone, covered with the shaman's saliva. Then he puts it back in his mouth. He swallows it. That is the disease. I am sick of an ancient ailment, an evil spirit. Then he extracts another small stone, another 'insect', as he says. In the same way perhaps, as the alchemist philosophers and doctors of the Middle Ages tried to extract the stone of madness from people's brains. Bicho, he says again. Another stone, this time black and shaped differently, I can swear. The next time it will be a worm that he takes from inside my body, my neck or my head. The disease. The sorcery that someone has sent us, my family and me. He swallows them back, and slams his chest and belly. Good, tasty, he says. It makes him stronger, each time he eats the insect he gains more power, same as every time he defeats an enemy shaman. These are evil diseases, embodied in what they call 'insects', or 'stones', which they now show me: wet, supposedly just taken out of my body. I could see something warm, dark, moving. Evil spirits concretised. The devil is never lacking, so they said.

I am healed, all set for that night; same as my parents and brother. It is 1985 and I am fifteen years old.


Toba Indians from Sombrero Negro-'black hat'-an area in the Province of Formosa, Northern Argentina. These same people and their shamans were the object of a marvelous ethnography by Alfred Metraux, 'an ethnographer's ethnographer' (as he was once called by Sidney Mintz),3 the classmate and friend of Georges Bataille,4 who introduced him to anthropology and to Mauss's teachings on taboo.5

I began reading Metraux's texts in Spanish translations at the library of the Argentinean Congress. Metraux, who was born in Lausanne, had spent his childhood in Argentina, before returning to Switzerland and Paris to study philosophy and ethnology under Marcel Mauss. …

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