The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes

By Leibsohn, Dana | Anthropological Quarterly, January 2000 | Go to article overview

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. …

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