Janet Marion Chernela. The Wanano Indians of the Brazilian Amazon: A Sense of Space. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993. xx + 185 pp. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-292-71186-0.
Reviewed by Michael R. McDonald (Florida Gulf Coast University)
Published on H-LatAm (August, 1998)
One of the long accepted ways of counting coup in anthropology has been to provide the profession with a new view of humanity, a case which challenges previously held ideas or general opinions about human culture and or society. The traditional arena in which such contributions have been made is the ethnography, written descriptions of a people, their culture, and their lifeways. Needless to say, the chances for a groundbreaking description of an exotic unknown society or even a novel insight are considerably more difficult at the end of the 20th century than they were at the beginning. However, the tradition remains and anthropologists, including the author of the text under review, continue the quest. To discuss rank and social organization as unique and defining features of a society in the Amazon is the prodigious task undertaken in this ethnography, The Wanano Indians of the Brazilian Amazon.
The book includes classic ethnographic elements: description and explanation of marriage practices, social organization, and kinship nomenclature, all of which the author relates to the underlying conceptual models of social rank. A description of the natural environment, subsistence practices and related economic exchange activities are also presented. Two vignettes presented in the "Ordinary Dramas" section of the book further enrich the work. These narratives reveal the author's lengthy research, and her deep interest in and knowledge of these people. Here and in other similar passages found throughout the text, the author's gift for creating a vivid portrait of another peoples' way of life is found. Readers unfamiliar with the Wanano or South American Indians gain an insider's view of the social system and culture and appreciate how these constructs facilitate daily life for society members. I reviewed this book with its potential role as a teaching text foremost in my mind. I find that it would make a fine ethnographic companion to a graduate or upper-level undergraduate course on Indigenous South America or a wider scope course on social organization. However, I believe it would be difficult for beginning students to use since it assumes a level of familiarity with anthropological frameworks, concepts, and norms employed in the presentation of ethnographic information.
Janet M. Charlene, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Florida International University, provides the reader with a geographic and ethnographic orientation to the Wanano people of the Colombian/Brazilian Amazon. This group, defined by common ancestry and language, is comprised of approximately 1500 individuals who live as fishing-horticulturists along the banks of the Uaupes River in both countries. The river provides both a livelihood and an important reference point employed in Wanano myth. The Wanano see in it metaphors to imagine their world, and the underlying logic of the ranked social organization that joins these people into a meaningful group across social ranks and national boundaries.
Two context-setting chapters comprise Part 1 of the ethnography. Professor Chernela mines historical and ethnographic sources to describe, among other attributes of the Wanano, a cultural practice of linguistic exogamy. She explains how this relates to the traditional political structures in the region and directs intertribal conflict, dispute settlement, and alliance-fostering practices. She also provides brief snippets of historical contact made by such notables as Russell Wallace and the German ethnologist Koch-Grunberg with the Wanano.
A potentially interesting discussion concerning the effect of European contact on culture and political structure is introduced, but not developed further in the text.
The strength of the ethnography lies in Part II, "Sociology." Over three nicely-developed chapters, social organization, kinship nomenclature, gender, language, and social placement are discussed. The author attempts to explain how the Wanano social organization is neither fully stratified nor egalitarian. The reader learns that there are numerous important relationships for individual Wanano including siblingship, descent group membership, and horizontal social class, all of which are discernible by fixed rank relationships and revealed the participants through the use of language. These relationships and the overall social structure described in Chapter 4 are overwhelmingly rich and a bit confusing. For instance, while linguistically exogamous, the Wanano are rank endogamous. I found that this chapter required careful reading as well as hand drawn diagrams to follow the groups and relationships being described.
In the chapter on kinship nomenclature, tables and discussion help convey the similarities and differences Wanano kinship terminology has with other Uaupes societies. The terminology and linguistic logic shed some light on the social structure described in Chapter 4, such as patrilineal preferences and the role of age and generation in indicating social rank. Most importantly, this presentation supports the author's claim to Wanano uniqueness. The section concludes with the chapter on gender, language, and placement. As they marry outside of their language group, the Wanano will speak different languages than their spouses. Children learn both of their parents' languages. Given their patrilineal descent structure, they are encouraged to identify linguistically with their father as they grow older. For women, who leave their sib upon marriage, social place is always situated away from their home and yields dubious status in her husband's group. Professor Chernela writes that social placement--the spatial dimension of personhood "is realized in metaphor, imagery, and myth. The lyrical correlatives to the concept of placement cited here demonstrate the integrity and indivisibility of person, place, and time in Wanano thought" (p. 83). The author examines aesthetic dimensions of culture--lyrics and actual song performances and describes how they are used to indicate a person's place in relation to others, those presently living in the society as well as their own ancestors, whose place they now occupy.
The elements of this entire section are brought into sharper focus in the second "Ordinary Drama" presented in Part IV, the Bucacopa case. In it, a dispute over a claim to social rank and status is presented and the variables of patrilineal descent, sib relationships, and social rank are applied in a manner that lends clarity to their role in social organization. The informant described in the drama also demonstrates the placement concept in a song performance of the sort described in Chapter 6. As an instructor, I would use the Bucacopa case to create learning experiences that would review and closely examine the ideas and concepts presented in this section.
I found Part III, "Ecology and Economy," to contain the most interesting material in the text. Professor Chernela provides adequate description of the resource zones inhabited by the Wanano and the range of material technology they use to extract riverine resources. Good illustrations of fish traps and summary descriptions of fishing techniques are provided. Students working on anthropological theories and models such as the culture core concept of Julian Steward would find an abundance of information here, including material needed to make ethnological comparisons of food procurement strategies across time and space. Here more than anywhere else in the text, the reader can grasp the importance of how kinship and placement in the ranked social organization affect day-to-day life. Specifically, Chiefs, or head of Sibs, control access to resources and higher ranked sibs inhabit locations with more abundant fish supplies. Lower ranked sibs rely on the "succulence" of chiefly sib to share the fish caught at their site (p. 108).
Despite my keen interest in material culture and subsistence patterns, this section left many questions for me. Generally, the claim to ethnographic uniqueness of the Wanano is not measured here and, specifically, I wondered how social control of resources compares with other Amazon groups. The author describes environmental fluctuations that result in relative abundance. I take this to mean that seasonal or climactic vagaries would shift the location of the good fishing spots, possibly creating intra- or inter-group conflict over resources. In a study of coastal Brazilian fishermen, J. Cordell found that these same dynamic qualities of fishing grounds and resulting differential harvests led to conflict and fostered stratification. Some comparison of how conflict and stratification or other dimensions of social control are affected by resource fluctuation would help distinguish the Wanano from their coastal neighbors and wider circles of other ranked societies.
A further point relates to subsistence activities as well. The Wanano are described as horticulturists-fishermen and manioc is said to provide the bulk of their caloric intake (p. 87). There is no discussion of gardening technique or material technology employed therein. Is resource ownership or rank manifestation exercised with respect to horticulture or its product? If not, why not? Could it relate to sexual division of labor or exogamy? Given its caloric importance in the diet and potential for social maintenance during fish resource fluctuation, manioc should get more discussion and ethnological comparison, again to set the Wanano apart from similar societies.
Chapter 8 provides further interesting features of Wanano economic life. For example, each language group is the exclusive manufacturer of material items such as baskets, strainers, etc., creating a geographical division of labor and a deliberate scarcity and reason for trading with neighbors. These "rare" items are traded in the Po?oa exchange, a redistributive exchange network in which foodstuffs and material goods are distributed among 15 or more language groups across the Uaupes valley. Professor Chernela distinguishes two variations of this exchange. One form occurs between affinal relatives and is egalitarian in nature. It is characterized by equal value exchanges and immediate or delayed reciprocity emphasizing the egalitarian nature of Wanano life. The other form of the exchange reinforces the hierarchical nature of the rank society and occurs between agnatic kin.
While this chapter deftly presents the redistributive and simultaneously egalitarian/ hierarchical nature of the Po?oa, the norms, practices of exchange are not employed to set the Wanano apart from other ranked societies. With the exception of a concluding reference to the potlatch practices of the Pacific Northwest, no comparative references are made. How does the affinal Po?oa compare/contrast with societies that employ embedded economic exchanges to maintain material equity in an overtly egalitarian society? Furthermore, if the role of the Wanano chief is linked to generous behavior, how does his succulence and associated behavior compare/contrast with bigman behaviors found throughout Melanesia? A close order comparison of economic behaviors in various ranked or tribal societies would also lend more credence to the assertion that the peculiarities of Wanano system of rank makes it a thing unlike those found in Polynesia or elsewhere in the world.
My appeals for out-group comparison may, on the one hand, be read as criticisms; they may, on the other hand, be thought of as take off points for teaching. Frankly, these are points in the ethnography that stimulated my own thinking and ethnological searching. This is a good quality. Were I to use this text, I would generate class discussion on such points or employ that component of the ethnography as a base from which to create student research projects.
In all, this is an informative text and would be a useful addition to upper level courses set out to compare social structure or the cultures of South America. I recommend it with great enthusiasm.
. J.H. Steward, The Theory of Culture Change, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1955.
. J. Cordell, "Carrying Capacity of Fixed Territorial Fishing," Ethnology 17 (1978), 1-24.
. See, for example, the Hxaro exchange employed by the Ju/hoansi of the Kalahari, in Lee, Richard B. The Dobe Ju /'hoansi, 2nd ed. Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology, Ft. Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993.
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Michael R. McDonald. Review of Chernela, Janet Marion, The Wanano Indians of the Brazilian Amazon: A Sense of Space.
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