All entries for Tuesday 30 January 2007

January 30, 2007

Myths and Customs in the Amazon

Pirarucu

Mãe de Peixe
Mãe de Peixe is ‘a chimera of many guises which looks after fish populations’ (81). She is sometimes a caimun, other times a pirarucú or even a cobra grande depending on the tribe.

Panema
‘[H]unters and fishermen must contend with panama, a hex that prevents people from catching fish or killing game. Panema is far more serious than a temporary bout of bad luck. Unless properly treated a person can remain empanemado indefinitely. Given the importance of fish and game to the regional diet, and as a source of income in the case of fishing, rural folk are understandably concerned about avoiding panama.’ (101) Pirarucú fishermen are particularly susceptible to panama due to the huge size of the fish and this may be due to fears about the loss of such a useful species (112).

Pirarucú
A large fish that can be as long as two metres and weigh up to 100 kilograms (20). The pirarucú is valued for its, ‘high value and savoury taste’ as well as for its ‘byproducts’. Strips of meat can be stored for months, its fifteen centimetre long can be used as a grater while its scales, the size of credit cards, can be used in woodwork too.

Yara
The Yara, ‘appears before bachelors, and young men who are about to marry. If they hear yara’s enchanting voice and linger to catch a glimpse of her, they later become ill’ (85). Yara have been spotted in waterfalls (Tarumã falls near Manaus) and in trees (the Peruvian Amazon). The Yara is often blonde.

Smith, Nigel J.H. The Enchanted Amazon Rain Forest: Stories from a Vanishing World. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996.


A Note on the Second Conquest of the Amazon

The Amazon Basin

In considering the oppressed indigenous peoples of the Amazon, David Maybury-Lewis recommends a macroscopic approach and he notes that this method, ‘is the only way in which one can set about examining what is happening to the peoples of Amazonia—or indeed, to minority peoples anywhere in the world today’ (127). Maybury-Lewis notes that some see the Amazonians in terms of neo-Darwinism believing that it is simply the fate of indigenous peoples to die out. Some Marxists see the Amazonians as, ‘out of step historically’, according to Maybury-Lewis, but to be in step dictates that, ‘their way of life is doomed’ (128). Maybury-Lewis disagrees with both of these views and he is adamant that the Amazonians are rather, ‘suffering from the simple ability of stronger peoples, nations, institutions to overpower weaker ones’ (128).

Differing views on indigenous peoples can be typified, says Maybuy Lewis, by the dialogue between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas. In a junta ordered by Charles V of Spain, Las Casas argued against Sepúlveda that Indians had souls. Maybury-Lewis notes that for men like Sepúlveda, indigenous peoples, ‘were cannibals and therefore not deserving of human compassion’ and he notes that because indigenous peoples, ‘abused the weak in their society’, their government had to be replaced by Spanish rule which supposedly did not exploit the weak in the same fashion (128). Maybury Lewis describes such excuses as ‘self-serving’ and he presents an argument against the need for an imposed Spanish rule (128).

Even if they were [cannibals], it is not obvious why the ritual eating of people should be any worse than flaying them alive, or enslaving them, or torturing them judicially, which was customary procedure in the seventeenth century. Nor is it clear why it should justify any peculiarly draconian actions against them on the part of Europeans. (128)

Similar flawed arguments supporting the usurpation of indigenous government still prevail, yet now as Maybury-Lewis notes, the desire is to ‘civilise’ Indians. Nineteenth century anthropologists used ‘the backwards peoples of the world’ as a lever for their own ‘higher rationality’ (129). Now indigenous people must make way not for rationality, but development. Maybury-Lewis argues that a second conquest is now taking place in the heart of Amazonia, its goal being Indian land. The argument for such a conquest is utilitarian and it assumes that the Indian cannot adapt and that the extraction of wealth from the land will be worth it. According to Maybury-Lewis, the Indian is often seen as, ‘a threat to nation-building’, ‘an ideological challenge’ and ‘a challenge to [a nation’s] mainstream values’ (132).

Maybury-Lewis, David. ‘Demystifying the Second Conquest’. Frontier Expansion in Amazonia. Ed. Marianne Schmink and Charles H. Wood. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984. 127-134.


A Short Definition of Indigenismo

Nelly Arvelo-Jiménez describes the policy of indigenismo as, ‘a system of policies pertaining to indigenous peoples in which the relation of the state and Indian peoples is defined’ (105). She explains that indigenismo was in the colonial past a means to excuse the ill-treatment of indigenous peoples and the denial of their rights. Arvelo-Jiménez explains that indigenismo was, ‘the ideology that “legalized” or “normalized” the condition of domination that was introduced in order to impose a Latin or European way of life’ (105). Arvelo-Jiménez notes that such a policy is still being adopted by the Venezuelan government and she explains how the indigenous people’s rights to land and freedom have been denied by:
• missionary indigenismo which changed the education of indigenous peoples “civilising” them;
• and state indigenismo that fails to stop ‘land grabbing’.

Arvelo-Jiménez, Nelly. ‘The Politics of Cultural Survival in Venezuela: Beyond Indigenismo’. Frontier Expansion in Amazonia. Ed. Marianne Schmink and Charles H. Wood. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984. 105-126


Baron von Humboldt and the Electric Eels

Boat

Born in Berlin, the capital of Prussia (14th September 1769), Alexander von Humboldt was destined to become an explorer of the Amazon. Influenced by a friendship during university with Georg Foster (who had travelled around the world with Captain Cook), Humboldt was very interested in exploration. Humboldt was initially the Assistant Inspector of mines and also conducted biological experiments. Eventually Humboldt embarked on an expedition to South and Central America arriving in the New World in 1799 (July 16th) entering the port of Cumaná.

With their microscopes they, and their respective ladies, examined lice of many varieties found in the ladies’ hair. They measured plant growth, which exceeded far anything in Europe. They heard of and then found a man suckling a child with his own milk. On their first foray inland they encountered the oil-bird, or guacharo. This cave dwelling species, slaughtered for its fat, was quite new to science. They also took advantage of a solar eclipse in late 1799. (Smith, 230)

It was in 1800 that Humboldt was to begin a proper inland expedition. Anthony Smith describes Humboldt’s encounter with ‘gymnotids’ or electric fish in Calabozo. The fish were not exactly eels but they, ‘swam in eel-like manner and possessed an eel-like smoothness’ and they could produce 600 volts. Humboldt had already experimented with electricity and was fascinated by the creatures, so he decided to proceed with an experiment:

The locals had a technique [for catching the fish] which Humboldt was to call picturesque. A large number of mules and horses were driven at speed into a marsh where the fish were known to be resting in the mud. This violent act brought them out into the water, and their electricity caused the mules and horses to leave it speedily. With bamboo sticks the Indians sent the frightened animals back again. There they lunged about, terror in their eyes. A few succumbed, falling into the water and even drowning. The others continued to thrash until the gymnotids exhausted their battery-like supply. With dry lengths of wood acting as insulators the fish were then coaxed from the water. (232)

Smith, Anthony. Explorers of the Amazon .London: Viking, 1990.


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