In the Shadow of the Spirits: The Impact of Indigemous Beliefs on an Amazonian Frontier Town

Frederick Karl Keogh

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
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Prepared for delivery at the 1995 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Sheraton Washington, September 28-30, 1995.

(c) Frederick Karl Keogh 1995

In this session, we are all speaking about Christianity in the context of Western colonization and the efforts that have been made by the colonized in the "contact zone" to moderate or challenge Christian hegemony through dia logues of various forms. These efforts to compromise a specific European world view have met with varying degrees of sucess depending in large part upon the strategies and the amount of force used in conversion, the accessability of the native territory to soldiers, missionaries and permanent colonizers, the demographics and general character of the people to be colonized, and the ability of the land to support natives using traditional means of subsistence. In my talk I will portray an area, as it still was on my last visit in 1993, where the factors I believe necessary for conversion to Christianity have historically not been sufficient. Here, in fact, the strength of the native views have tended to alter the beliefs of the Christian colonizers rather than the reverse. This is not to say, however, that the native views have become hegemonic themselves or have not been influenced to some degree by the Christian presence. It is, rather, that this region has become a true frontier area, in mind as well as in geography. While Mary Louise Pratt (1992) has sought to rename the frontier the "contact zone" to balance the reference perspectives of natives and colonizers (the frontier is the frontier only to the colonizer, she claims with much justification) , I wish to resurrect the word. In the area I am speaking about, both European and native perspectives have been shifting back and forth without sustained coercion for so long that it has truely become a frontier, that is, a region where new possibilitie s are available for all people. In such an area, ideas twist and turn so much that sometimes, for natives and Christians alike, an "empty space" of mind is created where these new possibilities may be incorporated into the previous epistemology. While t his "space" may have been a part of the normal mindset for some natives before contact, it was not for two colonizers whose lives I will sketch in the following pages.

When considering the conversion of entire cultures to Christianity, it i s important to recall the context in which this religion was formed and what created the need of those who convert to convert. While I can hardly present an adequate thesis on Christianity in this essay, I will venture to say that this religion, along wi th the other "Great Religions" from the old world, were created amidst the cultural milieu of empire and state society. Such state societies were characterized by tremendous variations of access to resources between well-defined classes. Order was maint ained through theological ideologies which excused or explained the social patterning of wealth as well as through the threat or actual use of force. In such societies, human machinations appeared to determine the welfare of the individuals more than nat ural forces and, with the development of urban life, the attention of the individual tended to focus on social rather than natural processes.

While not denying the eternal truths transmitted by the fundamentals of these religions, it is not difficult to see that, as these philosophies were adopted by the state, they were encoded with the structures and purposes of the state. In Christendom, for example, the rigid hierarchy of pre-democratic Europe was mirrored by an equally rigid celestial hierarchy w hich included demons, various angelic forms and a supreme celestial king. Although this king was often (and is still considered to be) benign, terrible consequences awaited those who broke His rules, just as punishment was (and is) metted out by the stat e to transgressors of human law. And, with the near collapse of European cosmological order during the period of the Black Death (most devastating during the 14th century), Christendom became particularly concerned with redemption, which further separate d Christians from the natural world, intensifying the focus on social knowledge (Berry 1988).

Thus, accepting Christianity entailed, and often still entails, accepting the social order and rules from its culture of origin. However, one can argue tha t Christianity or any other broad belief system is not static, and will change in response to different cultural and natural settings without loosing the important fundamentals. Indeed, this has proven to be the case with Christianity (Hefner 1993). Yet , there may be a limit to this flexibility when key social and environmental factors, including state coercive power, fixed hierarchical status and the separation of epistemology and nature, are minimal. In this situation, deep conversion to Christianity should, I believe, be minimal. Further, those Christians who live in an area where this situation exists could have many of their beliefs altered, particularly if an indigenous belief system is already present among a significantly large proportion of t he population. Finally, if the situation developed into an equally encountered frontier, as I have described it above, one might expect a coevolution of cosmologies that may include the development of "open belief zones," that is, sections of thought whe re a cohesive belief system is interrupted and the unexpected may occur.

I believe I found such an area while doing fieldwork in the Venezuelan Amazon which I will designate by the name of its largest commercial and population center, the to wn of San Juan de Manapiare. The Manapiare region is populated by individuals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, with a majority coming from American Indian groups such as the Piaroa, Guajibo, Yabarana and Curripaco, and the minority consisting of criollos, or Venezuelan nationals, and non-Indian foreigners. In 1993, the population of the town itself was about 1,400-1,500, and had corporeal contact with the nation at large only by an expensive plane service or an occassional canoe or small mot orized boat. The outlying area consisted of thousands of square miles of well-watered, un-owned (in our sense) territory that provided ample sustenance to anyone wishing to make a living by non-mechanized farming, hunting and fishing.

Historically, the Manapiare region has undergone a trajectory of colonial and national penetration similar to many other areas in the Amazon (e.g., boom and bust projects entailing the extraction of natural resources). From the 17th to the middle of the 18th century, its value for the colonists lay primarily in its people, who were subjected to repeated slave raids by both colonists and Indian groups (Giordani 1995). From the mid 18th century to the mid 19th century, its importance lay more in its position as a buff er zone to other groups (e.g., fleeing Indians and Portuguese invaders from Brazil), and to this end, sporadic missionary work attempted, with marginal success, to "rationalize" and nationalize the inhabitants. And from the mid 19th century to the mid 20 th century, various forms of latex and other forest products were sought along with the inhabitants to collect such substances, as in the rest of the Amazon (Curiel 1980; Giordani 1995; Iribertegui 1987).

In the early 1940s, several indigenous peopl es took up permanent residence in the area that is now the town of Manapiare in order to work for a crop extractor. Soon after, some Protestant New Tribes missionaries stayed briefly in the village until Salesian missionaries firmly established themselve s there in 1957. It was then that the town of San Juan de Manapiare was formed from the national point of view. While missionaries have always had their own spiritual goals, the state supported the Salesian mission because of the ressurected need to hav e Venezuelan citizens in an area once again threatened by contraband and illegal Brazilian and Colombian migration, and to counter the new threat of guerrilla insurgency. Because the Manapiare area has since seen no boom in extractive products, and is no t situated as to accomodate large-scale commercial agriculture, it has remained generally what it was 40 years ago at its founding: a frontier area where shifting lines are drawn between various Indian groups and between these groups and members from then ational society, including store owners, National guardsmen, public officials and refugees from established national zones. Amazonian Indians, however, still overwhelmingly dominate the area numerically and, in many ways, culturally.

Indigenous cultu ral dominance is not immediately apparent in the town, and the tourists who are now being brought there are often disappointed. There is little evidence of native dress and adornment, and any religious celebration carries the indelible stamp of one of th e two introduced Christian religions. Yet an investigation will reveal that to most, the town is only a small part of a much larger system of kinship and exchange which extends for miles up the rivers, across the floodplains and into the forested mountain s. Also, nearly everyone still obtains their subsistence needs by the old ways of swidden agriculture, hunting and fishing outside the town. Thus few are isolated from their relatives in the bush with their more traditional beliefs nor from the traditio nal means of making a living from which the beliefs gain their power. For the townsfolk, the veneer of Christianity is transient, and for those living outside its confines it is often non-existant.

As I have mentioned, Christianity as it is generally conceived today should have little appeal in an area like Manapiare which has a loose hierarchical structure, a naturalistic focus and a weak center of power. Here I found that Christianity appealed to those non-Christians wishing to gain the power assoc iated with the missionaries: the power of airplanes and guns and motors and of the law through reading. Once this avenue to power was explored, either in actuality or through the experience of others, it was generally ignored abandoned. In plain terms, the power and prestige to be gained did not adequately compensate for the loss of material and psychological benefits accrued through ethnic membership. The few positions available within the town and mission governments conferred only small salaries and carried little authority. More abstractly, the Christian model transplanted by the missionaries did not correspond with the cultural and environmental realities of the region. Without coersive force, it had little chance of success.

It should not be surprising, then, that the Christian beliefs of the criollo colonists (majority Venezuelans whose biological and cultural ensemble was derived from the mixing, or mestizaje, of European, African, and Indian traits) of the town might also be subjected to the social and natural influences of the area, filtered through their own personal concepts of self-interest and self-definition. With the substantial aid of my fieldwork partner, Lourdes Giordani, I was able to know two such colonists we ll, and feel that I might be able to portray their own religious evolutions with some degree of accuracy.

The first, Miguel (pseudonym), was still a relatively young man, in his late thirties when we were introduced, and as such I should say that his "evolution" was far from over, for major changes seemed to mark his entire life and probably will continue to do so. On our first meeting, we found him making boxes for bee colonies with some thoroughly worn tools behind his rapidly disintegrating house. In appearance, Miguel had nothing that would make one suspect that he was different from any of the other criollos in town. But Miguel, in fact, turned out to be an exceptional man. Like most Venezuelans who voluntarily migrate to the Amazon, he came not from the coastal cities but from the northen llanos, or plains, the very edge of criollo Venezuela. His father, he said, had been a man of considerable influence and also strong character which clashed with Miguel's equally unswer vable will. When it came time to prove his independence, his indominable machismo led him away from the schools of the city into the school of the hardest knocks, which in Venezuelan folklore has always been the Amazon, much as the West had been for 19th century Americans. There, his interest in motorized technology led him into the company of American New Tribe missionaries, where he learned to fix outboards and became a convert to Bible Belt Christianity. He then married a local criolla (a criolla with mixed Indian ancestry) and set up his household in Manapiare.

But it was not his personal history that made Miguel a remarkable man. It was, rather, his relentless energy, optimism and belief in the future that made him different fro m just about any man I met in Venezuela (and most I know in the intellectual circles of the United States). He would have, I feel, been at home as the booster for the chamber of commerce in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was always working on some new plan that wo uld develope and improve the area, in the American sense, and when confronted with the inevitable obstacles of the Territory, would skip blithely to some other scheme. He was such an ideally American figure that at times I would forget he was Venezuelan and start speaking to him in English.

This progressive outlook brought to him considerable animosity from both criollos and Indians. It was not that anyone objected to his plans per se, for they never involved the loss or lar ge-scale destruction of land or property. It was rather his rambunctious attitude, his take-over personality that rubbed the wrong way. Having been the victim of his macho optimism myself, I can understand some of the resentment. When trekking into the forest or taking a boat ride with Miguel, you were never allowed to take things the easy or comfortable way. If it rained, you stuck out your chin and slept in the rain. If you traveled by motor, the throttle was always wide open. The Indians, thank G od, didn't work that way, and I think they would have abandoned us in the forest for being eternal nuissances if we had had the Miguel's disposition.

But, unlike the American missionaries, Miguel's permanent home was in Manapiare an d his attitude towards the bush and the native inhabitants was markedly different. While he was more orthodox Protestant Christian in his behavior than the missionaries I met, including his adherence to the standard prohibitions against drink and fornica tion, he had absolutely no desire to force his beliefs on others. For all his faith in technology, he had tremendous respect for the traditional skills of the Indians. And he seemed to not only respect most of the beliefs of the native peoples, but actu ally to believe in some of them. For instance, Miguel, like most permanent residents of Manpiare, maintained a garden outside of town, and his bananas and plantains were renowned for their size and abundance. There is a peculiar explanation for this. F ar upstream near the base of the mountains is an ancient grove of plantains called the Platanal which belongs to no one and which was planted by unknown hands. Reports of tremendous harvests of gigantic plantains from this grove can be found in written a ccounts (Giordani 1995).

It is the belief of some indigenous inhabitants that gardens are cared for and nourished by special spirits or guardians (dueños or masters) often associated with particular stones. It was just one of these stones that Miguel transplanted from the Platanal into his field. Popular opinion has it that this stone was the source of Miguel's good fortune, and Miguel gave every indication that he believed this to be true.

In Manapiare, Miguel was atypically p rogressive in the American sense of the word, and the appeal of the American fundamentalists, with their unreflective belief in the right to dominion over land and beast, coincided with his own urge for dominance and change. Another criollo coloni st, Don Neco (pseudonym), better typified the more cautious approach to activity taken by jungle inhabitants in general. While also a New Tribes convert, he came to his beliefs from a different perspective. Now a man in his seventies and the owner of a small general store, he was raised in Yaracuy, a sugar-cane growing area heavily influenced by the colonial African labor force, by a campesino (peasant) father whose primary advocation was sorcery. One late, sweltering night in the back of his st ore he told us the hair-raising tale of his father's battle to regain the soul of his brother from the posession of a rival sorcerer. This was not heresay on his part, for he witnessed the grissly details of his brother's posession and subsequent battle between the sorcerers. So when he found his way to Manapiare in the 1950's to become one of the founding fathers, he found the fundamentalists' belief in the ever-presence of evil forces and the power of faith to neutralize them appealing.

While he was also not well-liked by the Indians, it was on account of his thrift and material posessions rather than for his aggressiveness. Unlike other criollos who came later to live off the new populist government's dole, his generation had come to mak e a better living for themselves in an area not incorporated into large haciendas. Don Neco was no spiritualist with his head in the clouds. His shrewdness was undeniable, he was literate and knowledgeable of current events, and he considered him self to be a part of main-stream Venezuelan society. Yet when he pointed to two man-sized rocks that jutted from the ground in front of his store and asked us if they and all rocks grew, we began to understand him differently. He had been told by some l ocal Indians that rocks had a life force just like animals, and he now seemed to believe that they indeed appeared to grow. We gave him a geological explanation that satisfied him, but sometimes, as in the case below, scientific reasoning was simply not sufficient.

Although we never saw Don Neco take to the woods with his shotgun, in his younger days he often did so out of necessity, which familiarized him with the local fauna. He claimed that on one of his forays he killed an armadillo of mythic pr oportions, the likes of which, he said, can no longer be found. He also made the undoubtably correct comment that the numbers of animals had since dwindled considerably. To him, the two observations were related, for those large beasts of yore had been the dueños of their kind, and without them, their respective species would not flourish.

The concept of the dueños, or masters of the animals, is common with indigenous people in the northern Amazon (see Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971). It is believed that these dueños control the flow of life force for their species betweem the spirit world and our material world, balancing deaths with new lives. Killing dueños or otherwise showing disrespect toward s a species (for instance, killing animals wantonly by not using their meat, or killing too many) negatively upsets this balance. It is this concept that Don Neco, the Evangelical criollo, accepted as absolute fact. He did not ask us, the America n doctores (learned ones), whether this was true or not because its truth was self evident: dueños were seldom if ever seen anymore, and the quantity of animals was diminishing.

It is of interest to note that Don Neco's belief in the diminishing bounty of nature coincided with the Evangelical view that the world is on the brink of the apocalypse. Unlike the New Tribe missionaries' belief, however, Don Neco's vision was a decidedly naturalistic and Amazonian Indian one. It was m an's affront to nature, rather than to God, that would lead him to the end of the world. Thus without the slightest intention to do so, and with no help from American environmentalists, Neco had inverted the anthropocentrism of modern Christianity, and a ccepted the nature-centered Indian view, the equivalent in his religion of worshiping the golden calf.

That Don Neco, and even the future-oriented Miguel could be at times deeply influenced by the Indian perspective has to do, as I have stated, with the peculiarities of the Manapiare frontier. The difference in the extent of the native influence on the two may be explained by the concept each has of the future of criollo society in the area. While Miguel could respect the practicality of na tive ways at present, and thus respect native beliefs, he was a man with one foot in a future characterized by a happy extension of technology. His optimism was so great that he could not see that roads and commercial agriculture would destroy the very f rontier that so suited his temperament. The basis for this optimism was for Miguel and is for many of us a belief in linear progression, a sense of an infallible social evolution that is created by a belief in a human-focused cultural superiority. It ma de little difference to Miguel that the nation-state had little practical effect on the Manapiare of the present, nor that it had created his own discontent elsewhere. The global technological culture was superior and would, and should, dominate the futur e.

For our pioneer Don Neco, however, the Manapiare of the future will simply reiterate, at best, the past. After over forty years in the area, he is well aware of which world concept is the more practical, and Don Neco is, if anything, a practical man. And since the Indians know their environment better, they must better know its subtleties. It was with his own eyes that he saw that rocks might grow, and through his own experiences that he confirmed the existance of dueños. While he is proud to be a "true" Venezuelan, a criollo, he understands all too well the inherent weaknesses of the present culture of the nation- state. Following his discussion of the dueños, he said, "Everywhere civilization goes, nature dies out." His coming apocalypse, then, will be heralded by ecological catastrophy on a global scale. Although I doubt he would carry this to its logical conclusion, I believe it would amount to something like this: the beliefs of the Indians in the ar ea, influenced by and influencing their subsistence practices and natural cycles, are superior to the Great Religions of the world because the former, in essence, are not pulling us down into the apocalypse.

To be factual with my field data, howeve r, I must stress that neither the traditional Indians nor the Christians were truely converted to the other's way. It is apparent from the discussion that, although the two criollos altered some of their beliefs in their new environment, they stil l retained the bulk of their Christian cosmology. And although the vast majority of the Indians never became Christians, they did entertain many Christian notions and often incorporated them into their overall cosmologies. For instance, after telling ta les about indigenous creation gods, the Indians might reply to the question of where these gods came from with the refrain, " why, from God and his wife, Mary." While no mention was ever made of a virgin birth, Mary and an ultimate creator had found a pl ace in their answers to the ultimate questions.

And so, while the environment of Manapiare was not suitable for Christian conversion, it did not force the Christians fully into native beliefs. Rather, I would have to conclude that this frontier, thi s long-standing, evenly shared encounter with the other, creates an open space in the epistemological armor of the individual. In this space, which Michael Taussig (1987) called the "space of death" in the context of power and aggression, great changes i n understanding the world are possible without the destruction of the cultural core.

In the context of present-day America we might call this space diversity, although I know of no official agency that would desire such diversity. It would, after a ll, reck havoc with production and the GNP. This diversity is not controlled by a dominant culture, but is a true product of the frontier. I compare it to Saint John of the Cross's "Dark Night of the Soul," where the familiar comforts of cultural knowl edge are suspended, allowing radically different knowledge to fit within the context of the old. In our discussions about Christianity in the "contact zone" we are generally exposing native resistance to the presumed hegemony of the dominant order. Her e, I am talking more about people who are not compelled to accept a monolithic design, but are cast into a more confusing sea of unnamed choices. In this context, Manapiare resembles the industrial world, where change is constant and anything, from the i nspirational to the catastrophic, seems possible. While it seems that this "space" (whether or not it appears in the context of domination) gives human cultures the ability to alter themselves in significant ways in order to survive, one wonders how lon g this suspension of cultural stability is possible before chaos ensues. This is at the base of the question regarding the authenticity of a culture. Did, for instance, the Quechuan speakers of Peru enter this creative space and transcend the colonizers , or did they really descend into chaos and reform their culture(s) primarily as a reaction to colonial power? This question is relevant in mainstream America, also. Will there be a point, the question is asked, when imigrants overwhelm the American cul ture? And will the constant state of change in America, which is now becoming the state of the world, obliterate its coherence (if, indeed, it ever had coherence)?

Back in Manapiare, however, cultures have been maintained in the midst of a constant g ive and take. Christian hegemony has been reduced to one somewhat out-of-place world view among the indigenous many. As with America, however, it still remains to be seen whether or not the mania of the consumer society will deliver the death blow to th e native cultures that Christianity could not, for the power of attraction is infinately stronger than the power of aggression.


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Curiel, J.

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Giordani, Lourdes

n.d. Ph.D. thesis manuscript, Anthropology Department, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Hefner, Robert W., ed.

1993 Conversion t o Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Iribertegui, Ramón

1987 Amazonas, el hombre y el caucho. Vicariato Apostólico de Puerto Ayacuc ho. Monografía no. 4.

Keogh, Frederick Karl

1995 Where Rocks Grow and God Has Shoes: Reflections and Shifting Realities in the Venezuelan Amazon. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan. Ann Arbor: Uni versity Microfilms International.

Pratt, Mary Louise

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Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo

1971 Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolis m of the Tukano Indians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taussig, Michael

1987 Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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