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John H. McDowell - Review of Suzanne Oakdale, Amazonian Cosmopolitans: Navigating a Shamanic Cosmos, Shifting Indigenous Policies, and Other Modern Projects

John H. McDowell - Review of Suzanne Oakdale, Amazonian Cosmopolitans: Navigating a Shamanic Cosmos, Shifting Indigenous Policies, and Other Modern Projects

Suzanne Oakdale’s Amazonian Cosmopolitans: Navigating a Shamanic Cosmos, Shifting Indigenous Policies, and Other Modern Projects is a welcome sequel to her 2005 study, I Foresee My Life: The Ritual Performance of Autobiography in an Amazonian Community. Both focus on the Kayabi, or as they are now known, the Kawaiwete, an Indigenous people who relocated to what is today the Xingu Indigenous Park in Brazil’s Amazonian region, and both books dwell on autobiography as a meaning-making exercise. But if the earlier volume could be said to be inward-looking, absorbed with ritual performances and political oratory as these construct community, the present volume is more outward-looking, exploring through oral-history narratives the multiple ways the Kawaiwete have experienced and also participated in evolving efforts to accommodate original communities into the Brazilian nation. Amazonian Cosmopolitans features autobiographical narratives documented by Oakdale in the 1990s, performed by two stars we met in I Foresee My Life, Sabino and Prepori, but now we find them describing their involvement in national projects of first, pacification, then, assimilation, and more recently, of an isolationist strategy that seeks to conserve a somewhat generic Indigenous identity in Xingu as “the image of the Brazilian Indian” becomes “a unifying national symbol” (108).

Roughly half of Amazonian Cosmopolitans has previously appeared in articles and chapters, but this book includes plenty of fresh material – three new chapters and a new conclusion – and a seamless integration of the new and the old into a compelling treatment of the Kawaiwete entering modernity. At the heart of the argument here, as the title would suggest, is the concept of cosmopolitanism. There are several cosmopolitanisms named in this book, and at moments the reader could be pardoned for wondering if the concept is being overworked. But on inspection, I find Oakdale’s deployment of the term to offer a salutary corrective to ethnohistorical accounts that picture Indigenous people as passive recipients of forces impacting them from the outside. For Oakdale, a cosmopolitan stance entails “an ability to live across social boundaries and in more than one kind of world simultaneously” (197). But rather than the debonair “citizen of the world,” we encounter in Amazonian Cosmopolitans the stories of two Kawaiwete men who transcend their tribal origins and become conversant with other Indigenous peoples of the zone; with Brazilian nationals, such as the Villas Bôas brothers, working in the pacification project; with agents of the rubber-extraction industry; and with anthropologists and other visitors from abroad, who come to the Xingu in search of its ethnographic treasures. Perhaps the most surprising of these assertions of cosmopolitanism is Prepori’s cosmological cosmopolitanism; Prepori, Kawaiwete shaman, engages with animals as “fellow persons” and can take on attributes of these spirit presences. According to Oakdale, this travel among spirits made it easier for Prepori to travel among the tribes as he assisted in gathering residents for the Xingu reserve.

Folklorists will want to turn to the 2005 study, I Foresee My Life, for in-depth description of Kawaiwete ritual practices, but expressive culture does pop up in consequential ways in Amazonian Cosmopolitans. We do not get a sustained treatment of the Maraka healing songs, but references to them occur repeatedly in Prepori’s narrative as he describes establishing kinship with other Indigenous groups and naturalizing for them the idea of the Xingu reserve. Nor do we get a detailed account of the Jawosi rituals, an important ceremonial nexus of the community, but we see that they constitute an important theme in Sabino’s account of his cultural moorings, and in a remarkable twist of irony, we learn that, to consolidate his role as a capitâo in the SPI (Indian Protection Service), part of the national bureaucracy, Sabino “needed to fall back on the power of his Indigenous traditions, such as Jawosi singing – the same traditions he should, according to assimilationist logic, have been moving away from” (92-3). Oakdale tells us, incidentally, that both Prepori and Sabino were excellent Jawosi singers in their old age.

Expressive culture in material form, we learn, played an important role in conceptualizing the Xingu reserve. A ubiquitous cultural artifact, the woven-bark belt known as the uluri, served as an interethnic marker and made it plausible to gather together tribal peoples speaking different languages and, in some cases, nurturing historical enmities. And, as the Xingu project continued to take shape, the notion of a uniform cultural system took hold, sharing, according to Oakdale, “values of peacefulness and generosity as well as myths, material culture, and rituals” (140). Indeed, this common ground insured that Prepori and Sabino, adept in their own traditions, were able to connect effectively with people of other Indigenous groups of the region as they participated in the migration of tribes into the Xingu reserve.

At the heart of Amazonian Cosmopolitans are the life-stories told by Sabino and Prepori. Oakdale is generous in allotting space to these accounts, bracketing them in segments with her own interspersed commentary. The personalities of both narrators shine through in their recollections and reflections on events spanning several decades, as each of them played his part in shaping the progress of the Xingu project. The story segments are presented in short-paragraph format, each paragraph corresponding to the utterance of a complete thought. Helpfully, the bits in Portuguese are placed in Italics, visually set off from the balance, conveyed to Oakdale in the Kayabi language. The transcripts are peppered with exclamations and instances of sound symbolism and onomatopoeia, lending them the feel of natural conversation. I think Oakdale does a nice job of respecting the materiality of the original while creating prose that is congenial to the reader.

Anchored in the voices of these two remarkable Kawaiwete individuals, Amazonian Cosmopolitans traces the complex historical machinations that led to the creating of the Xingu Indigenous Park, constructing institutional history from the vantage point of these players at the periphery of power but at the center of the action. The reminiscences of Sabino and Prepori show them dealing proactively in the midst of inchoate and shifting circumstances as national priorities and local conditions evolve through the middle decades of the twentieth century. They draw on and modify traditional resources, forge new relationships across multiple social boundaries, embrace unforeseeable eventualities such as air transport across the vast Amazonian basin, and in the process, sustain the cosmopolitanisms that connect them to their fellow Amazonians, to agents of the national bureaucracy, to workers in the rubber industry, and to animal spirits encountered in shamanic journeys.

Amazonian Cosmopolitans makes a strong case for doing institutional history from this ground-level perspective. Following the life-story threads of Sabino and Prepori, we acquire valuable insight into the formation of Brazil as a nation, into the decades-long process of establishing the Indigenous reserve along the Xingu River, into the complicated social dynamics of a volatile frontier zone, and into the resilience and adaptability of these two Indigenous protagonists, who, in their own words and actions, embody this history to the fullest extent. Suzanne Oakdale has produced a book that is a delight to read and also instructive on many levels, thanks in part to her fluid construction of cosmopolitanism. She concludes her study with these words: “In these Kawaiwete leaders’ narratives, cosmopolitanism becomes both about expanding social networks far and wide and about encompassing this expansion at the scale of the human body” (204).


[Review length: 1217 words • Review posted on February 16, 2023]