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Kirstin C. Erickson - Review of Elizabeth Ramírez, In Praise of the Ancestors: Names, Identity, and Memory in Africa and the Americas

Kirstin C. Erickson - Review of Elizabeth Ramírez, In Praise of the Ancestors: Names, Identity, and Memory in Africa and the Americas

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How did people in societies without writing remember the past? How did they go about communicating their history and preserving knowledge? Why did Eurocentric theories of knowledge impede the translation of Indigenous histories in the early colonial era and beyond? These are a few of the questions that frame historian Susan Elizabeth Ramírez’s book, In Praise of the Ancestors: Names, Identity, and Memory in Africa and the Americas. Ramírez provides one answer through an incisive examination of positional inheritance, an “overlooked and understudied” (17) system in which names, especially those of founding figures or leaders, were passed down through generations, along with an assumption of the originator’s heroic qualities, the maintenance of their social position, and tales of the hero’s accomplishments, the group’s origin, and other significant narratives. As such, positional inheritance became, in those societies in which it was practiced, a “system of memory perpetuation” (27). Ramírez employs a comparative approach, examining positional inheritance as practiced in several very different societies–the Kazembe of Central Africa, the Ho-De’-No-Sau-Nee of North America, and the Incas and other Indigenous peoples of the Andes. In Praise of the Ancestors demonstrates the relationship of this cultural institution to Indigenous concepts of history in “pre-literate” societies, and it reveals how, under certain circumstances, the inheritance of a name implied the veritable reincarnation of its originator. Ramírez uses her nuanced understanding of positional inheritance to reexamine colonial histories, exposing errors in cultural translation, as European observers failed to grasp Native historical narratives, modes of succession, and epistemologies. Ramírez articulates her overarching goal at the end of the first chapter, writing, “I question the ‘authority’ of the written word and query the nature of knowledge itself....Unless we can think culturally unthinkable thoughts we will be condemned to looking only for information that confirms our own pre-conceived notions, thus perpetuating a Europeanized version of the history of others” (28).

Ramírez begins her analysis with an examination of positional inheritance as practiced by the Kazembe people of Central Africa. It was there that ethnographer Ian Cunnison first identified and defined the institution of perpetual kinship in the 1940s. As Ramírez explains, “Kazembe” became the name that referred to a paramount chieftain or king, and she notes, “In memory of their origin and founder, all the other successor rulers took the name of Kazembe” (32). Over time, the name “Kazembe” expanded to identify the lineage itself, as well as the territory in which the Kazembe’s subjects resided.

Building on the Kazembe case study and Cunnison’s account of positional inheritance, chapter 3 examines the practice of this same institution across the Atlantic, among the Ho-De’-No-Sau-Nee (also known as the Iroquois). Ramírez describes the inheritance of names among the fifty chiefs (sachems) of the League of the Iroquois. In this matrilineal society, clan mothers bestowed names onto chiefly successors. The Ho-De’-No-Sau-Nee case study amplifies one characteristic of positional inheritance notable in other groups: the notion that the perpetuation of a name fostered the reincarnation of the ancestor’s spirit. Through this practice, the deceased was re-animated in the body of a successor. Ramírez describes the adoption of war captives by Iroquois families who had lost a loved one; in taking the name of the lost son or brother, the adoptee “brought the deceased back to life again by taking his name and assuming his relationships and responsibilities” (62). Adoptees were lavished with gifts and affection by their new families. In her chapter on the Iroquois, Ramírez also discusses how chief-naming ceremonies occasioned the oratorical recounting of treaties, tribal law, and origin stories.

In chapter 4, Ramírez turns her focus to the colonial moment in the Andes, highlighting the disjuncture between Indigenous and European understandings of history and succession through two case studies. She begins by reviewing a court case involving two Spanish encomenderos (trustees) and their disputed authority over a Native lord and his group of Indigenous subjects. Because Europeans neither comprehended nor appreciated the practice by which a lord was named, their jurisdiction (and thus “right” to Native tribute and labor) remained unclear. Her second case study concerns the Incas, for whom the personal names of successive emperors were “left behind … considered too sacred to be commonly verbalized” (110). Through positional inheritance, a new emperor was henceforth referred to as “the Cuzco,” or by titles that denoted the enormity of his power, such as “Idol of Battles” or “World Changer” (111). Ramírez uses the Inca case study not only to expose vast discrepancies among Spanish colonial records chronicling kingly succession, but also to underscore the link between names and the perpetuation of memory. Andean descendants venerated their kings through oral tradition, by mummifying the bodies of the dead or creating masks in their likeness, and by “singing the epic accounts of his name’s triumphs and accomplishments every chance they got” (115).

While this book focuses on positional inheritance and the connection it forges between names and memory, Ramírez also goes to great lengths to broaden the discussion, acknowledging the variety of ways that different societies reckon history. Her opening chapter offers a plethora of examples for the reader’s consideration, from the praise songs of West African griots to the toponyms that fuse Apache histories with locations on their desert landscape, and her final chapter reconsiders the contentious divide between myth and history. In Praise of the Ancestors is a meticulously researched, richly detailed, fascinating read that demonstrates the critical insights made possible by an interdisciplinary approach. Through her illuminating cross-cultural study, Ramírez identifies positional inheritance as the mechanism that elicited, communicated, and propagated history in some societies without writing. She concludes, “Names passed from one individual to another and their collective deeds, preserved in oral narratives, ritual, and song, built reputations that accrued not to an individual but to the name” (134). Moreover, such names “became mnemonic devices that elicited memories, which, once selected and codified into oral traditions, recalled a group’s origins” (133). In Praise of the Ancestors will be of immense value to historians, anthropologists, folklorists, and anyone striving to understand oral tradition as history, the cultural logics underpinning succession, and the constitution of personhood itself.


[Review length: 1020 words • Review posted on January 29, 2024]