South American Indians

From Anarchy In Action

From Harold Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy:

The sub-tropical and tropical regions of South America were home to a multitude of differing cultural groups. Most of them were small in population with no political integration beyond a local level. Some were clearly anarchic; others were not.

Dole points to several examples of South American forest Indians wherein a hereditary chieftainship was extremely powerful. A Sherente headman was obeyed when he ordered several other men to kill a man who had repeatedly abandoned his wife. Apinaye headmen ordered the execution of alleged sorcerers. A Shavante headman held five men to be dangerous to communal well-being and had them executed. The Cashinahua headman visited every family in his village each day and gave out orders for the day's activities. His permission was also required before a marriage could be contracted.

Dole suggests that perhaps many of the known anarchic tribes in South America were once much less so and considers in some detail the case of the Kirikuru, a small group of about 145 persons who live in central Brazil.

They have 'headmen' who have no authority or power, although they once had more before recent demographic and social disturbances. Disease has reduced the population of many groups to the point where they can no longer function as self-sufficient and separate entities. Consequently various remnant groups consolidate. Thus among the Kirikuru there are people from at least four different 'tribes'. Headmanship was normally a kind of hereditary office through the male line, but a man often dies before his eldest son matures so that one from another family is therefore appointed. This man himself may be from a family which had provided headmen in another tribe. Thus leadership is distributed among various families producing claims to succession in several patriliries so that the position becomes weakened. Dole argues that the strength of headmanship is tied to lineality because it provides a standardised and exclusive channel for the exercise and transmission of authority. Where, as with the Kirikuru, this disappears, the authority of the headman is undermined.

In lieu of any chiefly power Kirikuru rely upon a number of diffuse sanctions. There is gossip, complaining, and ostracism. Alleged sorcerers and witches are killed; guilt in connection with a crime or evil is determined by divination. Any woman who looks on the secret flutes of the tribe is punished by gang rape.

Lowie presents examples of the chiefly role among other South American tribes. The Caraja chief is wholly dependent on his villagers' goodwill. If they are dissatisfied with him they will only abandon him. The Tapuya chief was highly respected when he was leading his warriors, but at home he was not so honoured. The modern Taulipang "headman has very little to say until hostilities break out with another group" (Lowie, 1949, 341). The Jivaro likewise emphasise chieftainship only in time of war. Indeed, they have no term for chief in their vocabulary and their war leaders are only of a temporary kind. Actually over the long term a shaman may be the most influential man in a Jivaro community. He is a curer, a maker of love potions, a diviner of enemy activity and interpreter of omens of defeat or victory in war. At the same time he may also be the war leader.

The more anarchic of the South American polities are made up of groups of kinsmen so that social relationships are kinship relationships. The chiefly role as Lowie sees it, entails acting as peacemaker, representing the group in foreign relations, welcoming visitors, directing economic activities and indulging in admonishing harangues (Lowie , 1949, 343).

Pierre Clastres has focussed on the more anarchic tribes in South America. He asks why the chief should have no power. He recognises the chief's importance as a peacemaker and mediator, but argues that these functions should not be confused with the nature of chieftainship. To explain this nature we must turn to the relationship of the chiefly role to reciprocity. The chief is involved in an exchange entailing women, words and wealth. Most of these Indians practise polygyny. The chief is always the man with the most wives; often the only polygynist in the group. At the same time the chief is expected to enthral the group with his oratory - no speech, no chief. He must sponsor feasts, support the community in hard times and always demonstrate his magnanimity and generosity. Through these mechanisms the chief continually strives to validate and revalidate his position. But such demonstrations are not, as one might think, proper reciprocations to the community·.for the excess of wives or the position the chief has. Women are of s11tt:h 'consummate' value that all the words and all the gifts provided by tpe chief are insufficient to qualify the situation as a reciprocal, that is, equal exchange. As such the chief in his position defies reciprocity, that basic law of social relations. Such an asymmetrical relatibnship is identified with power and that in turn with nature. In opposition to them stand reciprocity,[1] society and culture. People in archaic societies, realising this conflict and the contradiction of the fundamental social law, see power as enjoying a privileged position. It is therefore dangerous and in need of restraint:; in fact 'power' should be made 'impotent' . The final synthesis in this dialectic is paradoxical. The chief's most unreciprocal acquisition of multiple wives puts him in a condition of perpetual indebtedness to his people, so that he must become their servant.

Clastres' argument is both plausible and logical. Yet reason and logic alone are clearly insufficient grounds for accepting a theory. For the more empirically-minded, Clastres' explanation, like other structuralist explanations, seems strangely detached from the solid earth. The use of hard evidence to demonstrate the theory is lacking. We Me given no idea of what the individuals involved may think. But then the structuralists argue that these things are superficial appearances, not the world in reality, the deep, underlying structure. Structuralism, like Freudianism, Jungianism and, to a lesser extent, Marxism, suffers from the problem of testability. A scientific hypothesis or theory should be so constructed that it is falsifiable. It should be subject to empirical test such that different investigators should be able to analyse the same phenomenon and validate the hypothesis by independently coming to the same conclusions. Strangely enough both Levi­ Strauss and Clastres have investigated the chiefly role in South America according to structuralist principles, but have apparently reached different conclusions about it. In contrast to Clastres, Levi-Strauss offers the usual conservative explanation that a true reciprocal relationship is involved. (Levi-Strauss, 309). Clastres correctly expresses concern about the ethnocentrism inherent in much political anthropology and in cultural evolutionary doctrine. He also calls our attention to the opposition and tension between reciprocity and leadership.

  1. Such emphasis upon reciprocity perhaps implicitly over-emphasises the altruism involved, neglecting the fact that many people do not give m the 'spint' of reciprocity so much as out of a fear of reprisal if they do not give (Colson, 1974, 48).