Synopses & Reviews
In 2004, one of the worldand#8217;s last bands of voluntarily isolated nomads left behind their ancestral life in the dwindling thorn forests of northern Paraguay, fleeing ranchersand#8217; bulldozers.and#160; Behold the Black Caiman
is Lucas Bessireand#8217;s intimate chronicle of the journey of this small group of Ayoreo people, the terrifying new world they now face, and the precarious lives they are piecing together against the backdrop of soul-collecting missionaries, humanitarian NGOs, late liberal economic policies, and the highest deforestation rate in the world.and#160;
Drawing on ten years of fieldwork, Bessire highlights the stark disconnect between the desperate conditions of Ayoreo life for those out of the forest and the well-funded global efforts to preserve those Ayoreo still living in it. By showing how this disconnect reverberates within Ayoreo bodies and minds, his reflexive account takes aim at the devastating consequences of our societyand#8217;s continued obsession with the primitive and raises important questions about anthropologyand#8217;s potent capacity to further or impede indigenous struggles for sovereignty. The result is a timely update to the classic literary ethnographies of South America, a sustained critique of the so-called ontological turnand#151;one of anthropologyand#8217;s hottest trendsand#151;and, above all, an urgent call for scholars and activists alike to rethink their notions of difference.and#160;
and#8220;This is an exceptional book whose compelling narrative fully immerses the reader in the social and spatial geography of the northern Gran Chaco. The bookand#8217;s greatest strength is Bessireand#8217;s careful conceptual and ethnographic decomposition of the terms that have long been used to dehumanize the Ayoreo people in popular and scholarly imaginings. Original and unsettling, this ethnography shows that the anthropological deconstructions of conventional notions of and#8216;cultureand#8217; and and#8216;indigeneityand#8217; havenand#8217;t gone too farand#8212;in fact, they havenand#8217;t gone far enough.and#8221;
and#8220;Wonderfully sensitive to its own presuppositions about anthropology no less than the giddy claims made for and#8216;Amerindian cosmologyand#8217; and the so-called ontological turn, Bessireand#8217;s chronicle of the Ayoreo of Paraguay and Bolivia is breathtaking in its power and delicacy. His chronicle takes us into the depths of suffering, not to resurrect the primitive or the travail of genocide, but so as to more honestly address what he sees as deep-seated and#8216;zones of intense translationand#8217; that override the hoopla of Western attachment to the indigene as bound to tradition. A profoundly iconoclastic book that will become one of the great classics of social thought, it leaves the reader in a remarkably new place for rethinking modern history, no less than thinking itself.and#8221;
and#8220;In a time when anthropologists proclaim an and#8216;ontological turnand#8217; based on the study of cosmologies and mythologies, proposing a representation of Amerindians as radical others living in ahistorical temporality, Bessire resists what he calls the and#8216;fetishization of traditionand#8217; by offering a beautifully written ethnography of the pauperized and marginalized Ayoreo people, who are caught between the forest and the bulldozers that destroy it, between the proselytism of millenarian religions and the benevolence of humanitarian organizations. Behold the Black Caiman is an important and courageous book, which will be a source of inspiration for all social scientists interested in the contradictions of the contemporary world.and#8221;
andldquo;Bessire presents the reader with a plethora of unruly images and evocative vignettes of Ayoreo life which never surrender to a single, univocal narrative. His account is purposefully complex. In a world where sensationalized images of the andldquo;last contacted Indiansandrdquo; are regularly consumed to satiate our hunger for otherness, and in an academy where indigenous ways of life are increasingly emphasized as the only true political alternative to our world, Bessireandrsquo;s book is a much-needed different voice.andrdquo;
Winner of the 2003 Senior Book Prize from the American Ethnological Society.
The chola and the pishtaco are provocative characters from South American popular cultureand#8212;the former a sensual mixed-race woman and the latter a horrifying white killerand#8212;who show up in everything from horror stories and dirty jokes to romantic novels and travel posters. In this elegantly written book, these two figures become vehicles for an exploration of race, sex, and violence that pulls the reader into the vivid landscapes and lively cities of the Andes. Weismantel's theory of race and sex begins not with individual identity but with three forms of social and economic interaction: estrangement, exchange, and accumulation. She maps the barriers that separate white and Indian, male and female-barriers that exist not in order to prevent exchange, but rather to exacerbate its inequality.
Weismantel weaves together sources ranging from her own fieldwork and the words of potato sellers, hotel maids, and tourists to classic works by photographer Martin Chambi and novelist Josandeacute; Marandiacute;a Arguedas. Cholas and Pishtacos is also an enjoyable and informative introduction to a relatively unknown region of the Americas.
Behold the Black Caiman by anthropologist Lucas Bessire is a haunting ethnography based on a decade of fieldwork among a group of Ayoreo-speaking tribes in the Gran Chaco, the largest forested area in South America after the Amazon. Bessire shows that, far from being untouched and#147;noble savages,and#8221; most of the Ayoreo tribes are struggling to survive on the margins of industrialized society as cattle ranches encroach on the dense wilderness that they once called home. As one of the poorest and most marginalized indigenous groups in the region, the Ayoreo endure unfathomable levels of violence and discrimination. Faced with such brutality, the Ayoreo believe that survival within modernity requires a radical transformation, including the abandonment of nearly all of the practices that count as authorized and#147;native cultureand#8221; in Latin America. Bessire argues that their attitude is not evidence of contamination or loss--as many anthropologists, NGOs, and state representatives would have it--but is rather a profound moral response to their desperate situation. The book thus aims to revise the anthropology and history of Ayoreo-speaking people, and indigenous people in general, who have long been seen as the ultimate primitives and#147;outsideand#8221; the State, market, and history. Written in the tradition of classic texts such asand#160;Chronicle of the Guayaki Indiansand#160;andand#160;Tristes Tropiques, the book tells a tragic story of catastrophic violence that is urgently relevant to identity politics both within Latin America and beyond.
About the Author
Mary Weismantel is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and chair of Latin American studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of Food, Gender and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction: A New World
1 The Devil and the Fetishization of Tradition
2 The Lost Center of the World
3 Hunting Indians
4 Mediating the New Human
5 Apocalypse and the Limits of Transformation
6 Shame and the Limits of the Subject
7 Affliction and the Limits of Becoming
8 The Politics of Isolation
Conclusion: Behold the Black Caiman