Aparecida Vilaça (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), interviewed by Ashley Lebner (Laurier University)

In the conversation below, Ashley Lebner interviews Aparecida Vilaça about her most recent book, Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia (UC Press, 2016). Their discussion took place in English over email and has been edited only lightly for clarity.

AL: Hello Aparecida, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about your recent book. My hope is that these questions will help draw out at least part of the fascinating story that your book recounts.

You have been working with the Wari’ since the 1980s. In your book you make clear that though the Wari’ had already lived as Christians for a period before you arrived, they had basically de-converted by the time of your first major fieldwork. It was only when, on a trip you made in the early 2000s (after not having been there for 6 years), that you realized a Christian revival had occurred. When did you realize that you were going to write an ethnography of the Wari’ conversion to Christianity? Was there a certain ‘ethnographic moment’ that inspired you?

I am interested in both a literal and a more figurative answer, if you wish. I often wonder about anthropologists’ ethnographic moments in Strathern’s (1999) sense, which for expedience’s sake I will describe as the image that inspires their writing. I always remember an amusing passage about this by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro from the course he taught with Marcio Goldman at the Museu in 2006: “Strathern’s anthropology is, in a certain sense, the effect of a specific set of practices that fascinated her for various (some probably irrational) reasons. I think that this is something that happens to all anthropologists, even those who don’t go to the field. Every anthropologist has a kind of primal scene to which she or he always returns, not because something impressed him or her from a sentimental point of view, but because they take it as a testing ground. Whatever idea or theory is presented to them, they ask: how would this work out in situation X, which is the situation that I have in mind? For Strathern, everything happens as if she is always seeing one guy handing another a conch shell. My obsession, personally, is the execution of a Tumpinambá prisoner of war. I imagine things through this fundamental scene. I think everyone has their own particular ethnographic hallucination that serves as an attractor for thought.”(1)

So my more ‘theoretical’ question to you, if you wish to take that route, would be: do you have ‘an ethnographic moment’ that drives the writing of this book – and is it different or the same from that which has inspired your other books?

AV: In fact my book, and the articles that anticipated it, were not my first works on Wari’ Christianity. I published an article in 1996 in Mana, and in 1997 in Ethnos, called “Christians without faith”, based on fieldwork I conducted in 1992 and 1993 for my PhD Dissertation (concluded in 1996) on the first contacts with whites. At the moment of this research the Wari’ were not Christians anymore but it caught my attention that they seemed to miss Christianity when they talked about their recent past. I realized at the time that they did not talk about God and faith, but about the kinship as brotherhood that came with Christian life. They insisted that during the decade they were Christians (from the beginning of the 1970s to the beginning of the 1980s) there were no more internal fights and that sharing was the norm. However, they said they could not stay Christian because fights had begun to occur and, once such fights had begun, kin must necessarily get involved. As a consequence of getting involved, one would have to leave the church and stop praying, as God does not accept enraged people. I concluded that as much as it seems odd to us, to be Christian was, for them, a collective enterprise and a person needs their whole family to be Christian for it to work. That was my first ethnographic moment.

The second one happened in January 2002 when I came back to the field after a long absence. I remember two scenes: first, the Wari’ men asking me if the Talibãs had already arrived in Rio de Janeiro; second, my Wari’ father, Paletó, refusing to have dinner in my house when I cooked Spaghetti alla bolognese, his favorite non-traditional dish, simply saying that he had to go with no explanation. In fact, he was leaving for church service and was ashamed to tell me, as he knew, after almost two decades of collaboration, that I admired their traditional rituals and myths and would probably be unhappy with this revival. As soon as I realized what was happening in the village, with lots of people going to church attending evangelical services several times a week, I immediately decided to go to the services myself and began to talk to them about this. It took me totally by surprise but I understood immediately that it should become my new research subject. In fact, all my trips to the field, since the beginning, were very open-ended as I was there to discover what the Wari’ wanted to talk about.

The ethnographic moment that determined my first research subject, on cannibalism and shamanism (published as several articles and also as a book named Comendo como gente, which in English could be read either as Eating like People or When I eat I eat people, just published as second edition by Mauad X, Rio de Janeiro) was the death of a child just after my arrival in the field to do research for my MA thesis, in 1986. They did not eat the child, as they had quit cannibalism around 1968, but talked a lot about the traditional funerary practice after the burial. During the funeral the shamans were very active and one of them, Orowam, who was also the dead child’s grandfather, was suffering and crying a lot. As a result, he lost his human perspective and became a jaguar. Not recognising his kin anymore, he had to be “awakened” by them, who whispered in his ears: “Grandfather, it’s me, look at me!” That moment captured my interest and so I decided to investigate cannibalism and shamanism. Recently, going back to my fieldnotes, I saw that I wrote at that time that there was something very fluid about being human or being an animal, that people were sometimes in transit between the two, alternating between these identities, which I later defined as positions. In fact, all my work was marked by this observation right from the beginning. And it was a decade before perspectivism was defined by Viveiros de Castro (my supervisor).

AL: You creatively engage with the concept of the ‘dividual’ in this book: you reconfigure it for the Wari’ context and chart the shifts in Wari’ dividuality with their increasing conversion to/incorporation of Christianity. There has been plenty of debate about dividuality in anthropology, and in the anthropology of Christianity in particular. As you know, some scholars, both within and beyond the anthropology of Christianity have resisted its use. Marshall Sahlins, for example, in his book ‘What Kinship is—and is Not” has said:

To adopt the title of a currently popular American television series, Curb Your Enthusiasm: the Strathernian “dividual” is threatening to become a universal form of premodern subjectivity. Some of this generalization of the concept would indeed be warranted, insofar as the reference is to kinship domains. But a good part, I believe, follows from a certain confusion between personhood and kinship relations, with its corollary conflation of partibility and participation. Persons may have various relational attributes and thus be linked to diverse others—the way I am related to my students as a teacher and to the Chicago Cubs as a fan—without being united in being with them (Sahlins 2013: 25).

I personally think that Sahlins misses Strathern’s point in developing this term, but could you tell us how your work ‘responds’ to Sahlins’ critique? Why is the concept of the dividual illuminating beyond Melanesia (or India for that matter, as the context for which the concept was first developed)? Why is it particularly illuminating in the Amazonian context?

AV: I consider the concept of the dividual to speak to the domains of both kinship and personhood, in fact the latter encompasses kinship. I think it is a powerful concept that allows us to describe what seems to be a widespread idea of what a person is. There are different instances or moments of the dividual. The first one, the more quoted by anthropologists, is related to its multiple and partible constitution, which can incorporate and ex-corporate its parts in relation to others. The works of Mark Mosko are great examples of how Christian persons give part of themselves to God (their sins, their prayers) and incorporate parts of God (his power, force, forgiveness). A second aspect of the dividual is, of course, part of the other, encompassed by it, meaning that it has to do with partible persons, but is related to a specific dynamic of exchange, exclusively egalitarian and symmetrical. In Melanesia, as Strathern puts it, it happens between the masculine and the feminine positions, whether they are specific persons or groups as clans. At that moment, each position eclipses one of its parts in order to relate to the other as a new entity. The important moment is that of eclipsing exactly the constitutive part that the symmetrical other will keep. Although it can be part of a kinship-producing act (like a marriage, for example) the most important aspect of this relational moment is the encounter between symmetrical opposites and the eclipsing dynamics involved. Applying the concept to the Wari’ person, I had to substitute gender exchanges, which are not the most encompassing relations regarding the constitution of the person, to the exchanges between the Wari’ and humanized animals. Each person, Indian (Wari’) or animal (several species) have both a human and an animal part. The consequence of each encounter will be that just one of them will keep either the human or the animal part, eclipsing the other. If the Wari’ succeeds in preying on the animal, he will be the human and the animal the non-human. If the animal succeeds, it will be the human and will make the Wari’ his prey. It means that the animal will go back home to his family, taking the Wari’ (his double) as his prey. It has nothing to do with kinship and still I think it fits perfectly into the dividual dynamics. The concept of the dividual allowed me to describe this relation as symmetrical and reversible which, from my point of view, are its two main features. It also allowed me to contrapose the Wari’ pre-Christian person to the modern Euro-American individual presented to them by the Evangelical missionaries, which they begin to experience through their participation in Christian rites, especially confession. What I aimed to show in my book is that they manage to alternate between those two ideas of personhood, mainly through subtle translation choices. In sum, the dividual is not just a useful analytical tool, but also an incredibly smart term as it allows us to throw the distinctiveness of the Euro-American individual into relief – oppose it even – with just a little change in the word itself. Rhetoric is important too, isn’t it?

AL: Following on from this discussion of dividuality, in which the place of the enemy is key (if shifting in this Christianizing context), another figure seems to haunt this material (from a certain perspective, as it were): that of the friend, which is the opposite of ‘enemy’ in conventional Euro-American/anthropological languages of description. I can imagine why you may not have used this term, but other Amazonianists have engaged it – I think most immediately of Carlos Fausto (2012), and of Santos-Granero (2007), the latter of whom has argued that friendship, not enmity, is the encompassing relation in Amazonian societies. Could you elaborate on why you have chosen not to discuss friendship in this book?

AV: There is nothing in Wari’ language and practice that brings me to the idea of friendship. Either a person is kin or a foreigner (a Wari’ from a different subgroup or territorial group), the foreigner being the prototypical affine (the one called by affinity terms although not being a preferred marriage partner). Beyond the foreigner, you just have non-persons, animals and enemies. In myth, the foreigners are kind of mid-way between kin and non-persons, and in the rituals they were symbolically killed and eaten (I analyse those myths and rituals in my first two books: the above-mentioned When I eat I eat and Strange Enemies. There is no sense in opposing enemies to friends here, but enemies/animals to kin/affines.

The only connection where we could see something related to an idea of friendship (more specifically to the formal friend that appears in Amazonian literature) is the wira relation. They used to say that when a person, usually a man, arrives at a foreign village and cannot guess the kinship relation with some specific person, usually but not always, from the same sex, he will call that person wira. It is a term that the Wari’ abandoned a long time ago, and do not talk much about. The wira same-sex pair used to do activities together and this relationship could be inherited by their children. People could not marry their wira but now they use this same word to refer to “sweet hearts” or sexual partners. Anyway, the opposition that works for them is that between a person – a Wari’, consanguineal or affine – and a non-person, be it an animal or an enemy. I would say, following Viveiros de Castro, that enmity/animality (remembering that enemies are for the Wari’ a sub-category of animality) is the encompassing relation, or the given one following Roy Wagner, and its opposite is not friendship but kinship. It is kinship that people strive to make out of enmity/animality. I developed this idea in two articles published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute: “Making kin out of others in Amazonia” (2002) and “Chronically unstable bodies” (2005)

AL: The concept of translation is central to this book, and one of your innovations is to compare missionary and (more traditional) Wari’ modes of translation – the modes of making- or becoming-other. Not all becomings-other are the same, you say. Of course, one of your arguments is that Wari’ conversion to Christianity shifts Wari’ notions of personhood and humanity, even as it preserves them in a way. Can you tell us a bit more about how Wari’ modes of translation shift and potentially stay the same over time?

AV: Translation is a central analytical tool in my book and I was brought there by various different routes. They are all ethnographic. The book analyzes Wari’ Christianity in direct connection with missionaries’ Christianity. It is a book about a relation: with the missionaries as persons and with their ideology, cosmology and ontology. Considering that the missionaries in contact with them since the end of the 1950’s were mainly American fundamentalist Protestants of the New Tribes Mission (Catholics had just a side role), who base their catechism on the native language (said to be “peoples’ soul language”), their main work was to translate the Bible to the Wari’ language. To do so, they begin to learn the language as soon as they can and train Wari’ men to become translators. Their aim is to translate all of the Bible books used in church services, ideally guided by Wari’ pastors. Therefore, translation infuses all instances of their mutual relation. I couldn’t do anything but give a central place to translation.

The other interesting aspect of translation is that it is an excellent way to analize what Viveiros de Castro named the “equivocations” inherent to all relations with alterity, and that other authors, including José Kelly, Tainah Leite and myself, extended ethnographically to the relation with the whites. An equivocation is not a mistake, but a perspectival translation. A clear example given by Viveiros de Castro (2004) in an article is the one related to the idea of brother/brotherhood. The vignette goes like this: a famous Brazilian singer, Milton Nascimento thought brother was the meaning of the term txai the Kaxinawa Indians used to call him during his short visit with them (this actually takes us back to the question of friendship as the encompassing relation you referred to in the above question). However, the formal translation of txai to Portuguese was “cunhado”, brother-in-law, the encompassing relation for the Kaxinawa. Brother was the equivocal translation, as it is ‘our’ encompassing and collectivizing relation (as the Christian brotherhood), and as such the equivalent of the brother-in-law Kaxinawa. Yet rather than being a faithful translation, which the fundamentalist missionaries had hoped were they there, it was a complex and twisted one, equivalent to that made between the blood and the maize by the Wari’ when they talk about their experience with the jaguars, who drink blood calling it maize beer. Here we have the same name, beer, and two different referents. Same word, different worlds. In missionary translations the basic supposition is that you have one world (which could be called “nature,” to put it in the terms of the next question, or the world created by God and described/narrated in the Bible) and translation aims to find different words to the same referent. They keep their eye on the similarities, equality, believing they can arrive, with hard work and God’s inspiration, to a faithful translation that can approximate two initially different ideologies or cosmologies (taken as cultural – and wrong – interpretations of the same given world; our multiculturalism without the politically correct symmetrical ideology).

Comparing the Wari’ Bible to the Portuguese Bible used by the missionaries, many of the translations struck me as very unusual, and for that reason interesting. First was the choice to name God Iri’ Jam, which literally means “the real invisible” and which the missionaries were happy to accept as “the true spirit”. Taking the non-visibility of God as their central feature, the Wari’ made the idea of an encompassing perspective possible, that of God, which was inconceivable in their perspectival world where each kind of body has a particular perspective.

Another interesting equivocal translation is that of the verb to love, so recurrent in the Bible, as not-to dislike. If not-to dislike could be said to be equivalent to love, it refers to a completely different given world, that of enmity and hate, which is the base for people’s agency, who fabricate kin out of others. The missionaries were happy believing (I guess) that it was a faithful translation and their relation to the Wari’ went on smoothly. For the Wari’ the equivocation of the missionaries’ translation allowed them to keep their feet in their traditonal world while at the same time in the biblical one. I don’t mean by this that they are false Christians or some silly thing like that. They are Wari’ Christians, who do not live in a single world, as the missionaries say they (the missionaries) do. They have no problem with the coexistence of multiple visions/worlds and do not swallow the idea of Truth as defined by fundamentalists’ missionaries. So, although they do not alternate anymore between Christianity and traditional rituals and mythology, having accepted the rituals and mythology of the former, the words they chose to translate transport them to their previous world. It is a subtle alternation which, of course, has different consequences for social life.

AL: At the very end of the book, you describe how one of your close Wari’ interlocutors, your brother Abrão, suddenly becomes concerned that the Wari’ are losing their culture. Three related mini-questions emerge from that a) would you say that the Christian Wari’ stabilization of (or concerted efforts to stabilize) their position as humans vis à vis animals, is equivalent to an emergent notion of nature? b) what of the concept of ‘religion’ or ‘non-religion’ (as distinct from nature) – have these concepts come into play? Finally, c) Abrão’s request that you help them to remember their culture seems like a true challenge, a perilous walk on a tightrope! Will that be your next project with the Wari’? Readers would be happy to hear about this or any other future project you have in mind with the Wari’ or others.

AV: I think that, in a way yes, there is a concept of nature that emerges with this stabilization of the pair human/non-human as fixed categories. I’ve just finished two pieces on this, yet to be published. One is named “Inventing nature”, a chapter of the book I’ve organized with Geoffrey Lloyd entitled Science in the Forest, Science in the Past, the outcome of a seminar we organized in Cambridge with anthropologists, philosophers and historians in May 2017. The other one is a paper named “Christianity + Schooling on Nature x Culture in Amazonia”, which will be published in a Tipití special issue dedicated to the work of Stephen Hugh-Jones. In both papers I analyze precisely how something like an idea of nature came out not just from Christianity but also from schooling, trying to show that Christian catechism prepared them for the Western scientificism that they learn at school, which, of course, is based on the idea of nature. But I also try to show that the Wari’ impose some limits on a simple translation like that as some features of our nature, say its significance as landscape or as site of contemplation, are hard to express in their language (which of course they always speak). They have also equated the Christian idea of guilt with the notion of ecological destruction, which of course is also present, if not always explicitly, in environmentalist discourses. In those two papers I’ve worked not just with Bible translations but also with school translations and it amazed me to see how similar they are. The central point is, of course, the idea of nature grounds both cosmologies, that of Christianity and that of Science.

And then we come to your last mini-question about my brother Abrão, who called to tell me one day that his (not incidentally named) ‘Intercultural University’ teachers told him that the Wari’ are losing their culture, mainly because they no longer perform their traditional rituals. Of course the consequences for my work were overwhelming, as what happens to or what concerns the Wari’ defines, as it always has, my research interests. Since 2014 my research has been focused on their relation to school knowledge. It consisted of being with them in the classroom (a change from being in Church!): from elementary school to university, passing through high-school. Initially I thought that I should focus on the disciplines called “indigenous language ” or “indigenous knowledge” where I thought the theme of “culture” would be more visible. But some “ethnographic situations” have shifted my course and turned me again towards perspectivism and equivocation. The first of these situations was during a fourth grade (8-10 year old children) math class, where the teacher, a Wari’ young man, was working from a Portuguese book made for rural Brazilian schools. He asked the students, “how do we measure a piece of glass or a toothpick: in kilometers or centimeters?” The children couldn’t answer. Again, watching my brother Abrão teaching children of the same age, I saw him writing a vertical list of numbers on the blackboard with each number’s supposed corresponding name in the Wari’ language. After writing from 1 to 10 with a piece of chalk, he erased some of them and changed the names’ positions: the name for 5 was exchanged with the name for 6 etc. I knew the Wari’ did not have names for numbers, except for the number one (for which the Wari’ use the same word as for ‘lonely’) and for the number two (which means ‘pair’ and also ‘many’ in Wari’). After that, they had several different words to express multiplicity. School education, in its culturally sensitive version, which wants them to express foreign concepts in their “own language” was forcing them to invent names for numbers, which they did by stabilizing the several names for many as defined quantities. This struck me as very interesting, and related to the process of creating “nature” as promoted by Christianity. It was amazing to see that in school, a context taken to be the opposite of the church – where, people say, indigenous people lose their culture – teachers are doing exactly the same thing: stabilizing (persons, relations, amounts). And the Wari’ at once embrace this project and counterpose it by defining and then redefining quantities, showing their intrinsic instability, coherent with their unstable world, that of perspectivism.

After those ethnographic “revelations” I focused my observations on math and science classes, mainly physics, to try to understand how the Wari’ translate those new ideas and concepts and what equivocations ensue. One of the outcomes of this new research was my collaboration with the philosopher and historian of Greek and Chinese ancient science, Geoffrey Lloyd, and some other historians and anthropologists to organize, along with the Brazilian anthropologists Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and Mauro Almeida, the above-mentioned Symposium in Cambridge entitled Science in the Forest, Science in the Past. Wari’ math and its relation to perspectivism or to multinaturalist ontology is one of my main projects at the moment and I plan to write a book on the theme. I think it may make an original contribution both to science studies and to studies on the schooling of native peoples. Usually the focus of these later studies, mainly those based in Amazonia, remains on how school knowledge is encompassed by Indian culture, meaning that the Indians go to school to learn new things but work through their traditional learning practices (imitation, copying, repetition). Some also say that the school is a means to a well-defined aim: to become white (in the Amazonian sense, as a reversible, non-linear and alternating process). In my view there are a whole range of issues still left to explore. It is as if the Indians look at the blackboard filled with math formulas and numbers and are not really looking at it, when in fact they are, but with their minds in the future possibilities given by school education. In fact, they are putting enormous efforts into translation, the same that they did with the missionaries. These efforts had allowed them to do the same kind of ontological alternation they did while reading the Bible at the church. One example: number 1 is expressed by the word for ‘lonely’ and has been kept in the Wari’ language, although all the other numbers have Portuguese names now. I realized that the equation between lonely and 1 is one of those equivocal ones, like the brother/brother-in-law I’ve mentioned. If in fact lonely is equivalent to 1, for us, to the Wari’ the lonely will be a negative number, like -1. Everyone who is lonely is missing another person, and it has a negative value. This was the subject of the Conference on Lévi-Strauss I gave in Paris last October, entitled “The devil and the hidden life of numbers” and that will be published soon as an article in French in the journal L’Homme and in English in the journal Hau.

My other project is related to indigenous biographies and it is not properly academic. It began in January 2017 with the death of my Wari’ father, Paletó. I felt very emotional and the day after, unable to go to the funeral, due to the distance, I decided to begin to write about his life, beginning by its end, the day before. I have had this project in mind for while now, to write about his life, and I have recorded dozens of his narratives over the years to this end. What I did not know was that it would be so personal and emotional and that I would have to include myself in the narrative. So, the title of the book, that will come out in Brazil (Editora Todavia) in August, is Paletó and I. Memories of my Indigenous Father. Writing that book was a completely new experience. It not only helped with the mourning process but also made me comfortable with a new – more free – kind of writing and narrative. My plans now are to write more in that style, be it on the Wari’ and their lives, or on new subjects that I am yet to discover. The first two chapters of my book on Paletó have been published in a magazine named Piauí, and the response, including many non-anthropologists, was very positive. It made me realize that a kind of personal narrative was an important way to bring my work to a wider audience, including to people who are in positions that enable them to intervene in favour of indigenous rights.


Ashley Lebner is assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Aparecida Vilaça is associate professor in Social Anthropology at the Museu Nacional, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

(1) Viveiros de Castro in Viveiros de Castro and Goldman 2006: 30, my translation. I thank Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Marcio Goldman for permission to translate this previously unpublished excerpt.


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