|Alan Tormaid Campbell
Getting to Know Waiwai
An Amazonian Ethnography
SMALL SCALE SOCIETIES
S. 111: Authority - power - hierarchy
How do human beings keep their society going? How
fragile is it? While animal instincts are usually so accurate, human drives
and motivations are a mess. To keep us right in the society we know here,
we're held together by all sorts of economic and political institutional
arrangements that we think are enormously sophisticated. They are certainly
obscure, and there are so many competing views
All this gives us the impression that somehow we (as opposed to them) live in enormously sophisticated societies. When we look at simpler societies from this point of view as mirrors of ourselves we think that it is they who lack something or another and we who have progressed to some superior state. But wherever you look it's the small-scale societies that seem to work. It's what's called 'civilization' that's responsible for crying 'Havoc!' and letting slip the dogs of war.
We think that our protection from havoc comes from our institutions, such as our governments and judicial systems, police and military organizations, and oh yes, our amazing scientific and technical sophistication with its basis in literacy. And I suppose that's right, in a way. We think that if these institutions disintegrated we would be at risk. And I'm sure we would be. But we then go on to reason that those societies that do not have such institutions must therefore be teetering on the verge of chaos.
William Golding's Lord of the Flies imagines a
set up where all institutions of authority are suddenly removed, and the
abandoned community of schoolboys slips into a process of degeneracy where
dark, atavistic manners and arrangements emerge. It's generally assumed
that our civilized institutions save us from some dreadful state like that;
from some primitive state that we might fall into
But this is all upside down. It's we who are the social children, living under the authority of grave, distant, paternalistic institutions of which we know little. Wayapi people, and so many others in similar circumstances, had nothing like that sitting over them (except, that is, when they were being interfered with by Brazilians). They had to know how to shift for themselves, and they did very well indeed.
How on earth did they do it? Only 150 people when
I first met them and, if left to themselves, they could get on with it
just dandy. No Lord of the Flies fantasy here at all. You could take any
aspect of it you want. The one that I always find so intriguing
The notion that there's a useful contrast to be made between simple-primitive languages on the one hand and complicated-sophisticated ones on the other (like modern English, modern French, modern Arabic, modern Chinese) should be one of the easiest misapprehensions for comparative anthropology to correct. But it's just so widespread. I heard in the streets of Marrakech from university-educated Moroccan students that you couldn't possibly make a grammar book or dictionary of Berber (the language found in the Atlas mountains which looked down on them, and indeed one of the languages found on their own city streets) because 'it wasn't a real language', and I've come across the same reaction in university circles here: that the people I'd visited in Amazonia 'of course didn't have a proper language'.
What's so baffling about that kind of assertion
is that there's absolutely nothing you can do to show them how wrong they
are.Talking about the wonders of a particular language is useless. You
can't talk about a language in that way. It's even further removed than
talking about music. You can always play a tape of the music,
Similarly, as regards their material welfare, if left to themselves they did not face the havoc of starvation and famine. That's something that's left for 'civilization' to perpetrate on the world. Here again it's the wrong way round. It is we, in our complex technological societies who are, in a childlike way, dependent on everyone else around us for the very basics of our existence, and it is Wayapi people who appear as self-sufficient adults, able to look after themselves.
That's why all of us who went there and lived with them admired their skills so much and became so aware of how much we have lost. There is not a trace of romantic illusion in appreciating the wonders of their language. There is not a trace of romantic illusion in appreciating their superb technical skills and their knowledge of their environment.
But what about the sociey aspect? How was havoc
kept at bay there? Who decided what counted as right and what counted as
wrong, what was decent behaviour and what was not, what was madness and
what sanity? Who decided on punishment and revenge? Where did the restraints
on violence come from? Where could appeal be made to for guidance? Why
didn't it all just go to pot?
In one way the questions I'm asking are banalities.
No one with the slightest anthropological experience is going to ask if
you could find examples of a people without a 'proper' language. Nor would
you entertain for long the idea of a people chronically incompetent in
their environment (that is, a permanent hopelessness - one that is not
the result of major disruption or sudden catastrophe). Similarly you can't
really entertain the idea of 'a society that doesn't work as a sociey'.
So we can say with some firmness: 'Look, it just is like that. That's what
"human life" means - language, material culture, social codes. It's just
as basic as walking on two
But it's not as basic as that. It's not as simple
as basic biology. There was no way of knowing when any of us started out
in comparative anthropology that it would be at all like that. It's absolutely
fascinating that it should turn out that way. And whereas
It's easy for anthropologists to take it all for
granted, especially while being there with them in the woods, with the
details of the day to get through, and the strings of immediate anxieties
and decisions to resolve. While there, an appreciation of the way they
held the whole show together came only in scattered moments, being puzzled
by something and deliberately stopping to wonder. It's only now, looking
back, that I can properly admire what was going on.
Without the Law
The essence of the way they lived was that there was no higher authority to appeal to. There were no ponderous institutions nor grave abstractions (the Police or the Law) to take decisions or coerce.They had to sort it out themselves.
It's worth emphasizing the point about Law. Familiar
stereotypes of primitive life manage to incorporate impossible inconsistencies
at the same time, seeing the people so described as being at once unpredictably
volatile and violent while also being fearfully hide-bound in rigidly limiting
codes. Again these views represent worlds turned upside down. The authoritarian,
autocratic chief, signalling
You quickly find that trying to puzzle out what
the word 'chief' means is still one of the most intriguing social and philosophical
puzzles that an encounter with Amazon
Professional commentators who approach the problem do so with contrived awkwardness. 'Well, you see, the chief is a sort of distributor. Being the political centre, he's given all sorts of material goods. But anything he gets he's got to redistribute. So although he remains materially poorer he gets the benefit of superior moral and political status.'
This is functionalist fantasy. There was no centring of material production, no redistributing, no displays of giving. The awkwardness of explanations like that, the embarrassing lack of fit with the life you see, is, actually, understandable.
There are dozens of these explanations, including bizarre 'structuralist' ones where 'culture' takes over in the form of the chief and 'nature' breaks back through to deprive him of his power - weird bouncing dances of abstractions. The awkwardness is understandable because they are all trying to make sense of the question, 'How can you have political power in the form of a chief when nothing that the chief says has anything to do with executive decisions?' What on earth is a chief for, if not to dole out the orders? What's power without power?
I'm as puzzled as anyone else, and can't find much
to say to solve the conundrum. But what delights me is that here again
is something so unexpected. It throws up all sorts of questions about the
nature and possibilities of human life by putting our notion of 'political
power' into a strange light indeed. It's also one of the
The word is “yanerowiyung”: 'Our-Big', or 'Our-Big-One'. It would be absolutely perverse to insist that we mustn't translate that as 'chief'. The point is we have to translate it as 'chief'. Everything in the habits of our language pulls us into 'chief' as if into a semantic black hole. And once in there, we find ourselves covered by layers of misconceptions. We have to go in, though. I'd insist on that. And once in there, we've got to start digging ourselves out again, through the layers of misconception, and try to find a way of reorganizing our notions of 'chief' and 'power' in order to find a way towards their notions. There's no other way but through our words.
Waiwai is a 'chief'. I think of him as a kind of moral commentator, like a stern and self-important writer of editorials in a national newspaper. Sure, he's a Thunderer when he walks about at night, or in early twilight, putting on his official voice and doing some 'hard talking' (that people shouldn't be lazy; that women should get up early and bathe in the river when it's cold, and so on). But people didn't take much notice. Certainly decisions were not his to take, and no one would think of asking him to make one.
So often you'd see the translation-mistake in action.
Brazilians would come in and think that to get something done they had
to negotiate with the chief, the “capitao”, as they'd translate it, and
that once there was agreement with him, the rest of the village would follow.
Well, you can forget your captains. That's not the way it worked. They
would also make the mistake of thinking that if gift-giving or payment
of any kind had to be made, the things could be given to the chief, who
would then hand them to negotiate with the chief, the capitao, as they'd
translate it, and that once there was agreement with him, the rest of the
village would follow.
I think some of the FUNAI staff (Brazilian Government
Organisation) gradually got round to an appreciation of this. They noticed
that there were always some
I'm not sure why we fall so easily into mistranslations
and misconceptions about this. Perhaps our hierarchies and patriarchies
and our sense of parental authoritarianism urges us to think that everyone
simply must have established patterns of dominion and submission. Surely
every pack of primates has its dominant male. Even hens have pecking orders
(or so it seems to us). Hence we
If I could just skirt around the matter of the
sexual division of labour, of the man/woman categorical imperative, of
the nuances of decision around the domestic hearth - quite a lot to skirt
around, you'll agree - then the picture presented by these communities
is one of power-degree-zero, hierarchy reduced to a minimum, authority
no more than a posture, coercion no more than a gesture.
As the months went on the struggle with the language gradually grew, from initial, carefree bouts into daily skirmishes, and from that into a full-scale campaign. It was 'foot - slog- slog- slog-sloggin' over Africa' all right. No discharge in that war. All I had to start with was a missionary's list of twenty words or so collected in French Guiana, and another made by a nineteenth-century explorer in the same area and written in pre-phonetic script French. No dictionaries, no grammars; and no training in how to go about this most mysterious of all learning procedures. I had no idea what I was up against, what to look for, whether it would even be possible to 'learn the language' at all. Could there be such a thing in the world as a language that was impossible to penetrate? No, there isn't.
The miracle of translation
The bafflement of Babel is accompanied by the miracle
of translation. Wherever languages find each other, time and again the
astonishing processes of translation begin to grow. It didn't come easily
for me though. The start was fine. It felt like
The limits of my language became prison bars. On
a day in midsummer I tried to hurl myself against them, grasping them and
shaking them in a mixture of anger, frustration, and despair. Would the
effort make them bend any quicker? Would my world expand if I howled and
beat myself against its limits? Would that break the
That day I took two or three sentences and sat with Parahandy going over them and over them till I thought I saw what was going on, and till he was fed up. By the end I felt I'd struggled to the top of a small hill only to realize that Yanuari's myth on the 30-minute tape still reared up in front of me like a huge mountain. Would I ever scale that?
It's a commitment for years, not months. And yes, the sense of freedom does eventually come. To this day I return to notebooks, grammars, vocabularies to enjoy new discoveries and to keep familiar with the paths and clearings of the language that I've already come to know. It isn't just like 'knowing another language'. I've got to know a number of European languages. One or two I'm quite good at. Others I've got a smattering. The thought of having a look at one or two more doesn't dismay me. I know I could pick up modern Greek, Romanian, maybe even a Slavonic language. But the thought of starting on another unwritten language, while it would be a marvellous undertaking, daunts me.
When going well, it was satisfying to get talking
and to start getting used to their peculiar conversational ways. I might
start talking to a particular person within the hearing of others. My interlocutor
would often be helped out and told what to say by
I'd often be asked questions by someone who knew
the answers perfectly well. Indeed, if I was having difficulty remembering
the proper words, I'd have the answer supplied for me by the questioner.
These performance aspects of conversation waxed and waned depending on
the context. On fine evenings all the men would sit in line near a fire.
I'd talk to everyone. But some men, although living together in an intimate
village like that, maintained a social distance of silence. They were relationally
remote and regarded each other as formal strangers. They wouldn't ordinarily
talk. If they did it would be a rehearsed conversation, all the questions
being familiar and all the answers heard before.
Siro, independent and happily self-sufficient,
was perhaps the man on the most formal terms with Waiwai. They found themselves
one night at the communal fire with no one else there. They sat on their
stools, their backs to one another. Waiwai went off on a harangue. His
main theme on that occasion was to go over and