Ache - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Precontact Ache lived in autonomous bands with no true leaders, headmen, or class distinctions. Each band, however, did contain one or two males 40 to 60 years of age who were recognized as "having the band." Two or three men in their 50s and 60s organized most of the club fights and ritual events in the last twenty years before contact. Everyone participated in discussions about where to move or how to react to certain social situations. Generally, whoever was most strongly committed to his or her opinion would convince the others to cooperate actively or passively. When strong men wanted to take some course of action they simply forced their will on weaker individuals who were unwilling to resist. Men gained considerable prestige from being good hunters or tough opponents in club fights. The threat of violence and the availability of trustworthy allies and personal strength conferred greater coercive authority on some men. Reservation Ache have developed greater disparities in wealth and prestige because of differential exposure to outsiders and ability to manipulate missionaries and members of the Paraguayan national society. This has tended to concentrate power in the hands of a few young men who have lived with or been educated by outsiders.

Political Organization. Precontact Ache had no political organization, but formed alliances and coalitions, primarily at club fights. Reservation Ache generally have two elected chiefs who organize community affairs, redistribute goods, punish offenders, and represent the community before outside authorities. These chiefs are elected democratically with each man, woman, and child exercising one vote. Elections can be called whenever the community is dissatisfied with the actions of the current chiefs.

Social Control. Precontact Ache had no formal mechanisms for exercising social control. Group social pressure and negative opinions were partially effective, but powerful individuals could take whatever actions they thought they could get away with. Close kin of wronged individuals might come to their aid or defense if the offender were not too strong. Wife beating was common, as was child homicide by nonkin. Occasionally, groups of individuals took action against a single powerful man who had committed a particularly atrocious act. Reservation Ache publicly judge individuals thought to offend the norms of the society. The most common crimes today are petty theft by children and spouse mistreatment or desertion. Ad hoc punishments are administered and usually include public scolding, sentencing to public works, and, very rarely, short incarceration in a hut for a week or so. Although sanctioned homicide was common before contact, there have been no serious crimes (assault, homicide, rape) reported since contact.

Conflict. Violence played an important role in the lives of precontact Ache. Three major categories can be discussed: external warfare, club fights, and infanticide/child homicide.

External warfare was the single most important cause of adult mortality before peaceful contact. Ache were killed on sight by Guaraní Indians and Paraguayan peasants until the mid-twentieth century. Many children were captured and sold as slaves. Ache men, in turn, killed as many outsiders as possible, shooting them with arrows when they were encountered. Within Ache groups, shooting other individuals was strictly prohibited and only happened once in the last century.

Club fights between men, however, were common and occasionally led to death. These fights were organized when an important individual died or was captured by enemies, when rival bands met accidentally in the forest, when men were caught in sexual affairs with other men's wives, and sometimes just because the powerful men of the group wanted to fight. Club fights did not pit one band against another, but instead rapidly degenerated into contests between individuals, with allies and kin backing them up. Older men were particularly feared, and newly initiated men in their teens and twenties were most apprehensive about fighting.

Infanticide and child homicide were common before contact, claiming the life of about one out of every ten children born. Parents would kill defective children, twins, or those born after a short birth spacing. Unrelated individuals often killed the children of men who died soon after the father expired. It was common to sacrifice girls ritually so that they would accompany important older men to the grave.

In all cases of homicide—whether killing an outsider, an Ache man with a club, or a child—the killer was made to undergo purification rites, was given particular body scars, and was called by a title noting that he had killed.


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