Baniwa-Curripaco-Wakuenai - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Traditional social organization is based on a series of structural processes. Important among these are distinctions between kin and affines, or "other" groups regulating marriage and political and ritual relations; the hierarchical system of rank based on relative age, regulating social and economic relations and balanced by reciprocity and exchange; the complementary opposition of male/female roles necessary for social reproduction and subsistence activities; and the system of beliefs and practices related to the ancestors, which is central to life-cycle rites and the integration of society as well as having been central to historical millenarian movements. The imposition of international boundaries through Wakuenai territory has undermined traditional alliances and led to more interethnic marriages with other Indian societies in each of the three countries. Evangelical missionaries have created divisions by prohibiting marriages to non-Evangelicals; campaigning against ritual symbols, social practices, and traditional leadership; and encouraging urban migration. The fragmentation of Wakuenai lands into distinct reserves in Brazil, most of them open to development, may also have serious consequences for future social integration.

Political Organization. Oral histories indicate the existence of supreme war leaders in precontact times, but warfare and raiding were abandoned by most groups by the late nineteenth century. The system of hierarchical ranking among sibs probably never served as a model of institutional political power, and decision making, in the past as now, was based on general consensus and mutual assent of village elders and leaders. Leadership is often exercised by the eldest brother of the local group of agnatic siblings, yet there are so many exceptions to this, depending on local preferences and individual aspirations, as to leave unclear whether there is a rule for succession. Leaders vary a great deal in their exercise of authority, some encouraging community labor, others allowing individual families to work independently. Yet leaders must receive community consent to any decision they take and are expected to act as intermediaries in internal matters and as interlocutors in relations with outsiders. Besides this, they organize labor, preside over meetings and religious activities, distribute community production, and enforce community standards. Should a leader not fulfill these obligations, community elders decide by consensus on his replacement. In evangelical communities, the structure of religious authority is superimposed on the traditional hierarchy of elders and may thus weaken leaders' authority. In Catholic communities, young mission-trained catechists often conflict with the authority of leaders and elders. Wakuenai leaders in Brazil have formed associations to defend land and resource rights.

Social Control. Community meetings, elders' counsel, shamans' cures, and ostracism have served as important forms of social control. In cases of serious crimes, shamans from other tribes are sought out for retribution. Witchcraft continues to be an important force despite missionary intervention.

Conflict. The most serious conflicts in modern times have been brought about by the divisions produced by the radical practices of and pressures from missionaries, who have destroyed traditional cultural values and forms; pressures from outside economic interests; and the contradictions between the new materialist/individualist values, which have occasioned differences in wealth, and traditional communitarian laws and values. In many cases, these conflicts have led to family and community migration, ostracism of leaders, and an increase in accusations of sorcery.


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