Desana - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Since language groups do not occupy discrete territories, one cannot speak of "tribes" in the standard sense. The principal political unit is the maloca. During the 1800s there were chieftains, but since then authority has been vested mainly in shamans and elders of recognized esoteric knowledge. Some large communities may still have a headman, but he has limited authority. Women occupy a low status in society, although they carry the heaviest burden in food production and processing; on an idealized level, however, female-oriented imagery is strongly felt. Intermarriage with Hispanic rubber gatherers is infrequent, but temporary concubinage is common although often childless owing to native contraceptives used by the women. The Colombian government has recently established a large reserve for all Tukanoan groups of the Vaupés area, and consequently some semi-educated Indians, under the influence of Colombian national politics, have backed small numbers of self-styled native leaders.

Political Organization. Early Spanish contacts with Vaupés Indians go back to the sixteenth century, but no settlements were established. Until the early years of the twentieth century, the political status of the area was unclear. The Indians' orientation was toward Brazil; Tukanoan chiefs were appointed by the Brazilian authorities in Manaus, and all trade or missionary activities penetrated into the Vaupés by way of the Rio Negro. Midi, the present Colombian district capital, was founded only in 1936, when the international border was firmly delimited. When rubber became important for the war effort during the 1940s, additional settlements were founded and some roads were cut through. Since then, Mitú has become the center of political, administrative, missionary, and exploitative activities, with health services and schooling facilities for Indians located there. As political cohesion was weak, these recent developments have deeply affected most organizational features of Desana society and the neighboring societies.

Social Control. Shamans continue to exercise control over many family and community affairs and are important mediators in contacts with outsiders. The strict observance of hunting, fishing, and gathering rituals, expressed in dietary and sexual restrictions, constitutes an important body of socioecological management rules that are constantly being extolled by shamans and elders. Since the progressive breakdown of the maloca unit, brought about by missionary activity, these control systems are losing their strength.

Conflict. Warfare, cannibalism, the forceful abduction of women, and destruction of hostile settlements constitute frequent themes in ethnohistorical descriptions. The principal enemies were the Arawak of the central and southern Vaupés and the Carib on the western border. Magically induced aggression is a serious matter, and vengeance for inflicted harm may go on for years. Fights over women, adultery, abduction, or simple maloca gossip are everyday conflict situations. During recent years political unrest, the cocaine trade, and the gold rush have been new sources of conflict, the solution for which the aboriginal culture lacks all mechanisms.

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