Ritual Healing and the Aftermath of Dystopia

Utopia, Dystopia, and History

In analyzing ritual healing practices of the Amazonian rainforest and riverine cultural groups residing in southern Colombia, eastern Ecuador, and on into parts of lowland Peru, I follow Taussig in noting that illness and suffering tend to be understood, in the eyes of the ‘patients’ themselves, in terms that are “economic, political, and social, as well as those of bodily disease” (1980:219). If the body is disciplined, constrained, constituted, and produced by a variety of forces – ecological, political-economic, socio-cultural, and spiritual among others – then the body is, in a sense, the actual site of history, manifest. That is to say that these historically constitutive forces that act on bodies must be understood to act on, to the point of identity with, the biophysical body, the social body, and the body politic at one in the same moment (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987:29), making the ‘all-at-once’ of the body central to any understanding of ritual healing.[1] In order to understand the suffering that such ritual healing practices must engage with, then, it is necessary to understand the geographical-historical place these bodies inhabit. I am interested in looking at the Amazonian rubber economy of roughly 1880 through 1914, and the effects this period has left buried, perhaps in shallow graves, in the ground of contemporary Amazonia. By associating the concept of dystopia with the ‘end of history’, and this in turn with what Taussig has described as a “culture of terror” and a “space of death” (1987:3-36), it is my intention to follow a trail through the legacy of the rubber economy in this region on through its intersection with historical sorcery and multi-generational trauma, to the question of how to heal historical violence, and where ritual healing intersects with the bondage of debt.

Harvey designates ‘spatial’ and ‘process’ utopias as two distinct forms in which utopian aspirations can be organized (2000:159-179). In an analysis of ‘spatial’ utopias, he points out the way in which certain, classic, models of utopia are arranged in order to isolate them from the pressures of historical change. He suggests that ‘process’ utopias, by contrast, do not attempt to isolate a given spatial organization from historical change, but rather project onto the historical process itself a teleology that is predictive of some final utopian moment that will ‘end’ history. While this second ‘process’ utopia is more apropos of neoliberal capitalism, and likely the nascent capitalism of the rubber epoch in Amazonia, it is the first form of utopia that I am interested in for the purposes of this paper. It is the sense in which history ‘stops’ for a given spatial organization that I find most telling for the way in which the rubber economy became a dystopia for indigenous lives of the era. Utopia, in this sense, is something outside of history, becoming operative under its own internal harmonies, and unreliant on external influences to retain its state or position, effectively isolating it from history. Dystopia then can be understood as the opposite extreme, as something overdetermined by historical forces, where no novel action can arise, and cut off from the liberties of potential change. Here utopia is never subject to change, while dystopia is incapable of it. This inescapability provides an effective analytic lens through which to view the terror of the rubber boom in Amazonia.

Dystopia, the End of History, and the Space of Death

The imperialist justifications for the colonization and enslavement of indigenous persons in much of the Amazon tended to be based, when not denying their humanity outright, on a sense of indigenous people as those ‘without history’. Problematically, many of these assumptions have been carried forward even as late as Steward’s 1946 tome the Handbook of South American Indians (Fausto and Heckenberger 2007:2). This colonialist, and often bluntly racist, conception has been sharply rebuked by contemporary research. By highlighting instead the “regional scale and supra-ethnic character of Amerindian social organization” (Whitehead 1994:34), it is possible to look more carefully at the continuous processes of change that have gone on for indigenous groups before, during, with, and in spite of European contact (Whitehead 1994; Fausto and Heckenberger 2007; Zarzar and Román 1983). This has proved to be an especially potent tool for historical analysis in terms of ethnogenesis, marking it as a process of creative adaptation in the face of violent repression and exclusion, albeit one which is never unilinear or internally uncontested (Hill 1996). By recognizing the multiple modes of indigenous socio-political organization, all naturalized notions of ‘ethnicity’ become suspect, as ethnicity in emic categories – both prior to and throughout much of the colonial period – was as much related to economic production and trade networks as it was to linguistic or kinship commonalities (Whitehead 1994; A. Taylor 1999).[2] Indeed, it was the effects of violence, disease, slavery, and missionization that led to the fragmentation and “breakdown of macrosystems and regional networks” that had played such a pronounced role in indigenous identity formation prior to contact (A. Taylor 1999:208), ultimately producing the smaller, less complex, and more localized socio-political forms suggested as a-historically ‘typical’ by Steward and Métraux (1946).

Bartolomé de las Casas  decried the “brutal massacres”, “frightful and disgraceful crimes”, and “terrible butchery” during the early colonial period of Spanish invasion (in Peterson and Vásquez 2008:70-72), and the rubber economy in Amazonia unsettlingly echoed the worst abuses of this period. In the region of the Amazon outlined here, indigenous populations declined, between roughly 1550 to 1780, by eighty percent (A. Taylor 1999:238). The literature detailing this history is a tangle of violence, slavery, and disease, shot through with the rhetoric of saving souls (San Román 1975:85-87; Kohn 1992:51; Whitten 1976:10, 207-208; Myers 1974:139-147). The mission pueblos, in part because they acted as focal points for the spread of disease, became associated for indigenous peoples with the image of death (San Román 1975:87). The effects of disease, however, should not be mistaken for those of simple biological pathology – as Whitten clearly notes, “in these centuries the Spanish crown’s insatiable mercantile thirst for gold articulated well with the church’s insatiable desire for bureaucratic expansion” (1976:207), suggesting that calculated intentions drove the cataclysmic effects on bodies and territories of indigenous peoples as much as any happenstance of disease vector.

While rubber may have been the commodity, the object of control in Amazonia during the rubber boom was labor – or perhaps more clearly put, the organization and compulsion of indigenous bodies (Whitten 1976:211). The influx of capital from foreign investment created a situation in which the demand for rubber was extraordinary, but due to both socio-cultural norms and simple geographic logistics, the rationalization of rubber production was not feasible in the Amazon (Weinstein 1983:3, 263-264). Because wages on the ‘free’ labor market were high given the remoteness of much of the territory, the solution was often to simply coerce the required labor from indigenous populations (Taussig 1987:53). After 1892 when the Jesuits were expelled from Ecuador, “more than half of the Quichua men living near Loreto were chained and taken to work the ‘rubber lanes’ on the lower rivers in Peru and Colombia” (Hudelson 1984:68).[3] It is Weinstein’s thesis that these colonialist, classist, and racist attitudes represented and enforced during the terror of the rubber boom were behind the failure of this economic explosion to “give rise to a basic transformation of Amazonian society” (1983:267) in terms of economic development and socio-political arrangements. Moreover, it was international demand for rubber that “opened the floodgate for atrocities in Amazonia”, those which were to be “hauntingly reminiscent of those described by Bartolomé de las Casas” (Lane 2003:78). It is not difficult to find descriptions of the terror that reigned in many areas of the Amazon during the rubber economy (Stanfield 1998; Taussig 1987:3-138), but what is striking is the degree to which such violence seems related to the all-pervading system of debt (A. Taylor 2007:143; Stanfield 1998:37-60; Taussig 1987:53-71).

It is the relationship between a system of debt and the performance of such extraordinary violence as plagued the rubber-boom-era Amazon that orients an invocation of dystopia as an analytic tool. If inescapability of structurally compelling historical forces is a worthy view on dystopia, then the pervasive bondage of debt in terms of peonage and forced labor provide a convincing image of the rubber economy as dystopian. The utter absence of a cash economy or an internal labor market meant that “wage labor was impossible”, making the only source of labor available the compulsion of indigenous persons into service (Stanfield 1998:40). However, as outright slavery had by the nineteenth century dropped from favor in liberal-minded European societies, it became necessary to establish a polite fiction over the institution by invoking the ‘moral’ need to repay debt (Taussig 1987:65-70; Stanfield 1998:39-62). In this manner indigenous persons, as well as unfortunate others, could find themselves pressed on threat of violence to accept wildly overvalued goods, as well as unwanted and unneeded lines of credit with company stores, as ‘advances’ in exchange for their labor. Roger Casement, known for his clear descriptions of both British violence in the Congo and later in rubber era Amazonia, described this situation as making a “compulsory debtor” out of a person so forced, though he would go on to affirm that such a debt was “pretext altogether”, for it was threats and enactments of violence that were the real “hold on the Indian in the Putumayo” (in Taussig 1987:70-71). Both Casement and a contemporary, if more melodramatic, voice in Hardenburg noted “the lurid details of flogging, mass slaughter, decapitation, rape, dismemberment, and pleasure-killing” performed routinely in the Amazon of the rubber boom, and in the Putumayo in particular (Stanfield 1998:133). It is virtually impossible not to note the mad logic of the marketplace, the commoditization of lives and labor, where patróns sold human beings back and forth “like chattel” (Stanfield 1998:47-48), via the accounts of their debt. Indeed, Taussig suggests that, in the Amazon during the rubber boom, in answer to the question of what makes a human, human, “the answer lying closest to hand is his debt” (Taussig 1987:70). This throws into unsettling relief the distinction between debt-peonage and slavery. Though neither promised any greater security of rights or property, the debtor could be simultaneously a fetishized ‘object’ in terms of his[4] debt, though still recognized as a social ‘person’ in this sense. The slave, on the other hand, per Patterson’s notion (1982) and as echoed in Graeber’s recent work on debt (2011), had undergone ‘social death’ by being uprooted from any community or social network which would have conferred upon them a form of personhood. Within a space of terror such as the Putumayo, the very production of personhood via social relationships – throughout the entire aviamiento system of patróns, international business partners, rubber tappers, and Indian labor – was transformed by, and perhaps only understandable in terms of, inescapable bonds of debt. It was perhaps this inescapability as much as anything else that lead to a kind of madness of violence, for as Taussig suggests, it was the fiction of the “appearance of trade” in which the debtor is a free person able to exchange himself, and somehow his family for generations at a time, on the market as labor, and hence as a debt, on which the whole fiction of the system depends (1987:65). What shows the system mad is that despite the efforts to maintain such a fiction, the rubber traders “were just as ready to claim the flesh of a debtor’s body” as any amount of rubber (Taussig 1987:65).

“Ineffability is a striking feature of this death-space” (Taussig 1987:4), a space where the arbitrary exercise of brutal force and lethal power – the ability to hold children as young as nine years old as concubines, to torture or murder a man for no fault, but rather as entertainment (Stanfield 1998:128) – suggests that the performance of terror ceased to be, if it ever had been, in service of an attempt to rationalize production of rubber, but rather toward “the inscription of a mythology in the Indian body”, in this case the mythology of a colonial ‘civilization’ onto a fantasy of ‘wildness’ (Taussig 1987:27). What stands out from both Taussig and Stanfield’s accounts of the Putumayo, is the uncertainty, the ambiguity and amorphousness of the spatiotemporal place of the Putumayo in the rubber boom era. As Taussig compellingly suggests, this uncertainty is itself the groundless-ground of a culture of terror (1987:4). As lethal as any particular event of violence was the promise, miasmatic, of the same waiting senselessly at the end of an arbitrary and even anonymous gun barrel or machete blade. How many had died, and what was fabrication, what was sensationalistic – and was, as Taussig asks, the sensationalism perhaps nevertheless part of the real of the space (1987:32-33)? Casement estimated that for the production of 4,000 tons of rubber over the period of 12 years, no less – and likely many more – than 30,000 indigenous lives had been taken, through explicit violence or the toll of disease and starvation (Taussig 1987:20). In such a space, reasoned estimates echo in shock as if they must be hyperbolic.

Healing and History, Ritual and Debt

History, for many indigenous people of this region, is understood to be of and in the earth itself. Uzendoski states that for the Napo Runa, “there is no reality that is not part of place”, and that the past is something, like plant growth, that blossoms into the present, which, fading, becomes again the ground of the future, which finally is the same allpa as the past (2012:15). The production of subjectivities are often expressed in these terms, as a socio-ecological and cosmo-political network of relationship between humans, animals, plants, rivers, mountains, ancestors, and powerful beings that cross boundaries between forest and urban spaces, as well as contemporary history and the primordial past (Kohn 2007:106-125; Uzendoski 2005:201).[5] Bodies and personhoods are developed in relation to the earth, and the history it holds. This intersects with Taussig’s notion of ‘historical sorcery’ – he suggests an image of sorcery as an “evil wind”, wherein the “history of the conquest itself acquires the role of the sorcerer” (1987:373). In this conception, the historical space of colonial violence itself becomes a “temporal hell located in a fermenting, rotting, organic underground of time” (1987:372). Sorcery in this temporal sense reminds of the notions of historical and multigenerational trauma noted by Good (2008:5), where structural violence not only occurs in the past, but echoes in experiences of suffering through generations. History, as it produces persons and bodies in kind, also produces this suffering, via the selfsame forces.[6]

The question becomes how to heal historical violence. The political agency so powerfully displayed by indigenous persons throughout this region, both historically and in contemporary political practice, give answer on one level to the work that must be done to right structurally repressive forces.[7] But if there is a relationship between inescapable debt and the production of violence, then contemporary indigenous lives are still under threat. Neoliberal structural reform advocated, or demanded, by the IMF, World Bank, and other international financial bodies leads to national, regional, local, familial, and individual debt in unprecedented ways (Cleary and Steigenga 2004:14; Lane 2003:96; Warren and Jackson 2002:15; Whitten 2003:11-19). All exploitation and structural violence must be actively produced and performed in contemporary situations by contemporary actors for them to have compelling force, but there is nevertheless the troubling sense that colonial history and the repressions of the rubber economy find themselves being replayed in novel but nevertheless familiar ways. Whitten notes that Steve Forbes likened Ecuador’s turning to the IMF for aid as a hemophiliac turning to Dracula for safety, and suggests that this analogy runs startlingly close to indigenous ideas of the “pishtaco or ñakak… the foreign, white bogey man who renders and sells ‘indian fat’ and sucks the blood of indigenous people” (2003:3). The threat is to the body, as physical as it is economic. And if the site of suffering is the body – material, social, and politic – then the question I am interested in asking is just where it is that ritual healing intersects with the alleviation of both historical suffering and the multiple crises of debt. It is my contention that the very corporeal mortality of the body is an effective denial of any ‘end of history’, whether a utopian isolation, or a dystopian inescapability. Mortal things cannot evade history, and this reverberates through institutions wrought by the same. The capacity to heal and be healed suggests there are always, in a sense, spaces left for historical ‘play’, openings to novelty both in terms of crisis and transformation. Whitten affirms that “shamanism provides a focal point for confronting and containing the real forces which dismember” the lifeways of the Napo Runa (2007[1979]), which suggests that an understanding of ritual engagement with the problem of national, regional, local, and individual debt is central to a full understanding of its elaboration as suffering in indigenous lives. Uzendoski notes, “the logic of debt-peonage… continues to exist culturally in Napo even after the actual institution does not” (2003:135). There are numerous studies of ritual healing in this region,[8] and likewise a significant number of analyses of both political-economic structural suffering and discourses of sorcery in terms of envy and violence.[9] What I am interested in opening is a direction for inquiry oriented toward where sorcery, history, and global networks of debt intersect in embodied lives of indigenous Amazonians of this region, and how these forces – as cosmological, in a sense, as they are economic – are engaged with in a space of ritual healing.


I very much want to thank Robin Wright for his constant mentorship, without which I would not have been able even to begin this line of research. I want to thank Whitney Sanford for giving me the opportunity to explore “utopias and dystopias” as an analytic lens through which to view this particular period of history, and for acquainting me with Harvey’s Spaces of Hope. I want also to thank the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida for their support over the last two years, giving me the opportunity to pursue this course of study.


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[1] Cf. Csordas 1988; Strathern (1996:178)

[2] Cf. Zarzar and Román (1983:24) for ethnicity as a particular historical moment than an essential category

[3] Cf. San Román (1975:142-150) for more on the coercion of indigenous bodies to rubber slavery

[4] Here I opt for the gendered term, as men tended to be the explicit debtors in this system. Women were systematically exploited, raped, and enslaved, but debtors were almost exclusively men.

[5] Cf. A. Taylor (2007) for alternative indigenous modes of engaging with history among the Shuar and the Runa of this region.

[6] Cf. Kleinman (1992), Das  et. al. (2001), Kleinman et. al. (1997) for analyses of cultural elaborations of ‘suffering’ in anthropological and ethnographic literature.

[7] Cf. Uzendoski (2005:147) for the echo of colonial era ancestral heroes in contemporary resistance. See Tournon (2002:59-60) for an analysis of both Atahualpa and Runcato’s revolutionary movements in the colonial era. See Whitten (2003) and Brysk (2004) for accounts of contemporary levantamientos in Ecuador by indigenous activists. See Warren and Jackson (2002) for an analysis of current indigenous movements and the establishment of new political power throughout Latin America.

[8] Cf. work by Beyer (2009), Luna (1986), Dobkin de Rios (1972), Tournon (2002), Cárdenas Timoteo (1989), and Harner (1972).

[9] Cf. work by Whitehead and Wright (2004), Heckenberger (2004), Whitehead (2002; 2004), and Stewart and Strathern (2004), and Rubenstein (2002), Taussig (2010[1980]).

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