Missionaries and Shamans: Negotiating Religion and Medicine in Tierraentro (Colombia), 1904–50

Friday, January 6, 2012: 3:10 PM
Promenade Ballroom C (Westin Chicago River North)
Alejandra Boza, University of Pittsburgh
Many post-Independence Latin American states turned to international Christian missionary orders to help them in the “civilization” of their indigenous frontiers, which accounted for more than half of continental Latin America’s territory. By the first decade of the twentieth century the missionaries were active in many of these areas. In this paper I will examine one of these indigenous frontiers, Tierradentro in southwestern Colombia, where Catholic Vicentian missionaries established a mission starting in 1904 among the Nasa Indians.

Analyzing a variety of sources, this paper examines the impact that the missionaries’ attempts at cultural and religious transformation had on the Indians. I present two main arguments. First, Vincentian missionaries saw “conversion” not as a specific breaking point but as gradual process parallel to the gradual civilization of these groups, hence the missionaries were willing to compromise and accept (or at least, not openly oppose) some indigenous religious ideas and practices, even if on a temporary basis. Second, the missionaries narrowly classified the indigenous religious specialists (the te wala) as the equivalent to “doctors,” that is, as specialists dealing with individual illness at the private level (thus invisibilizing their functions as “social healers” dealing with communal problems). This classification permitted the missionaries to ignore ritual practices (mis)understood as exercises in bodily healing. Hence the missionaries and the local populations reached a middle ground, in which indigenous populations accepted certain Catholic practices, and the missionaries accepted certain local practices by interpreting them as medical.

My case study contributes to recent scholarship that has challenged the assumption that secularization was the dominant trend in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and Latin America, by showing that in some indigenous frontiers both religious organizations and ideas of religious conversion played a key role on the process of nation-building.