Indigenous Rituals, Kinship, and Autonomy in the Borderlands of Northeastern South America, 1600–1750

Monday, January 6, 2020: 9:40 AM
Gramercy (Sheraton New York)
Silvia Espelt-Bombin, University of Exeter
European interest in northeastern South America developed swiftly from the late sixteenth century. By the mid-seventeen century, the Portuguese, French and Dutch were the main actors engaging in peaceful and violent interactions with Amerindians between the Brazilian Amazon and French Guiana. These Europeans were newcomers into changing multi-ethnic and multi-lingual regional networks of trade, kinship and war with a long history of incorporating new people. National historiographies of the region tend to consider Amerindian-European alliances as successful colonial policies or individual initiatives that enabled settlement and control over a territory, people or trade route. However, we should also understand European success, or failure, in settling in Amerindian territory and tapping into indigenous networks in the context of intra-indigenous polities in these borderlands. This paper analyses intra-Amerindian rituals involving the transportation, gifting and playing of flutes, deemed ‘peace-making’ rituals by French contemporaries. Europeans were never invited to participate in these rituals, even though they were in contact with the same groups through alliances, trade and missionaries. This exclusion suggests that these rituals served to maintain indigenous sociality and autonomy while setting limits to European colonisation and participation into indigenous polities. Whereas most of the Amerindian peoples of the are all but gone from the region, modified versions of the rituals still persist today in northeastern South America. Using anthropological and ethnohistorical sources, this paper discusses indigenous rituals to gain new insights into indigenous kinship systems, polities and autonomy that speak to indigenous cultural continuities and transformations as well their autonomy across centuries in the Brazilian Amazon and the Eastern Guianas.