Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Standing leaned together

Harry Walker’s engrossing and elegantly written monograph on Urarina sociality clearly enriches the ethnographic record on indigenous people in Peruvian Amazonia. Indeed one of its principal aims is just that: to provide an account of Urarina perspectives on what it means to live well together, as exemplified in the ideas and practices surrounding childbirth and child-rearing discussed in the early chapters of the book. As such, we might well understand this work as an ‘autonomous’ contribution to the ethnography of Lowland South America and to the wider ethnographic analysis of human social diversity. In other words, above all else, through Walker’s book we learn much about the world of Urarina people.

What stands out in particular is the Urarina emphasis on mutuality and togetherness. The central value of ‘standing-leaned-together’ presents a striking image of the way in which Urarina conceptualise the nature of being a human person as entailing both autonomy and dependency. As babies are born and then emerge from their birth enclosure into the world, they come to experience their own contingency on others, be these others persons or things. Separated at birth from his or her intra-uterine companion, namely the placenta, the baby, now in a highly vulnerable state, relies on acts of caring and nurture from others. Protective chants from the father, and later a rattle attached to the hammock behind the baby’s head, as well as the hammock itself, envelop the baby in a protective space in which to grow.

However, just as it is among the Urarina, so too amongst ethnographers: productive processes are enmeshed within a matrix of scholarly values that reference not just autonomy but also mutuality. Which is why Walker’s work, whilst not on the whole comparative in approach nor extensively embedded within wider Amazonianist debates, nevertheless explicitly emerges out of – and contributes to – ideas which have been and continue to be mutually enriching to Amazonian anthropology. Specialists will therefore find many of the central themes of Urarina social life, as described by Walker, very familiar: selves and others, autonomy and dependency, equality and hierarchy, bodies and souls, insides and outsides, babies and placentas, predators and prey, subjects and objects, the list could go on…

A possible advantage of Walker’s approach, which steps back from a potentially all too inward looking engagement with Amazonianist anthropology, is that he thereby makes Urarina ethnography speak to a wider audience of anthropologists and interested others in the world. In particular, the Prologue and Epilogue are written as rather general but also very lucid syntheses of Walker’s analysis. To my mind, a real strength of the book lies in the author’s ability to convey Urarina ideas about how to live well in an analytically clear and blessedly jargon-free style. In doing so, he provides ample ethnographic evidence for the particular forms that such living takes among the Urarina, amounting to an ethnographic theory of living well. Certainly, this is not the first ethnography to achieve this (e.g see Descola 1996; Gow 1991; Siskind 1973; Lima 2005; Santos Granero 1991 to name just a few), nor likely the last. However, what is striking in Walker’s approach is the extent to which he is able to show how it is not just people who are formative agents in making the Urarina person, but also objects and sounds as well – a theme to which I will return below.

‘As the manioc beer is mixed with sweet potato, it ferments. That’s why the two sing together’ (p.160).

But let me focus first on one idea articulated early in the book: the central importance of inter-subjectivity in the formation of Urarina persons. Walker starts from the assertion that ‘the Urarina subject is constantly under construction, less a “point of view” than an animated field of attachments and dependencies that always involves two or more’ (Walker 2013: 15). He then adds: ‘… a prior field of sensation informs the development of a self-image and […] this field is constituted through intimate relations with others that are always already present, from our earliest moments of intra-uterine existence’ (Walker 2013: 15).

That human personhood needs to be understood always as the condition of being amongst others is of course a point made by many anthropologists (e.g. see Toren 2002). What we have in Walker’s work, however, is a fine-grained account of the actual processes through which the Urarina come to experience themselves as such through their engagement with others and indeed through the acts of others in producing and fabricating their own specifically human bodies. In other words, Walker’s monograph offers a window into the actual techniques, practices, songs and objects that contribute to the production and formation of the Urarina subject.

In turn, the emphasis on fabrication and on the productive nature of daily life among indigenous Amazonian societies has been well demonstrated (e.g. Overing & Passes 2002; Rival 1998; Vilaça 2002). In the process we have learned a good deal about how people produce other people. What has been emphasised less has been the experience of this for those who are produced – in part, of course, for good reason. Methodologically speaking, it is easier (though by no means easy!) to follow processes of producing – e.g. by means of feeding, caring for, nurturing and in many other ways forming – the person from the point of view of producers, or makers of persons; and it is far harder to grasp the point of view and experience of the produced, the recipient of active productive nurturing care. In particular, it is easier for us to see the mother weaving her baby’s hammock, tying on gourds and shells and other appendages to form the sound-object, which will accompany the baby as it lies enveloped in the hammock, or to listen to and transcribe the words of the father’s protective chants as the baby emerges from the birth-hut, than it is to grasp the world through the ears and eyes of the newborn infant. And yet, Walker’s account of Urarina person-making suggests precisely that to be produced as a person is not just a matter of being ‘made’ but rather always also the experience of being made.

In fact, I would go further and suggest that the distinction between active makers, parents, ritual co-parents, name-givers and their counter-parts, babies as passive recipients of names, cannot be mapped onto a simple subject-object matrix. Parents and other adults do of course act on their babies, accompanying them and fabricating them, facilitating separations, for example from the placenta, that first companion of the yet unborn child. But babies also actively produce their makers and fabricators. Inter-subjective relations are mutually arising and a ‘mother’ is a mother not merely for the fact of having given birth – itself just one step along the path of person-becoming – but because the baby and growing child produces his or her mother as ‘mother’. Person-becoming is then not just a matter for the baby, but also for the surrounding adults and other children, who are turned into parents and siblings, name-givers and ritual co-parents by virtue of the arrival and ongoing presence of the new baby.

Such an emphasis on mutuality and reciprocal agency may go some way towards solving the following ethnographic puzzle: Among the Panará people in Central Brazil, with whom I have worked, a woman’s first-born child does not address her as ‘mother’ (napie) but rather calls her by her given name. By contrast, subsequent children never address their mother by any term other than napie. Panará people themselves offer no explanation for this, but it seems at least possible that what is being expressed in the first-born’s use of her birth mother’s personal name is that for a Panará woman to be perceived as a mother is to have already acted as a caring, feeding, nurturing person towards a child, or minimally to have previously given birth to a child. In that sense, the prior birth of a child is quite literally the precondition for a woman to be experienced as a ‘mother’ by subsequent children. ‘Mother’ for Panará people then is not a status or ‘identity’ that causes women to act in particular ways, but rather it is particular acts – giving birth, nurturing a child – that create the conditions for a person to come to be addressed as ‘mother’ by subsequent children.

A further example of mutually constituting processes would be marriage and parenthood. As among many Amazonian societies, so too among the Panará and Urarina: marriage does not precede parenthood, but rather parenthood and marriage are mutually constitutive processes. Children produce their parents as a married couple, and the cooperative work of husband and wife are fundamental to the ongoing processes of raising children. This raises the as yet under-explored question of who then is producing whom? Who is fabricating and, who or what is being fabricated?

‘…the hammock is not yet an “object” for the infant, who is not yet a “subject”…’ (p. 54)

The Urarina world, as Walker shows us, is therefore a world in which objects produce subjects, and subjects work on objects. An important consequence thereof is that the distinction between subjects and objects starts to become noticeably blurry. The baby’s rattle, rattling away behind the baby’s head, composed of a multitude of protective and found items, the baby lying ideally immobile in the swinging hammock and ultimately the hammock itself; all these are at once objects of other’s actions but are also agents in themselves, actively forming and producing other object-subjects.

While the exploration of subject-positions within Amerindian ontologies has been the recent focus of much vivid ethnographic and analytical work, the concomitant attention to objects and their position within Amerindian lifeworlds has received somewhat less attention. In this context, the contributions to Santos-Granero’s thought-provoking edited volume on the ‘occult life of things’ (2009), to which Walker himself contributed a piece on baby hammocks, explores the active agentive properties of material objects and their potential as extensions to the person. What we are then faced with, however, is the question of what an object is in Amazonian contexts. How should we conceptualise objects in worlds where things as tangible as bodies are experienced and conceptualised as above all sets of affects and dispositions (a theme that resonates substantially with perspectival approaches to bodies and persons in Amerindian societies, e.g Viveiros de Castro 1998; Lima 1999; Vilaça 2009)? Here then, the solid object-ness of objects recedes behind qualities and affordances of bodies, persons and things. In this respect, I suggest that the close ethnographic study of qualities and characteristics rather than subjects and objects might be a fruitful approach.

‘… to be alive and to be a full moral person means always to be accompanied in the Urarina lived world (p.207)’

A further theme that runs through much of Walker’s book is that of duality and of companionship. The idea that things come in twos in Amazonia has a long and celebrated history (e.g. Lévi-Strauss 1963; Maybury-Lewis & Almagor 1989; for a discussion of historic debates on dual organisation see Ewart 2013). What makes twos particularly interesting, however, is the variation in the ways in which dualities are expressed across the region. Where some groups organise their villages with reference to binary principles, others invoke dualities primarily with respect to social organisation, for example in the fundamental distinction between the general state of affinity and consanguinity, the latter being actively produced out of the former. One of the striking features about binary principles in Amazonian thought is their apparent in-built propensity for transformation, brought to light as soon as a modicum of historical analysis is brought to the ethnography (e.g. Gow 2001). In other words, twos are forever splitting into new and different variants on the theme, a logic captured well when Lévi-Strauss spoke of systems in ‘perpetual disequilibrium’ (Lévi-Strauss 1995; Ewart 2013). Among the Urarina, however, twos do not seem salient at the level of spatial elaboration nor indeed at the level of social organisation, but the idea of duality does seem to be centrally important in the formation of the person. Every person has his or her ‘shadow-soul’, or companion, and the process of growing up seems to be an ongoing process of rupturing connections to companions, before forming new attachments to new companions with whom one can ‘stand-leaned-together’. Poignantly, and notwithstanding what Urarina people say about providing company to a dying person, death is precisely the moment when a Urarina person is alone, his or her companions staying away out of fear. Here too, then, it could be argued that ‘death’ is socially produced by the absence of companionship. As Walker shows us, the autonomy of persons is always an autonomy that presupposes relations to one or more significant others. These relations are characterised by reciprocity and asymmetry. According to Walker, Urarina people actively position themselves both collectively as well as on an individual level as subordinates, collectively to ‘Our Creator’ and individually through relations of dependence. To invoke the much-used Amazonian hunting idiom, Urarina people place themselves in the position of prey rather than predators. In this sense, to be a Urarina subject is to become the object of others, here perhaps best understood as the object of care and protection rather than capture and consumption suggested by the idiom of ‘predation’.

Under a watchful eye resonates with and enhances our wider understanding of what it is to be human in this indigenous Amazonian context. And yet, a curious and perhaps not entirely resolved puzzle runs through the book. In many respects Urarina people present a fascinating variation on many well-documented Amazonian ‘themes’, but in one respect they appear to be really quite different. Throughout his book, Walker makes reference to a notion I have just mentioned above: ‘Our Creator’, an entity under whose ‘watchful eye’ Urarina people are ideally supposed to live as real humans, standing-leaning-together. This notion of a singular ‘creator figure’, very familiar from Judaeo-Christian theology, is rather unfamiliar in Amerindian contexts. Early on, Walker mentions historical periods of missionisation but also suggests that Urarina people cannot be considered Christian. Curious, then, that the singular figure of ‘Our Creator’ is apparently so prominent in Urarina everyday and psychotropic life. How this figure intertwines with the mutual inter-weaving of subjects and objects and with the pervasive notion of companionship might be a question still to be explored.

Above all else, Urarina ethnography highlights the mutual entanglement of productive processes, suggesting that even as Urarina people are produced through the caring actions and under the watchful eye of ‘Our Creator’ they are fully engaged in producing the web of qualities and characteristics that constitute their lived world.


Descola, P. (1996). In the society of nature: a native ecology in Amazonia (Vol. 93). Cambridge University Press.

Ewart, E. (2013). Space and society in central Brazil: a Panará ethnography. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Gow, P. (1991). Of mixed blood: kinship and history in Peruvian Amazonia. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gow, P. (2001). An Amazonian myth and its history. Oxford University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963). Do dual organizations exist?. Structural anthropology, vol.1. New York: Basic Books, 132-63.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1995). The story of Lynx. University of Chicago Press.

Lima, T. (1999). The two and its many: Reflections on perspectivism in a Tupi cosmology. Ethnos, 64(1), 107-131.

Lima, T. (2005). Um peixe olhou para mim: o povo Yudjá ea perspectiva. Livraria UNESP.

Maybury-Lewis, D., & Almagor, U. (Eds.). (1989). The attraction of opposites: Thought and society in the dualistic mode. University of Michigan Press.

Overing, J., & Passes, A. (eds.). (2002). The anthropology of love and anger: the aesthetics of conviviality in native Amazonia. Routledge.

Rival, L. (1998). Androgynous parents and guest children: the Huaorani couvade. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 619-642.

Santos-Granero, F. (1991). The power of love: the moral use of knowledge amongst the Amuesha of Central Peru. London: Athlone Press.

Santos-Granero, F. (Ed.). (2009). The occult life of things: Native Amazonian theories of materiality and personhood. University of Arizona Press.

Siskind, J. (1973). To hunt in the morning (p. 154). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Toren, C. (2002). Anthropology as the whole science of what it is to be human. Fox, R. & B. King (eds.) Anthropology Beyond Culture, Oxford, Berg, 105-24.

Vilaça, A. (2002). Making kin out of others in Amazonia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 8(2), 347-365.

Vilaça, A. (2009). Bodies in perspective: a critique of the embodiment paradigm from the point of view of Amazonian ethnography. Social bodies, 129-47.

Viveiros de Castro, E.(1998). Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 469-488.

Please join our mailing list to receive notification of new issues