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To Weave and Sing

To Weave and Sing: Art, Symbol, and Narrative in the South American Rainforest

Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    To Weave and Sing
    Book Description:

    To Weave and Singis the first in-depth analysis of the rich spiritual and artistic traditions of the Carib-speaking Yekuana Indians of Venezuela, who live in the dense rain forest of the upper Orinoco. Within their homeland of Ihuruna, the Yekuana have succeeded in maintaining the integrity and unity of their culture, resisting the devastating effects of acculturation that have befallen so many neighboring groups. Yet their success must be attributed to more than natural barriers of rapids and waterfalls, to more than lack of "contact" with our "modern" world. The ethnographic history recounted here includes not only the Spanish discovery of the Yekuana but detailed indigenous accounts of the entire history of Yekuana contact with Western culture, revealing an adaptive technique of mythopoesis by which the symbols of a new and hostile European ideology have been consistently defused through their incorporation into traditional indigenous structures. The author's initial point of departure is theWatunna, the Yekuana creation epic, but he finds his principal entrance into this mythic world through basketry, focusing on the eleborate kinetic designs of the roundwajabaskets and the stories told about them. Guss argues that the problem of understanding Yekuana basketry is the problem of understanding all traditional art forms within a tribal context, and critiques the cultural assumptions inherent in our systems of classification. He demonstrates that the symbols woven into the baskets function not in isolation but collectively, as a powerful system cutting across the entire culture.To Weave and Singaddresses all Yekuana material culture and the greater reality it both incorporates and masks, discerning a unifying configuration of symbols in chapters on architectural forms, the geography of the body, and the use of herbs, face paints, and chants. A narrow view of slash-and-burn gardens as places of mere subsistence is challenged by Guss's portrait of these exclusively female spaces as systematic inversions of the male world, "the sacred turned on its head." Throughout, a wealth of narrative and ritual materials provides us with the closest approximation we have to a native exegesis of these phenomena. What we are offered here is a new Poetics of Culture, ethnography not as a static given but as a series of shifting fields, wherein culture (and our image of it) is constantly recreated in all of its parts, by all of its members.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91063-8
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 INTRODUCTION: The Syntax of Culture
    (pp. 1-4)

    I went to the Yekuana for the first time in 1976 as part of a grant from the Organization of American States to translate their creation epic known as theWatunna.While this translation was based on a Spanish version prepared over the course of nearly two decades by the French paleontologist Marc de Civrieux (1970b, 1980), I nevertheless wished to hear these tales told within their own context and language. So with a tape recorder perched on the top of my pack, I arranged to visit the village of Parupa, also known as Adujaña, on the upper Paragua River....

    (pp. 5-20)

    If it is true that a name reflects an inner essence, then the many used to refer to the Yekuana offer a profile of the varied character of this highland jungle people. The earliest mention of the Yekuana occurs in the report of the Jesuit priest Manuel Román, who in 1744 journeyed to the upper Orinoco to investigate rumors of Portuguese slave traders in the area. Somewhere in the vicinity of present-day La Esmeralda, he was surprised by a group of these Portuguese insisting they were not in Spanish territory but on a tributary of the Amazon. To prove their...

  7. 3 CULTURE AND ETHOS: A Play of Forces
    (pp. 21-68)

    The traditional Yekuana settlement, of which there are approximately thirty dotted throughout the upper Orinoco, is a fiercely independent community, resistant to any pan-tribal authority. Each village is a completely self-contained, autonomous unit, with its own chief and shaman. What unites these communities is their shared linguistic and cultural heritage. For although kinship ties do cross village boundaries, “marrying-in” is regularly enforced and any attempt to break the primacy of village relations discouraged. Village autonomy is reinforced in a host of other ways as well, including ideological belief, socialization, and simple ecological necessity. In fact, virtually all systems of Yekuana...

    (pp. 69-91)

    While the Yekuana, like many tribal peoples, have no fixed category corresponding to the Western concept of “art,” they do distinguish between objects manufactured within the guidelines of traditional design and those that simply arrive without any cultural transformation or intent.Tidi’uma,from the verbtidi,“to make,” are the collective artifacts of the culture, the sum total of everything one must learn to make in order to be considered a Yekuana. These are the essential items, from canoes and graters to houses and baskets, the things that not only distinguish the Yekuana as a society but incorporate the symbols...

    (pp. 92-125)

    In writing about the nature of origin myths in tribal societies, Mircea Eliade calls attention to what he refers to as an underlying “paradisiac syndrome” (1960:63). He claims that tribal man periodically reenacts these myths in rituals and festivals in order to return (the “eternal return”) to the conditions that existed at the time of the Beginning,in illo tempore.Characterized by a lack of division between Heaven and Earth, an unimpaired communication between animals and humans, and the absence of both death and physical want, these myths satisfy, however fleetingly, man’s endless “nostalgia for Paradise, the longing to recover...

    (pp. 126-161)

    The classic distinction between form and content that has come to dominate so much of the discussion of the modern work of art quickly disintegrates as one approaches the creations of those living within the framework of a traditional tribal society. The simple dichotomy between the arrangement of materials and the meaning these arrangements convey is undermined by a set of new considerations that the contemporary work of art no longer chooses to address. Dimensions long proscribed by the modernist doctrine of “art for art’s sake” resurface as critical elements in the comprehension of any object made within the context...

    (pp. 162-170)

    When a Yekuana weaves or uses a basket, the range of meanings evoked is constellated in much more than the choice of design, the preparation of the materials, or the use to which it is put. The configuration of symbols that are elaborated draw their power from not only their own explication but, more importantly, from the larger cultural order to which they refer. In each instance, the symbols reproduce the same organization of reality that structures every other aspect of the society. Hence, just as the basketry symbols are informed by the larger cultural patterns to which they refer,...

    (pp. 171-222)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 223-246)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-262)
  15. Index
    (pp. 263-274)