UPRIVER by Michael F. Brown


The Turbulent Life and Times of an Amazonian People
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An anthropologist returns to the indigenous Amazon community of Awajún to observe startling changes since the mid-1970s and examine his own scholarly methodology.

In this personal, bifurcated narrative, Brown (Anthropology and Latin American Studies/Williams Coll.; Who Owns Native Culture?, 2003, etc.) portrays the proud, combative Awajún as deeply defined by their struggle to remain autonomous against the “meddling” forces of a larger, modern culture. According to the author, their streak of aggression is unusual among Amazonian peoples; in a then-and-now juxtaposition, he closely observes the effects of their bellicosity in meeting contemporary challenges such as land and water rights. In the first part, Brown presents his fieldwork among the Awajún in 1976 as a kind of novice’s ethnographic diary, full of his insecurities and false starts (“a vortex of self-pity danced at the edge of my waking hours”) before he embedded himself within the tribe at Huascayacu and was heartily accepted, joining drinking parties and breakfasts of armadillo. Over many months, he observed complicated family ties, wary visits from neighboring tribes, hunting with blow darts, ritual healing, craftsmanship, sorcery, weddings and tribal law. When he renewed his research and revisited the communities in 2012, the Awajún had gained a political presence and militantly demanded to share the fruits of a booming Peruvian economy. Coffee farming had helped enrich the community, an entrepreneurial class was emerging, and the population continued to grow, yet there were many signs of a still-beleaguered community fearful of land invasions and susceptible to a broad range of religious influences such as millenarian groups and evangelicals. Ultimately, Brown questions the efficacy of the ethnographer’s traditional method of immersion as incomplete, yet, as he did, he urges submission in another culture’s ways to achieve a “self-distancing” and sense of humility.

An unusual study, elucidating of a people and braced by both self-doubt and honesty.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-674-36807-1
Page count: 312pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2014


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