ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


The failed utopia: 'enlightening' the contradictions of christianisation, secularisation and civilisation in the Americas

Location Playfair Building, Main Hall
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 09:00


Juan Rivera Acosta (University of St Andrews) email
Victor Cova (University of Aarhus) email
Christopher Hewlett (University of St Andrews) email
Mail All Convenors


This panel critically engages with the Enlightenment utopian projects as envisioned by colonial, missionary, state and Amerindian worldviews.

Long Abstract

The Enlightenment encouraged a period of European expansionism as colonies were established in the Americas with utopian visions of transforming the social and natural world into a rationally organised space. The futility of these dreams became obvious when missionaries and colonialists were unable to find the primitive state they were looking for in the indigenous population.

This panel engages with the contradictions embedded within the missionary projects in the Americas through time. These projects are often understood to be justified by the secularisation, Christianisation and civilisation of time and space brought forth by the emerging colonial and state institutions, which built on projects of conquest and missionization as well as indigenous spacetime. Although missionary groups often understood themselves as working for the Church rather than secular powers, both the Jesuits and the SIL were perceived as an intrusion on State sovereignty, and as potentially heretical by the Catholic Church. The conflict between State and missions enables us to address the problematic that the colonial project was and remains composed of often disconnected social imaginaries (e.g. secular "progress", messianic protestantism, maoist insurgencies) alternating between cooperation and conflict.

We invite papers examining the underlying questions in missionising processes of making humans out of "nature" and communities out of converts, in terms of the aims of missionaries and those who engaged in these projects. How are our understandings of (neo)colonialism in the Americas complicated by the mix of these projects and local processes?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The shifting ground of 'civilization': Amahuaca people's engagement with missionation and modernity in lowland Peru

Author: Christopher Hewlett (University of St Andrews)  email


This paper examines connections between Amahuaca people in the Peruvian lowlands and the Summer Institute of Linguistics from the early 1950s until the mid 1990s with particular focus on changing notions of political personhood and civilization.

Long Abstract

This paper examines connections between Amahuaca people in the Peruvian lowlands and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) from the early 1950s until the mid 1990s. The first mission was founded in 1953 at the headwaters of the Inuya River with the primary aim of integrating Amahuaca people into wider Peruvian society. Over the course of the forty-year period in which the SIL actively engaged with Amahuaca people wider society and systems of governance underwent major transformations. By focusing on three specific moments in time (1950s, 1970s and 1990s) the aim is to examine how responses by the SIL to government and international pressures articulated with and/or diverged from the expectations and aspirations of Amahuaca people. While the initial project began in terms of 'saving' Amahuaca people, aims that were embedded in wider notions of modernization and national integration, by the 1990s the mission was seen as being only partly successful by the government and SIL based on new and very detailed criteria. These criteria correspond to wider shifts based on specific notions of individual agency, divisions of labor and representative democracy. In short, although Amahuaca people remain at the periphery of regional social and political life due to their participation in the SIL project they have come to perceive of themselves as part of wider society and are seeking ways to integrate that often contradict fundamental expectations stemming from the shifting ground of modernity and civilization.

Comparative utopias in the conquered Bolivian lowlands

Author: Francis Ferrié (St Andrews & UPO Nanterre)  email


This ethnohistorical paper questions competing colonization utopias in the lowlands between Bolivian Andes and Amazonia. The multi-ethnic Missions followed by the rubber boom during the Republic allow us to understand ethnic reconfigurations and highlight contemporary ethnical resurgences.

Long Abstract

Between Bolivian Andes and Amazonia, the indigenous Leco were considered vanished in the XXth century. However two groups reappeared independently from each other at the beginning of the XXIth century. Can we relate this resurgence of two different groups to two different kind of evangelizations? This would make sense, given that the contemporary Leco of Apolo live in the area of the former Franciscan Missions of Apolobamba, whereas the Leco of Guanay occupy the former Augustine Missions of Larecaja.

This paper argues that XVIIIth and XIXth centuries missionary machine produced ethnicity, by pushing back to the lowlands a border between wilderness and civilization. Within it, new identities arose from internal political projects. What was the utopia of the multi-ethnic Missions about ? How did architecture and urbanism, teaching (languages, schooling, religion…), and economy (agriculture, trade…) transformed "natives" into "Christian citizen" ?

A boundary between "New People", baring the names of Missions, and wild Indians remained effective after the Independence waves resulting from the spread of Enlightenment ideas to South America.

During the Republic, extractive industries competed against Missions. A new "utopia" of progress under feudalistic rules led to the agonies of indigenous peoples denounced by a few like Sir Roger Casement, displaying "the colonial mirror which reflects back onto the colonists the barbarity of their own social relations, but as imputed to the savage or evil figures they wish to colonize" (Taussig 1984 : 495).

This ethnohistorical paper questions competing colonization utopias and highlight the recent ethnic resurgences.

Their gods our customs. native Catholic practices among the Tepehuan people of northern Mexico

Author: Antonio Reyes (University of St Andrews)  email


I explore how the Tepehuan people of northern Mexico have actively incorporated aspects of Catholicism in their lives under their own conceptions and conditions. In this paper I present from an ethnographic perspective, the place they assign to 'Catholic gods' in the sphere of relations of alterity.

Long Abstract

The history of northern Mexico has highlighted the efficient labour of missionaries as a source of cultural change imposing a new religion among the natives during European colonisation. However, the active role of indigenous people in adopting new practices is rarely considered as a way to explain those changes. In this paper, I consider how the Tepehuan people, once called by the Spanish the 'most indomitable' of the region, have incorporated Catholicism into their lives under their own conceptions and conditions. Since this native perspective is difficult to track in historical documents, I explore from an ethnographic perspective the place that Tepehuan people assign to 'Catholic gods' in a wider sphere of relations of alterity.

Thus after more than 400 years catholic missionary activity among Tepehuan people, they consider themselves Catholic. Furthermore, saints as well as other catholic church festivities are central for Tepehuan religious life. However, baptism is the only ritual for which they require a catholic priest. In this context, Catholic missionaries still in the pursuit of Tepehuan converts face not only the contradiction of a 'Tepehuan Catholicism' with no Catholic priests, but the fact that it is ritualised under precepts prior to the reformations made by the Second Vatican Council and conserving practices long ago abandoned by the modern church.

"Tell your countrymen not to run, I have come to conquer them": an intersection of utopias in eastern Peru

Author: Łukasz Krokoszyński (University of St Andrews)  email


An image of the external leader is a common theme in social thought and histories on the Lower Ucayali in Peru. It could be conjectured that the SIL Project in the area has been invited to embark on this idea, filling an important position in the community life.

Long Abstract

In 1955, a married couple of American missionaries arrived on the muddy banks of the Buncuya River, affuent of the Lower Ucayali. The family was invited to build a house and ended up living among the Panoan speaking Capanahua people for the next three decades.

Histories on the Lower Ucayali are filled with tales of conquest of the wildness and taming of the savage by a strong outsider. It could be argued that they structure the default relation for local indigenous populations of establishing contacts with newly arriving strangers. This paper will explore the powerful outsider utopia's terms and their historical, social and personal depths on the Tapiche and Buncuya Rivers, home to descendants of the social project known as the Capanahua people.

Now that stationed missionaries have been gone for another three decades, the position of the wealthy, powerful and knowledgeable fatherly figure seems to be an empty seat waiting to be filled. This absence is indicated as the reason of resurfacing problems regarding Capanahua people's incapacity to maintain satisfying social life in villages. I will probe the notion that acceptance of the 1955 couple in this location has been embedded in historical trajectories and the powerful, locally specific utopian imagery of the social space, and that it initiated a long-lasting negotiation of working misunderstandings produced by missionary and local social thought.

"The time of civilization": failed utopias of intercultural imagination in Amazonia

Author: Casey High (University of Edinburgh)  email


This paper explores the utopian visions of “civilization” and “community” that emerge at the interface of colonial imagination, evangelical missions and indigenous experiences of social transformation in Amazonian Ecuador.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the utopian visions of "civilization" and "community" that emerge at the interface of colonial imagination, evangelical missions and indigenous Amazonian experiences of social transformation. It looks specifically at the process and logic by which Waorani people in Amazonian Ecuador converted to Christianity in the second half of the twentieth century, and how the mission encounter and subsequent interventions of the state have become part of Waorani visions of what it means to be "civilized". Despite the closure of the mission more than thirty years ago and the relative lack of Waorani Christians today, Waorani evoke narratives of past conversion and the "time of civilization" in their efforts to achieve the ideal of "living well" in a community. While Waorani formulations of conversion, civilization and community draw on key tropes of colonial and nationalist imagination, they also point to disjunctures between Amazonian and Western concepts of social transformation and community.

La sifilización: modernity and the Andean ayllu

Author: Jonathan Alderman (St Andrews)  email


This paper will be an examination of the meaning of civilisation for the Kallawayas, traditional healers in the North of Bolivia, and the effect that the social organisation of the state-imposed peasant union has had on the relationship between the Kallawayas and the ancestor spirits in the ayllu.

Long Abstract

Using ethnographic research in Kallawaya communities in the North of Bolivia, I shall examine what the concept of civilisation means in the context in changes which modernity has brought within the traditional Andean form of social and territorial organisation, the ayllu. The Kallawayas are well-known in Bolivia as being healers, who maintain a strong ritual relationship with their ancestors in the natural environment around them. They believe that the cause of illnesses can be found in a failure to maintain reciprocal obligations with their ancestor spirits. I will examine a Kallawaya interpretation of modernity as a disease - "sifilisation" - which disturbs their observation of reciprocal obligations to their ancestor spirits within the ayllu. I will make reference particularly to the consequences of changes in social organisation following agrarian reform in Bolivia in 1953, which created peasant union, part of a state policy of "civilising" the Indian. The union turned the authority structure of Kallawaya communities on its head, with the shaman who fed the community shrines and communicated with the ancestor spirits relegated in importance behind more political authorities who communicated with the state and other outside institutions. I will examine the effect this change in the balance of the social organisation, along with alphabetization and increased contact with the cities, had on the relations within the ayllu as the communities became "sifilised".

The priest and the difference: a theological controversy among the Ayoreo (Paraguayan Chaco)

Author: Leif Grunewald (Universidade Federal Fluminense)  email


This paper focus on a theological controversy that would come to view of the interplaying of the Ayoreo’ and the Salesian missionaries’ thoughts about difference. as well as on the audacious innovations Ayoreo people had done with the historical circumstances they had endured after contact.

Long Abstract

In this paper, my concern is with the elucidation of a Salesian thought about difference, plans of action and policies designed by Salesian missionaries and its effect on an Ayoreo thought about the cojñói, 'white people', often told to be risky to deal with - since exploitation is almost always an expected consequence of interaction with them - and owners of many powerful and desirable things. In the writing of my account of Ayoreo sociality and the recent historical transformations I describe in my paper I begin with a myth of origin of the world and of enmity told to me by an Ayoreo woman I knew quite well and I also asked of this myth the same questions Lévi-Strauss and Peter Gow asked about myths in general and about mythical thought. Paraphrasing Peter Gow, I asked first: is this myth a historical object? If so, what kind of historical object is it? Besides that, in the body of the paper I also make an attempt to link this interplaying of thoughts about difference to transformations in the Ayoreo lived world and well-trodden themes in the general anthropological literature through the Ayoreo myth of origin of the world and of enmity. This raises inevitably an important question, referring precisely to a pair of aspects of Pierre Clastres critique of the action of missionaries in lowland South America and the dimension of the State in Amerindian societies.

The messianic work of translation in lowland Ecuador

Author: Victor Cova (University of Aarhus)  email


In the evangelical mission town of Macuma, in lowland Ecuador, missionaries and Shuar people have been translating the Old Testament for over 30 years. This paper will look at the messianic politics that make this work meaningful and distinguish it from both settler colonialism and indigenous politics.

Long Abstract

"What are the missionaries (still) doing here?" I was often asked this question by Shuar people when I told them that I was looking at the history of the mission in Macuma. Unsatisfied with my answer, that they were translating the Bible, they looked for hidden and, to their eyes, more rational explanations for their continued presence, 60 years after their arrival. Their suspicion mirrored that of the State and of various investigative journalists who had accused SIL missionaries of furthering various hidden political motives. In this paper, I want to focus instead on the actual work done by Macuma's missionaries with the evangelical church, and on the politics that shape it and that it enables. The work of translating the Bible only makes sense in the wider context of evangelical messianism and anti-colonialism, although one that remains at a distance from indigenous politics. It tries to subvert national political economies of knowledge and opens the way for an elitist form of resistance to the State. Translation work mobilizes the Church as an alternative political body to State institutions and indigenous federations, one that mobilizes transnational networks around principles of autonomy, equality, and free gifts.

Freedom, liberty and humanity: the contradictions justifying war

Author: Juan Rivera Acosta (University of St Andrews)  email


This paper will look at the interplay of ethical and moral categories missionaries espoused, based on Middle Ages Catholicism, and its failure to provide an adequate framework to understand indigenous culture in the Tarahumara colonization and conversion process in the context of northern Mexico.

Long Abstract

Having conquered the Mexican empire, the Spanish government started a process of pacification and by civilizing indigenous communities. This was done trough the Christian missionization.

The missionary was the perfect portrait of the religious conquest ideals and the perfect agent for the task of converting indigenous people from their savage natural state into utopic Christians.

When the converting endeavour reached the Nueva Vizcaya (in Northern Mexico), inhabited by nomadic (dispersed populations of indigenous) people without a centralised government and with a high degree of mobility. Missionaries wrote extensive manuscripts relative to the conquest and evangelisation of the Tarahumara people. This paper will explore colonial categories of freedom, liberty and humanity present in Jesuit missionaries' documents relative to the missionizing process of the Nueva Vizcaya.

These documents show the binary good indian/ bad indian, and how this categories were deemed useless as they fell short to grasp the indigenous culture and the resistance carried out by them. This binary comes from a philosophical conception tied up to medieval understandings of freedom and liberty, where only humans have the faculty of making choices, thus holding the individual accountable for their own choices and of the consequences of them.

This paper sets out to explore the paradox of how, by acknowledging the free will of the indigenous communities using missionaries' documents rendering them as humans, the Spanish government recognised their freedom not to be converted, at the same time justifying waging war on them.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.