The sickness : sociality, schooling, and spirit possession amongst Amerindian youth in the savannahs of Guyana
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The goal of this thesis is to explore the recent changes in the social landscape of a Wapishana village, due to long-term separation from kin. I consider the impact of a recent educational shift from small scale community based education to regional boarding schools on family life and community structure amongst Amerindian people in the hinterland of Region 9, Guyana. Furthermore, the project analyzes an emergent form of spirit possession that affects almost exclusively young women who live in the dormitories, locally referred to as the sickness. Using the sickness as an analytical lens, the thesis examines the ways in which young Amerindian women navigate a shift in expectations from their parents and communities as well as how they experience this rapid social change and transformation. Various vantage points employed in the analysis of the sickness help to illustrate the complexities of the current lived reality of Amerindian life. By exploring the experience of kinship and community in the Wapishana village of Sand Creek, it is possible to demonstrate how these relationships are produced and reproduced in everyday life through the sharing of space and substance. Furthermore, it is necessary to consider different aspects of the Creole and Amerindian notions of the spiritual world and their intervowenness in Wapishana lives, drawing out human and non-human agency and how they effect change in the world. Additionally, drawing on the anthropology of education, the thesis identifies the influence the state has on people’s lives through institutionalized education, and locates this process within the wider context of historical indigenous residential schools. The ethnographic data on the experience of the sickness is put in dialogue and contrasted with other conceptions of spiritual vulnerability in Amerindian communities, examples of ‘mass hysteria’ in schools or other institutional settings in other parts of the world, and the Afro-Caribbean experience of spirit possession. Finally, through an analysis of the etiology of the sickness, the final chapter draws on Amazonian literature to examine the embodiment of gender and the local gendered history of knowledge production in the area. The sickness is a phenomenon that permeates life in Southern Guyana for Amerindian youth, their families, and their communities. Undoubtedly, these various themes found in Wapishana young women’s lives influence one another, irrespective of an ultimate manifestation of spirit possession. In the concluding section I show how these themes can be placed in the wider Amazonian framework of alterity and ‘Other-becoming’, illustrating how this phenomenon provides a productive tool for the analysis of the experience of rapid social change among Amerindian youth and the impact of these transformations throughout the region.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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