Elastic selves and fluid cosmologies : Nahua resilience in a changing world
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In May 1984, the Nahua, a Panoan speaking indigenous people living in a remote corner of the Peruvian Amazon, experienced their ‘first contact’ with Peruvian national society. 25 years later they appear to many observers to have ‘thrown away their culture’ under pressure from the outside world. This thesis argues instead that these changes were adopted by the Nahua for their own very good reasons and that these transformations reflect greater continuity with the past than first appears. The apparent lack of nostalgia that the Nahua have for the past instead reflects an inherent capacity for flexibility. This flexibility is manifested at a collective level in the frequent fissions of local groups and at an individual level in their susceptibility to losing their sense of self. The thesis focuses on two key aspects of this flexibility. The first is that the Nahua understand the site of their personal transformations to be the body which they describe as ‘soft’. This ‘softness’ refers to its ability to incorporate other worldly powers and become like the animals they eat or the people with whom they co-reside. Nevertheless, this capacity also means they can become ‘other’ when they live apart from their kin. This elasticity of selfhood is typical of many indigenous Amazonian peoples but the Nahua sit at the more flexible end of this spectrum. This is because they cultivate an attitude of radical hunger towards the outside world and place relatively less importance on techniques of restraint and control. The second aspect is the astonishing flexibility of Nahua worldviews. This is because their cosmologies are less a fixed set of facts and more a shamanic technique of knowing the unknown. These techniques help the Nahua understand the mysteries of the spirit world, their dreams and the world of Peruvians. In conclusion, it is the ‘softness’ of their bodies, the elasticity of their selves and the flexibility of their cosmologies that explain the extraordinary resilience of the Nahua in the face of dramatic transformations in the surrounding world.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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