Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society




VOLUME 9 (2002)

The Bakair╠ Indians of Brazil: Politics, Ecology, and Change, by Debra Picchi. Prospects Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press (2000), xx, 217 pp.


Reviewed by Lourdes Giordani, Anthropology SUNY-New Paltz.

Debra Picchi wrote this highly readable ethnography with an undergraduate audience in mind. However, it is also well suited for beginning graduate students and anyone interested in an introduction to political ecology or contemporary Amazonian Indians. The work is based on several field trips among a small group of Brazilian Indians, the Bakair╠ of the state of Mato Grosso. It is divided into eight chapters that cover a wide range of topics, among them, entry into the field and relations with field hosts, the evolving history of the group, mortality and fertility, subsistence strategies, ritual, leadership, and ethnicity. In addition, it includes an appendixˇintended as a study guideˇwith key concepts and terms, discussion questions, and suggested readings for every chapter. Commentary on the suggested readings, some of general interest and others more theoretical, is also included.

Weaving together ecological analysis and political economy, Picchi situates her work within the theoretical framework of political ecology. She considers demographic data, observations about how the Bakair╠ and their neighbors have used their environment over time, and the impact of the Brazilian State on the land and its inhabitants. Moreover, she combines quantitative and qualitative methods in order to establish how micro and macro level decisions have affected the Bakair╠. Readers will find the equations and various tables throughout the text particularly useful since they shed light on basic calculations employed by demographers and ecological anthropologists. To her credit, variables are clearly defined and the weaknesses of various techniques are taken into account (e.g., problems coding activities for time allocation studies) (p. 102). This book, then, is not your typical descriptive ethnography for it combines topics associated with a field account, a research methods guide, and a holistic ethnography. Picchi is able to integrate these topics and produce a coherent text that never looses sight of its main subject, the Bakair╠.

In Chapter 1 Picchi focuses primarily on fieldwork and provides a useful checklist for fieldwork preparations which instructors and students can expand or modify. Her discussion on the use of qualitative research to produce verifiable accounts will help some readers move beyond the simplistic pro-science and anti-humanism polarity.

This chapter also contains a brief discussion on postmodernism, a perspective that Picchi believes has forced many fieldworkers to examine how they represent and interact with their informants (the "others"). While the impact of postmodernism in current anthropology cannot be denied, I believe critical readers will raise some caveats. A few would no doubt argue that anthropologists had been rethinking their relations with informants before postmodernism gained prominence in anthropology, because, as former colonies gained independence, and various nationalistic and pro-human right movements emerged at home and abroad, business could not be conducted "as usual." In addition, the expansion of global capitalism and the communications revolution allowed some informants to read and seeˇand thus comment on and react toˇthe ethnographic products of anthropologists (e.g., texts, musical recordings, and films). Thus, it may be good for us to consider DonhanÝs (2000:182-184) recent comment, namely, that postmodernism may not be the cause of changes in recent anthropological practices; postmodernism itself may be the result of the global political economy and a market-driven mentality that has impacted academic life.

A historical overview of the Bakair╠ and their territory is presented in Chapter 2. Picchi opens this discussion with a popular warning: indigenous peoples are not and should not be treated as primitive isolates. Napoleon ChagnonÝs early work on warfare among the Yanomamľ is presented as an example of ahistorical analysis. Picchi contrasts it with the historical approach to warfare espoused by Ferguson and Whitehead (1992), and ChagnonÝs (1992) later work. While not denying the merits of FergusonÝs and WhiteheadÝs historical analysis, I believe readers need to be aware of the fact that some scholars question their interpretations. Why? Some critics argue that these authors give too much weight to the impact of contact with non-indigenous outsiders and downplay the power of native symbols and worldviews and the social dynamics they can set in motion (e.g., C. Fausto 1999:933-934). In truth, discussions about the extent to which Yanomamľ warfare pre-dates or post-dates European contact (and how it has changed over time) will remain on shaky ground until more archaeological work is done in the Upper Orinoco and we can better ascertain the nature (and causes) of population movements and displacements in that area.

I also take issue with PicchiÝs account of the peopling of the New World for it fails to consider significant recent findings (e.g., the work of Tom Dillehay and his colleagues in Monte Verde, Chile). She presents the traditional model, which dates the peopling of the Americas to about 12,000 years ago and gives emphasis to the Bering Land Bridge (p. 29). All the current fascinating debates about multiple points of entry into the Americas, the strong likelihood of a much earlier date of entry, and the possibility of entry by different groups of people (not just Asians), are never addressed. In contrast, her brief discussion of pre-contact Amazonian environments and cultural complexity is current. She also does a good job at condensing the events that lead to Bakair╠ demographic decreases and displacements during the colonial and postcolonial periods (e.g., gold mining, cattle ranching, and attacks by neighboring groups such as the Kayab╠). At one point the Bakair╠ split, and depending on their location, assimilated various cultural traits from their neighbors. Western Bakair╠ were promptly incorporated into the cattle ranching economy of that area and rapidly learned the national language, Portuguese. Eastern Bakair╠, on the other hand, were influenced by the tribes of the Xingu area. By the 1930s the Indian Protective Service (SPI) tried to organize them into one large settlement near the Indian post. A decade later, their population had declined significantly. Two decades later, as more Brazilians encroached on their area, the Bakair╠ were suffering numerous social problems such as alcoholism. PicchiÝs account of the efforts made by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), which replaced the SPI, to halt the Bakair╠Ýs social disintegration is fair and nuanced. From her discussion of the impact of two FUNAI agents, we learn that when assessing the work of agencies like FUNAI it is imperative to consider the visions of key employees and the internal discrepancies that often emerge because of diverging views. Even when an agent has the best of intentions in mind, his efforts may backfire because they are neither welcomed nor understood by the Indians.

Basic concepts for the study of fertility, mortality, and households are presented in Chapter 3, the most relevant chapter for those interested in anthropological demography. Without the use of confusing jargon, Picchi defines her variables and explains how to calculate them (e.g., age-specific fertility rate). The importance of these calculations and the data presented in the tables will be clear to any student since Picchi ties them to her description of Bakair╠ sexuality, menstruation seclusion, post-partum sex taboos, causes of death, and changes in house construction.

Changes in Bakair╠ subsistence practices and the ecology of their reservation, which is mostly cerrado, are highlighted in Chapter 4. Under FUNAIÝs guidance mechanized agriculture (mainly for growing rice) was introduced in the 1980s. Thus, today the Bakair╠ use hybrid technologies to grow crops and they engage in both horticulture and agriculture. But in contrast to horticulture, few actually practice agriculture and those few are men. Furthermore, agriculture is basically done in the cerrado, an area previously devoted to cattle grazing and hunting. Needless to say, the introduction of agricultural production was not smooth; it led to tensions within the reservation and to the fissioning of Pakuera village between 1983-85.

Hunting and fishing also take place within the reservation; so does cattle ranching. After FUNAI transferred control over the herds to the Bakair╠, some individualsˇrecognizing private ownership of resourcesˇbuilt private herds of cattle. This privatization, in turn, has amplified tensions within households and between villages. Here Picchi raises an important question about culture change; that is, why did not customary rules of ownership and redistribution prevent this? She hypothesizes that customary rules will only manage resources that historically have been central to the IndiansÝ way of life. It would be worthwhile to explore whether a new cognitive schema is created to deal with these new resources.

Chapter 5 is devoted to gender, marriage, and kinship. Polygyny is no longer practiced because outsiders chastised them for this. They, as other Cariban Indians, still have a functioning bifurcate-merging (Iroquois) system of kinship terminology; prefer local endogamous marriages, with some Bakair╠ marrying their cross-cousins; perform bride service, though not rigorously; and practice matrilocal post-marital residence. But in contrast to most other contemporary Cariban Indians, the Bakair╠ symbolically elaborate separation between the sexes and have a menÝs house from which women are excluded. Likewise, ear-piercing ceremonies for boys lead to the existence of laxed ritual age-sets. From what we know from contemporary Cariban ethnography, the existence of sodalities or associations such as age-sets is not a typical Cariban trait. Picchi, however, does not delve into the Bakair╠Ýs Cariban ancestry and how they diverge from other groups in this cultural-linguistic family. It is not until page 172 that we get to read that they speak a Cariban language. This may disappoint Cariban specialists.

In Chapter 6 the symbolism and social functions of Bakair╠ mask dancing are discussed, for in spite of all the changes, they still perform these dances. The masks, which mostly represent fish, are strongly associated with native subsistence activities. Men use and store the masks, but women are considered their real owners. Yet, women cannot enter the menÝs house to see the masks or attend some of the rituals in which they are used; to ensure compliance, men invoke the threat of rape. Hence, the dances also highlight sexual complementarity and segregation. But that is not all. The dances can be seen as social dramas in which two personality types and age groups (old versus young) are contrasted and given expression: the dignified and mature/serene individual (associated with Yakwigado masks) and the playful joker/trickster (Kwamba masks). The masks, in addition, are employed in the maintenance of social order and group identity. Mask wearers, for instance, will comment on contemporary village affairs and criticize "bad" behaviors (e.g., sexual intercourse with Brazilians and stinginess). Mask dancing seems to be the "key" ritual activity which articulates the essence of Bakair╠ culture. Perhaps this, and the fact that they will incorporate some novel features (like serving peanut butter on manioc bread during these feasts), is why it survived even though it was stopped during the 1950s. Yet, I must confess that I still feel that I need to know more about how this custom managed to survive since there are numerous examples of "ritual loss" among larger groups than the Bakair╠, who today number a little over 500 individuals.

Leadership and how it has been impacted by demographic and technological changes is the subject of Chapter 7. Today it is not enough for a man to inherit the headman role from his father. Today leaders must work in two different, yet connected, spheres: the village and the nation-state. They must be able to deal with government bureaucrats, the media, banks, medical personnel, environmentalists, and much more. Although some leaders have taken advantage of their greater access to wealth and persons of influence, Picchi warns us that leadership is also fraught with difficulties as followers are making increasing demands and often resent the new ways of their leaders (e.g., their travels). From this chapter, we are led to an examination of the Bakair╠ as both Indians and a Brazilian ethnic minority (Chapter 8). She begins by describing some of the changes she observed during her 1999 trip to the Bakair╠ reservation, twenty years after her initial visit. She learned that in the late 1990s more than twenty Bakair╠ men had traveled to Europe in a trip sponsored by UNESCO. Others, including some women, had participated in international indigenous conferences. In other words, she encountered more cosmopolitan informants who made very explicit for her the impact of globalization. Yet, the strength of this last chapter is PicchiÝs comparison of "peasants ř la Eric Wolf," small farmers, and the Bakair╠ as Indians. Which category best describes her subjects? We learn that the Bakair╠Ýs hybrid subsistence strategies make them share attributes with all 3 categories. For instance, the Bakair╠ˇlike peasantsˇstill consume most of what they harvest. But unlike peasants and small farmers, they do not claim private ownership over the land they farm; nor do they employ fertilizers or pesticides in their horticultural plots. Her very lucid discussion, which owes much to Michael KearneyÝs "Reconceptualizing the Peasantry," will make readers re-evaluate the peasant concept and the strict division that is often made (particularly in introductory textbooks) between horticulture and agriculture.

Picchi also cautions us to be careful with the terms "Indian" and "indigenous peoples" since she feels that they do not adequately depict the Bakair╠ and other native peoples who have undergone extensive change (e.g., the Tukano and Kikrin Kayap█). Change has been profound, to the point that the so-called "typical" institutions of these groups (often employed to define them as Indians) are functioning in new and unforeseen ways (e.g., native leadership). Yet today the Bakair╠, who have become increasingly politicized, are consciously working to produce an indigenous rather than a Brazilian identity.

To conclude, let me emphasize that PicchiÝs book reminds us of the value of long-term fieldwork and theoretically informed ethnographies. Though I have highlighted some minor limitations in the text, I still consider it very rich and useful as it will introduce its readers to key debates in contemporary anthropology.

References Cited

Chagnon, Napoleon.

1992. Yanomamľ: The Fierce People. 4th edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Dillehay, Tom D.

1989. Monte Verde, a Late Pleistocene Settlement in Chile: A Paleoenvironment and Site Context. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Donham, Donald.

2000. Comment on SowsÝ Ears and Silver Linings: A Backward Look at Ethnography by Sidney W. Mintz. Current Anthropology 41(2):182-184.

Fausto, Carlos.

1999. Of Enemies and Pets: Warfare and Shamanism in Amazonia. American Ethnologist 26(4):933-956.

Ferguson, R. Brian and Neil L. Whitehead, editors.

1992. War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Kearney, Michael.

1996. Reconceptualizing the Peasantry: Anthropology in Global Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.