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Political Participation of the Amazon Indians of Peru



The Amazon basin lies not only in Brazil  (different than perhaps thought) but it spreads over several countries including Peru. After the English Wikipedia about 60% of the area of Peru belongs to this geographical region (equivalent to the area of Italy and Spain together!). On April 14th in 2011 Eduardo Nayap Kinin has been elected as the first indigenous from the Amazon basin to the Peruvian Parliament. Since 1821 Peru is independent and there was never an indigenous representative from the Amazon area. Finally there is a change, aboriginal peoples found a voice in this part of the world.

Who are the Aborigines of Northwestern Amazonia?
Eduardo Nayap Kinin is a member of the Aguarunas, an ethnic group, which belongs ethnically to the Jibaro Indians (Jivaro or Shuar). The Jivaro became famous mainly through their tradition of head-hunting and the Shrunken heads which were made in this context. Through this tradition, the Jivaro were perceived as inhumane barbarians, and thus denied a political voice in the state. However, it is interesting to understand how the traditional head-hunting got disbalanced through the conquest of America by the Europeans.

The Fate of the Head Hunters
The Jivaro had their own cosmology and their own war rites. Thus the spirit of a dead warrior still had power. In the procedure of the creation of shrunken heads the eyes were closed and the mouth sewed up and thus the spirit of the dead warrior tamed. The Jivaros simultaneously believed, that the power of the dead warrior went over to the victor. One can assume that the Jivaros seldom waged war, and so the shrunken heads were taken only on rare occasions. Allow a comparison with the ritual of scalping, which some indigenous tribes of North America practiced. This too was originally limited to rare events of war. Through contact with the Europeans headhunting escalated. Why?

The Europeans brought new diseases to America e.g. measles against which the indigenous population was exposed and vulnerable. In the belief system of the Jivaro diseases were transmitted by spirits. The proliferation of previously unknown diseases could be understood only with difficulty and they suspected neighboring tribes to be responsible for these diseases, because the neighbors were thought to have sent evil spirits. This led to to the accusation of the neighborhood if for example  a child died of measles. This debt had to be atoned in a system of retribution. This led to a significant increase in small bloody and deadly conflicts. At the same time the Europeans discovered their interest in the curious shrunken heads and began to collect them! What that meant, one can easily imagine. A brisk trade in shrunken heads began (today, these heads are exhibited in many museums). Non-Jivaros, mostly Mestizos, living in the settlement area of the Jivaros fueled the cycle of violence through the acquisition of heads. Thus escalating the head-hunting. As a consequence the social fabric of the Jivaro wavered and got increasingly destabilized.

Tristes Tropiques
Someone has coined the term primitive wealth for many ethnic groups of Amazonia, which means that the people lived simple but in wealth, because the resources for a pleasant life were available in abundance. By the clash of the indigenous with the Europeans, this system was brought out of function. Disease and increasing war destroyed the hereditary system. That this was initiated by contact with Europeans, is often forgotten. As a result, the Jivaros found themselves in difficulty to gain a political voice in the forming nation-states of Ecuador and Peru, since they where considered “savages” and as a minority a negligible quantity.

Now in 2011 Amazonian indigenous peoples in Peru have taken a big step to regain their place in the world!

About David X. Meier

David X. Meier has a Master's degree in Social Anthropology at University of Zurich. One of his special interest are ethnopolitical occurrences and issues and the hope that the awareness of ethnical issues will help to establish peace and understanding.

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