Penned by a piquantly honest voice committed to the ideals of social justice, Stefano Varese's Salt of the Mountain immerses us in the infinitely complex world of the Arawak-speaking Ashanínka (Campa) and bears historical witness to the meaning of their cultural survival in the Gran Pajonal region of the Peruvian Amazon. Those who lament that the Age of indigenous resistance and cultural vitality are over have evidently never read Varese, who shifts effortlessly among narrative forms and voices to create a haunting account of messianic struggle and cultural endurance. In the English edition of this now classic ethnohistorical study, originally published in Spanish in 1968, Varese blends his own fascinating personal story in the introductory sections of the text with the opaque and painfully sad account of the remarkably resilient Ashanínka who, along with myriad other indigenous societies of eastern Peru, have weathered centuries of unforgiving colonial affronts.
Based on fieldwork conducted in 1963, 1964 and 1967, the book provides ethnographic insight into the basic contours of Ashanínka society and sacred cosmology. Varese writes about what matters in the brief section devoted to ethnological issues: Ashanínka linguistics, family, social organization and spirituality. He then provides important historical contextualization of efforts at evangelical conquest among the Ashanínka, and chronicles otherforces undermining their cultural autonomy and territorial integrity, namely rapacious rubber barons, unscrupulous extractive entrepreneurs, ranchers, land squatters and more recently, armed insurgents (Shining Path and the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru, MRTA), drug-runners, and Peruvian security forces.
At the heart of The Salt of the Mountain is the legendary—if not unsettling—story of Juan Santos Atahualpa, the Quechua political leader and religious prophet [End Page 464] from Cuzco who lead an army of 500 hundred indigenous warriors in a successful mid-eighteenth century rebellion against the Spanish, who were eventually forced to abandon their mission and garrison outposts in the densely forested Gran Pajonal region of Peruvian Amazonia. Educated apparently by the Jesuits, Juan Santos had journeyed to Europe and Africa, and was a fugitive from Spanish justice prior to arriving decked in a red tunic or kushma in the Ashanínka community of Quisopango, located along the upper Shimaqui (the Shimá) River. The basic ideas inspiring Juan Santos' nativistic messianic movement were "those of a religious renewer rather than those of a social revolutionary in search of worldly power" (p. 92). Heralded as Apu Inca, Juan Santos Atahualpa claimed heir to the Inca Empire, and called for the creation of a kingdom east of the Andes in the central jungle, which was free of the menacing presence of Spaniards, Blacks and mestizos. This message found powerful resonance among the indigenous peoples of the Gran Pajonal who enthusiastically rallied to the call of the Quechua messiah's proclamation that his kingdom, stolen by Pizarro and the rest of the Spanish, must be retaken by force. By 1752 Ashanínka, Amuesha and Piro territories had been reclaimed by their former indigenous inhabitants, and the missions had been completely abandoned by the Franciscans. The Gran Pajonal region now remained beyond the reach of colonial and republican state presence until the 1868 establishment of the city of La Merced, which marked the eventual incorporation of the region into the national and global economies.
Civil and missionary expeditions into the central jungle became commonplace, as did efforts to colonize the region through state sponsored immigration projects. In contrast to the old missionary model, a new entrepreneurial and military conquest of the jungle had emerged and criollo entrepreneurs in search of rubber, timber and coffee scrambled to gain a foothold in the area. As the walls of national expansion closed in, the region's indigenous peoples suffered the brutalities of forced labor (enganche), slavery, disease and countless atrocities associated with violent conquest animated by outsider's on-going desires to "civilize" indigenous peoples and usurp their lands in the name of progress, modernity and national development...