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  • The Chaco Mission Frontier: The Guaycuruan Experience
  • Susan E. Ramirez
The Chaco Mission Frontier: The Guaycuruan Experience. By James Scholfield Saeger. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press. 2000. Pp. xviii, 266. $50.00.)

This book adds perspective on the studies of missions in Latin America. Traditionally, most historians have associated missions with institutions in the colonial Spanish American heartlands, where native populations were settled agriculturists. This inquiry expands and nuances these ideas by focusing on the work of Catholic friars working among the non-sedentary (or semi-nomadic) Guaycuruan hunter-gatherers of the Gran Chaco. They constituted people who valued war and scorned farmers like the Guaraní. In seven detailed chapters and a conclusion, Saeger presents, wherever the sources permit, the Guaycuruan (a term applied to Abipones, Mocobis, Mbayás, the Toba, Pilagá, and others) [End Page 368] perspectives on missions and the negotiated conditions under which they were accepted in the eighteenth century. In the absence of a written Guaycuruan language, Saeger reconstructs Guaycuruan history and their lifeways from contact in the 1500's to the coming of the missions in the 1740's and into the twentieth century, based on records left by their enemies and tutors and assumes "that Guaycuruans spoke most clearly through their behavior" (p. xiii).

The analysis of their lifeways focuses on change and continuities over time. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Guaycuruan groups exhibited no political organization or loyalty above the band, although they shared a common language. They defined themselves partly in opposition to the Hispanic societies with whom they fought, plundered, and traded. They were led by hereditary chiefs with limited authority. Among the Mocobis, for example, chiefs won influence from powerful oratory with which to persuade and win adherents, brave deeds, and good decisions. And, although such a decentralized structure might suggest weakness, in fact it prevented Spanish forces from capturing the one person who at least symbolically signaled the defeat of them all. Over the years the settling of the area by the Spanish resulted in wars, disease, and ecological degradation, and increasing pressure on hunting and other resources. Guaycuruans adjusted by adopting the horse; raising cattle; using iron hatchets and knives (which in the long run ruined palm groves); replacing war as an economic activity with trade; accepting the concept of private property and the market economy; becoming sedentary; adopting agriculture; learning trades, converting to Catholicism; and embracing sobriety. By the late twentieth century, most of the Guaycuruans had lost their land, language, and identity.

In the conclusions, Saeger compares and contrasts his findings with the standard view of the mission, as presented by David Sweet's synthesis. Like the stereotype, missionaries to the Guaycuruan attempted to change food habits; introduce new conceptions of time; make the natives into "unwaged rural proletarians"; teach the Guaycuruan to work as domestic servants and ranch hands; and, in general, replace native customs with Hispanic ones. Like the standard, too, resistance was greatest among the least sedentary and least political. But the Guaycuruan experience was also different in important ways. Missions in the Gran Chaco were not in the vanguard of Spanish penetration. Natives remained relatively healthy; they were not chronically ill and did not die early and in mass. Guaycuruans actually improved their nutrition. Missionaries did not deprive them of freedom to procure subsistence as they saw fit. Finally Guaycuruans resisted by departing rather than by rebelling.

Saeger's analysis is particularly strong on the eighteenth century. His description and analysis are especially good in Chapter 5 on the kin-based allegiances among the various groups who constituted the Guaycuruan. His review of religious beliefs also seems coincident and parallel to those of natives elsewhere. Beliefs that sickness had supernatural origin and that native gods provided victory in war echo those found elsewhere in South America, most particularly among the peoples conquered by the Inca. [End Page 369]

Problems with the text are few. The many and changing names of the various Guaycuruan groups were confusing. The Mbayás called themselves the Eyiguayegis ("people of the palm"); the Mocobis called themselves the Amocovit; and the Toba called themselves the Qom or the Nam Qom or the Natocovit. The...


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