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  • Puyo Runa: Imagery and Power in Modern Amazonia
  • Michael L. Cepek
Norman E. Whitten Jr.Dorothea Scott Whitten, Puyo Runa: Imagery and Power in Modern Amazonia. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008. 336 pp.

Puyo Runa: Imagery and Power in Modern Amazonia represents the culmination of four decades of collaborative research by Norman E. Whitten Jr. and Dorothea Scott Whitten. In their analysis of the cultural patterns and political actions of eastern Ecuador’s Canelos Quichua people, the Whittens use fine-grained ethnography to challenge the assumptions of academic anthropologists, governmental planners, and political observers and theorists. As a convincing and accessible account of one people’s struggle to comprehend and overcome the challenges of colonial history and a tumultuous geopolitical moment, Puyo Runa stands as a powerful argument for the essential perspective that only long-term, rigorous, and imaginative ethnography can provide.

Puyo Runa’s eponymous objects are “Puyo Runa,” Canelos Quichua people who live in and around the booming town of Puyo, capital of Ecuador’s Pastaza province. Part of the Whittens’ mission in Puyo Runa is to explore the perduring cultural orientations of the Canelos Quichua while positioning them within a historically developing and regionally articulated ethnic system. Rather than essentialize them as a hermetically sealed “tribe,” the Whittens describe them as “a sustained cultural moment of ethnogenetic [End Page 733] emergence” (xii) that joins Achuar Jivaroan, Andoa-Zaparoan, and other linguistic and cultural trajectories from within and beyond Ecuador’s borders. As portrayed by the Whittens, Puyo Runa are historically engaged, politically committed, culturally creative, and firmly grounded in a dynamic Amazonian lifeway.

In the Preface, the Whittens write that Puyo Runa aims “to understand the modern and millennial dimensions of increasingly self-essentialized cultural systems in a setting of wrenching national transformation and competing macro-ideologies” (ix). Over the course of the book’s nine chapters, the Whittens pursue this objective by traversing a variety of contexts: Canelos Quichua households, villages, gardens, and forests; protest events in lowland communities and the national capital; and international encounters of various scales.

As in the Whittens’ previous work, the true gems of Puyo Runa are the thickly detailed accounts of central sociocultural phenomena, including everyday forms of sociality, collective ritual events, styles of ceramic production, and the complementary creativity of male shamans and female potters. Interspersed with these “classical” treatments are in-depth portrayals of Canelos Quichua participation in momentous political actions: the 1990 Levantamiento Indígena; the 1992 Caminata from Puyo to Quito; and the events leading up to the 21st de Enero, 2000, when indigenous protestors stormed the Presidential Palace and briefly installed Antonio Vargas (a Canelos Quichua leader) in the presidency as one-third of an indigenous-military “Triumvirate of National Salvation.”

Much of the material in Puyo Runa comes from the Whittens’ earlier publications, some of which are out of print. Nevertheless, Puyo Runa marks significant changes. Amazonianists might miss the intense analytic style of Norman Whitten’s earlier monographs, while students and general anthropologists will appreciate the enhanced readability of the new book. Additionally, the Whittens have made new attempts to depict Puyo Runa as real, living, and dynamic people, and the reader may sometimes struggle with a cascade of names and biographical details.

Overall, Puyo Runa succeeds in cementing the Whittens’ reputation as two of the most innovative ethnographers of contemporary Amazonia. They replace outdated notions of “acculturation,” “hybridity,” and “multiculturalism” with the rich play of indigenous “interculturality.” They show indigenous identity-formations to be in dialogue with a semiotics of blackness and mestizaje. They challenge artificial boundaries between “coast,” “highlands,” [End Page 734] and “Amazonia.” They stress the gender relations that orient all forms of cultural production. And they acknowledge the true ramifications of indigenous political projects, which critique hegemonic power structures and propose new ways to structure national and global relations.

Most importantly, the Whittens accomplish their interventions not on the basis of a priori theoretical arguments, but with the support of empirical accounts that aim to describe the complex ways in which real people act in and on an ever-changing world. After reading Puyo Runa, the reader is left convinced that such is...


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pp. 733-735
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