The Americas 59.1 (2002) 149-151
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This book offers the hope of being the first monographic study of a largely neglected region and the people who inhabited it, but has pervasive problems attributable to both the author and the press. The author wants to develop a counter-example to David Sweet's "able, angry, and grim" essay (p. 180), "The Ibero-American [End Page 149] Frontier Mission in Native American History" (1995), by reconstructing how Guaycuruan peoples of the Gran Chaco adapted to Spanish Catholic missions in the 1700s without "degenerating either into 'victimology' or Eurocentric triumphalism" (p. 193).
The methodology for putting "the Guaycuruan in sharp focus (by hearing) their voices, which call faintly to us through Spanish documents" (p. xiii), is revealed in the last three paragraphs of the eighth and final chapter: consider Native American society holistically; determine which subgroups suffered and which benefited from missions; and, understand how religion functioned in indigenous society. The book is undermined at every turn by the following problems addressed by example after their enumeration: 1) meaningless, facile, and vague statements; 2) poorly researched and incorrect biology; 3) weak ethnography and use of inconsequential South American sources; and 4) arguing by analogy, rather than evidence, from better-documented North American cases.
The following paragraph appears in the conclusion to chapter five and is representative of statements appearing throughout the book:
In pre-mission and mission settings, Guaycuruans practiced collective decision making. In the volitional and factional Guaycuruan system, adult males chose missions. Those not attracted to mission life kept their families away, and those who came but found missions too confining or emasculating left. For those in missions, their political systems became more complex while still retaining traditional features (p. 135).
No conclusions are possible from this paragraph since each sentence appears to contradict the preceding sentence, e.g., (all) adult males chose missions, but those not attracted stayed away. In another example the author states "Many parents sent children to the new teachers. Ambitious mothers sought missionary preference for their children. Mothers welcomed clerical interest in their offspring. They also appreciated a Catholic support system to rear their children after catastrophes" (p. 104). No meaning is given to "many," "ambitious," or "catastrophes."
In chapter three, Saeger describes how the Guaycuruan gathered dates and coconut palms, hunted elk and "one kind of wild boar," and used deer horn as tobacco carriers and projectile points. Dates, coconut palms, and elk do not occur on the South American continent; the "one kind of wild boar" is almost certainly, from the context, Catagonus wagneri; and deer do not have horns, they have antlers. Such errors make it difficult to take seriously conclusions such as ". . . by the 1700s they (the Guaycuruan) had devastated the palm groves" (p. 54) or "The Toba, like all Guaycuruan peoples, were ecologists long before such a word was coined who were concerned with maintaining a balance with their environment" (p. 139).
In chapter five, Saeger discusses Guaycuruan politics and war starting from the idea that families represent "miniature states" (p. 113) and the argument that scholars [End Page 150] continue to debate the causes of "primitive war" (p. 120). These points are respectively credited to Robert Lowie and Alfred Métraux, who were actively writing in the 1920s and 1930s, and have been dead for decades. The same critiques Saeger uses to ridicule the conclusions reached by such early authors (e.g., "The belief that aboriginal societies were ruled by consensus is largely a concept of anthropologists. . ." p. 226), are the same that stimulated production from the 1950s onward of the extensive contemporary South American ethnographic and ethnohistoric literature that Saeger consistently fails to use.
The failure to provide evidence and to rely excessively on better-documented North American cases ultimately undermine Saeger's credibility to demonstrate how "several of Sweet's most telling allegations do not fit the Guaycuruan missions comfortably"...