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  • Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds by Marisol de la Cadena
  • Carwil Bjork-James
Marisol de la Cadena, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 315 pp.

South American indigenous peoples and their relationships with the environment have become increasingly salient to regional politics and anthropological theory. While several states in the region have recently recognized indigenous concepts of the natural world like Pachamama (the Earth Mother) in their constitutions, anthropological theorists including Marisol de la Cadena (2010) have argued these nods only skim the surface of a deeper, and ontological, difference. To truly understand indigenous–environmental relations, she argued in this earlier work, requires abandoning closely held modern notions and acknowledging a different kind of world altogether. Does understanding indigenous peoples and their politics require a fundamental rethinking of reality? Such a question is difficult to approach without a clear illustration of what such an ontological interpretation might contribute to a tangible situation.

In the high-altitude community of Pacchanta, de la Cadena has found a place where conventional power politics and unconventional environmental entities alike influence history, from the mid-century struggle for agrarian reform to the contemporary multicultural remaking of Peru. In recounting these events, the author argues we must acknowledge the fundamental alterity of the indigenous world. In the process, she produces an ethnography and a rich theoretical intervention that fundamentally revises earlier accounts of peasant politics and indigenous religion among Quechua-speaking Andeans in the Cuzco region of Peru. The text is nonlinear and multilayered, arranged into a Preface, seven Stories, two Interludes, and an Epilogue. While theoretically sophisticated, the book’s concrete language and brief introductory asides make it suitable for advanced undergraduates unfamiliar with its core concepts. [End Page 283]

The carefully considered portrait offered by Marisol de la Cadena invites us to see another layer of existence, as known and practiced by the runakuna (Quechua people who take part in rural collectivities). The titular earth-beings are the tirakuna, which are willful, ceremonially accessible entities embodied in natural features. Locally principal among these is Ausangate, an entity that is at once a mountain and its more-than-natural (that is, animate but still material) self. While the ontological turn envisions multiple worlds, de la Cadena foregrounds just two: the ayllu (community) of runakuna engaged with earth-beings, and the world of the modern Peruvian state that privileges landlords’ economic power and the non-indigenous, modern experience of reality.

As a Peruvian and a historical anthropologist, de la Cadena is also re-encountering her own political history, joining modern public stories to others that had remained outside conceptual reach: “My world cannot fathom that what it deems to be its ‘other’ already inhabits, participates, and influences the nation-state that we all share” (62). The strange and the familiar interpenetrate because Peruvian and indigenous worlds “are circuited together” in “symbiotic” connection, interchanging practices and ideas “without consuming the difference” between them (4). Her informants are used to living within this duality, from so-called “syncretic” religion to political ceremonies marked by indigenous folkloric performance. Peru’s dominant culture, however, often fails to see the alterity of indigenous experience. Drawing on theories of plural but interconnected realities by Donna Haraway (1991), Marilyn Strathern (1991), and Annemarie Mol (2002), de la Cadena leads us to understand the indigenous world and its links with her own.

Two biographical Interludes introduce us to Mariano and Nazario Turpo, each of them a yachaq, literally a “knower,” a practitioner who implores local earth-beings for knowledge and support. Mariano was also the key mover in his community’s mid-century struggle to end the control of the local hacendado, or landlord. His life stands at the intersection of agrarian politics and mystical practice, and his haphazardly preserved archive of that struggle is what first drew de la Cadena into a decade of interaction with his community. His son Nazario continues his ritual path, while traveling new, 21st century circuits of indigeneity and mysticism from Cuzco university courses in Andean shamanism to New Age-inflected spiritual tourism, to the National Museum of the American Indian. Less directly [End Page 284...


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pp. 283-294
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