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  • Plant Kin: A Multispecies Ethnography in Indigenous Brazil by Theresa L. Miller
  • Angela May Steward
Theresa L. Miller
Plant Kin: A Multispecies Ethnography in Indigenous Brazil.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019. ix + 328 pp. Color and black-and-white photographs, maps, figures, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95 paper (IBSN: 978-1-4773-1740-2).

Plant kin is a rigorously researched and carefully constructed multispecies ethnography that focuses on the Indigenous Canela of the Brazilian Cerrado or savanna environment. Based on fieldwork occurring in 2012–2013 and 2017, it joins the growing body of literature on human and non-human engagements, particularly plant-human relationships, which are often overlooked and under-theorized. The author uses a novel approach she terms “Sensory Ethnobotany,” which examines “plant and human behavior, sensory capacities and communication to examine the relationships between and among plant and human communities” (p. 5). She focuses on the Canela engagements characterized as affective and caring—where plants are considered kin and part of large multi-species families.

Miller explores plant-people engagements among the Canela from a phenomenological perspective, where such interactions are continually evolving within the landscape of the Canela territory, which today is wrought with serious threats, including deforestation, climate change, and violence. She argues that while imposed outside changes directed the group toward a sedentary livelihood based in subsistence horticulture, garden engagements today are truly Canela, wholly integrated into their life-worlds and testament to the group’s resilience. Gardens provide food and contribute to feelings of well-being or goodness; materially, they allow the group to maintain their autonomy from outsiders (non-Indigenous Brazilians and foreigners). She argues that understanding plant-people engagements, such as those of the Canela and other Indigenous groups, can provide new opportunities for resilience in the Anthropocene—showing us new non-destructive ways of being and interacting.

The book is organized into five main chapters, an introduction, conclusion, and an epilogue. It also includes extensive appendices, including “living lists” of Canela cultivated crops and native plants and color photographs illustrating Canela agrobio-diversity. The first two chapters establish the theoretical foundation and historical context, allowing us to situate the ethno-graphic material largely presented in chapters 3-5. In chapter one, the author engages with phenomenological theoretical approaches to discuss a Canela moral aesthetics of land and landscape. To this broader discussion, she brings regional anthropological literature, describing Canela bio-social cultural life in connection to other Indigenous groups in lowland South America, but particularly to Jê Indigenous groups. From here, she discusses the changes occurring in the Cerrado region and with a detailed discussion on Indigenous classifications of the eco-regions, soils and organization in and of the Canela territory.

A dynamic second chapter presents the history of subsistence and gardening practices among the Canela since the early nineteenth [End Page 285] century. The history of the Canela has been rife with violence and clashes with outsiders, resulting in constant territorial dislocations until 1982 when the Canela Indigenous territory was demarcated. The author then describes the current configuration of gardens in the village, a two-garden system of riverbank and forest plot types, which Canela families maintain to provide food year-round supplies. Here, Miller discusses spatial arrangements of gardens, inheritance rules through matrilocal relationships, and division of labor.

These initial chapters demonstrate three characteristics that make this book so noteworthy. The first is the author’s careful research and her ability to bring together larger theoretical discussions with regional ethnography and her current research. Second, Plant Kin is as an ethnography rooted in history. Through her careful documentation of the Canela and their interaction with outsiders, Miller incorporates power dimensions, which are often left out of contemporary ethnographies that focus on plant-people interactions. Lastly, the author’s use of ethnographical material brings the Canela perspective to the forefront in an active manner, and in this way, they come to light as protagonists of their own story.

The last three chapters contain rich ethno-graphic material documenting how the Canela become parents to plants through embodied experiences that involve multi-sensory skill sets. Caring for plants from seeds to harvest involves visiting plants, clearing...