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‘Umbrellas in the Rainforest: the culture of civilization of the Papurí’

The splendorous rituals of sacred flutes and feather headdresses, the myths of unparalleled length, and the shamanic tradition of priestly character of the Vaupés region, Northwestern Amazonia, have entranced many anthropologists. So, too, has the opulence of its system of social pedigrees and the enormous longhouses that shelter it. At the heart of this region of great ceremonies flows the Papurí River, home to the once proudest exponents of this tradition, who inspired accounts of a people of royal grandeur in the depths of Amazonia: the Tukano.

Today, the Tukano cultivate ‘civilization’. On a daily basis and over more than a hundred years, they have scrutinised and reworked elements of their lifestyle, sociality, and cosmology to fashion themselves into ‘civilized peoples’. This they do with recourse to the imaginaries and values of Amerindian tradition, Catholicism, Hollywood, and Colombo-Brazilian popular culture. Let us call this deliberate endeavour a ‘culture of civilization’.

For a long time, such projects guaranteed the Tukano continued gravitas and respect across the region, but it has increasingly come to signify their decadence and possibly also their disappearance. My ethnographic research follows the existential import of their project of civilization and its conundrums.


‘The Habit of Being Tukano’

A common sight: women walking underneath the dense, dripping canopy, women travelling on the prow of canoes exposed to the sun, all of them under the safeguarding of umbrellas. Preventing clothes and hairstyles from getting wet, skins from tanning, and conferring upon people a sense of chic control over the elements, umbrellas are the colourful artefacts of a decorous appearance and demeanour in the rainiest of forests. Such disposition instantiates what the Tukano call nisétisé: one’s own habit of being and speaking. And that habit of being for the Tukano is the habit of being ‘civilized’.



Gathered in a ‘culture center’ in the Papurí, a group of Desano and Tukano men perform ritual dances in front of a board of local indigenous judges. At stake, ranking “the quality of their tradition”. Sitting next to me, Tukano elder Juan Guerrero explained: “just like Brazilians have the Rio Carnival, we also have our shows, we have tradition”. Like most countries the world over, and unlike dominant indigenist discourses in Latin America, Papurí Tukanoans do not oppose ‘culture’ to ‘civilization’. Treated as heritage, shows of ‘tradition’ subsume what they call their “backward past” under their “civilized present”, reinforcing rather than compromising the latter. Along the waters of the Papurí, civilization is cultivated just as much as culture is civilized.



‘Avenida La Esperanza’

26 April, 2023, marked the day on which the Avenida La Esperanza (Avenue of Hope) began its construction. Trees were felled, a house was demolished, and the bush was cleared under the furious sun. At the rhythm of shovels levelling the ground and the frantic trips of a solitary wheelbarrow, some proclaimed: “we’re working for the future, we’re progressing in our communities!”

Out of breath, and perhaps also of patience, I stopped shovelling and asked: “so, is this to allow motorbikes and cars to circulate?” Everyone laughed. In fairness, the question was absurd. For one thing, the Papurí is so remote that even the thought of having cars and motorbikes is impossible. For another, strictly speaking we were not opening an avenue, but clearing a short stretch in an empty corner of the settlement met by the forest at one end.

“Well, Dani, probably not,” someone finally said, “but we still need an avenue. It’s important to demonstrate (bahure)”. Every civilized and developed community worth its salt must have an avenue. The Avenue of Hope.