Praying and Preying: Book Review

Vilaça, Aparecida. 2016.  Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia, translated by David Rodgers. Oakland: University of California Press.

Reviewed by G.E.R. Lloyd (Needham Research Institute, Cambridge UK)

This is a truly remarkable book.  In most anthropological monographs the reader is given a detailed analysis of one particular collectivity, the circumstances of their lives, their kinship relations, social structures, myths, rituals, ways of making sense of the world and of their place in it.  That is certainly what Vilaça here does for the society she has been studying for more than 30 years, the Wari’ who live in what is today the Rondônia province of Brazil.  But a principal theme of this book is the interactions between the Wari’ and the missionaries (Protestants and some Catholics) who have lived among them and attempted, with varying success, to convert them to Christianity.  The Evangelical New Tribes Mission in particular, whose activities date back to the 1940s, may be said to be the subject of a second interlocking ethnographic analysis.  This adds a new dimension to the study of mutual intelligibility with which Vilaça is centrally concerned.  First there is the missionaries’ understanding of the Wari’ (they are not particularly concerned to learn from them or even about them but they certainly wish to get their own message across).  Second there is the Wari’s understanding of the missionaries and of what the missionaries are trying to teach them.  Third there is Vilaça’s own understanding of those divergent understandings and her further entering into dialogue with her fellow anthropologists.  I shall come back to that.

The problem of translation thus takes centre stage, and that takes multiple forms.  This is not just a matter of finding particular terms in one language that will be adequate to convey what is meant by some word in another. This to be sure was a major preoccupation for the missionaries, for what they were hoping to achieve was a rendition of the Word of God, as contained in the Bible, itself interpreted literally.  But for the Wari’ translation was quite different.  Their starting point is that Wari’ is the language spoken by everyone, every living being (and not just humans).  But the same term, used by different agents, may and often does have quite different referents.  The plot thickens when the agents are non-human persons.  When the jaguar drinks the blood of its victims, what the Wari’ see as blood is, for the jaguar, beer.  Of course translating from jaguar perceptions to those of the Wari’ takes special skills, the province of expertise of shamans in particular (though with Christianisation their power has been on the decline).  But the Wari’ in general are used to calling upon what may be thought of as internal dictionaries facilitating translation between jaguars (for example) and the Wari’, and of course also between the missionaries and themselves.  The consequence for reference is radical.  We are used to recognising that for someone to be a ‘father’ implies a relationship with another person, a son or daughter, who makes the father what he is.  But that principle is applied quite generally.  So that ‘blood’ is (only) blood to some agent for whom it is blood.  Indeed, a ‘person’ is only a person in virtue of being seen as a person.

That of course was the central message of the perspectivism proposed by Viveiros de Castro, which the Wari’ instantiate particularly clearly.  But where does that leave Vilaça herself?  On the one hand, she evidently distances herself from the assumptions of the missionaries, that the Word of God sets out a definitive statement of how things are.  On the other, she resists the relativising conclusion that the different understandings of translation, and of terms across languages, effectively rule out any possibility of mutual intelligibility.  That is not a conclusion the Wari’ themselves draw.  On the contrary their perspectivism suggests a particular focus on the efforts needed, and the difficulties likely to be encountered, in the task of translation.

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High, “A Little Bit Christian”

High, Casey. 2016. “A Little Bit Christian”: Memories of Conversion and Community in Post-Christian Amazonia. American AnthropologistDOI: 10.1111/aman.12526

Abstract: Conversion to Christianity in Amazonia is often described in terms of collective action rather than radically new beliefs interior to the individual. I describe how Waorani people in Ecuador remember the conversion of specific elders as a time of civilization that brought Waorani into a wider social order after a period of violence and isolation. Despite having largely abandoned Christianity since their mass conversion in the 1960s, Waorani today embrace past conversion as a catalyst of social transformation that they say made the present ideal of living in a “community” possible. The individual experiences evoked in memories of collective “civilization” and an insistence on personal autonomy in Waorani visions of community illustrate why the moral commentaries of Waorani Christians remain highly valued in communities where Christianity has ceased to be a dominant social identity.

Vilaça, “Praying and Preying”

Vilaça, Aparecida. 2016. Praying and preying: Christianity in indigenous Amazonia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Publisher’s Description: Praying and Preying offers one of the rare anthropological monographs on the Christian experience of contemporary Amazonian indigenous peoples, based on an ethnographic study of the relationship between the Wari’, inhabitants of Brazilian Amazonia, and the Evangelical missionaries of the New Tribes Mission. Vilaça turns to a vast range of historical, ethnographic and mythological material related to both the Wari’ and missionaries perspectives and the author’s own ethnographic field notes from her more than 30-year involvement with the Wari’ community. Developing a close dialogue between the Melanesian literature, which informs much of the recent work in the Anthropology of Christianity, and the concepts and theories deriving from Amazonian ethnology, in particular the notions of openness to the other, unstable dualism, and perspectivism, the author provides a fine-grained analysis of the equivocations and paradoxes that underlie the translation processes performed by the different agents involved and their implications for the transformation of the native notion of personhood.

Robbins, Schieffelin, and Vilaça, “Evangelical Conversion and the Transformation of the Self in Amazonia and Melanesia”

Robbins, Joel, Bambi B, Schieffelin, and Aparecida Vilaça. 2014. Evangelical Conversion and the Transformation of the Self in Amazonia and Melanesia: Christianity and the Revival of Anthropological Comparison. Comparative Studies in Society and History 56(3):559–590.

Abstract: The last several decades have seen both a renewed anthropological interest in the possibility of cross-cultural comparison and the rapid rise of the anthropology of Christianity. These two trends should be mutually supportive. One of the promises of the anthropology of Christianity from the outset has been that it will allow people to compare how processes of Christianization have unfolded in different parts of the world and to consider how the resulting Christian configurations are similar to and different from one another. But to this point, relatively little detailed comparative empirical work on Christianity has appeared. Our aim here is to contribute to remedying this situation. Drawing on recent theoretical work on comparison, we set comparative work on Christianity on a new footing. Empirically, we examine how processes of Evangelical Christianization have transformed notions of the self in one Amazonian society (Wari’) and two unrelated societies in Melanesia (Bosavi and Urapmin). We define the self for comparative purposes as composed of ideas of the mind or inner self, the body, and relations between people. In our three cases, Christianization has radically transformed these ideas, emphasizing the inner self and downplaying the importance of the body and of social relations. While our empirical conclusions are not wholly unexpected, the extent to which the details of our three cases speak comparatively to one another, and the extent to which the broad processes of Christian transformation they involve are similar, are surprising and lay a promising foundation for future comparative work in the anthropology of Christianity.

Luzar and Fragoso, “Shamanism, Christianity, and Culture”

Luzar, Jeffrey B. and Jose M. V. Fragoso. 2013. Shamanism, Christianity, and Culture Change in Amazonia. Human Ecology 41(2):299-311.

Abstract: Among many indigenous peoples of Amazonia, shamanism and Christianity co-exist as central cultural elements shaping the ways in which people interpret and interact with the world. Despite centuries of co-existence, the relationship between shamanism and Christianity has entered an especially dynamic era as many of Amazonia’s indigenous peoples abandon Catholicism for Evangelical and Sabbatarian churches. Testing the relationship between Christian church affiliation and shamanism in 23 Makushi and Wapishana communities in southern Guyana, we found that Evangelicals and Sabbatarians are less likely to visit shamans or accept their legitimacy than are Anglicans and Catholics. However, conversion does not necessarily imply a complete rejection of indigenous religious systems as many self-identified Evangelicals and Sabbatarians continue to adhere to some indigenous beliefs and practices. We conclude by positing possible implications of religious conversion for natural resource use on indigenous lands.

Lebner, “A Christian Politics of Friendship on a Brazilian Frontier”

Lebner, Ashley. 2012. A Christian Politics of Friendship on a Brazilian Frontier. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 77(4):496-517.

This paper explores ethnography of municipal elections, promise-making and miracles to show how Christians problematise both friendship and politics on a settler frontier in Brazilian Amazonia. Bringing these themes together generates new anthropological perspectives on each, while complimenting Derrida’s critique of Schmitt’s friend–enemy distinction – his definition of the political. Yet the main ethnographic point complicates the argument that both Schmitt and Brazilianist anthropologists critiquing clientelism have made: that Christianity reflects and legitimises the political order. In contrast, I show how the problem of friendship, produced through Christian concerns with presence, legitimises and deligitimises politics at once. The overarching message is that politics, friendship (sociality) and Christianity – usually kept analytically separate – are uniquely clarified where they intersect, as they pass through persons, who foreground and background these domains themselves.

Brightman, “Maps and Clocks”

Brightman, Marc. 2012. Maps and Clocks in Amazonia: the things of conversion and conversation. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18(3):554-571.


Engaging with the recent interest in materiality in the anthropology of Amazonia, this article focuses on objects which might seem to present a challenge to indigenous systems of thought. Maps and clocks separate and abstract space and time from each other, and from the phenomena of experience, by reducing them to plane and number. Partly for this reason, and partly because of their association with Christian conversion, they may be seen as symbols and instruments of colonialism and of the technological foundations of European power. The article offers an analysis of an Amazonian group’s strong interest in these objects and in the modes of thought which they represent. It concludes with reflections on native historicity and the modalities of cultural change in a context of sustained contact with alterity.


Dans la ligne du récent intérêt de l’anthropologie amazoniste envers la matérialité, l’auteur examine des objets qui semblent poser un défi aux systèmes de pensée autochtones. Cartes et horloges dissocient l’espace et le temps et les séparent des phénomènes perceptibles en les réduisant à des plans et des nombres. Pour cette raison, et aussi à cause de leur association à la conversion au christianisme, elles apparaissent comme symboles et instruments du colonialisme et des fondements technologiques de la puissance européenne. Le présent article analyse le vif intérêt d’un groupe amazonien pour ces objets et les modes de pensée qu’ils représentent. Il se conclut par des réflexions sur l’historicité indigène et les modalités du changement culturel, dans un contexte de contact permanent avec l’altérité.

Vilaca, “Dividuality in Amazonia”

Vilaca, Aparecida. 2011. Dividuality in Amazonia: God, the Devil, and the constitution of personhood in Wari Christianity. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17(2):243-262.

Abstract: This article explores the Christian experience of the Wari’, an Amazonian native group, in light of a central feature of their personhood: its dual composition, both human and animal. Arguing that the centrality of the relation with God has resulted in a more stable human person, the article provides an ethnographic examination of how this relation is produced and maintained. Analytic categories derived from the New Melanesian Ethnography – the notions of the ‘dividual’ and the ‘partible person’– are applied to the Amazonian context, enabling a particular description of the Wari’ person and the Christian God, and the subsequent visualization of some key aspects of the relationship between God and humans. Through this comparative exercise, the article looks to contribute to the dialogue between Amazonianists and Melanesianists that has been unfolding over the past decade or so. It also aims to insert Amazonian ethnography into the anthropological debate on Christianity, today strongly anchored in data and conceptual tools derived from Pacific societies in general and Melanesia in particular.