Shelf Help: 'Upriver: The Turbulent Life and Times of an Amazonian People'

The Awajún people of the Peruvian Amazon have a reputation for violence—not least against themselves.
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Upriver: The Turbulent Life and Times of an Amazonian People
Michael F. Brown
Harvard University Press

upriver

The Awajún people of the Peruvian Amazon have a reputation for violence—not least against themselves. Brown, an anthropologist, recorded female deaths in 1978 and found that 58 percent were suicides. He attributes the self-slaughter to the Awajúns’ lack of other means of self-assertion and agency, and grief and hopelessness over failure to live up to their values. His book, based both on that early work and on a brief return in 2012, is a model of nuance and humility. He describes vividly the encroachments of modernity on the lives of the Awajúns, and their attempts to resist and survive as the Amazon is carved up for natural-resource extraction. But Brown is scrupulously unsentimental and resists the political pieties typical of Latin American ethnography, which so often treats indigenous people as victims or heroes. The result is a book with the fullness and texture of real human life; it is a masterpiece of social science. —Graeme Wood

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