In spite of recent recognition of the variability of political forms across and within indigenous Amazonian societies, we still seem to work under the premise of indigenous peoples’ aversion to coercive leadership and the capacity of their leaders to guide through charisma instead of leading through coercion. However, how are these societies reacting to today’s context in which the State, NGOs and companies give village leaders powers of command over natural resources and thus the ability to coerce other villagers? These powers allow leaders to act arbitrarily, becoming the tyrants that these societies purposefully avoid as they threaten to destroy the very possibility of community, their pursuit of the ‘good life’ and the reproduction of ‘real’ people. However, my paper will look into my ethnography of Ashaninka people in order to explore another recent voluntary re-shuffle of attitudes towards the power allowed to chiefs that shows a variability of leadership powers within Ashaninka society. Bajo Urubamba Ashaninka village leaders are allowed and expected to give out sanctions to villagers who ‘do not know how to live well’ in order to enforce and protect the communal pursuit of kametsa asaiki (the ‘good life’). Thus, Ashaninka chiefs have received control over the two most important of their communal properties and assets: conviviality and timber.   Is this the birth of the institutionalisation of power in a fiercely egalitarian society? What happened to their negative reaction to rules and regulations? I propose that this is not a complete change in political values, even if it may not seem so at a first glance. I will argue that what may seem like a new contradictory style of leadership is really an ‘audacious innovation’ based on Ashaninka ideas of egalitarianism . These historical circumstances include the reconciliation/reconstruction project in the wake of the Peruvian Internal War, the move from separated settlements into villages, and the rise of extractivist industries in their territory. Following Joanna Overing's, I will pay close attention to the different faces of power, the positive and negative, in order to see and understand the two sides of the Ashaninka egalitarian tyrant.

Keywords: Amazonia, Ashaninka, Leadership, Power, Egalitarianism.

Author: Sarmiento Barletti, Juan Pablo (University of St Andrews, United Kingdom/Ver Königr)


University of Vienna | Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Ring 1 | 1010 Vienna | T +43 1 4277 17575