6001 - The power of written and spoken names: shamanism, bureaucracy and missionaries among the Warao of the Orinoco Delta (Venezuela).

While conducting fieldwork among Warao Amerindians in Venezuela, I was once told that Catholic missionaries are preferable to Protestant ones, because the former produce written birth and baptism certificates that have official value whereas the latter do not. I am here interested in unravelling various connections between religious and bureaucratic practices, of which this is but one striking example. Nowadays, the Warao grant quasi magical power to paper documents, and especially to written full names and ID numbers – a list of which is said to generate automatically a flow of wealth from the Venezuelan government, or to bring death upon their bearers, depending on the uses to which it is put. Such views certainly stem from shamanic conceptions according to which pathogenic and benevolent entities are controlled when they are named – and naming is therefore a core aspect of most ritual cures. However, the Warao also posit a crucial technical distinction: the efficacy of written words is conceptualised as foreign, whereas native shamanism is founded on mental thoughts and spoken words. It is therefore necessary to take into account the history of interactions between Warao and outsiders, which have consistently been mediated by written documents over the past century: Spanish Catholic missionaries originally had full delegation of state powers over the area, while governmental agencies have recently been proliferating with the Chávez-led Bolivarian revolution – and literacy has been a major goal of both missionary and governmental policies. By stressing how particular interactions are embedded in wider socio-historical relations, I try to explain changing conceptions of the efficacy of speech and text.      

Palavras-chaves: Amerindians, bureaucracy, missionaries, shamanism, writing

Autores: Allard, Olivier (EHEHI/Casa de Velazquez, Spain / Spanien)


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