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Piaroa women gain fulfillment, pleasure, and respect from raising manioc in their gardens, one anthropologist argues, and this work is essential to their society.

In her recent article “Tedium and Creativity: The Valorization of Manioc Cultivation and Piaroa Women,” published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute volume 10, 2004, p.241-259, Serena L. Heckler describes arguments by other scholars who maintain that manioc planting, cultivation, and processing is a way for lowland South American societies to control women. The gardening work supposedly gives women a harmless occupation that confers prestige in the home, but in reality the work is simply drudgery and the women only think they enjoy it. The argument continues that the hunting successes of the men confer prestige on them that the women cannot attain.

Heckler strongly differs. Based on her own fieldwork, she finds that many traditional Piaroa women in Venezuela take especial pride in their gardens—they enjoy showing them off to the anthropologist. The hard work and skill of the expert gardener, and her knowledge of wild as well as cultivated plants, is recognized and appreciated by the rest of the community. Gardens that provide abundant, safe, and reliable foods are as much a source of pride for the women as hunting success is for the men. In fact, the women often cultivate their gardens much more than is necessary, since the neatness conveys an aesthetic sense of well-being and shows off the owners’ accomplishments.

Heckler buttresses her argument with a range of observations. She notes that some of the experienced women gardeners grow many cultivars of manioc, more than 20 in some cases, in their gardens as a way of combating pathogens. These varieties of manioc are used for different purposes, depending on the characteristics of the plants and their potential uses for starch, flour, bread, or beer. The varieties also require different kinds of preparations.

The women obtain these cultivars from their broad reciprocal networks, and sometimes from the assistance of men who bring back cuttings when they travel. The different varieties grown in a woman’s garden are not really just the result of impersonal economic transactions. Rather, they represent acts of giving and receiving, and the cultivation of each plant may remind the woman of the individual donor and their close personal relationship. With all of the relationships expressed by the manioc varieties, the woman’s garden is a manifestation of her life story, a personal, historical landscape.

Heckler expands the story of the manioc into a consideration of the fundamental Piaroa worldview. She reiterates the explanations of Joanna Overing, that the “knowledge of living skills,” as Heckler puts it, is extremely important but also potentially quite dangerous. The Piaroa believe that humans must be careful to control the wild, dangerous forces of production that have existed since the creation of the world, and women have the necessary skills to do that work safely. In fact, the only men with similar skills are the shamans, whose rituals help keep the society safe—and who also cultivate manioc gardens along with the women. For other Piaroa men, manioc cultivation is peripheral.

An important facet of Piaroa rituals is serving manioc beer. While the men host the rituals and participate in the ritual activities, everyone is aware that it was the women who grew the manioc and prepared the beer that is central to the social aspects of the ritual experience. Some observers, noting that the men have the formal role of communicating with the spirits, have concluded that Piaroa women are subject to the men. In fact, however, people don’t actually pay too much attention to the men during the rituals.

The real action is where the women are discussing with others the details of their lives, including, of course, the news about their gardens. The peaceful socializing of the women is actually one of the primary goals of the rituals. The rituals of the men, in essence, are most obviously effective when people are paying little attention to them.

Like all societies, changes are occurring among the Piaroa. Some young women are learning enough Spanish to take wage labor jobs in nearby towns, so their gardening work has to fit into their lives as best it can. For them, manioc gardening has become a necessary chore, a way to educate their children, rather than a source of pride. Other young women are taking agriculture classes and may seek to integrate formal schooling with traditional practices. Some continue to follow their mothers’ examples.

Heckler’s convincing article represents an effective addition to the literature on strong, confident women in peaceful societies. Karen Lampell Endicott (1987) and Patricia Draper (1975), to single out just two, have made similarly important contributions about the important roles that confident, successful, respected women play in the Batek and Ju/’hoansi societies. The importance of women’s work, and the society’s positive attitude toward it, comes out repeatedly in the literature on peaceful societies, as this latest article by Heckler demonstrates.