Piaroa society has changed over the past 40 years: they have moved to more accessible locations, many have accepted evangelical Christianity, and they are cautious about sharing their knowledge with visitors. Serena Heckler, in an article which she contributed to a recent book, concentrates on the third issue—their indigenous knowledge.
The focus of her research in Venezuela was the Piaroa folk classification of plants growing in their area. In her field work, carried out for 16 months between 1996 and 1999, she studied selected forest plots and queried Piaroa individuals to see what names and uses they would give to a variety of plant specimens. She worked in the vicinity of three different Piaroa communities: one was a multi-ethnic town, the second was part of the market economy, and the third was somewhat more remote from the consumer goods and Christian missionaries of normal Venezuelan society. She quickly found that her basic assumptions needed to be questioned.
She had assumed that the Piaroa would have distinct names for different plants, and that the people would use the same names for the same species. She quickly learned that their understanding of plants was more complex than just knowing their names. She engaged in what anthropologists refer to as participant observation: she accompanied people into the forest to observe their hunting and gathering, and she learned the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest environment that were part of their world. Naming plants was a minor interest to them.
She found that sometimes her request for the name of a plant puzzled her informants: they would ask elders or shamans, who might make up a name on the spot. She found that children and young adults used one system of names, while elders and shamans used more formal, ritualized names. Different families used different names to refer to the same plants. She accepted a lot of fluidity in her scoring of people’s accuracy in their knowledge of plant names, accommodations that were criticized by other scientists later.
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of her investigation was the way elderly women, who certainly were highly experienced in the uses of plants, made many claims to not knowing their names. The answer to the puzzle lay, in part, in the Piaroa concepts of “knowing,” which she found in the earlier literature by Joanna Overing. Overing had emphasized the importance, to the Piaroa, of the knowledge that shamans passed down to their apprentices through formal rituals. Under that paradigm, the practical knowledge that individuals acquired—for hunting, plant gathering, and such—did not have as much importance to the community as the shamanic learning.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the world of the Piaroa, and their worldview, has changed considerably since Overing studied them nearly 40 years ago. They have moved downstream out of the hills in order to live on more accessible rivers and trade routes, so they can have easier access to market goods. Many have been converted by the New Tribes Mission group from the United States to evangelical Christianity, and they reject the shamanism that their parents and grandparents believed in several decades earlier.
Her informants told her that shamanism is evil, it is “holding them back,” and they should “leave it behind them” (p.99). Shamans no longer sing each night to maintain the harmony of the band and to foster forest productivity; they are no longer the central authorities in their communities. Instead, they have become marginal figures whose primary role is healing.
Heckler observes that the evangelism accepted today by the Piaroa is primarily concerned with the spiritual lives of the people; it accepts positivist philosophies which promote the authority of the state and the value of market economics. The concerns of the shamans for the physical, social, and intellectual lives of their communities have not been replaced by evangelism, which emphasizes spiritual beliefs.
During the time of Heckler’s field work, Piaroa leaders became aware that some outsiders were recording indigenous plant names on computer databases, selling the information for vast profits, and stealing plant specimens in order to cheat the people from their shares of the profits. Heckler got caught up in these suspicions and defends herself in this article. Because of the uproar, the Venezuelan government has become quite reluctant to issue permits for outsiders to study traditional knowledge.
Another change, however, came about because the government of Hugo Chavez began to emphasize the importance of indigenous rights. Part of the new emphasis by the state was to encourage indigenous communities to form councils of elders, which were supposed to ratify community decisions. The councils were urged to include the traditional shamans. Suddenly, the shamans regained forums for making public statements.
The author emphasizes that the shamans have not regained their former status as central figures in their communities. They do not set agendas for the meetings they attend. But they are encouraged to provide traditional perspectives on issues that come up before the people. One Piaroa shaman, quoted in the transcript of a meeting, claimed that the shamans “understand how to educate, how to visualize, how to transmit to generation(s) that really will defend this knowledge.” He was, in effect, asserting his authority to define knowledge and configure the ways in which it should be transmitted.
Oddly, their statements have to be transcribed by Spanish-speaking employees of the indigenous organizations, then translated back into the local languages spoken by most of the members of the communities. Rather than rebuilding the prestige of the shamans, this convoluted process has now blended the old shamanic authority with Christian spiritual concepts and global environmental concerns. The Piaroa communities are continuing to modify their traditional ideas with strategies for surviving in the changing social and political climate of contemporary Venezuela.
Heckler, Serena. “On Knowing and Not Knowing: The Many Valuations of Piaroa Local Knowledge.” In Local Science vs. Global Science: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge in International Development, edited by Paul Sillitoe, p.91-107. New York: Berghahn Books