Religion: Indigenous Peoples' View, South America

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Religion: Indigenous Peoples' View, South America

Unlike Western systems of worship, religious thought and action from South American indigenous perspectives pervade every aspect of existence. As cultural systems, indigenous South American religions encompass quotidian life and become especially salient at times of life crises and during festival and protest activity. With more than three hundred languages grouped into a dozen or more macro families, cultural, and hence religious, diversity is enormous. Such complexity and diversity are compounded by the fact that South American indigenous numinous systems are understudied and the underpinnings of history and archaeology are informative and provocative but inadequate. The European conquest and subsequent colonial era violently introduced hegemonic Roman Catholic Christianity with highly variable affects on indigenous sacrality. Nevertheless, commonalities exist. This entry offers indigenous perspectives on pools of religious elements that adhere and cluster in a multitude of cultural systems ranging across vastly different topographical and ecological zones and boundaries. All elements are not found everywhere, but systems of religious adhesions that constitute native thought and culture expressing ineffable, reverential dimensions of life, death, afterlife, and the cosmos do exist.

Conceptualizing Space-Times

The cherished Western dichotomy of space (as in geography) and time (as in history) must be set aside in any understanding of native South American religions in favor of a relativistic conceptualization of space-times. Space-times are ancient, historical, modern, futuristic, local, regional, diasporic, and global. They may exist simultaneously, as when beginning-times-places encompass the present time and people seek movement between the two through ritual activity, song, dance, performative drama, fighting, or political protest. Mythic space-time has many phases, typically including an initial stage in which the inchoate actions of sentient entities bring the earth worlds, sky worlds, and underworlds into being, as seen in the Maya Popol Vuh. Such beginnings may be punctuated with catastrophic fire or flood, out of which all things transform radically. Culture heroes emerge and undergo violent deaths, only to reappear, until finally the beginnings of ancestral times-places emerge in different locations.

According to Lawrence Sullivan, all space-times are framed between the Primordium, which includes the prebeginnings and beginnings of everything, and the Eschaton, wherein lies the end of the world, the collapse of the cosmos, and the formation of a new universe of existence. Such a cosmic brink is often portrayed by people in periodic ritual performances, which underline the spatial sense of the Primordium unfolding in the Center of the universe and the Eschaton existing at its edge.

In the cosmic Primordium separations occur, one after another: the separation of earth and sky and then night and day, where night and the moon come to signal disorder as opposed to day and the sun's east-west order. Then comes the differentiation of all species, including humans, then the differentiation of sex, the functions of blood and semen in fertility, fecundity, and danger therein, which leads to a transformation from primordial incest to regulations of sexual relationships and rules of endogamy and exogamy. Eventually one people become differentiated from another people, specificity of territories emerges with centers and peripheries. Cultural coherence emerges in the origins of war, origins of marriage, origins of trade, and systems of marriage-war-trade wherein individual bodies and collective bodies both abuse and venerate one another. A theme running through all of these transformations is that of consumption: who and what may and may not be consumed by whom and what becomes a system of numinous ineffability.

The Axis Mundi

The axis mundian imagined and often represented up-down orientation that extends from earth straight up into the sky worlds and straight down into the underworldsis framed by a strong east-to-west orientation that occurs when the sun emerges out of primordial water on the edge of the earth to begin its journey over land, moving first northward to cross the apex of the vertical axis at the center, and then back westward, where it goes underwater at the other edge and travels southward and then eastward at night. The spatial representation of the axis together with the cardinal points of reference that radiate from its center are motivated by the daytime sun's temporal movement and the disorderly nighttime movement of the moon. The axis mundi is the center of the universe, constituted by a peoples' territory, village, house, body, and even fighting sticks, all of which are represented aesthetically as a dynamic, living, structure of, and in, particular times-places. The axis mundi is often manifest as a world tree or a tree-of-life that grows and branches, creates diversity of fruits and other beings that, when violently cut down, peppers the earth with its variety of life-giving plants, animals, and diverse human beings that transform eventually into today's people and their living environs. It is also represented as a ladder or stairway coming out of deep earth from underwater, and extended up into sky worlds. Severing of this ladder sets in train more events that eventuate in contemporary people and cosmos.

Indigenous historicitywhat people take to be salient in their pastsis intricately and inextricably bound to the landscape, which is itself a sacred and cosmic phenomenon embodying everything by which people identify as us and other. Shamans travel the routes of landscape and mythopoetic history. There they "see" what others can only know by direct or vicarious experience. The shaman is "one who knows." Both male and female shamans exist, though males predominate. All fully human beings, and some focal animals, have something of shamanic power in them, represented as their very own life force that gives meaning to cosmos, landscape, kin, enemies, home, and self. In South America, such focal animals include the anaconda of the water domain, the jaguar or puma of the earth domain, and harpy eagle or condor of the sky domain. Great powers abide in the sky, earth, water, and underearth and are concentrated in special places and objects. Control of these powers lies in the ability of the shaman (and in some areas past and present, a priest)and counterparts to the shaman, such as artists, speakers, dancers, and ritual specialiststo move in and out of the world of spirits; to cure body, soul, and psyche; and to "see" the everyday world and the cosmos in aesthetic patterns communicated to others through ritual, art, design, speech, drama, poetics, rhythm, and song.

Shamans and Ritual

Focal shamanic characteristics include the ability to "come and go" from the spirit world and to move in and out of trance states, an ability to "see" the quotidian invisibilities, abilities to cure afflictions and to send afflictions to others. Hallucinogens are often (but not always) used by shamans and others to enhance their powers of ecstatic travel, curative gnosis, and harmful malignity. Prominent among these are soul vine (ayahuasca, yajéBanisteriopsis ) of Upper Amazonia, Datura (Brugmansia ) of Amazonia, Andes, and Southern Cone, Hekura snuff or Yopo (ebenéAnadenanthera ) from Western Amazonas, Epená (Virola ) of Northwest and Western Amazonas, and tobacco from all of Amazonia in Mesoamerica and the continental United States as well, a panoply of vision-inducing drugs, including tobacco, as well as fasting and other techniques, were used to achieve spiritual and corporeal transformations.

Concepts of souls and spirits are fundamental to indigenous perspectives on religion in South America. Humans have souls, and so do spirits, animals, plants, and inanimate substances. Also significant and animate are sacred sites such as trees, mountains, caves, waterfalls, cataracts, springs, and underground rivers. All communication necessitates knowledge of soul and spirit essences and substances. Rituala system of stylized behavior only partially encoded in indigenous exegesis and performance but discernible through time in indigenous historicity, shamanism, and discourseis the primary vehicle of religious instantiation. Music, rhythm, poetry, and aesthetic imagery are all part and parcel of shamanic performative dramatic art. During indigenous ritual enactment the cosmology and cosmogony open up to include all peoples of the universe, living and dead, together with animal spirits and souls. Humans take on the roles of other people and other beings, collectively portraying the diversity of life and humanity within their individualities. During ritual activity harmony and acrimony are both enacted on various stages of drama that signal both order and chaos. Lawrence Sullivan places ritual activity in a eschatological category that he calls "diversionary activity" (or "entertainment") and vividly summarizes the dramas of such activity: "By turning primordial realities off to one side and historical existence off to another, diversionary entertainment rends chaos asunder and stretches open the distance between clashing times" (p. 681; italics in original).

European Contact

Beginning in 1492, under the epitomizing banner of Roman Catholic Christianity and Western wealth-production through the forced and violent acquisition, sale, and exploitation of indigenous and African labor to acquire gold, pearls, and spices, indigenous people were confronted not only with unrelenting demands on their bodies and their souls, but also subject to the sustained indignities of an Inquisitorial system that placed their sacred concepts and objects in league with the Christian devil. By the late twentieth century the "globalization of monopoly finance capitalist culture" (Hopkins, p. 8) ushered in an era of sustained indigenous rejection of neoliberalism, privatization, and deregulation.

In the face of conquest, inquisition, terror, slavery, oppression, relocation, reduction, population collapse, and a myriad of violent indignities, indigenous religious change from the fifteenth century through the present times-places is characterized by the fusing of ultimate cosmogonic contexts of the Primordium and Eschaton with the proximate contexts of political, economic, and cultural transformations. Changes in indigenous perspectives on religious phenomena in South America stem from the radical hegemony of the hyper-globalization of Iberian Catholic Church policies and practices syncretized with the Western god Mammon. More recently, North American fundamentalist Protestantism has sustained a Manichean cosmic competition with Roman Catholicism with similar effects.

Indigenous religious systems historically and in contemporary times take on strongly millenarian dynamics as people endeavor to right the universe and re-create a place for themselves in their own timesancient, past, present, and futureand demarcated in their contemporary and ancestral landscapes. Sullivan writes: "In all the millennial movements the earth is a primordial instrument of change as well as a cosmic object affected by alteration. Eschatological ordeals and stylized performance transform human beings by allowing them to assume the mythic stature and heroic destiny formerly achieved by only a few after death" (pp. 613614). Examples of indigenous millenarianism include nineteenth-century chiliastic movements in Amazonia, post-conquest movements to transform emerging Spanish society to imagined Incan systems in the Andes, movements by native people to bring a giant anaconda (corporal beings such as Tupac Amaru or Tupac Katari) to overwhelm the Spanish structures of the Andes, and the emergence and persistence of "dark shamanic" predation on modernity in the Guianas. Contemporary movements in the twenty-first century include, especially, indigenous and Afro-Latin American movements in Ecuador that have recently resulted in the bloodless expulsion of two elected presidents and created a new system of emergent space-times in national politics.


In summary, religious thought and practice of South American indigenous people are rich and varied, but contain common elements that adhere to one another in recognizable configurations. A common history of extraordinary oppression, violence, terror, and death has led to an intensification of ineffable cosmological and cosmogonic systems within which indigenous people communicate with one another across vastly different language systems. Indigenous perspectives on South American religion are at the same time a critical metacommentary on history and territoriality and a mechanism of sustained millennial transformation. That which appears to be "political" from Western standpoints comes to be revealed in indigenous numinous thought and praxis as sacred and reverential.

See also Calendar ; Ritual: Religion ; Time: Traditional and Utilitarian .


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Religion: Indigenous Peoples' View, South America

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