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· 14 Jan 2013 ·

We are all them:
André Vallias’ onomatotemic poem

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

It all began when a bunch of people from around Brazil included “Guarani Kaiowá” in their profile settings on the social networks, declaring political and spiritual solidarity with this indigenous people from Mato Grosso do Sul.

The Kaiowá are one of three subgroups into which the great Guarani Nation, spread over Paraguai, Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia, divides itself. The Kaiowá, whose situation is one of the most terrible of any ethnic minority on the planet, inhabit a state devastated by the monocultures of sugar cane, soy, and beef, where they are ruthlessly ignored when not deliberately exterminated by a deadly conjunction of state-national and international economic interests. The Kaiowá earned notoriety with the dissemination of a letter expressing their outrage, taken to the authorities by the members of one of their “camps” by the side of a road or the edge of a pasture (they have been reduced to this). Tired of being persecuted, maltreated, and assassinated by farmers, politicians, and other great men of our great Brazilian nation, they asked that we kill them all, all at once, instead of little by little. This letter broke through the hypocritical silence that customarily prevents indigenous voices from being heard by other citizens of the country. And, thanks to the informal circuit of social networks on the Internet, the conventional media was forced to pick it up.

When all—that is, all of us who say “all” as a scream of rage and a war cry — came to sign their names “Jane Doe Guarani Kaiowá,” it was as if Brazil had discovered another Brazil. A hidden, muted Brazil that has always been there, that was and continues to be there. Or, rather, that is here, that is from here. The Munduruku are from here. The Xavantes are our relatives. The Kaiowá are us. The Indians are not “our Indians.” They are not “ours.” They are us. We are them. All of us are all of them. We are Others, as is everyone. We are from this other country, this vast land which is turning into a waste land, where there still echo hundreds of thousands of personal names, ethnonyms, gentilics, names of nations, strange words, mysterious grammars, sounds utterly unheard of, hard staccato syllables but also sweet flowing diphthongs, languages that contain whole peoples and their names within them. Peoples that we hardly knew, names that we have never heard, but are now beginning to discover.

The narrator of the The History of the Siege of Lisbon observes: “men are incapable of saying who they are unless they can claim to be something else.” This is a perfect definition of what anthropologists call “totemism,” a form of social classification according to which so-called primitive peoples are organized through the onomastic affiliation between a human (sub)group and a natural species, often regarded as the group’s mystical forebear. The different kinship or residence collectives into which society divides are thus distinguished by self-designations, emblems, and customs connected to one or more animal or vegetable species, stars, elements of the landscape, etc. Without all these “other things,” humans have no way of saying “what they are,” nor can they say how they are different from one another, and thereby why they should relate to one another. When all is said and done, every name is always a claim that begs a relation; a call to something other than what one is called. To name is to repeat being with a difference. This is the method of the totem. Don’t go out into the woods without one.

The First Nations of British Columbia and Southern Alaska are distinguished artists of world fame. One of the hallmarks of their art is a tall totem pole sculpted out of hardwood, where their totemic animals and spirits are arranged vertically, as if perched one upon the other. These poles are, therefore, iconic lists of the names of the clan. In common parlance, the word “totem” is used (improperly) to refer specifically to these totem poles. André Vallias’ poem is just that — a totem. A poem that says what we are, who we are, what are our names, what are the names of our mythical “ancestors,” those totemic beings who differentiate us in the dissonant concert of nations. An ever unfinished list, a immensely long string of names — names that arise and names that disappear, invented names, dreamed names, wrong names, names given by another, names in the language of another, sometimes mere scribbles in state registry books, hooks where the white man has hung his ignorance and his arrogance. Mere names. However, as the Daribi of New Guinea (apud Roy Wagner) say, “A man is small; when you speak his name, he is big.”

Names of peoples, names of Indians, names of our uncles. We are all like Antônio de Jesus, aka Tonho Tigreiro, aka Macuncôzo, aka Bacuriquepa, the jaguar hunter of “Meu Tio o Iauaretê,” Guimarães Rosa’s hauntingly powerful short story. The Indian-white mestizo who, having his whole life pursued the Jaguar, the totemic animal of his mother’s people, returns to his “savage” state, rejects his white father, and becomes a jaguar — in other words, he becomes an Indian. His jaguar-becoming is the desperate embracing of an already-impossible Indian being. Thus, he assumes the name of his mother, i.e. the name of his maternal uncle, the “mother’s brother” of which anthropology has shown the crucial importance in every known kinship system. We find ourselves here, identifying with the cannibal mother’s brother, in the anthropophagic matriarchy state prophesized by Oswald de Andrade. But here it is in the form of a tragedy, for the lesson in Rosa’s story is somber: if a mestizo goes back to being Indian, a white man will kill him and won’t even remember his name afterwards. Indians do not have names.

Except that they do. Every people is a name. Every name is a meme. A sounding memory that just won’t go away. May this totem erected by André Vallias in the form of an onomatopoem — an anti-tomb then, in its proud verticality, which is the sign of the always living — give a purer sense to the words of our tribe. Of all tribes.

Translation: Alex Forman / EVC

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