books as objects, publishing, politics, Northwest Amazonia, Tukanoan Indians, Kayapo, mythology, status competition


With particular reference to works by Tukano and Desana authors, this paper examines some of the cultural and historical factors that underlie the unique propensity of indigenous peoples of Northwest Amazonia to publish their narrative histories in books. Jointly written by a knowledgeable elder and a younger literate amanuensis, each book in Coleção Narradores Indígenas do Alto Rio Negro series contains the origin narratives, myths, and recent history of a particular group, told from the point of view of one of its clans. Writing down and thus rescuing oral traditions under threat from the pressures of education, urbanization and other factors makes good sense in the context of a contemporary Brazilian world favoring claims to autonomy and separate identity. However, the paper argues that these books are also transformations of ritual objects that amount to ancestral relics. The Tukanoans’ interest in books as objects also makes sense in relation to much older religious practices and political strategies with features of the Tukanoans' patrilineal organisation implying a cultural predisposition to reify their culture that predates contact with outsiders. If there is an elective affinity between aspects of traditional Tukanoan culture and their liking for books, so too does the Kayapó's emphasis on the aesthetic effects of their political rituals fit neatly with their enthusiasm for VCRs and camcorders.