Exchanging Words

Language, Ritual and Relationality in Brazil's Xingu Indigenous Park

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Christopher Ball
A School for Advanced Research Resident Scholar Book
  • Albuquerque, NM: 
    University of New Mexico Press
    , November
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Numerous anthropologists have noted the unique relationality or perspectivism of indigenous Amazonian societies, in which people presume otherness between humans and animals, between humans and spirits, and between different groups of humans; and subsequently strive to establish relationships between these various kinds. Christopher Ball’s satisfying new book explores “how discourse, ritual, and exchange continue to come together in new ways to mediate social relations between the Wauja people, spirits, ancestors, other Upper Xinguans, so-called wild Indians, representatives of nongovernmental organizations and the Brazilian state, and other outsiders” (20). 

Although ritual is mentioned in this list of relational strategies, visitors to this website should understand that Exchanging Words is not primarily a book about religion. Religious topics do arise but within the broader category of language and exchange. This wider category is further developed through a series of chapters that expand the ethnographic setting, beginning with the Wauja village (chapters 2 and 3), then proceeding to other societies within the Xingu Park (chapters 4 and 5), and finally reaching beyond the park to Brazilian society, and ultimately Europe (chapters 6, 7, and 8). The examination of speech and relationality in the village commences with research centered on speech in the context of a kwarup (chief’s funeral) ritual exchange; here, language naturally displays the chief’s authority while fulfilling the Wauja “desire to impress” (41) guests from other villages with their generosity and traditionality—and, ironically, with a humbling scold to themselves for their loss of tradition. 

The most important aspect of exchange or “reciprocity,” as anthropologists tend to call it, is precisely not bringing the exchange to completion but rather creating the conditions for ongoing and never-finished relations. This is illustrated in the chapter that deals closely with religion, the third chapter on ritual curing and “bringing spirits.” Like many societies, the Wauja attribute many forms of illness to spirit interference, but in the remarkably secular ritual described in this chapter, humans seek to restore health by constructing exchange relations with spirits, thus changing a malignant spirit into a guardian spirit. For this purpose, ordinary villagers (not shamans) impersonate spirits so that “the kauki-tsupa (spirit-monster’s victim) should be transformed into o-wekeho (spirit-monster’s owner or master)” (80) by opening “a conversational channel between humans and spirits” (92).

Moving beyond the village to the multi-ethnic Xingu Park, the fourth chapter takes as its subject the kuri ritual that comments on intertribal relations via “ribald Wauja songs” in which men make “accusations of adulterous liaisons between Wauja women and non-Wauju Upper Xinguan men” (96). Ball uses this occasion to offer some complex linguistic analysis toward elucidating Wauja “altercentric ideology” where “the default goal of communication involves taking the perspective of others” (111). The fifth chapter attempts a closer linguistic study of Wauja grammar, revealing local conceptions of alienable and inalienable possessions—and what happens when inalienable property is given away or taken.

Inside and beyond the park, the Wauja interact with non-indigenous people from Brazil, from multinational corporations and development agencies, and from places as far away as France. The sixth chapter considers how the Wauja protested a dam project that threatened one of their sacred places, showing how different styles of speaking and of exchanging led “to fundamental miscommunications with outsiders” (153). Not surprisingly, Wauja efforts to explain, in both their own language and in Portuguese, their spiritual connections to the river failed to convince the state to protect their sacred space. 

The seventh chapter illustrates that, despite their experience with non-indigenous people, the Wauja continue to approach encounters with a focus on “open-ended exchange,” while those others concentrate on “final results” (184). Representatives from organizations like the Brazilian National Public Health Agency and conservation NGOs tend to misinterpret indigenous strategies for continuing and never-completed exchange as incessant, selfish, and inauthentic “demands” that such foreigners must fend off. Speaking of misinterpreting and resisting (if not resenting) indigenous demands, the final chapter presents an almost comical case of communication breakdown as a party of Wauja traveled to France to perform some of their songs and dances. Among the material chosen for French audiences were healing rituals similar to the one mentioned above, which caused anxiety among the Wauja since such rituals call the spirits to them. Ball discusses the Wauja’s deliberations about the dangers of the ritual and whether such a ritual could be intentionally ineffective or non-performative; at the same time, the expectations of gift-giving to the spirits were not understood or appreciated by the French hosts, who saw the persistent requests for tobacco and Coca-Cola as more pesky “demands”—whereas for the Wauja those were exactly the offerings that would placate potentially malign spirits.

Ball’s ethnolinguistic analyses and terminology may be intense for non-linguists, and readers expecting a treatise on religion might not get what they came for, but as a study of language, ritual, and relation-building, the book delivers what it promises. Ball has done a fine job of creating a thread of connection through very disparate subjects, and his authorial voice is very appealing, particularly on the final page where he invites the reader to commit to better understanding of encounters of otherness (interethnic, to be sure, but also interdisciplinary and even interpersonal). “On it depend our commitments to one another and to others in pursuit and production of knowledge and respect” (235).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is Associate Professor of Anthropology (retired) at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
February 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Ball is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. A linguistic and cultural anthropologist, he has worked with Wauja people in Brazil’s Upper Xingu since 2005.


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