After 15 years of living with the Amuesha people here in the Peruvian jungle, Richard Chase Smith is going home.
The word "home" no longer comes easily to him when he contemplates the northeastern United States. Despite a decision that his time here has been long enough, there is a part of him now that craves the slow, courteous pace of Amuesha dialogue, that respects the powers of an angry witch, that walks with care in the jungle, where Amuesha hunting accidents are the work of illintentioned spirits.
Smith, who first arrived here as a Peace Corps volunteer, returned as a Cornell University-trained anthropologist to study the music and cosmology of the 3,500 Amuesha people. He backpacked down into the settlement before there was a road, during the last years when no civilian truck or car came anywhere near the Amuesha. Then, the native people still distinguished between themselves and the Peruvians, but the road crews were grinding their way down through the jungle, the market economy of modern Peru just behind them.
The anthropologist became the last person to record Amuesha culture before it was changed forever.
"They've made me caretaker of the music," Smith said, and then smiled. "Or they've made me tape recorder caretaker, anyway."
As he talked to a visitor, Smith reflected that he will remember for the rest of his life the long silhouette of thatched roofs and jungle brush that surrounded him in the moonlight.
He had drawn it once, in the months after he first began living with the Amuesha people, and the palmroof house they had built him looked out on this same wild landscape, so that Smith could close his eyes and still see the particular shape of the mountains against the night sky.
Augusto Valerio, the broad-shouldered young Amuesha who had attended mission school long enough to carry within him the clashing perceptions of both Christian and Amuesha, brought Smith a bowl of cooked armadillo. They squatted across from each other while Smith ate the armadillo meat and then tipped the bowl up to his mouth to drink the cooking liquid. They spoke softly now and then, about the lavish stars and Valerio's recent trip to Lima, and in the comfortable silences between them, Smith rocked back on his heels and listened to the river and the katydids and a low bird call from somewhere in the bush.
In the Amuesha world the gods send down songs so people will understand the universe and its meaning. The songs are jealously guarded, passed along by the person to whom the tune and lyrics were revealed, so that in each generation there are Amuesha who keep the individual songs of the elders and, mellow with yucca beer, sing them at the all-night religious community gatherings.
"It seems that every time I end an all-night celebration, I am overcome with a feeling of sadness and frustration," Smith wrote in his journal in October 1973. "Inevitable the changes and new values which the Amuesha are subjected to, influence these sacred occasions and paralyze the performance of the music and dance. Last night's celebration was no exception. Very few people wanted to perform their songs, and when they did, they were fortunate if one other person wanted to accompany them.
"Around nine o'clock, someone brought out a portable record player, and all the young people jumped into the monotonous rhythm of the popular cumbia. When each record began, there was a flurry of action as the boys rushed over to grab a girl to dance. Many of the older people quietly complained about the record player but went on with the traditional music, despite the competition. By midnight the coshamnats [religious] music had run out of energy; the older men and women retired to the warmth of the fire. The record player and the cumbia had won. I went to sleep."
Smith stepped over the threshold with the Amuesha people, watching the arrival of plastic tools and battery-operated radios, the Amuesha girls who disappeared into Lima to become servants, the Peruvian lumber and coffee men who came offering day wages to the young.
It was a time that has come, or is coming, or almost certainly will come to every one of the hundreds of native communities who live, the hungry eyes of developing governments upon them, amongst the wild lands and natural resources of the great Amazon River basin.
The new dirt road brought most of these things to a culture that had no concept of individual accumulation, to a language that had no word for "paper" or "money" or "progress" -- to a community that could not describe in its own tongue the society slowly advancing upon it. And some among the Amuesha saw that they must entrust their songs, their personal legacy and most valued possession, to this tall, bearded man and his peculiar machine.
"It's very slow, frustrating, very unrewarding work," said Smith in a recent interview. "I wanted this to be their organization, their project, and that means getting involved in all the local squabbles, local politics. . . . It's unrewarding in the immediate. But in the long run it's very rewarding.
At dusk the shadow-souls of the Amuesha dead begin to wander, and there were times now when Smith wondered what had become of the shadow-soul of Victoriano Lopez. It was Lopez, or Puelleshen, in his Amuesha name, who had first sung for Smith with the full wailing vigor of an Amuesha telling a divinely inspired story.
Lopez was blind, the raw eye sockets that oozed sometimes and made him awful to look at. His cushma , the long wollen tunic of the Amuesha people, was so caked with filth that Smith's wife once tried to wash it and proclaimed after 15 rinses that it could not be cleaned.
But Lopez was a shaman, and had the power to cure illnesses or witchcraft by drinking boiled tobacco and perceiving the cause of ther malady. When Smith had what doctors thought was hepatitis, Lopez drank tobacco and determined that Smith had been witched. He had brought his mouth down to the painful place above Smithhs liver and sucked away the malevolent spirit of the illness. Later, when he was better, Smith was never entirely certain just whose medicine had cured him.
Lopez moved from house to house, staying several weeks at a time and instructing Amuesha families with his stories and songs. In his meditative moments he sat alone, chewing the coca leaf quietly, and one day he allowed Smith to turn on the tape recorder while Lopez sang about the old white-haired hunchback who is the waters of the December rains.
When the tape was played back, Lopez became very excited. He had never before listened to the sound of his own voice. He wanted Smith to record all his songs, his explanations of the creation of the world, the sacred tunes he played on his panpipe. But there were a great many of them, and the recording proceeded slowly.
When Lopez urgently told Smith one day that they must record all the rest -- he had made a list of them and wished to go to Smith's house to do it -- Smith said they would complete the work as soon as he returned from a trip out of Peru. While Smith was gone, the old man drank a large quantity of the beer the Amuesha made from boiled fermented yucca and chewed corn. The family Lopez was staying with told Smith later that Lopez died while all the others were in the Evangelist Christian church.
"The traditional feast, the gathering to drink manioc beer and to perform coshamnats music had been secularized," Smith's 1973 diary entry went on. "It's transcendental fullness has been lost. . . . Why is this happening? There are many reasons: mission schools, the overwhelming pressure from white man's culture.
"The missionaries, especially the Evangelists and Adventists, inculcate a moral code that condemns such celebrations as sin; the manioc beer, the coca, the music, and of course the ritual prayers and offerings are labeled works of the devil. They are tearing the heart out of these sacred celebrations, and eventually they will tear the soul out of the Amuesha being. The vacuum they create is then easily filled by other aspects of the white man's world; the radio, alcohol, consumerism and even evangelism."
The abrupt arrival of the market economy particularly dismayed Smith. By tradition the Amuesha were subsistence hunters and farmers. All land belonged to the sun, the moon's twin brother, who had journeyed through the earth to give things their present form.
"If I have some excess corn," Smith said, explaining Amuesha tradition, "I simply invite -- I don't even invite -- my brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts will come and ask me for it. I'll say, 'Here, take what you need.' But that puts them under obligation to me. So the next time they have extra production, and I need some manioc, they'll say, 'Take what you need.'"
The lessons of the outside world, Smith said, were profoundly different: private accumulation and consumerism. In some communities the national government had declared certain lands to be privately owned, creating an immediate class distinction between those who did and did not possess land.
In another community, a hardy Amuesha began traveling outside to clear pastures for ranchers. In exchange, they sometimes gave him a cow. Soon he had a half dozen cows. They did not belong to the sun. They were his personal property, and he was not the only one who had began to accumulate on his own.
Within the community, where the cushma is now considered too "primitive to be worn during the day by any but the elderly, Smith said the Amuesha have begun selling food to one another.
"Once you've got this whole individualization process going, it's pretty tough," said Smith. "You've got one guy in the community who's accumulated enough to have a radio and other fancy consumer items, and then, why, everybody else wants them, too. . . . They see radios, they see clothes, they sell all these other things. I suppose from their side there's an attraction, but there's also the Peruvian, saying, 'You're nothing unless you have these things.'"
Smith ardently wanted to help the Amuesha defend their own culture -- whether or not that made him a renegade in the eyes of classical "objective" anthropologists -- and the two-story hexagonal wooden culture house he built became the hub of community projects like cooperative farming ventures, a communally run pottery factory, and official titling of communally owned native lands. "You can't prevent them from moving into the market economy," he said.
"That certainly isn't my intention. They're already in it . . . [But] the process by which the capitalist market says they should get [consumer goods] is destructive to the social fabric of their society. It simply tears them apart. So what I'm saying is, let's find other ways for them to get these things, through another form of accumulation, which is not individual accumulation, but community accumulation -- some form which looks out for the interests of the community and at the same time holds them together."
There is much that Smith was unable to do. The culture house newspaper has not come out for months. They never did record enough songs, or complete a written history of the Amuesha people. The quick young man who taught him the Amuesha language -- who sat with him for hours at a time, explaining how the Amuesha phrashed each thought -- drifted away from culture house and works now, polite but distant, with a rival Amuesha group.
That weighed on Smith even as the Amuesha drank and danced through the night to honor Don Ricardo, as they have called him -- even as he packed the possessions he and his wife, Connie Talbot, have gathered into wooden trunks and wrapped up the orchids he has collected over the years by scrambling to the tops of jungle trees. The orchids will be transplanted into a greenhouse up near the new Smith home in western Massachuetts, and he fervently hopes they will thrive.