Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13(1): 1-18 (2007)

In this article I explore the nature of sociality and alterity in indigenous Amazonia. If, as Amazonianist anthropologists contend, native Amazonian sociality is all about predatory affinity or, alternatively, convivial consanguinity, why –I ask- do native Amazonians constantly strive to establish social relationships with people with whom they are related neither as kin nor as affines? Through a comparative analysis of intertribal trading partnerships, shamanic networks, and mystical associations between shamans and a diversity of spirits, I examine the mechanisms by which hostile or potentially hostile relations between strangers –non-relatives- are transformed into relations of amicability.

The article revolves around three main questions. First, why do native Amazonians seek to establish relations with people who do not belong to their own ethnic group; people who are neither ‘safe’ consanguines nor ‘necessary’ affines, and who are generally considered to be dangerous or potentially dangerous? Second, what are the social, rather than the ideological, mechanisms through which native Amazonians transform these ambiguous others into friends? Finally, can native Amazonian formalized personal friendships be characterized as friendships as these are understood in Western societies; and if so, what is the relationship between kinship and friendship? I place special emphasis on the role played by “trust” and “spaces of trust” in the creation of non-kin-based social networks.

Examples drawn from a wide variety of ethnographic sources and focused on seven Amerindian societies provide the groundwork for discussion. Although they do not represent the totality of Amazonian indigenous societies, these examples showcase a wide range of cultural areas (Andean piedmont, Gran Sabana, Central Brazil) and language families (Arawak, Jivaro, Carib, Tupí-Guaraní, Gê), indicating that formalized personal friendships are a widespread social practice. In brief in this article I analyze the little studied issue of “friendship”, viewing it as an alternative to kinship and affinity in the construction of Amerindian societies and multiethnic polities read article

I was interviewed on the topic of this article by Laurie Taylor in his BBC Radio 4 program Thinking Allowed on 4 July 2007.