Waorani Grief and Rage

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Waorani Grief and the Witch-Killers Rage: Worldview, Emotion, and Anthropological ExplanationCLAYTON ROBARCHEK CAROLE ROBARCHEK

ABSTRACT This article analyzes a complex of grief, rage and homicide among the Ecuadorian Waorani, tracing the relationships among worldview, values and concepts of self, and envy, rage and homicide, especially witch-killing. We contrast the results with the position taken by Rosaldo in his widely cited paper Grief and the Headhunters Rage (1989). We hold that Waorani individuals experience of rage during bereavement is not, as argued by Rosaldo for the Ilongot, a thing sui generis, immune to further explanation. Rather, it is explained as a product of people dening their experience on the basis of cultural constructions of self and reality and acting in accord with those denitions. We also argue that this explanation, coupled with the similarities in the Waorani and Ilongot complexes, suggests the operation of similar sociocultural and psychological processes in the two societies and supports, contra the assertions of postmodernists and others, the continued value and validity of cross-cultural comparative research. [ethnology, Amazonia, Waorani, emotion, motivation]

INTRODUCTIONIn 1989, Renato Rosaldo published Culture and Truth. Subtitled The Remaking of Social Analysis, the book took issue with the traditionalETHOS, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 206230, ISSN 0091-2131, electronic ISSN 1548-1352. C 2005 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Presss Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpress.edu/journals/ rights.htm.

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methods and goals of anthropology as a social science. Rosaldos argument revolves around and regularly returns to the introductory chapter, entitled Grief and a Headhunters Rage, an account of how the author came to an intuitive understanding of an ethnographic conundrumthe equation of grief with rage by Ilongot headhuntersthrough the experience of his own wifes untimely death. The chapter is a very personal and moving account of profound grief and loss; its writing was, he says, therapeutic.1 But Rosaldos objectives in writing the book went beyond the personal and therapeutic to question what he saw as traditional modes of anthropological knowledge and explanation. The book, and particularly one or another version of that rst chapter, have been widely cited, both by those concerned with the anthropology of emotion and by those sympathetic with the postmodernist challenge to the methods and objectives of traditional social science (see, e.g., Clifford 1986; Denzin 1996; Hastrup 1995; Leavitt 1996; Lutz and White 1986; McNeal 1999; Reddy 1997, 1999; Stephan 1999). The force of Rosaldos argument ows directly from his account of a complex of grief, rage and headhunting among the Ilongot of Luzon, among whom he and his wife, Michelle Rosaldo, worked in the 1960s and 70s, and from his assertion that the Ilongots concatenation of the emotions grief and rage in the experience of bereavement is a thing sui generis that can only be experienced and apprehended, but not explained: If you ask an Ilongot man why he cuts off human heads, his answer is brief and one on which no anthropologist can readily elaborate: He says that rage, born of grief, impels him to kill his fellow human beings (1989:1). Although his informants repeatedly told him this, he reports that he . . . brushed aside their one-line accounts as too simple, thin, opaque, implausible, stereotypical, or otherwise unsatisfying (1989:3). And, echoing Geertz (1973:24), Either you understand it or you dont. And, in fact, for the longest time I simply did not (1989:12). In 1981, Michelle Rosaldo slipped over a precipice and fell to her death while doing eldwork in Luzon. The author says he experienced an overwhelming ood of emotions; grief, but also intense anger, were elicited by that devastating loss. Only then, he says, was he nally able to understand what his Ilongot friends had been telling him about the rage inherent in grief. That epiphany led him to two conclusions. The rst was that the Ilongots concatenation of grief and rage is an irreducible brute ethnographic fact that is the crucial motive for headhunting and that is impervious to further explanation:In all cases, the rage born of devastating loss animates the older mens desire to raid. This anger at abandonment is irreducible in that nothing at a deeper level explains it.


Although certain analysts argue against the dreaded last analysis, the linkage of grief, rage and headhunting has no other known explanation. [Rosaldo 1989:18]

Second, he concluded that such unexplainable phenomena could only be understood by the empathetic positioning of the observer through similar experience:The ethnographer, as a positioned subject, grasps certain human phenomena better than others. He or she occupies a position or structural location and observes with a particular angle of vision. . . . In the case at hand, nothing in my own experience equipped me even to imagine the anger possible in bereavement until after Michelle Rosaldos death in 1981. Only then was I in a position to grasp the force of what Ilongots had repeatedly told me about grief, rage, and headhunting. [Rosaldo 1989:19]

A crucial implication of all this for Rosaldo and for many postmodern (if not postmodernist) anthropologists is that the interpretation of all ethnographic events is dependent on the cultural/political/theoretical and/or experiential position of the observer. Rosaldos intuitive understanding of Ilongot grief/rage was possible only after he was experientially repositioned by the death of his wife (cf. McGee and Warms 2000:525 526, fn. 13). That understanding, and by implication all ethnographic understanding, is contingent on such positioning; thus, there are potentially as many alternative understandings as there are positions, and all are equally valid:Such terms as objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality refer to subject positions once endowed with great institutional authority, but they are arguably neither more nor less valid than those of more engaged, yet equally perceptive, knowledgeable social actors. [Rosaldo 1989:21]

Carried to its extreme, as some have done (e.g., Tyler 1986a), such a position of epistemological relativism maintains that there exist only multiple incommensurable realities that have no objectively denable commonalities. Cross-cultural comparisonethnologythereby becomes impossible. As Richard Shweder put it:[Anthropology cannot be a] science designed to develop general explanatory theories and test specic hypotheses about objectively observable regularities in social and mental life, . . . [but must devote itself] . . . to the ethnographic study of multiple cultural realities and alternative ways of life. [Shweder 1996:1]

Objective knowledge, generalizations and cross-culturally valid explanations are thus delusions, and social science a chimera (e.g., Clifford 1986; Tyler 1986; cf. Kuznar 1997; Lett 1997). Although we certainly would not presume to question Rosaldos assertion that the tragedy of his wifes death gave him insight into Ilongot bereavement, we do question both his assertions that the cultural complex of grief, rage and homicide is a brute fact immune to further explanation and that such phenomena can only be grasped by the empathetic

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positioning of the observer through similar experience. In so doing, we also question the implications for anthropology and anthropological research that many have seen as deriving from those assertions.

GRIEF, RAGE, AND HOMICIDE AMONG THE WAORANIThe argument that follows derives from two eld research projects that we conducted among the Waorani of Amazonian Ecuador in 1987 and 199394. From the outset, that research has been explicitly comparative, undertaken to provide data for comparison with that derived from our earlier research among the Malaysian Semai, one of the worlds most peaceful societies. We chose the Waorani for this comparison because, until relatively recently, they had the highest homicide rate known anywhere in the world. Over at least the ve generations prior to the current one, more than 60 percent of Waorani deaths have been homicides (Robarchek and Robarchek 1989, 1992, 1998; Yost 1981). There are about 1,300 Waorani (Smith 1993) who, like both the Ilongot and the Semai, are upland tropical forest swidden gardeners and hunters. Their traditional territory lies between the Napo and Curaray Rivers in Amazonian Ecuador. The rst peaceful contacts with them began in the late 1950s, and some of the bands we visited were still at war with all outsiders into the 1960s and 70s. Their fearsome reputation and nine-foot hardwood spears allowed them to maintain control over some 8,000 square miles of densely forested ridges, valleys and swamps. Even today, one or more small bands still resist contact, hidden deep in the remote and disputed region along the Peruvian border, at war with all outsiders and all other Waorani.2 Prior to the cessation of large scale raiding engineered by Protestant and Catholic missionaries in the 1960s and 70s, the Waorani were at war with all surrounding groups whom they raided for iron tools, for excitement and, very occasionally, for women. They were raided in retaliation and for captivesmostly childrenwho were taken to work, and usually to die, on the haciendas that persisted into the 1970s in the Andean foothills (Robarchek and Robarchek 1998). Nearly 20 percent of Waorani deaths were the result of those violent clashes with outsiders (Yost 1981a). They also raided each other. Lethal vendettas rooted in previous killings and accusations of sorcery accounted for more than 40 percent of