How ‘We’ became ‘White People': A tale of indigenous onomastic strategies

November 8, 2007

In a previous post, I discussed the challenges faced by researchers who go in search of ‘authentic autonyms’ of Amazonian indigenous groups. In this post I want to describe how one Peruvian indigenous group arrived at a remarkable and initially counterintuitive decision about the ‘official’ ethnonym they chose to be known by.

In the mid-1980s, a Panoan group living in the Manu and Mishagua River basins, which had avoided contact with other peoples since at least the Rubber Boom, entered into sustained contact with mainstream Peruvian society. Prior to this contact, anthropologists, linguistics, missionaries, and NGOs referred to this group with such varied names as the Parquenahua and X-nahua. These names were formed from the morpheme nahua (i.e. /nawa/), which is found in a host of names of Panoan groups in southeastern Peru and adjacent regions of Brazil including Yaminahua, Sharanahua, Chaninahua, Mastanahua, and Cashinahua. Each of these names is a compound, consisting of the element nahua ‘people’ and some non-head element like yami ‘axe’ or cashi ‘bat’. Thus, the entirely ad hoc Parquenahua was coined on the basis of the residence of this group in the Manu National Park (Parque Nacional del Manu), and you can no doubt deduce the origin of X-nahua (I think this is my favorite, since it does not seek to hide the ignorance of those coining and using the name. It also has that X-Men/X-files resonance going for it.).

After a devastating period of massive mortality due to introduced illnesses, the group in question formed a single community in which they all settled, and in the period following initial contact, a new set of ethnonyms emerged. Those created by anthropologists and linguists included Yora, from the pronomial first person plural inclusive pronoun, Yoranahua, a neologism, and Nahua, about which we will hear more below. The name adopted by local mestizos was Shara, from the word shara ‘good’, a frequent and easily recognized lexical item in the speech of this group. And the name used by Yaminahuas living nearby was Yabashta, a word of uncertain origin used between members of the X-nahua group as a positive-affect greeting between individuals.

The plethora of names adopted by outsiders reflects the fact that the members of the group itself did not employ any autonym per se for the group to which they pertained. Of course the member of the group employed descriptors, such as yora ‘we/us’, when needing to distinguish members of the group from others, and called each other yabashta when being friendly to each other, but neither of these words is a name per se. (Given that all other Panoan groups in the rough vicinity do employ recognizable autonyms the question arises as to why this group did not employ one. One possibility is that the X-nahua essentially came into being as a coherent group in late 19th and early 20th century as an amalgamation of survivors from a number of Panoan groups decimated by the violence and slaving activities of the Rubber Boom. According to reliable sources who visited the group in question shortly after sustained contact in the mid-1980s, there was considerably dialectal variation within this small group, supporting the amalgamation hypothesis.)

As I mentioned above, one of the names that surfaced in the early years after contact was the bare, shorn form Nahua — the result of some DIY morphological segmentation (if anyone knows precisely who coined the term, let me know). I think the reasoning was that if the compound forms with nahua referred to specific Panoan groups, then the bare form must be a more general term. Unexpectedly, however, although nahua features in the names of numerous Panoan groups, when it appears by itself, and not as part of a compound, the word means ‘white person’! So we get the unintentionally hilarious situation of white people referring to this indigenous Amazonian group as the ‘white people’. For good or ill, this piece of linguistic confusion became enshrined in Peruvian law when legislation was fashioned to create a reserve for this Panoan group and neighboring Arawak groups: the so-called Reserva Kugapakori-Nahua (the full name is a good deal longer). (The name ‘Kugapakori’ is another case of massive onomastic confusion, which I will save for another day, but suffice it to say that it comes from the Matsigenka kogapakori, roughly `barbarian, killer’. This led one anthropologist to observe wryly that the name of the reserve, translated literally, was the ‘Assassin-White People Reserve’.)

What is more interesting than this onomastic confusion is how the members of this Panoan group decided to deal with it. In the course of the 1990s, their lands were invaded by loggers, and the X-nahua began efforts to gain control over their land. This lead, in the 2000s, to interaction with NGOs and government entities, all of which expected a tidy onomastic handle for the Panoan group in question. In response, the group decided to adopt the name Nahua. According to the people who were working with the Nahuas (at this point in the story I will now use the name) on land rights issues at the time, the Nahuas decided that since that was the name in the title of the reserve (the legal status of which, not coincidentally, formed the basis of their legal claim to their territory) and lots of people used the name anyway, they would simply adopt it as their official ethnonym.

I find this was a truly fascinating choice, because the Nahuas apparently totally ignored the discourse of authenticity that has become so prominent in recent years in Peruvian Amazonia, both among indigenous peoples and the researchers who work with them. The Nahuas’ decision appears to have been driven by a quite instrumental political strategy — they wanted to adopt an ethnonym that was already well known, and already had a measure of political capital begind it (by being the name of the reserve). I am also struck by the aplomb with which they adopted a ethnonym which, in a certain sense, is about as wrong as it can get. I wonder if the fact that they previous had no autonym as such made this choice particularly painless. Or perhaps they simply grasp the Saussurean arbitrariness of the sign, and refuse to invest much importance in the particular ethnonym for that reason.

In any event, this is how yora ‘we’ became Nahua ‘white people’.

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2 Responses to “How ‘We’ became ‘White People': A tale of indigenous onomastic strategies”


  1. [...] outsiders to adopt the ethnonyms ‘Asháninka’ and ‘Ashéninka’ instead (see this post for some discussion of the politics of ethnonyms in Peruvian [...]

  2. Simeon Floyd Says:

    Do you know where the word “nahua” for white people comes from (what it was used for before white people got there – or what its cognates were used for in other languages)? These terms are of special interest to me because they are one of the ways we try to encapsulate social difference linguistically (or fail to do so, as you describe). Like for the X-nahua case, sometimes they go through really weird routes before they congeal. The Chachis use the term “uya” for white foreigners which is the name of their traditional cannibalistic enemies from the “kaspele timbu” (long ago time). In Nheengatú the term “kariwa” appears to come from the word for powerful shamans who were sometimes white-skinned, or perhaps for the cannibalistic foreigners to the north, the Car(a)ib(a) (not like the Tupis never had any anthro-gastronomical tendencies themselves). [Side note: The word for people from Rio seems to come from "kariwa/caraiba uka", "white people house": carioca.] The word in Waorani is “kowodi”, aslo meaning something to do with “cannibal” (the Wao, as warlike as they are, were never known to eat the vanquished themselves). The Andean pishtaco story is also about white cannibals. As white people have never been known to eat indigenous Americans literally, why do they so often call while people cannibals? It seems to be a kind of indigenous way for indicating otherness or foreignness, but it may also be some kind parable about the cosmological dimensions of colonialism and capitalism. On more than one occasion I have been asked if people in the US eat indigenous people, and I want to say “Not literally, but there is this thing called the IMF . . .”


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