In recent years, in the region where I work — the Peruvian Amazon — numerous indigenous groups have adopted new ‘official’ ethnonyms, which are frequently autonyms which were previously not widely recognized or used as ethnonyms by others. For example, the group formerly referred to as Chayahuita has recently adopted the autonym Shawi as their official ethnonym. In some cases, the new ethnonyms are basically orthographic reworkings of previous names, as in the case of the new ethnonym Kandozi, corresponding to the former Candoshi. Much of this onomastic reformation has been carried out through indigenous federations or through institutions like FORMABIAP. The driving motive behind this movement appears to be to wrest the choice of this very prominent marker of identity from the hands of mestizos and other outsiders, and return it to the hand of the groups in question (here is a clear articulation of this point in the case of Asháninka). A collateral effect of this movement has been an effort on the part of many anthropologists to use, and if necessary, uncover, the ‘authentic’ ethnonym for the groups with which they work, with the guiding assumption that the authentic ethnonym is the autonym.
In the parts of Amazonia I am familiar with, however, we run into a basic difficulty with the process of uncovering ‘authentic ethnonyms’, namely, many indigenous groups historically lacked an autonym. By this, I mean that these groups did not employ a name that distinguished their group from others. This does not mean that the groups in question lacked descriptors for distinguishing themselves from other groups, merely that the did not employ a name as such to do so. (Of course, the issue of what counts as a ‘group’ is by no means straightforward — but that is an issue for a future post.) However, there appears to be a strong assumption among many outsiders involved with Amazonian indigenous groups that all of these groups have autonyms as such, with the consequence that outsiders sometimes ‘discover’ supposed autonyms that are not actually autonyms at all, but rather descriptors. Let me illustrate this point with the case of an indigenous group I am familiar with, the people commonly known as Iquitos.
In 1989, Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, a veteran Amazonian anthropologist who has carried out significant research with the Yaguas, visited the Iquito community of San Antonio de Pintuyacu, and in 1992, published an article on Iquito history. Given the brevity of his visit, his recounting of Iquito oral history is impressive — in fact, although I have carried out 13 months of fieldwork in the community as part of the Iquito Language Documentation Project, which has compiled a large number of historical texts and recording, I would only make minor emendations to his historical account.
Chaumeil does, however, run into some linguistic difficulties — which is hardly surprising, given the paucity of Iquito documentation at that time — but for the most part these problems do not substantively affect his major historical and ethnographic points. One point at which his shaky linguistic foundations do cause problem for him, however, is in his mistaken discovery of the autonym used by the Iquitos: paratacay’ (a claim repeated, for example, here).
The term in question is more accurately rendered párata cáaya, and it means ‘person like us (inclusive)’. We can break this down as follows: The word cáaya simply means ‘person’, and it expresses no age, gender, or ethnic distinctions. The form parata consists of the first person plural inclusive non-focus pronoun p+ (/+/ = the central high unrounded vowel) and the morpheme arata, which has a similative function. The latter may take either a pronominal or referential NP complement, as in múusi arata ‘like a frog’. Vowel hiatus resolution results in the form parata ‘like us (incl.)’. The semantics of párata cáaya is thus entirely compositional, and is clearly a descriptor, and not a name. Although it is true that Iquitos use the expression párata cáaya when talking about fellow Iquitos, it is in no way an ethnonym. It simply refers to individuals that are, in some contextually relevant way, ‘like us’. I could, for example, use the term to refer to people at the University of Texas, linguists, or appreciators of IPA, providing I am talking to a member of one of those groups, and that aspect of our shared identity is sufficiently salient in the interaction. In short, párata cáaya is a descriptor, and not a name.
Crucially, an Iquito speaker would not use this term with a non-Iquito interlocutor to refer to the Iquitos as a group. The Iquito speaker would instead say cuárata cáaya ‘people like me’, and even then, this expression would still be a description, and not a name. I have discussed the issue of autonyms with a number of thoughtful elder Iquitos, and they affirmed that they knew of no other name for their ethnolinguistic grouping than ‘Iquito’, or /iquíitu/, as the name has been borrowed into Iquito. I have mentioned to them that the final /o/ of ‘Iquito’ makes it seem unlikely that it is a word of Iquito origin and after thinking about it, they have concurred. (Further evidence that the direction of the loan was Spanish-to-Iquito and not the reverse is the prosodics of the word: the penultimate long vowel with falling pitch is characteristic of loanwords from Spanish.) Two of the Iquito elders most interested in historical issues, Jaime Pacaya Inuma and Hermenegildo Díaz Cuyasa, remarked at separate points that when it came to names, Iquitos were historically much more concerned with the names of Iquito sub-groups than with entire indigenous groups. And indeed, there are traditional names for six major heriditary Iquito sub-groups: Ámuuhuaaja, Cajiyuúri, Incahu+’+raana, Majanacáani, Masicuúri, Namutújuri (variant: Amutújuri) .
Chaumeil correctly identifies four of these subgroup names, and includes one name not found in this list: tipakëjor’, or more accurately tipaacájuri or /tipaakáhuri/, from tipáaca ‘clay’ (I employ italics for the official Iquito orthography and slashes for a more IPA-based orthography). The name is used to refer to people living on soils with a high clay content, as opposed to sandy soils. The nature of soils on which people live is important because it significantly affects what crops one can grow, as well as the abundance of different kinds of animals, thereby significantly affecting the lifestyle of the people living on those soils. (The line dividing sandy and clay soils in this region of the Amazon basin passes roughly through the middle of traditional Iquito territory.) However the name tipaacájuri actually crosscuts the Iquito subgroup names, and can refer to any Iquito living in a clay soil area, regardless of subgroup membership. And moreover people can become tipaacájuri by moving into the clay soil area, or cease being tipaacájuri by moving out of it. In short, although it identifies a subgroup of Iquito, it does not identify hereditary groups like the other names mentioned above.
In summary, then, the Iquito case shows how the question of authentic ethnonyms is a potentially subtle one from a linguistic and ethnographic standpoint, and specifically, that it is dangerous to assume that all indigenous groups historically possessed an autonym per se, and that it is simply the task of the researcher to uncover it.