Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Heather F. Roller's "Contact Strategies"

Heather Roller is an Associate Professor of History at Colgate University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Contact Strategies: Histories of Native Autonomy in Brazil, and reported the following:
Readers opening the book to page 99 would encounter one moment in the deep history of Indigenous diplomacy in eighteenth-century Brazil. The page begins with the year 1789, five years after the Mura people of the central Amazon initiated a process of making peace with the Portuguese, their former enemies. How did the Mura understand this process, and how did they shape it over time? This page contains a key part of the argument developed in the second chapter as a whole: Native peoples were able to extract significant concessions from their new allies, and they could “interpret the terms of the original peace agreements in ways that were highly selective in the eyes of their colonial partners.” For the Mura, this meant maintaining their access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds while also venturing into areas that had been closed to them before the peace—such as the beaches and lakes where the royal fisheries were located, near the main river highways of the Amazon. The page ends with a discussion of how such claims opened up new arenas of competition over resources like fish and turtles.

Page 99 works fairly well as an entry point into the larger themes of the book. It would be clear to a reader of this page that the late eighteenth-century peace agreements with autonomous Native groups were not top-down “pacifications” (though colonial officials preferred to frame them as such). Instead, the success of peacemaking initiatives hinged on Native motivations and customs, and the Portuguese often had to play by Native rules if they wanted peaceful relations to endure. Concessions and compromises were most frequently made in peace talks and gift exchanges; page 99, for example, covers the delicate negotiations around resettlement and access to aquatic resources that played out between the Mura and the Portuguese. Colonial authorities admitted that they had to respond carefully when the Mura began setting up camps around the royal fisheries; they couldn’t simply evict them, for fear of derailing the peace process. As the rest of the chapter makes clear, Indigenous groups like the Mura had a good deal of leverage in these moments, and they used that leverage to stake out positions as autonomous allies rather than colonial subjects.

In looking at how Indigenous peoples initiated and controlled contact with Brazilian society over about two centuries, the book covers a lot of ground both geographically and chronologically. It follows the trajectories of two powerful groups: the Mura of the central Amazon (as encountered on page 99) and the Guaikurú in the center-west region. These nations each challenged Brazilian expansion in their respective regions, while maintaining political autonomy and effective control over huge swathes of territory and strategic river routes. Both peoples also entered into regular interaction with colonial authors after forging peace agreements in the late eighteenth century, as page 99 makes clear. The Mura and the Guaikurú are among the few groups for which we have a long-term register of historical documents from the mid eighteenth century to the present day. But they were not the only groups to pursue these contact strategies, and readers of the rest of the book will find that it weaves together stories from across Native Brazil.
Visit Heather F. Roller's website.

--Marshal Zeringue