he Gendered Realm of the Foye Tree
Study finds gender and sexual identity are more fluid than thought
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Long-held assumptions about sexual identity and gendered behavior have been turned upside down by a groundbreaking new study of the lives, roles and spiritual practices of the Mapuche shamans of southern Chile.
"Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power and Healing among Chilean Mapuche" (University of Texas Press, May 2007) is an ethnographic study based on 15 years of field research by Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo.
The study is the first comprehensive examination of the machi (Mapuche shamans), their gendered practices and their use of a unique tree in ritual transvestitism and political defiance.
According to Bacigalupo, its most important finding is that a person's gender and sexual identity are not as fixed as has been assumed, and can play out quite differently in various social, political and ritual contexts.
In addition, she says the non-ideological political practices of female machi contribute to current discussions of power and resistance, agency and structure, and the practice of power itself.
The study offers a new perspective on current discussions in ethnology about personhood, gender and sexuality, and the connection between gendered social relationships, altered states of consciousness and shamanic performances.
"Hierarchical gendered relationships with spirits, deities and animals, expressed through spiritual kinship, marriage and mastery, also reflect historical ethnic and national relationships between the 1 million Mapuche currently living in Chile and the Chilean nation-state itself," Bacigalupo says.
"These intersections are encountered by a wide range of indigenous communities," she says, "and strongly influence their tradition of spiritual healing and their political relationships with the modern urban communities that surround them" -- relationships that have been, in some respects, very contentious.
Framed by the cultural constructions of gender and identity, her findings span the ways in which the Chilean state stigmatizes the machi as witches and sexual deviants; how the shamans use paradoxical discourses about gender to legitimatize themselves as healers and, at the same time, as modern men and women; and the foye tree's political use as a symbol of resistance to national ideologies, and other components of rich Mapuche traditions.
Bacigalupo says the machi, most of whom are women and partially transvestite men, have been widely misread by anthropologists and shunned by the Chilean majority because of biases toward their spiritual practices, which challenge the exclusiveness of gender and sexual identity.
The Mapuche communities see machi practice as both sacred and gender deviant, and machi themselves have reacted to Chilean national and Mapuche prejudices against gender variance by shrouding their shifting gender identities and sexualities in silence.
Like most shamans, the machi use such tools as out-of-body experiences induced by rhythmic drumming, dream interpretation, music, spirit embodiment and plant-based medicines to exorcize evil spirits, heal physical, psychological and social illnesses and generally restore the cosmic order.
Bacigalupo notes that the foye tree, whose bark and leaves are transformed into potent medicines by the machi, is the Mapuche's sacred tree of life, believed to connect the natural, human and spirit worlds and allow machi to participate in the forces that permeate the cosmos.
"In addition," says Bacigalupo, "the masculine and feminine aspects of the foye tree and its white, hermaphroditic flowers, reflect the shifting ritual identities of the machi."
She found that machi complicate notions of personhood and sexuality in various ways. In ritual, male and female machi wear women's shawls and scarves and shift from and between masculine, feminine and co-gender identities that combine masculine and feminine gender polarities.
This marks them as different from ordinary women and men and Bacigalupo notes that the spirits are interested in machi's gendered discourses and performances, not in the sex under the machi's clothes.
The Mapuche believe that their ritual gender identities determined by spirits may, in some cases, result in sexual variance among machi. Bacigalupo found, however, that in their everyday and political lives, machi assume the gender identities of women or men as defined and determined by dominant Chilean culture.
She explains that in their everyday lives and in healing and political practices, male and female machi must negotiate the gendered expectations of the spirits and the more biologically oriented hegemonic discourses of Chilean society in which sex is "naturally" associated with gender (i.e., femininity and masculinity), and male sexuality is determined by who penetrates whom.
Although it would appear that these different gender and sexual referents would be the source of much conflict, Bacigalupo found that their juggling of different genders and sexual identities adds an important dimension to the ways in which national and Mapuche discourses conflict, overlap, are transformed and are appropriated.
"Male machi must reconcile their ritual co-gendered identities, partial transvestism and special sexualities with the need to masculinize their roles in their everyday lives," Bacigalupo says, noting that this includes negotiating with the Chilean national homophobic notions.
"One way they have accomplished this is to reinvent themselves as 'celibate priests,' 'spiritual doctors' and 'politically active spiritual warriors,'" she says, "roles that deflect accusations of homosexuality or witchcraft, and support both their spiritual practice and their masculinity."
Female machi fulfill or sometimes challenge gender roles, Catholic norms and perceptions of Mapuche tradition as well, and she found they are continually faced with balancing their ritual practices against their roles as daughters, mothers and wives.
"They must cope with the ever-present tension between the social legitimacy they gain through marriage and motherhood and the opposing demands of spirit husbands and spiritual power," says Bacigalupo, "and they, too, resort to diverse strategies to reinforce their image as representatives of tradition as they equally engage with the modern political world."
Bacigalupo is the author of three books on Mapuche culture and machi practice published in Chile, and 36 journal articles and book chapters on religion, ritual and healing, gender and sexuality. In addition to these, her research interests include cosmology, Third-World feminism, post-structuralism, ethnic/national relations and identity politics, nationalism, transnationalism and global culture, social memory and history, performance and person-centered ethnography.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.
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