This book details a model of change based on alterations in the Toba religious and philosophical system. The Toba, who call themselves Namqom, are a Guaykuruan-speaking tribe, numbering about 18, 000. The largest number of Toba by far are located in the provinces of Chaco and Formosa in Argentina, with about 1, 000 scattered through the adjacent Gran Chaco region of Bolivia and Paraguay. Aside from this central zone, recent immigration has led to the settlement of up to 800 Toba in the urban barrios of the provinces of Santa Fé and Buenos Aires. The Toba of Argentina, who are the focus of this book, differ from the other Toba largely because of their religious adaptation.
Elmer Miller’s study is built around the question of why pentecostalism was able successfully to convert the Toba after the failure of Catholicism and other Protestant religions. The answer to this question provides the thematic (harmony, disharmony, and the new harmony) organization of the book. Harmony was experienced during precontact and early contact times, when the Toba lived in a balanced relationship with nature. The chapter that deals with these concepts is most carefully written, and provides the reader with an excellent ethnographic background to the Toba. It discusses in detail the role, techniques, and power of the shaman, the traditional religious leader, in the maintenance of this harmony.
Harmonic equilibrium was destroyed by the actions of conquerors and colonists, and subsequent chapters are organized around the theme of disharmony or dissonances and the modification of the Toba ideological system. Although it took until the late nineteenth century definitively to conquer the Chaco region, the Toba had been in contact with Europeans since the sixteenth century. By the time the Chaco had become important to the colonizers in the nineteenth century, the Indians had already undergone several structural changes from foot nomads to horse nomads. By 1884, when the Chaco was pacified and traditional food sources cut off, the Toba had become less capable of maintaining the harmony so important to them. Tensions reached their peak in 1924, with a major uprising at Napalpí. The defeat of the Toba was a public demonstration of the incapacity of their shamanistic leaders. It was during this period of greatest imbalance that the pentecostal religion was first introduced into the region. With its emphasis on curing and spirit possession, this belief system contained elements similar to Toba shamanistic practices and provided as well a new power source that both justified the Toba defeat and provided new symbols for reestablishing harmonic relations.
Thus, the Toba are one of the few Amerindian groups successfully to integrate a Protestant religion into their culture and use it to preserve their separate identity. Elmer Miller prophesies that there will surely be other threats to the harmony of the Toba. Nevertheless, “all indications point to the realization of continued efforts to maintain harmony in new forms . . . even if this harmony is expressed in the vestments of new symbols” (p. 167).