The premise here is that over several centuries the indigenous authorities (kuraqkuna) of the Yura, a Quechua-speaking Andean people of southern Bolivia, have been central to the construction and perpetuation of Yura group identity and cohesion against strong destructive pressures. Accordingly, Rasnake focuses his considerable analytical skills on the ethnography and history of native Andean leadership, and on a symbolic interpretation of the public rituals whereby Yuras and their kuraqkuna construct a sense of group and obligation in a wider and often dangerous world.
Rasnake’s ethnographic analysis is sound and perceptive. He writes clearly and logically, incorporates pertinent previous studies, and provides a convincing discussion of the ayllu concept. The descriptions and symbolic interpretation of Yura festivals are fascinating, and illuminate how Yura peasants and their rotating kuraqkuna conceptualize group identities and solidarities while seeking to propitiate or otherwise obligate the Andean spirits and the non-Yura vecinos whose power must not be ignored. The net result is a twin picture: ethnic resilience continually defended and reconstructed through ritual festivity in a changing and difficult world, and long-term continuity (despite other changes) in the social role of kuraqkuna as symbolic performers of ritual who thereby acquired legitimacy as agents of group needs.
I could accept the analysis of ethnic resilience, but found the emphasis on continuity overstated and unconvincing. Rasnake himself concedes that the Yura group emerged out of the colonial disintegration of the larger Wisjisa group, and that differentiation of power, wealth, and interest within the colonial Yura group led to a crisis of high-level kuraka authority and the assassination of a principal kuraka by Yura rebels in 1781. After the Andean insurrection of the 1780s, old-style high kuraka positions became untenable, their coercive and extractive roles passed over to mestizo vecinos, and the indigenous authority system ended up resting on a more “consensual” and “egalitarian” base (p. 164). In short, I found the author’s historical analysis a sensitive, honest, and perceptive guide to transformations that undercut his careful discussion of continuity. In addition, the author acknowledges, but does not subject to sustained ethnographic analysis, temporary labor migration to the Bolivian lowlands and to Argentina, and power-laden relationships between mestizo vecinos and native Yuras. Given the apparent importance of these phenomena in Yura life, relegating them to the margins of the analysis may, again, lead to an artificial, overstated sense of historical continuity.
Since this is a rich and perceptive book, mention of such limitations is more an invitation to further reflection than a dismissal of its value or insight. To me, one of the most fascinating issues raised by Rasnake is how, why, to what extent, and with what social consequences an Andean ethnic group such as the Yura may impose on the contradictions of life a mental construct: a sense of group continuity, order, and consensus that is in other respects consciously or unconsciously belied by the actions and experiences of members of the group. This stimulating book does not fully resolve such questions, but it does provide informational and conceptual tools with which to begin to ask and answer them.