Ana Mariella Bacigalupo
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007

Reviewed by Jennifer Hale-Gallardo

Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power and Healing among Chilean Mapuche is a fascinating and well-crafted ethnography on the cultural politics of the machi, or Mapuche shamans in southern Chile. In this enriching book, author Ana Mariella Bacigalupo presents an extensive analysis of her research based on 15 years of participant observation and interviews with machi and Mapuche people and her apprenticeship to a machi healer. Through a critical feminist approach, she deftly weaves her data into dialogue with a breadth of scholarship, ranging from studies on witchcraft and modernity, embodiment and personhood, shamanism and possession, postcolonial identity movements, as well as gender and performativity. Scholars will find this book a valuable ethnographic contribution to the central debates that have characterized these various fields of inquiry. And instructors will find this an important addition to advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on gender identity, feminist studies and medical anthropology.

The foye tree in the book’s title represents “machi’s ability to move between worlds, generations, and genders to embody the wholeness of Ngunechen”, or the Mapuche four-partite Deity (52). This hermaphroditic tree stands as metaphor for the more fluid gender performativity of machi as they are summoned by their filew, or ancestor spirit, to symbolically and viscerally establish kinship with the foye tree as part of their initiation into healing. To forge this kinship, both males and females become “spiritual brides who seduce and call their filew—husband and master—to possess their heads to grant them knowledge” (87); men and women enact their spiritual wifeliness by wearing symbols of Mapuche femininity including head scarves, flowers, black shawls, and silver jewelry.

Bacigalupo’s strategy proves an effective intervention into studies on gender, healing and power. From the outset, she outlines three paradigms of normative gender behavior in circulation in Chile: the male-female binary based in biological claims, the sexual-penetration paradigm of penetrating men and receptive non-men, and the machi ritual performances of masculinity and femininity. These multiple and simultaneously existing authoritative discourses on gender and sexuality set the stage for the contested and overlapping gender imaginaries among Mapuche people and specifically machi. In this way, her ethnography opens an intellectual space for considering how the very discourses that polarize gender identities and fix gender referents in Chile work simultaneously to enable machi to move between male/female dichotomies and collapse or fuse them through ritual practice. Interestingly enough, the ritual transvestism of machi is revealed as a practice that does not transcend or undo categories of male or female, but instead makes visible the relational gender categories that pervade machi religiosity.

The book is organized in nine chapters that map machi’s shifting gendered identities in their encounter with other machi, fellow Mapuche and the gendered discourses that have interpolated machi since the time of the Spanish colony and up to the contemporary Chilean state. Grounding her work in Judith Butler’s thesis of performativity (1990), “that gender is not a fixed condition but a state of mind and body maintained through reiterative performance,” machi’s ritual performances provide an important illustration of the fluidity of gender identities as well as the lived weight of the discursive binaries of gender that come to shape how people see themselves (79). With chapters dedicated to the various forms of gendering of both male and female machi, Bacigalupo’s ethnography encompass the stakes in male machi ritual transvestism, the increasing politicization of female machi, and the micro-politics of gender performativity among the Mapuche that variously reproduce, contest and transform hybrid ideologies of gender that are at once colonial and indigenous.

Bacigalupo brings into view what has long been a “public secret” in Chile by investigating “the shifting gendered practices and subjectivities of Mapuche shamanism” who have long been stigmatized for their co-gendered ritual identities (9). Mindful of the implications of researching such controversial issues as the alternative gendering practices of machi, her book explicitly attends to the politics that permeate the life-worlds of machi while also foregrounding her own feminist politics in its production. By contextualizing the ideological terrain that the machi are forced to navigate in the confluences of historically alternative Mapuche sexualities, colonial ideologies, and formations of the Chilean state, Bacigalupo’s dialogical approach helps reveal the complexities of these meaning-laden identities for those who continue to have much at stake in the society-wide representations of their lives: the machi and the Mapuche community at large.

Jennifer Hale-Gallardo is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida in the Department of Anthropology where she is writing her dissertation on the institutionalization of traditional medicine in Mexico. Her research interests include the biomedicalization and commodification of subaltern healing practices, and the interface of these processes with discourses on race, ethnicity, gender and class. 

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