Form shifting Amazonian dolphins I Curator’s Nook S5 Ep8

published on July 2, 2020

Hello I'm Laura Osorio, and I am the
curator for the Santo Domingo Centre of

excellence for Latin American research

and this is my corner

So I have a series of tooth necklaces

that are all from the Amazon rainforest

from the Igaraparaná region

which is now the Columbia Amazon

but at some point was the Peruvian Amazon

The reason I wanted to talk about them is because we've recently been visited

by two elders from the Murui-Muina or Witoto people from that area;

Oscar Jitdutjaaño and Alicia Sánchez, as well as a professor from the university there,

called Professor Juan Alvaro Echeverrí

and we've been spending some
time looking at these necklaces

The necklaces are sort of ritual items as
ceremonial, important objects

that were used to harness the powers of the animals that they're taken from

So these different necklaces have come from different animals

and so are associated with different strengths

so we have monkey, rodent, jaguar and this is the tooth necklace that I particularly want to talk about

because it's a necklace that came up as being important with our recent visitors

and this is a dolphin tooth necklace

Dolphin tooth necklaces are associated with the powers of love magic

so you can actually scrape powder off dolphin teeth

in order to make love spells

The reason for that is that dolphins are associated

with the ability to transform from
dolphins into people

They come out at night and they go to the bars and they dance

there are a number of different ways
that these stories are described

some of the more charming aspects of the story is that

the Dolphins use different animals from
the river as parts of their clothing so

they'll take an electric eel or a boa
and convert it into a belt and wear that,

they'll use catfish as their shoes, crabs
as a watch

and they have to always wear a hat because the only part of their
body that they can't disguise

is this hole at the back of their neck

so it's thought that when people, an unknown person comes to a party at night

you should ask them to take their hat off to make sure that they're not a dolphin

Another way to make sure that a person isn't a dolphin

is to wait until they get so drunk that they throw up and if they throw up whole fish

then that means that they're a dolphin

All of these objects are from the Igaraparaná and they were collected around the time of the Rubber Boom

which was from about 1900 to 1930

in the countries that are now Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Colombia

and even Venezuela and Ecuador

Rubber extraction had been happening since the mid 19th century

and was the rubber was used obviously for a growing need for cars and machines in the industrial world

The peoples in the Amazon rainforest that were made to work in rubber extraction

as well as some people who actually brought in from other places like Barbados

were effectively enslaved, that enslavement ranged from debt peonage,

to outright torture, rape and genocide

What we're effectively looking at is the hunting down of communities

and effectively people were chained and enslaved

One of the reasons why the dolphin
necklace

I think is interesting in terms of the
rubber boom story

is because this necklace and the narratives associated with the powers associated

with river dolphins would have been
relatively new to the Murui-Muina

or Witoto people in 1925 when this necklace was collected

One of the interesting aspects of the stories as they're told specifically in the Colombian Amazon

and by the visitors who came to see these necklaces recently

is that as disguised as humans, they're also disguised as white people

so they're incredibly wealthy looking, they wear perfumes, they wear suits

that's what the whole idea with that with a crab, the crab is a watch- they are Western

Now the reason for that or one of the reasons for that, I think is

because the rubber boom not only some
splintered Amazonian society

and obviously resulted in the death of indigenous peoples

there was also, one of the results was actually culture contact between the bigger rivers

and the communities that live along the
bigger rivers and people who live in the smaller tributaries

So La Chorrera where the Murui-Muina people come from is one of these smaller tributaries

and they would have been unfamiliar with both dolphins,

who don't often make it so far away from the big rivers and the stories that go with them

until the rubber boom effectively put these communities into contact

As I understand it in different parts of the Amazon

dolphins turn into people and
then all seduce you at parties,

get really drunk and then vomit whole fish

for people in La Chorrera the dolphins are

turning into people and they're actually
raping and killing people

and I think that there's clearly a transference
of some of the pain

associated with the rubber boom genocide

to this new or slightly slanted version of the dolphin/human story

One things to say about the dolphin tooth necklace which I think is fascinating

is that when our visitors came from the Amazon recently

and looked at all of these tooth necklaces they would actually pick up individual teeth

and see whether or not the tooth had been scratched or damaged

and if that was the case, which is the case in all of the teeth necklaces

that they looked at, that tooth necklace was pronounced dead

and so interestingly the only tooth necklace that they identified as still having the

living power that these necklaces are
made to have was the dolphin tooth necklace

and so for that reason it's very special and they advised us to take particularly good care of it

One of the things that Oscar Jitdutjaaño said when he had spent two weeks

with about a 105, 110 objects from the
collection is

“Vi las cosas de mis antiguos y me sané”

which means I saw the things of my elders and I was healed

So yeah I think that that's a beautiful
sentiment and I'm happy that that they were able to have that experience

Thank-you very much for watching me talk about

the teeth necklaces and if you have any
other questions and want to know more

about Santo Domingo centre then you
can find it on our website

it's the Santa Domingo centre of excellence for Latin American research

and if you want to watch other curator's corners please do so here!

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