Political chimeras: The uncertainty of the chief's speech in the Upper Xingu

Antonio Guerreiro


This article deals with the issue of ritual polities in Southern Amazon, and in particular the case of "chieftaincy without power." Through the analysis of ritual oratory among chiefs in the multiethnic and multilingual system of the Upper Xingu, it considers how the concepts of "ritual condensation" and "chimera" could be useful for the description and analysis of such polities. In the Upper Xingu, certain chiefs are fluent in a verbal genre known as "chiefs' talk," composed of formalized speeches directed either to leaders of other groups or to their own people, depending on the context in which they are delivered. Analyzing discourses of the latter kind among the Kalapalo (a Karib-speaking people of the region), the article shows how both the chief and his audience are symbolically constructed as "paradoxical" subjects characterized by contradictory predicates, and discusses how this is related to Kalapalo ideas on kinship and power. By engaging with the concepts of "ritual condensation" and "chimera," the article resumes the debate on political oratory generated by Pierre Clastres and investigates how uncertainty—rather than "authority" or "belief"—can enact an exchange of perspectives through which the identities of the group and the chief are produced.


ritual, political oratory, Pierre Clastres, Amerindian politics, Upper Xingu

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.004