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Inka Bodies and the Body of Christ: Corpus Christi in Colonial Cuzco, Peru. (Reviews).

Inka Bodies and the Body of Christ: Corpus Christi in Colonial Cuzco, Peru. By Carolyn Dean (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999. xiv plus 288pp. $54.95/cloth $18.95/paperback).

In 1564, during a politically turbulent stretch in Hispanic efforts to colonize the Inka empire, a hoary conquistador named Geronimo Costilla petitioned his superiors in Lima for help in containing the excesses of the native elite (indios principales) of Cuzco. What threat loomed? "For some time now," Costilla warned, "they have been given to wearing Spaniards' clothing, and by dressing expensively in silks and other fine cloth embroidered with gold they impoverish themselves and their children, as they are not forward-looking people" (Lima, Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Archivo de Limites, sign. CSG-1, f. 137). We glimpse a powerful Spaniard's alarm, three decades after Spaniards invaded the Inkas' central city, at natives who have come much too close for comfort. The ambivalence of the conqueror is clear: he wants the Andean leaders to be leaders, like him (otherwise Spain's indirect rule over the Andes wouldn't work), but he wants them to look like Andean leaders, not like him.

In her remarkable, truly artful book, Carolyn Dean investigates the ways Cuzco's high-ranking Inkas handled such tricky cross-currents of privilege and subjection. By the seventeenth century, this indigenous elite did not always dress like Spaniards, certainly not on public ceremonial occasions. The festive dress code they created--on full display in the city's annual observance of Corpus Christi, the Catholic feast of the Eucharist--was an eloquent composite that thickened with meanings over time as Inka bodies became sites of loud visual assertions. (These were echoed and reinforced in paintings of kindred "royals" that adorned the walls of midcolonial Inka homes, and the coats of arms Inka nobles displayed.) In an archival tour-de-force, Dean draws on a wide variety of sources--chronicles, wills, contracts, disputes, parish records, paintings, drawings, and heraldry--to understand what Cuzco's midcolonial Inkas were asserting. Parsing their complex performances, she convincingly reads them as both obeisant and self-empowering.

Chapters 1-3 provide a fascinating analysis of the feast of Christ's body that clarifies why this occasion became such an important stage for' trumpeting triumphs and parading differences. From medieval Europe to the colonial Andes, Corpus Christi was a feast that "dined on signs of difference" (1), celebrating Christianity's triumph over heresy (represented in the ritual conquest of a non-Christian Other). Its regular reenactment symbolically kept the Other alive and kicking, to be vanquished again year after year. As Corpus Christi was "Andeanized" following Spaniards' conquest of the Inka empire, Inka leaders of Cuzco used the performative space of the vanquished Other to fashion a proud, distinctive place for themselves as a loyal, Christian Andean nobility, over and above rival ethnic groups. The feast thus permitted many possible readings. To their colonial overlords Inkas' participation might demonstrate native subjugation, the defeat of the pagan--but it might also be viewed as a manifestation of stre ngth and pride, a threat, "duplicitous resistance" (50). (Not surprisingly, Spanish authorities betrayed considerable anxiety over the years at Andeans' ritual performances.)

Andean perspectives are central to Chapters 4-8. Here Dean works up an extended, inspired reading of a series of canvases from the 1670s depicting the Corpus Christi procession making its way through the streets of Cuzco. Commissioned to adorn the church of Santa Ana, a Cuzco parish strongly associated with the Inkas' main ethnic rivals, the Chachapoyas and Canaris, these beautiful works recorded in almost documentary detail the lavish performances of particular parishes, confraternities, religious orders. Dean shows how Inka nobles may be seen using their costumed bodies in accordance with the logic of the Quechua concept of tinkuy, a "highly charged coming together of complements" (158). They are at once Christian and Inka, wielding cross and maskapaycha (the scarlet fringe once worn only by the Inka ruler, or Sapa Inka). Dean's readings of the many Inka symbols carried in their elite wearers' festive headdresses, tunics, and other accessories are convincing and memorable. An item like the maskapaycha, she shows, underwent relatively little change over time, yet wasn't simply a pre-Hispanic survival by the late 1600s. By then it formed part of a new and different symbolic economy. Complementing the pictorial evidence with contemporaneous disputes that pitted royal Inka descendants against each other, Dean traces the fault lines and shifting definitions of Inka eliteness. To wear the scarlet fringe meant belonging to the select group of cuzquenos who could lay claim to descent from an Inka royal lineage. This group energetically policed its boundaries, using lawsuits and physical violence against those it considered "illegitimate" wearers of the royal Inka insignia (103-109).

One of the book's many strengths is the detail it provides about the inner workings--the fractious internal politics, charitable endeavors and artistic patronage--of this indigenous elite. Dean presents intriguing evidence that wealth was by the 1600s a significant criterion of eliteness: in the jostling over ceremonial privileges, relatively poor but aristocratic Inkas lodged complaints against Inkas of lesser rank but more money (108-109).

The fine-grained focus of this study shouldn't put off readers interested in social history and social theory. For it's precisely Dean's capacity for fresh, detailed analysis that makes this book such an important contribution to the study of colonial relations and the construction of hegemony. The book does much to move the study of the colonial Andes past old commonplaces and toward nuanced interpretations. Dean homes in on the relatively neglected midcolonial period to depict Inka elites who weren't simply "selling out" or resisting, but doing something much more complex and creative. They were both loyal Christian vassals and powerful Andean ethnic lords. They did not syncretize or collapse their Andean-Europeanness, Dean argues; rather, "by keeping the Andean distinct from the European," they "bolstered their place in between" (168), as powerful cultural mediators. Recognition of Andean chiefs as "linchpin" figures of Spanish colonial rule has long been a featured part of the historiography of the colon ial Andes (with the work of John Rowe, Karen Spalding, and many others), yet we still have much to do to understand the cultural dimensions of their long-lived, resilient authority. This fine study opens up many new pathways, sources and possibilities.
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Author:Burns, Kathryn
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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