Owning Pets and Possessing Livestock in Indigenous Amazonia

From the Series: Temporary Possession

Photo by Rebecca Empson.

For the Kanamari of Brazilian Amazonia, ownership is the basic relation from which kinship ethics is developed. During interactions with non-Indigenous whites, Kanamari deploy a different property regime to preclude the development of kinship relations with these foreigners. Here, I will show how these different regimes result in opposing relational strategies through a comparison of Kanamari pet keeping and livestock rearing (see also Costa 2017).

The Kanamari capture, tame, and raise the offspring of wild animals as pets, which become associated with a specific owner, usually a woman or child. Pet keeping is conceived as a filial relation, and pets are raised by their adoptive human mother/owner. They never reproduce in captivity and are never eaten.

One of the Kanamari expressions for their pets means “that which we cause to grow.” Pets are raised through acts of feeding. The Kanamari word for to feed literally means to cause a need in another. The paradigmatic image of feeding is a woman chewing food, taking it from her mouth, and placing it in the mouth of a pet, creating or ratifying a corresponding orientation in the animal that now depends on its feeder.

Anyone who feeds another is the body-owner, or -warah, of that other. In noun phrases, -warah synthesizes an asymmetrical relation instated by feeding. Thus X-warah refers to someone on whom the argument X depends, is a part of, is derived from, and/or belongs to. A woman who feeds a pet is its body-owner because she feeds it, and it depends on her feeding for survival.

The Kanamari conceive of the development of pet-keeping relations as a shift from an asymmetrical relation between a feeder and a dependent to one among commensals. Feeding involves the differential capacity of one party to provide for another, while commensality involves different but complimentary contributions toward food production and consumption, rooted in the sexual division of labor. The Kanamari word wu, which they translate as love, typically marks this passage: commensals love each other in a way that feeders and dependents do not.

The Kanamari also keep pigs and chickens, which roam freely through their villages. Their collective name for all domesticated animals means “animal children of the whites.” Unlike pets, livestock reproduce in villages and are not fed by the Kanamari. There is no context in which their word for to feed and the associated vocabulary of need and dependence is used to speak of livestock. Instead, livestock scavenge for leftovers that fall from raised houses. Consequently, the Kanamari do not become body-owners of livestock, nor do they in any way include livestock within an ethics of kinship.

However, the Kanamari likewise do not eat livestock. Although they are not inserted into the Kanamari regime of ownership, livestock are possessed by specific people. Linguistically, this possession is expressed through clause-level possessive forms, genitive constructions, or designated verbs of possession. Such possession does not make possessors into body-owners. The body-owners of livestock are white men who inhabit the nearby town of Atalaia do Norte, work in government agencies, and travel through Kanamari lands; Kanamari merely oversee livestock until such time as they can be claimed by their true owners. Atalaia do Norte has neither grazing land nor slaughterhouses. The livestock under the custodianship of the Kanamari are the only source of fresh meat for its residents. In return for their services, the Kanamari are paid in Western merchandise that the whites appraise as more valuable than livestock, resulting in a situation where Kanamari animal husbandry pays off enduring debts.

This custodianship of livestock is the contemporary avatar of a type of property relation that the Kanamari have known since the nineteenth-century rubber boom, with its system of supply and debt wherein bosses who managed rubber estates supplied a workforce with the material means for carrying out extraction (Weinstein 1983). The rubber obtained went toward canceling the original debts. These debts, however, were never canceled, only constantly displaced as new debts were perpetually incurred.

Livestock are analogous to rubber in that they are things that whites desire and do not have and that Kanamari have but do not desire. Such things are necessarily negotiated via debt peonage relations. The Kanamari thus invest in and profit from the property of others, expressing the distance between livestock and themselves by separating custodianship and ensuing exchange from body-ownership and kinship.

The Kanamari obtain animal children through the predatory activities of male hunters, who bring infant animals back to the village and transfer them to women who raise them. White men traditionally obtained livestock through breeding, and their wives helped rear these animals for slaughter. Kanamari clearly distinguish the predatory activity that captures infant animals from the feeding activity that produces pets and generates interspecific kinship. Whites, in contrast, are constituted by a jumble of relations of feeding and predation: while they feed livestock, they then betray a burgeoning kinship relation by feeding on these same animals. For the Kanamari, relations of predation and kinship need to be kept distinct, with the former being converted into the latter through feeding. By confounding feeding and predation, the whites eat their children and feed their prey.

The adoption of livestock by the Kanamari, however, runs the risk of introjecting the cannibalism of the whites into their kinship ethics. To prevent this, the Kanamari decline to feed livestock, forcing the animals to make do with what can be scavenged, blocking any possibility of becoming body-owners of the livestock that inhabit their villages. Instead, Kanamari rear them on behalf of their true owners in exchange for merchandise. The logic of debt and supply that regiments these exchanges provides a way out of the conundrum of how to relate to white people and obtain merchandise without succumbing to the perverse relational schema in which whites thrive. This is because, in the debt and supply system, things are not produced for consumption; being already owned by others, things are necessarily produced (or extracted) so as to be alienated.


Costa, Luiz. 2017. The Owners of Kinship: Asymmetrical Relations in Indigenous Amazonia. Chicago: HAU Books.

Weinstein, Barbara. 1983. The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850–1920. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.