Professor Heather Roller rethinks Native Amazonian histories

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Portrait of Assistant Professor Heather Roller

Assistant Professor Heather Roller

In the Brazilian Amazon, rural communities are being threatened by outsiders who want to invalidate their claims to territory. Colgate history professor Heather Roller provides important insight into the issue. Her book Amazonian Routes: Indigenous Mobility and Colonial Communities in Northern Brazil (Stanford University Press, 2014), recently earned the Howard Cline Memorial Prize, which is awarded biennially to the book or article judged to be the most significant contribution to the history of indigenous people in Latin America.

The idea for Amazonian Routes surfaced when Roller first traveled to the Brazilian Amazon in 2004 to explore dissertation research topics. She set out wanting to understand how colonialism played out in the world’s largest and densest river system. Her initial question was: How did indigenous people use Amazonian waterways as they faced a predatory colonial regime? She noticed that in most histories of the region, native Amazonians were depicted as either runaways from the colonial system or forced migrants. But her research showed that people moved around the Amazon basin for a whole host of reasons, some of which had little to do with the impositions of the colonial Portuguese state. They often moved because it suited their own interests and those of their communities.

Roller spent a year in Brazil, working in a “colonial archive with huge, musty collections and a beautiful old reading room.” There were some challenges, including mosquitos and equatorial heat. “I had to struggle to make sense of the documents, which were often riddled with insect holes,” she added. “But it was all worth it.” Roller finished her dissertation in 2010 and then began turning it into a book.

Amazonian Routes reconstructs the world of 18th-century Amazonia to argue that indigenous mobility did not undermine settlement or community. In doing so, it revises longstanding views of native Amazonians as perpetual wanderers, lacking attachment to place. Instead, native Amazonians used traditional as well as new, colonial forms of spatial mobility to build long-lasting communities under colonialism. Canoeing and trekking through the interior to collect forest products or to contact other native groups, Indians expanded their social networks and brought new people and resources back to the colonial villages, according to Roller. Many Indians also migrated between villages, seeking to be incorporated as members of their chosen communities.

Drawing on little-known sources, Roller shows that mobile people remained attached to their home communities and committed to the preservation of their lands and assets. This argument still matters today, and not just to scholars, because native Amazonians are fighting the notion that their mobility invalidates their territorial claims.

Roller’s treasure trove of materials — “thousands of document photographs and a stack of notebooks with my transcriptions and notes” — continue to give her insight. “I still find gems in those documents whenever I go back to them,” she said.

This past summer, Roller finished the first chapter of her second book, which she described as “a comparative study of two indigenous groups in Brazil that, against all odds, managed to maintain their autonomy through the colonial period and into the nineteenth century.” She hopes to see it in print by 2018.