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Keywords:

  • Shuar;
  • head-hunters;
  • sacred;
  • fetish;
  • museum

In this article, I discuss the changing meanings of tsantsas, the shrunken heads of enemies slain in war, for Shuar, a group indigenous to the Ecuadorian Amazon. By the time Ecuadorian authorities put an end to warfare in the 1950s, Shuar had exchanged all of their tsantsas with European and Euro-American collectors in return for trade goods. I focus on the continuing significance for Shuar of tsantsas, despite their absence, and the impact of the repatriation in 1995 of several heads by the National Museum of the American Indian. I suggest that, prior to colonization and missionization, Shuar headhunting was part of a larger system characterized by the circulation of powers that took multiple and changing forms. I further argue that as shrunken heads themselves began to circulate until they came to rest in Western collections and museums, their meaning was subordinated to a system in which power rests on the accumulation of values. After their long sojourn abroad, the heads now represent distance: the distance of contemporary Shuar from their past, and the distance between Shuar leaders and their constituents. The circulation of tsantsas over the past hundred years thus reveals transnational dimensions of power while simultaneously confounding simple distinctions between savagery and civilization.