From Canaima to Canaima National Park

When Literature Buries Indigenous Geographies

By Amanda M. Smith

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Angel Falls in Canaima National Park, by Luis Carillo, 2005

Sometimes we find our research topics in other people’s footnotes. I first read Canaima (1935), a lesser-studied novel by author, teacher and former president Rómulo Gallegos (1884-1969), as a student of Latin American literature in the doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University. I had to wait until the 518th footnote for an explanation—though insufficient—of the book’s title. According to Charles Minguet, editor of the critical edition, “The Indigenous person fears kanaima, who does not exist as a God, but rather as an enemy, and upon being attacked by this [enemy], he screams.” The brevity of this description only served to further ignite my curiosity. Is Canaima—the incorporeal jungle spirit of Gallegos’ novel—actually a person? Is it spelled with a “k”? Does it attack people? These questions inspired one of my dissertation chapters, which will soon be published as part of my first book, Mapping the Amazon: Literary Geography after the Rubber Boom.

The ethnographic work of anthropologist Neil Whitehead would later clarify that kanaima with a “k” designates a kind of shaman as well as the ritual killing that he performs and that consists of stalking, attacking and then consuming the body of a victim. This pan-Indigenous phenomenon occurs throughout the vast fluvial region known as the Guiana Shield, which stretches across the Amazon and Orinoco River basins. There are practicing kanaimas among several Carib peoples including the Karinya, Pemón, Makushi, Akawaio and Patamuna. Other Carib peoples (the Waiwai, Ye’kwana and Wayana), some Arawak peoples (the Wapishana and Lokono), and the Warao know about the practice and fear it. The cause for that fear became very apparent when I read the graphic descriptions of kanaima documented by Whitehead and sometimes illustrated with sketches by his Patamuna informants. My research led me to understand that for kanaimas, consuming the body of a victim is a cultural duty that allows them to access a shamanic consciousness, communicate with the creator Makunaima, and thus, increase their power. Understanding the silence surrounding these Indigenous meanings in studies on Canaima and tracing the relationship between the shamanic practice, the novel and the national park of the same name, would take me along circuitous paths of cultural appropriation, always paved with good intentions.

Canaima tells the story of Marcos Vargas, an impulsive youth from Ciudad Bolívar on the shores of the Orinoco. He dreams of risking everything in “the adventurers’ Guayana,” the epithet he uses to refer to the Guiana Shield whose rivers and streams extend through nearly half of Venezuela’s national territory. Vargas learns about the adventures associated with the region by listening to the stories of rubber tappers who return to the city at the end of each season. In the end, the hero fulfills his fantasies as a foreman of a small rubber venture. However, rather than carrying out the great feats he imagined in a jungle that he believed to be virgin, he confronts the devastating effects of the extraction of natural resources—rubber, tonka beans and gold—from the region. Gradually he begins to distance himself from his society of origin, thus severing ties with the source of the human and ecological abuses he witnesses in the jungle. Finally, he settles in a Ye’kwana community and partners with a woman called Aymara. Years later, as the novel closes, he sends their child to the capital for an education.

This critique of extractive economies filters through a discourse known as “regionalism” in Latin American literature. With exhaustive descriptions and vernacular language, this literary mode, dominant in the first decades of the 20th century, sought to capture and preserve the cultural diversity of the nation. As a decidedly nostalgic literary style, regionalism coincided with the acceleration of Latin American processes of modernization aimed at integrating isolated areas, homogenizing national economies and flattening the idiosyncratic textures that regionalist novels brought into high relief. As Carlos Alonso proposed, the regionalist imagination invented and exoticized the idea of an uncontaminated local culture as a response to the identity crisis incited by modernization. 

In Venezuela, the formation of an oil state at the beginning of the 20th century accentuated that crisis. Fernando Coronil, a Venezuelan anthropologist and former visiting professor of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, indicated that although the extractive activities of the time were predominantly located along the country’s northern coast, the oil industry restructured economic space throughout the country.  Furthermore, without government schools equipped to instill the concept of national citizenship in Venezuela’s rural areas, the “school” of the oil system—as workers called it—delivered lessons in economic citizenship for a modern Venezuela.

In the face of president Juan Vicente Gómez’s concession of oil fields to foreign companies, Gallegos created a romantic character who takes refuge in an alternative onto-epistemology called “those worlds of Canaima.” In other words, he used regionalism to construct an inherently Venezuelan landscape by turning the Indigenous practice of kanaima into a literary trope. Canaima with a “c” is the destructive evil spread by “the rational ones, the suckers of rubber tree’s blood, the violators of the dream of gold,” but it is also the enigmatic and mutable force that draws Marcos Vargas into the jungle. The rubber tappers refer pejoratively to Marcos Vargas’ immersion in the jungle by circulating stories about Canaima getting stuck “in the rational one’s head,” but his solitary contemplation of the tropical vegetation and eventual shamanic convergence with plant species reveal a dynamic forest comprised of subjects like him. Those worlds of Canaima uncovered through Vargas’ journey serve to contrast with the rational objectification of the forest implied in its codification as natural resources.

I have been unable to ascertain exactly how Gallegos became familiar with the idea of Canaima that he laid out in his novel. He does not mention it once in the notebook where he meticulously recorded his observations during a brief stay in Guayana. That being said, a few of Canaima’s passages are suspiciously similar to the accounts of the botanist Richard Schomburgk and the explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg. Both documented western distortions of kanaima as a disembodied vengeful force, but through their Pemón informants, they also compiled details about famous kanaimas and explanations of the ritual act. 

Although Gallegos evokes the concept of a mystical “Canaima” to emblematize Venezuelan Guayana, the regionalist discourse articulated by Marcos Vargas’ spiritual journey nonetheless runs into surprising descriptions that coincide with some of the most startling aspects of kanaima found in Schomburgk and Koch-Grünberg. Like an actively hunting kanaima who takes the form of a jaguar, Vargas learns to eat raw meat, senses claws at his hands and, in an inexplicable scene—which literary critics have curiously overlooked—he attacks a man from behind with a machete just as kanaimas attack their victims. The emergence of these strange details in the novel seem to confirm, as Lúcia Sá proposed, that in Gallegos the word “Canaima” exceeds the definition provided by the narrator.

Studies on Canaima have recognized in such complex textual richness an anomalous approach to regional otherness, but because Latin American regionalist novels—also called telluric novels—tend to personify the land, in the 1960s “Canaima” became synonymous with the region described in the text. Gallegos was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960, and in 1962 the Venezuelan state chose the title of his second novel to designate what would be for some time the largest national park in the world. Canaima National Park, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular tourist destination, is situated in the Gran Sabana region of Venezuelan Guayana and occupies nearly 12,000 square miles. From its characteristic plateaus known as tepui, the world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls, cascades to the earth. Today, most of the approximately 30,000 Pemón people live within the perimeter of the park, which for them is comprised not of tourist attractions but rather of sacred beings.

The Venezuelan state’s presence as a national park in Pemón ancestral lands has produced conflicts related to the titling and use of collective property. As one Pemón activist insisted, invoking the International Labor Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989, “We are not inside the national park. The national park is in our communities, which is why whatever is done must be done only after we are first consulted.” Pemón people must now fight to maintain the scientifically proven practices of slash and burn agriculture while struggling with the effects of legal and illegal mining. Additionally, since 2016, the park overlaps with the Orinoco Mining Arc National Strategic Development Zone, an area rich in gold, copper, diamond, coltan, iron and bauxite reserves, and therefore designated for mining exploration. In February 2019, under President Nicolás Maduro’s administration, a violent encounter between the military and Pemón protestors caused by the entrance of humanitarian aid in the park resulted in the death of three Pemón individuals. As a result of such confrontations, the Pemón people of Canaima National Park daily face the kind of violence that Canaima denounced: the forced integration of the periphery into the national economic center. 

Map of Canaima National Park by Jeffrey Erbig

“With Canaima we speak Venezuelan,” 2016

In the meantime, “Canaima” has gone from designating a special riverine region to function metonymically as the essence of the nation. In 2016 an executive order called for the creation of a new open-source operating system for the National Public Administration; the name chosen was “Canaima.” The website for the operating system previously featured a banner announcing, “With Canaima we speak Venezuelan.” Other examples of the software as an expression of the Venezuelanization of computing abound. For example, an advertisement for Canaima version 3.0 bears the subtitle “with Venezuelan flavor.” The rhetorical maneuver of selectively co-opting whitewashed versions of folkloric characters and projecting their almost fictitious image as a symbol of the nation is not unique in the realm of Latin American regionalism. In the Argentine context, something similar happened with the gauchos, who were hired and mistreated by the incipient state to clear the frontier in the 19th century, only to later become symbols of the national spirit. The degree of distancing from the original referent seems to distinguish the Venezuelan case. Naming a national park after a practice of ritual killing already indicated an alarming lack of state sensitivity toward its native peoples, but using Canaima as shorthand for a national language exposes the complete cultural blindness with which the Bolivarian state takes hold of the symbolic capital of Indigenous peoples.

The indiscriminate use of the Carib term has produced vehement protests. Ricardo Delgado, a Pemón academic and former mayor of the municipality of Gran Sabana, protested the government’s thoughtless dissemination of the word kanaima on his personal blog:

I urge the national government to discontinue the use of the name Canaima for any more projects, because each time it is named, as everyone knows on an elemental level, the action and character of Canaima is invoked, whether the usage is Indigenous or not. This is why I say, and firmly believe, that there are now Canaimas everywhere, flogging citizens in their neighborhoods, infiltrating the armed forces, corrupting the police force, carrying prison batons.

Delgado’s urgent grievance suggests that in Pemón—as in other Indigenous languages such as Quechua—there is no meaning that mediates the relationship between the word and its referent. According to Delgado, saying “kanaima” calls kanaima forth. As a result, state ignorance toward Carib practices unleashes a real, physical threat unbeknownst to those who set it loose.

The state appropriation of this word eclipses another important meaning as well. For other Pemón people, kanaima also designates a harmonious way of being with the world. Pemón professor Lino Figueroa explores this sense of kanaima in Makunaima en el valle de los kanaimas (2007), a collection of stories based on the oral tradition of his Kamarakoto people. The book tells how Makunaima, following the lessons of his father Kaponokok, intuits how to care for the world around him and learn from it. A ritual kanaima killing constitutes part of his coming-of-age, but only as a brief episode in a much more extensive educational program, which, according to Kaponokok, “is not difficult if you treat things with respect and responsibility.” For Makunaima, kanaima becomes a corporeal and mental tether to the jungle landscape, a nuance of kanaima utterly absent in the state’s actions in the park.

The proliferation of “Canaima” in political discourse also obscures Gallegos’ albeit superficial meaning of Guayana as the place of alternative knowledge brought into view throughout Marcos Vargas’ fantastic journey. What endures, instead, is the inability of the state to hear the concerns of the regions it aspires to integrate, even when they use the same vocabulary. When Gallegos extracted kanaima from Carib cosmovision in order to use it as a concept in his regionalist literary project, he inadvertently gave the state permission to add it to the national lexicon. As the case of Canaima makes clear, such literary extraction is not merely a metaphor. In the transformation of Guayana from a proverbial site of riches for others to a source of innovative literary tropes, a literary cartography emerges that conceals the original geographic referent. If literature can intervene so insidiously in the lives of the people of fluvial jungles like Guayana, then reading literary works inspired by such regions today requires unearthing the worlds buried in their pages.


Amanda M. Smith is Assistant Professor of Latin American literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She also co-chairs the Amazonia section of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA). Her book, Mapping the Amazon: Literary Geography after the Rubber Boom, under contract with the University of Liverpool Press, has a chapter dedicated to Canaima.