Nambikwara : Les carnets Nambikwara de Lévi-Strauss

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The aim of this project is to digitize and prepare a critical edition of Claude Lévi-Strauss's field notebooks from his second expedition to Brazil at the Nambikwara in 1938, deposited at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF). The project is part of a broad international movement of making the field notebooks of the great anthropologists of the twentieth century available to researchers and the public, following the example of the Anthropological Fieldwork Online project undertaken in the United States. However, this project is more ambitious than the latter in that it includes an important component of unique research of a genetic nature, including the origin of certain Levi-Straussian concepts. These field notes provide the foundational material for that goal.

Claude and Dina Lévi-Strauss carried out two expeditions in the heart of Brazil, one of which led them to the Kadiueu and Bororo Indians, which lasted from November 1935 to January 1936 and the other to the Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib, from May-June 1938 to January 1939. By the end of July 1938, Dina Lévi-Strauss, suffering from purulent conjunctivitis, had to interrupt her participation in the second expedition. She got to know only the Nambikwara, while her husband extended his stay for several months to reach the Tupi-Kawahib, further north. The Nambikwara ethnography resulted in a publication, La Vie familiale des Indiens Nambikwara (The Family Life of the Nambikwara Indians) (1948). But Tristes Tropiques, published two decades later, remains the book which brilliantly describes these two adventures.

The note books of the first expedition are lost. Those of the second have been deposited to the BNF, which is one of the partners of the project. Monique Lévi-Strauss, the widow of Claude Lévi-Strauss, has expressed her wish for a critical edition of the Nambikwara notebooks and approached the coordinator of this project, Emmanuel Desveaux, to this end. A quick review of the part of the archives corresponding to the second expedition was a revelation, because it disputed the popular assertion that Lévi-Strauss was a poor fieldworker, too confined by his theoretical ambitions to comply with the ungrateful requirements of ethnography. In fact, nothing can be farther from the truth. What we see is that Lévi-Strauss observes everything, hears everything, smells everything, notes everything and draws everything. The field notes of Levi-Strauss among the Nambikwara, among the Tupi-Kawahib, but also relating to all the Caboclo (metis) towns or villages encountered along the way are presented in a very heterogeneous material form, in more than a dozen different note books of different making and sizes, plus loose sheets and various annotated documents. The set has about two thousand sheets, some double-sided, others not. Notes are usually written in pencil. They include ethnographic descriptions, drawings, kinship patterns, musical notations and, especially, linguistic data. Indeed, there are entire pages of vocabulary but also many linguistic transcripts literally overlying the ethnographic description, whether in Nambikwara, Tupi, or vernacular Brazilian Portuguese. The corpus filed with the BNF also contains the diary of Dina Lévi-Strauss. From a formal point of view, this document is at the antipodes of the notebooks. It is a real diary, a day by day chronicle, written mainly in a narrative style. There is no doubt that this is an exceptional body of work, both in terms of the ethnography and linguistics of central Brazil and the genesis of Tristes Tropiques and, more generally, of the work of Lévi-Strauss.

The aim of the project is to establish a critical edition of Nambikwara notebooks in book format and also to publish the original documents as a PDF digitalized with optical character recognition (OCR) available on the Web. This digital edition of the primary sources should allow researchers to carry out critical and genetic studies, or to consult studies produced by others, without having to go on site. The digital documents may be downloaded for use in courses or lectures and for other non-commercial purposes. We wish to trace the evolution of Lévi-Strauss's thought by organizing the material in such a way that it lends itself to genetic research.

The richness of the linguistic and ethnographic materials contained in the notebooks presupposes a close dialogue between researchers from various disciplines of the human sciences, particularly anthropologists, linguists and specialists in literary analysis. Hence the association of the BNF, researchers from the Marcel Mauss Institute of the EHESS (which is the locus of most researchers mobilized) and the ITEM laboratory of the École Normale Supérieure. The project also involves international cooperation, particularly with Brazil, for certain sources, and with the Netherlands, where Professor Leo Wetzels, a recognized specialist of the Nambikwara languages, is based.

For the linguistic part of the project, our aim is to provide a rich documentation on the Nambikwara languages and their dialects (but also to a lesser extent, Tupi). The language data are of two kinds: they are at the same time lexical data derived from questionnaires bearing in particular on demarcated semantic fields (kinship terminology, color terms, etc.) and fragments of conversations collected in passing. Michel de Fornel, linguist and ethnolinguist, directeur d’études at the EHESS, and Leo Wetzels, linguist specialized in indigenous languages of Central Brazil, Professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and at the Universidade Federal do Ceará, Fortaleza, Brazil, will take on the responsibility for the Linguistic and Ethnological components of the project. They will be assisted by a Brazilian linguist, Prof. Dr. Stella Telles, from the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Recife, a specialist of Brazilian Indigenous languages, who will spend three months at the Vrije Universiteit in collaboration with Prof. Wetzels.