Feminist anthropologist adventure in the Andes

Maria Ly
Staff Writer

Rev. Dr. Winifred L. Mitchell stopped by Minnesota State University, Mankato for World Anthropology Day to talk about her experiences with the Aymara people located in the Altiplano. 

As a graduate project, Mitchell set out to study the Aymara people and women’s power and prestige in a small village of 300. 

She also shares tips of anthropology such as offering gifts such as fruit, pictures, and an offer to teach, which she did before living and observing the Aymara village. 

Along her journey with the Aymara people she soon began to realize a surprising aspect of the Aymara culture. Mitchell stated, “When I would speak to these people they would always tell me, ‘A girl is only born to suffer’ and I discovered just from chatting with people that wife beating is virtually universal.” 

Mitchell found that women in the village were ranked on their level of suffering. She began to notice that a woman she called Nora was always ranked in the bottom when it came to respect amongst the community. The reason? Her refusal to suffer. 

However, men were ranked in the community vastly different than the women, Mitchell said, “Men were sorted more according to the kinds of criteria that sound pretty familiar to our North American eye; for their skill, for their prosperity, for their integrity. You can see these guys posing kind of with their best foot forward, showing how skilled and prosperous they are.”

Nora was a very prominent figure in Mitchell’s study of women’s power and prestige. A certain story stood out in her lecture, about one day in the middle of the rain season in the village that was 12,500 ft. above sea level where one of the few two-story houses got struck by lightning. 

“It was Nora’s. It was her house that got struck and everybody was like, ‘Well no one else could deserve it more’ because lightning in the Altiplano is a punishment from God, it’s a clear indication that you are being zapped because you are doing something really horrible,” Mitchell explained. 

The reason the village people believed Nora deserved this misfortune was “because she killed her husband” through her refusal to suffer. 

“What she had apparently done was that she refused to put up with his shenanigans, she had caught him red-handed with his mistress in the middle of the night in the village, and there had been a big fight where people were hitting each other with big heavy poles and he was hit on the head and badly injured and she refused to take him back so he went and slept in the storage building and died. She killed her husband by her refusal to be a good suffering wife,” said Mitchell.

Due to the unfortunate lightning strike, the villagers held a reconciliation ceremony for Nora and to clear the bad luck in the village, where they apologized to everyone including the anthropologists, asked for forgiveness, had a feast, prayed, burned incense, and had a shrine. 

Mitchell continued the lecture with fascinating stories from husbands having an affair with their wife’s sister, her journey learning the Aymara language, the children, the family pictures, the ceremonies, etc.

In America, Mitchell found it hard to get others to grasp the message of her findings. 

She stated, “I think anthropologist, especially feminist anthropologist didn’t like those findings any better than I did. I didn’t want to discover that, and they didn’t want to hear it. Although there was a research symposium which I participated in, where everyone would come in with similar stories and so, I think we wanted to debunk some notion of the happy little native, watching her sheep and spinning her wool and just peaceful and happy, because that’s not true either.”

The Aymara people are all very hardworking from the children to the women and the men, everyone worked hard. Unfortunately for the women, a life of suffering was inevitable. 

Mitchell said, “Aymara women’s prestige amongst one another is based on how much she suffers, and a woman who refuses to suffer has no status.” 

Feature photo by Maria Ly | MSU Reporter.

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