Habitable Air

Navigating History and Belief: Devotional Practices in the Bolivian Andes

In her article “Critical ontologies: rethinking relations to other-than-humans from the Bolivian Andes,” Mareike Winchell delves into the intricate social and historical dynamics of the village of Sarahuayto in Bolivia. The article provides a vivid narrative centred around Oscar, a key informant for the author’s fieldwork, who unveils a family history linked to the legacy of hacienda servitude – a dark period marked by forced labour and sexual violence endured by Quechua farmers until the 1950s.


The Candelaria festivities, celebrating Patron Saint Virgen de la Candelaria, offer a lens through which the author examines the ongoing ramifications of the hacienda era. During these events, practices of pilgrimage, feasting, flute-play, dance, and prayer serve as attempts to address the fragmentations and divisions resulting from historical oppression. Land gifts granted as reparations for acts of violence are a recurring theme, revealing a reparative language that emerged after the abolition of haciendas in the region.


Musicians adorned with qhawas (cloth squares or shields understood to carry the protective force of Tata Willka or ‘sun father’) gathered outside the chapel.

The article spotlights the opposing views of villagers regarding obligations and reparations. While some, like Oscar, hold onto the imperative to seek justice and accountability, others, like Severino, a prominent peasant union leader, criticise those they deem as prioritising personal gain over community well-being. These divisions persist into modern times, with the upper and lower halves of the village composed of descendants of different social classes from the hacienda era.

By examining the critical ontologies practiced by the Sarahuayteños, Winchell challenges prevailing notions of Indigenous ontology as purely detached from modern politics. Instead, she underscores how these practices intersect with contemporary issues such as land titling, environmental change, and Indigenous recognition. The article advocates for a deeper understanding of the complexities involved in rebuilding relationships in the aftermath of historical oppression and emphasises the agency and reason within these Indigenous ontological beliefs.

Rainwater pools up between the upper and lower villages of Sarahuayto.

Winchell’s article is a significant contribution to the ongoing debates surrounding materialism or posthumanism and Indigenous ontologies. By intertwining historical research with ethnographic fieldwork, the article delves into the intricate relationships between human and non-human actors and the complex ways in which Indigenous populations navigate their ontological pluralities.

In summary, “Critical ontologies: rethinking relations to other-than-humans from the Bolivian Andes” offers a compelling exploration of the historical and social dimensions of devotional practices in Sarahuayto. By illuminating the complexities of these practices and their intersections with modern politics, the article provides valuable insights into the enduring legacies of oppression and the efforts to rebuild relationships with other-than-humans and the natural world.

You can read the full article by following this link!