Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
From a video music blaring shore side restaurant on the Rio Chone, the ancient vision of a dugout canoe with two men standing and throwing circular nets in the distance. It’s an accomplished skill for only one person to sit still in these narrow, shallow draft boats without upsetting their knife-edge balance. A large diesel engine ferry powers across the river nearby loosing a bow wave that ominously rolls toward them, and without seeming to notice they continue standing while the canoe rises and sinks back.
Sometimes people pass by on the street in Bahia de Caraquez whose faces seem identical to those on millennias old figurines that can regularly be found lying on the beach. The fishermen would most likely be recognizable as originating from those old cultures which archeologists named Valdivian, Bahian, Caras (possibly the root word for Caraquez), and several others.
Marcelo and Cheo have set up a laptop on the bar at the mysteriously named Gordon Blues club and are translating from a bird book in English to prepare a lesson for high school students. We last saw each other ten months ago so after first asking what “preen” means they abandon the pictures of avian species in stiff poses for a conversational free-for-all. One of the subjects is their cultural identity.
There are numerous tribal groups in the Ecuadorian Andes and Oriente (Amazonia) but it is widely held that only a few isolated native cultures continue to exist on the Pacific shore. An Ecuadorian anthropologist told me that many more are still here but submerged because of the loss of language, ceremonies and other characteristics. He felt that the coast peoples’ renowned ability for adaptiveness and trading may have played a part in absorbing Spanish language, religion, dress, and economic system so completely. (Their linguistic skill was allegedly employed by the Spanish conquistadors in dealings with mountain tribes.) On the other hand many common practices such as small-scale fishing, gathering native fruits, building elevated bamboo and thatch houses, and handicrafts production are probably not markedly different than five thousand years ago. These under the surface tribal identities are not officially recognized today as are groups like Otavalos in the mountains. Regardless, the people are still visible enough that the term mestizo when used locally is reserved for those who have definite European as well as native origins, and not them. Is it possible that these coastal people (and those termed mestizo if they choose the native side of their origins) can reclaim their indigenous heritage and status sometime in the future?
“Claro,” Marcelo declares with arms wide in agreement. Cheo affirms with rapid nods of his head and testifies. “You should see my abuella (grandmother) from Jama. She’s a total indigena (native).” Jama is also one of the archeological names given to an early Ecuador coast culture. We exchange stories about how various native peoples in North America reclaimed their connection with tribal histories. There are New England groups who were down to only a few survivors that retained none of their tribal culture. There is even the peculiarly reversed case of vanished 17th Century Jamestown, Virginia settlers who seem to have actually intermarried with and become local tribes-people but still bear the same colonist names today.
“Our ancestors were actually older than most of the mountain groups who have indigenous status,” declares Marcelo. “What ancient group do you identify with?” Without hesitation he responds, “Right here. Caras.” To make it clear that these aren’t isolated popular attitudes, a day later a woman I met for the first time answered a question about her family by saying, “We’re all from here.” “For how long?” “Always.” “A thousand years?” “Yes.” “Two thousand years?” “Maybe not. No, I can’t definitely say that.” “You’re related to the ancient Bahian people?” “That’s what we are, nothing else.”
The massively colonized continents of North and South America, Australia, and Africa share the phenomenon of large immigrant populations who often outnumber the original inhabitants. But not everywhere. In most areas of South America it is the reverse if those with at least partial native ancestry are included.
The European national cultures that colonized parts of other continents are based in places that were also inhabited dating back thousands of years ago, but for the majority of their homeland citizens today there isn’t a separation between national identity and cultural identity. The exceptions are ethnic cultures such as the Basques who reside in both Spain and France, and people who consider themselves unassimilated members of other national groups. Mixtures of cultures occurred with these ostensibly homogenous nationalities as they do everywhere. For example, Romans made dramatic fusions with other people in all of the areas of Europe where “Romance” languages are spoken today. Those mixed Roman and Gallic origins aren’t bothered about in France or elsewhere. Aside from ethnic groups there isn’t an equivalent of indigenous tribal status, or those termed mestizo.
Some contemporary South Americans reject mestizo categorization and accept a native identity instead. When asked whether he thought the future direction of Mexican society would be left or right, the celebrated poet Octavio Paz answered, “Indigenous.” Leading Mexican spokesperson for bioregionalism Alberto Ruz lived near Mayan ruins in Yucatan as a child while they were excavated by his archeologist father, connecting with that heritage in ways that he continues to celebrate and promote.
As a gringo working in Bahia de Caraquez to help create an ecological city, there is constant awareness that the ultimate outcome of these efforts obviously lies with people who live here. Is being indigenous rather than mestizo part of that?
Jacob Santos is owner of the Bed and Breakfast Inn, a civic leader, and Director of the Museo Banco Central (Central Bank Museum) in Bahia de Caraquez. He is knowledgeable about the remarkable range of artifacts and archeological information housed in the museum and has guided people to the rich Chirje site nearby. Because of his exceptional access to the early history of the region, I wondered what he thought about contemporary connections to it.
“Mestizaja (mixing) of free blacks, natives and Spanish took place on the coast, but when you talk about mestizo, who wins? It’s really the Spaniards for the last five hundred years. Their language, religion, way of life. That’s why people talk about slavery not being eradicated in Ecuador. Bondage still exists.
Perhaps the local indigenous identity can’t be completely revived at this time but people can find roots and a cause. For example, the names of ancient groups are just archeological designations usually taken from the places where artifacts for different cultures were found. We don’t know enough about the earlier people to understand them yet. They had good knowledge about pottery, navigation, astronomy, metal handling, water management, and obviously they were good ecologists because they lived in harmony with nature.
That would be a beginning. People should start to identify with local ancestry and culture rather than imported cultures such as Spanish, European or American. There is proof that we have had occupation of the Chone River area for thousands of years. Living in a given area for a long time gives ethnic groups the sense of belonging. On the coast of Ecuador, Guayas [to the south] is very flat but here in [the State of] Manabi we have hillsides all over the place and that gives a different horizon and attitude. Finding true identity is a long-term commitment and has to do with divorcing yourself from external influences such as consumer attitudes and feelings of superiority.
I descend from them. I don’t know exactly to what degree but I have features that are found on some figurines.
When things are going well people don’t care what they’re called because they are content. We are now going through a process of upheaval because people don’t have enough personal resources, there aren’t enough jobs. We need to find answers so people are asking who we are and who do we want to be.”
It’s not too far a reach for at least part of the answer to be indigenas.
Footnote. In the time that I’ve been writing this there have been numerous news stories about emergent indigenous political movements in the Andean countries of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Recent toppling of governments and uprisings related to oil production as well as other economic issues led by native groups are seen as indications of the future political direction in the region.