The Kichwa (or Quichua) in Ecuador are part of the larger ethno-linguistic Quechua group that stretches across the South American Andean highlands from Colombia to Chile, roughly the area of Tawantinsuyu, the former Inka empire. In Ecuador, the Kichwa are divided into different "pueblos" or peoples spread across the spine of the Andes mountains (the Chibuleos, Karankis, Kayambis, Kisapinchas, Kitus, Otavalos, Panzaleos, Pastos, Puruhaes, Quisapinchas, Salasacas, Saraguros, and Tomabelas), as well as related groups in the eastern upper Amazon basin. Together they comprise the largest Indigenous nationality in Ecuador, numbering in the millions of the country's fourteen million inhabitants.
The origins of the Kichwa language in Ecuador are hotly disputed. Some scholars believe that the Inkas introduced Quechua (that subsequently evolved into Kichwa) into the region less than a century before the arrival of the Spanish in 1532 as part of their great civilizing mission as they spread northward out of their base in Cuzco in central Peru. The language possibly spread north and east into the Amazon by people fleeing the Inka advance. Others contend that the language originated in the Amazon, and spread into the highlands as a trade language. Some argue for multiple points of origin for the language. Finally, some historical evidence indicates that Spanish missionaries spread the language as a tool for religious conversion, and that its wide subsequent usage is a legacy of colonial administration. Quite possibly various of these factors reinforced each other resulting in the strong hegemonic presence of Kichwa in Ecuador. Regardless of how the Kichwa language arrived or emerged, it appears to have co-existed, perhaps as a trade language, for hundred of years with earlier languages before those last speakers died in the 1700s. Nevertheless, those earlier languages still live on in geographic place names.
As the Inkas spread north into Ecuador they met ferocious resistance from people who already lived on those lands. As a mechanism for domination, the Inkas brought in colonists (called mitimakuna) from the heart of their empire to civilize their newly conquered areas, and extracted the most troublesome leaders to undercut local resistance. The Salasacas and Saraguros, for example, may have been brought north from Bolivia. Furthermore, with their emphasis on efficiency and production, the Inkas moved populations around (weavers, for example, to be closer to llama herders) in order to increase their economic output. The result was a complete mixture of different groups to the point where the meanings of who is authentically Indigenous was completely lost. Although strong local variations in dress and dialect persist, as a result of this history many of the Kichwa-speaking peoples in Ecuador have lost much of their linguistic, religious, and cultural distinctiveness.
Inka leader Huayna Capac encountered the stiffest resistance from the Karanki in northern Ecuador. After a fierce seventeen-year battle, the Inkas finally triumphed by massacring their opponents. Huayna Capac died shortly thereafter from small pox spread before the arrival of the Spanish. His death led to a dynastic war of succession between his sons Atahualpa and Huascar, with Atahualpa finally emerging as victorious. The Cañaris or Tomabelas in southern Ecuador had been among the first groups that the Inkas had conquered, but when the Spanish arrived some sixty years later they greeted the new invaders as their liberators from Inka tyranny and entered into strategic alliances with the conquistadores. Somewhat ironically and reflecting the contested nature of the constructions and re-constructions of ethnic identities, the Cañaris are now the group most likely to identify with the Inkas.
Seventeenth-century Jesuit priest Juan Velasco argued for the existence of a "Kingdom of Quito" before the arrival of the Inkas in present-day Ecuador. Most scholars now dispute the presence of a political organization approaching the level of state organization, but Indigenous activists have embraced that designation as part of claiming an ethnic identity as "Kitus."
In their great imperial civilizing project, the Inkas never made much headway into the Amazon (which, in part, lends credence to claims that they did not introduce Kichwa into the area). Spanish colonists likewise faced difficulties subjugating the area, with most of their efforts left to Catholic missionaries. In contrast, the Spanish colonized the Kichwas in the highlands through their economic submission as laborers on the landed estates known as haciendas. Amazonian Kichwas were more likely to retain an ethnic Indigenous identity, whereas those in the highlands increasingly came to see themselves as campesinos or peasants. These different modes of colonization had a lasting legacy in the formation of ethnic identities and class consciousness, which helped divide rather than unify lowland and highland Kichwas.
The primary example of highland Indigenous integration through economic means are the Otavalo weavers from the northern province of Imbabura. The Otavalos are the most famous of the highland groups, and have gained broad renown for their weavings and textiles. Whereas some critics complain about the commercialization of their products, others point out that the successful marketing of their commodities is precisely their uniquely long term or Indigenous mode of operation. They market their products themselves in Colombia, New York, and Europe. Although they have retained their Indigenous customs, dress, and beliefs, the Ecuadorian elite respects them because of their entrepreneurship and sees them as different than other Indians.
Other Kichwa peoples have also gained a certain decree of economic success through their economic activities. The Salasacas in the central highland province of Tungurahua have copied the Otavalos in gaining a positive reputation through the marketing of their weaving. The Cañaris in southern Ecuador began manufacturing Panama hats in the 1950s as a way to cope with increasing poverty as they slowly lost much of their land to the white population.
In contrast, the Saraguros of the southern Loja province have earned a degree of economic independence through cattle production. Many Saraguros own large cattle ranches which sometimes puts them at odds with other Kichwa communities largely comprised of poor people chronically short of land. Chimborazo, in particular, has the highest concentration of Indigenous peoples in Ecuador but also some of the highest levels of poverty. Historically, they have also gained a reputation as Ecuador's most rebellious highland Indigenous peoples. Fernando Daquilema characterizes this history of rebellion. For a week in December of 1871, Daquilema launched an uprising from his community of Yaruquíes. It quickly spread to neighboring communities before the government suppressed it. A central issue in this struggle was not land, but taxes which Indigenous people were forced to pay to the Catholic Church and the government. Activists remember this uprising as one of the largest, strongest, and most important in the nineteenth century in Ecuador.
The Kayambis, neighbors to the commercially successful Otavalos in the northern highlands, have also survived on an agricultural economy and have gained a reputation for their ability to organize movements in support of their demands. In the 1920s, Jesús Gualavisí organized the first rural syndicates to fight for land rights from neighboring haciendas. Together with other activists such as Dolores Cacuango, in 1944 he organized the Federación Ecuatoriana de Indios (FEI, Ecuadorian Federation of Indians), Ecuador's first Indigenous federation. In the 1990s, the Kayambis organized themselves as a pueblo or people, again providing a leading model that other Kichwa communities would subsequently emulate.
Scholars commonly divide Amazonian Kichwas into the Quijos from the Napo Province and the Canelos from the Pastaza Province. Although this division reflects cultural differences, their identity is often much more localized on a community level. Furthermore, these Kichwa have intermarried with neighboring groups including the Huaorani, Zápara, and Shuar, further blurring ethnic boundaries. Although these Indians share a language which is similar to that which the Kichwas speak in the highlands, their forest culture is quite different. Regional divisions remain strong, and identity continues to be overwhelmingly local.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Kichwa communities organized ethnic-based political organizations to fight for their rights. In 1972, Indigenous activists in alliance with progressive elements of the Catholic Church influenced by liberation theology gathered highland Kichwas into federation they called Ecuarunari, a name extracted from the phrase Ecuador Runacunapac Riccharimui or "Awakening of the Ecuadorian Indigenous Peoples." In the 1990s they changed the name to the Confederación de Pueblos de la Nacionalidad Kichwa del Ecuador (Confederation of the Peoples of the Kichwa Nationality of Ecuador), even while keeping the same acronym. Organized in this manner, Ecuarunari became one of the strongest and most militant Indigenous federations in Ecuador.
In the Amazon, the Napo Kichwa similarly formed the Federación de Organizaciones Indígenas del Napo (FOIN, Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Napo) in 1973. It advocated for civil and citizenship rights, defended land ownership, and fought against economic exploitation. By the 1980s, their main goals had evolved to an emphasis on a defense of their territory, languages, and cultural traditions, thereby linking territorial rights with ethnic identities. FOIN moving from employing a language of "Indigenous classes" in the 1970s to "Indigenous federations" in the 1980s and finally "ethnic nationalities" in the 1990s." These developments reflected the politicization of identities that would drive Indigenous organizations in an increasingly radically direction.
In 1978, the Pastaza Kichwa together with the Shuar and Zápara formed the Organización de Pueblos Indígenas de Pastaza (OPIP, Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza). OPIP sought to promote unity and organization of the peoples of Pastaza; obtain land rights to their ancestral territories from the government of Ecuador; and press for environmental policies for the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources in their territories for the benefit of Indigenous peoples and for the rest of humanity. OPIP was particularly active in petitioning the Ecuadorian government for autonomy over native lands. OPIP worked together with urban environmental groups such as Acción Ecológico (Ecological Action) in an attempt to stop foreign companies from mining petroleum deposits on their lands. Rather than exploiting the land for short-term benefits, OPIP's natural resource management plan would preserve the environment "for the benefit of the children of our grandchildren."
In 1980, FOIN and OPIP joined other Indigenous peoples in the Amazon to form the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana (CONFENIAE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon). Together with the highland regional federation Ecuarunari, in 1986 the Amazonian activists formed the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) as one central federation organized on the basis of fourteen Indigenous nationalities. This politicized language became the basis for reinforcing a Kichwa identity in Ecuador, even though activists did not form a single united federation solely for Kichwa peoples.
Strong regional divisions divide Ecuador, and these are also replicated in the Kichwa, particularly between those in the highlands and those in the Amazon. Amazonian Kichwas commonly wear western-style clothing largely indistinguishable from that of surrounding mestizo colonists, while highland Kichwa maintained an ethnically marked dress that uniquely identifies them to their community. Amazonians, however, are more likely to speak Kichwa than those in the highlands. Furthermore, Amazonians have maintained more of a sense of Indigenous cosmology and religion, while highlanders are more likely to emphasis their class or economic interests as small farmers. Despite political projects to construct a singular Kichwa nationality along linguistic lines, recently these historical and cultural differences have pulled the various groups apart rather than unifying them.
Various educators and activists have also advocated for different linguistic policies. One project is to create a standardized written and spoken "unified Kichwa," based on the assumption that as a marginalized and threatened language eliminating local variations will strengthen it's ability to survive. Others seek to eliminate Spanish loan words with a goal of purifying the language, including creating uniquely Kichwa words for modern devices such as computers and automobiles. Finally, some linguists see languages as naturally occurring phenomena, and rather than pursuing these artificial constructions they embrace Kichwa in the variety of ways it has come to be spoken in Indigenous communities.
Indigenous militants have long fought to have Kichwa and other Indigenous languages granted official status. Ecuador's 2008 constitution stopped short of this goal, declaring Spanish to be the official language, but granting Kichwa and Shuar official status for intercultural relationships as well as defending the use of other ancestral languages in the areas in where they are spoken. Some observers interpreted the inclusion of Shuar, the third most important language in Ecuador but a regional one spoken only in the southeastern Amazon, not as an advance but rather as an attempt to undercut Kichwa, the only Indigenous language that could reasonably function on a country-wide level.
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