Indigenous culture fights language war

GV / Emily Frye
Professor Michael Wroblewski presenting on his experience living studying abroad in Amazonian Ecuador

GV / Emily Frye Professor Michael Wroblewski presenting on his experience living studying abroad in Amazonian Ecuador

Anthropology professor Michael Wroblewski spoke about his fieldwork in Ecuador to a room full of students at Grand Valley State University on Tuesday.

In a presentation called “Shamans, Urban Folklore and Alphabet Wars: Doing Fieldwork in Amazonian Ecuador,” Wroblewski said his purpose was to present his research as a way to “inform and inspire” students to learn more about Latin America, whether it be through their own research or a more hands-on experience studying abroad.

Wroblewski first became interested in Ecuador when he did independent fieldwork as an undergraduate student. He lived with Shuar shamans for one month. Ten years later, he was back in Ecuador studying the native language and culture for his dissertation fieldwork. Now, his work has become a life-long journey of exploration and research.

Wroblewski explained that Latin American countries are currently in a period of transition that is beginning to recognize cultural differences among its people. Countries like Ecuador are seeing a shift from civilizing to accepting the indigenous cultures. He focused on how things are changing and what these changes mean for the indigenous people.

“I first decided to conduct research in Amazonia because of a general interest in Amazonian languages and cultures and a general sense that there was something misleading about the way they were represented in popular culture,” he said. “My current research focus is on how indigeneity is imagined, defined and constructed by indigenous Amazonians, other Latin American citizens and government policies.”

Through popular culture, people are often presented with stereotypical views of indigenous people as simple, backward or uncultured. However, Wroblewski said indigenous people in Latin America are members of pre-Columbian communities that are not fully integrated into the dominant culture, but are beginning to form new ethnic and cultural identities in the modern world.

One of the ways they are doing this is through language, which Wroblewski calls “a living thing that is constantly evolving through social interaction” that shapes people’s identities. He said this is important because it influences the way people think, feel, act and interact in the world. It also influences others’ perceptions.

“Language and culture are also inextricably connected,” Wroblewski said. “These concepts are especially important to indigenous cultures such as the Amazonian Kichwa — my primary community of study — whose minority language and culture have been historically threatened by dominant, Spanish-speaking culture.”

It is from this ongoing struggle over Kichwa language revitalization that Wroblewski chose the term “Alphabet Wars” for the title of his presentation. He explained that this involves a new standard alphabet called Unified Kichwa, which marks political ideology and social status.

“The ‘war’ is very much an ideological, rather than physical, one, but it is nevertheless quite overt and quite heated in the area where I do research,” he said.

The other major way the indigenous people are creating new identities is through urban folklore. Wroblewski said this includes traditional performances in music and dance, oratories, beauty pageants and agriculture exhibits. He said these are important to the community because they help raise awareness about their threatened native language and culture.

“The city stages have become important creative venues for revitalizing and redefining linguistic and cultural identity, as well as important sites of indigenous political empowerment,” he said.

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