In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today.
Antonio Quinde was the first president of ECUANARI, the Confederation of Kichwa Peoples of Ecuador, and rector of the Instituto Superior Tecnológico Pedagógico Intercultural Bilingüe Quilloac (Institute for Intercultural and Bilingual Technology and Teaching, Quilloac). Judy Blankenship recorded this interview—the blog's first with a South American leader—on June 15, 2014, in Cañar, Ecuador, and translated and edited it for the museum. The photographs are also by Judy and are used with permission.—Dennis Zotigh
Please introduce yourself and tell us where you're from.
My name is José Antonio Quinde Buscán, and I am an anthropologist of the Andean culture. My community is Quilloac, in the Province of Cañar. It's in southern Ecuador at an altitude of 10,100 feet in the Andes Mountains.
Antonio Quinde in his village, Quilloac, in the mountains of Cañar Province, Ecuador.
What is a significant point in history from your community that you would like to share?
Quilloac is an ancient indigenous community with an interesting history. When the Inkas invaded our territory in 1463, we maintained the rights to our land. But with the Spanish conquest that soon followed, in 1534, the conquistadors appropriated our land and established the largest hacienda in the region—450,000 hectares [more than one million acres]. This led to two kinds of communities: those that belonged to the hacienda, where everyone was required to work the land as peons, and those that were “free” and not part of the hacienda.
The problem with the free villages, such as Quilloac, was that the colonial Spanish government forced our people to work on roads, bridges, and mines. But when the Cañaris left their homes, they often did not return because they died of hunger, snakebites, landslides, and diseases such as malaria. For this reason, many free communities handed over their land in return for the protection of the hacienda owner. That is how Quilloac lost our territory and Pachamama [Earth Mother].
Five hundred years later, in 1964, we began to recover our land through the agrarian reform laws of Ecuador. The government bought the hacienda and divided it into parcels of land for the members of Quilloac and other communities. We had to buy the land back, but in that way we reclaimed our Pachamama.
How is your government set up?
Traditionally, Cañaris were governed by the ayllu, based on the extended families of the village or a particular area. The head of the ayllu was the oldest member of the village, the one who best knew the history, problems, and healing traditions. This was a part of all Andean cultures in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.
Today, each Cañari community has a governing body elected by a general assembly that includes all who live there. In Quilloac, for example, we are about 600 families, so we are divided into five sectors, and each sector elects a president, vice president, treasurer, and so on. These elected authorities meet every two weeks, the community of each sector meets every three months, and all the communities come together in a general assembly every two years.
Is there still a functional, traditional entity of leadership, in addition to your modern government system?
The most traditional aspect of our government is community rule, based on our Andean culture. Through this structure we organize mingas—communal work days—but it also serves to reinforce unity, solidarity, reciprocity, and identity. No one is every alone in our Cañari communities.
What responsibilities do you have as a community leader?
As a leader, I have always struggled for the rights, education, identity, and respect that we Cañaris deserve as an indigenous nation of Ecuador. I’m concerned for our history, our customs, traditions, and legends, because the Cañari culture should be recognized on the national level, and by all of Latin America. We have significant archeological sites, some recognized by UNESCO. Narrío, for example, is an ancient burial site on the outskirts of Cañar that goes back 5,000 years. Fragments of Native life that date to 10,000 years ago have been found in the cave Chobshi. The most famous site in Ecuador is Ingapirca, a religious center for both Cañaris and Inkas.
Antonio Quinde working in the library at his home.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Many elders have influenced me, such as my parents and grandparents and others in the community who have taught me the best way to live. I only regret that we have not researched our history before. But living on the hacienda prevented us from knowing our history and our traditions. The Spanish conquistadores tried to do away with our religion and our language.
Is your language still spoken on your lands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
We Cañaris have two languages—three, really. Of our original Cañari language, we have left only a few place names and surnames. Almost 60 percent of us speak Kichwa, the language of the Inkas, and a few Cañari words remain in use, such as the words for dog and water. It’s very important to maintain our Kichwa language while researching our original language. In this sense, we have demanded that the Ecuadorian government provide bilingual education [Kichwa–Spanish] especially in Cañar. Kichwa is a “complete” language, with a vocabulary of scientific names in mathematics, biology, chemistry, and philosophy. Mathematics is especially important to the Cañaris, who use a taptana [a small wooden board with circular openings for stones or markers ] to add and multiply. In Ecuador, only the Cañaris use the taptana.
What annual events does your community observe?
We celebrate four important fiestas every year. Kapak Raymi, in December around the time of the winter solstice, traditionally marked the transition of children to adolescence. This fiesta also honors the sun and the coming rainy season. In the spring, Pawkar Raymi celebrates the planting of our crops. Inti Raymi falls in June at the time of the summer solstice and honors the harvest. Killa Raymi, in September, is the fiesta of the moon and honors the women, or mamacunas, in our culture. We consider the moon as feminine and the sun as masculine. From the hacienda days the Catholic Church incorporated or replaced indigenous traditions with their own religious holidays. Kapak Raymi was replaced by Christmas, Pawkar Raymi by Carnival or the beginning of Lent, and Inti Raymi is around the same time as Corpus Christi.
How does the Cañari community deal with the government of Ecuador?
We Cañaris don’t have much of a relationship with our central government because of a long history of marginalization of indigenous people, not just in Ecuador but in all of Latin America. When the Spanish invaded they tried to finish off the Native people, to liquidate us, and this colonization continues today by the imposition of traditions and customs that are foreign to us. So we don’t have good relations with, or the support of, our government. For example, the new constitution does not include the right to a bilingual Spanish–Kichwa education.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
I tell young people they should not abandon the seven ancestral principals to live by: reciprocity, unity, solidarity, equality, dignity, identity, and complementarity, and they should apply them to today’s reality. They must demonstrate, to our country and to the world, who we are as Cañaris.
Judy Blankenship is a documentary photographer and writer who has worked and lived in Cañar during two Fulbright research periods and various projects with Cañari educators for the National Museum of the American Indian. Her most recent collaboration is the bilingual Kichwa–English book The Cañar Nation and Its Cultural Expressions, published in 2013 by the museum. Judy and her husband, Michael, now live six months of every year in Cañar.
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.