Andean Journal: Recovering Native Languages

Jose Barreiro

Something of the sentiment and thrust current in the American Indian/Indigenous world of the Americas was evident in a recent session in Lima, Peru. It wasn’t the United Nations in New York but, in its own way, it was multinational and thus international.

Several important Amazonian and Andean Native nations – most pertinently, fluent speakers of their indigenous languages – were represented at a graduation ceremony held at the Ministry of Culture. Thirty “fellows,” young and middle-aged men and women, were that day graduating from a special course on translation and interpretation. Among them, they spoke eleven Amazonian languages (Ikitu, Shiwilu, Ocaina, Capanahua, Mastanahua, Nahua, Yaminahua, Awajun, Kakinte, Sharanahua and Nomatsiguenga) and three Andean languages (Quechua, Aymara, Jaqaru). They would go back to their communities to assist Native unilingual speakers in negotiating legal, educational and medical protocols, universally conducted in Spanish. The group even included several Native policemen (Awajun). To a person, all the fellows projected the confidence of individuals selected by their communities for their leadership capacity.

Commendably, Peru’s relatively new Ministry of Culture is signaling a commitment to the country’s many Native languages. The new thrust emerges in part from the work of Jose Antonio Vazquez and Miryam Yataco, strong defenders of indigenous languages, who manifested this special course, seventh in a series, as an opportunity that provided full expense fellowships to the Native communities. Vazquez, director of the Indigenous languages program, is credited as a strong advocate of Native languages. The momentum for recognizing and supporting the approximately 47 Native languages of Peru, (43 Amazonian, four Andean), gained a victory in July 2011 with the passing of Law 29735, an act for the Preservation and Use of Original Languages of Peru. The law recognized Quechua, with some four and a half million speakers, as a national language, joining Spanish as an official language in Peru. Beyond Peru to Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador, some eight to ten million speakers of Quechua make it the most extensively spoken Native language of the Western Hemisphere.

On this graduation day, by tribal language base, the fellows presented, “gifted,” each other with traditional songs, dances, poetry and stories. An older man, Guillermo Mogoma (Ocaina) and man of knowledge (sabio), here as a fellow, stripped to decorated shorts, body and face painted, staff in one hand, a leaf of his sacrament plant in the other, offering the group his honoring dance that took him and others around the whole room. Two brothers (Kakinte) danced, hand in hand, in front of the podium. One young woman, Herlinda Rodriguez Espiritu (Nomatsigenga), a favorite of the whole group, sang a beautiful song; another woman spoke her traditional language in verse.

None of it was performance. None of them made any attempt to ingratiate the audience; their cultural gifts, things of their own people not easily shared, were modestly offered. And, clearly, in the shared consciousness of Native representation, the generosity of the gift was understood. Noticeably, all spoke lengthily in their various Native languages, then, as a gesture to the two program instructors, dutifully and proudly translated their remarks into the Peruvian lingua-franca of Spanish.

Victor Vilcahuamán (Quechua), expressed it thus: “Spanish is a language that integrates us with the world and with the global information; but my own language holds local and regional knowledge, and the whole package of our social and cultural, our political idiosyncracies, and most specially, our spiritual peace.”

Many difficult issues face Native people in the effort to preserve and promote ancestral languages. Standardization of alphabets, necessary for adding languages to the curriculum, has been possible for only a third of these. Efforts at bi-lingual education have too often stressed the use of Quechua, for example, simply as a way to fluency in the dominant Spanish, which is critiqued by language activists as a “program of transition” that continue to impose a direction of leaving behind Native language and identity. Despite many good efforts, bilingual teachers complain of incomplete training and poor resources, and Quechua-speaking youth continue to lead in school drop out rates.

Still, it was empowering to witness the graduation scene, so redolent with hope for the strengthening of Native voices. I had been asked to address the group and could only but encourage their cultural commitment and their recognition and appreciation for each other, as indigenous peoples from many different nations. I witnessed what they had shown me: their clear heart and good intent for their languages and cultures; their sense of their home territories and communities; their passionately expressed commitment to help each of their peoples engage the pressures of the national society.

One of the younger leaders, Rafael del Aguila (Sharanahua), told me proudly how his group had successfully completed a fully approved alphabet for their Sharanahua language. “Now we can go ahead and produce good textbooks in our language,” he said. “We need to write all of our myth stories, we need to rescue a lot of knowledge that our elders have.”

The fellows were heading home to their communities the next day, poised to work directly with their people. They could not have looked happier.

Jose Barreiro is the assistant director for research (history and culture) of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

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