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Modern Tech Maintaining Tradition: The Ingenuity of Indigenous Kichwa Culture

7 minuteminutos readde lectura
Shannon Cantor
ByPor Shannon Cantor

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Technology bears the reputation of onward progress. Innovation means running full force into the future, intentionally avoiding the past and its decelerating traditions. But, as history tells us, totally exchanging humanity for a digital improvement comes with sacrifices that are both grave and frightening; history, traditional culture, and languages carry their own richness that may not be efficient but are more than invaluable. This is why recent technological advancement is likewise turning social, learning to not only value an economically-accelerated production of modernity, but also an inclusive and holistic understanding of context. Innovation is a tool, and we are slowly learning to use it in harmony with our social intentions. We are, in this sense, learning to leverage the present, in order to celebrate the past, and therefore construct a diverse, equitable, and sustainable future.  Following is our look at how language digital activism can affect a small local community.

Background: The Reality of Kichwa Otavalo 

Tucked in the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains, about 10,000 ft above sea level and between two sentinel volcanoes, rests the “Valle del Amanecer” (“Valley of the Sunrise”). Its central hub is the small city of Otavalo. And although it is just 2 hours’ drive from the country’s capital, Quito (also basecamp to a WebCreek team), the area could not be more different than the bustling and modern metropolis. In fact, whether to a foreigner or national, lowering into the Otavalo valley may seem much like stepping into the Twilight Zone. Not just because of the protective volcanoes on either side, the area seems to exist within a temporal, cultural, and linguistic time warp. Walking through the streets will privilege sights of colorful artisanal markets; driving ten minutes from town will place you in adobe houses, cooking over a fire. And all throughout the region, you hear the sounds of the Kichwa language, belonging to the indigenous Kichwa people, resident majority of the hills surrounding Otavalo. 

Although the Northern Andean Kichwa community as a whole is considered Ecuador’s most prosperous indigenous group, many do not realize that the percentage of wealthy Otavaleños is very small, and further does not solidify a general social acceptance and celebration of indigeneity. On the contrary, only in 1964 were indigenous communities recognized outside of Hacienda plantation ownership, and only 1986 did it become legal to speak Kichwa in Ecuadorian schools (Haboud, 2006; Evolución). Even today, entire parishes of 22 communities live in drought, while 87.6% of the geography’s water is channeled to the cows of plantations- turned- agriculture- businesses (Brassel). The Kichwa culture is far from recognition in social and institutional equality; after thousands of years of oppression–even attempted extinction– its thriving survival is only testament to the resiliency and ingenuity of the Kichwa people. With every new wave that challenges Kichwa survival, the indigenous communities of Otavalo have responded with a strengthening solution. 

Talking Tech

If “with great power comes great responsibility,” to quote Ben Parker’s wisdom, then technology has made humanity more accountable than ever. Our digital tools both heal and destroy, and we’re constantly in the social battle that comes with their best use. The ingenuous Kichwa language digital activism community in Otavalo likewise understands this technological potency and has recently begun to leverage it for cultural recognition. Innovative Kichwa individuals are integrating into the digital age to promote even international awareness, reaching audiences beyond geographic constraints. 

In August, 2016, Kichwa speakers from all over Ecuador gathered in Otavalo. They flocked in response to a social media call: “Do you speak Kichwa? Are you working to promote and revitalize the Kichwa language using the web and digital tools?” The post called them to unite at the Encuentro de Activistas Digitales de Lenguas Indígenas (Gathering of Digital Activists for Indigenous Languages). The three-day conference served to continue in the digital footsteps of another, widely-respected project, Radio Iluman– created in 2000 as the first technological public space to strengthen the Kichwa culture (Radio Iluman, 2019). Then, evolving upon this already-radical existence of a Kichwa radio station, the Encuentro resulted in even more culturally-focused technological use: computer literacy training; a workshop on Kichwa-language “memes,” YouTube videos, and Wikipedia pages; the creation of a “Kichwashun” (“Let’s speak Kichwa”) facebook page; and a united digital network of nationally-dispersed Kichwa speakers (Avila, 2017). In addition, the gathering worked to create and strengthen Kichwa.net, an open-access online resource for Kichwa language learning (Activismo, 2016). Brainstorming digital spaces for Kichwa speakers and holding training workshops, the Encuentro proved that Kichwa is relevant and valuable in current social areas. Through innovative use of novel technological tools, the Activistas Digitales for the first time merged “modernity” with “indigeneity.” And in this space, they began a continuing effort to break the stereotypes that box them in “antiquity,” excluding indigenous groups from public platforms, resources, and respect. 

Techy Tools Can Turn Social

With just this one example of techy Kichwa language digital activism, we see how technology can indeed serve as a modern tool, impressively leveraged to maintain an anciently-rooted and currently-thriving community. Whereas thoughts of the “tech world” often conjure futuristic images, we see that it can (and is!) also used to reflect upon the past and influence the present. Innovation is physical– with digital creativity and novel gadgets; but, as proven by the Kichwa culture of Highland Ecuador, innovation is also social– with purpose in these gadgets uses, as tools to serve all of humanity for which they were created. 

WebCreek loves to not only work with technology but also to use that technology to make life better. Contact us to start the conversation on your next tech-meets-real-world project.