sapara culture

Sapara Culture of the Amazon - Rescuing the Sapara Language.


In 2010 two interns, Mathew Tasker and Linda Westberg, spent 6 months working on projects to create learning materials for two indigenous languages of Ecuador - Kichwa of the sierra and Sapara of the Amazon rainforest. Both resulted in electronic and printed materials being produced to aid the teaching of these languages to the young at school, as well as to adults interested in learning their native language. Below is a report by Matt of one of their journeys to visit the Sapara in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.

A trip into Sápara territory: Mathew Tasker

Last month Linda and I took two weeks off from Mushuk Muyu, crammed ourselves into a five seater plane and flew deep into the Amazon to visit three Sápara communities by foot and canoe. It was an amazing experience as we stepped into a world completely governed by the jungle. It was a world without electricity or money, a world where the Sápara are still hunter-gatherers and against all the odds have proudly maintained their unique socio-cosmological identity in the face of devastating encroachments. Their language is nearly gone, and even with no educational materials they have not given up the fight to use their schools as an arena to revitalize their language. 
I can safely say we have never experienced anything like the Sápara´s world, where we heard stories of anacondas and boas, were stalked by vampire bats at night, watched a young shaman perform a smoke healing on a sick child, met with three of the last four elders who are Sápara speakers, feasted on monkey stew, large juicy maggots (at least they were not alive), and other strange animals we had never heard of before. As is custom we spent much of our time washing these new delights down with one great big bowl after another of yuccaa-based chicha (which the women chew first and spit into large clay pots to ferment). 
We hope to return soon and that we can develop a similar project as Mushuk Muyu with the Sápara. In the case of language revitalization we feel that they are in dire need of better documenting what they have left in a way that is suited to the teaching of children. It will be this youngest generation that will prove vital in the fight against language extinction.

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The Sápara people were presumed extinct by the Ecuadorian government and many anthropologists until 2000 when a young Sápara man, Manari Ushigua wrote to the government asking for help to revitalize their nearly extinct language.

Their last shaman Blas (Manari) Ushigua, was one of the main driving forces in maintaining their distinct cultural world in the face of outside encroachments, and the attempts to revitalise the Sápara language. However, he died in 1999 and this prompted one of his sons to start lobbying the government to recognize their continued existence and help them to save their language. In this sense, the main and most pressing concern for the Sápara is the complete loss of their language.

Present state of the Sápara language

At present only 4 elders have the capacity to speak the language. The near extinction of the Sápara language is the result of the devastating effects of enslavement, disease, and the Peru war of 1941 which killed many and split their communities up when the Peru/Ecuadorian border was driven right through their territory.

While the Sápara have maintained their unique cultural identity and still hold their own cosmological belief system, persecution drove them into surrounding Kichwa communities and territories and has resulted in the adoption of the dominate Kichwa dialect as their main mode of communication over the last two decades or so.      

 

Previous efforts to revitalize the language

In 2001 the culture of the Sápara people was recognized by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the "Intangible Heritage of Humanity" for its oral traditions and other cultural manifestations. This led to the creation of a number of books devoted to the Sápara dialect. However, these are all academic linguistic works, which the teachers and families have expressed are far too difficult to understand and for little use in the school context.