Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

How is indigenous identity experienced and expressed in modern 21st century Ecuador? The three participant communities of Salasaka, Zuleta and Ugsha were asked questions relating to i) how they identified themselves (as with census questions on auto-identification of ethnic group); ii) how community knowledge is transmitted, via oral traditions through community/family or through formal education; and iii) if their family were the basis of their sense of cultural identity, beliefs, traditions and customs.

Ugsha, Cayambe

Study Methodology

To determine the survival and prevalence of ancestral beliefs about health and healing in the Ecuadorian Andes, the study employed a mixed methods approach, using a cross sectional survey instrument based on structured interviews in three indigenous communities, with some variable categories amenable to statistical analysis. The respondent selection strategy was not ‘randomised’, but rather ‘opportunistic’ and based upon: i) knowledge of the community by the interview assistant (themselves a member of the community), and ii) people who were prepared to be interviewed.

The Study Communities

The indigenous communities of Salasaka (Tunguhuara), Zuleta (Imbabaura) and Ugsha (Cayambe) were chosen as the survey locations. All had a predominance of people who self-identified as being ‘indigenous’, although this varied depending upon the community, with Salasaka having 100% of survey respondents identifying as ‘Indigenous Salasaka’, Ugsha all but one respondent identifying as Indigenous to Zuleta, where there were nearly 30% of respondents identified as being of Mestizo identity. The community of Tingo Pucará, Quilotoa in Cotopaxi province was also visited at an early stage, but excluded from the interviews, as the community had been converted to Evangelical Christianity in recent years and completely abandoned their ancestral belief systems as a result. Christian evangelisation campaigns can have a serious impact in indigenous communities and it is not uncommon to learn of accounts of the destruction of indigenous sacred sites by evangelists.

Fieldwork, Salasaka Salasaka
The indigenous Andean township of Salasaka is located in the central sierra province of Tungurahua and is home one of Ecuador’s most prominent indigenous groups. The Salasaka population as a whole is around 12,000 inhabitants organized in around 18 communities and they speak ‘Kichwa’ (Runa Shimi) although Castilian is widely spoken as a second language and is essential in order to participate in everyday life of the country as a whole. Salasakas are a very independent people and preserve a strong sense of their ethnic identity through their traditions and customs, apart from the majority Mestizos in Ecuador, or Whites. They also have many people living outside of their home territory in places like the USA, Spain and the Galápagos Islands which is home to a large ex-patriot community based there largely for purposes of employment. The Salasaka economy is based upon agriculture, livestock husbandry and handicrafts, with tapestries handwoven on traditional looms using handspun wool as an important feature. They also weave ponchos, sweaters, bags, hats and other items which are sold in local markets and specifically to tourist outlets in the main cities.

Zuleta, Imbabura The indigenous community of Zuleta built up around its relationship with the local Hacienda Zuleta, originally an obraje and cheese factory founded in the 16th century shortly after the conquest of these regions in 1534 by Spain. The community itself was not recognized as a formal township until the 1940s. Traditionally people have lived rural lifeways here based upon small scale farming on land units called chacras, raising crops such as maize, potatoes and beans, some barley and wheat, with domestic animals such as cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens. The hacienda was a significant employer and after the national land reforms of the 1960s devolved much land back to the indigenous peoples, they have lived a rather freer way of life, although still looking to the hacienda for employment. The development of the regional tourism here has significantly benefited people in the community providing them with important additional income.

Ughsa is a small rural community around 12 kilometers from Zuleta close to the regional Cayambe volcano. People here have rural livelihoods similar to those described for Zuleta, based upon mixed farming of sheep, some cattle, wheat, barley and potatoes.


The Survey

A total of 82 completed survey responses were collected from the three communities: Galápagos N=11; Salasaka N=31; Ugsha N= 16 and Zuleta N = 24. For summary convenience these have been grouped into two larger communities: ‘Greater Salasaka’ being the combination of the ex-patriot Salasaka people living in the Galápagos Islands and the original township of Salasaka itself: N=42 and ‘Greater Zuleta’ being the nearby rural community of Ugsha and the community of Zuleta: N=40.

The respondent selection strategy was not ‘randomised’ but rather ‘opportunistic’ and based upon i) knowledge of the community by the interview assistant (a member of the community) and ii) people who were prepared to be interviewed. The selection criteria favoured people of older years which would determine how prevalent ancestral beliefs and practices were in the community core base. It had been hoped to include more younger people in order to determine the transmission of ancestral beliefs into the younger generation most influenced by modernisation, but this was to prove unsuccessful. Few young people are formally therefore represented in the study, although there is ample well informed anecdotal information available.

Ethnicity and Cultural Identity in Three Communities

Ethnicity and Cultural Identity in Three Communities

Note A discussion of Ethnicity and Identity has been developed into a full length manuscript which has been submitted to an international peer reviewed journal (March 2019). It is therefore not possible to include significant sections of the data and discussion of these at this time.

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