Ritual, Knowledge, and the Politics of Identity in Andean Festivities (1)

By Corr, Rachel | Ethnology, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Ritual, Knowledge, and the Politics of Identity in Andean Festivities (1)


Corr, Rachel, Ethnology


As anthropologists criticize the essentialist descriptions of South American indigenous peoples as anachronistic guardians of ancient traditions, some indigenous peoples are promoting just such an image of themselves. In 1996, political authorities in Salasaca, Ecuador, changed the process for selecting festival sponsors from appointment by nuns to a competition in which festival sponsors were tested on their knowledge of local culture and history, particularly a knowledge of sacred geography. (Landscape, identity, tradition, festivals, Andes)

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Recent changes in the festive-ritual cycle in the indigenous parish of Salasaca in the Ecuadorian Andes occurred in the process for selecting a lead festival sponsor, the alcalde mayor. Rather than allowing the priest and nuns to choose an alcalde mayor, indigenous leaders instituted a competition in which candidates were asked questions about Salasacan history and culture. People changed the sponsorship system by implementing competitions that combined cultural knowledge and identity politics. The competition transformed the role of the alcalde until a new set of political leaders took office. People have now gone back to the old practice of allowing the nuns to select the alcalde mayor. This article traces the rise and fall of the competitions and the changing role of the alcalde. The competition was a ritual display of culture, but one that emphasized "traditional" knowledge from local elders. Several of the questions for the competition were about sacred geography: places such as mountains and crossroads that have long been a part of collective and individual religious experiences. This knowledge of sacred places has now become a symbol of cultural heritage and local identity, and the landscape has become a part of the identity politics of the competition for sponsorship.

Beginning with a discussion of identity politics, invented traditions, and the display of culture with indigenous peoples in modern Ecuador, this article then turns to the sponsorship system, including the history of the institution of the alcalde and his traditional and modern duties. It then describes the competition for the post and the installation of new alcaldes in 1998. The focus here is on sacred places and the significance of the landscape to Salasacans today. The political use of sacred places as a topic for the discourse of "cultural rescue" reveals the importance of geography in the modern spiritual life of the people. They use sacred places not only as a symbol of cultural heritage, but also as part of their lived experience. The recent transformations in the festival-sponsorship system show how political movements at the national level affect indigenous communities at the local level. In this case, the national political slogans led to an emphasis on unique, local aspects of culture.

IDENTITY POLITICS AND THE DISPLAY OF CULTURE

The anthropology of modern Ecuador reflects recent discourse in anthropology as much as recent transformations in Ecuador. One area of interest is the increasingly political nature of ethnic identity formation among Ecuador's diverse population. Through the performance of identities and the invention of tradition, indigenous peoples display an objectified image of their cultural heritage. Invented traditions are a means by which self-defined cultural groups and nations identify with reference to their constructed, collective pasts (Anderson 1991; Connerton 1989; Hobsbawm 1983; Trouillot 1995). In Ecuador, invented traditions often take the form of the performance of identities rooted in an indigenous past of "authentic" culture (Rogers 1998b; Tolen 1998). The construction of a cultural heritage serves to define the collective self as opposed to "others" who do not share that cultural heritage. In Ecuador, cultural heritage is crucial to the self-definition of indigenous ethnic groups and is a key element in the indigenous-rights movement within the nation state. …

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