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Ecuador’s Indigenous languages are varied and contested. What can poetry and curing chants tell us about the experience of language change and the people working to reclaim them?

Ñukanchik shimipi hatun yachaykuna allichishkakanahun. Chaymanta ñukanchik shimita katichinkapa munanchik, ñukanchik wawakunawan katachinakunchikmi (Great knowledge is saved in our language. For that reason we want to make sure our language continues, and it continues with our children).

—Willak, a Kichwa healer. Agato, Ecuador. July, 2014.

Everyone rejected it. The same speakers would call it “yanga-shimi” [broken language]. It didn’t matter. And in other places like here when I entered the university, they would tell us that “Kichwa literature does not exist.” So then I would say, “Yes, it does.” But now that I’m finishing school, they are now surely listening.

—Rasu Paza, a teacher and Kichwa poet. Quito, Ecuador. July, 2017. Translated from Spanish by the author.

Two Ecuadorians, Willak and Rasu, are reclaiming the Kichwa language (also known as Quechua) on their own terms. One of Willak’s moral and spiritual responsibilities as a middle-aged father and yachak or healer is to be skilled in the verbal arts of curing chants and storytelling. These are resources he can use to pass on knowledge to guide the next generation of Kichwa speakers in his family, who live in the highland town of Otavalo. Similarly, Rasu dedicates his career to writing, reading, publishing, and teaching Kichwa literature to benefit current and future generations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Kichwa speakers. And yet, their performances of verbal art are missed by official language revitalization projects mandated by the state and state-like bodies in our current multiculturalist era in the Americas.

If we are to improve our means of tracking and understanding the so-called global crisis of endangered languages, we must ask what speakers are saying and doing in response to their felt experiences of language and cultural loss. We can take this challenge a step further by listening to the voices of Indigenous verbal artists. Their stories, riddles, poetry, and songs not only transmit culture but can also provide outsiders a conceptual and expressive rendering of endangerment that is invested with creativity and meaning.


In 2008, Runashimi or Kichwa became the second official language of Ecuador, standardized and constitutionally recognized as Kichwa Unificado or Unified Kichwa. This is a speech register comprising various Andean and Amazonian Kichwa dialects combined into one. It has its own orthography, is incorporated into nationwide educational curricula, and is also increasingly offered in American universities. Indigenous and non-Indigenous advocates for Unified Kichwa are proud of the language’s decades-old roots in pan-Indigenous activism and lobbying for Indigenous education. As a result, some Otavalan villagers view Unified Kichwa as a political product of decolonization and societal integration. Other Otavalans criticize Unified Kichwa as a language accessible only to educated urbanites and question its authenticity as a Kichwa language. Instead, they prefer to develop and pass on their local Kichwa dialects.

A photo of four people standing in the background with trees behind them. The foreground includes a small fire, caribou hand drum, and part of what appears to be tent.

An example of hemispheric cultural exchange. Qui’chi (second from right) and his older brother Benson (far left) teach Willak (far right) and his brother Rumi (second from left) how to build a sweat lodge in the village of Agato, Otavalo, Ecuador. The Cree caribou hand drum is also visible. Raul Martinez

My attempts to communicate in Unified Kichwa with Otavalan Runakuna (Kichwa people) for my honor’s project in the Ecuadorian highlands in 2014 often sparked confusion and comments on how foreign the language sounded, in contrast to the local Kichwa vernacular spoken in villages such as Agato, Quinchuqui, and Peguche. I began to realize that what counts as Kichwa language is contentious, complex, and far from unified. As linguistic anthropologist Michael Wroblewski documented within Napo-Tena Kichwa communities in lowland Ecuador, Unified Kichwa can divide community members into standardized Kichwa advocates and “dialect-defenders” (2012, 72). Unified Kichwa can act as an emblem of multiculturality, upward mobility, and decolonization, whereas Runashimi is a marker of communal identity, rooted in familial communication and cultural inheritance.

This distinction between standard Runashimi and local Runashimi is a sociolinguistic reality for many Kichwa people who pledge their allegiance to one language or the other. Yet, what makes Willak’s and Rasu’s reclamation of Kichwa intriguing is how and why they do not fit into this linguistic and ideological binary.

Healing Runashimi

Since 2014, I’ve followed Willak’s family of yachakkuna or “knowers” in rural Otavalo. Kichwa yachakkuna are culturally regarded as sages, healers, and powerful speakers. One is usually apprenticed into becoming a yachakkuna, perhaps by a grandparent. Yachakkuna can enhance their power and knowledge by traveling to distant geographic and spiritual spaces and returning with foreign materials (medicinal plants, curing chants) to augment their claims to authority, including the right to revitalize Kichwa. For Willak and his shaman siblings, their long-distance intertribal exchanges legitimize their treatment of Kichwa heritage as something fragmented by colonization and their taking responsibility for its restoration.

Otavalan Runakuna are ethnographically presented as Andean entrepreneurs, musicians, farmers, and migrants. They are part of a larger highly mobile Latin American ethnic diaspora and are popularly known as brokers of textiles, folk music, and, to a lesser extent, shamanism, in a globalizing Otavalo tourism economy as well as abroad. Willak’s family of migrating entrepreneurial healers makes money in all these contexts, but their reclamation of Kichwa heritage is fueled by social networks of hemispheric indigeneity. Every time Willak and his siblings market their services to New Age spiritualists or white consumers of Andean culture in Canada, they simultaneously engage in the business of exchanging ideas, verbal art, and materials with tribes such as the Cree and Ojibwe in Saskatoon, among many others. They articulate their reclaiming practice as a spiritual and political solidarity movement with other Indigenous people in the United States and Canada.

His creation of a new cultural literary tradition engages an emerging public delighting in his poetry readings.

Willak and his siblings are like many locals in that they advocate for Kichwa dialect variation over standardization. Within the contexts of intra- and inter-familial life, they use local Runashimi to evoke the intrinsic respect and affection of the language (as people commonly experience and describe it). This contrasts with Spanish and even Unified Kichwa, which are often described as harsh, cold languages. As transnational shamans, however, they understand Kichwa curing chants or even certain stories told in Kichwa are made more powerful when they are spoken in a language free from perceived Spanish grammatical influences (for example, the Hispanic loan-words common in all Kichwa dialects). In other words, Willak prefers to heal individuals in “pure” Kichwa because he imagines that this modified form resembles a pre-Hispanic Kichwa way of speaking. Consider this popular curing chant performed by Willak and his siblings to heal tourists, politicians, and other tribal folk visiting the villages. The lyrics are in Kichwa and the capitalization represents the rise in pitch.

Imbaburi TAYGULLAAA, imbaburi taygulla, imbaburi TAYGULLAAA, imbaburi taygulla, imbabura imbabura imbaburaaa.

Cotacachi MAMITAAA, cotacachi mamita, cotacachi MAMITAA, Cotacachi mamaya, cotacachi cotacachi cotacachiii.

Mojandita URKUGUU, mojandita urkullu, mojandita URKUGUUU, mojandita urkullu mojandita mojandita mojanditaaa…

As Willak sings, he references three mountains in the area. “Imbabura,” is the nearest volcano northeast of Otavalo and is also personified in local stories as a chief deity in the region. “Cotacachi,” is Imbabura’s wife in various creation stories and also a volcano visible to the west of Otavalo. “Mojanda” is the third volcano and is also considered a male deity. The original version was chanted in the Spanish-influenced Kichwa vernacular by a yachak named Pedro who is no longer living. Pedro sang the Spanish names “Manuelito” or the mixed “Imbamanuelito” for Imbabura, and “Isabelita” for Cotacachi. Willak’s current iteration removes these Spanish elements, but attempts to reprise and revitalize Pedro’s “calling out” style, which they link to a genre of oral chants called willkari, loosely translated as “make sacred.” According to Willak, the song’s power lies in calling forth local deities to help with curing the ailments at hand.

The song’s capacity to cure is also amplified and legitimized by a caribou hand drum gifted to Willak’s family by a Cree elder in Saskatoon, Canada. It’s a ceremonial song they use to display their commitment to a hemispheric social movement of spiritual empowerment in intercultural and even intertribal settings. That this song was composed with the intention of revitalizing Pedro’s style of curing, but not his style of speaking, sheds light on how the authority of this particular genre of curing is shifting into the hands of transnational mobile healers—at least when it comes to curing international tourists. Their chants not only heal the recipients, but also financially benefit Willak and his family and augment their reputation in a growing regional and global market for Andean shamanism.

Unlike older and relatively less educated and traveled yachakkuna whose Kichwa healing speech makes use of Spanish grammar, Willak can make Kichwa chants more powerful by severing it from Spanish (see also Zapotec narrations in Falconi 2013). And unlike Unified Kichwa lobbyists, Willak’s authoritative sources of knowledge concerning the restoration of Kichwa heritage come by way of Indigenous spiritual networking. As I continue to work with this family of yachakkuna and members of their community, I will further explore how transnational activism travels back into a family as they teach their children the growing economic and spiritual importance of creative multilingualism.

A Kichwa poet

Rasu Paza is a Kichwa poet and educator living in Quito whose own revitalization campaign complicates criticisms that Unified Kichwa is neither a viable way of restoring Kichwa heritage nor beneficial to Kichwa people more broadly. Rasu was born in the Ecuadorian highland community of Balda Lupaxi in the town of Colta in Chimborazo province (south of Quito). His first languages are Kichwa and Spanish, but Rasu didn’t learn to write in Kichwa until a few years ago. He uses his current authority as an instructor of Unified Kichwa to garner new audiences for Kichwa literature, a body of work some mistakenly think nonexistent or fail to recognize.

A photo of two people smiling at the camera and shaking hands on a city sidewalk.

Qui’chi (right) with the Kichwa poet and instructor Rasu Paza (left). Quito, Ecuador. Raul Martinez

As a published poet and instructor of Kichwa, Rasu is part of a small emerging movement for Ecuadorian Kichwa literature and literacy. In addition to non-Indigenous students such as anthropologists, teachers, and politicians, his students often include urban Kichwa migrants who wish to learn their heritage language, albeit in a standardized form. Rasu takes particular pride in fostering such linguistic rediscoveries. At a time when more and more Indigenous people are re-learning their heritage languages, Rasu provides an invaluable service for Kichwa people experiencing cultural loss. Echoing Rasu’s own experience, several middle-aged and teenage locals told me that their parents once had an “ideology of contempt” (Dorian 1998) for Runashimi or called it yangashimi (broken language), meaning it was perceived as socioeconomically inferior to Spanish. Many members of this older generation now express pride for being and speaking Kichwa, largely due to Unified Kichwa’s national status and recognition, among other multicultural policies. And for Rasu’s Indigenous language learners, composing and performing verbal art can publicly signal their membership ties to a particular tribal community and their ongoing revitalization efforts relevant to many Native Americans (see Ahlers 2006).

Rasu’s poetry, published in works such as the poetry anthology Ñawpa pachamanta purik rimaykuna (Antiguas palabras andantes) alongside poems in the languages of Shuar and Tsafiqui, often appear in Kichwa with Spanish translations and vice versa. Rasu hopes to encourage people in the reading and performance of Kichwa myths, plays, and poetry; his creation of a new cultural literary tradition engages an emerging public delighting in his poetry readings. For Rasu, linguistic decolonization entails creating a Kichwa literary canon that can stand on an equal footing with Spanish and other world languages.

Rasu admits that his current circle of Indigenous poets, readers, and live audiences is elitist and exclusive: he uses several Unified Kichwa features with which only a limited number of individuals are familiar. His poetic public does not include his home communities and he avoids opportunities to perform his poetry at home because he fears the style and Unified Kichwa-infused prose will sound linguistically and culturally strange to them. Rather, he often performs at intercultural public events and poetry readings in Quito. He envisions a flourishing public of Kichwa poets and literary critics, Native and non-Native individuals who are literate in Kichwa and Spanish, and users of both Kichwa dialects and a Unified Kichwa. In contrast with Willak’s forms of Kichwa verbal art that dismiss Ecuador’s Unified Kichwa, Rasu’s poetry uses the standard variety to promote literacy, second-language learning, and linguistic diversity.

Imaginative reclamations

The performance of verbal art, its affective and imaginative effects on speakers and listeners, can teach us much about how and why poetry, stories, or shamanic curing chants often organize language and cultural revitalization movements (see Webster 2009; Falconi 2013; Barrett 2014). Ethnography helps us better understand the political, spiritual, and economic motivations for these speech strategies framed as revitalization efforts by investigating how yachakkuna and poets fit into a larger Otavalan Runakuna cultural world.

Since the salvage era of our discipline, anthropologists have advocated for the relevance of verbal art to theories of translation, culture, communication, and society. Yet, few consider listening to beliefs and attitudes about what counts as an Indigenous language on their own creative terms. Verbal art can be instrumental to cultural restoration; performances of verbal art are sites in which the linguistic and ideological diversity of a community can be vividly expressed and observed. This same window into how language endangerment is experienced is also often overlooked in the development of official revitalization policies aimed at benefiting Indigenous communities. This glimpse at two Kichwa verbal artists hints at the complex and various ways in which language reclamation can be implicated in local constructions of history, notions of self, political economy, and poetic imagination. To be and to speak Kichwa is to be resourceful in the imaginative reclamation of one’s social, spiritual, and literary world.

I wanted to help others like me. Becoming a linguistic anthropologist with training in revitalization research seemed a career choice that would allow me to feed multiple birds with one hand.

Raul Martinez (Qui’chi Patlan) is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin, a first-generation college student, a Kichwa learner, and an inner-city Native American kid. His research investigates the work of revitalizing languages in Ecuador, poetics, and the formation of transnational Indigenous alliances.

Some Facts about Ecuadorian Kichwa

  • Despite common beliefs and popular literature that treat the Quechuan languages as a single language, they are no more a single language than Italian, French, and Portuguese are a single Latin language.
  • Ecuadorian highland Kichwa or Quichua is a distinct language from all forms of Peruvian, Bolivian, Argentine, Colombian Quechua, and lowland Kichwa.
  • Quechuan languages are spoken by between six and eight million people. Yet, the common misconception that these languages are one single language also leads to the misconception that Quechua/Kichwa is well documented.
  • Most of these languages are rapidly declining in use. As a result, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) includes Quechua on its list of endangered languages.
  • In 2017, the varieties of Ecuadorian highland Kichwa became the focus of a major video documentation project for the first time. This project is led by Simeon Floyd at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) and is funded by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP).

Cite as: Martinez, Raul. 2019. “The Verbal Art of Kichwa Reclamation.” Anthropology News website, September 19, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1265