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  • Speaking Sovereignty:Indigenous Languages and Self-Determination
  • Maximilian Viatori (bio) and Gloria Ushigua (bio)

Many indigenous nations have successfully used their languages as tools for uniting their communities, fostering indigenous identity, and defining the boundaries of their self-determination—the ability of indigenous nations to make decisions about their identity, religion, culture, economy, and legal system without interference from external actors.1 Indigenous languages are important tools for stressing the cultural and historical uniqueness of indigenous communities as well as indigenous peoples' cultural distinctness from nonindigenous governments. Indigenous leaders have stressed this uniqueness when arguing for the establishment of greater indigenous sovereignty, as well as special rights for indigenous persons and communities.

In this article, we explore the role that indigenous languages have played in advancing indigenous self-determination in the Americas. Specifically, we discuss how the Zápara nationality of Ecuador used their language to petition for greater administrative and cultural autonomy from Ecuador's government. The revitalization of the Zápara language also has been an invaluable platform from which the Zápara leaders have been able to gain recognition and support from Ecuador's national indigenous movement, international support networks, and the state, which have provided valuable resources for the augmentation of local Zápara self-determination. Using examples from the Zápara, we demonstrate that indigenous languages can be a vital component of strengthening communities' and individuals' identification with an indigenous [End Page 7] nation. Indigenous language programs can be important for unifying individuals and communities as a coherent indigenous nation and for gaining recognition from nation-state governments for increased indigenous sovereignty. However, we argue that indigenous communities are not required to use their own languages in order to achieve sovereign status, but that communities who have "lost" their languages can also effectively politicize and rework "colonial" languages as vehicles for the expression of indigenous self-determination.

The Zápara Example2

The Zápara discussed in this article are located along the Conambo and Pindoyacu Rivers in eastern Ecuador near the border with Peru (see map). On average, each community has forty residents, who engage primarily in subsistence hunting and farming in Ecuador's equatorial rainforest but who occasionally leave to work, attend school, and sometimes serve in the military. These communities organized in 1998 as the Zápara Nationality of Ecuador and are based in the city of Puyo, the capital of Pastaza Province, where the Zápara communities are located. Ten to fifteen Zápara activists staff this organization at any one time, which acts as the Záparas' political representative and works to revive the Zápara language. The organization was called the Asociación de la Nacionalidad Zápara de la Provincia de Pastaza (the Association of the Zápara Nationality of Pastaza Province, ANAZPPA) until 2002, when it changed its name to the Organización de la Nacionalidad Zápara del Ecuador (Organization of the Zápara Nationality of Ecuador, ONZAE); and in 2003 it became the Nacionalidad Zápara del Ecuador (the Zápara Nationality of Ecuador, NAZAE). It now also represents the communities of Shiona, Pindoyacu, Balsaura, and San José del Curaray.3

The Zápara are the smallest indigenous nationality in Ecuador, with a population estimated to be less than two hundred individuals.4 Over the past decade, the Zápara language has become the primary symbol of Zápara identity in Ecuador, although the overwhelming majority of Zápara do not speak it. The language, which is one of several in the Záparoan family, is spoken by fewer than ten elders, all of whom are over the age of sixty-five.5

This, however, was not always the case. Zápara speakers likely numbered in the tens of thousands prior to European contact, and even after Spanish colonization, they constituted a sizable ethnic group well into the nineteenth century.6 In 1846, for example, the Italian traveler Gaetano Osculati estimated the Zápara to be twenty thousand in number.7 By the first half of the twentieth century the Zápara had dwindled due to disease, forced migrations, enslavement, and acculturation by neighboring indigenous peoples.8 The Canelos Kichwa or Pastaza Runa, for example...


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pp. 7-21
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