In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself and tell us where you're from.
My name is José Antonio Quinde Buscán, and I am an anthropologist of the Andean culture. My community is Quilloac, in the Province of Cañar. It's in southern Ecuador at an altitude of 10,100 feet in the Andes Mountains.
What is a significant point in history from your community that you would like to share?
Quilloac is an ancient indigenous community with an interesting history. When the Inkas invaded our territory in 1463, we maintained the rights to our land. But with the Spanish conquest that soon followed, in 1534, the conquistadors appropriated our land and established the largest hacienda in the region—450,000 hectares [more than one million acres]. This led to two kinds of communities: those that belonged to the hacienda, where everyone was required to work the land as peons, and those that were “free” and not part of the hacienda.
The problem with the free villages, such as Quilloac, was that the colonial Spanish government forced our people to work on roads, bridges, and mines. But when the Cañaris left their homes, they often did not return because they died of hunger, snakebites, landslides, and diseases such as malaria. For this reason, many free communities handed over their land in return for the protection of the hacienda owner. That is how Quilloac lost our territory and Pachamama [Earth Mother].
Five hundred years later, in 1964, we began to recover our land through the agrarian reform laws of Ecuador. The government bought the hacienda and divided it into parcels of land for the members of Quilloac and other communities. We had to buy the land back, but in that way we reclaimed our Pachamama.
How is your government set up?
Traditionally, Cañaris were governed by the ayllu, based on the extended families of the village or a particular area. The head of the ayllu was the oldest member of the village, the one who best knew the history, problems, and healing traditions. This was a part of all Andean cultures in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.
Today, each Cañari community has a governing body elected by a general assembly that includes all who live there. In Quilloac, for example, we are about 600 families, so we are divided into five sectors, and each sector elects a president, vice president, treasurer, and so on. These elected authorities meet every two weeks, the community of each sector meets every three months, and all the communities come together in a general assembly every two years.
Is there still a functional, traditional entity of leadership, in addition to your modern government system?
The most traditional aspect of our government is community rule, based on our Andean culture. Through this structure we organize mingas—communal work days—but it also serves to reinforce unity, solidarity, reciprocity, and identity. No one is every alone in our Cañari communities.
What responsibilities do you have as a community leader?
As a leader, I have always struggled for the rights, education, identity, and respect that we Cañaris deserve as an indigenous nation of Ecuador. I’m concerned for our history, our customs, traditions, and legends, because the Cañari culture should be recognized on the national level, and by all of Latin America. We have significant archeological sites, some recognized by UNESCO. Narrío, for example, is an ancient burial site on the outskirts of Cañar that goes back 5,000 years. Fragments of Native life that date to 10,000 years ago have been found in the cave Chobshi. The most famous site in Ecuador is Ingapirca, a religious center for both Cañaris and Inkas.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Many elders have influenced me, such as my parents and grandparents and others in the community who have taught me the best way to live. I only regret that we have not researched our history before. But living on the hacienda prevented us from knowing our history and our traditions. The Spanish conquistadores tried to do away with our religion and our language.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.