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Who Is An Indian?

This yet mythical realm encompassing Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru is populated by nearly 50,000,000 citizens of their respective republics, 40% of whom (low end estimate) are deemed to be indigenous peoples, perhaps 20-30 million in number — about half of the 60 million (high end estimate) “Indians” who survive in the Americas.

When Francisco Pizarro set foot in Peru, Tahuantinsuyo had nearly 8,000,000 inhabitants. A century later, only 1.8 million had survived the holocaust of the conquest.

In the 2004, more than a hundred distinct indigenous peoples (or “nations”) live on either side of the Andean/Amazon divide. They are the majority population in one country, perhaps in a second, and certainly a formidable political force in a third. 

The issue of indigenous identity perplexes Tahuantinsuyo — just who, in fact, is an Indian? Despite constitutional changes in definition, personal identification — who one thinks one is — seems to supercede legal standards as the deciding factor. In some geographies, often Amazonian, the “indigenas” are synonymous with the “originales” (the “originals” or the “natives”) and the highland Indians are “campesinos” and “miners.” This gets complicated when the highland Indians colonize Amazon Indian lands in the jungle.

The cultural dynamic is distinct in a majority (60 to 80%) Indian nation like Bolivia where indigenas tend to identify themselves more by class designation: campesinos, obreros, mineros — than in Ecuador where Indians think of themselves as a minority (25 to 45% out of 12.5 million people) and ethnicity is a more pertinent way of identifying oneself than class alignment.

Tahuantinsuyo, the Inca vision of a pan Andean/Amazon Indian empire, is a revivalist strategy developed by indigenous militants that has flourished in the past decade as resistance of the first peoples has crested all over the Americas, perhaps most visibly in Bolivia under the tutelage of Aymara leader (“mallku”) Felipe Quispe.

“They are going to have to change their constitution for our constitution, their flag for our flag, their capitalism for our communalism,” Quispe predicts, “Tahuantinsuyo will be Bolivia-ized, Peru-ized, Ecuador-ized — but it will exist. It already does in fact.”

El Mallku's rhetorical bombast notwithstanding, Indian movements in two Tahuantinsuyo nations have been able to pressure legislatures into modifying national constitutions and Bolivia and Ecuador are now officially “pluri-cultural” republics — in Peru, ex-dictator Fujimori simply decreed the change. But the recognition of being a pluri-cultural state has made little difference off the paper. The 2002 Peruvian census did not even have a question on it asking ethnic or national identity. 

Indigenous peoples often get lost in the capitals of their countries just looking for the appropriate ministry to petition. The strength of Indian identity is better measured at the grass roots, on the land. It is out in the campo where identity is tied to land — and territory — that being an Indian is most vital. 

Because indigenous territory is fragile and finite and under pressure both from within by the population push, and from without by resource exploitation, as Barbara Frazer and Lucien Chauvin underscore in their helpful Oxfam paper “Rising Voices,” a defense of place and identity blending to strengthen the struggle. 

In a jungleshed exactly seven kilometers out of Puno, the gateway to the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Parliament of the Federation of the nine Amazonian nationalities has been meeting for several days. The federation is one leg of the Ecuadorian Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE) in which Sierra-based Indians now hold the upper hand. Several years ago, the CONAIE, led by Antonio Vargas, an Amazonian, entered into short-lived partnership with President Lucio Gutierrez and the organization's dance with the government has seriously split Ecuador's indigenous movement. Who is doing business with whom is often the sub-text of debate at congresses like the one outside Puyu in mid-May. 

But this afternoon, under a tin roof that thrummed softly with tropical rainfall, the back-and-forth appeared to center around whether or not the Andoa people, first recognized by Jesuit missionaries in 1674, are really a “nationality.” Andoa territory seemed unquestioned — 800 Andoas inhabit 200,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest between the Pastaza river and the Bobanaza. 

But what is being questioned here is their language: there are only four very frail speakers or “guardians” of the language left. Moreover, the Kichwas challenge the fact that the Andoas have a language at all, arguing that it seems to be a dialect of Kichwa (distinct from Quechua.) 

One of the Andoa elders is helped to the microphone and asked to respond to the Kichwa charges, which he does in a lengthy murmur, entirely in an Andoa tongue the Kichwa delegation has to concede it does not understand at all. As a result, the Andoas — tall, severe men with elaborately tattooed faces — take their place in the parliament as the tenth nationality in the Amazon federation along with the rival Kichwas, the Schuar, the Achaur, the Zapara, the Copan, the Huaroni, the Sicoya, the Schwiar, and the Siona.

Recognition makes the Andoas full voting members in the CONAIE and through the CONAIE connects them up with Miguel Palacin's CONACAMI in Peru and both Quispe's Aymara peasants and cocalero leader Evo Morales's MAS party in Bolivia, in addition to having representation in COICA, the confederation that now includes 29 million constituents in nine Amazon basin nations. Federation status will put the Andoas on the World Wide Web and make them citizens of a part of the planet. Welcome to Tahuantinsuyo.

The dream of Tahuantinsuyo defies national borders but nowhere more dramatically than around the inland sea of Lake Titicaca along the Bolivian-Peruvian frontier where this fabled land once took form — if you listen to the tour guides in Copacabana promoting day trips to the Island of the Sun.

This April, with a restive Aymara majority on the Peruvian side of the lake, charges of corruption against local officials led to daily roadblocks and sporadic violence. Then, on April 27th, a mob in Ilave Peru near Puno, seized the leftist mayor from the Patria Roja Party and stomped him to death in the public squire. Quechua speakers, a minority in the region, locked their doors against the Aymara “hordes.” Clarin, the Argentinean daily, mendaciously reported that the citizens of Ilave had voted to secede from Peru and join Bolivia. In La Paz, Quispe saluted his “Peruvian brothers” and encouraged them to expel all the “q'aars” (whites) from their communities. 

Down in Lima, the elite of Miraflores and San Isidro were horror-stricken at the reports of the “war-like” Aymaras. The President, Alejandro Toledo, a Quechua himself who as a teenager was spirited off by Peace Corps workers and spent the next 25 years of his life in the US before returning to run for high office, called his cabinet into crisis session. His First Lady, Elena Karp, a Belgium-Israeli anthropologist attributed the lynching to “Aymara ancestral justice.” 

“El Commercio,” a patrician daily celebrating its 165th year of championing the rich of Peru, warned of the danger of an Aymara uprising — the dread “Indiada” — and admonished those who were behind this outburst “not to mask their legitimate demands behind an isolationist and obscurationist agenda.”

In the end, the Ilave blow-up probably had more to do with smuggling routes than ethnic roots but the message was clear — the Indian peoples of Tahuantinsuyo are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore.

“Neo-liberalism wages war against our culture,” reflects Oscar Oliviera, a key player behind the Cochabamba “War in Defense of the Water” in 2000 that has become the mother of all resource battles in Bolivia. “In a world in which the neo-liberals seek to dominate, the question of who I am is more important than what I do. Now I am not just a campesino or a ‘febril’ [factory worker] or a minero. We are all born under the same ‘pollera’ [short, flared Indian skirt.]”

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