Managing Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Salasaca

Following our trip out to Guagaje and Tingo Pucará, it had been arranged that the three of us - Diego Quiroga, Fernando Ortega and myself - would go to visit some of the indigenous communities in the Salasaca region of Ecuador’s central sierra. There I would be introduced to local community leaders and to more ritual and healing specialists. We had also learned that during work carried out as part of a community labour exercise (called a minga) to put in drainage pipes, a cache of pre-Colombian pottery had been disturbed in a region held to be sacred. The community had reported the find to the government office responsible for antiquities, but felt both frustrated by the response and excluded from the decision making process. Pieces of the pottery were removed for formal identification, and it was unclear if any formal archaeological investigation would take place, or in such a way as might involve them, the indigenous incumbents of this land. This cache was keenly felt to represent an important part of their cultural identity.

Salasaca region, Ecuador

The Salasaca peoples have oral histories that tell of their being mitimaes of the Incas. Following the Inca conquest of the land now called Ecuador sometime in the middle of the 15th century CE, indigenous people of the region who had fought the Incas and lost, were replaced by other peoples from the lands of the Inca Empire further south in Peru (others are known to have come from modern-day Bolivia). Only DNA analysis would actually be able to prove this migration account, but oral traditions among pre-literate peoples is generally held to a reliable account of their deeper histories.

The sacred region where they held many of their rituals, and now the cache of pre-Colombian pottery found there, in many ways symbolises the dilemma for the indigenous peoples of this country, indeed of the world. They are bound by national laws that do not seem to address their own cultural identity needs, enacted by officials who at times can seem indifferent or insensitive to them. This, and the relentless process of modernisation underway everywhere in the country, are serving to threaten their unique sense of self and their ancestral lands.

car park on the ritual site

Jorge Caisabanda, our guide, host and intermediary with the community, took us up the mountainside to show us some of the problems they were experiencing. Overlooking an expansive and immense vista of Tungurahua volcano is the site of community rituals across centuries. Somebody had recently laid waste to the area with a bulldozer, with the idea that progress would be achieved through the construction of a modern-looking car park or plaza there. When we observed it, there were just the blackened stumps of some large cactuses and a general air of ruin. We saw other ‘huaca’ sites higher up the slope, where people had made offerings and left little prayer messages.

What to do?

Diego Quiroga

The University of York, Department of Archaeology, where I am based for this project, is a world leader in researching practical implications and developing methodologies for socially engaged cultural heritage management. Sustainable management strategies need to sensitively balance the sometimes competing needs of different ‘stakeholders’ or landowners, with an appropriate management regime for heritage that can be of national or local significance. In cases such as the sacred mountain of the Salasaca peoples, it was clear that an appropriate management process should follow this defined pathway, with the long term objective of protecting the entire sub-region consisting of the mountain itself, and not just isolated pieces of it.

Heritage is about peoples’ identities; about their self-perceptions, both at the individual and the collective level (the ‘heritage community’ if you will). It is the sum total of a peoples’ ancestry, to be enjoyed and enriched in the present and bequeathed to their descendants. Some heritage is conspicuously ‘built’, much of it is intangible (as with traditional beliefs and practices). But all relate complexly with the geography and environment of the land, which for indigenous peoples certainly, will always be their pacarina – the birthplace of the people and the place to which they return when they die.

About this blog entry

This blog entry was posted on Thursday 26th January 2017.
Dr Elizabeth Currie

Dr Elizabeth Currie is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Experienced Researcher and Global Fellow at the Department of Archaeology, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Health Sciences, University of York.