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Kelsey Gilman learns Quechua to study Indigenous education politics in Ecuador

2019 Mack and Mayerfeld Fellow
Kelsey learning Kichwa terms for nature in the sacha (forest), near the Andes and Amazon Field School (Tena, Ecuador).

October 9, 2019

Thanks to the generous award from the 2019 Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Fund for Human Rights, I spent eight weeks this summer in the Amazonian province of Napo, Ecuador, studying the Indigenous language Kichwa at the Andes and Amazon Field School. Kichwa (or Quechua, outside of Ecuador) is the most widely spoken Indigenous language in South America and in the provinces where I plan to conduct doctoral research. Kichwa training is central to my study of Indigenous education politics, as it allows for a more direct dialogue with Indigenous students and their communities, and positions me as simultaneously a researcher and student in the field of Indigenous higher education. While Spanish will be useful to interview state officials and Indigenous intellectuals (usually men who have had the opportunity to leave their communities and attend universities, often abroad), I also need to be able to converse and collaborate with women, elders, and other monolingual Kichwa-speakers, whose views remain marginalized in debates over educative “quality.” It is crucial to the validity of my work to use Indigenous terms and formulations, as translation into Spanish, English, or other European languages can strip Indigenous concepts of meaning, leaving sizable gaps. 

Along with other FLAS fellows in the language program, I had the unique opportunity to briefly visit an Indigenous Waorani community in Pastaza province near the border of Yasuní National Park—one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth, and home to at least three uncontacted Indigenous groups. Just three months prior, the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador-Pastaza (CONCONAWEP) had won a historic ruling in Ecuadorian courts to protect half a million acres of their ancestral lands from oil extraction. The ability to meet with, speak to, and learn from Waorani community members who had participated in this landmark legal victory proved deeply inspiring, and helped me to appreciate more fully the diversity and range of Indigenous heterogeneity in projects to develop and institutionalize Indigenous higher education in Ecuador. 

The Mack-Mayerfeld award also provided me the crucial opportunity to present my dissertation research prospectus to the Planning Committee for the Indigenous Intercultural University Amawtay Wasi (in Kichwa: “House of Wisdom”), in the capital city of Quito. The University Amawtay Wasi, suspended in 2013 after a state evaluation found that it lacked “commercial quality,” is currently being re-developed by delegates from Indigenous political groups and the Ministry of Education, to re-open in 2020.  My research examines the history and development of Amawtay Wasi as one way to explore broader concerns about decolonization, recognition, and the politics of knowledge in Latin America. I plan to take an ethnographic approach to the study of Amawtay Wasi, to engage in participant-observation and conduct in-depth interviews with former students, graduates, and instructors of the program, as well as state officials and academics who have been involved with the design, closing, and re-opening of the school. After our meeting this summer, the Planning Committee formally invited me to participate in the process of re-developing the school, from planning through implementation. With the support of the 2019 Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad award, I look forward to returning to Quito next spring; collaborating with Amawtay Wasi’s Planning Committee; and learning from and contributing to the dialogue of knowledge concerning Indigenous higher education in the Andes.