Q&A with authors of The Ecology of the Spoken Word: Amazonian Storytelling and Shamanism among the Napo Runa

Cover for uzendoski: The Ecology of the Spoken Word: Amazonian Storytelling and Shamanism among the Napo Runa. Click for larger imageOn March 12, 2012, the University of Illinois Press published The Ecology of the Spoken Word: Amazonian Storytelling and Shamanism among the Napo Runa by Michael A. Uzendoski and Edith Felicia Calapucha-Tapuy.  Michael Uzendoski is an associate professor of modern languages and linguistics at Florida State University and Edith Felicia Calapucha-Tapuy is a native of Napo, Ecuador, and a translator of Napo Quichua stories and songs. They answered our questions about nature and the Napo Runa.

Q:  How did you first become interested in Napo Runa mythology?

Michael:  I became interested in Napo Runa mythology first through books, published in Quichua-Spanish, that I found in Quito. I began reading these books when I was beginning fieldwork in Napo and learning the Quichua language. I would read the stories with my Quichua hosts and ask them about the stories, vocabulary, and concepts.  I remember one night, after we had read a story about mythological jaguars, my hosts told me that these stories in the books were real. It is figuring out how and why they are real that is the deeper issue.

Edith:  When I was young, I liked to listen to my grandparents and older people tell stories.  My grandfather and grandmother would always tell us stories when we were little.  By telling stories, our grandparents taught us many things about the world, about how they have lived and how their grandparents lived.  When we think of a story, we can’t separate it from the person who told it to us.  That is why we cry and get sad sometimes when we hear or listen to a recording of a story. I think it is important for the Napo Runa people and future generations to know and practice their storytelling traditions so that we don’t forget the people who told them.

Q:  How large is their population?  

Michael:  I would guess that the Napo Runa of the Tena region number around 30,000 to 40,000 but the population is growing so it could be higher.  The Amazonian Kichwa groups as a whole number anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000, at least that what the official statistics are from the Consejo de Desarrollo de las Nacionalidades y Pueblos del Ecuador.  Within Amazonian Kichwa, the Napo Runa are one several groups.  The Napo Runa, for example, are different from the Kichwa of Pastaza or the Kichwa of Lower Napo.  But all Amazonian Kichwa groups are quite similar linguistically and culturally.

Indigenous people don’t really think of themselves as belonging to discrete groups but as networks of people related by kinship and marriage.  “Napo” refers to the Napo River and “Runa” means humans, thus “Napo Runa” means “people living on or by the Napo river.”  Identities for indigenous people are always connected the landscape, usually a river. And marriages to people from other indigenous groups as well as mestizo society are not uncommon.  So it is hard to really put a number on how many Napo Runa there are.

Q:  How do they use plants, animals, and the landscape as part of their

Edith:  To understand this you have to live in the forest and develop an intimate
relationship with the environment and a place. Our people have always communicated with birds, plants, and animals since for thousands of years—they are part of our social world.  But this is very hard to explain to people who live in the city.  We recognize
subtle things that go on in the environment that American people don’t.  We know who planted many trees, we always observe when trees or plants change or bear fruit.  We know how individual trees are connected to our history.  If you were to come to Sapo
Rumi I could show you any number of trees planted by my grandfather; even some
planted by his parents.  Even though my grandfather is physically not with us he is not dead.  We follow the same paths he walked on and eat fruit from the trees he planted.  We can hear his voice in the wind.

Michael:  I don’t know how to respond to this question, since we wrote a whole book
trying to explain this phenomenon.  But it might be interesting to pose a contrast.
How much of the so-called modern world is defined by communication with and by computers, machines, and social media designed by engineers? How much time do we spend in boxes constructed of concrete, steel, and/or other industrial materials? We live in the same world as indigenous people but we socially define ourselves in opposition to “nature” rather than in relation to it, both communicatively and socially.  Most indigenous languages do not even have a word for “nature.” They usually refer to the land as a mother or relative and think of all living things as part of the human condition.

I think philosophically it is strange, a bizarre historical period to live through, a whole mass of people increasingly alienated from the landscape they inhabit and desensitized to the sociality of plants and animals.  In many ways, our detachment from the landscape and environment is related to the addiction to material things, pollution, climate change, and junkfood. I think indigenous peoples’ philosophies of life can provide ways of rethinking where the world is going and how we are supposed to live our lives in the broadest possible sense.  In Ecuador, at least, there is now a debate about offering different models for what counts as a “good life.” Living well does not necessarily correspond to material wealth in the conventional economic sense.  I think it would be wise to include indigenous knowledge and perspectives in the global debate on “development,” and even in such forums as urban and regional planning and educational development.

Q:  How do the shamans create a connection between the natural and spirit

Edith:  What is natural? I think what you mean by “nature” is what we mean by
“spiritual” so these are really the same thing.

Michael:  I think what Edith is saying is that in indigenous Amazonian cultures everything in nature has a “spirit.” Quichua speakers, even Christians, feel their spirituality in relation to plants, animals, and the landscape they inhabit.  Shamans are specialists who develop intimate relationships with the “masters of the animals,” spirit guardians that are the parents or grandparents of each species. These relationships allow shamans to protect the community, provide food, and to obtain special healing powers.  The main purpose of the shaman is to heal the sick and to work on behalf of the community in the spirit world.

I should also point out that “shaman” is not a word in Quichua.  In Quichua, they say “yachak,” which means “one who knows,” or “one with power.” Women can become yachak too and have their own traditions of healing and spiritual powers.  At some
level all people possess some form of shamanistic power.

There is a whole other conversation about sorcery and evil spirits that are thought also
to be the source of illness, death, and many other malaises.  It is a complex and ambiguous world, so I will not say any more here.

Q:  How did this culture come to rely on oral tradition so heavily? 

Edith:  Our people historically never knew how to read or write in the Western sense.  Our “computer” was always our “head,” “heart,” and “soul” that contained all we needed to live well.  We always told stories and we always assumed that stories are known by memory and by heart.  I noticed that this custom even has some popularity even here in the Unites States.  I have seen poetry competitions where people don’t read their poems but perform them using gestures and by heart.  I think this is the closet thing to an oral tradition here in the U.S.

Michael:  Kichwa speakers’ emphasis on orality does not mean that they are also not
textual.  Orality creates inscriptions and has material outcomes, as well as draws on the patterns and lines of the world itself. The body itself already knows how to write.  The argument of our book is about how our own Western notions of “orality” distort the communicative philosophy of Quichua speakers.  Orality is a Western concept that does not explain anything meaningful about the communicative practices of indigenous peoples.  They are doing something totally different with communication, trying to achieve different social goals.

Q:  What are some of the most important/detailed oral performances you’ve

Edith:  During celebrations or any gathering we always tell stories.  Our culture has so many good storytellers it is impossible to say which performance was the best.  Sometimes we talk and laugh and tell stories for hours or days.  These stories, especially good ones, are retold over and over again and become part of our history and memory.

Michael:  I think that Edith’s cousin, Gerardo (Bolivar) Andi, did an amazing job when he
told the story of the “origin of the sun” during the fiesta of Pano in 2002. You can see a video of this performance under chapter 3 of our website.  Also, the women’s songs of
grandmother Jacinta in chapter 4 are very moving.

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