Intercultural Utopias: Public Intellectuals, Cultural Experimentation, and Ethnic Pluralism in Colombia

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Although only 2 percent of Colombia’s population identifies as indigenous, that figure belies the significance of the country’s indigenous movement. More than a quarter of the Colombian national territory belongs to indigenous groups, and 80 percent of the country’s mineral resources are located in native-owned lands. In this innovative ethnography, Joanne Rappaport draws on research she has conducted in Colombia over the past decade—and particularly on her collaborations with activists—to explore the country’s multifaceted indigenous movement, which, after almost 35 years, continues to press for rights to live as indigenous people in a pluralistic society that recognizes them as citizens. Focusing on the intellectuals involved in the movement, Rappaport traces the development of a distinctly indigenous modernity in Latin America—one that defies common stereotypes of separatism or a romantic return to the past. As she reveals, this emerging form of modernity is characterized by interethnic communication and the reframing of selectively appropriated Western research methodologies within indigenous philosophical frameworks.

Intercultural Utopias centers on southwestern Colombia’s Cauca region, a culturally and linguistically heterogeneous area well known for its history of indigenous mobilization and its pluralist approach to ethnic politics. Rappaport interweaves the stories of individuals with an analysis of the history of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca and other indigenous organizations. She presents insights into the movement and the intercultural relationships that characterize it from the varying perspectives of regional indigenous activists, nonindigenous urban intellectuals dedicated to the fight for indigenous rights, anthropologists, local teachers, shamans, and native politicians.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Joanne Rappaport takes engaged anthropology a whole step further in this brilliant experimental ethnography. Through intercultural dialogues involving new generations of Nasa intellectuals and their nonindigenous collaborators in Colombia, we witness creative tactics to decolonize knowledge and produce novel hybrid political culture. Intercultural Utopias offers a rigorous, indigenously inflected analytical approach to issues such as indigenous politics, autonomy, and conflict ‘inside the inside’ of highly fluid arenas of indigenous activism.”—Kay Warren, author of Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Maya Activism in Guatemala

“This book is a major intervention in discussions of interculturalism among scholars and activists committed to indigenous movements. Joanne Rappaport’s theoretical and methodological innovation and politically engaged practice model the transformative power of horizontal conversation between and among intellectuals from distinct linguistic and cultural traditions.”—Florencia E. Mallon, author of Courage Tastes of Blood: The Mapuche Community of Nicolás Ailío and the Chilean State, 1906–2001

Diane Nelson

Intercultural Utopias is extremely useful for thinking comparatively about indigenous movements, particularly the sections on bilingual education, the role of the national left, implementation of customary law, and dealings with transnational religious authorities.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822335993
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/2005
  • Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Joanne Rappaport is Professor of Spanish at Georgetown University. She is the author of The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes, also published by Duke University Press, and Cumbe Reborn: An Andean Ethnography of History.

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Read an Excerpt

Intercultural Utopias

By Joanne Rappaport


All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3561-0

Chapter One

Frontier Nasa/Nasa de Frontera

The Dilemma of the Indigenous Intellectual

Two years ago, Susana Piñacué told me that she was a nasa de frontera, a frontier Nasa. Susana is a key player in the elaboration of indigenous cultural policy in Cauca, a member of the bilingual education team of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC). Currently engaged in research for her M.A. thesis in ethnolinguistics at the University of Cauca and an avid reader of feminist literature, Susana is fluent in Nasa Yuwe, the Nasa language, which her family speaks almost exclusively in their home in the city. Susana comes from a family of prominent local and national politicians: her brother, Jesús Enrique, served as president of CRIC in the 1990s and is now in his second term as a senator in Bogotá, and her father, Victoriano, is a well-known leader in the locality of Calderas, Tierradentro. Her own affiliation with CRIC and her family connections have placed Susana in constant contact with an indigenous urban network that encompasses members of indigenous organizations, ruralschoolteachers, and nonnative sympathizers with the indigenous movement. At the same time, she is fiercely committed to work with the grassroots, spending several weeks at a time working on curricular matters with local teachers in the village of Juan Tama, a resettled community originally from Vitoncó, Tierradentro. Susana has been instrumental in creating a network of Nasa women, both those belonging to the burgeoning crop of female political leaders who are assuming local cabildo office, and elderly women who Susana feels have been overlooked in the drive to organize the Nasa.

However, Susana views herself as standing on the frontier of the Nasa community. She discriminates between cultural workers like herself, who, she says, "talk about culture from the vantage point of Spanish" and who address cultural themes in the "past tense," as opposed to members of rural communities, who "live culture in the present." "Living culture in the present" is commonly glossed by Susana and her colleagues as a vivencia, which might be translated as a lived experience that is constitutive of an individual's character, although the English version does not capture the self-conscious and politicized significance of the term as it is employed by Nasa public intellectuals. Paradoxically, it is precisely these intellectuals, who speak in the past tense and who Susana claims "do not believe in what we are saying and writing," who are engaged in forging a cultural future for the rural Nasa. As a result, reasons Susana, cultural workers reconceptualize the rural population as "others," while they consider themselves to straddle what she calls a "frontier."

The borderlands to which Susana refers are both ideological and geographic, encapsulating and idealizing communities that have retained certain key attributes, such as language and shamanism, in contrast to other indigenous localities that are more firmly embedded in the regional culture and produce foodstuffs for the market. Traditionalist localities are singled out as recipients of the planning efforts of urban indigenous cultural workers. Bound by their inadequate command of the Spanish language and their unfamiliarity with the academic and political terminology bandied about by intellectuals, the local bearers of culture are inadvertently excluded from the planning process, "othered" in relation to regional activists. Susana asks if indigenous intellectuals are creating their own discrete identity, a kind of "theoretically Nasa" subject position that never quite embraces Nasa lifeways, because in the course of the organizing process, political activism and ethnographic research function not only as supports for grassroots cultural renovation, but as vehicles for intellectuals' own process of self-discovery. Although Susana questions such attitudes, she recognizes that cultural activism affords her a context in which she can revitalize (recuperar) her own cultural roots, thus validating her participation in the movement ("se reivindica con el proceso cultural").

Inocencio Ramos, another of CRIC's cultural workers, goes yet further in emphasizing the uncomfortable liminal character of the members of his political world. Like Susana, Inocencio hails from Tierradentro, but his is a Protestant family from the resguardo of Tálaga. He and his two brothers, Abelardo and Benjamín, all work in the bilingual education program of CRIC; one of his sisters is a shaman and served in 2002 as lieutenant governor of Tálaga. Inocencio is an intensely perceptive man, with a remarkable capacity for synthesizing complex issues. He is a talented and visionary administrator who moves with ease between regional and local circles. But Inocencio perceives his own contributions to cultural planning as superficial, mediocre, and colonized, and believes that only the thê' wala, the shaman, working from within the rural community, possesses the knowledge and the methodology to speak authoritatively about culture "in the present tense." Nevertheless, he, like Susana, is in search of a way to be Nasa in the rarified atmosphere of the urban indigenous organization, always asking himself "if what I plan to do is in accord with the intentions of the culture." He attempts continuously to decenter Western culture through an insistence on incorporating traditional procedures into hybridized proposals for cultural planning, focusing particularly on the investigative strategies of thê' walas, centered in the ritualized reading of bodily signs. He cannot, however, verbalize the practical implications of such a combination, because the two systems are incommensurable.

For Inocencio, as for many of the Nasa cultural workers with whom I have spoken, the thê' wala is the only true Nasa intellectual:

JR: What do you think is the role of the indigenous intellectual?

IR: Well, I've never really thought about what an intellectual would be like, and I don't understand the concept of the intellectual.

JR: Well, someone who is producing knowledge ...

IR: Well, if that is what intellectual means, then we could say that the shamans are the [only] ones who deserve [to belong in] that category and that if you want to philosophize you can do so, but it isn't legitimate. I'd say that it's legitimate when it's someone who has all that experience [vivencia], the trajectory, all of what goes into a process of creating knowledge. And people who understand that whole structure of knowledge, who are reevaluating knowledge, [they] would be the true intellectual[s]. But, then, those of us who more or less approach the culture superficially, even if you're indigenous, well, you make the problem very superficial. That's ideological colonization, as I already said. I don't know the culture [simply] by virtue of being indigenous. So this is our challenge.... That is the dilemma.

While he is conscious of the value of shamanism, Inocencio questions whether he, an educated and urban Nasa, can possibly adopt those values that he sees as "natural" in rural communities but that for urban activists are products of self-conscious cultural reflection.

In this chapter, I explore the ambivalences of identity construction among regional indigenous intellectuals in Cauca, focusing in particular on the uncomfortable position in which they find themselves vis-à-vis their rural counterparts. While these activists foster cultural revitalization among members of native communities, given the discourses they employ to project themselves within Colombian political space, they feel they cannot lay claim to cultural authenticity. Instead, cultural activists redirect their self-identification in such a way as to heighten their particular form of sophisticated otherness, which is what permits them a privileged analysis of Colombian society. Indigenous intellectuals identify as Nasa and feel that they live according to Nasa cultural precepts in what they explicitly recognize as a heterogeneous process of modern indigenous identity construction. But at the same time, they feel the need to employ a strategically essentialized definition of culture in their political work to distinguish themselves and their constituents from the dominant society. Consequently, they experience the sensation of approaching Nasa culture from somewhere beyond its boundaries, which leads them to question their commitment to their cultural heritage.

Indigenous Public Intellectuals

Who are the indigenous intellectuals to whom I refer? In recent years, anthropologists have begun to explore the emergence of an indigenous Latin American intelligentsia associated with cultural movements in Bolivia (Stephenson 2002; Ticona Alejo 2000), Guatemala (Fischer 2001; Fischer and Brown 1996; Nelson 1999; Warren 1998a), and Mexico (Campbell 1994, 1996; Gutiérrez 1999; Hernández Díaz 1996). In these countries there are extensive teacher training programs and institutions dedicated to bilingual education, linked with state-sponsored indigenista policies, and full-time university study is available to a wide range of indigenous people. Indigenous movements have a long history in these countries. The critical mass afforded by the fact that a substantial percentage of the national population considers itself to be native has contributed to the growth of a group of urban-based, university-educated, indigenous professionals associated with a range of private research institutions, universities, and government agencies. These are individuals who might be seen as constituting an indigenous middle class, more in the sense of their positioning in national society than in terms of income (Campbell 1996; Warren 1998b). They are the indigenous intellectuals whom we meet at international conferences and in graduate programs in the social sciences, whose books are available in bookstores, who have won the Nobel Prize, who are increasingly being recognized as important players in the national political arena, and who have become the focus of scholarly interpretation.

Although similar to this sector in terms of their linking of intellectual production with political activism, the indigenous public intellectuals of Cauca have more modest backgrounds and the nature of their insertion into national society is distinct from that of their Guatemalan, Mexican, and Bolivian colleagues. Most of them are based in rural areas, working in local schools or cabildo associations; those attached to regional and national organizations located in cities spend a great deal of their time traveling to rural districts. Some of these people have trouble speaking Spanish correctly and only a tiny minority can write well. Most have degrees from high school, seminary, or normal school, a kind of secondary-level teacher's college. Many of them achieved these degrees through the profesionalización programs set up in the 1980s and 1990s to provide rural teachers with normal school proficiency training. A few received their training in the ideological seminars of the various guerrilla movements that have operated in Cauca since the 1970s, becoming well versed in indigenous legislation and introduced to Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. Few of the indigenous intellectuals I know have attended full-time university programs, with the exception of ethnolinguists studying in internationally supported programs in Colombia and Bolivia, although many are currently registered in the numerous long-distance programs that have sprung up in recent years, providing substandard training to rural teachers who are now being required to produce college degrees if they are to continue teaching. This is a far cry from the rigorous training received by the indigenous intellectuals I have met from other countries. As a result, Colombian indigenous cultural activists are considerably less oriented toward academic issues than are their peers in Guatemala and Bolivia.

Another significant difference between Caucan indigenous intellectuals and their colleagues in other Latin American countries is their refusal to affiliate themselves with institutions other than the indigenous movement. Marcos Yule, one of CRIC's linguists, put it this way:

I have received many offers from outside, from universities [and] from institutions, but I have never aspired to that, it bores me. I worked for the CRC [Regional Corporation of Cauca, a regional development organization], but their scheme is different, their goals are different [from ours]. I am still working with the [Ethnoeducation Program of the] Universidad del Cauca, but you feel that their project is not the same as [ours] and you feel "disconnected." You feel better, even though you earn so little, [working] within a process in which you learn so much.

Thus, the identity of Caucan indigenous intellectuals has developed in a politically contestatory context that defines them by virtue of their ethnic and political loyalties and not their identity as intellectuals.

These are organic intellectuals in the Gramscian sense, who open paths of knowledge in the service of an emergent social sector. When I explained my usage to my Nasa interlocutors, however, I was told that they were not intellectuals because they neither enjoyed the working conditions nor had they received the elite education enjoyed by most Colombian intellectuals. Moreover, they did not want to be considered as different from other Nasa, as a kind of Nasa elite, although they fear that they are swiftly becoming one. I found that many of these cultural workers were uncomfortable with the label of intellectual precisely because they were embarrassed by their own standing in relation to their ethnic compatriots, as well as their subordinate position relative to the intellectuals of the dominant society.

Unlike those whom we generally call intellectuals, indigenous or otherwise, the public intellectuals of the Caucan indigenous movement do not, for the most part, produce the book-length studies that attract national readerships and the attention of international scholars, which mark the indigenous intelligentsia of the other Latin American countries I mentioned. In fact, I can think of only two recently published books by native Colombians, an ethnographycum-autobiography by U'wa author Berichá (1992), who has not been able to find a publisher for a second edition of her book, and the work of the Guambiano History Committee, written in collaboration with a Colombian academic (Dagua Hurtado, Aranda, and Vasco 1998). In part, there is an inhospitable atmosphere for indigenous-authored publications in Colombia. But more significant, Colombian indigenous intellectuals do not choose to intervene in the academic world. Most Caucan research is collective in nature; a great deal of it is unauthored-a list of those who contributed to the enterprise in any way, including logistic support and typesetting, is commonly included on the title page-and is based on themes chosen by organizations and community authorities, produced by teams designated by the political leadership. Much of this research is not published at all, but available only in manuscript form or self-published for internal use. A great deal of this work is not written, except as notes taken at workshops. Such contributions include local primary and secondary school curricula organized according to indigenous cultural criteria, cosmology workshops, games using terms in native languages, new alphabets for these languages, evaluations of educational planning projects. In the few cases in which the results are published as articles in academic venues, they are frequently coauthored by outsiders, who incorporate the suggestions of indigenous researchers into the text, or they are transcripts of public speeches. The only exceptions are the work of university-trained indigenous linguists (Muelas Hurtado 1995; Nieves and Ramos 1992; Yule 1995), who employ technical discourse and direct their work toward an academic audience.


Excerpted from Intercultural Utopias by Joanne Rappaport Copyright © 2005 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

A note on the orthography of Nasa Yuwe
1 Frontier Nasa/Nasa de Frontera : the dilemma of the indigenous intellectual 23
2 Colaboradores : the predicament of pluralism in an intercultural movement 55
3 Risking dialogue : anthropological collaborations with Nasa intellectuals 83
4 Interculturalism and Lo Propio : CRIC's teachers as local intellectuals 115
5 Second sight : Nasa and Guambiano theory 152
6 The battle for the legacy of Father Ulcue : spirituality in the struggle between region and locality 185
7 Imagining a pluralist nation : intellectuals and indigenous special jurisdiction 227
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