I was introduced to Ashéninka and Ashaninka people during my first visit to the Peruvian Amazon in 1999 by a fellow Peruvian anthropologist. Interested in their culture and their position on the periphery of Peruvian national society, I returned to two communities on the Ucayali river to conduct two years of fieldwork for my PhD in anthropology at the London School of Economics. Officially recognised as Ashaninka communities, the settlements actually held a mixture of people from across the range of Ashaninka and Ashéninka land, including from the Gran Pajonal and the Pachitea rivers.
While I was aware of the language differences across the region, it was only in connecting with Ashéninka groups from the Gran Pajonal in the Atalaya region that the cultural and political importance of these differences was really brought home to me. This became particularly apparent during a workshop I helped to coordinate at the local, indigenous university of NOPOKI in Atalaya, collectively to examine the issues facing Indigenous Peoples in the Peruvian Amazon.
I have been making regular field trips to Peru for the last 20 years and have thus built up relationships over this time. However, the specific workshop at which things coalesced around gaining official recognition for Ashéninka lasted just five days in July 2017. Key partners were the Intercultural Association of Atalaya and the indigenous university UCSS-NOPOKI in Atalaya, led by Juan Rubén Ruiz Zevallos, while a lot of my work is now with a consortium of other anthropologists in the NGO we have set up, SHARE-Amazonica. The key indigenous leaders spearheading this push for recognition were three sisters: Amalia, Tabea and Luzmila Casique Coronado.
The fact that the workshop was deliberately collaborative and non-hierarchical with lots of space and time for all present to speak either in small groups or to the assembly as a whole helped it to really connect with people. This allowed diverse voices to be heard and air different issues. From this it was clear that official recognition of the language was a key issue for those Ashéninka people present. Collectively we then started to work on a plan for how action could be taken to make a difference.
It became clear that the workshops were having such a profound effect on the community during the workshop itself when Ashéninka people realised that ‘experts’ and people who had experience of working with the Peruvian government were taking them seriously. We then formed a working group that quickly formulated a plan to note the key differences between Ashéninka and Ashaninka and drafted letters that could put the case to the Peruvian ministries of Culture and Education.
I think it has taken so long for the government of Peru to recognise the Ashéninka language for a few reasons. First, there was the fact that the Ashaninka version encompassed a larger group of people and many government officials in Lima were probably just unaware of the extent of the differences. This was compounded by the fact that Ashaninka people were more represented in regional government, teaching colleges, etc. The official regocnition of Ashéninka also carries a cost element in that new separate educational materials and official documents will need to be produced. There is also a question around whether more variations of the language, and other indigenous languages, deserve similar separate recognition.
Within a few months, the Ministry of Education started the process of the ‘Normalization of the Ashéninka Alphabet’, which involved holding workshops with linguistic experts and Ashéninka people to document and analyse the differences with a view to officially recognising the language. At the end of this process the extent of the differences were agreed and Ashéninka was officially recognised by the government on 2 May 2019.
The research collaborations with indigenous communities and federations in the region is now continuing with a focus on conserving Peruvian Amazonia’s cultural and biological diversity. We have put in bids for large grants to support this work, particularly through building local capacities in filming and GIS work, but have not yet heard if we have been successful.
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!