Culture and language revitalization from Cherokee to Ecuador

by Jun 25, 2024COMMUNITY sgadugi0 comments


One Feather Reporter


RIOBAMBA, EC – Two members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and alumni of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), Colby Taylor and Juanita Paz-Chalacha, recently returned from a cultural exchange trip in Ecuador along with Kituwah Preservation Education Program Education Curriculum Developer Hartwell Francis.

The trip is part of an ongoing international exchange program, overseen and organized by UNC Global Affairs and funded by the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador.  In 2023, Indigenous students from the Universidad Nacional de Chimborazo, or the National University of Chimborazo (UNACH) in Riobamba, Ecuador, visited UNC and Cherokee. Paz-Chalacha, Taylor, and Francis all reported that the students from Ecuador were impressed with Cherokee’s cultural district, especially the Museum of the Cherokee People and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual.

Colby Taylor, third from left, participates in minga, or community work, plowing potatoes in the Chimbaroza Province of Ecuador. (Photo by Bolívar Apugllon, UNACH)

“[Ecuador] cultural tourism is more so about how quickly they can get rid of stuff and the volume of it and less about valuing the craftsmanship. They are just trying to get rid of their stuff so they can feed their families, which is reminiscent of our cultural economy a few decades ago,” Taylor said.

“Now, our artists are valued. We value their art; we value their craftsmanship. In Ecuador, they spend hours and hours laboring on these beautiful cultural pieces, and then they’ll end up selling their art for $10.”

One student even used his experiences in Cherokee’s cultural district to develop a cultural arts festival in his community.

“They shared a presentation of what they implemented from what they learned here into their own communities. Just watching that progression, I felt very happy that they had learned that from here about the value we have for our artists,” Paz-Chalacha said.

Francis said the Cherokee cohort, along with UNC Senior Associate Dean for Social Sciences and Global Programs Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld and UNC students Dalton Locklear, Julio Boileve (Quechua), and Brenda Palacios Rodriguez (Guatemala Maya), learned about language and cultural revitalization in meeting with the university president of Chimborazo, visiting the Chimborazo Province, and participating in community work—known as “Minga” in the Kichwa language.

“Minga is similar to the Cherokee concept of Gadugi,” Francis said. “They prepared the fields and then shared a meal.”

“It’s kind of like a Cherokee Day of Caring, but mingas happen often because the community relies on each other. I learned that the basis of everything is your community and who you’re around,” Taylor said.

UNC Senior Associate Dean for Social Sciences and Global Programs Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld (left) and Juanita Paz-Chalacha (Right) stand atop a mountain in the Chimbaroza Province of Ecuador. (Photo by Bolívar Apugllon, UNACH)

“We hiked up like 2000 feet in elevation. I told the professor that was with us, there’s no way I’m walking 2000 feet up here and just picking up sticks. You better give me that hoe so I can plow this potato.”

They also visited a women’s support center, their version of the EBCI Domestic Violence – Sexual Assault program. Francis said the center incorporated cultural healing with a cosmological model and traditional plants. Francis noted that many institutions and spaces they visited displayed an Andean cross like the Cherokee seven directions, including directions for the upper and lower worlds. The cohort was impressed with the community’s consistent incorporation of their culture in everyday life.

The Kichwa language is currently experiencing a similar language crisis to the Cherokee language. “The Kichwa language situation is kind of like the situation here 30 or 40 years ago. The 20 something parents are fluent speakers, but they are not passing the language on to their children due to social, economic, educational obstacles to Indigenous language use,” Francis said.

“We have a language barrier and cultural differences, but that’s okay because we understand that all of us as Indigenous people are trying to grow and better our communities. To be able to learn and transcend those barriers because of shared experiences, because of the similar struggles, it kind of makes some place that’s a million miles away feel like home,” Taylor said.

The cohort exchanged miniature rivercane baskets made by Ramona Lossie with the Kichwa speakers and community leaders. Francis hopes that the international exchange program will continue, with interested Cherokee youth and community members participating in the trip, even outside of the university context.

Taylor urges the EBCI community to consider the trip in the future. “Go. Challenge yourself. It puts into perspective the importance of community and that shared identity of being Indigenous.”