There’s an old running joke in archaeology, when presented with an artifact we aren’t entirely sure about the use of, we sometimes say “When it doubt, ritual.”. It’s a joke because at the end of the day, when it comes to some artifacts and some historical rituals, we aren’t always able to pinpoint every item used and how. However, it is a very different set of questions when these ceremonies and rituals are still being practiced in parts of the world, and is a reason why the different forms of anthropology are so vital to understanding what is being produced at archaeological sites.
If you are lucky enough to be able to witness one of these old ceremonies or rituals in person, it provides valuable insight into further understanding a culture and people much better than before. If you are lucky enough to be a part of a ceremony or ritual, the understanding and connection to the process, often lengthy, goes even deeper, and you not only have a slightly better understanding, but also a better appreciation for the ceremony, ritual, culture, and people. If you are an anthropologist, you look at things from the etic, or outsider view, and you can learn a lot, don’t worry about that, but the opportunity to do research and be able to understand from the emic, or insider view, whether it be living in another country as the citizens there do, having in depth conversations with locals, or both, that information will provide something that is missing in so many texts: a human connection.
Which is how I shall start off this entry in Unity In Ecuador, with the insight gained from being a part of rituals and ceremonies performed by native Ecuadorians, who graciously honored the group of students I was traveling with, by allowing us to be a part of these ceremonies and rituals.
The first ceremony I was a part of was a welcoming ceremony held at the research institute that was hosting the people from my school. It was during my first week in Ecuador and was performed by Andean shaman Enrique Cachiguango. First he laid out blankets, then he brought out bags with candles, fruit, and roses.
We were gathered around in a circle, waiting and watching, fascinated, by what was unfolding in front of us. We were about to be part of something special, that much was clear. Something that would start off the deeper meaning of why we were there, and what we would learn while we were there. When our accompanying teacher, Dr. Bonnie Bade, asked to help and where to place the fruit, Cachiguango’s response was “Put it [the fruit] where your heart tells you to.”.
Pachamama and Humanity
After the altar was set up, Cachiguango spoke to us of the importance of the altar and of fiestas such as Inti Raymi. He told us the story of the grandmother and her two grandsons who were running low on food, so the grandmother gave the boys the task of working the field, and seeds to grow in the field so they wouldn’t grow hungry, and food for them to eat while they worked. But the boys were lazy, and they took the food, but did not do the work. When the grandmother finally ran out of food and wanted to see the field she had been so sure her grandsons had worked, the boys took her to a neighbor’s field. When they began to harvest, the real owner of the field came out and confronted them. The grandmother was heartbroken and humiliated to learn the truth about her grandsons’ laziness and lying, especially after she had given them everything at the expense of her own health. The grandmother is a representation of Pachamama, or “Mother Earth”, and the grandsons, humanity. Pachamama gives us everything to survive, and we should be grateful and honor them, but too often we do not, and we take these sacrifices for granted. Not only that, but we take one another for granted as well, we don’t take care of each other as a community, we just go about our days wrapped up in our own little worlds. So not only are we failing the land that gives us life, but we are failing one another as well. A part of this lies within our hesitancy to feel, to breath, to connect with the earth and with one another. As the ceremony went on, I could feel the tears swell up within me, I was so moved by this experience and what was being said. I felt shame for not being a better human but also joy and overwhelming calm from the peace and acceptance that was coming from it all. It was vital for my group to experience this at the beginning of the trip, because it set the tone for the rest of it, and helped us to understand the depth of connection between the earth and people, and the importance of that connection to Inti Raymi, the harvest festival we’d be participating in a few more times during the trip.
Inti Raymi and the Importance of Minga
Inti Raymi, which is Kichwa/Quechua for “sun festival”, is a celebration that occurs during the southern hemisphere’s winter solstice and the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice. It is during this time of the year, on the Inca calendar, that the harvest of the crops begins, and is a celebration of the sun deity, Inti, as well. There are four days of celebration, and each day is packed with activities, especially music and dancing. Each day has a special meaning and a set of tasks, such as taking food castillos to certain members of a community on the first day, and the last day being about the women of the community.
One of the most prominent ideas and information I gained from experiencing the Inti Raymi celebration in the two areas I did, was that community and hard work are key to pulling it, and life, off, without having to worry about whether or not you will get support. There is a word for this, “minga” which, from the Kichwa/Quechua translation means “communal/cooperative work”, and was something we tried to do wherever we went. We heard amazing stories of how this is implemented in communities, a couple of those stories I shall tell in my next entry, which is on community. These communities that we saw at FLASCO and visited, worked together in order to pull off the major celebration, and it was something to behold and experience. My group was told, while in the city our first week, to buy and bring food, such as fruit and/or bread, for the Inti Raymi ceremony we would be a part of at FLASCO, and we delivered. There is a big importance put on working together, and we joined students and staff of the university, along with the Andean group that came to put on the ceremony, in creating the altar in the communal square on the property of the school. While there, there was no feeling of being foreign tourists butting in on something private, there was a feeling of community, of acceptance. We all worked together to build this altar, our differences fading into the background as soon as we got there. We were just people in the same space, there for the same reasons, and it was an important part of the experience. We went into the street and claimed the area through dance and music. We repeated old words, greeted Pachamama and said hello to the surrounding volcanos and our fellow humans to the south, east, west, and north. We danced in a circle, our feet stomping on the ground, waking up the earth. We, the people at that celebration that day, shared a connection, one that was deeper than anything I have experienced in a long time. That’s the power of this celebration, that’s the power of Inti Raymi. I wanted to cry then as well, not tears of sadness, but tears of happiness.
Up high in the Andean mountains, we stayed for two days and two nights in the community of San Clemente, during their Inti Raymi fiesta. We stayed in the homes of the generous people of the community and participated in celebration preparation, learning about traditional dances, food, songs, and etiquette.
The first night we learned about dances and songs, and helped build two food castillos that would later be given to two specific households within the community, one of which being the household that took over the main role of organizer for the event that year. The next day we learned about midwife practices, herbal medicines, and did minga in the community, plowing a field with two ox, and harvesting the corn field of an elder member of the community. That night we attended the festivities being put on in the small town nearby. We danced, sang, connected. We made the locals laugh with our ridiculous dancing, but I believe they appreciated our enthusiasm. These fiestas last into the night, and continue for the entire four days of celebration. These people work hard, respect tradition and keep it and their culture alive and well, but let me tell you something, they sure know how to throw a party as well.
The Past Is Alive and Well
Again, to look at some of this from an archaeological perspective, in terms of preservation, I was and still am blown away by the dedication seen in both the city and the highlands. This is not to say that this dedication and ability is not without effort, cultural traditions face fading from existence all over the globe, and Ecuador is no exception, but the fact is there are people there that have either taken up the mantle to do or bring attention to these traditions, or have lived with these traditions their entire lives and see no reason for them not to continue. Ecotourism, or better yet, community tourism, seen at places such as San Clemente’s Tradiciones San Clemente Cultural Center, are helping to not only bring money and support into the community, but keep the culture and traditions of the people alive and well, which is something I find to be more than worth while.