The Relevance of Indigeneity in Contemporary Ecuador

Identity, Development, and the Politics of the Past: An Ethnography of Continuity and Change in a Coastal Ecuadorian Community, by Daniel Bauer (Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2018)

Reviewed by Joe Quick, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Waukesha

Daniel Bauer’s student-oriented book Identity, Development, and the Politics of the Past (2018) explores the emergence of indigenous identity among residents of Salango – a fishing community in coastal Ecuador. Bauer shows how contemporary Salangueño ethnic identities have been shaped by the confluence of practices and discourses that unfold at multiple scales. These include archaeological research and political contests at the local level, indigenous identity politics at the national level, the international circuits of the tourism industry, and transnational development discourses.

Bauer’s exploration of indigeneity in coastal Ecuador is a welcome contribution to the literature on indigenous peoples. In contrast to the Andean and Amazonian parts of the country, the Ecuadorian coast has traditionally been seen as a distinctly non-indigenous region. In the common sense of national consciousness, the people of the region are regarded as mestizos (mixed-race). Along the southern coast, where Salango is located, locals are often labeled montubio – a term for mixed-race peasants that carries negative connotations of cultural backwardness. When indigeneity is invoked with regard to the people of this region it is usually reserved for the people of the precolonial past. Thus, merely to treat indigeneity as relevant to present day coastal Ecuador is an intervention into dominant discourses.

Bauer’s discussion of indigenous identity as an emergent and contested phenomenon encourages readers to rethink essentialist understandings of indigenous peoples and cultures. Life and landscape in Salango are full of cultural and material links between modern residents and ancient peoples. Yet, these things have not always pointed toward indigenous identity. Bauer explores how such connections to the prehistory of the region have taken on new meaning and new value as they have been reinterpreted in the context of national indigenous politics, local projects to defend land, and the growth of Ecuador’s tourism industry.

In the opening chapters, Bauer sets a student-friendly tone with narrative anecdotes illustrating the challenges and rewards of conducting ethnographic fieldwork. He introduces Salango as a dynamic community, calling attention to the diverse origins and histories of the village’s inhabitants and institutions. He also describes the impact of national and global political-economic forces on Salangueño livelihoods. Subsequent chapters address the emergence of indigeneity as a salient element of Salangueño identity through the convergence of events that have unfolded at multiple scales.

Chapter 3 explores how “archaeology and the past provide contributions to local understandings of identity in the present” (p. 57). Bauer opens this chapter with anecdotes illustrating how archeological evidence of the past is a mundane part of everyday life in Salango. Then, he turns to more explicit, symbolically rich celebrations of the community’s connection to the past: the annual celebration of the pre-Hispanic Manteño culture, and a special event celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the local archaeological museum.

Chapter 4 explores how the discourses pioneered by Ecuador’s national-level indigenous movement provided a framework within which some Salangueños began to understand local conflicts as part of the larger struggle of indigenous peoples. The defining moment in this process came when a contingent of Salango residents organized to oppose the sale of communal land to a powerful outsider. When the Ecuadorian government declined to intervene on the grounds “that as montubios, the people of Salango were not afforded the same rights to communal land as Ecuador’s Indigenous residents” (p. 90), locals who opposed the sale responded strategically by mounting a protest in which they blocked the road and demanded recognition as an indigenous community. Bauer makes sense of these events in the context of national and international histories of indigenous political organizing.

Chapter 5 discusses the impact of development discourses on Salangueños’ identity, particularly in the context of Ecuador’s burgeoning tourism sector. While individual entrepreneurs have had little reason to market their services as explicitly indigenous, the leaders of a community-based tourism organization found it necessary to frame their organization as indigenous in order to access development funds provided by government institutions. Ultimately, the mandate of those institutions to serve indigenous people is shaped by global development discourses, but Bauer keeps his focus on the grounded experiences of Salangueño entrepreneurs.

Taken together, the events that spurred the embrace of indigenous identity in Salango are highly reminiscent of indigenous ethnogenesis in other parts of Ecuador. What initially appears novel about the case of Salango is that, as a coastal community, its residents were not previously identified as indigenous. However, as historians have shown, indigeneity was never a foregone conclusion, even in Andean and Amazonian communities with distinctive languages, ritual practices, and forms of dress. Rather, indigenous identity has always been an emergent phenomenon in Ecuador, as it has been throughout Latin America and around the world. Bauer’s discussion of how this process has unfolded in Salango should remind us to think carefully about the multiscalar social, political, and economic forces that variously encourage or impede the formation of indigenous identity.

Indigeneity is emergent, but it does not come from nowhere. Bauer argues convincingly that Salangueños feel a deep and abiding connection to the pre-Columbian past. Though traditions have recently been invented in order to celebrate that connection under the banner of indigenous heritage, the sense of connection itself is by no means new. Rather, what has emerged is a new framework for interpreting historically-rooted identities – a framework that has appealed to Salangueños insofar as it provides them opportunities to trade upon their identity in order to generate political and economic capital.

Identity, Development, and the Politics of the Past provides an accessible perspective on the complex issue of indigenous ethnogenesis. It is well suited for use in an introductory course on peoples of Latin America or global indigenous studies, but it will have the greatest impact on students if it is presented as a challenge to hegemonic understandings of race, ethnicity, and indigenous identity. I would recommend that it be accompanied by materials on the history of race and ethnicity in Latin America, the history of indigenous politics in Ecuador, and the apotheosis of identity within the fields of international tourism and transnational development.