Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Who counts as Native American in the US is very different from who counts as indigenous in Ecuador. In the US, it's something kind of rare, kind of special. Americans love to tell you about how their grandmother was part Cherokee.

Here 7% of the population is straight-up indigenous, and 72% has mixed indigenous and European ancestry. People here with glossy black hair, sharp cheekbones, and russet skin mostly identify as mestizo. Whether you're read as indigenous or mestizo seems to depend mostly on your dress, hairstyle, and language rather than your physical appearance.

Here there is no Tribal ID number, no process of enrolling in a tribe, no affirmative action, no casino profits. If you marked “indigenous” on the census with only 1/32 Quichua ancestry, people here would laugh at you.

Family in Otavalo

In Massachusetts, 90% of the indigenous population died of smallpox in the first two years of contact with the English, and more were killed in clashes. (Ecuadorans are shocked when I tell them this. Here, the Spanish valued indigenous people as slave labor rather than trying to exterminate them.) The fact is that being Native American means something very different in a country where those people were almost wiped out than where they now constitute most of the gene pool.

At the daycare where I volunteer, another American brought in some coloring sheets for the kids. They had pictures of Disney characters, including an Indian from Peter Pan, half-naked and grimacing as he aims his bow. “Look,” she told the kid who received it. “Un indio.”

I didn't want to cause a scene in front of the kids or the teacher, but I wanted to ask her, “Did you think about the fact that every one of these children is descended from indigenous people? Did you think about the fact that “indio” is an insult tossed around on the street here? Did you notice that the teacher in the next room wears her hair in a long tress? Have you observed that growling and shooting stuff are not common pastimes here? Have you observed that four-year-olds absorb every scrap of information we give them? Do you realize you're teaching them more than fine motor skills?"

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