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Researching indigenous culture in Ecuador

Since the arrival of the Spanish to Ecuador, indigenous peoples have struggled against political and economic elites trying to introduce Western norms that undermine cultural identities. As a Lumen Scholar, Elon senior Chris Jarrett examined how groups interact with Ecuadorian society through political activity and development projects.

“My interest in indigenous cultures came from a course that I took on Maya culture in Mexico during Winter Term of my freshman year,” Jarrett said. “My passion for matters related to development was sparked by a service-learning internship I had in the Dominican Republic the summer after my freshman year.”

With the help of assistant professor Michael Matthews, and through case studies and interviews, the Honors Fellow and 2011 grad from Richmond Va. has looked at the history of Ecuador’s indigenous-based political movement and how it has translated into real changes at the community level. He has made several trips to Ecuador and lived in the Kichwa community of Rukullakta during one Winter Term experience.

“My idea from the beginning had always been to do an ethnography, or live in a community and get to know the culture at a deeper level. I had a friend in my Kichwa class who had a connection to a community in the Amazonian region, so I went with her to meet the community members and arrange to do my fieldwork there,” he said.

Although his friend was trusted in the community, it took time for community members to talk candidly with Jarrett, and the language and cultural barriers presented challenges. In spite of this, he strived to give a voice to the indigenous people with whom he interacted.

A summer 2010 internship with the Runa Foundation, a fair-trade organization, also allowed him to witness the way alliances are being formed between Americans and Kichwa people. He observed how the organization’s project to cultivate a tea in Ecuador called guayusa and sell it in the United States is facilitating intercultural exchange while revitalizing the Amazonian ecosystem through organic production and reforestation.

“A large part of my vision for the project has been to facilitate dialogue between communities and academia. I have also sought to critically analyze where ideas for what it means to be indigenous come from, and how to best implement the types of initiatives and projects that communities are developing to revitalize their cultural identity,” Jarrett said. As a result, he says the time he spent in the Rukullakta was a fundamental piece of his research.

Jarrett recently received a Fulbright Program grant “to continue studying the guayusa tea ritual, specifically to look at cultural narratives associated with it,” he said. He will begin his graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio after completing the Fulbright.