Lumen Scholar researches 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. Elon senior Chris Jarrett is examining how groups interact with Ecuadorian society through political activity and development projects, and his research on the Amazonian Kichwa people is the latest work to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2011.

Elon University senior Chris Jarrett with assistant professor Michael Matthews, his Lumen Prize mentor.

Jarrett has made several trips to Ecuador and lived in the Kichwa community of Rukullakta during one Winter Term experience. A summer 2010 internship with the Runa Foundation, a fair-trade organization, allowed him to witness the way alliances are being formed between Americans and Kichwa people.

He also 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.

With the help of assistant professor Michael Matthews, and through case studies and interviews, the Honors Fellow has looked at the history of Ecuador’s indigenous-based political movement and how it has translated into real changes at the community level.

Though the cultural and language barriers posed difficulties at times, the Spanish and international studies double major from Richmond, Va., said he has strived to give a voice to the indigenous people with whom he conducted his research.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

The program includes course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

Jarrett recently sat down with the Office of University Relations to share details of his research. 

What led you to research this topic?
I started thinking about it my sophomore year. I knew I wanted to study abroad, so I was considering the options that Elon had, and Ecuador seemed like the most appropriate because it allowed me to bring together two interests of mine – indigenous cultures and international development. My interest in indigenous cultures came from a course that I took on Maya culture in Mexico during Winter Term of my freshman year. 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.

Once I decided to study in Ecuador, I came up with the idea to look at Ecuador’s indigenous movement, something that’s been studied in some detail at the national level, but has not been examined in terms of how the social movement has affected communities at the local level with regards to cultural identity and socioeconomic development. 

How did your study abroad experience in Ecuador contribute to your project?
When I got to Ecuador, I picked as many courses as I could that would orient me toward the types of issues I was interested in. I took a class on rural sociology, which gave me a broad perspective on sociological issues in rural communities. I also took Kichwa, the indigenous language that I would end up having to learn again when I went to the Amazon. All of these things connected together. I was even able to do work for my classes that was very similar to my broader project. For example, I wrote a paper about bilingual education for my sociology course, which is now going to be a section of my thesis. 

Were you able to conduct interviews with the indigenous people you met?
During the semester, I did interviews with some of my professors at the university in Quito, but 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. During my ethnography, I interviewed members of my host family who were in a traditional Kichwa music and dance group, as well as political and cultural activists and officials at bilingual schools. 

When you entered these communities, how did they respond to your questions?
Having a contact in the community really helped me to get connected to my research area. My American friend had lived in the community and worked on a community tourism project with them. She had been with them for about five months and had developed a certain degree of intimacy with them, so they trusted her. Meeting them through her helped to gain their trust, but it still took a while for them to open up to me. I did my best with the time I had, but I need to spend longer than a month to develop the deep connections needed for more comprehensive fieldwork.

How did your time in the community contribute to your research?
It was fundamental to everything I’m doing because being in Rukullakta allowed me to develop a unique case study to see how the movement has translated into real changes at the local level, and the really rich and exciting part about this is that no one has done this type of study in that particular community. That’s really what’s made my project something novel and exciting.

Have there been any other venues where your results have been published?
I plan to try to publish my work in an undergraduate journal. The more important part of the publishing process to me, however, is when I finally finish my project and am able to give it back to the community that hosted me to share my perspective and the knowledge I’ve gained with the people I lived with and interviewed. I see my responsibility in developing this dialogue with the community as a central component of the ethics of my research.

There is a long history of Western researchers doing projects in indigenous communities around the world and not engaging, sometimes even using exploitative or demeaning methods, and extracting information from communities without sharing what they ended up writing about them. A central component of this ethical question for me is writing my project in Spanish. I want the community and the people I interviewed to know what I write about them to facilitate discussion.

When you first started this project, did you have any major goals for your research?
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.

Do you plan to continue in this line of research?
I have already applied for a Fulbright Grant to continue studying the guayusa tea ritual that I researched this summer during my internship, specifically to look at cultural narratives associated with it. There are a lot of political messages present in these narratives, so the Fulbright would allow me to connect my current research to a broader study of Kichwa oral tradition and culture. I would hopefully be able to perfect my Amazonian Kichwa and gain a much deeper understanding of Kichwa culture.

What are your plans for after Elon?
My future plan is to go to graduate school for anthropology, so the Fulbright would be fantastic in terms of laying the foundations for a longer process of fieldwork I would develop during graduate studies. Even if I don’t get the grant, I plan to continue to study with the Amazonian Kichwa for my graduate research.

How has the Lumen prize helped you with your research?
The Lumen prize has been exceptional in terms of making this project a reality and gaining a broader perspective on the issues I’m looking at. Without the prize, there are a lot of experiences I’ve had that wouldn’t have been possible.

– Interview with Caitlin O’Donnell ’13, Office of University Relations