For generations, perhaps centuries, the Yánesha recounted their history in stories and songs passed from one generation to the next, telling of ancestors, the immortals who came to Earth and went up to the heavens, recounting epic narratives and commemorating events and places. No one knew an entire story or song; different people handed down different pieces of the tradition, weaving them together during communal gatherings.
Then the outside world encroached. Young people became less interested in learning lore from their elders, and terrorist violence in the 1980s and 1990s fragmented communities in the central Peruvian Amazon, where the Yánesha live. “Children and young people no longer pay attention to the elders and don’t value the secrets of the ancestors,” says Espíritu Bautista, 54, a Yánesha from the Loma Linda Laguna Native Community in the Oxapampa region of central Peru. “And because they don’t ask, the elders don’t tell them what they know.”
That is starting to change, however, with a patient effort to gather the stories and songs and map the places and events they describe. The result has surprised even the researchers—including Bautista and American anthropologist Richard Chase Smith—because these maps indicate that the Yánesha historically occupied a much larger territory than they do now, making arduous journeys from the Amazon lowlands over the Andes Mountains to the Pacific Coast.
For the Yánesha, “history is linked to the landscape,” Smith says. “The maps help us visualize that link.”
They also help preserve significant pieces of Yánesha tradition. Even as a teenager, Bautista realized the enormity of the loss of traditional knowledge. “Every time an elderly person died, a library closed,” he says. So he started keeping a journal of stories the elders told. And in 1975, he met Smith, who first worked in the Oxapampa region as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s and who was taping the stories and songs. “I was surprised to find a tall gringo speaking Yánesha,” recalls Bautista, who immediately joined Smith on his travels to communities.
As they recorded on tape and film, they realized that the Yánesha conserved their history in stories, songs and places in the landscape. “The Yánesha had an incredible notion of geography and named places,” Smith says. “After mapping, we understand much better how they fit together.”
Songs “used to play a central role in the transmission of knowledge and power,” says Anna Luisa Daigneault, an anthropologist and ethno-linguist from the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Oregon, who began working with the Yánesha mapping project in 2008. But the traditional bond between song and place is falling victim to lifestyle changes. In the past, people sang and told stories as they walked, tying their oral tradition to the places they passed. Nowadays, traveling by bus, people may still point out the places, “but they won’t sing,” Smith says.
Analyzing the data they were gathering, Smith realized that the Yánesha traditions referred to a much wider area than the group’s current territory. As people recounted events that occurred in the highlands, or even on the coast, on the other side of the mountain range, Smith began to question the common belief that there was historically little mingling between Amazonian and Andean peoples. To test his suspicions, he and several friends walked a trail mentioned by missionaries in historical documents and found that the trek from highlands to lowlands took only three days. “These worlds are totally connected,” Smith says. “The big barrier between the Andes and the Amazon was a myth.” But that raised a new question: How big a place do the Yánesha keep in their heads?
The recording project lapsed for a time, when Bautista took a leadership role in the Yánesha organization and Smith moved to Lima and founded the nonprofit Instituto del Bien Común, which supports indigenous communities, including helping them map their territories. Bautista remained
interested in his people’s heritage, but others said he focused too much on the past. Finally, in 2000, a new cornesha, the highest-ranking Yánesha leader, was elected and who supported Bautista’s desire to reclaim his people’s history. So Bautista sold five of his chickens to raise money for a bus ticket to Lima, where he met with Smith for the first time in nearly two decades.
Bautista had in mind a Yánesha geography, to record the places where his people had walked, but Smith suggested a more ambitious mapping of what he calls the Yánesha’s “historical-cultural landscape,” building on the work they had already begun. By then, Smith’s organization was mapping with modern technology. Bautista says he knew nothing of cameras, GPS equipment or computers, “but when you want to do something for your people, nothing is impossible.”
He, Smith and several colleagues have spent the past decade walking trails with older Yánesha—mainly people over the age of 50, who remember songs and stories—and marking places and events on topographic maps. Sometimes they would go over the same route several times, adding details each time.
After a trip, the team would spend weeks entering data into a custom-designed database. At first, the database was a simple list of names and identification numbers. Over time, however, more than 50 types of information—geographic features such as mountains or springs, natural resources such as salt licks and plants, and places where particular events occurred—have been divided into categories and geo-referenced, so they can be used to create maps.
Since August, Smith, Bautista and colleagues have been creating a digital archive of nearly 40 years’ worth of their original audio and video recordings, which they have donated to a university in Lima. The goal is to make the recordings and maps available online.
In July, they presented sets of 10 maps to each of 69 schools in the Yánesha territory in central Peru, to spark children’s interest and help them understand how their heritage is linked to the landscape. The team is preparing a guide to help teachers, who may be unfamiliar with Yánesha traditions, use the maps in the classroom.
Bautista has helped the Awajún and Wampis people carry out a similar project in their territory in the northern Peruvian Amazon region, and he and Smith say other indigenous groups can map their own landscapes.
In addition to his efforts to raise awareness of Yánesha culture through the maps, Bautista holds workshops for children, mainly between the ages of 10 and 12, about what it means to be Yánesha. “The language was lost; the dress was lost; the unity, love and solidarity have all been lost. That is what it means to be Yánesha,” he says. “Nowadays, if you don’t have money, you can’t do anything.”
Bautista has steeped his 10 children in their Native culture. “They know, and they sing well,” he says. His grandchildren are learning to speak Yánesha, and one son, Eder, is helping his father and the rest of the mapping team enter the thousands of pieces of data into the project’s online database.
Lynn Trujillo, a 39-year-old lawyer from Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico, would like to try their methods in her community. “It’s incredible to see the amount of work that has gone into the project and the amount of work that needs to be done,” says Trujillo, who is helping Bautista and his son prepare the digital archives. “This is not a resource-rich tribe in terms of money, yet they’re doing everything they can to preserve their way of life, their culture, their language.”
Although Bautista and other Yánesha involved in the project are not trained linguists or anthropologists, Trujillo says, “They have the vision and the heart to know that they need to hold onto this, not just for themselves, but for their people and for future generations.”
Every Map Begins With a Single Story
Chase Smith calls a tribe’s “historical-cultural landscape” requires patience, persistence and collaboration. For tribes considering similar projects, Smith and Espíritu Bautista offer the following tips:
1. The tribe must agree that the project is important and be willing to share its knowledge with others, including any outsiders who are helping with the research. That means consulting the members and getting approval in an assembly or the tribe’s highest decision-making body.
2. Decide who is going to coordinate the project for the tribe. The person must be interested and committed, speak the language well and be willing to train young people who also speak the language to help gather information.
3. Determine whether you will assemble a large team of researchers to gather information from individuals over a long period of time, as Smith and Bautista did with the Yánesha, or a small team that will gather information in meetings with groups of people, as the Awajún and Wampis did. (They completed their mapping in nine months.)
4. The members of the research team should combine archeological knowledge of the area with a deep understanding of the people’s history and worldview. The team especially needs a “bridge person”—like Bautista—who is trusted and respected by the community, but who also understands why archeology, linguistics and ethnohistory are important.
5. Obtain topographic maps of the area for recording geographic and historical elements, and seek out technical assistance to learn to use geographic information systems and build a database.
6. When different people tell different versions of events, don’t try to figure out who is right. “They’re all correct,” Smith says. The versions might have changed over time, or they might refer to different events that occurred at the same place, or to similar events in different places.