Digital Awajún

NuwaThe rapid improvement and falling price of electronic equipment have put video in the hands of indigenous peoples worldwide and made it easier for film crews of modest means—whether indigenous or not—to document native  music, stories, rituals, and political aspirations.

In Amazonia, work on this front was pioneered by the late Terry Turner, who introduced video equipment and training to the Brazilian Kayapó, who use it to document their culture and fight for their rights to land and a voice in Brazilian politics.

The Awajún of Peru have been uploading videos to YouTube for at least a decade.   Based on my admittedly unsystematic survey, I’d say that a solid majority of these are music videos showcasing Awajún rock bands specializing in música tropical, especially cumbias.   (See this one from the Alto Mayo community of Shimpiyacu, for example.)  None of these are strong candidates for an MTV video award, and I’m not sure that they provide much reassurance that the Awajún are protecting their traditional heritage—but then young Hopis of Arizona have long been fans of reggae, which hasn’t prevented their Indian nation from being one of the most religiously conservative in North America.

In the last few years, however, some video material focused on other aspects of Awajún life has begun to emerge.  The production quality varies but appears to be improving.

The 30-minute video Awajúnti Takatji, “Awajun Style,” includes songs, myths, and views of everyday life in the community of Chipe-Cuzu.  A shorter video entitled Yumi (“Water”) focuses on the environmental threat to Awajún territory posed by government-approved mining activities.  For hard-hitting indigenous political messages, it’s hard to beat this raw but effective video that draws on rap music and images of violence taken during and after El Baguazo (2009).


A recent Paris Review interview of Sarah Thomason, a linguist on the faculty of the University of Michigan, focuses on “language leakage”—how words move from one language to another, or don’t—as well as the factors that cause languages to persist or respond positively to efforts to renew them.

I’m no longer close enough to the pragmatics of spoken Awajún to comment on how the language is dealing with new lexical demands (names of car parts, say, or terms used when working with computers), but I remain cautiously optimistic about prospects for continued use of the language in general.  The Awajún were among the earliest groups to work with missionary-linguists of SIL/WBT, and bilingualism has been central to Awajún primary education since the late 1940s.  Their cultural pride and large population bode well for the language’s viability in the immediate future.  It’s harder to say how the language will fare farther along, however.  Even large Indian nations in the United States—notably, the Navajo—struggle to ensure that young people continue to speak their native language.

IdiomaAwajunA short video demonstration of spoken Awajún, part of a series called “Todas las voces,” is available here.  Among the increasingly educated Awajún there is ongoing debate about whether the Awajún alphabet developed by SIL effectively represents the language’s sound system.  Fermín Tiwi Paati, a young Awajún intellectual whom I interviewed for Upriver in 2012, discusses proposed alternatives here.

It wouldn’t surprise me if within the next five years or so there begin to emerge Awajún videos with higher production values and more ambitious goals.  Like many expressions of modernity, the rise of globally accessible media is a double-edged sword for Amazonian peoples.  It exposes them to powerful outside images and ideas that may lead young people away from traditional values and modes of expression.  At the same time, it potentially offers small indigenous communities the opportunity to communicate their experience and aspirations to a global audience.


Minor Awajún-related media footnote.  A 54-minute feature film about the life of Church of the Nazarene missionaries Roger and Esther Winans, The Calling, is now available on YouTube thanks to the Oklahoma Historical Society.  Roger Winans established the first Protestant mission among the Awajún in the 1920s.  The video was made from worn 16mm film, and everything about it is low-budget.  Still, it expresses a particular moment in Awajún (and U.S.) history.  The Awajún portion begins at about the 30-minute mark.

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