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Preserving native languages

2013-11-12 15:31:37
A small plane brought Chapman professor Pilar Valenzuela and
student Priya Shah to the village that resides along the meandering,
1,000-mile-long Ucayali River in the Peruvian Amazon jungle.
You land in a little field of grass, Shah said. The airport was a piece
of metal on top of four poles.
Valenzuela is an expert in the languages of the Shipibo (shih-pee-boe)
and Shiwilu (shih-wee-loo) people of the area. Shah and other
Chapman students went with her on one of her many work and
research trips to Peru to help her document the Shiwilu language.
While Shipibo is still spoken, learned and passed on to children, Shiwilu is on the verge of extinction.
Fewer than 30 Shiwilu speakers remain, Valenzuela said. It is spoken only by the Shiwilu people, who live
in Jeberos, a village with no running water or electricity.
Studying, documenting and preserving native languages may not seem relevant or important, but
Valenzuela said native languages encode traditional knowledge accumulated over centuries.
She said studying language also leads to a better understanding of human thinking.
Depending on the language we speak, we pay attention to different types of information. We categorize
differently, she said. Languages influence how we construct reality and what we remember.
For example, the Shipibo people think differently about time than much of the rest of the world, which is
represented in their language.
Shipibo language has different suffix markers that must be used to represent tomorrow, immediate past,
earlier today, yesterday to a few days ago, two months to a few years ago and many years ago (see
If we didn't have these languages, we would believe the only way to structure time is past, present and
future, she said.
As part of Valenzuela's Spanish linguistics class, students translated the Shiwilu-Spanish dictionary she
developed to English, making it trilingual. The project was funded by a National Science Foundation grant.
Shah, who graduated from Chapman in the spring and is working on a doctorate in colonial Latin American
history at Duke University, was the primary research assistant on the project.
The languages of the Peruvian Amazon come from several language families, which is a group of
languages that share a common ancestor.
The Shiwilu and Shawi languages are the only two languages that make up the Kawapanan language
family spoken in northeastern Peru. Shipibo comes from the larger Panoan family, which consists of 30
languages that are spoken in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.
In Guatemala, on the other hand, about 25 indigenous languages are spoken, but most of them belong to
the Mayan family, Valenzuela said. That's why the Amazon is such an important hot spot for language
That diversity is fading. More people are switching to Spanish. Globalization, deforestation, mining and
other outside influences are changing life, culture and language in the Peruvian Amazon.
The Catholic Church and evangelical Christian missionaries have had a major effect on the indigenous
people of the Peruvian Amazon. Missionaries have introduced the concept of sin and have encouraged the
prohibition of certain customs, such as shaman healing and drinking of Manioc beer made of cassava root.
Shah discovered this on her visits to Peru. Shah's solo project compared the influence of colonization and
religious missionaries on the Shawi and the Shiwilu.
The Shawi have largely resisted the influence of the religious missionaries because they were more spread
out than the Shiwilu people, who were concentrated in one area, Shah said. The Shawi have mostly
preserved their native traditions, including their dress and religion, she said.
Even technology is changing life in the Peruvian Amazon.
When Valenzuela visited Jeberos in 2005, there weren't any kind of telephones. When she visited in 2007,
there was one public telephone, operated by a local family. People had to line up to use it, and if someone
got a phone call, it would be announced on a loudspeaker.
In 2012, villagers had cell phones.
Things are changing quickly, she said.
Valenzuela will be traveling once again to Peru in January. She'll take a couple of Chapman students.
The Chapman contingent will be interviewing a Shipibo woman, Koshi Shinanya Ainbo, who was the
subject of a book that Valenzuela published in 2005, Koshi Shinanya Ainbo: El Testimonio de una mujer
shipiba, (Koshi Shinanya Ainbo: The Testimony of a Shipibo Woman). They will be translating the Shipibo
book from Spanish to English.
It's one of the few works that talks about the ethnic group from the point of view of a woman, she said.
There are things that women will talk about with other women and not with a man.
Valenzuela's motivations for studying Amazonian languages are two-fold: scientific and kinship she feels
with the indigenous people in her native country.
Before coming to the U.S., she got her undergraduate degree in Peru and wanted to study and document
the Quechua language spoken in the Andes. Quechua was the language of the Inca civilization conquered
by the 16
Century Spaniards.
I had two Quechua-speaking grandparents, so my goal and dream was to devote my professional work to
study and promote the language of my grandparents, she said.
She was invited by an indigenous confederation to work on a bilingual teachers' certification program in the
At that point I had never met a Shipibo person in my life, Valenzuela said.
She worked with the Shipibo for four years before going back to school for graduate studies. She did her
master's thesis and doctoral dissertation on the Shipibo language.
If you speak an indigenous language, it means you're Indian, Valenzuela said.
That carries with it certain prejudices related to class, education and poverty.
The people in their own culture feel embarrassed to speak their language or to use the knowledge that
was transmitted to them by their ancestors. That's very sad, she said.
I'm very proud of who we are, she said. When you show how complex these languages are and how
interesting, you're also saying that theses people are intelligent.
Shamans drink ayahuasca, a beverage that has hallucinogenic properties, to get visions to help them
treat ill people. Shipibo don't view the drink as hallucinogenic; they see it as a connector to another world
or reality.
Women can be healers and are considered powerful.
Shipibo people have a Spanish name and a true name in Shipibo. Spanish is considered the outsiders
They are renowned for their pottery, which traditionally had practical purposes but is now sold as art to
In Shipibo culture, a man never talks to his in-laws and vice versa. It's taboo. They have to talk through
the wife or someone else. Traditionally, the man will live with the woman's parents until the couple has its
first child.
Medicinal uses for plants and insects are encoded into Amazonian languages.
Fishing is an important activity for villages along the river. Beten, a thick stew made with fish, is a
traditional Shipibo dish. It includes grated plantains and is very thick.
Shipibo have to bring water from the river for cooking, and there is no electricity. Villages generally have
an engine generator they use for three hours a day.
Source: Pilar Valenzuela
Getting to the villages along the Ucayali River is an adventure in itself.
The closest village Pilar Valenzuela visits is a Shipibo village called San Francisco de Yarinacocha. She
flies from Los Angeles Airport to Lima, the capital of Peru and its largest city. Then she flies one hour to
From Pucallpa, she travels by car for one hour during the dry season or by car for 30 minutes and then by
boat for 40 minutes during the wet season. There are about 130 Shipibo villages, and some of them are
days away from Pucallpa; one week away in a boat and three to four days with a speedboat.
Jeberos, where the Shiwilu people are, is in the middle of the jungle. Valenzuela flies from LAX to Lima,
Peru. She then flies one hour to Tarapoto, where she takes a car to Yurimaguas, a three-hour drive.
Next, she takes a day-long cargo ship to Lagunas, then a boat to Jeberos, which takes one to two days,
depending on the river. Sometimes it is possible to fly in a small plane from Yurimaguas to Jeberos.
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