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August 18, 2022

Ancient Traditions, Modern Reincarnations – Derek Russell, B.ARCH 2022

by dersrussell

One morning, walking past Manuel and into the kitchen, he asked simply, “do you want to go to the Amazon?” And so it was written.

Sunset over the Aguarico

In the distance between Quito and Ecuador’s Amazon, altitude abruptly changes over 5,000 feet. To voyage from the capital city in the clouds to the eastern lowlands requires both patience and a sturdy stomach, lurching over curves at mountain passes with sheer vertical drops deep into the valleys below. The journey takes approximately five hours to complete, three if Pablo is behind the wheel.

That drizzling 5 A.M. journey, a time just cresting the city’s hustle and bustle, greeted us with a plethora of landslides as Pachamama’s arms opened deep into the ravines below. Newly formed waterfalls punched holes through what I thought were solid roadways, collapsing concrete in an instant. We somehow managed to brush past fallen boulders through a narrow impasse, the determination to complete a journey that had already been stalled for weeks in the protests seemed to pave a path forward. It wasn’t until weeks later that I discovered we were some of only few travelers to successfully venture out of the Andes that day, that week even. And so it went that the distance between fallen highways and Shushufindi collapsed beneath our rubber tires, and in just a few hours we arrived at our destination.

A totem watches over Shushufindi in the oil province of Sucumbios

Pulling into the central hub of the city at the edge of the Amazon, my heart sank. Truly, to me, it felt like one of the worst cities in the world. One distinct phrase emerged at the forefront of my mind, “there is no vernacular here.” This is the oil province, Miguel told me amid disheveled scrap yards and burning torches in the distance, the smell of petrol eking from the pavement. Shushufindi, he told me, a name deriving from the indiginous Cofan word for ‘paddle,’ is a new city. Built quickly and cheaply on the oil industry’s capital to house the working population, to clear cut forests and replace them instead with a concrete jungle. Really, it was only a few years old. Strange public art installations attempt to detract from the cheaply constructed double decker homes of concrete and steel mesh. Staring into their windows, I couldn’t help but think of the rubble I saw on the coast of Esmeraldas that I knew had at one point looked identical. That is, before the earthquake. So it was with our indigenous guides, Yadira and her two sisters Ruth and Naidaline, members of a nation known as the Siekopai, that we escaped through the boundaries of this portal city into the depths of palm oil plantations where the Amazon lay hidden.

Palm oil plantations that stretch on for miles

Siekoya Remolino, the settlement of the Ecuadorian Siekopai, was only the first stop on a long journey ahead, for my true destination was the port city of Guahoya far away in the Peruvian Amazon. To get there would require a nearly 15 hour canoe ride through the snakelike waterways of the rainforest. I was told that time works differently here when I asked what hour I should expect for us to depart. There are no schedules, instead things simply happen when they happen, unfold as they should. So with an eager, and mildly unnerved, spirit, I set myself to sleep in the hammock my coworkers provided me knowing that the most difficult part of the journey was yet to come.

The morning proved to be far less than ideal, the heavens above opening, pouring rain into our hydroscape. To my surprise, the water did not pool over the soil the way it does back in Providence, here it flows swiftly and precisely down river, towards our destination, and eventually as far as the Atlantic ocean; tears for a continent. There is something to be said about the pace of life in the jungle, it is truly something unmatched anywhere else that I have encountered. Extreme bouts of boredom interspersed with spontaneous bursts of excitement as we weave our way through the largest undisturbed ecosystem in the world. No cars or bridges, signs of sprawling civilization, crossed our vision. Just a sightline of tropical forests and expanding cavities over water cutting through, and the logs of course.

The same rainstorm that nearly delayed our trip from Quito, the same water that nearly flooded the village on the even of our trip downstream, had all aggregated here in the Aguarico. A high tide meant that we would move more swiftly than normal, but at a cost. Detritus that once littered the forest floor now littered our path, really it felt like we were in a simulation of the old arcade game Crossy Road, meagerly attempting to pass between one obstacle and the next. I quickly learned the hand signs seated next to Robinson at the bow: a fist to cut the engine, a release to bring it back to life. After many hours of this game of chicken, multiple bathroom breaks along the shoreline, a stop with the Peruvian border patrol so as not to evoke the wrath of their two-person police dinghy, we had crossed into foreign territory. I will never forget watching the sun set on the Rio Napo, the most beautiful colors I have ever witnessed in the sky. An in an instant we are plunged into darkness, left with nothing but a spotlight roving like the lantern atop a lighthouse past vines and an impenetrable fog. We search without eyes, another few hours, until suddenly, a spark in the distance.

The Siekopai, also known as the Many Colored People, are an indigenous community that has called the Amazon home for hundreds of years. They are a vibrant craftspeople who create multicolored garments and speak a unique language. Following a border dispute in the 1940s between Peru and Ecuador, the population was splintered, causing some of the community to flee deep into Ecuador and lose contact with their families. For nearly sixty years, the two groups remained separated until they were finally reunited. As a result of globalization and oil drilling in the Amazon, many indigenous practices are being lost as locals are assimilated into a capitalist system, relying less on subsistence living and more on working class jobs within the petroleum refineries and palm oil plantations. Distance between the two groups has made collaboration strenuous, and as these communities modernize, the ability to share and preserve knowledge becomes increasingly more difficult.

Pictured here are images I had the pleasure of taking for a historic workshop conducted by the Siekopai peoples in the Peruvian Amazon. Many women from various communities all across the jungle gathered in a the village of Guahoya to reunite and share ancestral knowledge of their traditional pottery making to the young generation. This pottery workshop is the first of its kind to be conducted since the recent reunification of the tribespeople. It is important to understand that the implementation of ancestral knowledge is a modern practice, and by creating spaces for community, there is hope that craft can once again incite sovereignty and agency for these struggling communities. I was lucky enough to be invited to help document the process. What I witnessed on this journey was an incredibly knowledgeable and generous community. With workshops like these, a new life has been injected into the Siekopai as they are able to reconnect with their families and strengthen historic bonds that have been fractured. The mending process is slow, but very much alive and thriving.

Weeks later I was given the opportunity to return to the Siekopai community in Ecuador to continue the work that began in the pottery workshop. Here, a guest speaker conducts an entrepreneurial workshop with the women of Siekoya Remolino, who made the ultimate decision to create a women’s collective to help brand and sell their crafts. The drive of these women was truly stunning, in mere weeks they had constructed an entirely new workshop dedicated to pottery making. With so much energy and excitement, I saw them take many steps towards becoming business leaders in their community.

They had asked me to help them create an official logo for their new brand, and so for the last part of the entrepreneurial workshop we had a session on logos, branding, as well as time to brainstorm together how they wanted to represent themselves moving forward. The organization is to be called Kenao, the Paicoca name for a particular ant species that is very small yet lifts immense loads. While the women had many symbols that they wished to incorporate into their logo, we narrowed down a few that particularly represented the ideas their organization stood for: a shamanic baton native only to their tribe, their pottery adorned with a symbol that is specifically used to represent women, and of course, the Kenao.

Sketches for the final logo design

While at many times I felt withdrawn from the prospect of helping to monetize artifacts of cultural importance, the reality is that these communities are a part of the global economy. Often, especially in more developed countries, we tell ourselves many myths, particularly related to indigenous peoples. Somehow a way of life in tune with the land is seen as something that is primitive, communities stuck in a time beyond time. But although they use ancient technology, perfected over a thousand years, they are modern people who desire a livable income and a safe community to live in. If their cultural practice can in some way give back in a system that has made subsistence living nearly impossible to sustain, then that is the path forward. Until sovereignty, until palm oil plantations are returned to the earth, until petrochemical industries stop extraction, these indigenous communities live with the rules that another society has imposed upon them. Customary practices have been disappearing, but here we have a chance to not only relearn what has been lost, but prove that these artisans can create work that is viable and modern and beautiful.

A digital illustration I created at the request of the Siekopai women, Yadira playing an Ocarina

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