Monthly Archives: March 2016

Sacred Valley

I’ve been taking a break from work this week and following the course of the Vilcanota River  through the Sacred valley of the Incas.  We started in the market town of  Pisac    and wandered through the amazing terraced  landscape where the townspeople’s ancestors perfected the art of cultivation at different altitudes. The next day we were on to Urubamba and then Ollantaytambo. Today we hiked to the Inti Punku (Sun Gate) and then descended to spectacular Machu Picchu – if you haven’t seen it, put it on your itinerary!

All of these places display an extraordinary dialogue between humans and nature. Where does the mountain end and the stonework begin?

Against linguistic extractivism

Rufino Chuquimamani2

Rufino Chuquimamani – Quechua expert and author, invited comentarista at Monday’s talk

I’ve found myself declaring lately that I am trying to practice an alternative to linguistic extractivism – but what does that mean? I think I coined the term.

According to, extractivism is

“A term of growing use in Latin America academia and social movements to describe economic activities that remove of large amounts of a nation’s natural commons for sale on the world market …”

I personally associate extractivism with the explosion of mining activities that endanger vulnerable communities in the Andes. Resources are taken out of communities in one direction, leaving waste products behind and moving the good stuff for consumption elsewhere. Similarly, linguists and anthropologists are notorious for conducting work that enriches their academic careers but never finds its way back to communities of origin.

An alternative practice is more like traditional agriculture, which is cyclical rather than linear. In this practice, communities themselves take care to return what they have taken from the earth back to where it is needed, with value added.

There are parallels in the practice of linguistic research among indigenous communities. We have a choice to make — are we simply going to mine these communities for what they have to offer linguistic science? Or are we going to take our place as honorary members of the communities when invited, returning results in ways that enrich their identities and allow for more dynamic teaching and use of the native languages?

It has been such a joy and privilege to spend the past six weeks in a phase of returning results. Taking the time to return results offers a break from the pressure off data collection so I can listen more carefully and simply observe what the needs are locally. There will be time soon enough to resume fieldwork, but it’s really enjoyable to see the results savored by people for whom they make a difference.

That was my experience on Sunday and Monday here as I gave talks to teachers and language rights activists in Cusco. There are currently very few viable university connections between local linguists and educators, and the organizations that are carrying out teacher preparation are up to their eyeballs in work. So I hired a pair of private consultants to help me put on two events here. One took place at the Asociación Pukllasunchis, a hub of intercultural education that mostly serves elites in the city but also runs a terrific radio program in the countryside. The other was at a museum run by the Ministry of Culture.

People actually got excited about grammar at these talks! They got excited because they saw for themselves what a complex and intricate mental system their local children have mastered by the time they get to school. Now they’re begging me to come back and offer the talk again in April to the team that helps plan Quechua language teaching content. Glad to see this work come off the bookshelf and into a useful place.

Hosts in Cbba

For a few weeks in February, I rented a room from the Arnez family who live just 6 blocks from the University. It was so pleasant to walk to work in the morning, and to eat Tanya’s home-cooked meals at night! I found this family through an organization called Sustainable Bolivia. Very kind folks  – the grandfather, Esteban, runs a small storefront at the house and his son, also Esteban, drives a large bus to and from their original hometown of Punata, where Quechua is spoken. Tanya tells me that she and her father-in-law speak Quechua ‘but not the pure kind’ – a typical refrain of people from Cochabamba who are aware that their language is heavily mixed with Spanish.

Altiplano diaries

Bolivia is home to ‘el altiplano’, the high plain, sometimes known as the table top of the world. It extends for many miles from Southern Peru to Southern Bolivia at an average altitude of 13000 feet above sea level. I’m writing this as I sit in the airport at an altitude of 13353 feet. Travelers and athletes from lower altitudes often need oxygen at this altitude; digestion and metabolism is also slower. I have usually managed by drinking mate de coca or coca leaf tea in what used to be a very small, pink airport building. Today I am sitting in a brand new modern building and haven’t stopped in for tea yet. Having spent the last month in a valley at 8400 feet above sea level, I am slightly better acclimatized, but I do feel a little dizzy.

I’m sure my kids remember the graphic lesson in what happens to fluids when transitioning from one extreme altitude to another: a bottle of soda bulged and overflowed at the high altitude, and practically imploded when returning to sea level. Hmmm, this is what happens at the cellular level too, which is why some people get a massive headache and have heart palpitations at high altitudes. Tea time!


I will never forget seeing a flock of iridescent orange-pink flamingos at dusk on the banks of a dark slate colored Lake Poopo. That was on a train ride across the altiplano in 1976. At that time, a group of people called the Uru-Chipaya lived around the lake and survived primarily by fishing. The name of their language is also related to the name of the nearby mining town of Oruro.

Some time in the 1990s, a consortium of Bolivians and foreign multinationals built a gas pipeline that runs the length of the altiplano, transporting natural gas. Around the turn of the millennium, an oil spill poisoned the lake, and now I hear it has dried up entirely – recent news reports confirm this, although the article attached here shows the return of some flamingos after rain fell in January.

A couple of young women who just started at ProEIB Andes, Delicia and Jhandira, conducted an ethnographic study in nearby communities, trying to discover the fate of the Uru-Chipaya people and their language. They reported that the language is no longer being spoken except by the elderly, and that people who left the Lake region have begun speaking Quechua and Spanish instead. A handful of skinny books including sociolinguistic studies and collections of Uru-Chipaya songs and stories is on display at the ProEIB Andes.IMG_0403[1]