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Opinion and Analysis: Culture | Indigenous and Afro-Venezuelans | International

Venezuela’s Indigenous Mapoyo Language Added to UNESCO Heritage List

The inclusion of the Mapoyo language was the only Latin-American proposal included this year.

The language of Venezuela’s Mapoyo indigenous people was added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Tuesday.

During the 9th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Paris, 900 delegates from 130 countries presented different cultural expressions and traditions to be considered for inclusion on the list. 

Benito Irady, head of the Venezuelan Cultural Diversity Center, along with the Mapoyo leader, Simon Bastidas and his daughter, Carolina Bastidas, presented the project at the session.

Analysis: A Glimpse of Mapoyo History

At the beginning, there was the two-headed Maiguata. The first head was God and the second head was a witch, the good and the evil, and they lived in the heavens. Above the earth, in the Guanya valle, Maiguata created life; starting with three lakes for fish. And this life, the fish, was being stolen by the Twin Head, every night, when he would descend with his two daughters and two baskets to catch the fish.

So Maiguata sent his nephew, the monkey to find out what was going on. The crickets, the heron, the parrot, the tiger, the deer, the fly, all of them slept until midnight. After waking up that night, each one became a person and received its song. The bird saw what was happening, when he saw the witch and the two daughters descend to catch the bounty from the lakes, only leaving the other creatures with a few fish scales.   

That is how the earth was created, Maritza Reyes tells her granddaughter, who is sitting on her knees as she fixes a blouse with an old sewing machine. It is noon in the El Palomo community, what they call in Mapoyo Murucuni.

Morning classes have finished by this time, construction on the community longhouse to function as a market and a school has stopped, and the houses smell of fish cooking from the river. In the background are the Caripito mountains, a dark rock streaked with glimmering waterfalls and a topped with a forest. At the foothills are some plots of land harvesting bananas and plantains, not divided by fences, like many parcels of land in the ancestral territory of 230,000 hectares that extends from the Suapare to the Parguaza Rivers.

At 7:30 a.m., 120 children who are attending preschool to sixth grade sing the national anthem in Mapoyo at the school’s entrance. After finishing the song, they enter the classrooms greeting the teacher in Mapoyo, and the teacher also responds in Mapoyo, telling the children to sit down. Then the class begins in Spanish, where the teacher introduces the topic of the day. The rest of the day continues in both languages.  

This scene repeats itself every Monday to Friday, but ten years ago, it didn’t exist. Only recently have the children begun learning Mapoyo. Before, the elders didn’t teach it to them, in school or at home. So the language was dying and with it, a key part of their identity as the smallest indigenous group in Venezuela -- almost 400 in Murucuni and just 400 more nationwide.  

It was the new generations that began to push for this cultural rediscovery, wanting to understand and know more about what they heard their grandparents talking about. “The language and culture have been asleep, but we still have the knowledge of it. We just have to re-awaken it,” said Carolina, 30. She was one of the one who sought to reestablish the bridge between the generations in her community.

Self-organization led people like Carolina to delve more into not just the language, but the Mapoyo culture as well. Then, with the help of the National School of Popular Culture, they created the teachers of ancestral knowledge component in their curricula, which includes; language, history, arts and crafts, construction of canoes and paddles, architecture, medicine, pottery-making, agriculture, and harvesting of cassava and mañoco.  

This is is how the path to self-recovery commenced: some with the desire to learn and others with the desire to teach. The children began to say words in their language, “The longer sentences are still hard for them,” Carolina said, which is also frustrating for their parents who decided to also get involved in learning Mapoyo. Now, every Friday there are also Mapoyo classes for adults.

Mapoyo is Freedom and Resistance

At the end of the battle, the Liberator Simón Bolívar sent for Paulino Sandoval, a chieftain. The Mapoyos, under the command of Captain Alejo, fought the Spaniards and they won, thanks to their help. When the chieftain came, the Liberator asked him what his people wanted and he said, land to live on. So Bolivar gave him a paper with a title: from the Suapare to the Parguaza Rivers, as the chieftain requested, along with his sword the lance belonging to Jose Antonio Paez, the hero of Venezuelan independence.

The land title, though was lost in a fire, and Simon Bastidas, the current chieftain and owner of Paez’s sword and lance, and Carolina’s father, has dedicated immense effort to obtaining the title again. In March 2013, he managed to get it. The government recognized his territory from river to river. “We’re free here,” Simoncito, one of the chieftain’s sons said, pointing out that there are no fences, an agreement they settled on with other indigenous groups living in the area.