Lessons from a Quechua Strongwoman: Ideophony, Dialogue and Perspective (First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies)

By Janis B. Nuckolls. 2010. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. 248 pages. ISBN: 978-0816528585 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Christy Reed, University of Manitoba

[Review length: 1061 words • Review posted on January 23, 2013]


There is a world where the anaconda speaks, where killing bullets have a voice, and where unborn children participate in gastronomical dialogue. In this world, the physical realm of land and of objects, inanimated by an enlightenment epistemology of possessive and objectifying knowing, is not only known; it is heard.[1] It is a world where the role of interlocutors expands from human beings to the dolphin, the jaguar, and to the falling tree.

It is into this world that Janis B. Nuckolls invites us through the stories of Luisa Cadena, a self-identified “strongwoman” of the Runa people in Amazonian Ecuador. Luisa Cadena hears and tells the stories of her land, utilizing a multi-perspectival discursive pattern, which Nuckolls contends is endangered in modern indigenous discourses of land, to animate all beings in her world. We delve into this world through linguistic categories found in the Runa use of Quichua. Ideophones, dialogue, and perspective markers combine in Luisa’s narrative to enliven, animate, and linguistically reify her reality and her land, giving her the self-identified status of strongwoman.

Ideophones, Nuckolls writes, allow nonhuman others to speak through vocalizing the way a tree yields, finally, to the axe, “Gyauuuuuuung blhuuuuuuuuu, puthunnng” (42); the way the fat drips from beloved Emison, upon his murder, “tsiik, tsiik” (67); and the way the dolphin laughs. Luisa’s use of these ideophones in the textured stories that make up much of the book allows for a heteroglossic space where the teller channels the perspectives of human and non-human others. Luisa uses her linguistic skill to invoke “inert substances” which are “capable of expressing an existential perspective” (41). Even though she now lives in the city, the sounds and voices of jungle and garden remain present in her stories, and it is the presence of these voices which allows her to stand up against Ernesto, a wealthy land-monger trying to take her garden. These voices, Nuckolls argues, give Luisa her rhetorical power in expressing her land rights to authorities. When Luisa speaks, she speaks with more than just a single voice. Her whole world speaks with her.

Nuckolls records Luisa’s narrative prowess cultivated by her abilities in the garden and in the forest. Her discursive skills, Nuckolls contends, counter a growing trend in indigenous Ecuadorian discourse which sets aside traditional ways of speaking, instead engaging Spanish in the social and linguistic construction of government, land claims, and indigenous rights. While Luisa takes pride in her ideophonic, dialogic, and perspectival speech, many indigenous representatives entering into a shared narrative space with government politicians have left these traditional forms of speech behind them, and are even, Nuckolls implies, ashamed of them. In reflecting Luisa’s perspective in written academic form, Nuckolls contests this trend, and honors these forms through according them voice.

Nuckolls’ honoring and recording of Luisa’s dialogic and ideophonic speech introduces a powerful and animating force for current realities of exploitation of indigenous land and peoples by government and economic forces. Although her text could be read as primarily a linguistic analysis of a Runa woman’s speech, her dialogical analysis, rooted in Bakhtin, allows for a potentially revolutionary expansion of the categories of respect and agency to include the rights of the land. Although Nuckolls mourns the possible loss of these oratorical traditions, they may still carry more implicit influence than she gives them credit for. Ecuador and Bolivia are the only two nations that have written the rights of the land into their constitutions. Under these tenets, a community can lodge a legal suit on behalf of the land.[2]

Although this legislative movement is not attributed to Quichua speech patterns, it might offer a small glimmer of the transversability of the animational values of the Runa linguaculture in impacting the Ecuadorian national consciousness. Although it falls outside the scope of this text, it would be informative to document the way that the land is spoken into global discursive alliances of indigenous peoples. Nuckolls’ naming of the de-otherizing potential of ideophonic and multiply perspectival speech offers an invitation to other movements within indigenous communities to explore the power of their own linguistic traditions, particularly as they relate to the land.

Even though she only touches on it briefly in her conclusion, Nuckolls’ description of dialogic, ideophonic, and perspectival speech carries profound implications for resistance to government and corporate land claims, such as those occurring in indigenous communities in Ecuador, Brazil, and West Papua. The potential for political and environmental engagement through the linguistic mechanisms modeled in this text can create and maintain identity, even under conditions of structural violence and marginalization. Although living in a society which rarely acknowledges the dignity and rights of its indigenous peoples, and in a forest under duress, Luisa, through her stories, lives, not in the otherizing discourse of the state, but in her own discourse, which connects her to her human and nonhuman community. Her experience reflects the contention of the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi that “Human beings are discourse. That flowing moves through you whether you say anything or not. Everything that happens is filled with pleasure and warmth because of the delight of the discourse that’s always going on.”[3]

In her stories, Luisa is not merely an “I”, a lone voice facing global forces of land acquisition and violence.[4] Instead, her “I” combines with all of the forces present in her forest, her garden, and her family, becoming a powerful “we” which allows both animate and nonanimate to dwell in and participate in the creation of her self, her stories, and her world. The anaconda, the tree, the bullets—tell Luisa’s world, and in so doing, they challenge state and economic systems which attempt to silence their very existence.

[1] Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” in his Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 278-293.

[2] C. Mellino. (2011, November 21), “Bolivia and Ecuador Grant Equal Rights to Nature: Is "Wild Law" a Climate Solution?” Retrieved December 4, 2011, from Cimate Progress: http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2011/11/21/373273/bolivia-and-ecuador-equal-rights-to-nature-wild-law-climate-solution/

[3] C. Barks, trans., The Essential Rumi (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1997), p. 76.

[4] For a discussion of the silencing and annihilative patterns of colonizing states, see Theodore Fontaine's presentation at North America's Forgotten Genocides (Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba and Rutgers University, 2012). Also see Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958).

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.