Ritual Encounters: Otavalan Modern and Mythic Community

By Michelle Wibbelsman. 2009. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 232 pages. ISBN: 978-0252076039 (soft cover).


Reviewed by John H. McDowell, Indiana University

[Review length: 1027 words • Review posted on January 16, 2013]


The indigenous communities in the area surrounding Otavalo, in Ecuador’s Imbabura province, are a native people of the Americas that has prospered over the last several decades and, to a significant degree, managed to neutralize or even reverse its position in the regional social hierarchy. These communities are justly famous for their textiles and for their music among other things, both on vivid display at the Saturday market in Otavalo and transported to the world’s marketplaces by traveling musicians and merchants from the area. In some ways the tale of the Otavalans, who have so successfully leveraged their ethnicity into cultural capital, appears to be a unique development, but on inspection, it seems more likely that their experience is typical, in kind if not in degree, of many native peoples throughout the Andes and indeed the world over. Contemporary global society places a premium on the evocative local, and indigenous peoples with viable traditional expressive cultures, like the Otavalans, are finding and seizing ways of making profitable connections with these external loci of interest.

In Ritual Encounters, Michelle Wibbelsman has created a valuable report on the internal sources of cultural cohesion that enable the Otavalans to remain in contact with the wellsprings of their collective identity even as they move about comfortably in late modernity. Her discussion highlights performance and ritual as the two essential conduits of Otavalan authenticity, and Ritual Encounters offers a richly textured reading of core Otavalan ritual performances and the cosmological discourse that sustains them. To be fully human, to be a Runa, the Otavalans’ name for themselves, is to embrace and contribute to this cycle of sacred discourses. This monograph, with its perceptive commentary on the meanings of these Otavalan expressions, can serve as a model, more generally, for a productive approach to traditional knowledge and enactment as resources for ethnogenesis under the pressures of modernizing influences.

Ritual Encounters is situated in the indigenous communities of Peguche and Ilumán and in the nearby towns of Otavalo and Cotacachi. The account is laid out as a journey through the major festivities in the Otavalan calendar. It covers, as one would expect, highly visible and largely masculine events such as the Inti Raymi dancing and the tinkuy or ritual fighting, where the mestizo populations are displaced to the periphery and the indigenous celebrations occupy the plazas and central zones of the towns. But Wibbelsman is also attentive to what she calls “a feminine set of values manifest in the kitchen and in the cemetery” (113), and brings forward interesting perspectives on the wakcha karay, the offering to the dead, and the many other ritual occasions when Otavalans go to the cemeteries to visit the departed. It was interesting to discover, in her account of the ritual distribution of food at these events, that “charity retains a critical edge” (136) and giving (and receiving) are often political acts.

One of the most interesting discussions in Ritual Encounters concerns a dispute that occurred in 2001 about how to conduct the annual Stations of the Cross procession in the town of Cotacachi. That year there were two realizations of the passion in Cotacachi, one a theatrical rendering organized by the mestizo elite and performed by professional actors, with tourists as the intended audience; the other was a more participatory ritual organized and performed by an indigenous troupe, for their community on the edge of the town. Wibbelsman draws a sharp contrast between what she calls “an aesthetics of expediency”—the mestizo rendering—where the religious elements are collapsed into an entertaining presentation, and “an aesthetics of repetition”—the indigenous rendering—where the religious elements are protracted and replete (142). In these and other segments, Wibbelsman accentuates the divergence in ethos between the indigenous people of the region and their mestizo neighbors, a theme that is central to the Otavalans’ understanding of themselves. Fair enough, but at times I felt the mestizos were getting short shrift in the bargain and their own story was lost in the telling of the Otavalan story.

Wibbelsman’s supple formulations of key concepts such as ritual, performance, and encounter, leave her ample interpretive space to bring out their multiple layers of meaning for Otavalans. She views ritual as reflexive action that moves beyond reflecting culture to producing culture through embodied experience. Her purview includes highly formalized rituals such as the Inti Raymi dancing that activates the entire community in a public celebration of Otavalan identity as well as informal rituals that consolidate and communicate in more private arenas the everyday wisdom of the elders. Wibbelsman holds a comparably expansive understanding of performance, arguing that “communities perform themselves into being” (73). She sees ritual performances as weighted encounters where values are renewed and refined in the crucible of community engagement. Undergirding these heightened activities is a steady current of conversation; Wibbelsman documents usage of the Quichua term rimarishpa to signify “talking among ourselves” and notes the formative impact of this continuous and constructive stream of talk. One vital component of rimarishpa is storytelling, a replaying of mythic narratives featuring the area’s mountains and their companion lakes in order “to keep people imagining together” (10).

At the heart of Otavalan ritual performances and encounters are core cosmic principles. Ñaupa yachaykuna, deep knowledge tied to the ancestral precedents, guides the modern people as they look “forward into the past” (3). The image of the chakana, or bridge, is a resonant metaphor connecting different worlds, times, and spaces comprising the Otavalan cosmos. Wibbelsman views ritual performances and encounters as a community project of empathetic memory, where performances “emulate life, not just reference it,” erasing “the line between experience and representation,” and where “ritual holds the inclusive community together in an eternal present” (148).

Drawing on Victor Turner’s discussion of normative communitas, Wibbelsman designates the Otavalans a “threshold people” whose engagement with their cosmology is constant, ongoing, and pervasive. Tying their migratory destiny to this chthonic sense of rootedness, Wibbelsman contends that “migrant revenues add to rich cultural practices that infuse Runa identities with self-assurance” (136). With its wealth of ethnographic detail encased in a lively and perceptive analysis, Ritual Encounters is a welcome addition to the literature on Andean peoples.

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