Awá Kwaiker - History and Cultural Relations

The origin of the group is not clear. Previously, it was thought that they were part of the Pasto group, which lived in the high Andes. Recent archaeological and linguistic evidence, however, link the Awá Kwaiker with Mesoamerican civilization.

It is known that between 100 and 400 B . C . the Tumaco civilization existed on the Pacific coast. The archaeological remains of this civilization show clear cultural links with the Mayas and Aztecs. Undoubtedly, migrants settled in this area, but they mysteriously disappeared. When the Spaniards arrived, they found only Indians with a very low level of technological development. It is difficult to maintain that the Tumaco completely disappeared, thus it is hypothesized that some of their descendants populated the coast at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

This supposition is supported by the following documentary evidence. One of the most famous warrior groups, the Sindaguas, was almost exterminated in 1635, when they were condemned to death. The records of the trial list the surnames of the condemned Indians: six of the eight names listed are the same as six of the eight traditional surnames of the present-day Awá Kwaiker. In addition, the Spanish captain Francisco de Prado y Zuñiga, who was sent from Popayán to carry out the sentence, reported that his interpreters were able to understand the language and that the "Sindaguas" spoke Mayan. Later historical evidence shows that the Awá Kwaiker also have surnames of groups that lived in distant areas of the coast, which leads to the assumption that this is not a distinct Indian group, but rather a mix of various groups that lived in the coastal area. Later, roads were built and the region was invaded by settlers attracted by the gold found in the rivers. Since then, the Awá Kwaiker have been stratified internally by degree of cultural assimilation.

Those who stayed near the road, working as unskilled laborers, assumed the customs and even the surnames of the peasants. Their present-day descendants, about 30 percent of the Awá Kwaiker population, have forgotten the ancestral language and customs and now live on small plots of land. A second stratum settled in nearby areas because the need for access to the market obliged them to maintain intermittent relations. Nevertheless, proximity to mestizo settlers created cultural and territorial conflicts. At the present time, this group, about 35 percent of the population, is rapidly being assimilated, and traditional practices are reserved for private familial situations. Young people commonly migrate seasonally in search of work and are therefore more vulnerable to change and unaccepting of Indian identity. The remaining 35 percent of the population consists of those who traditionally try to avoid contact with outsiders and, as a result, have settled in distant and hard-to-reach areas between the Nulpe and San Juan rivers close to the Ecuadoran border.

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