A Seat at the Table: Including Indigenous People in Biocultural Exchange

By Jeremy Coats
Lead, Foundation Programs

Building connections among people is at the heart of international exchange. As national and global policies are set, it is critical for more indigenous people to participate in biocultural exchanges and events. This can help empower them to shape policies that may impact their ways of life. Whether it’s through traditional fishing, seed preservation, food preparation or  teaching English as a second language, indigenous communities continue to work to protect their ways of engaging with their natural surroundings as they have for generations.

Nothing leads to more mutually-beneficial solutions than the exchange of ideas across borders and cultures, which is why IIE launched the Indigenous Biocultural Exchange Fund (IBEX) in 2013, with the generous support of the Christensen Fund. Participation in these events like those supported by IBEX allow indigenous community members to link and network with others in the same arena, which can go a long way in supporting an alliance to promote indigenous participation in policy making.

IBEX covers the travel costs of promising members of indigenous communities to participate in biocultural events and conferences and exchange knowledge systems. So far, 56 people from the African Rift Valley, Central Asia & Turkey, Southwest U.S. & Northern Mexico, Northern Australia, and Melanesia have participated in the program, including Diana Hernández.

A native of Oaxaca, México and an English teacher, Hernández attended the Tinkuy 2017: Gathering of the Textile Arts conference in Peru in November. Jeremy Coats asked her about her experience.

Why is it important that indigenous people have an opportunity to participate or have representation in the policies that affect the biocultural diversity of their communities?

It is important because in this globalized world, many laws and policies affect our indigenous communities. We need representation to set those policies to protect and preserve our culture, our languages and our land. Also, if there are indigenous representatives to set policy about biocultural issues, it will be easier to preserve our communities and to balance the implications of globalization.

Tell us about the conference.

Tinkuy 2017 is an international gathering of indigenous textile artists and artisans, textile enthusiasts, art historians, anthropologists, and many others in the Cusco Region of Peru to celebrate and share the wealth and diversity of Andean textile traditions. The meeting was organized and hosted by Andean Textile Arts and the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. It was my first time attending an actual conference where I met people from many parts of the world and where active exchange and presentations by masters were the focus. Activities included talks and presentations by leading indigenous experts, hands-on workshops and demonstrations on backstrap weaving, spinning, the use of natural dyes, and opportunities for knowledge exchange among the attendees.

How did you specifically contribute?

I attended two hands-on workshops: Qhurpus and Spinning. In the “Qhurpus Knitting” class, I learned about the Andean “Qhurpus” technique that creates knots embedded into yarn. I began the process of knitting a traditional hat. I learned how to use my own fingers to create the knots. In the spinning workshop, I learned how to spin alpaca and lamb wool, using ancestral tools made out of wood (rueca). I was able to contribute my own knowledge of natural pigments from Oaxaca, showing fellow attendees how different plants created specific colors. I shared the similarities and differences between the looms in Oaxaca and in the Andes.

What did you learn from the event? And how might you apply this to your local work?

I learned new techniques for spinning and dyeing with natural pigments. Now, I will start thinking about how to organize and host multicultural workshops among weavers from many different communities in Oaxaca. I will also start writing notes to create a book about textiles, in which I would like to describe the various techniques used by weavers from different places. Many such books are available from the perspective of scholars who are collectors, but few are written by indigenous people and emerging from their own cultural roots. My hope is to continue the exchange of knowledge and to contribute towards the care taking of this rich and important human heritage.

What was the most memorable part of your trip?

I met so many fascinating weavers and traditional knowledge holders who were so generous in sharing their wisdom and skills with all of the Tinkuy participants. The cultural exchange included women from the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. One of the most memorable moments was when I met a 7-year-old girl who is learning how to spin! She inspired and motivated me to continue to encourage more young people to learn about and preserve our textiles and culture. I also had the chance to eat “cuy” or Guinea pig, and it was delicious! The little tiny teeth were smiling at me!

What feedback did you hear from other participants about the event?

I had a chance to interact with other participants; we specifically exchanged even more techniques when we found out we used different types of needles for our work. A Chilean participant was sharing with me that she hosts workshops in her town to make rugs, but that they use a different type of loom than the foot looms used in Oaxaca. The techniques of weaving can be very similar to, or different from, our own – it’s fascinating.

Why is travel, networking, and exchange important for your career?

Travel and exchange are important for my work because it honors and allows the sharing of my culture and it provides a way to preserve my culture through the exchange of knowledge. Seeing other young women working to preserve and share their traditional knowledge inspires me to continue my own efforts at home. I am thankful for the opportunity to learn other techniques of weaving and dyes. I am an English teacher, and my goal is to teach about our culture through English as a second language, and also highlight my own Zapotec language. Our children need to be trilingual, at least.

IBEX Awards 2018

Applications for the next round of IBEX awards are open through January 29, 2018. Learn more about the eligibility requirements and apply here.