Andean Indigenous Alterity Otherwise:: Unnamed, Invisible and Distorted as Violent, Poor or Mystical

By Juan Rivera


Cañaris is one of the indigenous societies of the vast South American highlands. Despite being also part of the contemporary Peruvian Andean societies, the ethnography of this area has ignored it until recently. I will point out here some aspects of this invisibility: ethnographic gaps, accusations of terrorism, and stigmatisation as poor, but also, and above all, a distortion of its current socio-natural composition that attributes to it mystical practises linked to “Inca” or pre-Columbian religiosity. Finally, I will try to show some of the responses of the Cañaris people, wordless responses through rituals and built ordered spaces.

“Women of the Cañaris area. 2009”

  1. Stigmatisation as poor or terrorist and distortions with a “scientific” aura


I argue that the people of Cañaris have remained invisible until now, not only because of the increasing subordination of indigenous populations in the Latin American public spheres, but also because of the monopoly on “indigeneity” that their Peruvian counterparts in the south hold in the national imagination (centred around the pervasive image of an “imperial Cuzco”). This actively produced non-existence has a dimension that is not a matter of pure negation, but rather of (distorted) assertion. In everyday situations of “slow violence”, the catch-all term used to label the existence of Cañaris (and similar communities) in the current national official discourse is “poverty”. And when they protest, as happened in 2013, they are immediately accused of “terrorism”, a practice so pervasive in Peru that it has its own verb: terruquear. Certainly, both labels (of poverty and terrorism) can mutually reinforce each other displaying subsequent stigmas such as inability to read and lack of hygiene.

These two stigmatisations are accompanied by two distortions. Every now and then, the filiation between Cañaris and the iconic Ecuadorian canton of Cañar (in the province of Loja) is frequently proposed in academic milieu, but without almost any scientific evidence. Some international organisations have even funded projects that take this supposedly shared ancestry for granted. Actually, neither as a claim against the powers hostile to them nor as a narrative exported by some intellectuals and organizations does this supposed affiliation with the Cañar of Ecuador seem to have mattered much to Cañarenses of Peru.

In addition to this uncertain connection with the Ecuadorian Cañar, however, there is a second distortion. In the south, Cañaris is also gratuitously aligned with what is considered “authentically Andean” by folkloric artists and regional political and cultural authorities who accept the ethnography of the southern Andes as a standard. Although there is (again) neither scientific evidence for this analogy nor any interest from Cañarenses to identify with Southern (either Inca or contemporary) cultural expressions, this distortion strives to be imposed.

These imitations, enforced as apparent expressions of Cañaris cosmologies, could become outrageous when one considers that the little we still know about the Cañaris area has already revealed striking peculiarities that deny what (at first glance) might appear to be a typical Andean group: Musical instruments that were previously unknown or considered impossible (Rivera 2013), a building that maps land ownership while being ritually treated as a child, mythical themes that are considered more Amazonian than Andean in origin (Rivera in press), etc.

Some institutions that are (again) located in the western lowlands — the regional government, NGOs and educational institutions (whose school teachers introduced folkloric spectacles decades ago that continue to this day in the highlands) — sometimes refer to the Cañarenses as “the indigenous peoples of Lambayeque”. When they do so, they also include performances that imitate southern rituals as cultural expressions of Cañaris. For example, we can see how a “shaman” thanks “mother earth” (called Pachamama) with “payments” or offerings, the “pagapus”.

The inhabitants of the Cañaris region are sometimes invited to attend these gatherings in the usual auditoriums and hotels in cities like Chiclayo. They observe curiously and listen quietly to what is said, and even try to sell a few handmade bags, wallets or other urban lifestyle items (which they are encouraged to make by the representatives of the Ministries of Tourism that from time to time visit the highlands). They may even dance, sing or play their musical instruments for just a few minutes. But then, once we are back in their lands, they no longer seem to attach much importance to the elements and paraphernalia used in those contexts.

“Don Darío, musician with pinkuyu and caja. 2009”

  1. Replying with ritual and architecture


In addition to the Peruvian actors mentioned above, Cañaris has also been at the centre of other international projects, from religious proselytism (including the German congregation “Misioneras de Jesús. Verbo y víctima”) to European naturalist explorers and recent open-pit mining projects. Most of these projects have produced a particular version of these distortions (as standard ecological Indians or displaced rebels) and stigmatizations (as brutal terrorists or dirty ignoramuses).

Yet there is a twofold response from the Cañaris area, a response composed by ritual and architecture. I would suggest that this response becomes visible during specific religious rituals centred around churches such as the Iglisya of Incahuasi, rituals that are dynamic and constantly adjusting to the current situation (Rivera 2019 and in press). On these occasions, both the ritual and the architecture constitute critiques of these externally imposed stigmas and distortions. I will give just one example of how this is done here. Through religious rituals in Cañaris, land ownership and agricultural labour are reasserted. They are affirmed as sources of wealth through the exclusive participation of indigenous small landowners (called cabezarios) and through ritual sequences in which multiple expressions of the life- and wealth-generative capacities of their land unfold. In previous work, I have considered other forms of collective, critical and nonverbal reflections such as this one (Rivera 2017. See also Winchell 2022: 12-23, 230-232: Stépanoff 2021: 158).

Finally, some questions remain. Will this response to distortion be as efficient as to stigmatisation? Will religious ritual still be a powerful tool in order to keep differentiating Cañaris even within alterity, that is, to remain different from Southern Andean cultures taken as standard? Will this or a similar collective critique allow Cañarenses to reply to those who (using their authority as representatives of national heritage and education) want to pass them off as bearers of an occult, wise knowledge of an environment that the Anthropocene has placed at the centre of heightened debates and interests today?


“Iglisya. Church of Incahuasi (Cañaris area). 2009”


Charles Stépanoff, L’animal et la mort. Chasses, modernité et crise du sauvage, Paris, La Découverte, coll. « Sciences sociales du vivant », 2021.

Rivera, J. (2013). An Exceptional Flute in the Andes: Morphology and Distribution of an Indigenous Traverse Flute in the Peruvian Northern Highlands. Studia Instrumentorum Musicae Popularis III. MV-Wissenschaft, Münster, pp. 317-330.

Rivera, J. (2017). Ritual, Folk Competitions, Mining and Stigmatization as “Poor” in Indigenous Northern Peru. Revista de Ciencia Política, vol. 37, núm. 3, pp. 767-786.

Rivera, J. (2019). The Silent ‘Cosmopolitics’ of Artefacts: Spectral Extractivism, Ownership and ‘Obedient’ Things in Cañaris (Peru). In: Ødegaard, C., Rivera Andía, J. (eds) Indigenous Life Projects and Extractivism. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Rivera, J. In press. Cañaris II. Etnografías sobre arquitectura, organología y tradición oral en Incahuasi. Buenos Aires: Colección Ethnographica.

Winchell, M. 2022. After Servitude. Elusive Property and the Ethics of Kinship in Bolivia. University of California Press.


Juan Rivera’s ongoing research examines cosmologies among indigenous groups of South America, particularly Quechua-speaking peoples of the highlands. His projects have received the support of the UNESCO, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, and they have taken place in research centres such as the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies, the Smithsonian Institution, the Polish Institute of Advanced Studies, and the universities of Barcelona and Nanterre.


CAS-E blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgment: “This article was published by CAS-E on November 22nd, 2023.”

The views and opinions expressed in blog posts and comments made in response to the blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of CAS-E, its founders, its staff, or any agent or institution affiliated with it, nor those of the institution(s) with which the author is affiliated.


Share this post:

Our latest Blog Posts