Documenting and Revitalizing Iskonawa in Peru: An Interdisciplinary Project

(Funded by the National Science Foundation, Documenting Endangered Languages Program, Grant 1160679, 2012-2016)

Project Summary: This project documents and aims at revitalizing the Iskonawa language, one of the 17 existing Pano languages from the Amazon. This language is almost extinct, but still fluently spoken by a few elders and partially by some of their descendants, totalizing 14 known speakers. As a result of this project, there is a comprehensive data bank that includes video recordings, a grammatical description of the language, an extensive vocabulary, and a compilation of its oral tradition and history, in both printed and electronic format. The project has also trained the younger members of the Iskonawa community in re-learning the language, compiling material, documenting it and teaching it to future generations.

Background: In addition to Spanish, Peru is home to nineteen very large and complex linguistic families: the Quechua family, the Aimara family, and the Amazonian families. The Quechua and Aimara families each include a set of linguistic variants, each of which is a language in its own right. The Amazonian group contains at least 17 linguistic families, including the Pano, Jíbaro, Bora, Tucano, Huatoto, Arahuaca and others. Of the 600 indigenous languages of Latin America (the most diverse and complex linguistic region of the world after Papua-New Guinea), Peru is host to 62, according to UNESCO, although only 48 have been recognized by the Peruvian state. The knowledge gained through the study of the Iskonawa language and culture contributes to the overall fields of anthropology, cultural studies and linguistics more generally, and of endangered languages (ELs) in particular. It also helps to preserve a vast legacy of cultural production in the form of songs, rituals, dances and, mainly, oral narratives. Iskonawa represents a critical case in a rapid process of disappearing. It has not been completely assimilated by the Shipibo language, as usually thought. Our research has demonstrated that Iskonawa still has an independent life on its own. Four specialists in different disciplines form the team of researchers. Their backgrounds and field experiences work to the advantage of the project, since their goals transcend just language description and involve community development, language revitalization and cultural empowerment. Members of the team are Prof. José Antonio Mazzotti, of Tufts University, Prof. Roberto Zariquiey, Prof. Rodolfo Cerrón-Palomino (both researchers from Peru and faculty members at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú [PUCP]) and linguist Carolina Rodríguez Alzza.

Since 2021, the Iskonawa language revitalization process has taken new steps with the creation of the “Escuelita Iskonawa” (Iskonawa Little School), led by linguists Roberto Zariquiey and Mariana Poblete, with the support of the “Organización para el Desarrollo y el Bien Común del Pueblo Iskonawa” (ODEBPI). The “Escuelita” consists of language classes and dissemination of educational materials in Iskonawa to the younger population living in the indigenous community of Callería in the Ucayali region. The ODEBPI is a recently created organization that seeks to preserve not only the Iskonawa language, but also the well-being and the rights of the Iskonawa people. Its first director is Mr. Willian Ochavano, a member of the Iskonawa community.