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The Shuar and the Salesian Mission in Ecuador During the 1960s and 1970s

Julia Lehman, Class of 2008

In January of 2008 I traveled to Ecuador to conduct research for my senior thesis. The thesis is about an indigenous resistance organization called the Shuar Federation and the way that the Salesian Mission, which has a long history among the Shuar, helped to create and direct the Federation for its own gains. I look at how Shuar identity changed in response to this Federation and the ways that mission ideals played into this identity construction. This argument was largely shaped during my trip to Ecuador. Before this trip, I had been researching the Federation and writing about their cultural revival movement, but I hadn’t realized just how important the mission was. The materials I found in Ecuador illuminated the importance of the mission to this process, and my argument subsequently changed dramatically.

I first traveled to Macas, a small town that serves as an entry point to many Shuar territories. The Federation itself is located in Sucúa, an even smaller town a short bus ride away. I arrived at the Federation naïvely hoping that they would have all of the Federation’s documents available and at my disposal. After five days at the Federation, I was finally told that the documents I was looking for were locked in a shed behind the Federation and that the key had been lost for five years. While this was disappointing, my time at the Federation was definitely not a waste. I was granted two important interviews with men who had been integral to the Federation’s founding, and I met many other Shuar men involved in the Federation’s work. It was an amazing feeling to be in the place and to meet some of the people I was writing about. My work took on a new importance as I formed relationships with the sons of some of the key figures in my research. I also discovered that the work of the Federation had slowed almost to a standstill with the withdrawal of the mission, a fact that caused me to investigate further the initial role of the mission in the Federation’s work.

I also spent time at the Vicariate in Macas, where the mission headquarters are now. While they, too, lacked documents, I was told that the majority of the mission documents were in Quito where the humidity would not ruin them. The mission allowed me to use their library to work and look through some of their books. They also provided me with some contacts in Quito who would lead me to the archives of the Salesian mission at the Universidad Salesiana in Quito. While my initial goals for my time in Macas were not met, and I came away with little in the way of documents or information about the Federation’s foundation, I made important contacts that would point my research in an entirely new direction.

Once I returned to Quito, I spent a week in the library at the Universidad Salesiana. The library, I discovered, held hundreds of unread documents about the Federation and the mission involvement with the Shuar. I was not allowed into the room where the documents were located and they lacked a comprehensive list of what was available, so the only way to search through these documents was to perform a subject search on their computers and see what came up. This meant that I spent a lot of time trying new searches and sifting through results. The sources that I found were invaluable to my thesis. I discovered letters, newspaper articles, constitutions, meeting minutes, and government contracts that all pointed to a high level of mission involvement in the Federation. I discovered that the mission was not just influential in the Federation but was actually the main cause of its establishment. With this new perspective, I was able to continue working on my thesis from a more nuanced and original angle. The information I uncovered in Ecuador allowed me to critique and analyze the secondary sources that I did have, seek out new sources of information, and form an argument that centered around the involvement of the mission in the Shuar Federation.