'Indios pero no tanto' [Indians but not quite Indians]: An ethnography about indigenous identity among the Yanaconas of Popayan

Manuel Enrique Sevilla
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Toronto
July, 2006


The study describes the migration process of Yanaconas to---and settling in---the city of Popayán (Colombia) in the course of the last 50 years, and the formation of an indigenous organisation based in that city (the Cabildo Yanacona de Popayán). This process began in 1990 and
is still going on. The study forwards four central ideas about the current situation of identity politics in Colombia: (1) Urban indigenous groups are not free to express their 'cultural uniqueness' in whatever manner they consider appropriate, but in a particular way that is imposed by the state (and reinforced by larger indigenous organisations) and that is mostly based on the display of overt features of identity. (2) As an alternative to deal with this imposition, the Yanaconas have established a clear distinction between ethnic life (related to specific practices held in certain contexts where overt symbols of ethnic identity can be exalted and displayed) and daily life (related to everyday life). The latter is not perceived as ethnic by urban Yanaconas. (3) Despite this perception of everyday life not being ethnic, it is possible to find 'hidden features' of indigenous identity in the daily practices of Yanaconas, consisting mostly of particular notions of life and values. (4) The commonly held idea that 'authentic' indigenous identity depends on overt features of identity (inspired on an idealised rural life) narrows the chances for urban indigenous communities to pose any effective claims for recognition, unless they fit themselves into the proposed essentialist---and stereotypical---model. The study shows that this situation has deep implications, both material and symbolic, for the life of urban indigenous communities, and allows questioning the actual impact of a multicultural model on the relationships between urban indigenous communities and the state. From a theoretical perspective, this analysis of the Yanacona experience in Popayán rests on Bourdieu's notion of habitus, Barth's approach to the construction of ethnic boundaries, and Sherry Ortner's distinction between summarising and elaborating symbols of identity. Fieldwork for this study was conducted in Popayán between 2002 and 2004.