On Committing Kamsá to Writing: Improvisations and Collaborations

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CLACS & MLCP, Indiana University Bloomington & Association for Teaching and Learning Indigenous Languages of Latin America (ATLILLA)


Revisiting my prolonged adventure as an ethnographer of communication in Colombia’s Sibundoy Valley, which spanned the 1970s and 80s, I take note of a language-learning process that at last secured for me a modest level of competence in the Kamsá of my host family and community. My return to Sibundoy Valley days is grounded in two instructive stories, one mythical and the other historical, performed in my presence by Taita Bautista Juajibioy; these stories anchor Kamsá civilization in its spiritual and material quadrants. The process of learning Kamsá in the field involved working my way through a series of speech genres, beginning with the readily accessible nicknames known as “ugly names,” passing through the sayings of the ancestors and mythic narratives, and culminating in the partially opaque ceremonial speaking. At every step along the way, I was the beneficiary of a collaborative procedure that depended on both the skills and good nature of my Kamsá hosts. Each of the speech genres we worked on had its lessons, but the ceremonial speaking, which pushes Kamsá morphology to its limits, created puzzles and challenges that taught us much about the language but eventually resisted our best efforts at elucidation of language form and meaning. I have taken the liberty of including ten photographs that I made and shared over the years, to provide a visual feel for the place and its people of those times. Some of those pictured are still among the living, but, alas, several have since entered the domain of perpetual peace.


Copyright © 2011 by Serafín M. Coronel-Molina & John H. McDowell. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form by any means, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system (except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews) without written permission from the authors.



McDowell, John H. “On Committing Kamsá to Writing: Improvisations and Collaborations,” Proceedings of the First Symposium on Teaching Indigenous Languages of Latin America; Actas del Primer Simposio sobre Enseñanza de Lenguas Indígenas de América Latina. (2011) Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Indiana University Bloomington, pages 10-24.


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