5 things Kichwa has taught me about Indigenous Culture

Ecuador has three different regions: the coast, the sierra, and the Amazon. I live in the Sierra, as do all GCY fellows, and one of the most wonderful and unique aspects of the Sierra is that all the indigenous people here speak some dialect of Kichwa. As most of you know, I’m pretty fluent in Spanish, and so while living here in Ecuador, I have the distinct privilege of learning Kichwa.

Kichwa is not a difficult language, but one that is steeped in the culture and traditions of the Sierra. I’ve found that during my Kichwa classes, I learn about important aspects of indigenous culture in the midst of learning vocabulary words that correspond to cultural norms or traditions. Here are 5 examples:


Allipuncha means good morning. However, it is pronounced ‘ah-lee-poon-jah.’ This is the standard greeting in the Kichwa community, often followed by Imanalla, pronounced ‘ee-mah-nah-jah’ which means, how are you? Sometimes, allipuncha is followed by tayta or mama, respectful ways of speaking to elders. Or, it can be followed by mashi, which means friend. Allipuncha is the way I greet my coworkers each morning and how they greet me in return. It’s also pretty much one of the only words or phrases I can readily respond to so it has a special place in my heart.

Tanta wawa:

November 2nd is Dia de los Difuntos in Ecuador, which translates to Day of the Dead. However, don’t get it mixed up with the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. Here, to celebrate, the indigenous community visits their community cemeteries with food and spend the day picnicking in the cemetery. A huge part of this tradition is tanta wawa, which means bread child. Indigenous families will make bread with a human shape to represent the bodies of the dead. They are made a day or two before the 2nd, along with colada morada. Colada is a type of drink relatively unique to Ecuador and has a thick, smoothie-like consistency, but is usually warm. It is most commonly made with oatmeal or fruit. Colada morada, is a special mixture of mora(blackberries), blueberries, apples, strawberries, pineapples, and babaco, which looks a bit like starfruit. On November 2nd, it’s served cold.

Achiktayta and Achikmama:

Achiktayta and achikmama mean godfather and godmother respectively. However, in Ecuador, you have a different godfather and godmother for your baptism, confirmation and marriage. Furthermore, godfather or godmother is no small job. Especially for those associated with a wedding. To ask a person or couple to be your godparents, you must go to their house with a plethora of food, animals and other offerings, accompanied by friends who help carry all the offerings, to ask them to be your godparents. In fact, the offerings can be so extravagant and expensive, that couples will recruit their friends to help cover the cost, with the agreement that if those friends ever need godparents, they will reciprocate their friends’ kindness.

Purichik Anta:

Purichik Anta means transportation, which isn’t that important to the indigenous culture. However, learning the vocabulary for transportation taught me a lot about how Kichwa has adapted to modern or foreign concepts and objects. Original Kichwa didn’t have words for car, bus or airplane, so many indigenous people mix Kichwa and Spanish by adding Spanish words to sentences in Kichwa. For example: Ñukaka Imbaburapak buspi Otavalomanta shamuni. Translation: I take the Imbaburapak bus to Otavalo. However, in an effort to preserve the Kichwa language, new words for modes of transportation have been generated using already existing Kichwa words. For example: anta means iron in Kichwa, and anka means eagle, so the word for airplane is antanka.


Pacha is the Kichwa word for time, space and world. It can be used to refer to the indigenous belief of four worlds: chayshuk pacha – the ancestral world, hawa pacha the divine world, kay pacha – the human world and ukupacha – the subterranean world. Each world is celebrated during different times during the year, also referred to using pacha. Tarpuy pacha translates to planting time, during which the ancestral world is celebrated. Hallmay pacha is tilling time, and celebrates the divine world. Sisay pacha is blooming time which is celebrated alongside the human world, and lastly, pallay pacha means harvesting time, and celebrates the subterranean world. Indigenous culture separates the year into four parts, as shown above, and large parties are thrown on each solstice and equinox.

The Chakana, which represents the year split into four parts, is also called the Cruz Andina.

The Kichwa indigenous culture in Ecuador is so rich and interesting, and I am so lucky to be able to experience it firsthand. Learning Kichwa has taught me so much already and I am super excited to learn more, wish me luck!!