Ecuador's Indigenous Cultural Heritage | Galapagos Unbound


Ecuador recognizes five different ethnic identities: Amerindian (or indigenous peoples); mestizo (multiracial group of mixed Amerindian and European ancestry); Afro-Ecuadorian; Montubio; and white. At over 70%, the majority of Ecuador’s populace are recognized as mestizo, and Montubios, Amerinidans, and Afro-Ecuadorians each account for around 7% of Ecuador’s population.

The Amerindian’s 7% of Ecuador’s population accounts for much of Ecuador’s rich indigenous heritage, and many indigenous groups with distinct cultural backgrounds comprise that seemingly small percentage. Recent census data accounts for 13 distinct indigenous peoples including Tsáchila (also known as Tsafiki), Chachi, Epera, Awá-Cuaiquer, Quichua (Kichwa), Shuar, Achuar, Shiwiar, Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Zápara, and Waorani. When considering minority groups, Afro-Ecuadorians are also included in this list, bringing the number up to 14.

Indigenous people groups within Ecuador continue to be an active part of the country’s culture and sociopolitical structure. The Quechuan language continues to be spoken throughout the Andes, and the Ecuadorian people’s pride in their indigenous heritage can be seen in their continuance of traditional dress codes, adherence to shamanistic practices, and the celebration of folklore and legends in festivals held yearly throughout the country.

It would be a mistake to believe any of Ecuador’s continuance of traditional practices a show for tourism or kitschy. Their beliefs make up a part of their daily life, and they stand by them staunchly. One of the most obvious ways this can be seen today is in the protests various indigenous groups have been holding against oil and gas drilling in Ecuador. Over the last 10 years, they have been continually brought into the international media spotlight as many of the Amazonian tribes are embroiled in conflict with oil and gas companies as well as the Ecuadorian government whose economy depends on oil. This conflict is discussed further in our conservation page.



The Quechuas are held to be Ecuador’s most populous indigenous ethnic group, and indeed the Quechua are the largest indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. The indigenous group were amongst the earliest people conquered by the Incans, though the Incan empire itself was comprised largely of Quechua speakers. Many historians postulate that before the Incans conquered Ecuador, the language began to permeate into the different indigenous culture’s dialects via trade routes because Quechua served as a lingua franca. As the Incan empire began its invasion into present-day Ecuador, the Quechua language’s presence in Ecuador became more stable fixture.

The Quechua language continues to be spoken throughout the Andes and is even an official language of Peru. However, in Ecuador, the Quechuan language is Quichuan—a related dialect but with historical and political significance. For that reason, it’s common to see the spelling ‘Kichwa’ throughout Ecuador for simplicity’s sake. Although many people in Ecuador speak and write in Kichwa, it’s important to note that the word may be referring two different things. The term Kichwa may be used in reference to the language but it may also be referring to the Kichwa-speaking nation that descended from the Incans—a modern tribe that identifies as Quechua. In Ecuador, there are an estimated 80,000 people who identify themselves as this ethnicity.

In part because of the dispersal of the Kichwa populace throughout Ecuador, the people have been increasingly exposed to modern cultures and the effects of globalization. As such, the Kichwa culture has seen some erosion of their traditional culture. Higher concentrations of Kichwa can be found around La Selva, and some Kichwa believe that the recent challenges the local populations face against the oil and gas industries have rekindled their interest in Kichwa traditions and preserving their heritage. Many Kichwa have begun to form protests against oil and gas drilling in the pursuance of their long-held roles as guardians of the rainforest.



The Huaorani people have inhabited Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest for over a thousand years. The Huaorani remained isolated from the outside world until 1956, and their name reflects their seclusion as Huaorani means “human beings” or “the people.” They commonly refer to outsiders as cowode, or “non-humans.”

The Huaorani people traditionaly practiced a sustainable, self-sufficient economy that allowed for their isolation. Athough the Huaorani had defended themselves against alien tribes surrounding their community as well as the occasional rubber and gold prospectors, the ethnic group have developed a unique culture with a completely unrelated language and singular artistic tendencies.

Since their induction into the modern world, the Huaorani have witnessed the continuing encroachment of “non-humans” and the oil companies vying for the Amazon’s natural resources. Different tribes of the Huaorani encountered the imposed invasion of the modern world in different ways. Many of the Huaorani were relocated to missions by the Ecuadorian government and missionaries. From there, some moved to the booming oil towns bordering the rainforest, and some began to embrace ecotourism as a way to sustain their cultural and lifestyle. In contrast, the Taromenane and Tagaeri Huaorani clans receded deeper into the rainforest and continue to live as they always had. Of course, with the isolated gene pool, many have begun to wonder if continued isolation is a viable option for these remaining clans.

The Huaorani now have a unified voice through the Organization of the Huaorani National of the Ecuadorian Amazon (ONHAE) founded in 1990. The committee now represents the Huaorani communities while also enlightening people worldwide to the dangers and difficulties of assimilating isolated indigenous peoples to neighboring cultures.


To this day, the Huaorani language has defied linguistic classification.