The Scarlet Macaw and the Amazon Parrot Folk Tales From the Cayapa Indians of Ecuador


The spring and summer of 1967 were tumultuous. There were riots in Newark and Detroit, the Arab-Israeli War, and a summit meeting at Glassboro State College in New Jersey between President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin. I heard nothing of these events in the rainforest of Esmeraldas Province, northwestern Ecuador (see map).

Cayapa Indians

Esmeraldas Province was the primary homeland of the Cayapa Indians who then numbered about 3,000 people. With an average rainfall of +400" per year, this rainforest was among the wettest areas in the world. I was there during the dry season, but it rained for an hour or two most afternoons and heavily throughout the nights. My clothes rarely dried out completely, and fungi and molds spoiled much of the food and attacked the metal parts and lenses of the cameras.

The rainforest is a lush but fragile environment. The soil is shallow, and once the forest canopy and ground vegetation are cleared, it takes many years for the environment to renew itself, if it ever does. The Cayapa were farmers who relied on plantain as their staple crop supplemented with maize, beans, bananas, sugar cane, oranges, pineapples, coconuts, and wild plants. They raised chickens for eggs and meat, hunted, and fished. Rubber and cacao were produced for trade.

Despite the difficult living conditions, however, the area was one of the most beautiful environments in which I have lived. Ecuador had more species of hummingbirds than any other South American country at the time, and the rainforest was also home


to other species of magnificent birds, including macaws and Amazon parrots.

I was a graduate student in anthropology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and had traveled to the Cayapa area with a professor to do research on Cayapa demographics, kinship, and economics. My specific job was to travel the rivers conducting a house-to-house census collecting comparative kinship data, accompanying the Cayapa on trading expeditions, and recording economic activities around the houses where I stayed. Two guides and sometime interpreters accompanied me: Ruen Anapa, eldest son of the Chief, Gabriel Anapa; and Ruen's cousin, Segundo Jose.

During our travels, we discussed many subjects, especially the various populations of birds. Communication was difficult, at times, because Ruen and Segundo spoke no English and I spoke no Chapa/ache [the Cayapa word for their language and for themselves]; we communicated in Spanish, our second language. While in Ecuador, I recorded folk tales including these two about the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) and the Amazon parrot, probably Amazona ochrocephala. They are transcribed as recorded with a few explanatory remarks in [ ].

The Scarlet Macaw

Long ago, before the coming of the Ecuadorians [Spanish], Morenos [descendants of African slaves brought to the area by the Spanish], and all the others who have come since, there was an important shaman named Chapira. He was widely known for his many cures, especially his ability to heal burns. He also had medicine to


make men strong in order to keep their wives happy [aphrodisiacs). Chapira, himself, had several wives and kept many other women happy by sneaking onto their sleeping mats at night. When the husbands found out about this, they went to another shaman and paid him to make bad magic against Chapira, This he did.

One day Chapira was walking in the forest with his dog, collecting plants and other materials to make medicine. It was the dry season, and the forest floor was covered with a dense mat of old leaves and dead plants. Chapira did not see the equis [ekei; fer-de-lance (Bothrops atrax), a large, South American pit viper] hidden among the debris, and he stepped on it. The snake reared its head and bit Chapira on the leg, sinking its fangs deep into his flesh. Chapira cried out in pain and fell down. The snake withdrew its fangs and said, "This is to teach you to keep to your own wives and away from those of other men."

Chapira had no snake medicine with him, and he cried out in his pain and agony, seeking help. Up in a tall chonta tree perched a pair of large green parrots, a male and female.

They heard Chapira, flew down to him, and asked, "Why are you crying?"

Chapira replied, "Because equis bit me, and I have no snake medicine. My leg is so swollen that I cannot walk, and I'm burning with fever and dying."

The parrots asked, "What is it you

need? We can get it." .

Chapira told the parrots what he needed, and off they flew. Soon they were back with some plants.