Beyond Indigenous Heritage Paradoxes in Evo Morales' Bolivia

Collaborative Group

Dr. Michelle Bigenho, Dr. Henry F. Stobart




As active protagonists in the discussions that gave rise to UNESCO’s key instrument of intangible heritage (2003), Bolivians have been involved in heritage protection policies since before the 1970s. In the early twenty-first century, however, the country was beset by a veritable fever of intangible heritage registration, leading to bitter disputes—both with neighboring countries and among local communities—over cultural ownership of traditional dances, costumes, music, and musical instruments. When Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, took the reins of state in 2006, the government set in motion a “process of change” and attempts at state “decolonization” that paradoxically intensified nationalist positions rather than bringing greater indigenous cultural sovereignty. In this project, anthropologist Michelle Bigenho and ethnomusicologist Henry Stobart identify two key paradoxes that continue to constrain discussions of indigenous heritage in Bolivia and beyond: (1) the paradox of patriotic patrimony: the tendency for heritage instruments to be administered at nation-state levels, rather than by indigenous actors for their own interests, and (2) the economic vs. cultural rights paradox, where international policy and the topical literature present economic and cultural rights in mutual opposition. Rather than reproduce these same state and international-level readings, where culture is often framed and promoted as a resource, this project seeks a more nuanced account of how people understand and engage with the concept of heritage. The project asks: What motivates people to make heritage claims? How might these motivations go beyond the oppositional binary of the “economic” and the “cultural”? Focusing on specific case studies of heritage registration and engaging with actors at multiple social levels (i.e., indigenous and nonindigenous actors, state and local authorities, etc.), the collaborators will conduct ethnographic research about the motivations and repercussions of heritage registration and will co-author a book that also draws on Bigenho’s and Stobart’s ongoing collaborations since 2011; these include a Bolivia-based workshop on “Rethinking Creativity, Recognition and Indigenous Heritage,” an associated website, and several co-written articles. Award period: July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016