Tsafiki is the language of some 3,000 Tsachila who currently reside in the western foothills of the Andes in the province of Santo Domingo de los Tsachila. Tsafiki is a member of the Barbacoan language family which is thought to include the closely related Cha’palaa  or Chafiki, spoken in the province of Esmeraldas as well as Awa Pit (spoken on both sides of the Ecuadorian-Colombia border), Guambiano (Colombia) and Totoró (Colombia).Historically the Tsachila have been called ‘Colorados’ due to their custom of painting their hair and body with the red dye of achiote. Tsachila, which is now the preferred term is derived from tsa ‘true’ and -chi ‘of living flesh’ (an old nominal classifier) which translates as ‘true people’. The singular form is tsachiand the plural term is tsachila. Likewise tsafiki is derived fromtsa ‘true’ and fiki ‘word’ translating as ‘true language’.

Tsachila oral history as well as the archeological, anthropological, linguistic and Spanish historical records suggests that before the Inca invasion the speakers of Barbacoan languages were located throughout much of the northern and western regions of Ecuador including groups in the highlands. It is believed that the present-day Tsachila are descended from different groups, including the Tsachila of Angamarca, Alorquí and Cocanigua amongst others who migrated to the Santo Domingo area during the early post-colonial times to join Tsachila already established there, for a variety of reasons including oppression from the Spanish, epidemics and natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions (Jijón y Caamaño 1940/1947; Navas de Pozo 1990; Solomon, 1997).  After these migrations, contact with the dominant culture was sporadic and the Tsachila lived relatively isolated, until the 1950’s and 60’s when major roads were constructed through their territory (Ventura 2000).

 Although Tsachi oral history recounts that at one time the Tsachila had a large city that was abandoned under the advice of the ponela ‘shamans’ as epidemics devastated the population, since post-colonial times the Tsachila have not lived in villages but rather scattered settlements. They still do not have villages or towns but rather live in seven communities (Mapali, Búa, Chiguilpe, Poste, Peripa, Congoma y Naranjo) in scattered settlements. Although children are still learning Tsafiki as their maternal language, the Tsachila are now surrounded by the fourth largest city in Ecuador, Santo Domingo and due to loss of territory and the sheer numbers of fetola ‘non-Tsachi people’, their culture and language can now be categorized as amongst the most endangered in Ecuador.The Tsachila are renowned throughout Ecuador and beyond for their profound knowledge of medicinal plants and janpeno‘healing’. While there are still many ponela ‘curenderos or shamans’, who are respected for their knowledge of plants, there are only a few tsa ponela ‘true shamans’ left and the youngest is in his sixties. There are no younger Tsachila who have undergone or are undergoing the rigorous training–which begins in childhood and continues for twenty or thirty years–needed to become a tsa pone. This vast knowledge is quickly becoming lost, which only stresses the importance of documenting these practices now.

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