Universiteit Leiden

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Centre for Indigenous Americas Studies


Research framework CIAS

In the approximately 15,000 years that the Americas have been populated (as the last continent) an extraordinary diversity in languages, cultures, and knowledge systems has developed in the region. However, much of this diversity has become obscured due to a series of historical events. Most importantly, the European colonization and subsequent genocide and epidemics wiped out a significant part of the cultural abundance of the continent. In addition, cultural and political suppression by modern states has further marginalized the many indigenous voices in the continent.

These developments have had several important consequences:

  1. Indigenous societies and their forms of knowledge continue to be seen and represented as primitive, static, traditional and/or belonging to the past;
  2. they have created a rupture between past and present;
  3. they have led to a situation where there is fragmented knowledge about the range of languages and cultures of Indigenous America, both for academics and for Indigenous peoples.

CIAS aims to contribute to document and understand the rich cultural heritage and to support the cultural continuity of Indigenous societies in the Americas through three main pillars of activities, related to their past, present, and future: RECONSTRUCT, DESCRIBE, and PRESERVE diversity.

RECONSTRUCTING DIVERSITY: with a few exceptions, historical records about the Americas go back a few hundred years. Given the consequences of the European impact, much of what we can know about this past diversity can only be accessed through multi-disciplinary reconstruction, through using archaeological, geographical, genetic, biological, and linguistic information, and the important contribution of Indigenous experts.

DESCRIBING DIVERSITY: There is still a vast amount of linguistic and cultural diversity in the Americas, but most of this diversity is under threat due to economic and political pressures. Although academic knowledge in particular of the languages and histories of the continent has improved greatly, there are still many languages and cultures that have been poorly documented and understood.

PRESERVING DIVERSITY: In the light of the precarious situation of indigenous peoples and their cultural heritage, the last few decades have seen an increase in cultural and linguistic activism. Many projects aim re-establish cultural and linguistic continuity, to demand respect for Indigenous rights and to create intercultural spaces for mutual learning between Indigenous people and the world. When these projects are carried out in close collaboration with indigenous peoples, they often lead to success.

In carrying out its activities, CIAS depends on two major knowledge networks. On the one hand we have extensive collaborations with various Indigenous peoples and organizations. On the other hand, CIAS builds on the Leiden University in-house expertise of the area. The internationally renowned experts in Indigenous America of Leiden University are divided over several institutes and bring together a variety of disciplines. This unique collection of talents has led to considerable success in fundraising among others from the European Research Council (ERC) and the Netherlands Scientific Organization (NWO), totalling over EUR 25,000,000. There is no institute in Europe that brings together this amount of expertise and resources for the study of Indigenous America. These Indigenous and academic knowledge networks form the lifeline of CIAS, and therefore a major part of our efforts go into establishing, maintaining, and expanding these networks and making them sustainable for the future. We do this for instance by organizing network meetings, training and teaching activities to involve students and Indigenous scholars and activists

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