Strong. Resilient. Tenacious. That’s my description of the naturally-dyed fiber bags, designed and created by the Cheque Oitedie Cooperative from the Ayoreo community of Bolivia. But it’s also describes the character of the women who are its makers.
Cheque Oitedie Cooperative
When the Cheque Oitedie (best weavers) of the Ayoreo indigenous people in Puesto Paz, Bolivia, joined together in 1999 to form a cooperative, it was with the mission to strengthen the women’s cultural identity through the maintenance and promotion of traditional weaving.
In order to do this, they had to manage their primary resource of fiber for making their heritage bags, the bromeliad (dajudie). So the Cheque Oitedie members committed themselves to sustainable management of the dajudie species. Through their knowledge of this species, they have successfully transplanted and grown dajudie in a communal forest area, thus taking harvesting pressure off of the wild population while providing ready access to the resource for the community.
The cooperative has grown and transformed over the past fifteen years. There are now 45 women and two strong leaders–Gladys Dosape and Ique Etacore (Ique has been the main representative since the cooperative started, (on a very sad note Ique Etacore passed away in March 2019.) The cooperative now ensures a stable source of income for women through the sales of their traditional products, mainly bags, to international markets. This is the only source of fair wage for the women and prevents the loss of their ancestral arts.
The other key person in the cooperative is Ines Hinojosa. She is responsible for administrative control and public relations. An ethnobotanist by training, her involvement with the coop began in 1997, when the national confederation of indigenous people was approved to work with natural resources in the lowlands. She was invited to participate in a sustainable management of resources training, and it was here where she met Ique’s husband, the only Ayoreo attending the training. That meeting was the beginning of a long-term relationship with the Ayoreo community and, eventually, the cooperative.
Ines shared some cultural aspects with us: “Some of the Aroyeo had lived a nomadic lifestyle, a life that required complete knowledge of their environment including the dajudie, to recognize and choose the best plants to harvest, and learn all the processes to produce useful goods. This traditional knowledge has been transferred through generations, and today the young women continue learning. Teaching is not a formal process as they never force their daughters or sons to learn something; daughters have to decide for themselves. But it’s important for young women to learn how to make a bag. Here, women get married at 14 or15 years of age. When you get married, you want to be respected in the society and knowing how to make a traditional bag gains that respect. So when the females become teenagers, they become very interested in learning. It’s like cooking a special recipe–maybe you cook it a few times a year but you know how. So maybe the young women make two bags a year, but they have gained the knowledge.”
From Plant to Fiber to Bag
Every single leaf is removed from the dajudie plant, and the spines removed. Then the upper and lower part of the leaf is scraped in order to extract the fleshy part where the fine fiber is located. The fiber is then washed, sun dried, and spun. The spinning is done on their legs, rubbing the fiber with their hand against the thigh which twists it.
These resilient bags are made with a looping process using the dajudie fiber and a needle. And while the women call this “weaving”, the looping is done over the knees without a frame; there is no warp or weft. The designs are based on traditional ones that identify the seven clans of their society, as well as their surnames–Chiqueno, Cutamijño, Dosapei, Etacore, Nurumini, Picanerai, and Posiño. In the past, one could only use/wear the design of one’s clan, but that changed years ago, especially when the bags were sold or exchanged beyond the communities.
The colors of the dyed fiber are sourced from four tree species: barks yielding brown and a soft red; fruits to obtain dark blue; and resin to obtain a different shade of brown. Some colors, used in combination, produce black. When the missionaries started working in this region, they introduced chemical dyes and now some bags are colored with both natural and chemical dyes. One objective this year is to recover more natural dye sources.
Work has already begun for the next year’s products as the bags are labor intensive–a medium-sized one takes about three weeks to construct; just making the yarn for the bag takes another week. When the coop met after the Santa Fe Folk Art Market this year, discussion ensued about ways they could improve the bags, how they could offer more diverse collections and sizing, and how to improve their profitability.
Being members of the cooperative has opened new paths for many of the women. Earning an income was significant. Ines added, “The leaders are talking about global issues, women’s rights, sexual health, and are seeing change. Health care is very expensive here and they are promoting ways to better health, such as how to manage sugar consumption. It takes small steps to move the group forward in societal way. You need a very strong leader and that is Ique. Ique can talk to the group and lead them, train them, and manage a business. When I first met Ique and we were starting the coop, she could barely write or read and now she can. She sets an example and is respected. The young girls are trying to follow in her steps. They need to feel like they are coop owners too–that it’s not Ique’s business. And now they realize it’s theirs.”
It is with proudness that they say, “To weave with dajudie fiber is our job, our identity as Ayoreo women, and the inheritance of our ancestors.”
Thanks to Ines Hinojosa for providing the information and most images for this blog as well as her ongoing work with the Aroyeo women.