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A mural depicting priests interacting with Indigenous women and children while men row boats in the distance.
Mural in the Hispanic Reading Room, Thomas Jefferson Building.

Cosmovisions: The Impacts of Kotiria Culture on a Library of Congress Intern

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This is a guest post by Natali Palacios, a Maryland native in her junior year at the University of Maryland, College Park where she studies Human Development. Natali was selected for an internship in the Latin American, Caribbean and European Division (LACE) through Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). Henry Widener was her mentor.

How I found the internship and & why I applied
I originally applied for an internship through the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), which facilitates a process for federal internships for current undergraduate and graduate students. Upon submission, the system forwards applications to various federal agencies that align with your preferences, experience, and career expectations. Following this process, applicants receive notification of selection.

Fortunately, last summer, I received the exciting news of being selected as an Indigenous digital collections intern for the Library of Congress. Initially, I hesitated to accept the position, uncertain about managing the responsibilities of being a full-time student alongside a full-time internship. However, after careful consideration, I embraced the opportunity. As a new upperclassman with no prior internship experience, I saw this as my chance to delve into different fields and broaden my understanding of potential career paths.

Throughout the fall semester, I had the privilege of contributing to the efforts of the Latin American, Caribbean and European Division at the Library of Congress. My primary focus involved conducting research for Cosmovisions Among Us, a project dedicated to providing a platform for Library users to learn about diverse ways of being in and understanding the world through video interviews with members of Indigenous communities and scholars who work alongside them.

A mural depicting priests interacting with Indigenous women and children while men row boats in the distance.
Mural in the Hispanic Reading Room, Thomas Jefferson Building.

What I learned
During this process, I had the opportunity to familiarize myself with the resources and materials available at the Library, both physically and digitally. In the beginning stage of the project, my focus was on gathering together materials relevant to the Kotiria, formerly known as Guanano or Wanano, an Indigenous community living in the Amazon of northwestern Brazil and southeastern Colombia.

A significant portion of my time was dedicated to exploring the Library of Congress catalog and the Handbook of Latin American Studies. Most of the material that I kept consisted of subjects that I thought would best fit the Cosmovisions theme, including any materials relating to the group’s history, traditions, or daily life. One aspect of Kotiria history I learned about from my research is that it is common for members of a clan to know more than one language, most often two or three. This is because the Kotiria community practices exogenous marriage, meaning that spouses must come from different clans. Typically, a wife will marry into her husband’s clan and adopt his language.

Collecting and organizing materials on the Kotiria community prepared me for the next step of the project, which was to conduct several recorded interviews with Dr. Janet Chernela, a scholar and anthropologist from the University of Maryland with more than 50 years of experience interacting with and working alongside the Kotiria, and Miguel and Carolaine Kotiria, two members of the Kotiria community.

I met with my mentor weekly to prepare interview questions based on our readings and a sense of what the general public could learn from the Kotiria community. My mentor and I focused on the importance of empathizing with interviewees by considering how they might interpret each question and by recognizing the significance of precise wording. My mentor and I also set up several meetings with Dr. Chernela to discuss the cultural sensitivity of our interview questions and the answers they might elicit from Miguel and Carolaine. Once we finished consulting with Dr. Chernela, we were ready to begin our interviews. I conducted two interviews with Dr. Chernela and created the questions that my mentor used in his interview with Dr. Chernela, and Miguel and Carolaine Kotiria.

Screenshot of interview between Natali Palacios and Dr. Janet Chernela on Dr. Chernela’s work with the Kotiria
Screenshot of interview between Natali Palacios and Dr. Janet Chernela on Dr. Chernela’s work with the Kotiria

My first interview with Dr. Chernela focused on her experience as an anthropologist in Brazil. I inquired about her background and how she established her relationship with the Kotiria. I was fascinated and encouraged to hear that an important part of being an anthropologist is being open to mistakes, which anyone is bound to make when interacting with different cultures. For someone like me, in the early stages of my career, it is important to know that you will be making mistakes. I was also amazed to see how connected and thoughtful Dr. Chernela was when speaking about her experience with the Kotiria. It was clear to me that she cares about the people she interacted with as she used her profession to advocate for the group and the challenges they face, such as asserting their rights to protect their ancestral lands.

My second interview with Dr. Chernela focused on topics such as Kotiria identity, traditions, yearly calendars, and origin stories, as well as the process of Kotiria language learning and the effects of climate change on the community. According to the first of the two Kotiria origin stories I discussed with Dr. Chernela, the Kotiria emerged from a vessel called the Anaconda Canoe. This origin story is shared among all other Tukanoan peoples. The second version, however, is specific to the Kotiria. According to this origin story, the Kotiria were born from raindrops, which fell to put out the fire of a burning tree filled with the Kotiria’s ancestors.

Much of my discussion with Dr. Chernela concerned the Kotiria initiation ceremony, which marks a community member’s transition from youth to adulthood. Each ceremony involves separate ceremonies for girls and boys. These ceremonies hold great significance and are considered pivotal moments in the lives of the individuals, when they become full members of their communities. My mentor’s interview with Miguel provided additional valuable context on this topic.

After conducting our interviews, my mentor and I reflected on the many ways we identified with aspects of Kotiria culture. The impact of family relationships on language learning was especially relevant to both of us, each having grown up speaking languages other than English at home. The interconnections between the Kotiria origin stories and the exchange ceremonies that are still practiced today reminded us of family traditions like Thanksgiving and Christmas, where exchanges are grounded in stories of the past. As we learned from speaking to Dr. Chernela, these stories can become sites of disagreement among the Kotiria, much like they do within the United States.

Screenshot of intern Natali Palacios in interview with Anthropologist
Palacios interviews Dr. Janet Chernela on Kotiria cultural practices.

How the experience helped me

I experienced growth throughout this project, particularly in my comfort level with addressing a professional audience, navigating the documentation of work within a predominantly virtual work environment, and gaining a deeper understanding of interviewing. I learned how important it is to utilize listening skills and to adapt to other people’s behavior during interviews. I initially made the mistake of trying to fill in silence whenever it occurred, though I quickly learned that silence doesn’t always need filling. Silence may indicate that the person you are speaking to is taking time to collect their thoughts. While encountering challenges in the virtual setting, primarily technical difficulties, I learned the importance of seeking assistance when needed and overcoming hesitation in doing so. Additionally, the project enhanced my proficiency in utilizing Microsoft applications like Word, Outlook, and Excel.

Even though what I’m studying right now does not line up exactly with the duties I performed during my internship, I believe the skills acquired are versatile and can be applied across various domains. The opportunity to interact with others, alongside the practice of research, lays a solid foundation that can be utilized in different contexts—whether pursuing further education after obtaining my bachelor’s or venturing into the workforce after graduating.

Looking ahead, I am excited about applying the skills and knowledge I gained from my internship to future endeavors. As I ponder my path, I envision working in higher education. The experience of doing research, conducting interviews, and navigating a virtual work environment has equipped me with a valuable skill that I anticipate utilizing in working with students as an advisor. Active listening, adaptability, and effective communication, which I refined during my internship, will undoubtedly be crucial assets in a future professional setting I am likely to spend time helping and interacting with others.


Janet M. Chernela. The Wanano Indians of the Brazilian Amazon : a sense of space. 1993
“Major ethnographic and historical study of the Guanano, an eastern Tukanoan group of the northwest Amazon. Examines history, social organization, ecology, and politics in order to understand the interplay between principles of hierarchy and equality. The work makes important contributions to the study of ranked societies and is a rich source of ethnographic information based on extensive fieldwork.” Handbook of Latin American Studies, v.55.

Ña’pichoã = As estrelas de chuva : o ciclo anual de chuvas e enchentes = The rain stars : the year in stars, rains, and river flow. 2014. 

Índio não fala só tupi : uma viagem pelas línguas dos povos originários no Brasil. 2020. 

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