The Wiphala

A history of the Indigenous symbol and the meaning of its design

As an artist and designer, I’m often curious about the symbols or imagery humans use to represent themselves in designs like flags or other forms of cultural expression. For me, I think it is fascinating that images or graphics can have meaning far beyond representational ones. This curiosity comes from the same place as the wonder and confusion I have for someone who would wear an egregiously offensive symbol in public… and it can usually only be explored with a history lesson. I feel as though many of the issues that continue to poison our world could be more fully understood if we paid closer attention to their historical roots. If you have a reaction to a symbol, whether it be a feeling of fright, anger, or hope, etc, I encourage you to research the meaning behind the symbol… even if it already feels like a commonplace image!

This week I wanted to find out more about the Whipala, which has been the dual flag of Bolivia since 2009. I found that learning about its history and the unique meanings for each of its colors gave me a better understanding of the culture it came from, as well as the culture it currently exists in. In recent times, this flag has been adopted as a symbol of resistance for the Indigenous people of Bolivia and their supporters during the election of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales. It has only gained further notoriety as a symbol of this movement after the controversial U.S.-sponsored coup d’état in November of 2019 that would unseat Morales with president Jeanine Áñez, causing a political crisis that would upset a newly established economic and social stability in Bolivia. However, in 2020, Luis Acres, a member of Morales’s MAS party would win the general election by a large margin, effectively overturning the contested results of the 2019 “election.” Áñez has since been arrested and is being investigated for her illegal actions during her presidency (exploitation of Indigenous people/draining Indigenous resources for the lithium is just one). It is a fascinating story to keep up with, I’d recommend investigating it if you have the time.

The Whipala

The Whipala’s origins are shaky at best, with no specific geographic location to trace it back to, however, it is known that it was likely a symbol used by the Tiwanaku people who bordered the western side of Bolivia during the Pre-Colombian Era (they existed in 1580BC-1187AD). It has been discovered that the symbol was been applied to such things as ancient chuspas (bags) to carry cocoa or other goods. During the colonial era of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Flag became more closely associated with the Incan people. It is important to note, however, that the symbol was a populistic one… it was never representative of the empire, rather it was a symbol of the people.

An example of a “chuspa” with a Whipala-like design. Courtesy of  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

To give a brief descriptor of the design… it is a 7×7 square (traditionally made using patchwork) with 13 diagonal stripes composed out of the colors.

The colors of the design represent:

  • Red: The Earth and the Andean man
  • Orange: Society and culture
  • Yellow: Energy and strength
  • White: Time and change
  • Green: Natural resources and wealth
  • Blue: The Cosmos
  • Violet: Andean government and self-determination

Nowadays, the Whipala is waved in South American Indigenous protests, marches and other events, however has gained an increased presence as a symbol that is tied to both Morales and the MAS party.

Whipala flag at an Aymara march in Bolivia.

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