Soon after returning to the hotel, I heard drums outside my window, a likely sign that the Indigenous Walk people had arrived. I put on my Celtic tabard, as I usually do at these events when I’m in 'official capacity' mode, and went out by the side of the Cinterplex.
Sure enough, amidst clouds of burning copal there were maybe a hundred people in various forms of traditional indigenous garb, most wearing ankle rattles apparently made from some sort of nut. Some were playing drums, others played flutes or a variety of stringed instruments; still others played bird-shaped whistles that made a loud, crackling sound unlike anything I’d ever heard. They represented many different cultures and regions of México – Rarámuris, Mayas, Wixarrikari (Huichols), Náhuatl, Zapotecs, Q’iché, and many others. Silvia came along with me, and lent me her camera for a while since I’d left mine behind. (For a 10 min. video of the Walk, go to http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=354279101937647341 )
People had formed themselves into three circles. The innermost one was mostly composed of the elders and leaders of the Walk, some of them quite aged. The second circle, perhaps a dozen feet away or so, appeared to include the remaining walkers, most of them First Nations people, though not all. The third and largest circle was the audience, everyone else who’d come to watch. Silvia and I stood in this outermost circle for a while next to a group of Buddhists and Sikhs, until someone came and asked us if we were presenters at the Encuentro. When we said yes, she asked us to step into the second circle.
The indigenous walkers would do a ceremonial dance or two, then a few different elders and leaders would speak, and the pattern would repeat. Most of the speakers touched on similar themes – the economic plight of their people; the erosion of their spiritual practices and their assimilation and secularization into mere folklore; the loss of their tribal lands; and the lack of support from government officials. A handful of women, who seemed to be Walk organizers, would move between the first and second circles, giving directions to the dancers and orchestrating the next round of speakers. One of them carried a wireless microphone which she used to announce whatever was about to happen next, and which she would hand to the speakers so they could be heard (an interesting juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern). Another, a woman dressed in a bright yellow dress, was at one point talking with a group of dancers, when she suddenly turned around and looked right at me with a puzzled expression, then went back to what she was doing.
A little later she joined the inner circle again so that I could barely see her, but soon it was her turn to address the crowd. She was introduced as Fabiola Poblano Ramos, and her message was not much different from what several previous speakers had said, but she expressed hers with such intensity, clarity, and poetic eloquence, that I spontaneously burst into tears. I wept not only for her people, but for mine, for those untold numbers of my European ancestors who lost all that they had – their spiritual practices, their homes, the lands on which their families had lived for hundreds of years – through coerced conversions, forced assimilation, enclosures, clearances, marginalization, the raising of alien temples upon their sacred ground, legal proscriptions against the use of their ancestral tongues, and the transformation of once-vital religious symbols into safe and meaningless bits of folkloric trivia. I wept for those who’d been imprisoned, tortured, and killed because they would not conform, and whose existence is even at this moment being denied by myopic scholars scrambling for a place on the latest, trendiest academic bandwagon.
I imagined them standing at a moment like this in their own history, facing extinction, facing oblivion. Perhaps they did not realize the imminent and devastating changes threatening their ancient ways. Perhaps – unlike the copper-skinned, feather-bedecked peoples standing before me, singing and dancing for their lives – most of my own paler ancestors could not read the cryptic writing on the blood-stained wall of history. But surely there had been some who could; surely there were those who’d had foresight of the inevitable. What did they think, at such a juncture? What did they feel? What might they have made of a gathering such as this one? They would have had no supportive circle of sympathetic onlookers to embrace them with solidarity; no kindly turbaned and saffron-robed travelers from distant lands to bear witness to their pleas. So I had no choice but to weep for my own lost ancestors, and for the tired but relentless women and men before me, struggling to retain their identity, refusing to join the ranks of the forgotten.
The tears passed, the event continued. A few minutes later, Fabiola made another of her rounds between the first and second circles. She passed by me, then suddenly wheeled around and came to where I was standing, reached out, and grabbed my hands. “Brother,” she asked me in Spanish, “why were you weeping?” She caught me completely by surprise – I couldn’t imagine how she’d noticed what had been going on with me from the place where she’d been standing in the inner circle.
So I introduced myself, explained what I was doing at the Encuentro, and told her about the complex of emotions I’d just been feeling. She listened carefully, not letting go of my hands, then told me to follow her and led me into the inner circle, toward an aged Indian woman.The woman (I later learned that her Spanish name was Amalia Salas Casales) took my hands from Fabiola, gave me an encouraging and mostly toothless smile and told me, in Spanish, that I had been brought to this place for a reason, and that my troubles would be taken from me. She then placed her hands on each side of my head for a few moments, while she muttered some words in her native language, then slid them toward the back of my neck; finally, she placed her right hand on the top of my head.
Something happened. Something opened up, right where her hand was touching me. It was a very physical sensation, a feeling of something being pulled apart; almost as if someone were ripping off my skin under anaesthesia, so there was the sensation of pulling, but with no pain.
And then I saw it: an ear of corn growing right in the front of my head, and she was pulling the husk apart, exposing row after row of ripe, full kernels gleaming under the blistering sun, as bright and as yellow as Fabiola’s dress, until the entire, single horn of grain was laid bare.And with the shedding of the husk came a release, a letting go, a sense of peace that felt very familiar, but which I hadn’t experienced for a very long time, and it brought with it a feeling of strength and centeredness, of fitness and belonging.
The entire thing took maybe a minute of linear time, but it felt like forever. Amalia said something else in her Indian language, then nodded at me in a way that conveyed both that everything would be fine, and that she was pleased with her own work. Then Fabiola took my hand again, and led me a bit further along the inner circle to stand in front of a tiny Wixarrika man wearing a blue tunic, who looked to be about a hundred years old, but had the kind of inquisitive, all-encompassing eyes that one mostly would see in a child.I knew by the clothes he was wearing, and by the hat sitting on his head, that he was a mara’akame, a spirit singer, a sort of shaman (his Spanish name, I found out later, was Don Custodio Rivera de la Cruz). Fabiola bent down and spoke to him softly in the Huichol language, and he listened intently without ever once taking his eyes off me. When she was done, he nodded, reached up his hands to pull me down toward him, then brought his face very close to my forehead, as if he were examining something closely. Then he let go of me, stepped back, and nodded vigorously, then moved away. Finally, Fabiola brought me to an open space in the inner circle, and asked me to stay there while she went off to talk to some other people. Eventually, she returned and stayed by my side, occasionally taking my hand as if to reassure me.
The ceremony continued, with the dances and the speeches. Every so often, Fabiola would lean over and explain to me a little of what was going on. “This is a planting dance,” she’d say, “watch how the dancers’ feet land softly, not hard on the ground, and rub the soil to loosen it, to open the way for the seeds.” Or, “this dance is to honor the sun; when they leap, it’s as if they’re flying, to get closer to him.” At one point, a Wixarrika musician played his traditional violin, while the mara’akame sang one of their spirit songs in a very high-pitched, reedy, but totally mesmerizing voice.
The sun was overwhelming, and I was dehydrated and feeling a bit shaky. I was also becoming very aware of the time, since the opening plenary was about to start in less than an hour. Thankfully, the woman with the wireless microphone announced that the last of the marchers was about to speak, and that he would be followed by a small break before the second part of the program, which sounded as if it would be an open forum to discuss various issues relative to the First Peoples. An elderly Indian man stepped up and began to speak in Spanish; it didn’t appear that he would be talking for very long, so I figured I’d excuse myself and leave for the plenary as soon as he was done.
That’s when Fabiola asked me if I would address the gathering, tell them who I was, why I was there, just as I had told her. Again, she caught me completely by surprise. I said that I was very honored for her to ask me, but protested that I had nothing prepared to say, and that I didn’t really feel it was proper for me to speak, since I hadn’t taken part in the march. She grabbed both my hands, and very emphatically said something like, “You are our brother, and you belong here along with the rest of us. The spirits have brought you here for a purpose, and now they want you to speak to us. There is something important we must hear from you; all the elders agree that you must speak and give us a blessing.”
When she said the word 'blessing', I immediately thought of a brief one from
Then somebody led me to the center, and put the microphone in my hand. I don’t really know what I said, because all of a sudden my mouth opened and stuff came pouring out, and I only remember bits of it, and then there are bits that other people have told me. But I guess I introduced myself, and said in Spanish that I was at the Encuentro to talk about the indigenous European traditions; that I had been very deeply moved by their ceremonies and by their words, that I understood their plight, and my heart went out to them; that I knew many of them had European blood also running through their veins, and that I knew in many cases that blood had been forced on them violently through the rape or forced marriages to which their indigenous ancestors had been subjected, and that they might very well hate the European colonizers whose blood they carried; but that they should also know that blood connected them to even more remote ancestors from Europe who were also tribal peoples, who also venerated the Earth and the Sky like their Indian ancestors. I said that what European colonizers had done to to the First Peoples of the Americas, of Africa, and of other continents, they had done to their own people first; that very little of our ancient traditions had survived, so we had lost almost everything, only a few of the old languages remained, a great deal had been converted into soulless folklore; that we were barely hanging by a thread, that most everyone had long forgotten that our traditions had ever existed, or refused to believe that any had survived. But that the land and the fire and the moon, the mountains and the sun and the rivers had not forgotten us, and by not forgetting they helped us to remember, and, through that remembering, our ways could live again, for what is remembered is not lost. I called upon the various religious representatives present at the Encuentro to take active part in the preservation of indigenous traditions, and that preservation required much more than just words or apologies: among other things it required reparation, it required autonomy, and it required restitution, including the return to their sacred lands of ancestors whose remains were currently kept in coffins of glass in museums all over the world. I also said that, while no one has the authority to speak for all in our traditions, I felt confident that everyone in my community would join me in expressing to them our solidarity, our support, and our love; then I finished by offering them a brief Gaelic blessing of the sun, moon and stars. Or something like that.
Whatever it was I said must have been to their liking, since it was followed by a lot of shouting and whooping, the pounding of drums, and the blowing of whistles, horns and conch shells. Four of the elders, including the two who had interacted directly with me, came over and hugged me and stroked me, and Fabiola kept smiling and nodding. It was a very moving experience for me, and I feel that, for us, a bridge was crossed and an important connection was made.
The dances began anew, and I seized the moment to go sit on some steps and center myself a bit. A few minutes later, a white woman with short blond hair came and sat beside me, and thanked me for my remarks. She said her name was Helen Samuels, an Irish-American expatriate whose parents had moved to México during the McCarthy era, and she’s lived here ever since. She said that when I spoke my blessing, it was the first time she’d heard her ancestral language spoken in this country, and she was very glad that the 'European tribes' were represented at the event. Helen works with indigenous communities all over México, and helped to coordinate the Walk. She also works with gangs of punks in