Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Power of Place, People, and Tongue

This journey seems to be very much about recognizing and appreciating the power of place. Yes, there are "papitos" or spirits who live in mountains and other regions and they have an effect on us.

I came back to Cusco from the Pongo and Quillabamba feeling changed once again. I'm not quite sure what the spirits of the Pongo whispered to me when we crossed through it, but they certainly said something.

Or maybe I am just getting old and finally developing the tranquility and peace that comes with age. I seem to want to be a different kind of warrior now, not one that causes more war and conflict in the world, but fights for its transcendance.

One woman in the journey said she didn't want to talk to me about the Camisea gas project because so many journalists had come to her village asking questions and she was tired of it.

Though I have always respected this position in theory I have to admit I was annoyed that she was applying it directly to me, who am after all such a fantastically good person.

So this little pinprick of annoyance stayed with me throughout the trip, especially when I found myself sitting near this woman. A little current of invisible hostility began to grow between us, and I fell right into it.

At the same time, I recognized that I had to thank this woman for being who she was and giving me a chance to look at how quickly my own invisible hostility sprang up. It's easy enough to talk about peace and enlightenment when everyone is being nice to you.

So AƱay, hermana. Thank you.

Here's what I learned to say in Machiguenga on this trip: Anomi. Tiarapipaita. Bekimba Egge.

Which means, "Hi, what's your name. Cheers."

For some reason I found Machiguenga easier to roll off the tongue than Quechua. Quechua is a language of rocks and mountains. Machiguenga is a language of the river.

But I guess we need them both.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Hounded by Ancestors

Those hordes of you who are reading this (ha!) are probably wondering why I write so much about indigenous people, and what my own background is.

I grew up being half-Jewish in a white middle class Gentile neighborhood. That already gave me a divided identity, and a habit of not really belonging anywhere.

I also grew up being hounded by invisible Indians. They'd show up in dreams and my waking life. You know how much more open little kids are to invisible people. These weren't fantasy Disney Indians, either. These were some angry Indians who kept insisting they had something to tell me.

So, like a lot of "white" people whose families have early pioneer roots on this continent, I decided to do the genealogical research to find out if any of these invisible people were ancestors. I found several cousins of the same family branch who said the family had Indian blood, or that such and such an ancestor was Indian. You know the story, I think it's a common one on this continent, where at a certain point in history Indian ancestry was hidden or vanished in white families, just as the attempt was made to physically vanish Indians from the continent.

There is of course the "wannabe" phenomena, with all sorts of white people looking for their hidden Indian great-great-great, and the question I've always asked myself is whether on some collective or metaphorical level this is not some form of white guilt trying to replace the "vanished" Indian.

But on some level, it is still is a shout from the ancestors.

In my own case, I didn't find anything "on the rolls", but when I asked my dreams to tell me the truth of the matter, one of the invisible people, a woman, came into my dreams and handed me a piece of paper that said "Kickapoo" on it. Maybe she handed me a piece of paper because she thought that I, being a writer, would take her more seriously that way.

I knew only vaguely of the Kickapoo, didn't know where they were from, but when I looked them up turns out my ancestors lived in that region. (Illinois.) Fine, I said the morning after, but th is is only a dream, I want something I can put my hands on. That same day a friend said, out of nowhere, "open your hand" and put a white arrowhead in it. "I found it in Illinois," he said.

This is why when people ask about my ancestry I say Jewish-German-French- English ScotsIrish and Kickapoo.

It's a helluva combination, a combination of enemies warring within my own blood, which no doubt has contributed to the length of time it has taken me to find some kind of internal peace, as well as an obession with bridge building between people on a world level.

Reclaiming the Native piece of my ancestry filled an important gap in me. It was as if, until then, some part of me had been silenced, a part that deserved to be given voice. Probably why I am here in the South trying to facilitating the unheard voices of Native people.

As basically a person from a white, Northern culture, I don't claim to always get it right. But I'll keep trying.

Nor do I claim to have any special knowledge of Native people just because dreams and cousins say there is Native blood in the family, although I do believe your blood can speak to you across the generations. But in attempting to bridge and understand the cultural mix inside me, I hope to create similar bridges in the world.

And my ancestors--all of them--will keep bugging me to get the job done right.

Crossing the Pongo de Mainique

The Pongo de Mainique is a dramatically beautiful spot on the Urubamba river, with tall waterfalls, a rapid current, and spirits in the mountainous rocks by the side of the river who are said to give information to healers who pass through here.

The Machiguenga believe this is the place you go when you die. If you have lived a good life, your spirit goes on to the good waters. If you are bad, you go, essentially, to the waters of hell. Everybody gets a chance to come back again, as an animal, and then as a human.

I crossed the pongo with a group of Machiguenga and other people who were travelling to attend a meeting in Sivankoreni. We all bowed our heads and prayed to the spirits so that our asses wouldn't crash on the rocks.

I guess they heard us, because we arrived safely in Sivankoreni, about six hours away from Ivachote.

There was a lot of talking and the usual local political tug of wars at the meeting. I met some great people, and plan to visit the Lower Urubamba again.

The community has a giant tv screen and pretty modern community center. So there we were in the middle of the jungle, a whole bunch of us, watching big screen wrestling.

Outside, the women cooked in an iron pot over an open fire and washed their hands in the rain.