Tag Archives: Indigenous People

What’s the Matter With Kids These Days?

We had an update from the Indigenous youth of the north on my most recent trip to Nicaragua.  Meeting with this group is always an excitement.  They can be as shy as their parents’ generation can be, especially during first-time encounters, but there is an underlying energy and freshness about the youth.  Maybe it just goes with being somewhere between 16 and 30 years of age.  (I really hate to even write that suggestion down, because if it’s true, where does it leave someone like me?)

There are lots of things to like about the members of NUMAJI:  in addition to the aforementioned energies, they are organized, they take their organizational responsibilities seriously, they are constantly seeking ways in which to grow- both organizationally and personally- and they are undaunted by the societal forces which seem to conspire against their quest for independence and preservation of Indigenous tradition.  It’s easy to root for underdogs.

Like their young brethren in most other countries, the members of NUMAJI carry a bias toward “rebellion.”  Not physical confrontation, but a desire to go their own ways as compared to their elders.  The irony for this Indigenous group of youth is that their rebellion is aimed not at abandonment of past ways but at preservation of their heritage, “the Indigenous patrimony.”  It’s in danger of extinction due to passage of time, loss of youth to technology and migration, local and national governments which prefer not having to deal with the reality of Indigenous traditions and rights, and other Indigenous voices which speak about the artifacts of their heritage as being for sale.

This group of young people has been through a lot.  They first came together under the recognition that they needed and deserved a structure in which their voices might be heard by their elders; sometimes elders have a difficult time ascribing value to their eventual successors.  Next, they waded into the swamp of forming themselves into an association, a process which is as long as it is daunting, and especially for the uninitiated.  They face the scorn of many elders who view the association as too inexperienced and too young to be of importance.  They battle the entrenched and politics-driven agendas of some Indigenous and municipal community “leaders,” for whom an association of independent thinkers and actors constitutes a threat to established order.  In short, there are few resources on which to rely as they defend their heritage and birthright.

Except in the case of their work.  As we listened to the issues faced by the youth- many of whom are still in their teens- I was struck by the content of the proposal they made for association work in the coming year.  I wonder where else I might hear youth discussing issues like: internal and foreign migration; the need for development of greater emotional intelligence as a personal development strength;  the impacts of “adultism;” confronting child abuse; writing the statutes and administration of a legal association; or preserving and protecting archaeological sites when municipal and national authorities demonstrate little interest in doing so.  These are not matters of pop culture or social media, but rather, the very real issues of an entire Indigenous people being met head-on by their youth.

It’s an uphill battle, at best.  Maybe NUMAJI will be able to sustain itself through sheer force of wills; young people often have that capacity.  Alternatively, the obstacles may prove to be more than even an energized group of committed youth can withstand.  But either way, this group has educated and experienced itself in ways that will serve its individual members well in the future, whatever that may hold.  Good character and personal courage are qualities that are always in demand and short in supply.

When we left the meeting, I noticed that I actually stood a little straighter, taller than when I walked in….




For much of this summer, my wife and I have been working on a project for the outside of our house.  It’s a Native American symbol, of sorts, one that we created out of our deep respect for and interest in Native American culture and history.  Some might refer to it as a medicine wheel, though I don’t think we undertook the journey with that specific thought in mind.  We simply wanted to create something that evoked a Native American feeling and reflected our high regard for their Indigenous status.

The process has been both arduous and meticulous.  We searched for over a year for the right piece of wood, heavy enough to carry the feeling of strength, wide enough to hold the symbolic messages, durable enough to reflect both the tenacity of a people and to withstand the ravages of Nature.  And then in the Spring, our friend and contractor brought to us two rounds of redwood, each one nearly two feet in diameter and an inch in thickness, rounds which had been created from the old porch steps from my parents’ home on Madeline Island.  Not only did we have the right wood for our project, but also wood that contained its own history and meaning.

We tried to use discretion and creativity in designing the symbols.  We sought to evoke an obvious Native American appearance, but to do so without co-opting or subverting actual sacred signs.  We used the circle of wood as we received it, incorporated shapes that held generic meaning within Native American cultures, chose colors of Native American significance, and added nuances of our own reflection.  With patience and discipline, we painted the wheel one color at a time, one space at a time, adding one feeling at a time, until it had been finished.


Of course, it’s only symbolic.  But sometimes we can invest too much in our symbols, making of them ideologies in and of themselves, swearing allegiances to imperfect notions and foreclosing the remotest possibility that any conflicting perspectives could hold any merit or worth.  We risk enslavement by the totem rather than employing it to reveal portions of ourselves, and in such process we are rendered but sad caricatures of who we could be.  You can be assured that this is not the case with our modest wheel, though there is always the temptation by some to want to brand us with it.

Here at home, all that remains is for the work to be secured to the front portico.  In its place there, we hope that it will accomplish several things.  We think it’s an attractive piece of decor and will likely serve as an easy identification of our home.  Like any piece of graphic work, it will possess the potential to invite passers-by to look and wonder at its possible interpretations.  We hope that it will cause viewers -if only momentarily- to recall again the rich history and development of Native American life before the white invasion.  We trust that its presence confirms, for all who are curious at its display, that there is much to be loved in traditions and ways of life that are far different from our own, and that such embrace has the capacity to bring us closer to truth, if that is what we seek.

Our wheel is just a symbol, after all.  It’s eye-catching and maybe a little intriguing.  It doesn’t serve as an exhaustive statement of who we are or what we believe or how we think, but rather one reflection of one element that has held importance for us.  Like a family coat-of-arms, a service insignia, a nation’s flag or any other icon to signify belonging, it’s but one clue to the whole.  Who we are in our entirety can only be truly reflected in how we live our lives, in love and stewardship, every day….


Feeding the Wolves

I have a long-established interest in Indigenous people and their traditions, in cultures around the world.  I’m not sure why; maybe for me such people represent humanity from some of its earliest manifestations, at a time when we were all a lot less “developed,” sophisticated, savvy.  That interest is one of the factors which years ago drew me to Winds of Peace, an organization which had identified Indigenous people as one of its priorities.  The history and circumstances of the North American Indigenous people, in particular, has resonated with me since I was a young boy.  Recently I came across a well-known parable suggested by some to have been handed down through the Cherokee tradition.  Whether the attribution is accurate or not, it reads like Native American wisdom and I share it here:

An elder was talking to his grandson and said:

“A fight is going on inside me, I feel like I have two wolves fighting in my heart,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil- he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret,greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.
“The other is good- he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, companion and faith.”
He told his grandson the same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person too.
The grandson asked:  “Grandpa, tell me which of the two wolves will win the fight in your heart?”
The grandfather answered :  “The one you feed.”
It’s a nice little morality play, one that almost always gives pause to readers due to its simplicity and the universality of its truth in each of us.  We all sense the struggle within ourselves.  Right versus wrong, good versus evil.  No battles in human existence have been fought longer than this one, and there still seems to be no armistice in sight.  It’s the essential work of every soul to take up the conflict.  And though we innately recognize which side of the battle lines we should be on, the struggle never seems to become any easier.
I’d be proud to relate some of the outcomes of such confrontations in my own life; you would hear of sacrifice and persistence and honesty that would define me as a selfless steward of the opportunities life has presented.  But my embarrassment would more than counterbalance all of that, to tell of the shortcomings and neglect that I have allowed in that same journey.  The fight rages within me, and  despite what I know to be true, my choices turn out to be a mixture of both sense and nonsense.  And maybe it’s not just me.
The unpredictability of our dual selves transcends virtually every demographic and circumstance.  We hear of it every day here in the United States, where news media reflects the results of internal battles both won and lost.  In the past week alone, we have identified with the major university basketball coach who was fired due to his unconscionable behavior with his players, a man who quickly and resolutely condemned his own actions as being offensive and wrong.  As well, we identified with the woman who donated one of her own kidneys to save the life of someone completely unknown to her, simply because she could; we choose to see a glimmer of ourselves in her because her response is so courageous and right.
The wolves inside of us circle each other every day, waiting for the moment to take a leap of domination, influence.  When I am tired or worn down or  complacent for whatever reason, it is easy to feel the surge of the evil wolf.  In such moments my attentions are focused on myself and my own needs.  I simply want to feel better.  I might use food.  Or exercise.  Or making an unnecessary purchase.  Or trying some other extravagance.  And yet, there are the other days, when I feel the good wolf in my self-confidence and the possibilities of my life, and I become obsessed with the need to share, to empower and encourage, to enhance lives.  I might use a gift.  Or a call.  Or simply being present before someone who feels anonymous.  My choices are ones that I make each day and that strengthen or diminish the power of the wolves within.  They are likely yours, as well.
Recognizing it, I find myself better understanding the actions and the context of the Nicaraguan partners with whom we work.  I can better comprehend the indiscriminate felling of trees for firewood and profit.  I can understand the choice by some to drink.  I see why young children are not in school, and cell phones are owned by even the poorest of peasants, and why parents may use whatever discretionary money they have for a TV satellite dish.  Or why visiting North Americans can be received into their communities with such warmth and embrace.
It is overly simple to draw conclusions about the poor and their motivations when one’s good wolf is well-fed and self-satisfied.  One of the side-effects of good wolf victories can be a self-righteous indigestion that diminishes our ability to see clearly.  It’s only when we recognize the dark-and-light duels of our own lives that we can come to appreciate the internal struggles and actions of others, and thus to know a more complete truth about ourselves….


The Jade Necklace

Winds of Peace has had the privilege of working with the Indigenous People of Telpaneca (IPT) for a number of years now, the two entities essentially sharing with one another.  WPF has provided funding and accompaniment, while IPT has been generous in its teaching, promoting and  contextualizing its rich history and culture extending back in time for centuries.  I have often observed that what I have learned during my WPF years with IPT has greatly enhanced  the breadth of my understanding of Native American people in the United States.  That has been a serious interest of mine for nearly my entire life, and the IPT experience has added enormously to my perspective, a shared gift from an unexpected source.

I was not surprised, then, to be the beneficiary from IPT once again, in the form of an announcement.  Recently, archaeological finds on IPT lands in Nicaragua have yielded some amazing artifacts from early IPT life, some pieces dating back 1200 years.  Nicaraguan Anthropologist Mario Rizo has written an important accounting of the finds and their significance in his article, “Archaeological Findings of the Indigenous People of Telpaneca Along the Shores of the Rio Coco.”  It’s a brief but fascinating look back at another time, but a time when the ebbs and flows of daily life preoccupied its inhabitants in many of the same ways that our time preoccupies us.  Birth and death with life in between.  Not much has changed over the millennia, it seems.

Among the items found recently is an amazing jade necklace, discovered at the presumed gravesite of an early forebear.  Among the photographs of the various antiquities, the jade necklace caught my attention for some reason.  Actually, it’s less revealing than other items of the time because other pieces have cultural depictions or artistic images of chiefs or men of the tribe.  But the jade necklace could be jewelry worn by people today.  Jade’s popularity is perhaps as strong as it was centuries ago.  And to me, it signifies something that was worn by one of these ancestors, a personal treasure which someone possessed, someone who kept this belonging close to the heart, someone who came before the rest of us, someone who paved the way, a person with as much meaning and soul and passion in their life as anyone else who has ever lived.  Imagine him or her.

It turns out that we do not make this life journey alone.  There are countless others who have come before us, ones who have kept their places in the evolutionary chain of human development, upon whose lives and works we all build.  The jade necklace is a reminder of who we are as an extension of the many who have come before.  For the current members of IPT, the necklace and its fellow artifacts are a direct connection to a heritage and a culture desperate to be sustained.  The IPT work tirelessly to remind themselves and the rest of us that their heritage is rich and real and deserving of preservation.  Those who would deny the history of Indigenous patrimony anywhere in the world might just as well deny their own history:  truth  is not a part-time reality to suit convenience.

For the rest of us, the necklace is a humbling reminder that in the end, we all leave behind some kind of legacy.  It may be an impact made upon someone,  a reputation forged, a fortune left behind, a career admired or despised, a family of descendants, or simply a jade necklace to be honored sometime far in the future….





Sacred Places

2012 has been designated by the United Nations as The Year of the Indigenous People, a recognition of their cultures and connections to sacred places, as well as their forced disconnections from those places.  I am coming to understand them.

I write this posting while visiting Madeline Island on Lake Superior.  My parents once owned the house I’m in and the land on which it sits.   It was their home for ten years, establishing what was for them  a place of beauty, rest, inspiration and spirituality beyond their imaginations.  Returning to this spot after an absence of almost thirty years has yielded an entire range of emotions: excitement at the return itself, to re-visit the place my mother and father regarded as home; curiosity in seeing how things have changed over the course of a generation; wonderment at the still-pristine forests and cliffs which constitute the Island; a sense of awe at how changeless the land has remained, even after decades of pounding from the lake and sky; wistfulness in recalling the Island as the honeymoon destination for my wife and me, some forty years ago; sadness in recalling my parents’ decision to leave the property with the advancement of age; joy in reliving the memories of the site I always regarded as my favorite place on earth.

Reflecting on these things, I have discovered a new dimension to them, a new feeling about both their meaning and their importance.  I have always understood the natural beauty of the surroundings and the value of stealing away to such a place of retreat.  I have felt the spiritual renewal inherent in the forest and lakeside.   But what I have begun to recognize is my connectedness to this place that extends well beyond its physical dimensions.  There is a sanctity about it, something that reaches far beyond immediate senses, a sacredness which doesn’t simply please or soothe the soul, but actually becomes part of it.  Sciences may posit that cohesion between place and person exists in poetry alone, but experiences teach a very different conclusion.  In a real and physical way, I find that I am actually part of  this place, and it is a part of me.  Portions of my life are here.  Portions of my lineage are here.  I have taken from this place and I have given to it.  Neither the land nor I can ever be quite the same after we once connected.

It occurs to me that this is also the foundation for the centuries-old claims of disenfranchisement by Indigenous peoples in Nicaragua and throughout the entire world.  Losses of language or land constitute egregious diminishment whenever they may occur; it is no less profound a loss than the extinction of an entire species of life, evolution which we often fight with tenacious resolve.  But for the Indigenous, the resistance is not simply about loss of land, but the loss of an entire identity, of connectedness, of culture, of the soul itself.

In our own ways, and often without conscious effort, we all seek to discover access to the wholeness of life, that part of our existence which ties us into the fabric of the universe, a place where we belong, where our presence makes sense of our being.  We share a deep longing for such connectedness, to help make sense of a world that often feels very disconnected and senseless.  Loss of a people’s sacred places destroys such ties.  The injustices suffered by the Indigenous extend far beyond the value of lands; their more important claims articulate the unjust destruction of their essential values and patrimony.

It is likely an unfair comparison to make between a small parcel of woods that once belonged to my family and ancestral Indigenous lands; one relationship was forged over a mere forty years, while the other has been developed since the dawn of Indigenous existence.  But the importance of walking where my father walked, of knowing the places that my mother held as precious, and retracing my own footsteps as a young man- all within the context of this inland sea and  its grounded blemishes- has clarified something elementally important to me.  We are part of the whole, each with our own linkages to this cosmos we inhabit.  And those links are our lifelines, our context for living, a portion of what defines us and makes us both importantly unique and universally the same.  Removing the links weakens the chain of all of our lives.

Yesterday I worked on the wood perimeter fence that my father built.  I split wood from trees that my mother may have planted.  In the evening we sat quietly in the room where my entire family gathered decades ago.  At night I heard the gentle lapping of the lake water against the foot of the cliffs and I gave thanks for the sacred places in my life….