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I arrived in Rio after a UN Conference on Indigenous Peoples in Santiago de Chile, several days before my first commitment to be part of a weekend Sacred Earth Gathering. My first visit, after checking in with Terra Christa Communications for whom I would be doing some speaking and who contributed generously to my support, was to the Indian village of Kari-Oca, specially built for Rio 92. It was set in a beautiful valley an hour from Rio, near the Earth Summit venue of Riocentro, where the world's political leaders would--or thought they would-- decide the fate of the world in the coming two weeks.
I went to Kari-Oca with Leon Shenandoah, Tadadahoh (chief of chiefs of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) , Onandaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, Barbara Pyle of CNN and a number of other people. In Chile, a Mapuche Indian woman whose Spanish name is Maria Pinta had given me the beautiful silver breast ornament from her own dress, asking me to tell other indigenous peoples that the Mapuche were alive and well. The Pinochet dictatorship had apparently announced their extinction. The first person who came up to me at Kari-Oca greeted me in English with a smile, saying, "I'm Mapuche." He had recognized the ornament. A few Mapuche had fled the dictatorship to Europe-- he to London-- but had kept in contact and formed a Mapuche League that will be exciting news to Maria.
I told him how a busload of us drove seventeen hours to Quinquen (in the Cordillera mountains of southern Chile) for a Mapuche Indian ceremony after our UN meeting. He knew Quinquen; it is the last natural Mapuche village in a high valley surrounded by snowy peaks. After sixteen hours by bus, we drove one more by jeep, sometimes driving straight through snowmelt rivers with water up to the windshield.
The Mapuche greeted us with their sacred Araucaria tree ceremony, in which they paint the tree with blue pigment for its fertility, and with the sacred ostrich dance that is part of the ceremony. The blue pigment also decorated their cheeks and was rubbed of on us as each villager embraced each visitor in turn. After the Mapuche recounted their tragic history under European domination, the indigenous people in our group (Australian aboriginal, Maori, Saami, etc.) returned their hospitality with their own greetings and dances. We were then feasted on the large pinon nuts of the Araucaria which provides almost their entire diet, and on delicious goat roasted over open fires for this special occasion that had brought them visitors from around the world. Children played happily at breaking the ice of puddles big as small lakes while we adults blew much frozen breath in our eager talk.
Now, in Kari-Oca Village in Brazil, in the contrasting climate of sweltering heat, I was able to extend the Mapuche greeting, "Mari mari" to another. Such is the web we now weave.
The round houses we first encountered in Kari-Oca struck me as odd. Thatched roofs as in native architecture, but beneath them concrete floors and plastic tenting stretched as walls between the wooden uprights. Was this some Rio architect's concept of native architecture adapted to modern materials? The native people living in them complained of suffocating heat in the daytime and inadequate blankets for cold of the nights. Further on in the village were three longhouses completely of thatch, with earthen floors in traditional style. Two housed eighty people each, the third was for ceremonies, meetings and celebration. All were cool by day and warm by night-- a tribute to the knowledge of passive heating and cooling so common in traditional indigenous architecture around the world, so almost totally lacking in what the white man builds as shelter.
Our Santiago de Chile meeting had been held in a large, completely nature-proof UN building without windows, burning thousands of lightbulbs day and night, recycling stale air that was alternately overheated and overcooled. But the River Bio-Bio at whose headwaters we celebrated with the Mapuche is to suffer strangulation by six dams in the coming few years, presumably so that Chileans can have more electricity. A young woman who had lived for years with the Mapuche had calculated that more electricity could be made available by eliminating waste in the present system than by the new dams. But who with vested interests in the lucrative business of building dams will listen to rational arguments against strangling rivers and flooding land to pile waste on waste?
But let me get back to Brazil, to Rio, to Kari-Oca. After seeing the village and greeting people we knew, Barbara Pyle and I had a cool drink with a few young journalists and filmmakers, including a very handsome Kadjiwel Amazon Indian named Macsuara who makes films, acts in a daily Brazilian soap opera called "Amazonia" and aspires to using theater as a way for his people to teach the white world their culture. Offered a leading role in the Hollywood film "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," he turned it down when told he would have to cut his hiplength hair for it.
Through a Portuguese-to-English interpreter, Macsuara told us the beautiful creation story of his people, and Barbara put him on camera as he spoke of many things his people had to teach our world. When he finished, we all went to the ceremonial longhouse where indigenous people from many parts of the world were dancing their traditional dances in turn.
After we watched a few dances, Davi Yanomami, who has represented his people in North American travels to plead for saving their Amazon forest, announced he would dance to contact the Creator. Cameras were strictly forbidden on penalty of losing journalist credentials for the entire Earth Summit.
Inhaling the bone dust of his ancestors, pouring sweat from his body in the strenuous sacred dance, Davi succeeded in contacting the Creator. Eliana Potiguara, an Amazon woman with whom I later co- chaired the Day of Women at the Earth Parliament, stood by Davi and went into deep trance. Macsuara commented afterward that Davi had continued his own story of creation; that nothing was accidental as all was woven together in a single design.
The Guarana tree
On a later occasion, Macsuara told me the Satare Maue people's story of the Guarana tree, from whose berries is made the Guarana drink that originated with them and has become the national beverage of Brazil. The Maue also eat the dried Guarana berries, now newly sold in health food stores abroad, to gain clarity of mind, regularity of heartbeat and general strength.
In the story, a pregnant woman prays for a son who will make his people strong to keep their forest healthy. When the time comes for her to deliver, however, she is alone in the forest with no one to help her and dies in childbirth. Without her milk to nourish him, the boy child also dies. But as he lies on the earth, the first Guarana tree grows from his eyes. That is why the berries look like pairs of eyes. And as the Guarana tree has made the people strong to keep their forest healthy, the mother's wish was fulfilled.
On the day Macsuara told me this story I met a young man named Morgan from Mexico City. He seemed to me a kind of Bodhisattva. In an urban neighborhood of utter despair, with open sewers, disease, unemployment and homelessness, he organized youth group activities, including finding materials somehow for them to build homes for the homeless as a "Neighborhood of Hope." He had almost lost his life in an automobile accident; the scars were clearly visible around his beautiful face, and one of his soft dark eyes could not see.
As Morgan sat next to me at dinner that night, in a typical Brazilian restaurant that reminded me of a Greek Taverna, I told him the story of the Guarana tree. And I thought of Macsuara's words at Kari-Oca on how Davi Yanomami had continued his story of creation, how things were woven together. The story he gave me this day was continued by, woven into, Morgan's life and work.
The coming of the rain
Before I met Morgan, even before the Earth Summit formally began, Hanne Strong's Sacred Earth Gathering of spiritual leaders from around the world, including a number of Native North and South Americans, met in a spectacular mountain monastery setting. Hanne, whose focus it was to bring spirituality into the Earth Summit organized by her husband Maurice, had asked me to participate in this gathering, and that of her Wisdom Keepers, because of my deep understanding of Earth-as-Gaia.
The Sacred Earth Gathering was held as the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples was finalizing its Declaration (see below) in Kari-Oca, not far away. As soon as it was done, Oren Lyons brought it to our gathering. We were meeting in a large monastery room, sitting along a double horseshoe curve oftables with the speaker at the opening. As Oren spoke, before reading the Declaration, a spider appeared on the table before me. I thought of the webs we were weaving and took it to the open window to free it as I drank in the view of a beautiful orange-flowering tree in the garden above a magnificent vista of forest down to the ocean.
As I turned back to the room, Oren began reading the Declaration and with the first word I felt a sudden gust of cool air at my back and heard a downpour of rain behind me. I turned back to the window in surprise; indeed it was pouring rain where it had been bone dry the moment before!
The rain stopped just as sharply as Oren read the last word of the Declaration. Leon Shenandoah, Oren's elder chief, told me later the spider was a good omen. Perhaps, I thought, I would not have noticed the precise timing of the rain without it. I knew then that things were happening at levels we could not even fathom. The relationship of indigenous peoples with their sacred Earth was clearly intact. It was manifesting in Davi's dance, in Oren's reading, and it felt very good.
Kari-Oca Village Declaration of the World Conference of Indigenous
Peoples on Territory, Environment and Development; May 1992
The Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and the Pacific, united in one voice at Kari-Oca Village, express our collective gratitude to the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil.
Inspired by this historical meeting, we celebrate the spiritual unity of the Indigenous Peoples with the land and ourselves.
We continue building and formulating our united commitment to save our Mother the Earth.
We, the Indigenous Peoples, endorse the following declaration as our collective responsibility to carry our indigenous minds and voices into the future.
We, the indigenous people, walk to the future in the footprints of our ancestors.
From the smallest to the largest living being, from the four directions, from the air, the land and the mountains, the Creator has placed us, the Indigenous Peoples, upon our Mother the Earth.
The footprints of our ancestors are permanently etched upon the lands of our peoples.
We, the Indigenous Peoples, maintain our inherent rights to self-determination. We have always had the right to determine our own forms of government, to use our own laws, to raise and educate our children, to our own cultural identity without interference.
We continue to maintain our rights as peoples despite centuries of deprivation, assimilation and genocide.
We maintain our inalienable rights to our lands and territories, to all our resources-- above and below-- and to our waters. We assert our ongoing responsibility to pass these on to future generations.
We cannot be removed from our lands. We, the Indigenous Peoples are connected by the circle of life to our lands and environments.
We, the Indigenous Peoples, walk to the future in the footprints of our ancestors.
--Signed at Kari-Oca, Brazil on the 30th day of May, 1992
The Declaration was good. There was no more asking the white man for concessions, but just a simple affirmation of rights. It filled my chest with passionate approval, for I have thought it fruitless for indigenous peoples to play by the white man's rules. None of us can afford to play by those rules any more, for by them has our world been ravaged.
Sapain (Sa-pah-een) is a Xingu (Shing-goo) pajay (pah-zhay)-- one of the few remaining medicine men of the Brazilian Amazon, most having been killed in the struggle for the forest. We met at the Sacred Earth Gathering where Oren read the Declaration.
In that lush mountain setting, Sapain and I both gravitated outdoors at every opportunity. We had no spoken language in common. Yet with the aid of an occasional interpreter, and with a handful of Spanish/ Portuguese words and much sign language when we were alone, we empathized and negotiated considerable communication in the span of three days.
He is a healer who works through plants; all he knows came directly from spirit teachings, not from another pajay. That makes him the "pajay of pajays" in his own words. A small dark-skinned man with wide cheekbones and intense black eyes, he exudes the gentle but passionate spirit of the forest. I felt how much more at home he was with his plants than with the people and artifacts of our so- called civilized world.
Learning that Sapain is a healer, people came to him for help. It was difficult for him to heal without his remedies; he had left his home hurriedly, without even the herbal cigars he smoked in healing ritual. But he managed what we have come to know as psychic surgery to cure Leon Shenandoah, elder chief of chiefs of the Iroquois, of pneumonia by literally removing congested material from his lungs. He also cured the chief of severe stiffness from falling off a horse. I saw a lot of Leon in the following two weeks and can vouch for his lasting chipper mood and agility, even late into the nights of our long working days.
I introduced to Sapain a lady I've long admired for her profound understanding and scientific analysis of the disasters of hi-tech agriculture, for her passionate opposition to genetic engineering, to the colonization and patenting of seed held sacred by those who nurtured it for thousands of years. I asked if he could give her the power to protect plants. He did.
All I could offer him as a gift was a smudge stick of white sage I had gathered on the Greek Island where I lived until a year ago. It was my last and I asked if he could use it, or would like to take it to his people. Sapain broke into a happy grin as he accepted it and said he would tell me about it after sleeping and dreaming with it. Next day he spoke exitedly, so I ran for an interpreter. My plant and his plant, he said, had been talking all night. They had both come very far to meet each other and were ecstatic at being together. They had much to say and their lively conversation was not yet finished. Sapain and I hugged each other in our people-happiness at bringing them together.
I asked whether the plants of the rainforest discussed the ongoing destruction. "Constantly," he replied. "They talk a lot about survival strategies." "Will they survive the devastation?" I asked. "Yes," he said gravely, feeling their pain.
We walked up a forest path I had discovered, to a pool where butterflies flitted in colors and patterns I had never seen, where tiny monkeys occasionally scampered through the branches high overhead, sitting up suddenly to cock their heads and listen to the various bird calls and other sounds. When I was there before a strong wind had risen and trees rubbed each other with creaking sounds while the ground was pelted by a barrage of falling leaves, small branches and clumps of epiphyte plant matter. I had pondered this intense activity of the forest in maintaining itself through rapid recycling. It does not pursue "progress" but works hard to stay the same. Like the native people who have learned from it, who do not understand our passion for change, our destructiveness, our blindness to the ways they know to be good from their thousands of years of experience.
On the third day, in the late afternoon, as I sat with Sapain, a lady appeared with a camera crew and whisked him away to film an interview. There was a sudden flurry of people and attention focused on Sapain. They crowded around him excitedly. "He's a pajay, a medicine man." "He's an incredible healer!" "He healed Chief Shenandoah!" "Can he cure my shoulder?"-- "my tumor?"-- "my back?" In the midst of this, the lady was rapidly explaining to him that he would be taken to speak at a very special gathering here in Rio with the Dalai Lama and other dignitaries. She would then be taking him to North America; he must arrange everything to leave very soon. What did he need? When could he go?
The excitement, the intensity of this very North American "discovery" of a new medicine man, this dramatic imposition on his life, made me want to protect him. I tried to move closer, to speak to the lady. She brushed me off rudely. "This is none of your business; please move out of the way. I'm in charge here. The camera..." I tried again: "I've just spent three days with this man; you don't understand..."
I was literally pushed aside. Tears welled up in me. They didn't understand. But how could I explain what they didn't understand? It wasn't something to say in a few words, in the curt American manner. It was everything I had absorbed of Sapain through my skin and other senses by spending quiet time alone with him, by attuning myself to his world, his energy. There were a few things I could have said-- that his people need and want him at home in the Xingu territory, that what he could say before TV cameras would be a few limited phrases in Portuguese that could never convey who he was. But who would listen?
A new medicine man in New York could build reputations. I tried to stop my ears against the voices I heard in their Manhattan accents: "I've got this terrific new psychic healer!" "Wait till you hear about MY XinGU paJAY!!" Inside I screamed "Rape!" The rape of yet another culture in our unwitting, bulldozing way.
Some days later, I found myself on the Sugarloaf mountain overlooking Rio. I'd been invited to participate in an almost impromptu arts festival in honor of Omame, the Yanomami Creator God, their Patron of the Arts. They expected me to speak about Gaia, but I decided to sing instead-- a whale song about freeing beached whales. It had been on my mind to do this when I found that another participant was bringing a huge inflatable parachute cloth whale! So I had confirmation that singing my whale song was the right thing to do.
After we circled the whale, singing the "Oo wa ee yea ohs" of the chorus together, I led the people into the whale through its tail and told them a whale story inside. The story is from Lyall Watson's book, Gifts of Unknown Things. It is of a whale found beached by a young girl, a dancer of the old natural religion of her Indonesian Island.
The Muslim priest of the new island religion forbids the people to help her free the whale and return it to the sea, because it is the month of Ramadan when touching animals is forbidden. She stays with the whale, alone, pouring water over it from a coconut shell, stroking and singing to it until it dies. The next time she is seen, she has the power to heal by laying on hands to close wounds. She even brings a dead man back to life.
The whale story and song made me think of Sapain, who would be alone like a whale out of water in the cities of the north. During the last part of that arts festival high over Rio, I found a huge rubber tree with which to share my profound grief. I had never spoken to a tree in anything but recognition and greeting. Through my tears I whispered to this one, in Greek, the language in which I usually speak to animals. I told it the whole story and pleaded with it to tell the news to all trees it could reach, to broadcast the news through the whole Amazon forest, to ask the forest to protect Sapain any way it could.
The great tree was rooted well below the level of rock on which I stood, so I could touch its glossy leaves. As I spoke to it, one branch moved toward me, stroking me hard again and again. As with Sapain when we were in the forest together, communication shifted to another level on which-- how shall I say it?-- we were not different beings, but of the same kind, in a mutual knowing. It was a long, deep interchange.
I saw Sapain only once after the TV crew incident. He came up to me in another setting, at an Earth Parliament meeting, in very beautiful face paint and a crown of gorgeous red and yellow parrot feathers. I did not recognize him until I looked closely into his eyes. We held each other and parted soon after.
My mind ran to People Magazine, which did not run an intended cover article interviewing Chief Paulinho Payakan because he was not in feathers. I thought of this and of the reporters that followed us to the Mapuche ceremony in Chile, who were so disappointed when the Australian Aboriginal and the Maori danced in western clothes, asking if they couldn't take them off and don some feathers for the cameras.
One night in Rio I went to the formal opening of a museum exhibit on the Kayapo Indians. The living Kayapo were present. I knew them by now as they, like myself, were spending most of their time at the Earth Parliament in downtown Rio, where no badges were needed, where Indians and the poor of Rio were fed and housed for nothing, where anyone could speak at the microphone as people shared pains and joys, projects, experiences, news, music and dance.
The Kayapo were at the museum opening in full feather, sitting on a mat of banana leaves spread on the floor in the center of a huge hall at the end of the exhibit space on their culture. The exhibit itself was beautifully done, with much of my ethnobiologist friend and colleague Dr. Darrell Posey's work in evidence. But the exhibit of live Kayapo, with the guests gawking and milling around them did not please me. I left before the drinks were served.
When will the focus change from the exotic visuals to the vital teachings?
Whenever I speak with indigenous elders, they remind me how strange it is from their perspective that people want a "new world order." What, they ask, is wrong with their old world order? The laws of nature, they have told me again and again, were given by the Creator long ago and will never change. When will the white man learn to live by them?
The laws of nature known by indigenous people are precisely the principles I have discovered in my independent scientific study of nature. In my culture, I prefer to call them principles, because the word "law" connotes man-made order, even when laws of nature are invoked, for Euro-American scientists derived their so-called laws of nature-- such as the law of entropy-- from the study of steam engines and other devices of their own invention. By this law of entropy, say the scientists, living systems can create their own order only at the expense of their environments, literally, by degrading their environments. As far as I can see, only abnormal, unhealthy living systems, living systems out of balance, display this entropy, while healthy living systems contribute health to their environments as well as to themselves.
Would we not do better to obey the laws of nature as indigenous peoples have discovered them?-- laws of balance, of harmony, of the necessity of giving as much as you take?
When natural phenomena are isolated for study inside laboratories, all the deep connections among phenomena are missed. The study of nature can only become profound, as my indigenous friends know, within nature itself.
With Sapain, with Macsuara, with my whale song and the rubber tree on Sugarloaf, I began to sense that my work is not only about bringing together the wisdom of indigenous peoples and the best of modern technology, but of moving on to a deeper understanding of the plants, the rocks, the elder whales in the sea, the creatures of the forest and even the stars in their profound and sacred communication with one another.