One of the more powerful days I experienced as a Carpe Diem educator was along our trek in Guatemala toward Lake Atitlan. After a full day of hiking up and down and around gorgeous mountain landscapes and humble communities, we still had yet to arrive at our campsite. Our group rustled through our packs to don our headlamps, and began a steep descent through lush tropical forest with weary legs and quickening hearts. With each step, we heard louder the sounds of the raging river which we would need to cross in order to arrive at the flat spot where we would set up our tents. One by one, we accumulated at the ‘landing’ of the river crossing and you could feel each one of us analyzing and calculating the scene: a roaring river below, and the ‘bridges’ that would sustain our bodies were a series of logs of varying sizes and shapes and intermittent gaps in between. Yes, with each other’s support and encouragement, we made it across to our place of rest. The bridges that we judged suspect proved strong and dependable.
It is that bridge that comes to mind as I reflect on my days last week as an observer at a conference about the Significance of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The conference was part of a three-week investigation on the part of James Anaya, the UN special Rapporteur, regarding the implementation of the Declaration. The Declaration, adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007 (though not signed by the US until Dec 2010) addresses a wide range of rights including that of self-determination, land, language, gender, identity, cultural heritage and traditional knowledge.
As I sat in the observer row, listening to countless testimonies of Indigenous peoples from Nations of this region, I was struck deeply by this notion: that for many First Nation peoples, the rights of the Declaration are what is necessary to live out their responsibility to the land. For those who have maintained a close link to their heritage, the obligation, in the face of endless exploitation of the earth in the name of this illusory ‘accumulation of wealth’, is to be a voice for all those aspects of our world which do not communicate through words. And this is where I return in my mind’s eye to that bridge in Guatemala. I think of the elders of the First Nations as the delicate bridge between the language of earth and the human ‘civilization’ which we have constructed. For a society that is in many ways broken, in the dark, and in need of revitalization, I have come to believe what is central to coming back into harmony and balance is listening in to the wordless world that surrounds us which invites us to an expansive wisdom.
As I write of expansiveness, it is important for me to speak to these ‘categories’ of which I write. As a non-native director of the Indigenous America program, I walk the lines between our notions of identity lines all the time. What I understand from the Native leaders with whom I speak, we are certainly at a critical time when we need to come together in the transcendent space beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’; at the same time, I understand Indigenous peoples to have an ancestral linkage to a certain way of seeing before which I will always humbly situate myself as student.
To look with honesty into the history of the settler’s treatment of the original people who walked this land, it seems to me that more than anything we should be grateful that a bridge still exists. May we come to acknowledge its message and honor its wisdom.