Friday, June 27, 2008

Intern Report: Carla Lewis 2006 - 2007 Rabinal

Originally posted April 2007

Excerpts from Rabinal Intern - Carla Lewis

Here I am, storming into April like a lion. Time flies really fast here and my promise to send more updates unfortunately hasn’t been realized. So hang in there, this is a long one. I’ve added titles so you can skip around…read what interests you.


I changed my flight and I now head home on May 23rd instead of June 15th to go to Ciyikhin’s headstone potlatch. After seven months on the road, I am really looking forward to being home but also a bit scared of how different it will all be. I have taken on a “de-colonized” consumption pattern that I am slowly incrementing. That is, watching the food I eat and being conscious of the things I buy and the garbage I produce. But poco o poco (bit by bit)…a few of the things that don’t fit with this new ‘diet’ is on a more lax nixing schedule….such as coffee! At home I plan on eating only traditional and local meats, we’ll see how that goes with everyone around me being raging carnivores. Ah well. So it makes me think, with all these changes…am I going to be sitting there eating alone? It’s a scary thing to think about, here it is easy, I shop at the market and get only whole foods. I swing in my hammock and read on weekends or go for hikes. But at home, there are a lot more lures and I am but a little fish. Poco o poco.

I do know however, what I will be doing for work when I get home. I have been offered a research associate position at UNBC. My job will be at the Center of Excellence Taskforce on Substance Abuse as Researcher and Research Manager. The Centre is one of six research institutes across Canada that looks at special needs of children and youth namely:

  • Nutrition, Health and Development
  • Early Intervention
  • Substance Abuse
  • Learning and Communication
  • Mental Health
  • Emerging Technology

  • The centres do new research in their respective areas, assist others to begin research projects, and research appropriate and effective methods of service delivery and community access to information.

    With all of these plans for home, it feels like I should be hopping on a plane soon. However, I am nowhere close to being ready, especially in terms of my work here, and I am waiting for the sun to come up in the north and melt away the snow before I fly back with the birds who, of course, thought of skipping winter long before I did.


    My Spanish is getting a lot better I can understand most of what is being said and can get my point across well enough. I’m starting to be able to BS and joke around in Spanish (I came up with a really funny ‘yo mamma’ joke the other day), but it is still a chore and it is much easier to just say what needs to be said and be on my way. Since most of my work is reading in Spanish, I can read quite well now. My English however, is getting much worse, I have picked up a stutter and get flustered trying to speak, because I can’t think of the right words. I am also taking Maya Achi lessons, which are very difficult especially when you are learning from Spanish and thus have to translate…Achi to Spanish to English. But, I have been able to throw out a few words in the market and in meetings which makes people happy that I am trying to learn. I am hoping to be able to get a basic conversation down before I leave to talk to these two ladies in the market who make fun of me like the two grumpy guys on the Muppets.

    Here are a few Achi words:

    maltyoox thank you
    sa ra oom laa how are you
    oots good, ok


    For the past two months, I have been researching Maya Achi medicinal plants and other methods of healing. This has included a search around Rabinal for existing material, a visit to CIRMA ie. a social sciences research library, web searches, etc. I have also done a focus group with some of the parents from the school to talk about animal medicines, a topic that is largely absent from existing literature, not just here but in all studies on Indigenous healing methods. Originally, it was thought that I might have to do more community based research but after reviewing the existing information for this project and finding four other field guides on Achi medicines this is not really necessary. Of course, it would be great to expand on many ideas but there isn’t really the time or resources.

    I have been learning a lot about Achi medicines and other healing methods such as spiritual guides, midwives, acupuncture, and steam rooms. Mayan cosmovision is linked throughout the health system and is guided by principles that many Indigenous peoples follow, for example, respect for all beings, spirituality, and ceremony. I am also planning to include in the unit, information on the similarities and differences between other Indigenous peoples health knowledge, Mayan cosmovision around health and healing, politics such as intellectual property rights, and grassroots and international organizations that are working in the area of applied medicinal practice and protection of knowledge.

    This month marks the end of the research stage and I will then begin taking all the information I need to develop three units, one for each grade at our school. This will include designing activities and lessons that will then go through a process of community verification, proofreading, corrections, and finally, a translation into Achi, before it is implemented as the first pilot project of the new curriculum.

    We have been having numerous discussions here at the FundaciĆ³n to try to determine the actual meaning of bilingual education. The students at the school for the most part, speak Spanish and Achi, but writing and reading in both languages is a challenge. Ideally, students should be completely fluent in both languages. So how do you design a curriculum that encourages growth in two languages simultaneously? Having Spanish and Achi translations side by side is an amazing advancement. How many bilingual textbooks are there in Canada? But, this is not enough. This means reading it in Spanish or in Achi. Some of the ideas I have on integrating the two languages are as follows:

    Present a paragraph or quote in Spanish or Achi. Have students translate into the other language.

    Write a list of vocabulary from the lesson in Spanish and Achi. Have students discuss the differences and/or similarities between the two words.
    Prepare two columns of words. Achi and Spanish. Have students match the correct words.
    Draw a picture of a medicinal plant. Have students label the plant in both Achi and Spanish.

    Of course, these will not only be language exercises but will be linked to the unit on healing methods. If anyone has any other ideas on how to integrate bilingualism into the activities, your input would be greatly appreciated.


    Life is crazy here. The other day I was walking down the street and heard a bit of a….kafuffle. I turned around to see nothing but hooves and the underbelly of a bull. I lurched myself against the wall as the bull landed on top of a cow, that luckily, was much more alluring to him than I could ever be….I hope. Imagine reading that in the obituary, “Chinita gets squashed in a street cow romance.” I’ve never been too fond of domesticated animals. (I think humans are the worst sort) and it is all these things that keep me awake at night. The cry of hundreds of animals combines into a drone as they lament their caged existences and their upcoming trip to the market. It sounds like something Stephen King might portray hell to sound like. I have gotten used to this though and have managed to place the noise into my subconscious. Problem is, my neighbours, with whom I share a bedroom wall, have gotten a rooster. The damned thing is a bit confused about when the sun comes up, and cock-a-doodles from 1 a.m. It is so close that it sounds like it is on my pillow and wakes me up with a start every half hour or so. I’m thinking rooster stew might solve this problem! Other than that, things are good here in Rabinal. People in the streets are beginning to recognize me and I absolutely love walking around town and saying “Buenas” to everyone. It will be strange coming home, where people don’t even look at you, never mind pausing to say “Hello.” Things in the house are good as well. I moved from my house sitting stint at Sarah and Aaron’s into the old, legal aid office with two other interns, Nick and Wyanne. We all really love our house, especially the hammocks we have set up and our roof top terrace. Our living quarters are in an open air court yard and we each have our own bedrooms. We take turns cooking dinner and are eating really well. Luckily, I haven’t gotten sick yet, except for having the flu for awhile. I have found my most precious item here to be my little purple bucket which I do laundry and bathing in, disinfect my fruit, and every other water oriented activity. P.S. We are only getting water every three days now and only for about half an hour!!

    Here are a few pics of the house, the red hammock is mine:

    Fire Ceremony

    Since I left home on September 15th, ceremony has been a huge part of my experience. It all started with the Micmaw ceremonies in Nova Scotia where we held a Sacred Fire for a week at the Peace and Friendship Gathering. Upon my arrival here in Rabinal, I met one of the teachers at our school, Manuel, who invited me to participate in the activities leading up to the performance of the “Rabinal Achi” play. This play/dance is one of the very few written pre-Columbian Mayan documents that survived the book burning by European priests. Due to the strong cultural practice of the Maya Achi and the continued use of this play, Rabinal has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and thus, the play is funded by UNESCO and the Ministry of Culture to assure that the play group has the time and resources to continue to do the play every year during the festival of San Pedro.

    The group consists of the actors, musicians, technical assistants, and a director. All of the group must follow a two-week preparation period to be able to participate in the play. I was invited to participate in this preparation with the group. First, we held a fire ceremony at the director’s house in Rabinal. This was in early January and I had a difficult time communicating with people because of my limited Spanish skills. However, when it came down to starting the ceremony, they allowed me to participate fully and I found that the ceremony was amazingly similar to other fire ceremonies that I have participated in. Therefore, I was familiar with many of the aspects such as: only walking counter-clockwise around the fire, placing offerings in the fire, and cleansing with smoke. After the ceremony, I could feel a stronger connection with everyone that had participated and from there on I felt welcomed by the group.

    Over the next few days, we split into two groups and each group hiked into the mountains in the cardinal directions around Rabinal. I went to the Southern and the Western directions to sacred sites that took about two hours to climb in unbelievable heat. In each location, we held another ceremony, had lunch, and visited, before heading back down the mountain. All of the ceremonies integrated the Mayan Cross (which is very, very similar to the Medicine Wheel) and the Mayan Calendar. After these ceremonies were finished, we were all allowed to fully participate in the “Rabinal Achi” play that took place during the week of San Pablo and tells the story of how the Achi defeated the Q’iche. The entire play is acted out in the Achi language, although there are now written translations into Spanish. Following the play, the group participated in a ‘thanksgiving’ fire ceremony, which unfortunately I missed because I was at our reflection weekend with the other interns in Antigua.

    I was also able to participate in a ceremony for the New Year’s Eve of the short count of the Mayan Calendar. This just so happened to fall on my birthday, February 22nd, so I spent the first part of the day in ceremony, then had my co-workers surprise me with cake and a little office party, then my roommates, Nick and Wyanne threw me a party at our house. We had cake and appys, great company, and I even got a pile of presents!!

    In the beginning of March, we took a group of students to Rio Negro for a ceremony commemorating the massacres that took place there during the civil war. Usually, the group hikes 8 hours from Rabinal to el Rio but this year we took a bus up through Coban, a boat down the river to the community, and then hiked about two hours up to the ceremony site at the mountain peak. Over a hundred people climbed up, all carrying sleeping gear and food because we were going to be spending the night. Huge tents, generators, and even a full-sized marimba were hauled up the narrow rocky paths either on horses or on people’s backs. We visited and made dinner around campfires before falling asleep under the stars for a few hours before the ceremony that lasted from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. It was hard staying awake during the ceremony, some people kept dozing off, I might have, if I did, it was a horse nap. The ceremony included a commemoration of the massacres by a Mayan priest and placing candles in the fire and mentioning the names of all the victims of this specific massacre.

    The following day after a quick nap, we made breakfast over a campfire and took back down the mountain where we had a swim and headed back to the end of the river which is now the place of the Chixoy Hydroelectric dam—the ‘development’ project which spurred the dislocation and massacres of the community of Rio Negro.

    Finally, my latest round of ceremony was at the Continental Indigenous Peoples Summit of Abya Yala (ie. the Americas). Every morning, a ceremony was hosted by different nations to honour the rising of the sun. Unfortunately, due to the moon ;), I was only able to go to the first ceremony, but it was very powerful, and was hosted by Indigenous peoples from the North: the U.S. and Canada. Tupac, a Xicano Nahuat cousin from Arizona led the ceremony, Paul Lacerte from the BC Friendship Centre spoke on behalf of Canada in the Dakelh language, and a grandmother from the Gwitch’en territory sang a song.

    All of this makes me sad to think that we don’t do fire ceremonies in my territory. Sure we use fire a lot for smudging and what not, but what did our big fire ceremony look like, surely we had one. I would like to look into this when I get back, and find a way to rediscover this ceremony that strengthens the spirit, the connection to land, and the honouring of the sun.

    III Continental Indigenous Peoples Summit of Abya Yala

    I was literally sick with excitement when I read in the paper that the Summit of Abya Yala was to be held right here in Guatemala this year. The summit was held from March 26-30 at the site of Iximche, near Tecpan. This is also the site that the Maya Kaqchikel cleansed after a visit by President Bush just a few weeks earlier! Indigenous peoples from Argentina to Canada were present at the summit although the Caribbean countries seemed to be underrepresented and our Northern contingency of 20-30 people was extremely small in comparison to the near 2000 people from the southern, Latin, countries with maybe 70% being from Guatemala.

    At the summit, as in many other times here in Guatemala, I found myself feeling rather excluded from not having on traditional dress. As one of the few representatives of First Nations peoples in Canada, I felt as though our presence and knowledge of Indigenous issues and our own struggles were undermined by the lack of communication due to the language barrier and north-south relations characterized by the US and Canadian government’s policies rather than our struggles within this system. As the media turned the summit into a zoo, blinding everyone wearing traditional dress, I was left to wander around as invisibly as I do in the North American zoo with its invisible yet fortified cages. I was left to wonder, how to communicate my thoughts on the struggle, my knowledge of the present political situation, and north-south connections. I question how the Eagle and the Condor will come together if they speak two different languages and think they are singing two different songs? I have found however, that in talking to people on an individual basis, getting them to know me, lets them understand that I too am part of the struggle and am just as frustrated with the small box that we are trying to turn into a large circle.

    Throughout the week, the summit held a powerful energy as a site of release for the centuries of oppression: the violence, the hunger, the exclusion, the loss. With passionate speeches, the people from Abya Yala decried the system that is in harsh opposition to the ways of the land and to the destruction of Mother Earth. At the same time, however, the energy also conveyed the power in our voices, our want for change, and our continued existence despite the war that continues to wage on our lands, bodies, minds, and souls. The speakers affirmed that we are in a time of change and that we need to heighten the walk together to transform our histories and the consciousness of the world into one of harmony between humans and between humans and nature. They verified that we are not looking for a better life; we are looking for a good life, not money and materialism but health and happiness. As part of this, we need to decolonize our own minds and build the structures that will foster this return to humanity. Participation in the movement includes the voices of nature, of women and men of all ages. Moreover, action requires sharing ideas and coming together within the common struggles and the common goals.

    Many action-oriented ideas were spoken of during the summit including: the development of Indigenous universities; bi-cultural and bi-lingual curriculum development, developing platforms for the voices of women, youth, and children; fortifying the disapproval of free trade agreements, World Bank policies, and the lack of support for the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There was also interesting talk of beginning a continental youth movement to consolidate the present youth movements that are taking place. Meetings, which began with youth representatives of the countries present, lost focus in the eyes of the Canadian delegation as the talks turned to conference planning rather than coordinating a movement, and talk about dates and funding rather than principles and how to communicate and organize the many diverse movements currently underway in the continent. Nevertheless, the youth continue to be seen as the ones that are going to make changes in this world. One speaker stated that the youth are not only the future, the youth are the present. Hopefully, these discussions will be the start of a wider movement and the youth will wade through the logistical issues to discover a common goal and strategy for a youth, grassroots driven effort. This has made me think about the lack of communication and political involvement of the youth in our communities. Perhaps, we need to start a youth council/society/network, especially in light of the recent conversations and events surrounding the BC Treaty Process.

    I believe talk is important especially after living and dying so long in silence. This ability to speak out is a necessary stage of the movement and it is a place where we can find our voice and define our goals. However, words fade into oblivion if they are not acted upon. We need to connect our mouths, through our hearts, to our hands and feet, if we want these words to make change. Thus, the summit resulted in “The Declaration of Iximche” (attached as a separate document). It is the responsibility of the individuals and the organizations they represent however, to enact the principles and come up with ways to support the conclusions. However, as you will notice, the declarations are quite abstract and for the most part, are declarations that are made at every Indigenous gathering. This, of course, coming from a person who has studied Indigenous issues at university and participated in a number of different gatherings around the world. Some, if not all of this stuff could very well be new and liberating to people who have not had this opportunity. Nevertheless, I question what came out of the first two summits, are we just repeating what was said in those meetings? It seems that a pro-active step needs to be made in building capacity and having concrete tools of action that can be shared rather than just planning more discussion venues. For example, perhaps the next summit, rather than making more declarations can take these ideas and see what the pueblos have done with them, then set up working groups on the different themes where people can prepare action plans and find concrete ways to realize our goals. On the other hand, I am certain that there were a lot of things going on at the cumbre that I am not aware of. The next summit will be held in Bolivia in 2009. By then, the Indigenous led government of Evo Morales will have been leading the nation for four years and will hopefully have made leaps and bounds in the decolonization of their country and will be able to share ideas and lessons with other Indigenous nations in the implementation of tools and structures that can be utilized even within states still governed by the colonizers.

    March for the Free Liberation of Indigenous Peoples

    The summit ended on Friday with the reading and adoption of the Declaration of Iximche. About an hour behind schedule, the 2000 or so delegates were loaded onto buses for the two-hour ride to the capital, Guatemala City. With banners, flags, and drums we stormed the capital and marched from the ritzy commercial centre of Tikal Futuro along a major highway, shutting down traffic as we went on the two-hour march to the Palacio in central park.

    This may very well be one of the most exhilarating things I have done in my life. Close to the front of the march, I could look back to a sea of people yelling “Vida Abya Yala!” I walked with the delegation from the U.S. and luckily I found that I did not haul my drum around for a week for nothing and drummed for nearly two hours straight. With my drum, I dropped my invisible cloak and the media ate us up and had cameras on us most of the way through the march. Later, I found out from Jesus who called me the “Estrella de Rabinal” that I had been on the Guatemalan news!! My drumming arm was aching by the time we reached the park but the energy of the crowd kept my spirits high. Outside the palace, the Bolivian drum group and others performed before the Declaration was read out to the crowd. Representatives from the different countries presented closing remarks that decried the destruction of land, of neo-liberal policies, and continued state subordination of Indigenous peoples. Paul Lacerte, spoke on behalf of Canada and began to sing a “song filled with fun” from the Carrier territory. I played my drum in the crowd but was hailed onto the stage by Tupac and as I made my way onto the stage picked up the rhythm of the drum and soon found myself centre stage with a microphone in my face. I stood back a moment until I learned the song and stepped forward to the mic and belted out the song—with out the nerves I would have expected—as I looked out into the joyful crowd of people. They sang along and followed our actions as we got them to lean in the four cardinal directions. The march and the week ended by releasing three hot air balloons into the sky, one catching on a ledge of the palace, which I found very symbolic as it burned away on this building that represented everything wrong with our current political systems.

    In Closing…

    Once again, thank you for reading my update. I am looking forward to coming home in May and seeing everyone again. Also, a big thank you for the great response from my last update. Hasta Pronto!