Monday, March 23, 2015

Notes from my first indigenous integration: part 2

Below is a letter I wrote a friend about my last week with the Shuar family. 

The candle comes out
I brought your last email back to my hut in the woods. If you can imagine, it was late at night with the rain coming down outside, Seaver and I both laying on our backs looking up at the barely-lit ceiling, talking of things large and small. I said I'd gotten an email from you and read it to him to share your vision for the Permaculture/poetry fusion - we're both psyched about your poetry ideas. I really hope you get a chance to share those with students.

Now, even though we had a candle, we were actually using a telephone flash to light our room that night since we were keeping our candle in the family eating area. Monday of that week, our last week there, the electricity had gone out at the house and in an instant, totally changed our experience with the family. We brought our candle in to eat dinner by, and the vibe completely changed. Usually the mother and her daughters, about our age, brought in our food and then left to eat and talk in the kitchen. Usually, two very bright white lightbulbs sterilized the eating area and kitchen of any normal human nighttime feelings. Not that night!

When we brought the candle out, the mother as usual went back to the kitchen to eat. After failing to get her to join us over dinner several times, I decided I wouldn't fail tonight. I went to her in the kitchen where it was pitch black and she was eating on a bench, awkwardly reaching over to the side for the food, her back to the wall and all by herself. This time it didn't take much prodding, and she finally joined us! The kids' vibe totally changed with the single candlelight too; the annoying energy, the attention-seeking, the rambunctiousness all dissipated. Instead, I asked one or two questions of the Mom to try to really know her and the family better, and in the candlelight she just poured out her life story to us! I'll never forget the power of firelight to bring people together.

She shared how she'd already had 2 children when she met her current husband and married him at 14. He was already married, and she didn't like and has never gotten along with his other wife, but she needed to feed her children. 10 more kids later, now she has 12, and her husband has been unreliable at times, making it hard for her to send her kids to school and feed them. While we were there, we saw one kid miss school a few times because he didn't have 50c for the bus, and imagining that going on for 3 decades was hard, especially as the other wife seemed to get more attention.

It also explained how the family was being civilized. The mother couldn't teach her kids everything they needed to fully function in their ecosystem, and the father wasn't around much.  The mother's main strategy, being mostly separated from other families and a whole culture, was to get her kids into school and into paying jobs. In this context, the civilizing process made total sense. It also explained why the girls seemed better adjusted than the boys, as she could mentor them and be a mother figure for them, but the boys had less of a father figure.

When companies are incentivized to pollute
Every night that week, even after the electricity came on, I convinced the family to turn the lights out, and the stories kept flooding out of them. And wow, this challenged my Spanish! The father talked about how hard it was negotiating with the government since their environment was so polluted that many communities actually depended on the government to provide clean water. I realized that for some companies, their waste wasn't waste at all: if they dump toxic sludge in the right river, 200 miles downstream a whole indigenous nation will be bent to the will of the corporate state which they'll depend on for water and the ability to work for money to replace the lost food from the river.  Recognizing that a corporation and government could view pollution as a major positive, enabling large work-programs and resource extraction by destroying indigenous resistance, was a hard moment for me.

Still, it's important to recognize when you're fucked. If I'm ever in such a situation, I don't want to let the pollution happen and wait months to years to defend my own little plot of land. I need to recognize that the negotiating leverage is lost when I become dependent on the forces threatening my land and family. We simply must not get to that point. Obviously I don't mean to put down this indigenous group or any of the other thousands that have been screwed in this way. I just need to learn every lesson I can so as not to repeat such mistakes.

How cultures break down
Another night, I asked the mother about how different things were now compared to when she was young. She said there were hardly any group ceremonies or activities anymore. I asked her why, and she said that it used to be common for people to come together when someone fell ill. A few people would come together to prepare or administer a medicine, properly blessed, and the rest of the community would gather to lend their collective support to the sick. When people started going to hospitals and using doctors, this major source of community togetherness was lost, as was some of the medicinal plant knowledge.

5 years ago, I'd have thought, "So what? Those people weren't having any physical impact on the illness anyway!" But consider how much they gained with that tradition of group support for the infirm:
  1. People's feelings actually do affect their ability to come back from illness. Knowing that you had the love and support of your tribe, that they would all take time out of their lives to be there with you, must have been incredibly strengthening.
  2. Similarly, knowing that the spirits, however the Shuar conceived of them, were working in their favor, must also have been a great aid to the ill.
  3. The sick became incredibly grateful to the community, reinforcing bonds between people.
  4. Community members who might see each other much came together to do something incredibly meaningful, having face-to-face time to talk, laugh, and do whatever else they did during these gatherings. For a culture that's traditionally very separated (totally independent at the household level), this must have been so important.
The list could go on, but the point is that this was all lost when the missionaries and well-meaning civilized got their way. Of course, depending on expensive doctors and hospitals only made them further dependent on the money economy rather than each other and their ecosystem.

The next step
Seaver and I are in Pisac, Peru now, on our way into the Peruvian jungle. We did lots of research to find relatively intact indigenous communities that still believe in 'partible paternity', the cultural belief that children can have multiple fathers. Based on our research, this seemed to be a good proxy question for a community that practiced some degree of polyamory, respected women (as they could be polyandrous too), had group-parenting, and generally functioned well as a whole, rather than a collection of separate nuclear families. We identified 4-5 of these in southeastern Peru, and after a short stop here in Pisac, (we've been on buses or in obnoxious cities for 4 days straight with no night's sleep outside a bus) we're headed further to the jungle.

By the way, I found an amazing deal: 35 Peruvian soles, or <$12 for a 20-ish hour bus ride. The next highest-cost bus line charged 70 soles, and others' prices were even higher. A friendly tip: don't go for such an outrageously low deal if you don't want to be packed on the bus like a teeny-tiny sardine! On reaching our destination poorly rested, we blew the money we'd saved on a nice meal to recharge and apologize to our bodies for treating ourselves that way! Seaver and I are good at taking all this in good humor though, so we've enjoyed the journey even when there might seem to be much to complain about.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Notes from my first indigenous integration: part 1

From mid-February to mid-March, my friend Seaver and I lived with an indigenous Shuar family in the jungle of Ecuador near Puyo. Read some background info on the Shuar here and here.  They offered to treat as a member of the family as much as possible, and in return we offered to work for them in various ways and paid a small amount of money.

The marker is over Puyo, Ecuador. The Shuar family I stayed with lived about an hour's bus-ride south east from there.

My overall goal in this adventure is to learn to live indigenously as part of a healthy, complete human community. Of course, I'm still spending a lot of time figuring out what that even means in practice. I knew going into this experience that the family wasn't fully indigenous - they depended substantially on the money economy, not living fully inside their ecosystem - but I hoped I could still learn a lot and use the time to decide where next to go. Below are some notes on the experience written about 2-2.5 weeks into the month-long stay, so references to 'yesterday' or 'last week' aren't correct as of the date I'm posting this blog entry.

Clear-cutting the Jungle
This experience with the Shuar has been mixed - really good in some ways, saddening in others. The government is threatening the family with taking a large chunk of their land with no compensation whatsoever. They own 250 hectares, which I believe is about 500-750 acres. Apparently a lot of families have large-ish amounts of land, and the gov't wants to redistribute the uncultivated parts to other families who will farm the land more intensively. The family's plan is to put homes at various edges of their property, make up a 'community', and then give the land title to the community. Then, since, the family has 12 kids, they'd invite their grown kids to live there. It's not a very subtle plan: the community name is the family's last name. Still, at first I was excited to help with a meaningful project, thinking I'd be helping with construction in addition to learning indigenous skills. It hasn't worked out that way!

I woke up last Monday morning to the sound of a chainsaw. Instead of spending the week on construction, the parents brought in a nephew to clear-cut a large chunk of their forest to sell the wood for money. They asked Seaver and me to help clear the brush, mark the trees, and move the wood. A couple points on this:

a) They say they're going to plant useful trees afterwards, but I've seen their food-forest areas, and those areas are still actual networked ecosystems with trees of various ages and plant diversity. In this new large clearing, all the old trees are gone and the old trees took out many of the young when they fell. The understory was completely cleared to prepare for cutting+hauling. Watching the felling as I smelled the exhaust of the chainsaw, I couldn't tell which made me more nauseous.

b) The family really seems to lack respect for the non-humans and the land. They used horses to haul the heavier pieces of wood, but they tied the wood to the animals in a way that left large gouges in their legs as they took the wood to the road. Sometimes the wood would knock against their heads - and we're talking about a few hundred pounds of wood here!

c) the wood is ridiculously cheap, so they're hardly making any money destroying part of their jungle. They're receiving about $7/tree for clearing the brush, felling, cutting with a chainsaw, hauling out of the forest by human or horse labor, and then stacking on the road.

d) They really don't care for their paths. The horses cause massive amounts of erosion the way they're used, so paths on hills often have 1 foot or greater 'cliffs' of mud, and it's common if you're not careful for your boot to fall a foot deep into mud even on a relatively flat trail. The horses and the rain just destroy them. They don't really build many bridges or do much trail maintenance.

One view of the clear-cutting. I wish I had better pictures: we cleared out the underbrush with machetes then felled the large trees, which took out the smaller ones on the way down.

The family has mentioned repeatedly that they need money to send their kids to school, especially for bus fare. The youngest kid apparently stayed home yesterday because they lacked bus fare, so apparently they're scraping the bottom (although there are signs of asymmetric investment in their children, so it's hard to tell) . Still, they were cutting down 70-year old trees for pennies an hour - I really wanted to ask more, to learn if this is part of some transition strategy towards not needing money or towards being able to protect their land more effectively, but between the sensitivity of the issue and the difficulty in understanding their complex answers, I've only been able to gather little bits and pieces. Last night I tried to ask the father why the kids weren't taught to hunt and tramp, and he interrupted my second or third question urging me to keep eating. Even before that point in the meal, he looked very tired or burdened, and his look intensified after that. He, Seaver and didn't talk the rest of the night.
Another view of the clear-cutting.

It's clear the family's already well on the path towards being civilized, treating both the land and the horses as commodities rather than allies. Seaver and I have had some good conversations about this, which has helped us deal with it. After the first day, we decided not to help anymore in the clear cutting, though we've helped move the wood. We didn't come to help kill the jungle.

An evangelical wedding in the jungle

We even got invited to a wedding - an evangelical wedding! It was easily the worst wedding I've ever been to. It had all the trappings of a normal Christian wedding: groom in tux, bride in white dress, priest-type person looking self-important. But it was like they learned about weddings from a book that they couldn't translate very well! The bride's private 'waiting room' ahead of the ceremony was the back seat of a taxi. The sound-system was so bad that the the priest's words were unintelligible, as were the words of the singer/guitar player. Sometimes people clapped with the guitarist, but their clapping so was so out-of-time that sometimes a row of 5 people would seem to be applauding rather than clapping on the beat - pretty funny to watch! Much of the music wasn't live though, with recorded music being blasted on bad speakers as the bridal party entered.

Even worse, no one looked happy! The bride looked miserable the whole time, and the groom looked like he wanted to hurt someone. Sometimes there was smiling and laughter in the audience, but only because kids were joking amongst themselves, not because the ceremony and the prospect of a lifelong marriage made anyone happy for the couple. I'm hoping to see a more traditional ceremony at some point.

Finding indigenous knowledge with plant-based medicines
There are still plenty of signs of indigenous-knowledge though. Seaver had a bad toothache a few nights ago, and we told the Mom, hoping to learn about indigenous medicine. She asked a question or two, walked to a tree about 50 feet from the house, scraped the bark, gave it to Seaver - and it worked, though it tasted pretty bad. I've really been studying plant-based medicine for the last few months, though it's been frustrating reading from a book without either being able to work with a mentor or practice what I'm learning. I'd hoped to learn from the mom here, but she doesn't seem to store medicines, only harvesting when someone needs them. Thus, it's been impossible to learn while working alongside her, and a single plant walk or discussion wouldn't really be that valuable. It's the same problem I had at Earthaven: I want a long-term hands-on integrated mentorship/learning situation supplemented by books, not a self-taught book-based education supplemented by occasional plant walks.

Making connections
I've been connecting well-enough with the kids, becoming friends in some ways, but the mother has been somewhat standoffish and the father's hardly been around. All of the girls my age give or take a few years have at least a few kids and tend to congregate with the mother in the kitchen when they come to visit (part of a trend of sexism or stark gender roles I've seen), making it hard to connect with girls in the area. The families are also quite spread out, so we don't really meet folks outside the family here. It's been challenging not really being able to connect with anyone at the depth I'd like and that I'd hoped for joining an indigenous family. Still, I'm practicing being open and connecting as much as others others are open, and that feels good.
The kids loved it when I was there "Caballo" - horse. My record was 4 kids in one ride!

Sometimes boarding the horse was difficult.
Practicing experiential learning
I'm excited for what I'm learning too, and I feel more allied with plants all the time. I've started doing more personal explorations: picking leaves to crush and smell them and test for whether they could be repellants or teas, testing wood I find for how well it could burn or be used in traps, and just generally trying to experientially learn rather than go through books or even other people. I've even started developing my own names for plants so that I don't have to wait until the right book or person comes along to name them for me - this really helps me see relationships among the plants (i.e. Long Feather Leaf here always seems to grow next to Good Toilet Paper Leaf).

Teaching self-defense and group-learning
Seaver and I decided to start doing regular self-defense training based on my previous experience with one particular school of self-defense called Krav Maga. We invited the older kids to join us, and the first practice this week we had a 17 year old and two 15ish-year olds plus Seaver and me.

This has been a really powerful experience for me, even in just the first few practices. None of the students have any formal experience (or, any experience at all) with self-defense, so I've been the only leader in the class. At the beginning of the first class, I had us 'mow the lawn', cutting the grass with machetes as a group to make space to grow together. Then I set a container for us to learn in (a container, roughly, is a clear statement of the context of a gathering: why we're here, what we're doing, what we must remain conscious of, values we're upholding and so on). I said the following in both English and Spanish:

We're not just here to learn to fight. We're here to learn how to defend ourselves, our families, and our land. We're here to understand ourselves better - mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  We're here to become more courageous and confident and strong. 

Among other things, adults have the wisdom and ability to know when and how to fight. Communities depend on adults to protect what each community depends on: the land, the children, and the spirit of the community.

We're here to become adults and fulfill this role.

Being the mentor has really pushed me! I've never led a group in this way before. Not only am I teaching particular stances and movements, but I'm also teaching the principles to allow each person to adapt the techniques to their own body, and to continue learning even after I leave. Also, I have only 6 months' experience with Krav and no instructor training (which I was clear about with the others), so I had to take a lot of care in preparing each class to ensure I got all the principles, motions, etc correct. Luckily I have a Krav handbook to help review. Oh yeah, and since my friend doesn't speak much Spanish yet, I'm constantly bouncing back and forth between Spanish and English, generally explaining each thing twice. This has really helped my Spanish, and much of my class prep is spent learning Spanish so I can teach better.

This Shuar community has a history of being able to fight to defend themselves, but now almost no children learn self-defense or how to hunt. I asked the 17 year-old, Edgar, about this and he said this was because there aren't any teachers, and if there were, tons of kids would want to learn self-defense!

It's very important that we be able to self-teach even when there's no coach available, and so I'm helping each individual become a competent teacher in their own right. In addition to the self-defense techniques themselves, I've been emphasizing self-teaching and group-teaching in the sessions. At the beginning of each session, I have each participant come to the front and review something we learned or practiced the previous time, teaching the group how to do it again.  Then we all constructively critique the review and I ensure no one learns something wrong.

I often ask folks to self-evaluate after a drill: what did you feel while you were doing that? What can you improve? Since we're often working in groups of 3, I'll also ask for feedback from the person resting, putting him in a position of teacher. (I've asked girls to join us, but so far none are interested.) I ask for feedback about myself too and accept it graciously, making it clear that there's no dominant and unlistening alpha male at the top of an hierarchy (like in many classrooms) but a group working together for the benefit of all. For the time being, I merely happen to know much more than the rest, and so I lead, set the container, teach, etc. I really think learning without a qualified coach is going to be the norm in my life rather than the exception, so learning how to self-teach and helping others learn that is a beautiful thing to practice here.

I've actually reflected on child-rearing when thinking about how I want to lead this sort of group. I treat the others as I hope to treat my own children someday, helping them grow as fast as they're willing and able. I'm not just teaching the skills and exercising their bodies, but making each student into a teacher and leader and critical thinker in self-defense and in working with others constructively. I think this mode of teaching is really important for the kinds of community I want to be part of, where each member is strong and leaders help others grow as much as they can and in whatever direction each learner is ready for.

Both Seaver and Edgar have said they're really happy with the sessions so far, so I'm excited to continue making this happen!

Starting trapping again
Seaver and I also started trapping again yesterday, beginning with armadillos. Trapping seems like a great way to really learn about all the life in an area: it forces me off the beaten paths, to look from the perspective of different animals, and understand the animals as if I lived like they do (what do they eat? where do they live? what paths do they travel?). Even though my goal is take a life so that I can eat, I embrace the predator-prey relationship: If I eat the flesh of another, I take responsibility for ensuring that its community lives on. As I develop this relationship with more and more plants and animals, I become an ally to more and more of the wild all around me.  Even after all I've gone through and how much I've changed, I still feel like this nature connection is just a bright candle now on its way to being a roaring fire in my heart as I learn to live in a healthy community and in mutual relationship with the land!

End part 1
It's hard to write about this first indigenous integration experience - there were so many stories and so many things I learned or reflected on, I just don't have time to write about it all. Still, I'll share some more experiences soon!