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Indigenous Wisdom for a Conflicted Age

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August 18: Flag Day in Bolivia. School children parade through the streets, each school dressed up in a different costume. Some march, some dance. One grade school had all the children dress up according to gender. The boys wore U.S. Army-style camouflage uniforms and carried toy rifles. The girls wore all white with Florence Nightingale-style nurse caps and capes, each carrying in her tiny hand a toy first-aid kit.

After the parade thousands of parents and schoolchildren ate a snack while sitting on the curb, or tried to find a bus with an empty seat to take them home, or walked down the sidewalk in a river of humanity returning to their individual dwellings with their unique joys and sufferings.

As I walked upstream through this river of humanity I noticed the little boys in their army uniforms pretending to kill people with their toy rifles. Many little girls in nurses’ uniforms were crying as their mothers dressed in First World styles hurried them along, more intent on getting to where they were going than soothing the distraught children.

This got me reflecting on the aggressive nationalism that is celebrated in the globalized media that originates in the USA and is broadcast around the world. GI Joe literally and figuratively is promoted as a good guy killing bad guys. War is promoted as an ideal. The role of women is to nurse the wounded and mourn the dead.

As I continued walking I came upon a different group of schoolchildren. They were dressed in traditional textiles of indigenous Andean culture. It was a dance costume. The roots of autochthonous Andean textiles and dances go back thousands of years. These arts can be looked at as the “media” of the ancestors, transmitting the values and beliefs of the culture. What message are this media broadcasting?

Ayni and Pachamama are two of the ancestors’ main concepts that still live on today. Ayni is often translated as “reciprocity, interconnection, cause and effect.” Pachamama can be translated as “Mother Earth and space/time continuum.” These concepts also are expressed in Nichiren Buddhism, which more than 10,000,000 people practice around the world with the lay group SGI. These messages of unity and oneness are, of course, very different from the antagonistic duality of “good guy/bad guy” that First World media promotes.

The children, from this grade school that celebrates ancestral culture, were with their Aymara mothers who wore their never-cut hair in long black braids that brushed against their voluminous skirts — polleras. I did not see any of the boys pretending that they were killing other people; neither were any children crying. Instead there was a calmness and a sense of unity among the parents and children, as they cared for each other, holding hands with gentle glances of affection.

These observations stirred a memory of when I lived for awhile in the countryside of Nicaragua with a family of indigenous women potters. First World media had not infiltrated into their remote home in the roadless mountains near the Honduran border. No electricity. No television. One of these women (whom I will call Sara) is my age. Sara does not read or write because the one-room schoolhouse she attended as a child did not get much beyond teaching the children to scratch the alphabet with a nail onto a piece of slate rock. But Sara was educated with the wisdom of the mountain, of the ancestors. She learned that she is nobody’s victim.

One experience stands clear. Sara and I were bathing in the waterfall a mile from her home. She was in her panties and bra, semi-transparent in their wetness, when a male cousin came striding down the path. My knee-jerk reaction was of embarrassment. But Angela turned to face him, full frontal like a conquering Amazon, and greeted him with a confidence that showed me she was invulnerable.

The idea of parading around as a white-clad nurse, pretending she was caring for people men had shot in wars, probably would make Sara roar with laughter. A wise person has said that nationalism is a disease. I think Sara would agree. In her world, she is Queen of her realm. No, that is not right. Although she has the regal bearing of a matriarch, she would never invade the territory of another or inflict her will on others.

About Lynette Yetter