The meaning we all missed in summer’s solar eclipse

Aztec ceremony leader at Eclipse music festival shares wisdom

Photo by: Juliana Bernstein

This summer I went to a music festival that was unlike any other. 50,000 people converged in the highland desert of Oregon to rave to wild beats. We came bearing flow toys, New Age philosophies, and visions of a sustainable future. It all led up to one big drop: the solar eclipse on August 21. In the moonless night that followed, my friends and I held each other close as we grooved to heavy bass. It felt like capitalism’s death rituals.

For the first time at a festival, I didn’t feel guilty — didn’t feel like we were just white people on drugs, appropriating symbols we didn’t understand. Maybe we were that, some of us, but in moments, we were more: a collective of peoples seeking a better way forward. Our rituals were shaped by indigenous leaders who traveled to share wisdom about the eclipse.

They had their own camp at the festival, called 1Nation Earth. To get there, you crossed a floating footbridge, plank by plank. Elders from a bevy of nations (Lakota, Aztec, Hopi, and more) led prayers and gave speeches beneath a banner that read, “when all people can see the color of each other’s tears — the color of water — we’ll be no color at all. We’ll be human beings.”

Plenty of festivals appropriate “tribal” aesthetics, but this was the first one I’ve seen that centered Native voices. Before Bassnectar’s headlining set, Chase Iron Eyes, a famous Lakota activist, took the stage to explain how we can help free people arrested at Standing Rock. As wildfires raged across Oregon, the only two fires permitted at the gathering were tended by indigenous people.

Each night until sunrise, Esmael Xiutecpatl of the Aztec/Mexica nation led ceremonies at the Ometeotl fire, in between stages blaring dubstep and psytrance. I spoke to Esmael about the eclipse, white people’s hunger for culture, and the “spiritual battle” in which we find ourselves.

Photo by: Juliana Bernstein

Delilah Friedler: Can you talk about the meaning of the solar eclipse in Aztec culture?

Esmael Xiutecpatl: In my understanding, the sun represents the masculine energy. The moon represents the feminine energy, and represents water. When the moon comes into that solar eclipse, it represents the balance between the feminine and the masculine — what we call in our language atl-tlachinolli, which is “water-fire.” It’s a time for us to have the energetic possibilities to transform ourselves, and by transforming ourselves, to transform our families, our communities, and the world.

When that feminine energy comes in and blocks that sun, it’s a time for us to get out of our heads, which is masculine — to be thinking, to do what we think is correct — and get in touch with the feminine, which is our heart-mind.

In our families, since the conquest, we’ve become a paternalistic society. We view men as the strong ones, the leaders. We’ve gotten away from understanding that really, the strength of the family is the woman, the mother. She’s the first teacher, the first doctor… the leader of the family. [The eclipse] was an example, on a large stage, to demonstrate for us the reality of things that we undervalue having the strength and the power to overcome things that feel impossible. That was being shown to us.

DF: The singers around the fire used handheld drums. You described the drumbeat as being like our mother’s heartbeat— the first thing we hear in the womb. Do you think the loud bass music played at the festival connects to that primal heartbeat?

EX: Everything we see and experience, even in this reality today, it is all based on the primal. It’s all based on our first experiences in life. When you’re in the festival, everything’s dark — like when you’re in the womb, it’s dark — and you look up in the sky, and those lights that are flashing are like the stars in the sky. A miniature universe is happening in that space. If you go to ceremony, it’s dark, and then you have candles, or you have a sacred fire. It’s the same recipe, just on different scales. I believe that it all goes back to that ancient memory — the memories we have from the womb, and from our ancestors. We’re just the universe experiencing itself, and these are the things that comfort us. It feels like a natural environment for us to be in.

DF: The way that people dress at festivals seems to borrow a lot from indigenous cultures. Did you notice that?

EX: I did notice a lot of that. It just made me think that a lot of people are really hungry for culture. They’re really in need. I don’t know a lot about these festivals, but what I experienced was a huge number of people that go to this place to have these experiences, because those people might not identify with mainstream society as it is now. People are looking for something to identify with… and they’re all just one step away from that evolution, from the material to the spiritual.

It’s something new that’s happening. It’s a movement of people who are trying to break free of modern society’s rules, and looking for new ways of being. I think it’s valid to be concerned with [cultural appropriation]. But at the same time, I think there’s the opportunity for people to learn and grow from these experiences. It’s not so easy to just put on a headdress and walk around. You have to understand what that represents, what that means, where does it come from, what’s the history? And when people take that step, they’ll start to understand more, and they’ll start to change.

Oftentimes, we look on the surface for the answers, but the answers are below the surface. If we see a tree is sick — it’s losing its leaves, its bark is starting to peel — we may not understand where it’s coming from. But then you look at the roots, and that’s where its problems are.

These things are symptomatic in our society, and they go unrecognized. Once we start to recognize that people just want to feel good and want to feel accepted, then we can address the real issues that are going on, and not be worried about if someone’s wearing something that’s not appropriate.

DF: We spend a lot of energy criticizing people who appropriate, and not as much energy asking, what drives them to do that in the first place? What are they missing in their lives?

EX: Right.

Photo by: Juliana Bernstein

DF: What do you think of people in the United States, who are not Native, learning about Native spiritualities and taking on indigenous practices?

EX: European descendants have a history of genocide on this continent. There’s a history of oppression that continues to this day. So if you’re gonna take up Indian culture, you need to be immersed in the community, working to undo some of these atrocious things that have happened, that have created the dynamic to where people who have these traditions are ashamed.

Each individual person has to make their own decisions. There are European ancestral traditions — like the Samis and the Celtic people, who have maintained their traditions — and there are ways for people to tap into that. There’s also ways for people to stand in solidarity with Native people and immerse themselves in the culture.

We don’t need more people to wear red bandanas and sing peyote songs. We need more people to stand up, like at Standing Rock, and come and fight with us, and support us.

This is the part that people wanna skip. They wanna skip the hard part and go right to the easy part. The easy part is to pick up all the beautiful things and wear them. The hard part is to stand in solidarity. And through standing in solidarity, you are not taking anything. You are granted permission, and people share these things with you openly. You’re only accepting what is given to you through the respect that you’ve earned from the people.

DF: Around the fire, you said that humans are finding a new way which is really the old way. Do you think this “new way” will integrate new technologies, or do you think the way forward is actually going backwards, shedding settler ways in favor of ancestral ways?

EX: There are things at play that people don’t really understand. A spiritual battle is going on. There’s the machine spirit, which was created. And now it dictates our lives. Technology dictates our lives. We think that we crave new technology and new machines, but in reality, it’s the spirit of the machines that manifests within us and demands that. When we’re walking around looking at Facebook, just being plugged into our phones, we’re allowing this mechanical spirit to manifest the worst in us. We try to get more followers, more likes, and just live our lives on that plane. It’s really up to us to decide what we want for our lives, and what’s gonna actually make us happy.

The ancestral ways? We don’t bring them back. They manifest themselves within us, to bring them back. That’s the real battle that’s going on. We had a time when it was indigenous people leading and taking care of the earth, and everything was in abundance. And then we moved to this machine-technological way of being, and things are becoming more scarce.

I don’t know if we can get rid of technology or the machines. I do think that we have enough of them right now, and what we don’t have enough of is spirituality.

Why were machines invented? For us to enslave them. For profit. It was all with this mentality. The technologies that we’re inventing now are not being invented to better humanity or protect the sacred. They’re being invented to further capitalism. When you have those intentions going into something, that’s what’s gonna manifest. If we created the machine spirit with love, with the intention of doing something good, then that would bring about a different manifestation than what we’re realizing now.

DF: What did you learn at the Eclipse Gathering?

EX: One thing I was asking for was to not be judgmental. It’s easy to see someone come up [to the sacred fire] with a beer, all fucked up, and just send them on their way. “Get the fuck out of here… all these white people coming to just use our culture.” I didn’t want to let those types of thoughts prohibit me from doing something good. A lot of the time, we make these assumptions about people, or about what we’re doing, and we’re wrong.

We are all apart of the same things. We’re all apart of this earth. We can’t “other” people. We can’t judge people. We have to be open to the possibility of something good, or we’re just gonna get more of the same.

It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there and allow for these things to just flow, and trust that the Spirit will take care of you. We are not the deciders of who’s worthy and what’s what. We’re all stumbling through this life, trying to do our best.

Even in the most chaotic environment, if you allow people the opportunity to come and witness something sacred, even for a moment, they can take something away from the experience that’s gonna help them in their lives and thus create a positive change.

I don’t know if I would have tried to talk them out of putting that fire there. If I had been a part of the decision making, I would have probably suggested somewhere more calm and quiet. And that’s just evidence to me that I don’t know shit. That’s what I really took away. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. You can always create a sacred space.

Photo by: Juliana Bernstein