Voices from the Elders: A Report from Tribal Gathering

Izak (2rd from left) and companion (3nd from left) from the San surrounded by 2 women from Peru

Under palm trees and feeling the cool breeze from the Atlantic Ocean, I conducted many interviews with leaders and representatives of indigenous communities from all over the world attending the Tribal Gathering festival. I learnt a great deal about their histories, cultures, perspectives, and heard many captivating stories. Here are a few:

Voice from the San

“On the morning of my travel to Panama, some hours before boarding the plane, I went for my daily walk close to our reservation. I was walking slowly as usual, and after passing some bushes, my eyes met those of an adult female lion, just sitting by the bushes, looking at me. I paused for a moment, nodded my head respectfully, and went on my way. We the San have had a timeless mutual understanding and ancient agreement with the predators of Southern Africa to never harm each other.”

I have been fortunate in my life to meet several people with extraordinarily peaceful vibrations. As soon as they enter a room, I immediately feel a powerful sense of calm and clarity. Among them are a devotee of Tuvian throat singing I met randomly at a party, the Dalai Lama, and Izak, a slender man of small stature with the most gentle and knowing smile ever, leader of the oldest of the San Bushman groups, who told me the above story at the beginning of our interview on the beach. He continued:

“All of humanity are blessed with the original spirit, but we the San remember and have preserved it better than most: an understanding of the cosmos and our place in it, which is reflected in our way of life. We have absolute respect for all living beings, including confused humans. Last year the ancient tree considered holy by our people, on a sacred mountaintop, was vandalised, but instead of reprimanding those responsible, or even remove the vandalism, we left it there, because everything that happens is meaningful and should be respected.

“We have no private property, and the land belongs to every human, animal and plant which live on it. Conflict hardly ever arises within our society, due to the original spirit living in everyone, who are educated in the ways of sharing, giving, of peace, and love. The world is sick, and we can help to heal it with the message that we bring: love each other, love the Earth, love life, and treat all with respect.”

tribal leaders

Universal Humanism

This is very similar, in fact, almost identical, to the answers I received to my main questions from the 12 indigenous leaders I interviewed, from the north and south of Africa and all over the Americas: 1. No private property (property publicly used for production, such as farming equipment; different from personal property for private use, such as toothbrushes). 2. Land belongs to everyone. 3. Conflict is resolved through dialogue and negotiation, and if necessary, consultation with the elders. 4. Leaders are chosen by the people for their knowledge and wisdom and have no more material wealth than anyone else; leadership roles are not inherited. 5. People are educated from a young age, through traditional stories and mythology, to avoid and disparage selfishness and egoism.

A central feature of all these cultures, without exception, is the importance of sharing, of giving, of helping and taking care of each other. The only major exception was the Tuareg people, where leadership roles are inherited.

Also common to all the conversations is a story of increasing marginalisation over the years and centuries. All of the indigenous leaders told of their people being removed from ancestral lands, of ongoing struggles for land rights, of the fight for the preservation of their language, culture and nature, against encroaching developers and timber companies who cut down forests for profit. The San had been colonised first by the agricultural and hierarchical Bantu settlers, who emigrated from northern and eastern Africa, and particular the war-like Zulus. This occurred several hundred years before the arrival of Europeans. After that, with European colonisation, their numbers continued to dwindle, they were increasingly marginalised, and today live on a small reservation removed from their ancestral lands, with many of their youth mired in alcoholism. Their rich oral traditions, advanced cultural/spiritual/political systems and vast knowledge of, for example, medicinal plants, all of which are crucial to all of humanity and our future, are in danger.

Nahua Tragedy

Another story of note was told to me by Carlos Luis, a young member of the Nahua people in the Western part of El Savador:

“The biggest reason why there are so few indigenous people left in El Savador, the number of Nahua speakers being around 200, was a genocide in 1932, conducted by the right-wing government against the communist movement comprising of mostly indigenous peasants and farmers. Communism was readily embraced by the indigenous communities because it was so similar in many ways to our traditional way of life, with common ownership of the land, etc.; and the communist party was very quickly becoming very popular, winning local elections. Anyone who was in, supported, voted for, or suspected of involvement with the communist party, and anyone belonging to the indigenous tribes (they became synonymous with communists in the eyes of the fascists) was rounded up and executed. They killed 32 000 people in a week.

Nahua
Nahua

“But it does not end there. After this genocide, a lie was widely spread, taught in schools, that it was the communists who conducted this massacre, and many descendants of the survivors of the episode believe it to this day. Even though we have access to historical information that supports this fact, and even when there was no possible motive for the communists to betray the people, many of the older people refuse to believe that the fascists were the killers, because for 60 years they had been told these lies.

“Since then, our indigenous language, dress and culture was officially banned, and not allowed to be taught to our children. Today most of the 200 or so speakers of Nahua learnt the language when they became teenagers. I myself learnt it when I was 17.”

Garifuna Origins

Another important and fascinating story came from one of a group of musicians from Belize, whose amazing performance was quite shocking to me because the music they played was not in any way Afro-Latin, but completely African in character, in sharp contrast to the music of surrounding places such as Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. There is a reason for this. The lead percussionsit, Emri “Killa” Gil, explained:

“My people, the Garifuna, the African ancestry side of whom were descendants of traders who came with the Malian king/explorer Abubakri, have settled in the Caribbean, mainly on the island today called St Vincent, since the 14th century, at least 100 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. This is contrary to the official origin story of the Garifuna, which is that a slave ship wrecked off the coast of St Vincent. Besides introducing agricultural techniques and many kinds of seeds from West Africa, which did not exist in the region before, my ancestors brought a particular method of fusing gold and silver from Timbuktu. This kind of West African jewellery making had been passed down from generation to generation, and historians have been puzzled for a long time about how it came to exist in the Caribbean.

Mansa Abu Bakr II

The reason that our music has retained a lot of the original African character is because the Garifuna people have never been enslaved. We have thus been able to keep our traditions. Since we were driven from St Vincent by the British, some ended up in Nicaragua, some in Honduras, in Guatemala, but mostly in Belize, and some have said even in Venezuela. And in Belize, we kept to the coast, in places like my home town, Dangriga, far from the main cities where slavery was practiced. And we have always been clandestine, together fighting against attempts to subjugate us with everything that we have. To this day, if you touch one of us, you touch all of us. So we have many, many riddims from Africa which were never taken away, never destroyed and never tampered with. These riddims include the Ponta, the Kulio, the Paranda, the Hungu-Hungu, the Gunjay, the Chumba and the Naranagwa, where the drummers follow the movement of the dancers; the Charikanaray, played around Christmas time, where someone dons a bull costume to scare away evil spirits, and the men dress like women, to commemorate a way that my ancestors disguised themselves to escape subjugation; and the Dogu, which is the most sacred riddim.”

Garifuna musicians

Heritage meets Youth in Panama

These stories would have been inaccessible to us if not for Tribal Gathering Festival, the largest gathering of indigenous representatives in the world, this year from more than 80 ancient cultures. The event takes place between the jungle and the beach in Panama, and lasts for three weeks, in February of each year. The first half is dedicated to presentations, workshops, and ceremonies conducted by tribal elders, with the use of nearly every major kind of sacred plant medicines from all over the planet, with 100% of proceeds going to the indigenous groups. The second half is a music festival like any other, with stages showcasing a wide variety of local and international musicians, DJs, cabarets, dance theatre and circus acts.

ceremony
ceremony

Besides the Garafuna musicians and Mad Professor, the most powerful performances came from two groups: Kombilesa Mi, a super tight, wildly dynamic and stunningly energetic mega-group of several MCs rapping and singing over the strictly live Afro-Colombian percussion of many drummers; and Ghetto Kumbe, a relentless tribal rave machine delivering deep and mesmerising epic electro drum workouts.

Attendees are a mix of new-age “spiritual healing” types who are deeply into the psychedelic experience, and the usual hedonistic festival goers, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition:sacred rituals, yoga sessions on the beach, high quality rum at the bar, and all night partying.

There is, of course, room for improvement. In addition to separate workshops and ceremonies conducted by each “tribe”, one or several round-table conversations taking place at a prominent place and time, between the different cultural ambassadors, in front of and with the urbanite audiences, would be great. It would be amazing if the event adopted some of the organisational forms of the traditional societies represented, such as attendees taking part in cooperative work, collective decision making and some kind of gift economy. In the future, as it gets bigger, I can also imagine the festival playing a bigger and wider role in spreading social awareness of the political struggles of the tribes.

The usual cynical criticisms of something like this would be all valid, in terms of the commodification of indigenous culture, the packaging and selling of spiritual experiences, etc. But I would just like to remind critics that we live in a world currently dominated by neo-liberal capitalism, and the only way to do anything is according to its logic. I, for one, am certainly glad that the organisers chose to do something rather than nothing to expose the world to the crucial knowledge and wisdom of these indigenous cultures, which is about the only thing rather can save our species from certain destruction.