Coffee, seed saving, traditional knowledge, and justice: Reflections from Indigenous Guatemalan accompaniment training

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Breaking the Silence co-founder Kathryn Anderson holds up a handmade clay bust of a Mayan Elder © 2019 Karli Zschogner

By Karli Zschogner

[LONG READ]

A one-way, rural Nova Scotian road is not the most obvious place to train and learn the critical value of solidarity in accompanying Indigenous Guatemalans threatened for speaking up for justice, land and human rights.

“Once you know, you can’t unknow,” says Kathryn Anderson, founder of the Breaking The Silence Maritimes Guatemala Solidarity Network (BTS), as she describes how the voluntary network began answering the call for partnership 31 years ago from Guatemalans facing persecution. She holds a hand-sculpted bust of a Mayan elder which she says was given to her by a Guatemalan refugee in Canada. 

As the tides flow in and out, draining the salty ocean waters, the Tatamagouche Centre is my home for the next six days. Tatamagouche, deriving from the Mi’kmaq term Taqmakujk, or “barred across the entrance with sand,” is connected to both the Mi’kmaq First Nations and French Acadians. 

Having learned the expressed value of learning and maintaining Anishinaabemowin while living in Naotkamegwanning First Nation, I take comfort in a Maritime map labelling the regions’ original names in Mi’kmaq, which were placed at the entrance of the multicultural and multi-spiritual centre. I am encouraged by it, viewing it as a de-colonial symbol and educational act towards the First Nations territory I am in.

However, the push for re-education of traditional Indigenous knowledge and language is not limited to Canada, nor just a talking piece for 2019 as the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Language. Guatemalan survivors, such as Jesús Tecú Osorio, a BTS partner, have channelled their trauma to fill the gaps that their government continues to ignore and deny

While continued devaluation of the Mayan including refusals from government to support, one of Jesús’ efforts was the creation of a land-based school, to counter the harms and degradation of Mayan language, knowledge and culture. Students, with a newly built greenhouse and learning cultural teachings around weaving, can graduate as a ‘rural wellbeing technician’.

Coming in contact with BTS while living in Nova Scotia and having previously covered a news story on their fundraiser coffee partnership, I also craved connections to those who have shared a similar connection to Guatemalans as well as the heart-wrenching but empowering stories of Indigenous Mayan resilience, which I had documented in 2015. When I saw the network had opened up a cooperant program, I immediately applied.

Not a business, nor a not-for-profit, or a charity, the volunteer-based network has been responding to the needs and issues defined by their partners, and supporting not with money but in supporting them in taking charge of their own lives. In explanation of their solidarity, the group has stuck with the following quote as their motto:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time…but if you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,” spoken by Lilla Watson an Australian Aboriginal activist and organizer.

The network, BTS, evolved in the 1980s at the height of the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict and genocide against the Mayan Indigenous and any who opposed the government. While advocating for the Government of Canada to condemn the violence, the network began offering accompaniment alongside Canadian advocacy for Guatemalans to ensure their safe passage back home in testifying.

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Mayan creation stories are laid out for discussion through a circular timeline © 2019 Karli Zschogner

Spiraled red yarn becomes our interactive historical reference to Guatemala as we take turns laying out dates of major struggles and powerful milestones. Not starting from colonial contact as most colonial history lessons do, we start at the seed of Mayan creation story and their age of great civilizations including their leaps in architecture, agriculture, mathematics, and astronomy starting in 250 AD.

We take turns unscrambling pieces of their history and providing any reflections we have. “Land is central to everything,” says the cooperant program leader, a Guatemalan. “So much it gives to the world, but at the expense of others.”

During the activity, we broke down the international involvement not just from governments but the role powerful corporations play in exploitation and conflict. For the internal conflict, it was the control of land and labour under the United Fruit Company beginning in the 1930s, to the dehumanization of those who challenge or opposed. In this case, it was the use of the term ‘Communist’ during the Cold War’s fear-mongering.

Flashbacks of emotion come to me during the training of my trip to Guatemala, including the feelings I had experienced while meeting the collective of female Mayan weavers who had lost their husbands, and touring morgues home to those lost in gangs and murdered women.

Despite accomplished milestones such as having the first openly Indigenous lesbian politician and successful guilty trials to those sexually violent towards Mayan women, BTS facilitators give examples of their partners who continue to experience slander, unwarranted arrests, death threats and murders including under multiple large Canadian mining projects. 

These examples remain the reason why BTS’ partners continue to seek a notable international presence regarding reporting and advocacy in Guatemala and, in Canada, organizing tours for Guatemalans to share their stories and political advocacy.

“I want the companies every day to think of us,” says BTS Coordinator Lisa Rankin who’s permanently working in Guatemala. She says the main part of her advocacy is pressuring investors and companies.

The network’s partnership allows organizers like survivor Jesús more more safely continue his legal clinic, another created initiative, which is currently serving survivors in testifying in ongoing national and international cases related to the genocide and ongoing land claims.

In Tatamagouche, we video call in with a Guatemalan survivor Jeremias Tecu, now working in New Brunswick in refugee settlement. He shares with us the horror of the polarizing violence and the pain of losing so many family members and his determination to advocacy in justice and healing.

“I have an obligation to the world,” he says, speaking of his position as a Guatemalan genocide survivor. 

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The group takes turns defining terms such as oppression, privilege and intersectionality © 2019 Karli Zschogner

BTS also partners with a group called Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura (IMAP). They are currently working towards maintaining traditional Mayan knowledge through permaculture farming as local sustainable solutions to climate change. One of their unique initiatives, a library seed bank, is intended to preserve near extinct species of edible plant resources. To compliment their work, they also utilize fish-farming within the same area for later use as plant fertilizer. 

The fourth Guatemalan partner is a committee of small farmers known as Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA), a group within the business-agriculture sector that are helping take back traditional knowledge. With growing momentum due to some of their members being elected into Congress, their direct advocacy for their own Indigenous and land rights remain deeply at risk with threats of assassination.

With respect of processes of truth and reconciliation commissions, I have learned that without the process of first laying out the truths, the full history, there cannot be open doors for justice and reconciliation. Systemic issues do not fix themselves, especially when the government denies or does not hold value in education and justice processes. It is not surprising that the most successful initiatives come at the grassroots, from the ground up. 

Stripping down of what accompaniment and cooperant support is, I am learning that especially when fear is used as a tactic to prevent action, it is to help people to feel not alone and having someone’s’ back. As I think of all the unsolved missing and murdered women cases in Guatemala and Canada, being there as offering moral or technical support is critical in documenting in non-bias observation as a last witness in preventing impunity and seeking justice.

When I am moved, upset, shocked or reflecting on something I have learned firsthand of in news, what is often missing is the ‘calls to action’ or what we can do about it. In discussion of examples of concrete ways to make a difference, we watched a video clip of former BTS delegate Hannah Martin directly speaking in the House of Commons to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at an event called Daughters of the Vote, calling for accountability of the damages of Canadian mining companies she visited. 

Hannah was then video called in to us, introducing herself as a Mi’kmaq youth of Tatamagouche and having lived in Millbrook First Nation.  

“Collectively, we are not much different,” she says in our video chat in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada and Guatemala. She says, however, being an Indigenous Canadian living and learning from Indigenous Guatemalans, she sat with realizing her own form of privilege as a Canadian citizen. 

Currently a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON for Indigenous Studies, she expresses solidarity for her as “using our privilege as Canadians on a global scale”.

Since my return from Guatemala and the personal experiences shared with me in 2015, I also began realizing the privilege, including as a Canadian citizen including access to services, technology and other products from around the world, and most critically, being able to use your voice without a constant fear of death. 

It is why I’ve become more conscious to what I buy and the business behind it. I have learned that as a buyer, there is power in choice and as an act of solidarity. Even through the challenge of living on a small budget, I have learned that this power of choice remains, whether selectively buying items that may on the surface be more expensive, or choosing between wants and needs.

In a reflection exercise, trainers were asked to pick a quote that resonated with us most and draw something to symbolize its theme of solidarity. I chose the one below:

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence & vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.” 

 – Indian author Arundhati Roy

Karli Zschogner is a guest contributor. She is the former journalism trainer for Naotkamegwanning First Nation, from September 2018 to March 2019.

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Ottawa, Home to the Country’s Finest

Miranda Claire Photo NDRAMA 2019 - Damon Karli Laval Xavier
The group in the Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario for NDRAMA 2019 (Photo credit: Miranda Claire)

By: Damon Hunter

During the days of April 23 – April 26, I was in Ottawa – an area scattered with jaunty, new personalities. Among this group (of which I once lived alongside), I met highly creative, motivated individuals. These ‘individuals’ included teenage Ojibwe language teachers, dancers, and the esteemed Canadian MP Anita Vandenbeld. Laval Namaypoke (the Mazina’igan’s Youth Engagement Coordinator), and Xavier Ranville (a past contributor) had also partaken in the experience by my side.

MP Anita Vandenbeld's Office - Ottawa trip
MP Anita Vandenbeld’s Nepean office in Ottawa, Ontario (Photo credit: office staff member)

During a three-day trip to my old city, Ottawa, Ontario, I was invited to attend NDRAMA 2019 and MamawiTogether as a ‘special guest’, though not initially planned. The whole thing was generously funded by TakingITGlobal through one of their offered travel grants. Even after an unfortunate, costly series of events they’d gladly upped the budget for us. A very charitable organization; co-founded by the ever-so-kind Michael Furdyk, whom I had the pleasure of ‘co-coordinating’ the trip with.

During my day attending the NRAMA 2019 Youth Conference at the Carleton University, I met Theland Kicknosway – an old childhood friend and neighbour who’s now a respected hoop dancer and public speaker, interestingly enough. We had both recognized each other’s names prior to meeting over lunch-hour. From “Do you want to come to my birthday party?” to speaking at the UN and hosting largely-recognized runs. Certainly an interesting situation.

Speakers such as comic book writer and author Jay Odjick, CBC Radio One host Rosanna Deerchild, and a few other eccentric figures attended, providing their life stories with undoubtedly thought-provoking morals in the auditorium.

The day following, I was scheduled to attend MamawiTogether at the University of Ottawa.

Before that though, I had the pleasure of visiting the on-campus CHUO-FM radio station. Xavier and I promptly received a tour of their workplace from a cheery figure named Mickey, who introduced us to a small-but-full room containing an almost monumental CD music collection. Shelf-after-shelf of 1990’s-2000’s underground tunes flooded the room. Next door to this was their recording studio, where Xavier and I both recorded intros to the show following the welcomed appearance of Darren, CHUO’s indigenous-focused radio host.

Shortly after our brief introduction to campus-radio we then directed our feet to the actual event: MamawiTogether. My time there was recognized a hundred times more than it was during NDRAMA 2019 – not that there’s a competition. Unknown people frequently approached and congratulated me on a personal level, providing much-appreciated support. If I remember correctly, I left that night feeling irregularly self-determined. This was my last full day in Ottawa.

The following day, my group and I readily arrived at the airport, set to board our plane to Winnipeg – home to the closest homebound airport capable of lengthy domestic flights.

The stay was great and the string of events within it, twice so. The two conferences welcomed my presence with an unexpected “special guest” title, though I didn’t speak. I screened a short version of my documentary thanks to co-creator Karli Zschogner’s cross-province editing and timeliness and met up with familiar faces in-between hour-to-hour busyness. All in all, it was an unintentionally perspective-altering experience and was, without a doubt, very interesting business. I hope to visit again soon – or travel elsewhere, who knows? “We’ll see”, as my signature phrase goes.

Rez Life

By Virginia Loon

This reserve is better since the last story I wrote. Usually, I’m always busy doing something else or focused on school. I really love the reserve how it is now, rather than the way it was before. There is still bullying around but not as much as before.

But can’t anybody start activities for youth on weekends? I always see kids bored, walking around, or trying to vandalize.

Potholes in Naotkamegwanning

By: Laval Namaypoke

Our community, Naotkamegwanning FN, has been dealing with tricky roads for a long time and they will always be around due to unaffordability and other factors. Over time, most of the community’s members and regular visitors have been able to figure out the pothole hot spots – which makes it less bothersome.

The employed group that officially repairs the community’s potholes is the Operations & Maintenance crew. Though sometimes community members take time out of their days to fix the pothole problem themselves, they only provide a temporary solution. With the help of the O&M crew and community members, we do our best to ensure safe and smoother passage into our great community for visitors and our fellow community members. They always do a great job and they always make the roads smooth as they can be. Those people are always thanked and very appreciated for the repairs on our roads.

How I Became a Jingle Dress Dancer

Photo Credit Ozaawaa Paypompee
Okima poses for her sister over winter in her new jingle dress (Photo Credit: Ozaawaa Paypompee)

By: Okima Paypompee

When I was nine years old, I decided to learn how to dance pow-wow. I saw a lot of people around me dance and it made me feel happy inside, but I was so shy. I asked my mom if could ever do that too and she said it was up to me and my own decision.

About a year later, determined to have my own, at a pow wow, I asked a man if I could purchase  this beautiful blue and pink fancy shawl dress. He told me it was $200 but I did not have that amount. Although, after some discussion with his wife and my dad, he agreed to trade with my dad his painting of a wolf and the moon.

I was so excited. I began teaching myself, whether through youtube videos or focusing live when women and girls danced. Fancy Shawl dancing, a highlight in pow wow competitions, is considered a reflection of a butterfly as the girl or women moves her ‘wingspan’ and feet lightly. It takes so much foot and arm coordination. Ever since I started dancing, I fell in love with it.

For years, I travelled with my family to pow wows, competing, receiving from fourth place to second place. Delighted for that moment, I felt my years of practice was paying off  when I received that second place win in the 2016 Grassy Narrows pow wow.

But, I didn’t want to just stop there. I wanted to keep learning. I wanted to dance jingle dress as well.  I loved the colours, the presentation, and the sounds of the cones jingling together. When I danced fancy shawl, I was still so shy, worried what others think. But I didn’t want to be shy anymore.

On my own, I began practicing the dance, preparing myself for the jingle dress dance. I began asking around of where I could purchase or have a jingle dress made for me but the costs were too high for me.

Then, on the first day of Shawendaason’s first annual cultural camp in October, Rolanda Wilson happened to announce she was selling a jingle dress she made herself. I went over to ask her and I was delighted to be able to purchase this beautiful blue, orange, yellow, green and pink dress with copper jingles.

I was so excited, so proud to be able to purchase it with my own money I saved. Rolanda suggested I dance with it at the end of the camp’s pow wow at the Naotkamegwanning roundhouse. Learning about Naotkamegwanning’s origin to the jingle dress, discussed at the camp made me even more excited to have this dress of my own. After the grand entry, I felt the feelings of shyness leave me, dancing counterclockwise beside the people I knew.

Being a jingle dress dancer means a lot to me because I love showing the skills I have learned. From now on, I want to show others how proud I am.

Like with learning fancy shawl and now jingle dress, I want to show my family and friends that I can learn on my own.