On August 9th and 10th, I traveled to Omaha, NE, and had the honor to get to know the Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim (CMPI). Juana Marcos, Executive Director of CMPI, was a recipient this year of GHRC’s Voiceless Speak Fund. She and her husband, Luis Marcos had invited me to participate in the first annual Omaha Celebration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
The celebration included religious and spiritual observance, cultural activities, and a conference on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
As I waited for the activities to begin on Friday evening, I chatted with Ricardo Ariza of the Creighton University Multicultural Center and watched several dozen teenagers file shyly into the room. They were joined by members of the local Qanjobal community.
Qanjobal is one of the 22 Mayan linguistic groups in Guatemala, which is concentrated in the north western department of Huehuetenango. I was surprised to find such vibrant Qanjobal culture in Omaha of all places, and delighted every time I heard children switching seamlessly between speaking English, Spanish and Qanjobal.
Mayan spiritual guides had been invited from Guatemala to perform a ceremony and explain its significance. Professor Daniel Caño, who teaches at Rafael Landivar University in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, laid out some of the elements used in the ceremony to shared with us why they are used.
Overall, he said, the ceremony is a way to thank the earth for what we receive from her. So, many of the elements are used because they are pleasing such as sugar, flowers, cigars, and an incense made out of pine sap. Candles of six colors are also burnt, each representing a different element. The six directions are also an essential part of the ceremony—north, south, east, west, up and down.
As the four spiritual leaders prepared the elements for the ceremony, Dr. Rudi Mitchell,elder in the Omaha tribe, performed a cedar ceremony, and told us about its significance for many tribes around North America. Then, as day fell, the Mayan ceremony began.
Mayan spiritual leaders, Professor Caño explained, are also called day counters in Qanjobal, as they are keepers of the Mayan calendar. Over the next two ours, while the candles and other materials burned, the four leaders listed the 260 days of the lunar calendar.
The next morning, the conference began. Keynote speaker, Bishop Ramazzini discussed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIPS), as well as other pieces of international law such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169. As he pointed out, ILO 169, which Guatemala has signed, is the most binding and complete legal mechanism for upholding indigenous rights.
Both ILO 169 and DRIPS uphold indigenous people’s right to control the lands they the traditionally occupied as well as the natural resources contained in those lands. This right is routinely violated in Guatemala as indigenous communities are evicted or minerals or oil are taken from beneath them without their permission.
Bishop Ramazzini also discussed how the right to equal treatment is not upheld for indigenous communities in Guatemala, especially when it comes to basic services. He pointed out that in Huehuetenango, which has one million inhabitants, there is only one public hospital, and it doesn’t have the technology to provide basic services like ultrasounds.
Bishop Ramazzini lamented that when he and others in the Catholic Church speak out against this rampant racism, they are accused of being terrorists. His prescription for change was to place more indigenous Guatemalans in positions of power to gain more political clout and push for greater respect for indigenous rights.
I also had a chance to speak about UN-DRIPS and the way that GHRC’s work supports the rights enumerated in the declaration. Obviously, our work around access to land and natural resources reflects the rights I outlined above. However, our work against militarization is also backed by the declaration, as it calls for the demilitarization of indigenous lands. I also had the opportunity to describe the strategies that GHRC uses to carry out our work to support human rights and invite the audience to join us.
On the panel with me were representatives of the Omaha tribe who outlined the concerns faced by indigenous peoples in the United States, including poverty, contamination of their water supplies and dislocation. Strikingly, they could have been describing the situation faced by Mayans in Guatemala.
The second day of the celebration closed with an evening of cultural activities including marimba music and dance. Touchingly, a group of young men and women performed a dance they had choreographed themselves to honor the four cardinal directions. Luis confided to me later, that these same youth not long ago had been ashamed of their identity as Maya because of the discrimination they faced. It was heartwarming to see them now, celebrating their culture and sharing with their community.
Written by Kathryn Johnson