Cultural Survival is an activist advocacy organization based in Cambridge, MA that provides multi-level support through numerous programs to and with indigenous people around the world. As stated in Cultural Survival’s materials:
“Through our programs and campaigns we help them get the knowledge, advocacy tools, and strategic partnerships they need to protect their rights. When their governments don’t respond, we partner with them to bring their cases to international commissions and courts, and we involve the public and policy makers in advocating for their rights.”
Cultural Survival is one of the few organizations, and seemingly one of the best, providing functional and substantial ways for indigenous people to maintain, sustain and grow their cultural practices, lifeways and traditions in a world growing more hostile to them and the environments they live in. The bazaars are important fundraising opportunities for the organization and the vendors, which include indigenous people and non-indigenous people who represent indigenous organizations, groups and cultures. The bazaars are powerful in bringing not only the material culture of indigenous people worldwide into modern society, but also the idea of indigeny and the issues that surround and often engulf these cultures and people in conflict and struggle.
“Before the day is over, an Indigenous person will be killed or displaced, simply because he or she has a different culture. Before the month is over, an Indigenous homeland will be clear-cut, strip-mined, or flooded by a dam. Before the year is over, dozens of Indigenous languages will disappear forever, taking with them unique worldviews and a priceless piece of human diversity.” (Cultural Survival document)
It is within my deep desire to validate and support and live the indigenous idea and cultural mandate that my renewed anger and sorrow finds foundation. It was at the table of a Congolese vendor and his son that I found the statue depicted in the accompanying photograph.
A note was stuck to the statue with tape, written in red magic marker and read:
“Congo, the last Sakata mask (original) 100 years old”
Keenly, palpably aware of the tenuous hold many indigenous people and indigenous traditions have on this physical earth, I inquired as to the veracity of the note’s message. Through our struggle through multiple levels of translation of meaning, mundane and esoteric, it was stated that this was in fact the last statue of it’s sort surviving in that particular Sakata village. A chief of the Sakata had given it to the vendor. The vendor’s report implied that the chief did so in some moment of desperation. I inquired more deeply as to how this could be and why. The vendor’s explanation, moistened with generous, seemingly nervous smiles, hit me hard in a place deeper than my heart was used to going, but somehow knew the way.
All of the other remaining statues had been thrown into a fire by the Sakata at the insistence of a roman catholic missionary priest. Though I didn’t ask him details on the timing of this crime, it came across as having been a recent atrocity. It might be more interesting and melodramatic to say my mind reeled with a montage of emotional cinematic images of white hunters and jungles and lions and village women clutching wide-eyed children and subservient African men dutifully acquiescing to the European “bwana”, watching their lands and lives shrink in the wake of inevitable colonial expansion. This would have been all-too-easy given the persistent Follywood depiction of the christian, capitalist Europeans vs. indigenous relationship. No tender, yet somber, bitter sugarplum visions danced in my head. This was much too sobering an occurrence for the license of culturally irresponsible film-making as this was no mere movie. It was all too real.
The vendor’s story bored a narrow, but deep hole into my being, full of a painful dual resignation. Not only had the long documented history of roman catholic and christian barbarism toward indigenous people played itself out on its bloody, cruel, rationalized stage, but a late show act was still being enacted just under our own modern-day noses, too close to relegate it into antiquated dead memoriam or for comfort.
My throat closed as my head spun down from a reflexive testosterone drive to summarily “fix it” to a back-bent and sullen realization that any response I could muster at that moment could be lost in pressured, but measured emotional translation. His desire to sell the statue, hopefully to a museum, was no consolation to the ages-old legacy of the cross and sword binary that built itself so effectively on the dead bodies and disintegrated cultures of people who had welcomed these armed and collared bandits into their homelands and homes. I asked him how much he would sell it for, hoping that his number would have something to do with what lay inside my wallet. maybe I could go as high as half my bank account. Math didn’t matter here. Maybe he was fishing, car dealer style, as he quoted $800, $200 less than what he finally, really wanted for this priceless item, lone harbinger of a legacy that no dollar amount should ever have been allowed to define.
But this simple and enraging story had another twist, another level of destructive force to a culture already beset by arrogant religious charlatans. The vendor informed me, upon further inquiry, that this mask, these statues, held within them the energy, the power to support women in the birth process. The roman catholic christian tradition, “pro-lifers” by decree if not by definition, had convinced the Sakata to disempower this fundamental life process by taking away their spiritual technologies, their tools for focusing nurturance on this important moment in the development of the bond between mother and child, between the living and the newly alive. It seemed a fitting companion, though, to their legacy of rape of African women at the hands, loins and minds of men who claimed to be proudly, if not arrogantly, European and likewise christian, having long since largely submerged their own indigenous traditions under the philosophical contradiction of christian political and cultural structures. The council of Nicea was friend to no one.
After recovering initially from the shock of this man’s story, translated to me in a scarily matter-of-fact way, it became clear that I might be relegated to fighting this backward, inhuman practice far after the commission of the crime, far outpaced by the runaway train of missiological opportunism.
Taking a snapshot with a cheap camera barely felt like a fitting tribute to an icon of a powerful tradition of feminine spirit and healing, but it was what I had. The very thought of this spirocide brought me near tears in the following days and it was then that certain images started to rise in my consciousness. They were, again, simple and were instructive.
There was another bonfire, bigger, hotter, in the same place as the one that was set in that Sakata village to burn the hearts and souls and spirits of the Sakata to their core, deep in the bowels of a European-created hell. This fire, though, was heaped up with christian crosses, the kind that I and my sisters had on our walls above our beds above our own African heads for so many of our childhood years. They were the crosses that had the candles inside the with the little bottle to hold holy water so a priest could perform the last rites on you - on your death bed. I remembered they had cheap metal figures of Jesus, plated with some cheap yellowish metal to make it look nice. I remembered the ominous nature of these crosses as they hung over our beds, that they represented something threatening, foreshadowing an occurrence that I didn’t want to happen. The bonfire was heaped high with these crosses, hundreds of them, maybe more.
And I pondered the lesson of that image, that bonfire that would destroy as fire destroys, that bonfire that cleanses as fire cleanses, that bonfire that consumes as fire consumes, also pondering the blessing of fire, the baptism by it, the renewed, liberated life of a people destroying the process of their own destruction. I gazed into that fire and watched the piles of crosses, engulfed in the ancestral flame and felt the stark reprisal, the fear, the anger, the terror, the trauma of all those who would hold those crosses near to their heaving hearts. I could feel their indignant disdain trying - trying - to look down on me for the crime of having conjured up such an unconscionable scene.
And I pondered then, if it were even possible that these same christians, these same roman catholics, could imagine then even an iota of the psychic horror that the leaders and followers of their politico-religious tradition had meted out upon African people all over the continent, meted out upon Asian people from South Sea islands to inland deserts, had meted out upon the American people of Turtle Island and the continent to the south. I wondered if their bible held within it the gift of insight and clarity to be able to see inside, feel inside, be inside the hearts, minds and spirits of children, women and men that didn’t look or act like them, inside the lives, homes, villages, towns and cities that didn’t look like theirs. I wondered if they knew justice beyond the defense of the shaky foundations of systematic self-righteousness that seemed to be their legacy on this earth. I wondered if they could see this image of their beloved crosses burning, there on the ground in that same Sakata village, if they could also see that they were at an important crossroads of consciousness, of transformation, of cleansing, of the opportunity to empathize with the cultural terrorism of their own complicity in a political and ideological dominance that has burned across the globe with frightening speed and soaring temperatures, leaving whole cultures burnt, destroyed, traumatized, smoldering in the embers of their own flesh. I wondered if they would have the wisdom to be able to see through, burn through their own reactionism in the face of an idea that challenges their very presence on the earth - equally - as they have challenged - and then decimated - others.
And I couldn’t help but think of all the other crosses that have been burnt to terrorize African people released from chattel slavery’s bondage into subsequent social, mental and spiritual bondage all in the name of Jesus, in the name of their gods.
So I weep for the Sakata, forced, coerced, traumatized into destroying with their own hands their own sacred symbols and technologies. As they place their own statues in the fire, they carried with it their traditional, sustained reverence for the feminine divine that lived inside them all, as if they were sending Sakata womanhood to a hell not of their own making...and indeed, to my knowledge, African indigenous people were not in the practice of creating hell in their spiritual or physical lives.
Ponder, then, the image of christian churches full of roman catholics forced to carry their statues of their goddess, Miriam, placing those statues into the mounting flames.
Ponder, then , the utter arrogance, the audacity, the psychosis, the flagrant disrespect, physical and emotional violence of even the suggestion from the lips and life of a roman catholic christian man-priest that any people should sacrifice their own indigenous soul upon the fire of cultural hegemony and oppression. That priest, there in the Sakata village, knew not the meaning of the turning of the cheek or the true inheritance of the earth or the cleansing of his own temple unfamiliar.
The spirit made flesh, goddess made wood, of the Sakata burns on today, smoldering still, divine people drowning in tears pouring from ancestral eyes burnt by the smoke from the charred bodies of their own children.
A crime, upon countless crimes, has been committed. We all stand at our own crossroads, and at our collective human crossroads of cultural survival. I can still smell the smoke of our African mother burning, all of the masks, the statues that still lay burning in the villages. I try to wipe the tears of the one that remains.