ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrió invokes Fred Astaire to facilitate a dynamic exchange around shared power and tradition in the first training workshop with members of the Natural Resources Council of 48 Cantons, Totonicapán.
When I came to visit Totonicapán for the first time, I thought I knew all there was to know about 48 Cantons: it has one of the most deeply rooted structures for indigenous self-determination among the first peoples of the country. The area is also known for their community work to protect forests, water and natural resources.
Nonetheless, as I walked the streets I saw the people carrying a black stick in their hands; I thought: people DANCE here in Totonicapán. The image of Fred Astaire with his black cane and tap shoes flashed in my mind.
But that was not the case. The scepter in Totonicapán is the HIGHEST SYMBOL OF AUTHORITY. Whoever is carrying the scepter is, at that very moment, representing the power of the Maya Quiché people of Totonicapán and its villages. A tradition that is over 200 years old.
For the inhabitants of Totonicapán, the scepter is a well-established symbol, and one with which they are very familiar. For the uninitiated, it can awaken foreign and fantastic interpretations.
Under that idea, we designed a workshop together with the members of the Natural Resource Council. The idea was to deconstruct the significance of the scepter, taking it out of context, and then reconstruct its importance to reaffirm its living presence. The intent of this activity was to help conserve ancestral practices.
I sent an email to some friends around the world, attaching photos of the people of Totonicapán holding the black stick in different daily situations. I asked my friends what they thought of these images. Who were the people in the photos? Why were they holding black sticks?
Yuko, from Japan, said they might be police officers who were using the sticks to protect women and children from would-be thieves. Silvia, from Spain, said that they must be healers who carried herbs in their sticks to heal the population. Sunil, from the USA, thought they might be religious students. Amalia, from Italy, thought they were retirees. Eva, from Germany, said that they might be magicians going to perform at a children’s party. Anki, from Norway, also thought they could be dancers. And Zartosht, from Iran, said that the sticks were to keep bad spirits away.
I shared these answers with the nearly 40 members of the Council. They listened intently, with reactions ranging from alarm to laughter.
As soon as I finished reading the responses, the council members began to speak out, as if defending themselves. Taking their feet and raising their voices, they extolled the importance of their scepters. Without further prodding they spoke for more than 30 minutes, expressing ideas that included:
The president of 48 Cantons, Carmen Tacam, told us that she feels energy through the scepter: “The scepter holds the power, we are just intermediaries.”
Just as the scepter can be a blessing in the lives of those who carry it, it can also be a curse if people do not know how to use it appropriately. The scepter cannot be loaned to anyone. It can be used only by the person who carries it for that year.
Carmen also told us that the scepter only changes hands on the last day of the year, as it is passed on to the new Council President. The scepter is left in rosewater, in a clay pot. Rose petals are spread upon it, and it is left to rest for the night on December 31. A candle is lit, incense is burnt, and thanks are given for the protection, aid and wisdom that the scepter has granted that year. The scepter can then be passed on to the new authorities with new energy.
As we were all motivated after the intense discussion and exchange of ideas, we decided to set up a sort of mandala in our work space. Everyone spontaneously put their scepters in the circle. Through the exercise of drawing we joined into this year of mandalas, this time representing the past, present and future, as individuals and groups had done before us.
The morning flew by and before we knew it, we were having lunch amidst mandalas that had been filled with our concerns and hopes. And we had renewed energy to finish out the year.
This project is being implemented in collaboration with the EcoLogic Development Fund
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