In one of the Alternatives to Violence Project workshops that we organized in the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo, we were talking about racism and the discrimination that some people still feel as indigenous people. One woman asked, “What does it mean to be indigenous?”
With her fingers interlaced on her legs, Celia looked intently at the group sitting in the circle and responded, “That is a question I would like to ask people who make fun of us who are indigenous. To me, being indigenous means being strong. My mother hardly speaks Spanish, and my father didn't even go to school, but they are the strongest people I know. They are indigenous and as their daughter I am too”.
"Being indigenous means being from the jungle," said Pedro, a man in his late sixties with a lot of life marked on his face. “I have also met people who have discriminated against me for being indigenous, but I learned not to let it bother me. I am proud of my language, the place where I live and my culture. Long ago, I learned that there are ignorant people with hatred in their hearts. I ignore them. On the contrary, I even view them with pity. They think they are better, but they are not”.
Amanda ran her fingers through her hair while commenting, "That's the problem, they think they are better because they were born in the city or come from another country. I know how to weave beautiful handicrafts, I like to go fishing and collect food from my field, and these are things I like to do. I have a young daughter. I want her to study and pursue a career, but I also want her to feel proud of being indigenous.”
Miguel adjusted the cap covering his hair and said, "These people who are racist and discriminate against us must understand that in the end we are all human beings." The rest of the group nodded in agreement.
Manola raised her hand and asked me, “Tulio, what do you think it means to be indigenous?”
I paused for a few seconds before responding because I didn’t want to give an answer that seemed rehearsed. I first looked down at my hands and then back at her and said, "Well, my father is from one part of Peru and my mother from another. Like many Peruvians I am a mixture of a little bit of everything.” Some people laughed with me before I added, "I suppose that for me to be indigenous is to be a mixture of everything all of you have said."
The participants seemed satisfied, and we moved on to another topic.
But the truth is, I was not satisfied with my answer at the time. I would have liked to have shared a longer and more thoughtful answer based on my observations and experiences with these people in their communities for many years. To me, the sense of being indigenous means resonating with the sun, the rain, and the nights with a star-filled sky. It is soaking in innumerable sights and sounds of village life like: An artisan hanging strands of chambira fiber on a clothes line to dry or just smiling from her window. Children splashing while bathing in the river while men fish serenely from their hand-made canoe. Yells and thumps from hits and kicks from afternoon soccer and volleyball games. Feet pounding to powerful drum beats in a traditional festival in darkened maloca. Swirling machetes cutting manioc stems in a field and listening intently to a curaca share stories about the origin of each clan and legends about strange things in the jungle.
I would have liked to have shared these and many other things, but still I would not have had enough words to explain what I thought it means to be indigenous.
It is a potent question to reflect on, but there is of course no one correct answer because each Bora person and other indigenous people would answer it in their own way – some with words and others better through their actions. What is important for CACE to keep in mind is that our native community partners have a deep evolving connection to the forest and each other and that we need to keep respecting, learning from, and supporting.
Bora artisan Gisela with woven chambira belt
CACE chambira management workshop at Brillo Nuevo
Bora artisan drying dyed chambira palm fiber
Bora people at festival in community maloca
Volleyball game at Brillo Nuevo
Bora woman in her field with basket and machete
Bora fisherman in canoe on Yaguasyacu River
Bora man with chainsaw and wooden planks
Bora artisan in hammock with chambira fiber
Bora man in boat at sunset