Having just returned from a month-long trip that included 3 weeks in Peru, I am still processing the experience and have many stories to tell. One major component of the trip was attending the World Plenary of Friends in Pisac, but I am working on a report to my Meeting about that. What is on my heart to write about today is a theme that carried through all of our time there and has continued to niggle at me since arriving home.
In Cusco, Pisac, and throughout what has become known as the Sacred Valley, we saw evidence of disruption and destruction by Spanish conquistadors who, in their search for gold ignored the cultural, artistic, and spiritual riches of the indigenous culture. The “good stuff” offered by the Incas to the invaders were the amazing textiles woven in intricate patterns from alpaca and llama wool. For the Incas, gold was used for decoration, not the basis of their economy. The architectural knowledge that produced the structures in Machu Picchu, Sacsaywaman, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Cusco, with their huge, finely-cut rocks fitted into complex patterns, still astounds any viewer. Their extensive knowledge of plants as a source of food and medicine is being re-discovered. How could the Spaniards not have seen this and learned from it rather than destroying sacred sites and building their own cathedrals on top of them?
The Incan Empire is gone, but the Quechua people of Peru are still strong in spirit. As we walked around the tourist areas of Cusco we saw hundreds of small store-front tour agencies offering “spiritual journeys,” capitalizing on a trend among Westerners to experience something of the spiritual energy of Pachamama (Mother Earth). Our guide at Machu Picchu told us that while there are still shamans, wisdom keepers, among the Quechua people, one is unlikely to find them on a brief visit to the Andes. He was also convinced that any energy in the rocks could be understood as science, and that the ancient Inca were geologists, astronomers, agronomists, etc. It seems irrelevant to me whether we appreciate the ancient knowledge as science or religion. What is important is that there were, and still are, indigenous ways of knowing about a particular place that transcend those categories.
What happened with the Incas and the Spaniards is a story played out all over the world, including Alaska. Colonization is almost always accompanied by a suppression of indigenous knowledge and an imposition of the colonizers’ language and cultural ways. We are now facing the consequence of these actions: an unsustainable way of living on earth. Our world is out of balance. Indigenous people all over the world are calling us to change our destructive ways and listen to the wisdom of the elders, to care for the earth, to care for each other. It was interesting to hear on the radio today about Pope Francis’ visit to Mexico, where he made this same observation about indigenous people. The theme continues.