Indigenous Literatures in the Americas by Taiaiake Alfred

Indigenous Literatures in the Americas by Taiaiake Alfred

IMG_5400The root of the Indigenous worldview is a profoundly simple teaching shared among all of the original nations of the Americas: Konoronkwa Iekenhistenha Ohontsa… Love Our Mother the Earth. As a Mohawk author, educator and activist, I take living out this principle as a sacred responsibility. My Mohawk name, Taiaiake, translates to “He is coming across from the other side,” and I have been told by elders that as the holder of that name my life’s path is to move around the world exploring different ways of understanding and expressing the meaning of our traditional teachings. Thanks to the partnership of the Hay Festival and McGill University’s Canada in the Americas Initiative (CITA), I was given the opportunity to travel to South America, for the first time in my life, to share the environmental ethic and vision of respect and peaceful coexistence at the heart of our traditional culture.

My participation in the Hay Festival – Colombia centered on two dialogues with Indigenous scholars from Colombia, Abadio Green in Medellín and Weidler Guerra in Cartagena, moderated by Dr. Ingrid Bejerman, who also coordinates the Canada in the Americas Initiative at McGill.  For me, these engagements were eye-opening explorations of the connection we share as original peoples of the Americas. Although we spoke different languages, came from places that are far away from each other, and told stories in different ways, Abadio, Weidler and I found ourselves smiling at each other, through the simultaneous translations of our words, in recognition of the fact that we were saying the same thing. This was heartening, and the more I let the feeling sink into me, the more I was motivated to act on the insights I had gained from our discussions and afterward through other conversations. The libratory potential of a movement to strengthen the literary, artistic and social connections among the Indigenous peoples of North and South America crystallized in my mind at the Hay Festival – what a powerful way of (re)generating the strength our identities, our cultures and our nationhood this could be.

The reaction of people who attended our talks impressed something upon me too: non-indigenous people are starting to understand the value of our ancestral wisdom and our cultural teachings. We have always known that Indigenous knowledge is not solely for Indigenous peoples, but now there is a growing awareness that Indigenous cultures and the wisdom embedded and encoded in their stories and world views are the antidote to the lingering social and psychic diseases that are the legacy of colonialism in the Americas. They are even more than that; they contain insights and wisdom that are truly the only solutions to the problems that imperialism and capitalism created and which can not be envisioned from within a Western mental framework. Anyone who cares about the planet, anyone who desires respectful coexistence among human beings, and anyone who longs for a transcendence of racism and exploitation of people and the earth needs to listen and learn from Indigenous philosophies and cultures. The lively discussion and intense engagement of the attendees who came from all over the world demonstrated that Indigenous cultures and their wisdom are not artefacts of the past or in any way obsolete; they are in fact the radical imagination needed to confront the challenges the world faces in the 21st Century.

Overall, the Hay Festival is a fantastic experience. It is a gathering of people who love ideas, art, and beauty, and who trust in and value the power and importance of the work of authors, thinkers, and artists. It is so motivating for someone like me, who makes his living as an intellectual, to feel the love of the people of Medellín and Cartagena for their country and culture. What an honour it was to be among them, to help take crucial conversations forward, and to participate in a small way in what I recognize now as the brave rebuilding of the country’s civil society.

I should also say that while the purpose of the Hay is very serious, the experience is not at all sombre. My time at the Hay felt like a great stroke of luck.  It was as if I had been invited to an extended and very elegant open-air salon populated by brilliant, interesting, funny and stylish people from all over the world, with ideas and words flowing in many languages continuously. There were so many amazing moments. My new friend Luis Alberto Urrea’s recitation, from memory and in his Tijuana accent, of a passage on the sacredness of a taco from his book on the Indigenous saint of the Mexican revolution, blew my mind. Moreover, I’ll never forget the evening I sat in the courtyard of one of Cartagena’s most beautiful houses drinking wine and talking about history, architecture, and hunting and the taste of moose meat, with one of the United States’ most brilliant writers, a famous Colombian playboy-painter, a photojournalist and two young and passionate keepers of the Gabo legacy.

Thinking back on the whole experience, I can now admit that I had a foreboding sense of danger in going to Medellín and Cartagena for the first time, I had, a picture of Colombia in my mind that drew heavily on the images that most of us in El Norte have of the country: Pablo Escobar, Juan Valdez, Miss Colombia, and of course, Gabo. Yes, it’s true! I was a brown-skinned Gringo fantasizing about the experience I would have at the Hay Festival, and imagined myself spending a gorgeously humid week artfully dodging bullets on my way to drink excellent coffee with a petulant beauty while she recited passages from Love in the Time of Cholera, from memory, in her sexy accent. I was pretty excited to goHowever, now that I have lived the experience of the Hay Festival in Colombia, I know that the reality is even more gorgeous, artful, and excellent than my earlier fantasy, and I dream of going back again.