Aztlan (Territories between Arizona and East Central Mexico), March 13 – 19, 2010 – My volunteer work of 35 years for the traditional Dineh (Navajos) in struggle at Big Mountain has encompassed the unimaginable to the normal encounters with non-native supporters. Certainly there are much learning involved in working with diverse communities of peoples. Individuals from varies backgrounds, social beliefs, religious involvements, and political standings. Within this arena, the words “judging” or “racist” would describe negative acts toward fellowship and/or solidarity, and it is crucial to have this kind awareness especially in the struggles for peace and freedom. However, in the movements or in the religious circles, these types of acts do surface in mere attitudes or in actual comments sometime. This article will reflect my personal accounts and it may be viewed with that awkward consideration or with much acceptability. I hope to also project some universal awareness about us, as individual humans, but do that through this story of a quest for a special supporter-friend that came to Big Mountain before and was loved by a couple of grandmothers.
In early fall of 2009, I received a message from this friend who I have not heard from for over a year, and her message was that she is “incarcerated in a Mexican prison for women in the state of San Luis Potosi.” Her plead to me was to help her as a witness to who she really is and that she was not a criminal. The circumstances around the events that she described and that led to her incarceration were to me a cause of “judgment.” First, it was a shock, it felt a bit disheartening, and knowing her, there was much anger with a lot of questions. So, why me and I have not heard from her in ages? This is not related to the Big Mountain cause, or “it could be my ‘personal’ cause.” However on my limited spare time, I immediately began to see what I can do even though I am not an expert on any legal matters –let alone my passion of hating lawyers.
Where does one start? What if she was your daughter or sister, and you have no monies? Eventually, I connected with a couple of friends / comrades that I have met through the movement and because it pertained to Mexico. I wanted suggestions from indigenous and Xicano spiritual activists. They preferred prayers for my imprisoned-friend, look into the legal dynamics of Mexico’s judicial process, and most of all ‘check on her in person.’ Because of the limited free time I had, the internet became my tool to research, find contacts like the U.S. Consultant, see about travel options, and network with old friends and new friends. I talked by phone with my jailed-friend’s mother who lived in the Midwest and whose health would prevent her from travel. The mom is too heartbroken, on limited pensions and came to Turtle Island years ago to raise a family. Her approval for me to help the family further made me consider going to Mexico, finding the prison where my friend is, and hopefully get myself a Mexican court audience.
The new friends in Mexico, some who have been to Dineh country, knew about Big Mountain through the Sun Dance. People that I never met came forth to my calling for guidance about traveling in Mexico. I did not speak Española nor Mexican, I did not have monies like some lucky Yankee-tourist, and I did not know what to expect because this was not tourism but a quest. Friends in Mexico began to learn about my friend’s situation and the greatest thing is that they did not “judge” or express any type of “racist” thought. My (long-lost) friend, Fatima, is of middle-eastern descent from Lebanon. Fatima came to Big Mountain numerous times where she helped and stayed among the grandmothers. I have never seen a grandmother laugh so much with a supporter even though there was a huge language barrier. This former supporter and friend, who wanted to return to Big Mountain someday, was now in big trouble in a foreign place. This was not her to be stupid, but somebody misled or misguided her so horribly that her moral intelligence was somewhat absence. She was not the friend I knew. How can another human being take advantage of someone’s kindness, compassion and humbleness, and then inflict them with evil means of false spirituality?
New friends in Mexico were instant family for me even though we have not all embrace, yet. Like great problem solvers they had presented me with the easiest and cheapest way to travel from northern Arizona to San Luis Potosi and back. It was a go! My Hermosillo contact did blessings for me at her prayer lodge altar and the next day I flew to Monterrey, Coahuila. Two Sun Dance brothers of Mexico and the translator greeted me at the airport in the late evening. It was a six hour drive to the city of San Luis Potosi and half way there, I ask we stop in sight of Sierra de Catorce –where my friend lost her freedom. In the early morning darkness, a prayer was offered to the lands of the Divined Mother Peyote and that she give us guidance and protection. We had at least two hours of sleep in Potosi and we had to go to the prison for visiting day. After a quick sip of coffee, we were off to the prison with our guide and host. The prison is an old compound with watchtowers at each four corners and its big dirt-parking lot was full of visitors’ cars and several buses.
The process to get cleared was long with unpleasant and angry prison personnel. Every visitor looked like they are very poor and some were bringing in any decent foods they could get for their imprisoned loved ones. I fitted right in. My translator was smart enough to give me some foods to take to my friend. Through check points, corridors and barren tunnels, I finally arrived with bags of food to the women’s unit and after another wait, Fatima came. She was so overwhelmed, happy, sad, lost, desperate for freedom, angry, and I have never seen her cry. She cried so much that the makeup smeared her cheeks. We tried to talk, somewhat pretend that everything is okay, share a small meal, and look each other in the eyes as much as possible because there was a strong sense that it might be a long time again. My thoughts did not wonder because I wanted to absorb all her presence, hear her voice, watch her big eyes light up or get flooded with tears. I knew the time will come to say good bye and when it did, the hugs and the touch felt so empty because the sadness of the situation and separation by distant were all too great and still unresolved.
The crew that assisted me, at this point were being referred to as ‘bandidos,’ were waiting for me outside the prison and they were prepared to let me recuperate from my happy but sad experience. That evening we attended a sweat-lodge ceremony and the site was a few hours from San Luis Potosi. Here, another phase of my quest began with a circle of people in prayer and songs. A nearby hot spring after the sweat added to the healing and reassurance. More shared ceremonies followed the next morning and finally then, I begun to embraced all my new and growing family. My education about the indigenous histories of Mexico was quick but I listened intently. Many looked towards the north for that spiritual puzzle that Turtle Island natives still had, but they showed me that they had part of their puzzle, too. Like in America the puzzles were in pieces and it all needed to be pieced back together. I learned about some Spanish histories of colonization and the silver mines to the south. My own peoples’ history in the time of the New Spain, 16th to the 18th Century, was that hundreds of Dineh were captured into slavery and were taken far south to work the silver mines. Some escaped and perhaps a few more made it back to their ancestral homelands. It was once told by the old-time Dineh that, that was how the peyote way of worship began and by survivors returning with the Divine Medicine. I strongly felt the spirits of my ancestors who centuries ago pass through those lands –the lands of the Peyote.
The Mexican court only saw the medicine peyote as nothing but a drug. This time Fatima stood behind a window of steel bars and the informal court proceedings composed of the “defense” lawyer, the government prosecutor, the judge and his secretary, and the recorder. Also present were my “fellow bandidos.” My caged friend was only seen by the court as “a drug-user.” The incident of her involvement is still surrounded by mystery, but she was caught with a bag of peyote. She continues to claim her past affiliation with Native American guidance to peyote use and other indigenous prayer ways in the U.S. Possession of peyote in Mexico is a felony and carries a harsh penalty. So far, after more than eight months of Fatima’s incarceration, I was her first expert witness. The prosecutor’s questions for me were all based on views that the peyote is a “drug” and a “hallucinogenic.” I was learning a little about how Mexico’s court system was different from the U.S. courts. The U.S. is English-style with a jury as evidences are introduced and argued over. Mexico had the Latin or Roman-style with no jury but where official documents along with monies might be key to influencing judgment and the prisoner is never considered innocent.
I failed as an expert witness. Before leaving for Mexico, I tried to get official documentation from my own people who live with that privileged ‘rights’ of the Native American Church (NAC is a U.S. federally-recognized religion that can use peyote). The first question my people asked me was, “well is she an enrolled member of a federally-recognized tribe?”
My answers would be, “What?!” “No but heck, she is a human being who believes that there is a sacred way.”
Personally I feel that these indoctrinated, religious figures of Navajoland do not wish to hear about our troubles at Big Mountain, about universal-indigenous spirituality, or even about the divine medicine-way of compassion. To me, they seemed to only value that American artificial laws of privileged worship and hold the sacrament, peyote, within the confines of those “colonial” statues. Time ran out and I had to leave for Mexico without any attestation from religious peyote Roadmen.
Throughout my five day trip to Mexico, I got to only see Fatima for four hours. But what she gave me, besides all the headaches of planning, was a new world of kind and humble peoples. She brought to me a new perspective about life and histories of Mexico, and what might have been Aztlan, or still is. So strangely is that she made it so that, it was meant for me to see this part of Aztlan and to set foot in its peyote gardens. During our sad departing moment in prison, Fatima said to me, “go see Real de Catorce, you’ll like it there…”
I have called this travel a quest because it was something unpredictable but there was a goal to be accomplished or attempted. This journey like many of my travels was totally un-touristy because there were no sites to see, no scheduled places to chill-out at, or places to indulge on the finest of foods or festivities. My first consultant before my trip, Ray, gave me a lot of insights about how to act and what to expect. He told me something that I did not understand until I was there, “Remember to pay attention to the Spirits, and pray when it is necessary…”
As a traveler from Big Mountain Dineh country, I view new places through the eyes of a Dineh whose self identity is his land-base culture and microcosm religion. I see people in terms of who they really are and for Fatima, her ancestry goes back to the Middle East. The world’s unrest of today is dependent on using more racism and hatred to cope with everyday living. One can praise Dr. Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi’s words of universal harmony and peace, but they will sift through society by color, gender, economic, or nationality statuses. On the other hand, I have been blessed that many have worked alongside me and many have backed me at Big Mountain and abroad. But I, too, do a very limited amount of ‘sifting’ but I do it wisely and not foolishly. I do not claim to have attained the highest of sage-hood, but I must try to see the heart and feel out that soul while being in the best state of humbleness.
An eerie kind of sadness overcame me while leaving a relative behind in San Luis Potosi. Then I realize that I am probably not the first Dineh to leave a relative behind who was still in captivity, down there. It was another all-night drive but my fellow ‘bandidos’ knew how important it was to me to go out into the garden and pay homage to the Divine Medicine. Our new guide near Sierra de Catorce helped us to a garden and it was around midnight –dark and cold. The surroundings of tall cactus and yucca trees painted dark silhouettes of themselves against the starry night sky like spirits observing us and wearing feathered hats. The main Peyote Chiefs were a large cluster of about twelve as three elder Chiefs were in the middle. The Great Grandmother Fire Altar was built east of the Chiefs. After the ceremony, we left this garden of Real de Catorce at around 2 AM.
I continue to make more attempts for NAC officials to understand international rights of indigenous peoples and universal human rights and in hopes that, they make an official statement in support of my friend’s release. My Peyote Road will continue and it has been a special gift for the Road to have taken me to the gardens.
The Peyote Road again beckons me and I may have to return to Mexico to check on the status of my friend’s case. Anyone else interested or willing to assist me in this endeavor will greatly be appreciated and accepted. The efforts for human rights and rights of indigenous peoples’ to appropriately use medicine is expensive on personal income while well-funded organizations fail to assist. Please make a comment to this Blog and we can connect.
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