issue 226 - December 1991
The pain of Mother Earth
'Today the white world wants to pretend that all the aboriginal nations
have been defeated and that a few white nations are now masters of
Mother Earth.' Spiritual chief, Adrian Esquina Lisco, explains why
El Salvador's native peoples remain undefeated.
In the time of my ancestors before we were invaded by the white nations, the land and everything that it provided were the common heritage of all our peoples. The Nahuati, the Lenca and the Maya knew each other as nations; our land was known as Cuscatlan - a large and powerful bird which carries the blessing of Mother Earth and which gave us all that we required.
My father has 114 of the white man's years and he tells me that when we lived at one with Mother Earth, there was a special day in each cycle of the calendar when the blue crabs would come out in the evening to dance in couples along the beach. We knew the rivers as the veins of our Mother Earth. Along their banks, new life sprang forth and multiplied. Our people would not cut trees or build homes along the rivers because from these Mother Earth provided for all our needs.
The land known today as El Salvador is rough and mountainous. But then volcanoes lined its valleys with rich soil, and there we built our communities and multiplied ourselves. We gathered together to build a new home or bring in the harvest whenever one of our kind would beat on the wood of the guarumo tree. When life came to an end we returned to our Mother Earth as she had brought us forth, naked - not entombed in a wooden box.
Then 500 years ago the Spanish came, with their long knives and their gunpowder to impose new rules, dividing the land into property and sending its produce to markets across the sea. In spite of their guns and horses, and their armour and their boats, they were driven back several times and had to return with more troops before they could secure a base in Cuscatlan.
The Spanish marked out their haciendas and guarded them fiercely but we still lived in our own way on the land that we knew. The invaders built towns along the rivers and pushed back the forests to make their farms without regard to how the land sustained our people. They killed us like the trees whenever we got in the way.
In 1833, after more than 200 years of this invasion, our people rose up against the Spanish and created a new government under the great chief Anastasio Aquino. When the Spanish failed to defeat us with their armed forces, they sent in one of their holy fathers to persuade Anastasio that his actions were sins against God which could only be forgiven by his marriage to a white princess. Once the ritual was complete, the Spanish made sure of their victory by assassinating our brother Aquino.
Still the land was rich and what was left to our people gave us all we needed. Another hundred years went. Their towns became cities and their haciendas swallowed up more of our land, but the veins of Mother Earth still flowed with the fruit of new life. The Nahuatl, the Lenca and the Maya continued to multiply and mixed with the newcomers blurring the distinctions amongst our peoples. We became farm workers and many moved into the cities to earn money in workshops and factories. But the white world's conquest of our people could not remain incomplete. Repression was not enough; subjugation was the goal.
In 1932, people in the cities and in the countryside rose up against the harsh conditions and brutal punishments. The rich and the powerful replied with a massacre which can never be forgotten. They sent their armed forces into our communities and killed 35,000 of our people within a few days. Men were hung from trees with rocks tied to their feet so their heads would be severed. Women were forced to slaughter our animals and prepare meat for the soldiers before being raped and killed.
We were all accused of being communists as an excuse for the brutality. When the slaughter was complete, we were prohibited from wearing our traditional dress or speaking our native languages. And, of course, those lands which had remained in our hands were stolen. Mother Earth rumbled with earthquakes and hurricanes. The trees have now been torn from the riversides and 11 years of civil war have completed the devastation of the land. Now the soil is treated with fertilizers and pesticides to enrich its owners but we do not have enough to eat. When we have sought reforms to secure a basis for survival, our people have been called subversives and whole communities have been massacred. Mother Earth is in pain and we are dying from hunger and brutality.
Today, the white world talks about ecology but it is really only interested in saving what serves its own purposes.
Today, the white world wants to understand the native cultures and extract those fragments of wisdom which extend its own dominion.
Today, the white world wants to celebrate its 500th anniversary of invasion and genocide and call it 'the discovery' or 'the encounter'.
Today, the white world wants to pretend that the Nahuatl, the Lenca, the Maya and all the aboriginal nations have been defeated and that a few white nations are now the masters of Mother Earth.
But we still have our voices. And a few still know how to speak in our mother tongues. And no-one is the master of Mother Earth.
Adrian Eaquina Lisco, Spiritual Chief of the National Association of Indigenous Peoples of El Salvador, talked to Don Lee, who translated the piece from Spanish.
No 'white fella's party'
During the 1938 sesquicentenary celebrations, Aboriginal Australians were forced to participate in a humiliating 're- enactment' of the European invasion. Aboriginal leaders declared a day of mourning. For the 1988 bicentenary, Aboriginal people showed the same resolve but with an even wider strategy.
Ten years earlier, Aboriginal leaders called for a boycott, and worked to raise consciousness about the impact of the invasion on the indigenous land owners.
There was both success and failure. But the major gain for the Aboriginal movement was the expansion and consolidation of their national organisational links, as well as their ties with bodies such as trade unions.
By the mid '80s, Aboriginal people all over the continent were bitterly disillusioned and determined to express their anger, as well as their commitment to continue to fight for their goals.
An Aboriginal coalition met in 1987 to plan for the 1988 bicentenary. Participants agreed that their aim should not only be to express their anger, but to educate white Australians and celebrate the Aboriginal victory of surviving the catastrophe of invasion and colonisation. As Pat Dodson said, "It will be a year when we celebrate the richness and depth of our culture and remember our debt to the old people, who died defending their country".
The coalition planned a massive national mobilisation of Aboriginal people to converge in Sydney on 26 January, 1988, to mark Governor Philip's landing. The result was a triumphant success, bringing together over 40,000 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in a peaceful challenge to the main parade. Local and overseas press covered the gathering in detail, with good recognition of its political and cultural significance.
An Arrente leader from Central Australia Wenten Rubuntja, said it showed the unquenchable unity of Aboriginal people: "We are going to show how strong our spirit is, that we have survived, through our culture and our law."
The scale of demonstrations in Sydney and elsewhere put pressure on Hawke's Labor government. Hawke was invited by Aboriginal leaders to a major cultural festival in Barunga (NT). Presented with a statement of principles for negotiation towards a just treaty, he announced his government's commitment to such an end. But the Prime Minister did not maintain his interest for long, and the attempt to achieve recognition bogged down in protracted debate. The Northern Territory government renewed its assault on its Land Rights Act, and the NSW government tried to eradicate its equivalent, and reclaim land Aboriginals had recently gained.
The Aboriginal response to such newly intensified challenges was, however, much strengthened by the experience gained from Bicentennial protests. The national Aboriginal movement was stronger in planning and efficiency, and personal solidarity had become deeper. The Bicentennial, far from being a white fella's birthday party, had added strength to the resources which will continue to allow Aboriginal Australians to survive and grow.
Tranby Aboriginal Co-operative, Sydney.