Indigenous Spirituality

This section will be a description of some basic characteristics of indigenous spirituality. It is an invitation to understand it on its own terms. This deepening of understanding will facilitate a less oppressive relationship with the indigenous peoples, not only in society and politics but also in its indigenous spiritual domains.

I will first review some of the tenets of Mesoamerican ancestral ‘embodied thought’ (Marcos 1998), starting with duality, which is a basic term for a spirituality that is understood as a cosmic vision of life. Duality - not dualism - is pervasive in indigenous thought and spirituality. The pervasiveness of this perception, which has no equivalent in Western thought, could, perhaps, in itself explain the persistent failure to comprehend indigenous worlds.

Duality, as it is appreciated within a Mesoamerican indigenous epistemic approach, should not be understood as indicating antagonistic relations. It denotes ‘a polarity of complementary opposites’ - at once dynamic and constantly in movement - that seeks balance but is never static. At the same time, it does not initiate hierarchies or exclusions. Duality thus allows for a ‘dual unity’ of opposites, e.g. masculine and feminine, that can foster a creative encounter, rather than a hostile confrontation.

According to Mesoamerican cosmology, the dual unity of feminine and masculine is fundamental to the creation of the cosmos, as well as its (re)generation and sustenance. The intermingling of feminine and masculine in one bipolar principle is a recurring feature of almost every Mesoamerican community today. Divinities themselves are gendered: feminine and masculine. There is no concept of an omnipotent god, but rather a dual mother/father protector-creator. In Nahua culture this dual god/goddess is called Ometeotl, from ome, ‘two’, and teotl, ‘god’. Yet Ometeotl does not mean ‘two gods’ but rather ‘god Two’ or, better, ‘divinity of Duality’. The name results from the fusion of Omecihuatl (cihuatl, ‘woman’ or ‘lady’) and Ometecuhtli (tecuhtli, ‘man’ or ‘lord’), that is, of the Lady and the Lord of Duality. This cosmology represents a world constructed by fluid dual oppositions, beyond mutually exclusive categories.

The protecting Ometeotl has to be alternately placated and sustained. Like all divine beings, it was not conceived of as purely beneficial. Rather, it oscillated - like all other dualities - between opposite poles and thus could be either supportive or destructive. At the same time, a multiplicity of goddesses and gods entered into diverse relations of reciprocity with the people. Elsewhere I have dealt more comprehensively with the gods and goddesses of the Mesoamerican cosmovision (Marcos 2006: 33-37). Scholars recognise that the spirituality of the entire Mesoamerican region is redolent with similar symbolic meanings, rituals and myths concerning the condition of supernatural beings and the place of humans in the cosmos. One of the most eminent of ethnohistorians, Alfredo Lopez Austin (2001), refers to this commonality of perceptions, conceptions and forms of action as the mcleo duro, the hard core of Mesoamerican cultures:

Duality is something we live through, it is there ... we learn of it within our spirituality and we live it in ceremonies, we live it when we see that in our families, women and men, mother and father take the decisions. (Candida Jimenez, Mixe indigenous woman, Summit 2002b: 6)13

La dualidades algo que se vive, que se da...nos la ensenan en la espiritualidady lo vivimos en la ceremonia, lo vivimos cuando vemos familias en las que las mujeres y los hombres, el papa y la mama deciden. (Candida Jimenez, Mixe indigenous woman, Summit Doc. Genero 6)

Duality, defined as a complementary duality of opposites, is also the essential ordering force of the universe and is also reflected in the ordering of time. Time is marked by two calendars, one ritual based and the other astronomical. The ritual calendar is linked to the human gestation cycle, that is, the time needed for a baby to be formed in the mother’s womb. The other is an agricultural calendar that prescribes the periods for seeding, sowing and planting corn. Maize (corn) is conceived of as the earthly matter from which all beings in the universe are made (Marcos 2006). Human gestation and agricultural cycles are understood in terms of this concept of time duality, as are feminine and masculine, but dualities extend far beyond these spheres. For instance, life and death, above and below, light and dark, and beneficence and malevolence are considered dual aspects of the same reality. Neither pole invalidates the other. Both are in constant mutual interaction, flowing into one another. Mutually exclusive categories are not part of the epistemic background to this worldview, whose plasticity is still reflected in the way indigenous women deal with life and conflict. They seldom remain stuck in a position that would deny its opposite. Their philosophical background allows them to resist impositions and at the same time to incorporate modern elements into their spirituality. Fluidity and selectivity in adopting novel attitudes and values attest the ongoing reconfiguration of their frame of reference.

The principle of fluid duality has held indigenous worlds together over the centuries. It has been both concealed and protected by its incomprehension to outsiders. The ‘hard core’ of indigenous cultures has been a well-kept secret. Even today, among many native communities in the Americas, revealing this secret background to outsiders is considered a betrayal of the community.14 It is only recently that indigenous women themselves have started to disclose it. Today, some indigenous women and men are becoming vocal proponents of their religious and philosophical heritage and have agreed to articulate and share it with the outside world.

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