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A Humble Connection

Carla Woody

We drove on winding roads from Palenque toward the tiny rainforest village of Naj‡. The mist partially obscuring the green hills in the distance gave a sense that we were entering unknown territory. In a way, we were. Our primary purpose on this January journey was to bring Hopi elder Harold Joseph, whose home village is Shongopovi on Second Mesa in Arizona, to meet and share traditions with Don Antonio Martinez, the last Spirit Keeper of the Lacand—n Maya. We can only make an offering of the space, through intent, without forcing what will fulfill it. Who knew what would occur? Or that tragedy would open a doorway?

Along the way, I witnessed once again the changes in the landscape. Alonso Mendez, a respected Maya archeo-astronomer and our in-country guide, pointed out how all we passed that was pasture and farmland had, not too long ago, been jungle. While still beautiful, this evidence of rapid destruction of the rainforest foreshadowed some of the events of the next few days.

Arriving, we sought out Don Antonio and were told he was at his godhouse. Nothing is far in Naj‡ and we walked down the dirt road a short way. Alongside the narrow footpath to the godhouse enclave that lay below, we stopped to admire the ceiba tree that had grown so quickly since he'd planted it there a few years ago. To me, it served as a constant message from Maya ancestors, to be taken in unconsciously. A reminder that the cosmic World Tree propelled the sky from the earth, holding the Underworld and the Upperworld stable, and providing a map for rebirth. The ceiba played guardian at the entrance.

Located at an edge of the village, the godhouse is in a clearing. The jungle is held at bay surrounding it, but given any opportunity the space would be consumed. We found Don Antonio there, a man who, as Harold said to me later, has the unique features of a spiritual leader, a certain presence with an underlying humility that marks a true wisdom keeper. Still, he was not as I was used to seeing him. He seemed fragile this time, his face lined, his eyes hollowed. He greeted us and was polite as he was introduced to Harold and some of the others there for the first time. But then let us know it was a very sad time. Just a few days prior his son Chan K'in had suddenly, inexplicably passed away, a young man in his early thirties. We became still in the shock of that tragic news. After a time, Don Antonio said he wanted to go ahead with the balchŽ ceremony planned for the next day and asked us to return early in the morning when all would be ready to start.

Harold offering Hopi prayers to the Lacand—n godpots Harold offering Hopi prayers to the Lacand—n godpots.
Photo credit: Darlene Dunning

As with the despacho ceremony of the Andes and the sacred rituals of the kiva on Hopi, the balchŽ ceremony is a conduit for blessings, prayers and a way of honoring. Don Antonio, as caretaker of the godpots connects with the gods that hold the world together. And when he feeds the godpots copal, tamale and balchŽ, he is feeding the Universe and everything in it, the ceremony going on for many hours.

"We Hopis do this. This is our contribution. We have this common thing," Harold relayed to me a short time ago. "This balchŽ is the strongest experience! Its healing cleared my body and uplifts the spirit. This is sacred medicine water! We were connected with everything, the environment, others there."

Indeed, this was the outcome of our experience together. But in those early morning hours, I couldn't have predicted it. We came when asked and Don Antonio was still setting up the godhouse. The godpots were already in their place on the ground in the middle as ritual dictated. A small fire was burning in the corner of the open-air structure to reduce the slight chill while drinking gourds specific to each god were put before the godpots. Young men began to show up, more than I'd seen with us during previous ceremonies — and all in traditional dress this time. Don Antonio was obviously grieving and I wondered how he would get through the ceremony since he was to lead it.

Periodically, he shared about inner turmoil he felt as a result of the evangelistas' influences in the village, now even stronger than before. Such messages that his was a crooked path not straight like theirs, that the continuation of the balchŽ ceremony was the cause for his son's passing — cruel and ignorant words to a father enduring loss. And then the village loudspeaker started, continued off and on throughout, and disrespect was repeated to the gods at the same time prayers were chanted and carried upward on copal smoke. At some point, Don Antonio talked about how the gods didn't come so much any more. There was a time when people would be healed through the balchŽ ceremony, but not any more. One of the young Lacand—n men said he saw one of the godpots crying.

Elder Harold Joseph sharing Hopi traditions with the Lacand—n Maya Elder Harold Joseph sharing Hopi traditions with the Lacand—n Maya.
Photo credit: Oakley Gordon

Then Harold came to sit directly in front of Don Antonio and began to tell him, through a string of translators, about his Hopi traditions, creation stories. Some of the ways of the kiva and the meaning of the cycles of nature to the Hopi. And subtly, a beautiful intensity began to build. The young Lacand—n men began to talk over each other to translate for Don Antonio in the traditional dialect, which had never happened before. I took this as a display of their respect for Don Antonio since he understood Spanish just fine. They began to compare how they had things in common, the Hopis and the Lacandones. After a time, Harold asked permission to do his traditional Hopi prayers over the godpots.

He walked over to the line of godpots. Through the haze of copal smoke, Harold prayed softly over each one and sprinkled cornmeal from the small bag he carried with him. And at that point, Don Antonio fell into the arms of the men around him, surrendering to what seemed an overwhelming grief, touching every one of us there. There was a vibratory shift and Harold later reported he saw the godpots become enlivened, as though gently pulled back, to be aware that there are others who still maintain connection. Others witnessed the same thing.

Lacand—n men offering balchŽ drinking gourds to the godpots Lacand—n men offering balchŽ drinking gourds to the godpots.
Photo credit: Darlene Dunning

As the day wore on, the young Lacand—n men took an active role in the full ceremony in a way I've never seen and apparently hadn't happened in a very long time. Earlier in the day when I'd asked if there was an apprentice for him to pass on the teachings Don Antonio had told me, "No. The boys are empty. They only come to drink the balchŽ."

But that's not what I saw happen that day. Through intervention by an outsider, a Hopi wisdom keeper from Shongopovi, something ancient was reawakened — spiritual grounding — at the same time other outside influences were fighting to take it away. It gave the young men courage to talk to Harold about their feelings, their own distress about the intrusion upon their beliefs. Continuing into the next day, one of them said in my presence, "I just want to have my religion. The evangelistas can have theirs, but not to force on me."

Harold just took part in the Bean Dance on Shongopovi where he shared his experiences with his elders and other spiritual leaders. He talked about all the places we had visited, the temple ruins whose hieroglyphs told him they had very similar creation stories and symbols of strength. He mentioned so many sacred things he saw. And he talked extensively to them about Don Antonio and the situation in Naj‡. The elders grew excited knowing that Harold had actually been to places talked about in their ancient stories and now wanting to come themselves. And they expressed deep sorrow for Don Antonio, a desire to bring strength.

Harold told me that, just as he hoped Don Antonio now had more spiritual vitality and stamina to continue holding to his beliefs, the elders realized how things can happen if these pressures from the outside are allowed to gain a foothold. "We have those things on Hopi, too. But my elders know we must continue. This story of Don Antonio helped renew their commitment."

A few days after we left Naj‡, Harold asked me, "What happened, this is what you wanted me to accomplish?" I replied that really, for me, it's just about creating the space. This is what filled it and it was perfectly beautiful, more than I could have imagined.

On the airplane out of Villahermosa Harold and I were seated together. We had just settled in when I glanced out the window and my breath caught.

"Harold, look!" A double rainbow, each arc as visibly brilliant as the other.

"Be humble. Be humble," he cautioned. "We have accomplished what we needed to do and in a humble way. This sign tells me so."

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Last updated 15 February 2009   |  © 2009 Carla Woody