By: Christine McFarlane
Mayan Village of Laguna
As a First Nations student, I felt privileged for being able to participate with thirteen other students from the University of Toronto on a research trip to Belize, Central America. Though we were only there for ten days, it was a trip that really opened my eyes because I was able to see for myself the similarities that the Indigenous people of Central America have with their counterparts here in Canada.
I went to Belize in part because I was a student in Alex McKay’s ABS301Y1-Native Language and Culture course, but also because I thought that due to the fact that I had learned about the Indigenous people of Australia in the Summer Abroad Program of Woodsworth College during the summer of 2010, it would only be fitting to also learn about the Indigenous people of Central America. I also considered this to be a great way to finish off my undergraduate studies.
While there I encountered on the part of a couple of non-native people who participated an eagerness to learn but also a lack of cultural sensitivity about Indigenous people as a whole. Along with other insights about the lack of understanding about Indigenous people and their way of life, I came back home, feeling enriched by my experience but also sad to realize that there is still much work to be done in order for people to understand and respect Indigenous people’s issues, no matter where you are in the world.
Participants were escorted by Dr. Richard Lee, professor emeritus and renowned anthropologist and were from various academic programs, including Aboriginal Studies, Global Health and Culture, and Gender and Equity Studies. Arranged through the Institute of Sustainable International Studies (ISIS) by several ISIS’ Community Associates, participants had the opportunity to experience village life within two different communities, Hopkins and Laguna during our ten day stay.
Belize is a developing country, and situated on the Caribbean Sea, south of Mexico and east and north of Guatemala in Central America. In area, “it is about the size of New Hampshire. Most of the country is heavily forested with various hardwoods. Mangrove swamps and cays along the coast give way to hills and mountains in the interior.” Its history is intriguing considering that it is a relatively young nation. It only obtained independence on September 21, 1981 and Guatemala only recognized their sovereignty in September 1991, despite still occupying more than half of Belize’s territory.
The two communities that we visited were the coastal village of Hopkins and the Mayan village of Laguna, hosted by the Toledo Eco-Tourism Association (TEA). In Hopkins we learned about Garifuna spirituality, cultural drumming and snorkeled along the world’s largest barrier reef. While in Hopkins, we met with Ted McKoy, a local entrepreneur who engaged us in discussion on poverty, development, and youth concerning Hopkins specifically while relating the topics to Belize as a whole.
In Hopkins, I was struck by the sense of community and the village life, where everyone knew one another and there were nods and smiles as you walked the dirt roads throughout the village. By comparison, city life back in Canada is harsh. Noise surrounds you wherever you go. Traffic whizzes by, cars and buses honk their horns, people are lost in their own worlds, with all sorts of technology at their fingertips, and friendliness is something you have to actively search for.
In the village of Hopkins, children ran and played, they had their own games made up; they weren’t fixated on the latest fashions, what was the latest video game or what was the next thing they could purchase. They relied on themselves, a simplicity that has long ago disappeared in our society. We have become a society that is obsessed with consuming as much as possible, and not caring what kind of affect it has on those around us.
I miss the impromptu drum session that we had with the Garifuna youth, where everyone gathered, and the children from around the village came and took it all in, while we all laughed, danced and attempted to drum along. I miss the sense of community that surrounded us while we stayed there and I miss my first swim in the ocean while a friend who knew I was scared to swim, stayed by my side and made sure I was okay, and I miss jumping the waves as they came crashing around us, and the laughter when I accidently swallowed sea water and said “I think I have had my quota of salt for the next month or so.”
The Indigenous people of Central America consist of the following; Mestizo, Kriol, Maya, Garinagu, Mennonite, Chinese and East Indian and the recognized languages of the people are Kriol, Spanish, Garifuna, Maya and Plautdietsch. I found it inspiring that despite the encroachment of modernity; the people not only of Hopkins but also of Laguna, still practice their culture, traditions and languages. I found this to be important because it made me see how similar their fight is in comparison to the First Nations people of Canada to retain the same things despite our government’s attempt to take this all away from us.
After Hopkins, we spent four days in the Mayan village of Laguna. Our group explored Indigenous politics; land rights issues, sustainable agriculture and gender roles within modern Maya communities. In addition, we learned about cacao farming, how to make corn tortillas from scratch, and had the choice of visiting a local animal sanctuary ‘Aquacaliente’ and hiking to a Laguna cave.
Mr. Pablo Miis, and Mrs. Cristina Coc, both from the village of Laguna and activists in the Maya land rights issue, as well as the residents of Laguna made us feel at home by treating us to traditional Mayan food and its preparation, discussion on the encroaching modern world on the Mayan culture and we were given an opportunity to meet and assist the Laguna village school children at their primary school.
Miis spoke to the students on the issues facing Indigenous Organizations and Community Development and what “poverty, development and identity” mean to the Mayan people, while Coc spoke about land rights and made mention of the current fight before the Belize Courts. A fight that initially started with the Conejo and Santa Cruz lawsuits where the Supreme Court ruled that ‘the Belize Constitution, the mother of all laws protects the rights of the Maya villages to the lands they occupy under the rights of property, equality and life.’
In light of this issue Coc relays that “ For years, the basic human rights of the Maya of Belize have been under attack from the Government of Belize, specifically the government’s neglect to respect indigenous land rights,” On June 28th, 2010 the Supreme Court of Belize ruled for the second time in favor of Maya land rights, again affirming constitutional protection for ancestral land rights for 38 villages in Southern Belize.
This was a positive step forward for the Maya, the traditional stewards of the land we now call Belize, yet at this time, the Belize government is appealing the court’s decision. The government is asking the Court of Appeal to declare that the thousands of Maya Belizeans, who have been living in their villages their whole lives, and their parents before them, are nothing but squatters and can be removed at any time, at the whim of the government.
One of the First Nations students who participated in the Belize program through ISIS, Krystine Leah Abel, a 1st year student undertaking a course in Aboriginal Health Systems states “The ISIS program gave me first hand experience in how local indigenous culture shapes food sustainability and how development offers both successes and challenges to traditional Mayan and Garifuna customs.”
With this in mind, I realized that sometimes you have to travel far from home to understand that there are other Indigenous people who are fighting the same fight your people are, and that the fight for Indigenous rights is taking place in all corners of the world. I believe it is integral that the University of Toronto makes it a goal to have more inclusion of First Nations students in the Aboriginal Studies Program to take part in International Exchange opportunities such as the program ICM Belize.