Martín Prechtel was raised in New
Mexico on a Pueblo Indian reservation where people still lived in
the old, pre-European ways. His mother was a Canadian Indian who
taught at the Pueblo school, and his father was a white
Martín loved the culture there, and the
"I spent the whole of my very early
life," he says, "in a state of weepy terror about the
possibility of the total annihilation of this beautiful world at
the hands of a few white men who couldn’t understand the beauty
we had in this way of life."
He began to work against this dangerous,
"The natives called it ‘white man
ways,’ " he says, "but it was more than that. Its infectious
power had eaten the whites, too, and made them its obvious
promoter. This horrible syndrome had no use for the truly
natural, the wild nature of all peoples."
In 1970, after his first marriage ended
and his mother died, Prechtel went to Mexico to clear his head.
Seemingly by accident, he ended up going into Guatemala. He traveled
around that country for more than a year before he came to a village
called Santiago Atitlán. The village was inhabited by the Tzutujil,
one of many indigenous Mayan subcultures, each of which has its own
distinct traditions, patterns of clothing, and language.
In Santiago Atitlán, a strange man came up to Prechtel and said,
"What took you so long? For two
years I’ve been calling you. Let’s get to work!"
So began his apprenticeship to Nicolas
Chiviliu, one of the greatest of the Tzutujil Mayan shamans.
The apprenticeship lasted several years. As a shaman, Prechtel would
learn how to correct imbalances in people’s relationships with the
ancestors and the spirits. He also had to learn the Tzutujil
language. (Women taught him at first, and because women and men talk
differently, he was a great source of amusement when he began to
speak in public.)
Though not a native, Prechtel became a full member of the village.
He married a local woman and had three sons, one of whom died. When
Chiviliu died, Prechtel took his place, becoming shaman to nearly
thirty thousand people. He also rose to the public office of Nabey
Mam, or first chief. One of his duties as chief was to lead the
young village men through their long initiations into adulthood.
Prechtel wanted to stay in Santiago Atitlán forever, but during the
time that he lived there, Guatemala was in the throes of a brutal
civil war. The ruling government – with its U.S.—backed death squads
– had outlawed the thousand-year-old Mayan rites. Ultimately,
Prechtel was forced to flee for his life.
"I was going to stay," he says, "but
before my teacher died, he asked me to leave so that I wouldn’t
get killed. He wanted me to carry on the knowledge that he had
passed to me."
Prechtel brought his family to the U.S.,
where they "just kind of starved for a while until Robert Bly and
men like him found me." (Bly, a poet active in the men’s movement,
has high praise for Prechtel, whom he describes as "a short kind of
pony that gallops through the fields of human possibility with
flowers dropping out of his mouth.") Though Prechtel’s wife decided
to return to her native Guatemala, he remained in the U.S. with
their children and currently lives not fifty miles from where he
Prechtel is the author of Secrets of the Talking Jaguar (Tarcher),
in which he writes – musically, clearly, and respectfully – about
the indigenous traditions in Santiago Atitlán. He gives glimpses of
his training, yet never reveals details that would allow readers to
steal the Mayans’ spiritual traditions the way others have stolen
In his most recent book, Long Life,
Honey in the Heart (Tarcher), Prechtel describes the
structure of the village, the Tzutujil priesthood, and everyday
village life before the arrival of the death squads. In addition to
his writing, Prechtel paints scenes from the daily activities and
mythology of the Mayan people and is a musician who has recorded
Prechtel appears around the world at conferences on initiation for
("I’m working with women on that,
too," he says, "but it’s a little bit slower – mostly because
I’m not a woman.")
He also leads workshops that help people
reconnect with their own sense of place and the sacredness of
"Spirituality is an extremely
practical thing," he says. "It’s not just something you choose
to do on the weekends. . . . It’s an everyday thing, as
essential as eating or holding hands or keeping warm in the
When I went to interview Prechtel at his
home in New Mexico, I was embarrassed to find that my tape recorder
wasn’t working. Fortunately, his present wife, Hanna, had a recorder
I could use. It worked for about forty minutes, then started to run
backward. Martín apologized, saying this sort of thing happened all
"I just seem to have this effect on
machines," he said. "My dentist won’t let me come in his front
door anymore, because I freeze up all his computers."
I made a note never to travel with him.
Hanna was able to coax the recorder to work again, and we finished
the interview. My own tape recorder began working again the next
morning, when I was about seventy miles away.
What is a shaman?
Shamans are sometimes considered healers or doctors, but
really they are people who deal with the tears and holes we
create in the net of life, the damage that we all cause in our
search for survival. In a sense, all of us – even the most
untechnological, spiritual, and benign peoples – are constantly
wrecking the world. The question is: how do we respond to that
destruction? If we respond as we do in modern culture, by
ignoring the spiritual debt that we create just by living, then
that debt will come back to bite us, hard. But there are other
ways to respond.
One is to try to repay that debt by
giving gifts of beauty and praise to the sacred, to the
invisible world that gives us life. Shamans deal with the
problems that arise when we forget the relationship that exists
between us and the other world that feeds us, or when, for
whatever reason, we don’t feed the other world in return.
All of this may sound strange to modern, industrialized people,
but for the majority of human history, shamans have simply been
a part of ordinary life. They exist all over the world. It seems
strange to Westerners now because they have systematically
devalued the other world and no longer deal with it as part of
their everyday lives.
How are shamans from Siberia, for example, different from
shamans in Guatemala?
There are as many different ways to be a shaman as there are
different languages, but there’s a commonality, as well, because
we’re all standing on one earth, and there’s water in the ocean
wherever we go, and there’s ground underneath us wherever we go.
So we all have, on some level, a commonality of experience. We
are all still human beings.
Some of us have buried our humanity
deep inside, or medicated or anesthetized it, but every person
alive today, tribal or modern, primal or domesticated, has a
soul that is original, natural, and, above all, indigenous in
one way or another. The indigenous soul of the modern person,
though, either has been banished to the far reaches of the dream
world or is under direct attack by the modern mind. The more you
consciously remember your indigenous soul, the more you
physically remember it.
Shamans are all trying to put right the effects of normal human
stupidity and repair relationships with the invisible sources of
life. In many instances, the ways in which they go about this
are also similar. For example, the Siberians have a trance
method of entering the other world that is similar to one used
You’ve mentioned "the other world" a few times. Most modern
people would not consciously acknowledge such a place. What is
the other world?
If this world were a tree, then the other world would be the
roots – the part of the plant we can’t see, but that puts the
sap into the tree’s veins. The other world feeds this tangible
world – the world that can feel pain, that can eat and drink,
that can fail; the world that goes around in cycles; the world
where we die. The other world is what makes this world work. And
the way we help the other world continue is by feeding it with
All human beings come from the other world, but we forget it a
few months after we’re born. This amnesia occurs because we are
dazzled by the beauty and physicality of this world. We spend
the rest of our lives putting back together our memories of the
other world, enough to serve the greater good and to teach the
new amnesiacs – the children – how to remember. Often, this
lesson is taught during the initiation into adulthood.
The Mayans say that the other world sings us into being. We are
its song. We’re made of sound, and as the sound passes through
the sieve between this world and the other world, it takes the
shape of birds, grass, tables – all these things are made of
sound. Human beings, with our own sounds, can feed the other
world in return, to fatten those in the other world up, so they
can continue to sing.
Who are "they"?
All those beings who sing us alive. You could translate it
as gods or as spirits. The Mayans simply call them "they."
There’s an old Aztec saying I read years ago: "That we come
to this earth to live is untrue. We come to sleep and to dream."
I wonder if you can help me understand it.
When you dream, you remember the other world, just as you
did when you were a newborn baby. When you’re awake, you’re part
of the dream of the other world. In the "waking" state, I am
supposed to dedicate a certain amount of time to feeding the
world I’ve come from. Similarly, when I die and leave this world
and go on to the next, I’m supposed to feed this present dream
with what I do in that one.
Dreaming is not about healing the person who’s sleeping: it’s
about the person feeding the whole, remembering the other world,
so that it can continue. The New Age falls pretty flat with the
Mayans, because, to them, self-discovery is good only if it
helps you to feed the whole.
Where does the Mayan concept of debt fit in?
As Christians are born with original sin, Mayans are born
with original debt. In the Mayan worldview, we are all born
owing a spiritual debt to the other world for having created us,
for having sung us into existence. It must be fed; otherwise,
it’s going to take its payment out of our lives.
How does one repay this debt?
You have to give a gift to that which gives you life. It’s
an actual payment in kind. That’s the spiritual economy of a
It’s like my old teacher used to say: "You sit singing on a
little rock in the middle of a pond, and your song makes a
ripple that goes out to the shores where the spirits live. When
it hits the shore, it sends an echo back toward you. That echo
is the spiritual nutrition." When you send out a gift, you send
it out in all directions at once. And then it comes back to you
from all directions.
It must end up being a complex pattern, because as you’re
sending your song out, your neighbors are also sending theirs
out, and you’ve got all these overlapping ripples.
It’s an entangled net so enormous the mind cannot possibly
comprehend it. No one knows what’s connected to where.
How does this relate to technology?
Technological inventions take from the earth but give
nothing in return. Look at automobiles. They were, in a sense,
dreamed up over a period of time, with different people adding
on to each other’s dreams – or, if you prefer, adding on to each
other’s studies and trials. But all along the way, very little,
if anything, was given back to the hungry, invisible divinity
that gave people the ability to invent those cars. Now, in a
healthy culture, that’s where the shamans would come in, because
with every invention comes a spiritual debt that must be paid,
either ritually, or else taken out of us in warfare, grief, or
A knife, for instance, is a very minimal, almost primitive tool
to people in a modern industrial society. But for the Mayan
people, the spiritual debt that must be paid for the creation of
such a tool is great. To start with, the person who is going to
make the knife has to build a fire hot enough to produce coals.
To pay for that, he’s got to give a sacrificial gift to the
fuel, to the fire.
Ideally, the gift should be something made by hand, which is
the one thing humans have that spirits don’t.
Once the fire is hot enough, the knife maker must smelt the iron
ore out of the rock. The part that’s left over, which gets
thrown away in Western culture, is the most holy part in
shamanic rituals. What’s left over represents the debt, the
hollowness that’s been carved out of the universe by human
ingenuity, and so must be refilled with human ingenuity. A
ritual gift equal to the amount that was removed from the other
world has to be put back to make up for the wound caused to the
divine. Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing, but only so long
as it’s used to feed the deities that give us the ability to
perform such extravagant feats in the first place.
So, just to get the iron, the shaman has to pay for the ore, the
fire, the wind, and so on – not in dollars and cents, but in
ritual activity equal to what’s been given. Then that iron must
be made into steel, and the steel has to be hammered into the
shape of a knife, sharpened, and tempered, and a handle must be
put on it. There is a deity to be fed for each part of the
procedure. When the knife is finished, it is called the "tooth
of earth." It will cut wood, meat, and plants. But if the
necessary sacrifices have been ignored in the name of
rationalism, literalism, and human superiority, it will cut
All of those ritual gifts make the knife enormously "expensive,"
and make the process quite involved and time-consuming. The need
for ritual makes some things too spiritually expensive to bother
with. That’s why the Mayans didn’t invent space shuttles or
shopping malls or backhoes. They live as they do not because
it’s a romantic way to live – it’s not; it’s enormously hard –
but because it works.
Western culture believes that all material is dead, and so there
is no debt incurred when human ingenuity removes something from
the other world. Consequently, we end up with shopping malls and
space shuttles and other examples of "advanced" technology,
while the spirits who give us the ability to make those things
are starving, becoming bony and thin, which is one reason why
anorexia is such a prob-lem: the young are acting out this
image. The universe is in a state of starvation and emotional
grief because it has not been given what it needs in the form of
ritual food and actual physical gifts. We think we’re getting
away with something by stealing from the other side, but it all
leads to violence. The Greek oracle at Delphi saw this a long
time ago and said, "Woe to humans, the invention of steel."
Why does this theft lead to violence?
Though capable of feeding all creation, the spirit is not an
omnipotent force, as Christianity would have us believe, but a
natural force of great subtlety. When its subtlety is trespassed
on by the clumsiness of human greed and conceit, then both human
and divine nature are violated and made into hungry, devouring
things. We become food for this monster our spiritual amnesia
has created. The monster is fed by wars, psychological
depression, self-hate, and bad world-trade practices that export
misery to other places.
We inflict violence upon each other as a way to replace what we
steal from nature because we’ve forgotten this old deal that our
ancestors signed so long ago. Instead, we psychologize and
objectify that relationship as a personal experience or
pathology, rather than a spiritual obligation. At that point,
our approach to spirituality becomes rationalist armoring, a
psychology of protection for the part of us that creates the
greed monster, which causes us to kill the world and each other.
As individuals, we become depressed, because the beings of the
other world take it out of our emotions.
When we no longer maintain a relationship with the spirits,
the spirits have to eat our psyches. And when the spirits are
done eating our psyches, they eat our bodies. And when they’re
done with that, they move on to the people close to us.
When you have a culture that has for centuries, or longer,
ignored these relationships, depression becomes a way of life.
We try to fix the depression through technology, but that’s
never going to work. Nor will it work to plunder other cultures,
nor to kill the planet. All that is just an attempt not to be
held accountable to the other world. If you’re to succeed as a
human being, you’ve got to live meaningfully, passionately, and
fully, so that even your death becomes a meaningful sacrifice to
the spirits, feeding them.
Everybody’s death was a meaningful
sacrifice until people started to become "civilized" and began
killing everybody else’s gods in the name of monotheism. As you
grow older, your life becomes more and more meaningful as a
sacrifice, because you give more and more gifts to the other
world, and the spirits are better fed by your speech and
How do you respond to someone who says that the notion of
paying a debt to the spirit world for making a knife is just
inefficient, which is why we’ve wiped out all those cultures. In
the time your group spends making one knife, my group will make
three hundred knives and cut all your throats.
If you take up that strategy, then you will have to live
with the ghosts of those you’ve murdered – which means you’ve
got to make more and more knives, and you will become more and
more depressed, all the while calling yourself "advanced" to
rationalize your predicament.
What are these ghosts?
Before we talk any more about ghosts, we have to talk about
ancestors, because the two are related.
Often, you’ll hear that you have to honor your ancestors, but I
believe it’s much more complex than that. Our ancestors weren’t
necessarily very smart. In many cases, they are the ones who
left us this mess. Some of them were great, but others had huge
prejudices. If these ancestors are given their due, then you
don’t have to live out their prejudices in your own life. But if
you don’t give the ancestors something, if you simply say, "I’m
descended from these people, but they don’t affect me very much;
I’m a unique individual," then you’re cursed to spend your life
either fighting your ancestors, or else riding the wave they
started. You’ll have to do that long before you can be yourself
and pursue what you believe is worth pursuing.
The Mayan way of dealing with this is to give the ancestors a
place to live. You actually build houses for them – called
"sleeping houses" – and put your ancestors in there. The houses
are small, because the ancestors don’t take up any space, but
they do need a designated place, just like anything else. Then
you feed your ancestors with words and eloquence. We all have
old, forgotten languages that our languages are descended from,
and many of these languages are a great deal more ornate. But
even with our current language, we still have the capacity to
create strange, mysterious, poetic gifts to feed the ancestors,
so that we won’t become depressed by their ghosts devouring our
If we can get past the prejudices of the last ten thousand
years’ worth of ancestors, then we can find our way back to our
indigenous souls and culture, where we are always at home and
My ancestry is Danish, French, and Scottish, but I live in
northern California, so how can I find my way back?
The problem is not that your ancestors migrated to North
America but that, when they died, their debts were not properly
paid with beauty, grief, and language. Whenever someone dies,
that person’s spirit has to go on to the next world. If that
person has not gone through an initiation and remembered where
she came from and what she must do to go on, then she won’t know
where to go. Also, when a person dies, her spirit must return
what has been taken out to feed her existence while she was on
earth. All of the old burial rituals are about paying back the
debt to the other world and helping the spirit to move on.
One of the ways those who remain behind can help repay this
spiritual debt is simply by missing the dead. Let’s say your
beloved grandmother dies. Some might say you shouldn’t weep,
because she’s going to "a better place," and weeping is just
pure selfishness. But people’s longing for each other and for
the terrain of home is so enormous that, if you do not weep to
express it, you’re poisoning the future with violence.
If that longing is not expressed as
a loud, beautiful wail, a song, or a piece of art that’s given
as a gift to the spirits, then it will turn into violence
against other beings – and, more importantly, against the earth
itself, because you will have no understanding of home. But if
you are able to feed the other world with your grief, then you
can live where your dead are buried, and they will become a part
of the landscape in a way.
Many old cultures had funeral arrangements whereby the dead were
annually fed by the living for as long as fifty years, with the
living giving ritual payments back to the world and the earth
for the debts incurred by the deceased. When that grief doesn’t
happen, the ancestors’ ghosts begin to chase the culture.
It’s difficult enough when you have only a few dead people to
mourn, but what happens when there are too many dead, when there
is no time to mourn them all? When you get not just one or two
ghosts (which a shaman might be able to help you with), but
hundreds, or thousands, or millions of ghosts, because not just
your ancestors, but the beings who have been trespassed against
– the women who have been raped, the animals who have been
slaughtered for no reason, the ground that has been torn to
shreds – have all become ghosts, too?
Are you speaking metaphorically here?
No, I’m talking literally. The ghosts will actually chase
you, and they always chase you toward the setting sun. That’s
why all the great migrations of the past several thousand years
have been to the west: because people are running away from the
ghosts. The people stop and try to live in a new place for a
while, but the ghosts always catch up with them and create
enormous wars and pain and problems, which feed the hungry
hordes of ghosts. Then the people continue on, always moving,
never truly at home. Now we have an entire culture based on our
fleeing or being devoured by ghosts.
What can we do about the ghosts?
On a finite planet, we can’t outrun them. We’ve tried to
develop technology that will keep us safe: medicines to numb our
grief, fortresses to keep the ghosts away. But none of it will
In a village, if a family is beset by a ghost, the shaman will
capture the ghost, break it down into its component parts, and
send them back to the other world one at a time. Then the shaman
and the family will set up a regular maintenance program, to get
back on track in their relationship with the other world. This
is the maintenance way of living.
I’m not sure how Western culture could do this. How can members
of a culture that considers the earth a dead thing possibly
repay all that debt? How can they possibly get away from all
those ghosts? With everything that has gone on for so long, can
they ever really be at home again?
To be at home in a place, to live in a place well, we first have
to understand where we are; we’ve got to look at our
surroundings. Second, we’ve got to know our own histories.
Third, we’ve got to feed our ancestors’ ghosts, so that the
ghosts aren’t eating us or the people around us. Lastly, we’ve
got to begin to grieve. Now, grief doesn’t mean sitting around
weeping every day. Rather, grief means using the gifts you’ve
been given by the spirits to make beauty. Grief that’s not
expressed this way becomes a kind of toxic waste inside a
person’s body, and inside the culture as a whole, until it has
to be put in containers and shipped someplace, the way they ship
radioactive waste to New Mexico.
This locked-up grief has to be metabolized. As a culture and as
individuals, we must begin feeling our grief – that delicious,
fantastic, eloquent medicine. Then we can start giving spiritual
gifts to the land we live on, which might someday grant our
grandchildren permission to live there.
What’s the relationship between grief and belonging to a
In the Guatemalan village where I lived, you don’t belong
someplace until your people have died there and the living have
wept for them there. Until a few of your generations have died
on the land and been buried there, and your soul has fed on the
land, you’re still a tourist, a visitor.
While I lived in this village, one of my sons, a baby, died of
typhoid. When I lost a child, I mysteriously and suddenly became
a true, welcomed resident of the land. It wasn’t as if I owned
the land, but I was an honorable renter who’d paid with grief,
artistically expressed in ritual. My child had merged with the
land, so now I was related to the rocks and the trees and the
air in a bodily way that I hadn’t been before. And since the
other villagers were all related to these same rocks and trees
and air, that made us all relatives.
Now, you might say that all your ancestors from Denmark, France,
and Scotland have been put in the ground in North America, so
why aren’t you welcome here? Why aren’t you related to the rocks
and the trees and the air?
It’s because your ancestors who died are most likely still
ghosts, still uninitiated souls who have not yet become true
ancestors, because their debts were not paid with grief and
beauty. Once they become true ancestors, you merge with the
region, and you begin to help this world live. At that point,
you’ll find that you have less need for toasters and machinery
and computers – less need for everything. You’ll finally be
starting to live well.
For us to get to that stage, we have to study eloquence, grief,
and sacrifice. I’m not just talking about the type of sacrifice
where somebody takes three days off to work in the neighborhood,
although that may be part of it. I’m talking about giving to the
nonhuman, as well as to the human.
So you’re saying that we need to deal with the ghosts, and
once we’ve dealt with them . . .
Then we have to talk about maintenance, which is far more
important than corrective measures. This culture is based on
fixing things, as opposed to maintaining them. But once we start
to maintain instead of constantly fix, the problems that vex us
will become much easier to solve. It will no longer be a matter
of fixing something as we think of it today. Right now, fixing
something means getting our way. It should mean asking: "What do
I need to do here?"
Our culture also emphasizes individual freedom, but such freedom
can be enjoyed only when there is a waiting village of
open-armed, laughing elders who know compassion and grasp the
complexity of the spirit world well enough to catch us, keep us
grounded, and protect us from ourselves.
If the modern world is to start maintaining things, it will have
to redefine itself. A new culture will have to develop, in which
neither humans and their inventions nor God is at the center of
the universe. What should be at the center is a hollow place, an
empty place where both God and humans can sing and weep
together. Maybe, together, the diverse and combined excellence
of all cultures could court the tree of life back from where
it’s been banished by our literalist minds and dogmatic
Speaking of dogmatic religions, how did the Mayan traditions
survive the influx of Spanish missionaries?
The Spaniards came to our village in 1524, but they couldn’t
get anybody to go to their church, so they demolished our old
temple and used the stones to build a new church on the same
site. (This was a common practice.) But the Tzutujil people are
crafty. They watched as the old temple stones were used to build
the new church, and they memorized where each one went. As far
as the Tzutujil were concerned, this strange, square European
church was just a reconfiguration of the old.
(When I was learning to be a shaman,
I had to memorize where all those damn stones were, because they
were all holy. It was like being a novice taxi driver in
The Catholic priests abandoned the village in the 1600s because
of earthquakes and cholera, then came back fifty years later and
found a big hole in the middle of the church. "What is that?"
By then, the Indians knew the priests destroyed everything
relating to the native religion, so the Indians said, "When we
reenact the crucifixion of Jesus, this is the hole where we put
In truth, that hole was a hollow place that was never to be
filled, because it led to another hollow place left over from
the temple that had been there originally, and that place was
connected to all the other layers of existence.
For four and a half centuries, the Indians kept their traditions
intact in a way that the Europeans couldn’t see or understand.
If the Spaniards asked, "Where is your God?" the Indians would
point to this empty hole. But when the American clergy came in
the 1950s, they weren’t fooled. They said, "This is paganism."
And so, eventually, they filled the empty place with concrete.
I was there when that happened, in 1976. I was livid. I went to
the village council and ranted and raved about how terrible it
was. The old men calmly smoked their cigars and agreed. After an
hour or so, when I was out of breath, they started talking about
something totally unrelated. I asked,
"Doesn’t anybody care about
"Oh, yeah," they said. "We care. But these Christians are
idiots if they think they can just eradicate the conduit
from this world to the next with a little mud. That’s as
ridiculous as you worrying about it. But if you must do
something, here’s a pick, shovel, and chisel. Dig it out."
So some old men and I dug out the
hole. Then the Catholics filled the hole back up, and two weeks
later we dug it out again. We went back and forth this way five
times until, finally, somebody made a stone cover for the hole,
so the Catholics could pretend it wasn’t there, and we could
pull the cover off whenever we wanted to use it.
That’s how the spirit is now in this country. The hole, the
hollow place that must be fed, is still there, but it’s covered
over with spiritual amnesia. We try to fill up that beautiful
hollow place with drugs, television, potato chips – anything.
But it can’t be filled. It needs to be kept hollow.
Why is a hollow place holy?
The Mayan people understand that the world did not come out
of a creator’s hand, but grew out of this hollow place and
became a tree whose fruit was diversity. Human beings weren’t on
that tree, but everything that was on that original tree
eventually went into human beings. You have gourd seeds in you,
and raccoons, and amoebas – everything.
When the tree finally grew to maturity, flowered, and bore
fruit, the fruit was made of sound, and every piece of it that
dropped to the ground sprouted and gave birth to the diverse
kinds of life. Then the old tree died and became humus
consisting of ancient sounds, out of which all things flourish
to this day. Everything we feel, touch, and taste is actually a
manifestation of that original diversity, which means that the
tree isn’t really dead, but dismembered, and it’s constantly
trying to "re-member" itself.
Every year in my village, when it was still intact, the young
men and women who were to be initiated into adulthood went down
the hole into the other world to try to bring the parent tree
back to life. They put the seeds of their holy sounds and their
tears into that hole where the old tree used to live long ago.
And the tree grew back.
But the rest of the year, the
village devoured the tree’s diverse forms, creating an annual
need for new initiates to re-member the old provider tree back
to life. The initiates were able to go down into that hollow
place and restore the tree to life because they knew how to be
eloquent, how to grieve, and how to fight death instead of
fighting and killing other beings.
When you say "fight death," do you mean they resisted or
denied its inevitability?
No, on the contrary, I mean they wrestled with death. In
order for there to be life, there has to be a spiritual
wrestling match with death; otherwise, it becomes a literal
battle that can kill you.
The problem with death is that its gods are rationalists. The
Mayans have thirteen goddesses and thirteen gods of death. These
deities have no imagination, which is why they have to eat and
kill us – to get our souls, our imagination. Once death has your
soul, it is happy and stops killing for a while. But then you
must go down and ask death – with all your eloquence – to please
give back your soul.
When death refuses, you’ve got to
gamble with death, because death obeys only one rule: the rule
of chance. And so you use gambling bones and try to beguile
death with your eloquence. That’s what we call "wrestling
death." You can’t kill death, of course. The best you can hope
for in such a match is to bring death to a standoff.
Then death will say,
"OK, I’ll tell you what. I’m
going to give you back your soul if you promise to continue
to feed me this eloquence on a regular basis, and to die at
your appointed hour."
During initiation, when the young
men and women wrestle death, what they’re doing, essentially, is
signing a contract that says, "I give up the idealistic notion
that I should live forever." Your soul is then returned, but you
must ritually render a percentage of the fruit of your art, your
eloquence, and your imagination to the other world.
That’s the only deal you’re going to
get from death. If you try to strike a better bargain, you’re
going to end up killing a lot of people. When an entire culture
tries to make a better deal, or refuses to wrestle death with
eloquence, then death comes up to the surface to eat us in a
literal way, with wars and depression.
Tell me more about the indigenous soul.
Every individual in the world, regardless of cultural
background or race, has an indigenous soul struggling to survive
in an increasingly hostile environment created by that
individual’s mind. A modern person’s body has become a
battleground between the rationalist mind – which subscribes to
the values of the machine age – and the native soul. This battle
is the cause of a great deal of spiritual and physical illness.
Over the last several centuries, a heartless, culture-crushing
mentality has enforced its so-called progress on the earth,
devouring all peoples, nature, imagination, and spiritual
knowledge. Like a bulldozer, it has left a flat, homogenized
streak of civilization in its wake. Every human on this earth,
whether from Africa, Asia, Europe, or the Americas, has
ancestors whose stories, rituals, ingenuity, language, and life
ways were taken away, enslaved, banned, exploited, twisted, or
destroyed by this mentality.
What is indigenous – in other words,
natural, subtle, hard to explain, generous, gradual, and village
oriented – in each of us has been banished to the ghettos of our
heart, or hidden away from view on reservations inside the
spiritual landscape. We’re taught to believe that our thoughts
are actually the center of our life. Like the conquering, modern
culture we belong to, we understand the world only with the
mind, not with the indigenous soul.
And this indigenous soul is not something that can be brought
back in "wild man" or "wild woman" retreats on the weekend and
then dropped when you put on your business suit. It’s not
something you take up because it’s fun or trendy. It has to be
authentic, and it has to be spiritually expensive.
Let’s talk for a moment about co-optation. There are two
common positions on the wider use of indigenous traditions. One
is that there’s nothing wrong with making a sweat lodge in your
backyard for weekend retreats, while continuing to be a
stockbroker on weekdays.
The consumer method.
The other, which I subscribe to, is that we must respect the
privacy of indigenous traditions and not mine them for our own
I’ve made a huge effort never to do that. The truth is that
I never wanted to write books about Mayan traditions in the
first place. On the Pueblo reservation where I grew up, it was
taboo to write, because writing freezes knowledge, and also
because much knowledge becomes useless when it is not kept
secret and used only under sacred conditions. And often the
things that are the most sacred are the most simple and
ordinary. When this ordinariness is framed in subtle,
time-honored ways, it becomes extraordinary and maintains its
The traditions you write about are not your native
No, but I lived in Santiago Atitlán, in Guatemala, for many
years and made my life there. I was married, with children.
Then, when the U.S.—backed death squads came, more than eighteen
hundred villagers were killed within seven years: shot, beaten,
tortured, poisoned, chopped up, starved to death in holes,
beheaded, disappeared. This took place in a village where, prior
to 1979, most people had never heard a gunshot. I had a price on
my head and was almost killed on three different occasions in
the 1980s. I returned to the U.S. and brought my family with me.
My wife later went back home, taking our two sons with her, and
we separated. The boys soon returned to live with me and are now
Then, in 1992, there was another massacre, and I had to go back
to Guatemala. Some young Tzutujil men met me in a pickup truck,
which was strange in itself: before, nobody had owned an
automobile. They put me in the back with a bunch of squash,
under a tarp. Whenever we came to an army roadblock, the
soldiers saw just the squash and let us pass. They didn’t look
very hard. (Most of the soldiers really don’t want to kill
anybody: they have to be goaded into it. But they do kill.)
When we’d gotten past all the roadblocks, I got to sit up front.
The other passengers were all kids. This was only eight years
after I’d left, and already they had forgotten the name of my
teacher, who had been one of the greatest and most famous
As we drove, they’d ask,
"Do you know the story of that
mountain over there?"
"Yeah," I’d say, "that’s called S’kuut. It was originally in
the ocean and was brought up on land by the old goddess of
Pretty soon the truck was going
about three miles an hour because they were rediscovering,
through their ancestors’ ancient stories, every mountain,
ravine, and boulder along our route.
After about two hours, I asked,
"How come you don’t know any of
"Well," said one, "these two are Christians, so they’re not
allowed to know, and the rest of us don’t have parents. They
were killed in the 1980s."
So there I was, this blond
half-breed from the U.S. – not even any blood relation to these
kids – telling them their own people’s stories. I realized then
that these children, as well as my own two sons, would never
know the richness of village life. They were losing their
connection to this place. I had to write down what I knew, but I
couldn’t write down the specifics – that we went to the lake and
did this and put this offering there – because then those
rituals could be expropriated.
My decision to leave out the details of the rituals has
irritated many people in the U.S. They insist I tell them "how
to do it." I always respond, "It’s not technology."
You’ve said explicitly that the power of shamanism is not in
the specific words or the prayers.
My teacher always said that, if there is to be any hope
whatsoever of living well on this earth, we have to take the
ancient root and put new sap in it. That doesn’t mean we need to
do something new, but to do something old in a new way, which
takes great courage.
I decided that if I could write these books such that the oral
tradition is evident to readers, memories of their own
indigenous souls might begin to arise. Of course, I tell people
not to get on a plane and go to Guatemala. That would bring
nothing but more heartbreak and plundering. The answer must be
found in your own backyard, where you live.
The only reason to explore another
culture is to be able to smell the poverty in your own. Even if
you go to another culture and are accepted in some way, you
still have an obligation not to abandon your own culture, but to
return to your homeland and try to coax its alienated indigenous
traditions back into everyday life and away from tribalism,
fundamentalism, and corporatized, nihilistic greed.
This is true whether we’re talking about traditions or natural
resources. Right now, "genetic prospectors" are going to Brazil
to study plants used by indigenous peoples. Why? So they can
save rich, white North Americans from diseases caused by the
stupidities of their own culture. They’re mining other peoples’
traditions to fix, mechanically, illnesses that would be much
better addressed if they stayed home and dealt with their own
culture’s lack of imagination and grace, grieving collectively
about the inescapable reality of their mortality.
People should also be aware that many things that are touted as
indigenous are not. Many of the sweat-lodge ceremonies, for
example, are about as Jesuit as you can get. No Indian had ever
heard of the Great Spirit before the 1850s. That’s all from the
You’ve said that one problem with Western culture is its use
of the verb to be.
When I was a child, I spoke a Pueblo language called Keres,
which doesn’t have the verb to be. It was basically a language
of adjectives. One of the secrets of my ability to survive and
thrive in Santiago Atitlán was that the Tzutujil language, too,
has no verb to be. Tzutujil is a language of carrying and
belonging, not a language of being. Without to be, there’s no
sense that something is absolutely this or that.
If two people argue, they’re said to
be "split," like firewood, but both sides are still of the same
substance. Some of the rights and wrongs that nations have
fought and died to defend or obtain are not even relevant
concepts to traditional Tzutujil. This isn’t because the
Tzutujil are somehow too "primitive" to understand right and
wrong, but because their lives aren’t based on absolute states
or permanence. Mayans believe nothing will last on its own.
That’s why their lives are oriented toward maintenance rather
"Belonging to" is as close to "being" as the Tzutujil language
gets. One cannot say, "She is a mother," for instance. In
Tzutujil, you can only call someone a mother by saying whose
mother she is, whom she belongs to. Likewise, one cannot say,
"He is a shaman."
One says instead, "The way of
tracking belongs to him."
In order for modern Western culture
to really take hold in Santiago Atitlán, the frustrated
religious, business, and political leaders first had to
undermine the language. Language is the glue that holds the
layers of the Mayan universe together: the eloquence of the
speech, the ancestral lifeline of the mythologies. The speech of
the gods was in our very bones. But once the Westerners forced
the verb to be upon our young, the whole archaic Mayan world
disappeared into the jaws of the modern age.
In a culture with the verb to be, one is always concerned with
identity. To determine who you are, you must also determine who
you are not. In a culture based on belonging, however, you must
bond with others. You are defined by where you stand and whom
you stand with. The verb to be also reduces a language, taking
away its adornment and beauty. But the language becomes more
efficient. The verb to be is very efficient. It allows you to
Rather than build things, Mayans cultivate a climate that allows
for the possibility of their appearance, as for a fruit or a
vine. They take care of things. In the past, when they built big
monuments, it wasn’t, as in modern culture, to force the world
to be a certain way, but rather to repay the world with a
currency proportionate to the immense gifts the gods had given
the people. Mayans don’t force the world to be what they want it
to be: they make friends with it; they belong to life.
You’ve spoken a lot today about the importance of
maintenance. How does that relate to the Tzutujil practice of
building flimsy houses?
In the village, people used to build their houses out of
traditional materials, using no iron or lumber or nails, but the
houses were magnificent. Many were sewn together out of bark and
fiber. Like the house of the body, the house that a person
sleeps in must be very beautiful and sturdy, but not so sturdy
that it won’t fall apart after a while. If your house doesn’t
fall apart, then there will be no reason to renew it. And it is
this renewability that makes something valuable. The maintenance
gives it meaning.
The secret of village togetherness and happiness has always been
the generosity of the people, but the key to that generosity is
inefficiency and decay. Because our village huts were not built
to last very long, they had to be regularly renewed. To do this,
villagers came together, at least once a year, to work on
somebody’s hut. When your house was falling down, you invited
all the folks over.
The little kids ran around messing
up what everybody was doing. The young women brought the water.
The young men carried the stones. The older men told everybody
what to do, and the older women told the older men that they
weren’t doing it right. Once the house was back together again,
everyone ate together, praised the house, laughed, and cried. In
a few days, they moved on to the next house. In this way, each
family’s place in the village was reestablished and remembered.
This is how it always was.
Then the missionaries and the businessmen and the politicians
brought in tin and lumber and sturdy houses. Now the houses
last, but the relationships don’t.
In some ways, crises bring communities together. Even nowadays,
if there’s a flood, or if somebody is going to put a highway
through a neighborhood, people come together to solve the
problem. Mayans don’t wait for a crisis to occur; they make a
Their spirituality is based on
choreographed disasters – otherwise known as rituals – in which
everyone has to work together to remake their clothing, or each
other’s houses, or the community, or the world. Everything has
to be maintained because it was originally made so delicately
that it eventually falls apart. It is the putting back together
again, the renewing, that ultimately makes something strong.
That is true of our houses, our language, our relationships.
It’s a fine balance, making something that is not so flimsy that
it falls apart too soon, yet not so solid that it is permanent.
It requires a sort of grace. We all want to make something
that’s going to live beyond us, but that thing shouldn’t be a
house, or some other physical object. It should be a village
that can continue to maintain itself.
That sort of constant renewal is the
only permanence we should wish to attain.