Tag Archives: Chief Seattle

Literature, song, struggle


When the [whites] came to Africa, they had the Bible, and we had the land. They said ¨Let us pray.¨ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land. Archbishop Desmond Tutu


Sometimes everything seems to happen at once. When I moved into my house on La Conquista about a month ago, I didn’t imagine that a book I found on the shelf in my furnished room would be the beginning of a whole series of little discoveries and events, or that it would be linked to the struggle of indigenous land rights and government sponsored terrorism.

I found many excellent books on my shelf, among them some traditional Andean legends, ¨Un Mundo Para Julius¨ by renowned Peruvian novelist Alfredo Bryce Echenique, a volume with two of my favourite collections of short stories by one of my favourite authors of all time, Argentine writer Julio Cortazar…the list goes on. But one book caught my attention. Canto General, by 1971 nobel laureate Pablo Neruda.

You see, some time shortly after the death of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Marquez in April, I read a quote of his that went something like this: ¨Pablo Neruda is the most gifted poet of our century, in any language.¨ Now, I don’t usually like that sort of objective statement about such a subjective matter, but coming from Marquez it was enough to pique my interest. So when I saw Canto General sitting there I picked it up and began to read.

It has been referred to as the ¨Latin American Bible.¨ Indeed, it is the story of the whole continent from a sort of misty primordial imagined land, through the Inca Empire, the bloody conquest by the Spaniards, the haciendas and the European aristocracy, the independence movements, all the way through to revolutions and communist uprisings into the 1950s. The work is bathed in the blood of its subjects, and it makes one thing clear: despite the multitude of vastly different cultures and languages that exist on this massive continent, Latin America shares a common history, a common suffering, a common thread of blood. And Neruda did not even live to see the coups, the dictatorships, the disappeared people of the 1970s-1990s. Alas! Variations on a theme.

Shortly after starting to read Canto General I was in the bouldering gym down by the university on Avenida La Cultura and a song came up. I liked the song. So when I got back home I looked up part of the lyrics that I could remember: ¨Tú no puedes comprar el viento, tú no puedes comprar el sol…tú no puedes comprar mi alegría, tú no puedes comprar mis dolores…¨ (You can’t buy the wind, you can’t buy the sun…you can’t buy my happiness, you can’t buy my pain…). I found it. It’s called ¨Latinoamerica,¨ and is the work of a Puerto Rican rapper named Calle 13.

While it would be unfair to compare Canto General to ¨Latinoamerica¨ in terms of artistic merit, the song has the same aim of uniting disparate people and realizing that despite the differences and the rich fabric of so many distinct cultures, Latin Americans share a common history of oppression, violence, and corporate domination, both at the hands of foreigners, and of their very own people. (I have included my very rough translation of the first verse and the chorus so that you can see what it’s all about.)

So ideas of a united Latin America, an oppressed continent, a proud and resilient people held down by invaders – whether they be the Spanish Conquistadores or Canadian mining companies – all these ideas were floating around in my head last week while I walked down past the Fine Arts Museum in the middle of the tourist district. The doors were open, and the exhibit seemed to be free – an anomaly in these parts. So I went inside to check out the photo exhibit. Here is a translation of what is posted just inside the door, above the first photo:

It is obvious that tourism as it is in Peru, is not and will never be our yellow brick road to development. Instead it serves to broaden the gap between rich and poor, and exacerbate the differences between peoples and individuals. Neither Cusco nor Peru will ever be the tourist-filled El Dorado that the government and its acolytes would have us believe…[Tourism] deepens both our dependence and our underdevelopment.

These are strong words coming from a museum in downtown Cusco, one of South America’s most touristy cities. They represent an uncommon and unothodox point of view. As I browsed the photos and read the captions and quotes I could see quite clearly that these were the words of a passionate – indeed, a jaded and angry – man. Other captions spoke of the consumerism of modern ritual, the emptiness of the apparent religious syncretism, the decadence of local custom etc. To Cesar Vivanco, the photographer, the people of Peru – and particularly the Andean people of this region – are an oppressed nation, still very much under an imperial power.

The next day my roommate and I went to the documentary shown in the same room, directed by the same man, Mr. Vivanco. To be fair, it was not a documentary but a narrated slideshow with music, and I found the narration to be flippant and sarcastic. In an effort to make a forceful critique of the current state of affairs, it appears that Mr. Vivanco’s bitterness got the best of him. The audience laughed at the jokes, but I’m not entirely sure that everyone was clear on where those jokes were coming from. Vivanco’s thesis is basically this: we know hardly anything about the pre colonial era in this region, but we can be sure that there was no heaven, no hell, no miracles, no saints, and no evil demons. These human constructs came with the conquistadors and the diseases.

In my last post I mentioned how some workers explained syncretism to me. Vivanco was adamant that no such thing exists. According to him, syncretism implies an equality of values, a give and a take, and that what exists here is a sort of forceful imposition of one belief  system over another. And obviously some of the old values and customs will seep through, but the base values of human as sinner, land as object of exploitation – these core values are not native at all, but foreign and Christian. And worst of all, they have led to the rampant consumption of what was, the fetishization (dare I say prostitution) of the past. But it has also engendered a complete disconnection from that history.

Just beside where the chairs were set up to view the screen there was a quote from Chief Seattle to President Pierce, from 1855, an apparent response to the latter’s ¨request¨ to buy the Chief’s land. From my research into the issue, I’m not sure these words were ever spoken – and if they were, by whom – , but they are indicative of a pervasive difference of perception between ¨conqueror¨ and ¨conquered¨ in general (those words themselves are highly charged and indicative of a certain worldview of course) and they brought back Calle 13’s words, almost verbatim:

How can you buy or sell the sky – the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us? …Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people…We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs.

According to Vivanco, Peru has traded one oppressor for another, one destructive influence for another, and it continues to be submissive and self-deprecating. His words and ideas are strong, perhaps too strong for my liking. But as my cousin suggested to me, it is perhaps necessary for this opinion to exist in a sea of unquestioning tourism and consumerism, as it serves to balance the viewpoint.

The next night, on my way home from my Portuguese class, I came across a demonstration that the previous night’s presenter had spoken to us about. I am relatively ill-informed on the issue, but the background is this: because of a free trade deal reached between Peru and the United States in 2008, the Peruvian government changed some laws so as to allow oil exploration and development on indigenous lands in the Amazon, in this case a place called Bagua. For reasons every human being can understand, the people were not happy about this, so they took to the streets. After 65 days of peaceful civil disobedience on their part, the Alan García government declared a state of emergency and sent in the army to sort out the issue. In two days of violence, 31 people were killed, the majority (surprisingly) were police. The trial that was launched just days ago in Peru, is only putting indigenous people on trial for crimes. Not one politician, not one policeman, not one soldier has even been suggested as being in the wrong. And this was the reason for the protest. ¨We are all Peruvians¨ they said, ¨We are all from Bagua.¨ ¨We are shedding our own blood.¨

Peruvian against Peruvian, the blood of a brother, at the bidding of a foreign economic interest. And this is the problem that Vivanco was trying to outline; the Bagua protesters are the proud and courageous people that Calle 13 raps about; this is the ¨white man’s¨ vision against the indigenous vision spoken (or not spoken) about by Chief Seattle; this is all part of the at once triumphant and at once tragic and bloody tapestry that Neruda weaves in Canto General. The reality continues to be far too complicated (for a blog post). There are millions of factors both external and internal, historical and contemporaneous, real and fictitious, remembered and forgotten, that put the political and cultural history of this region’s collective consciousness well beyond my personal understanding. But I hope that I can continue to learn more and understand better the place where I am, and the people with whom I am sharing. Las venas abiertas de latinoamerica (Open Veins of Latin America) by Eduardo Galeano is an obvious next step for me.

Below is a rough translation of the first verse and chorus of Latinoamerica, as well as the music video to listen to.

Until next time.


I am,

I’m what they left behind,

I’m the whole shadow of what they robbed blind,

A hidden people on the summit, my skin’s made of leather

so I can deal with any kinda weather .

I’m a factory of smoke production,

I’m the peasant labour for your consumption.

A cold face in the middle of summer,

love in the time of cholera, brother.

The sun that is born and the days’ death,

and the very best sun sets.

I am development’s incarnation,

the dry mouth of political argumentation.

The most beautiful faces I’ve ever seen

I’m a photograph of someone they disappeared.

I’m the blood in your veins,

I’m the piece of land that’s worth all this pain.

I’m a basket of beans,

I’m Maradona scoring twice against England for keeps.

I’m what my flag takes for granted,

my cordillera is the spine of our planet,

I’m everything I learned from my father

who rejects his homeland and rejects his own mother.

I am Latin America,

a legless people that keeps on walking.


You can’t buy the wind.

You can’t buy the sun.

You can’t buy the rain.

You can’t buy the warmth.

You can’t buy the clouds.

You can’t buy the colours.

You can’t buy my happiness.

You can’t buy my pain.