Knowledge From the Perspective of the Mayan Ixil People

In the northern highlands of Guatemala, the Mayan Ixil people are in the process of creating their own alternative university in an effort to reclaim ancestral knowledge and reject the imposition of Western educational norms and philosophies.
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Once, deep in a hidden jungle of an unknown mountain range, an emergency meeting of all the animals of the forest was convened. A group of human hunters had surrounded the animals and had lit a ring of fire from the four cardinal directions that quickly burned towards the center. The animals, helpless, confused, and trapped, would all perish by the fire without a prompt decision.

The jaguar, the fastest in the forest, felt that they should try to run through the flames to reach the other side, but no one volunteered to go first. The mole said that they should work together to dig tunnels underground to get to the other side of the fire, but to make a tunnel big enough for deer would mean months of work. The armadillo advised that each animal in the forest should start looking for something to cover themselves to protect from the flames, but all they found for cover was quickly incinerated by the heat.

The desperation of the animals grew to a frenzy until the small and inconsequential earthworm offered an idea: "Why don't we try to dig a trench in a circle to stop the advance of the fire and wait within the circle until the flames die out?" he whispered.

After years of digging ditches in his patient work of fertilizing the forest floor, the worm knew with certainty that a trench well dug could stand up to the spread of that fire.

No one, however, paid him any attention. The larger animals had already raised the discussion into a shouting match and couldn't hear his timid whispers. The few who did manage to hear him ridiculed his proposal.

"What can a worm know?" scoffed the fox.

"He spends all day crawling through the mud. What could he possibly teach us?" cried the monkey.

And so, due to his smallness and the historical discrimination he faced, and to the supposed intellectual superiority of the other animals, the human hunters enjoyed a feast that night as all the animals of the forest died in the fire.

The multifaceted crisis facing the world today has us in a situation that is very similar to that faced by the animals of the metaphorical forest. All possible solutions to the ecological, energetic, food and other social crisis evolve from a single sector of society. Western academy, along with the economic, technological, and media powers of our day, has managed to limit the debate around possible solutions to these crises to those ideas that arise solely from the dominant Western mindset. Just as with our proverbial forest animals, they do not accept ideas that are born from other sources of knowledge. Rather, they take refuge in the supposed superiority of the Western tradition and so continue the historical process of "epistemicide" against other forms of non-Western knowledge and wisdom. In the case of indigenous and native peoples, their ancestral knowledge has been the target of Western epistemological attack. Indigenous knowledge and wisdom is born from a distinct paradigm and so incurs the wrath of the West whose knowledge is presumed as the only valid and worthwhile. Unfortunately, this "epistemicide" seems to be leading us to the same tragic end as the animals of our forest.

In the northern highlands of Guatemala, the Mayan Ixil people are in the process of creating their own alternative university in an effort to reclaim ancestral knowledge and reject the imposition of Western educational norms and philosophies. The Ixil University is unorthodox. Classes are held amongst the corn fields, in a sacred cave, next to a river or in a community lodge. The most important books are the brains and the memories of the elders in the community. Instead of merely studying Western authors and supposed experts, the Ixil University prioritizes the unwritten knowledge that the community protects.

This year, the first class of 12 students graduated with a technical degree in rural development with emphasis on natural resources. During this final year of study, each student engaged in an intensive process of community research to complete their graduation thesis. As tutor of these 12 Ixil students, I had the immense privilege to break free from the shackles of Western academia and learn from non-Western epistemologies -- in this case from the Mayan Ixil people.

Due to the historic discrimination suffered by the Ixil people, there is a risk that the theses of these 12 students and their important findings will not receive their deserved attention and publicity. Many people within the Ixil region ridicule the Ixil University because "the students don't read many books and just spend time talking with the elders" who are presumed ignorant, backwards and illiterate to the progress brought by Western forms of knowledge. The fact that the Ministry of Education of Guatemala has refused to accredit this university because it does not have three buildings nor an annual operating budget of half a million dollars only confirms this obvious discrimination and bias towards universities that reproduce the standards and norms of Western knowledge.

This brief essay then, attempts to propagate the research done by the 12 students graduated from the Ixil University and make visible the immense value of the distinct epistemology, knowledge and wisdom that define the Ixil people.

The Canadian anthropologist Marlene Brandt Castellano describes four characteristics of native, indigenous knowledge. Although she refers to indigenous traditions in general, these features, I believe, apply to the Ixil knowledge described and synthesized by the 12 theses written by the graduates of the Ixil University.

The first characteristic is that knowledge in the Ixil context is personal. Castellano explains that "indigenous knowledge is rooted in personal experience and lays no claim to universality." Knowledge is highly contextual and linked to the peculiarities of a particular place. In today's global crises, however, supposedly universal solutions to the world's problems are formulated behind a desk in the office of a development agency or in some faculty of a North American University.

For example, to limit the emission of greenhouse gases, the United Nations through the carbon market allows the government of the Netherlands (a polluter country) to pay a Honduran company to build a mega-hydroelectric dam in Ixil territory in Guatemala to export energy to San Salvador. This "solution" (and the knowledge that conceived it) to an aspect of the ecological crisis of our time is obviously divorced from the particularity of a distinct and concrete place. The supposed "universality " of the carbon market to the problem of global warming is not only not working, but allows for the negative effects of this "solution" to be hidden in unknown places populated by supposedly "disposable" people.

The solutions arising from the specific context of Ixil knowledge, however, are intimately tied to the reality of the Ixil territory and reflected in the students' dissertations. To care for the community forest (and thus respond to global warming at a local level), the student Vicente Jacinto Raymundo, considers that the Ixil mindset focuses on the ancestral value of respect where "all things were held to be sacred."

Vicente recounts the elders' teachings that "water is not a resource to be bought and sold, but rather a vital liquid that existed before one was born and will continue to exist after one dies."

Ixil knowledge considers that the responsibility of caring for the natural resources of the community begins with a recognition of the limitations of human beings and does not presume to have the ability nor the right to blindly believe in technological progress or the supposed ability of humans to control their environment.

The knowledge demonstrated in the dissertations of students of the Ixil University does not assert itself to be universally applicable to other contexts or other peoples. Rather, it is presumed to be a response to the intimate reality of a particular territory. Knowledge about how to protect the forest or preserve a river is personal because Ixil village life is structured on a human scale that is not separated from its surroundings. Communities thus have to live with the consequences of their knowledge and practices thus creating an intimacy with the natural world. It becomes evident that a knowledge rooted in the personal experience of a particular community is more effective in responding to the many global issues today.

The second feature is that Ixil knowledge is knowledge transmitted through an oral tradition. This characteristic of Ixil knowledge seemingly contradicts the requirement of asking students to create a written report of their research work. Certainly the most difficult part of the dissertation process for students was the actual writing of the report. The wording, in many cases, did not conform to the rigorous standards of Western academia. The Ixil University, however, was created in order to create opportunities for college education for young people who were excluded from the formal and official education system. The fact that students who came from humble peasant families could not afford the high fees of a prestigious university or a private high school of esteemed academic reputation was the cause of a few grammatical errors.

The wording of the dissertations of the students revealed an important aspect of their oral tradition of their culture. Written reports were tediously repetitive. In some cases, the same sentence may be repeated up to five times verbatim in the same paragraph. This repetitiveness could be misinterpreted as a lack of education by the Western academic hierarchy, but at a deeper level, it represented an essential feature of a culture that historically has depended on oral transmission of knowledge. Castellano believes that "aboriginal people know that knowledge is power and ... the teacher has an obligation to consider whether the learner is ready to use knowledge responsibly."

Jacinto Cedillo Brito did his research on peasant agriculture in the Ixil region. In his written report, he persistently repeated that "the elders teach us that the most important aspect of agriculture is to maintain the soil strong." He repeated that phrase because when reviewing the notes of his fieldwork, that wisdom was shared by each farmer, elder, and ancestral authority he interviewed in his community. The repetitiveness of his writing was not for lack of other ideas, but a result of trying to be faithful to the shared knowledge of the community elders.

In the oral tradition, there is a great responsibility to transmit knowledge to from the elders to the young, but also a responsibility to be able to use this knowledge and to implement it in daily life. In the Ixil region, as with other indigenous peoples, the generation gap between the elders and the young has been exacerbated by the intrusion of Western culture. The research process of the thesis was an opportunity to re-establish communication between the two generations. However, many of the elders and ancestral authorities were suspicious and surprised by this unexpected interest of young people in ancestral forms of knowledge. It is very likely that the repetitiveness in the writing of the dissertations reflects the wisdom of the Ixil elders who chose to share with young people the knowledge that could be used in the praxis of building and maintaining a coherent community. Knowledge is not transmitted simply to earn a diploma, but to be used to maintain the traditions and life of the community.

A third characteristic is that Ixil knowledge is knowledge based on experience. Something is known because one has experienced it personally. To describe the Ixil community justice system and how it functions, Aurelio Santiago Ceto based his thesis on his participation as secretary of the indigenous authorities of his community. This knowledge then is "qualitative and subjective rather than quantitative and objective" -- as prioritized by Western knowledge. To know something implies a personal experience that makes one part of the learning process. Nothing is known in the abstract or purely conceptual.

In the same vein, the Western world prides itself on having unlimited access to seemingly infinite information. If one wants to know about forest management, for example, a simple Google search will give enough information to fill years of reading. Domingo Cedillo Cobo, however, decided to do his dissertation on community forest management "to ensure a future for my children where they will have an environment full of a great variety of trees to ensure an abundance of water, clean air and good soil for planting." For the Ixil people, knowing how to manage the communal forest implies an intimate relationship with trees and a knowledge of their uses for the local community.

According to Vicente Raymundo Cedillo, the problem of deforestation in his community is that "school teachers give talks to students about the importance of the forest, but kids today do not know how to respect the trees. Teachers do not recognize our culture as indigenous people and this furthers the loss of our distinct culture and mentality."

Many young people today in the Ixil region can repeat ad verbatim textbook readings on the importance of water, forests, and other natural resources. This has been the great achievement of the Western banking-system of education. Despite having memorized the importance of forests, few young people today know how to care for natural resources in their community because the collective experience of maintaining a communal resource is being lost due to the imposition of Western norms of individualism and the privatization of natural resources. If knowledge is not subjected to an experience, it inevitably becomes alien and useless.

The last characteristic of Ixil knowledge is that it is a holistic knowledge. While Western knowledge is divided into infinite specializations, indigenous knowledge seeks to understand the whole.

Elias Solis studied the conflict between the three religions present in his community. His research showed that the conflict was not an issue that could be analyzed separately from the entire life of the community. To understand the issue of religious conflict in his community, he considered it necessary to explore a variety of topics including communal forest management, traditional Mayan spirituality, the history of the community, the role of armed conflict, etc. Instead of trying to isolate a concept or a variable to study it in isolation as does Western knowledge, Ixil knowledge seeks to understand the web of relationships that connects all.

Personal knowledge passed down orally, holistic and based on experience, defines Ixil knowledge. The Ixil University is seeking to create a space to make visible and rescue this knowledge for future generations of the Ixil people. Only through strengthening autonomous forms of knowledge can the Ixil people continue to build the road to B'anla Tiichajil (The Good Life) belonging to their own reality. But beyond the importance of ancestral knowledge for Ixil youth, Ixil knowledge also provides clues to find answers to the problems that affect the world today. The Ixil University then, also exists as an unusual and important institution to announce and propagate knowledge that has been historically ignored and rejected. Just as the humble earthworm, the Ixil people and their traditional lifestyle offer solutions and ideas to address the problems facing the globalized world. Will we listen?

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