What Is Indian Theology?

Teología India

“Nadie es dueño de Dios”. (Nobody owns God) – these five words summarize a revolutionary movement that is sweeping indigenous Mexico and, increasingly, indigenous communities throughout the Americas. This movement, called Teologia India, started over twenty years ago among Catholic priests and nuns working with indigenous groups in Chiapas, the Sierra Norte de Puebla, and other indigenous areas of Mexico. Its best-known exponent is Samuel Ruiz, until recently bishop of San Cristobal, but many others, like Jan de Vos and Eleazar Lopez, author of the quote above, have made major contributions to its developing theology.

Samuel Ruiz explains Indian Theology as follows:

I believe that it has not been sufficiently recognized that there is a salvific presence of God in all religions, and, of course, in the pre-Columbian ones. … A Kuna Indian said, “God is so big that He has permitted every group to see Him…. God is so unfathomable, so infinite, and incomprehensible that no person, no human group can have a total perception of God. Therefore, God permits his presence and our perception of Him to be divided among the peoples, so that they may enter into a dialogue with each other, so that they may share their perception of God with each other.”

The sources where we perceive the presence of God are within the indigenous culture. It is not based, as for us, in a philosophy, but in mythology. A myth is a way of reflecting “abstractly” about things. Through their myths, the Indians carry out their reflection or their wisdom transmitted through their ancestors. These myths are the guardians of the tradition, and they allow the community to reflect about their tradition.

Thus, Indian Christian Theology presupposes the recognition of a revelation of God in all cultures – what Vatican II called Seeds of the Word… fortunately, Christopher Columbus did not bring God in his three caravels, since God was already present among the Indian communities.

It is impossible to insist too much on the importance of this recognition. It permits a dialogue that has not been possible in the 500 years since the first evangelization of the Americas. In that evangelization, a culture was imposed over the indigenous culture in order to express the gospel. There was no reciprocal dialogue, since that would have run into a theological presupposition that denied the existence of cultural differences. In the framework of the theology of the time of the Conquest, it was not possible to recognize anything positive in a religion that was not Christian. Non-Christian religions were considered shadows of error and shades of death… We are only now beginning to correct this grave error after Vatican II…

Interview with Sylvia Marcos, in Ixtus, 1999

But revolutionary as this is for the Church, what is really important about this movement is not its theology, but its practical consequences. By validating indigenous religious beliefs and practices, rather than condemning or denigrating them, the Indian Theology movement has provided an ideological basis for an indigenous renaissance. It is this renaissance that is the focus of the project.

This renaissance is not a movement from above, led by bishops and theologians, but a movement from below, in which thousands of Native Americans are seeking respect for their traditions, and the right to control their own lives. Indians are claiming the right not just to the equal participation in Mexican national life so long denied them, but to autonomy – the right to live their lives in their own way, by their own rules, rather than those imposed by the nation.

Jan de Vos, a Belgian Jesuit who has worked with Mexican Indians, and especially with the Lacandones in Chiapas, writes:

… the Catholic Church discovered little by little, along with the Indians, the catechists, and the deacons, that God does not reveal himself solely in the Sacred Scriptures, nor only in what we call the Tradition of the Church, but in also in the history of every people (pueblo)… that what are called Seeds of the Word are scattered through the history of all peoples. The Indians… did not need to be told twice that God had probably spoken in their history… and this led in Chiapas and in other areas to what is called ‘Indian Theology’….

“The Indians… say that the Word of God which the evangelicals and the neo-Catholics preach to them is only a path, but not the only path. They say they began to organize themselves politically, and that neither the Catholic Church, much less the evangelicals, knew how to help them … [Instead,] the leftists began to help them organize….

These Maoists began to proselytize politically by helping the Indians to organize themselves, in close cooperation with Indian catechists, since they had the confidence of the communities… A conflict with the diocese rapidly developed, as the Church realized that the Maoists were using it.

… as a result of this political organizing activity, the Indians learned to take charge and to discuss their own problems in assemblies, in a way very similar to their traditional consensus-seeking process. Obviously, the Catholic Church accepted that in the primitive church this process also existed, and said: ‘As Christians you Indians have the option of returning to the root of Christianity, to those Christian communities of which the Franciscan and Dominican friars of the 16th century dreamed when they thought that perhaps it would be possible to establish them among the Indians…

In 1983 this organization was shaken by the arrival of a small guerilla group which formed part of the so-called Forces of National Liberation. The group that was half Indian and half mestizo, and it was here that Subcomandante Marcos appeared for the first time… This small group established itself in the jungle, because it was there… that the Indians had most successfully organized themselves as the result of the patient and slow work of the Catholic Church and the more rapid work of the Maoists in the 1970s …  So this cell said, ‘here, more than other regions of Mexico there is the possibility of implanting something much more revolutionary.’ Because its objective was to produce a radical change on the national level, a change towards socialism.

… The Zapatistas made an offer to the Indians. They asked the Indians, ‘Do you have arms?’ ‘Yes, a few… which we use to defend ourselves from the death squads.’ The offer of the Zapatistas was to transform this small defensive force into an offensive movement aimed at insurgency, at a change in the national society. The Indians replied: ‘OK, we have walked on the path of the Word of God. We have also walked on the path of organization, but they haven’t helped because the authorities won’t listen to us. So let’s see if it is possible to take this third path, the path of arms… Why not try this path to see if it can resolve our problems?’

…The path of the Word of God was the first that the Indians tried, and till today it is still a path. The path of organization continues, what I call the path of ‘negotiated resistance’, but with great difficulty because of the decision of some to join the Zapatistas and others not to join.

The third path gathered strength among the Indians until a conflict developed between the Catholic Church and the armed struggle. … the Church said, especially in the person of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, ‘the path of arms leads to death, don’t follow this path’… Many Indians left the ranks of the Zapatistas, until in 1993 Marcos was forced to act.

There is a fourth path… that of their own experience. The Indians say, ‘OK, the Word of God came to us from the evangelicals and the Catholics. The organization was also partly taught to us by leftwing outsiders. The path of arms was also offered to us by a small group of insurgents. But there is a path that has always been our own. It is the path of our own history, our own experience, and it is perhaps the school where we can learn most. We can call it the path of our roots’

Jan de Vos, Tocando Fondo, pp 19-22

It is this fourth path that the Totonacs of Huehuetla are struggling to follow. The film, Democracia Indigena, documents some of that struggle.

I have been fortunate to observe this development in a single community over more than thirty years. Huehuetla is a 90% Totonac community in the Sierra Norte de Puebla. Since 1970, I have finished three films in Huehuetla. The first, “The Tree of Life“, released in an English version in 1975, focuses on the Danza de los Voladores. The second, “The Tree of Knowledge”, released in 1980, compares two ways of knowledge, that of the Danza de los Huehues and that of the public schools. The third, “Democracia Indigena“, released in 1999, focuses on the municipal elections of 1998 as an example of the Teologia India movement in action.

Until the 1970’s, Huehuetla had changed little since the Porfiriato, when mestizos first took control of the municipio. By the end of the decade, however, the advent of public education, roads, television, and government agencies such as Inmecafe and INI, made the Totonacs more conscious, and more resentful, of their subordinate status. These changes coincided with the organizing effort of the Partido Socialista del Trabajo, which provided an initial ideological framework for many Totonacs.

When young, activist priests arrived in 1980, they found a core of bi-lingual teachers, catechists, and other Totonac ladinos (i.e., hispanicized Totonacs) looking for ways to change their condition. What the priests and nuns did, essentially, was to offer the Totonacs in general, and the ladinos especially, the church as a space to express their aspirations, and an ideological continuity – in the form of Teologia India – around which to organize themselves.

In 1989, the ladinos and other Totonacs set up the Organizacion Independiente Totonaca (OIT), a civil association (asociacion civil). The OIT chose a list of candidates, made an electoral alliance with the PRD, campaigned actively, and won by a landslide. In spite of false starts, the alliance effected a dramatic transformation in the lives of the Totonac population, by redirecting state and federal funds to projects aimed at benefitting the marginalized rural areas where the Totonacs live, instead of to the cabecera, or town center, where themestizos live.

The OIT/PRD alliance governed for nine years, until losing to the PRI in 1998. Over the nine years, there was an increasing split between the OIT and the PRD. This led, in the 1998 election, to the disaffection of many OIT supporters from the PRD list of candidates. Combined with the successful efforts of the PRI to recruit Totonac support to add to their mestizo constituency, this split led to the victory of the PRI.

Since the elections, the OIT has broken its electoral alliance with the PRD, and is concentrating on building its own alternative structure, with the aim of organizing the Totonac majority to seek autonomy. The basic problem is that the OIT, in line with the concepts of the Teologia India movement, rejects the national political process in favor of indigenous autonomy – Democracia Indigena – while the PRD accepts the national political system and seeks to work within it.

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