By Greg Hessel
On December 18, 1991, thirty-one people, who speak and pray in six different languages, gathered in Panama City to create a common community to walk 5,000 miles, praying for those whom we have killed in the past 500 years and listening to and learning from those who still suffer from oppression. I decided to join this pilgrimage which will culminate on October 12, 1992, "Columbus Day," in Washington, D.C.
Rising to rooster's crows, praying in the pre-dawn light, and walking eight hours a day under the baking Panama sun, we have already endured painfully blistered feet. We have played, run, and bathed on beautiful black-sand beaches. We have laughed, sweated, and felt the strangeness of a warm summer breeze blowing on Christmas day. We have seen hot deserted hills and flat green fields of sugar cane. We have been showered with flowers by peasant women and have passed the night experiencing the incredible hospitality of a campesino community where straw and mud walls reflect a place where life is old and work is basic.
The image of Panama that has been most deeply imprinted on my mind, however, is that of marching with Panamanians through Panama City on the eve of the second anniversary that it was destroyed by U.S. bombs. Bonfires crackled and illuminated to us the ruins of El Chorrillo while a broken, ruined man hysterically cried to us, "I saw the dead bodies. I can't accept this." He pleaded for an ear while some of us tried to comfort him, trying to image the horrors he saw and the scars he lives with.
Oswaldo Deleon Kantule is a Kuna Indian from Panama. I asked this proud, young indigenous man how the conquest of Columbus affected his people. "First of all," he said, "the Kuna history is very different. It is not something of the past It is living. It includes the present, the future, and the past...Everything in nature is circular. What happened with the conquest is not something of the past It is something that is actually occurring with indigenous people today."
Oswaldo told us about a Kuna prophecy that people with light skin "would come with bad intentions and massacre us for our gold." At the time Balboa arrived in Panama, a ferocious persecution began which eventually killed approximately two million Indians in Panama in 1492; almost the same number as the actual population of Panama today. Today, only 10% of the population is indigenous.
"History is living," Oswaldo said. "Everything repeats itself. For us the conquest is not over. These days, they don't kill us physically, but they assassinate us in our memory, and they continue to violate our human rights to live as dignified human beings on a small piece of land, practicing our cultural and religious practices. "There cannot be peace in a land where there are hungry, indigenous people and sick children. If we don't have a natural environment, we won't have peace either. Because it is nature that gives us our food, our medicine, our clothes, everything."
In the spirit of attempting to transform the next 500 years, I invite all of you to reflect with me on how present ways of thinking and our way of life (i.e. 6% of the worlds' population uses 40% of the worlds' natural resources) might be chains which continue the conquest against Oswaldo and his people. Thay teaches us that if we look deeply into the present moment we can see that it contains the past. Because we are a continuation of all previous generations, the past is not lost to us. Rather, the past has become the present So by touching the present moment, we have access to the past. Furthermore, by living fully in the present, we shape the future.
In 1992, as people across the world prepare to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the "discovery" of the Americas, a deeper look brings the painful awareness of the need to transform this 500 year cycle of death and destruction. Looking deeply into the present moment can be very distressing. Yellow ribbons honor mass murder on church doors. Violence runs rampant in inner cities. Young black males and indigenous people suffer from genocide and death squads. Civil wars terrorize peasants in Central America. Holes are appearing in the ozone, and experts estimate there will be 19 million homeless people in the United States by the year 2000.
Looking deeply into any of these present-day tragedies, we can see the fruits of a lost European explorer who was rescued by the Indians of Haiti nearly 500 years ago—and then proceeded to exterminate them. Thus, with Columbus, the first seeds of colonialism, imperialism, and genocide were planted, watered, and sprouted in the Americas.
Like weeds that go to seed, the greed and violence matured and spread tens of thousands of additional seeds. With these came the conquest and mass murder of Indians by Cortez in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, and the English settlers in Massachusetts and Virginia. This violence was followed by more violence as surely as winter follows fall. Five hundred years after the initial invasion, we are still reaping its bitter fruits.
In 1992, we have a unique opportunity to reflect on and repent for the tragedies of past generations and redirect ourselves toward a more nonviolent future. Our ability to do this will affect the happiness of our children and our children's children.
Greg Hessel is a member of the Order of lnterbeing en route from Panama City to Washington, D.C. until October, when he will return home to Boston, Massachusetts.