Author: Lyla June Johnston

Eagle and Condor Curriculum: A Visit to the Yánesha, Indigenous Peoples of Central Peru

The sky was black and beautiful. The stars shone above like glistening guardians of the night. Guided only by fire light, we scaled the Amazonian hillside. I yearned to take my shoes off and so I did. I wanted the soles of my feet to touch the silky, black soil that nourished the rainforest all around us. I wanted to plant myself to the land, like hundreds of different tree species do, so silently and wise. Constellations spoke stories to our skin and I felt alive with gratitude, joy and amazement.

The leaders of our pack—The Yánesha Indigenous Peoples of central Peru—guided us to a beautiful rock outcropping that they have prayed to for generations unknown. The medicine man of their community made offerings of tobacco, hoja de coca, smoke, and beautiful words. “Abuela. Abuelo. No queremos oro ni plata. Queremos la vida,” he pronounced to the night. “Grandmother, Grandfather Stone. We want neither gold nor silver. We want life.” I shuddered with joy and pride, that I could be a human among this human…a human among these humans. Then, one by one, he invited the souls who came to join him to stand before the sacred stone and share their heart’s dream. A collection of Peruvian students, professors, and local community members offered their sincere words to the rock, to the soil, to the sky, to the plants, and to the spirits that held us in a cradle of beauty.

Finally, the people of the North, the people of the Eagle, stepped forward to state their cause and plant a promise of support at the side of their Condor relatives. Dr. Greg Cajete, of Santa Clara Pueblo. Jacquelyn Cordova of the Diné nation. And myself, a mixed blood of Diné, Cheyenne and other bloodlines. We came forward to give our songs, the precious words of our language, our deepest prayers to our Yánesha relatives who took us in so graciously. The sacred pipe of the Plains People was laid on the ground before the stone and co processes that would be appropriate for the creation of our own lessons and units. We were determined to design language curricula that effectively taught the youth how to speak our dying languages.

There was a lot of emotion to this process. For 500 years, all of our nations had been told, over and over, that our cultures were inferior to the rest of the world. For many of us, we had come to believe this was true. And so even though we yearned to spend time in the communities, ceremonies, pedagogies and learning styles of our people, many of us felt as if it was not enough. We had come to believe that in order to have success we would have to play by the rules of the ruling class. For instance, many of us believed we would have to teach in secular, university settings to be real teachers and to teach real things.

Dr. Cajete and I sought to shatter this illusion. We spoke stories of our own experiments in community education. I told them about how I organized 100 Diné elders, children, parents and teenagers to create our own summer school. I talked about how we devised the curriculum ourselves in a liberated space. I showed pictures of all our classes which included lessons in weaving, traditional foods, land restoration, traditional architecture, philosophy, sacred songs, botany, yoga, moccasin making and other topics that were important to us. I showed them how we didn’t ask for any government permission to do this and did not adhere to any state education standards. I showed them how my community members, some of whom did not even graduate high school, created entire plans of learning that were implemented with incredible success.

I showed them how our education doesn’t have to be like Western education. It can be intergenerational, instead of age-stratified. I showed them it can be communal, instead of individualistic. I showed them it can occur outside, instead of in fluorescent lit rooms. I showed them we can share the work of teaching with all the students, instead of positioning ourselves as the only experts. I showed them we can learn through doing an activity instead of reading about it. I showed them we had more than enough knowledge and cultural metaphors to be effective educators in our own right.

After my presentation, I had the extreme honor and privilege of working with a group of Yánesha educators as they devised their curriculum. We followed the Zais model as explained to us by Dr. Cajete and outlined every facet of the teaching plan. They decided they would teach the Yánesha language to their people through “La Siembra,” or the traditional practice of planting seeds and growing forests. They decided that their tribal values and paradigms would guide the process and the vocabulary would arise from words needed and used while planting. About 8 of these professionals engaged in vivacious discussion about how it would all go down. I felt joyous to see that they were connected to each other and to their work. Our prayers planted just one night ago were already being answered. What a blessed time it was.

I am home now. Back in the deserts of my people in what is now known as the Southwestern United States, but what I know as Diné Bikeyah. I love the way the sun shines and the sand beams. I am a long way from the lush forests of Amazonian Peru, the land of Yánesha brothers and sisters. And yet, a piece of me still lives with them and I have carried the lessons they bestowed on me. I am deeply honored to have had this miraculous and magical opportunity to board a steel bird, fly across Turtle Island, and establish kinship and solidarity with the people of the Condor. And what a smile I get when I realize that this is just the beginning.