Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
August 22, 2005
WCR Letters to the Editor
Faith the Guatemalan way
In a recent letter to the WCR, Chief Victor Buffalo of the Cree Samson Nation (Letters, June 20) states that the policies "perpetrated by the federal government, with the full cooperation of the churches, was to destroy, perhaps permanently, the moral fabric of the native people."
The question that we ask today is: Could things have evolved differently?
During the past year, I have spent some time living in Guatemala with a Mayan Indian family in support of some extraordinary initiatives that they have embarked upon with the help of the Oblate Fathers, the Rainbow of Hope of Alberta and the Dakota Indians of northern Saskatchewan.
The relationship of the Catholic Church with the Mayan Indians of Guatemala during the last 400 years tells a different story and perhaps explains why many of our southern aboriginal natives have so much drive, pride and vision.
What Chief Buffalo bemoans among his people could have been the story of Guatemala also had some leaders in the Catholic Church not championed native language and culture and resisted racist imperial attitudes.
Bartolome de Las Casas, the first bishop of Guatemala, spent his life defending the Indians in his country and in Spain. Earlier as a wealthy landowner, and before he entered the ecclesiastical state, he freed all of his slaves. And when he became bishop he told his priests to deny absolution to anyone who maintained slaves on their estates. This was nearly 350 years before the American Proclamation of Emancipation.
Seven years ago, Bishop Gerardi, the Romero of Guatemala, was bludgeoned to death by two army officers because of his unrelenting defence of Mayan rights, culture and language. His thorough investigation of human rights abuses during the so-called civil war showed that the army and other government agencies were responsible for nearly all of the atrocities against mostly Mayan Indians and Catholics.
These events, which happened less than 20 years ago, claimed 200,000 lives. Plus, one million people were left homeless and 44,000 disappeared in a country that had a population of less than 10 million in the 1980s. A UN-sponsored report which led to the Oslo Peace accord in 1997 confirmed the findings of Gerardi's extensive 1,000 page, four-volume report which was based on personal interviews.
When Gerardi was the bishop of the vast Quiche region he urged his priests to learn the Mayan dialects. Today the Oblate Fathers, who are more recent arrivals in that country, perceive the needs of the Mayans and are endeavouring to encourage their initiatives. The reports of Father Jacques Johnson in this paper keep us informed on a regular basis.
A group of Canadian friends have recently provided the funds for the purchase of a truck for the Cunen Teachers College in the Quiche region so that neophyte teachers can be supervised in the mountain villages. In five years qualified professors, all Indians, have graduated 201 bilingual Spanish Mayan teachers without the benefit of government funding or a proper building. The community, donations and part-time work support professors at the college. Their salary is equivalent to $90 per month Canadian while their young graduates, teaching in government elementary schools, have a starting salary of $230.
Some graduates of the college go on to university working towards further degrees. The Mayans represent 67 per cent of the population of Guatemala and many others are of mixed blood. A recent statistic shows Guatemala as the poorest country in Latin America and it has the highest ratio of aboriginal peoples followed closely by Bolivia. Some Canadian First Nations people that I have met hold the Mayan people in great esteem.
During certain periods of its history the Catholic Church of Guatemala has had the wisdom to encourage and support native initiatives, culture and religion rather than imposing its own cultural parameters.
Rev. Dr. Louis Morin
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