Eaters of Gold
Indigenous stories in an era of planetary grief and hope
In sixteenth-century Peru, Quechua communities witnessed the effects of the insatiable desire for gold and silver of Spanish colonials, whose aggressive mining operations using Indigenous labor began not long after their arrival to the Andes in the 1530s. In the 1600s, Quechua scribe Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala recounted a conversation between the Inka leader Wayna Qapaq and the conquistador Pedro de Candia:
Wayna Qapaq: “Do you eat this gold?” [“Kay q’oritachu mikhunki?”]
Pedro de Candia: “Yes. We eat this gold.”
Although it is unclear if this dialogue actually took place, it highlights how my Andean Indigenous ancestors might have viewed their changing world and draws attention to the crucial disruptions to the ways in which they lived and who they believed themselves to be in relation to others. “Imagined as gold- and silver-eaters,” writes Aymara scholar Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui in her book Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: On Decolonising Practices and Discourses, “shrouded like cadavers by their beards as they speak at night with their papers, the Christian Spaniards’ corporeality pushes the boundaries of the human.”
This observation is notable because for many years, the dominant academic literature did not call into question the humanity of colonizers, despite their brutal actions. Murder, disfigurement, sexual violence, and slavery under conquest seemed to enjoy amnesty in the name of establishing a new regime and society that was assumed to be more civilized than anything that Indigenous peoples could have built. Instead, most early European scholarship debated the humanity of the Indigenous peoples of the Andes. They were viewed as subhuman, inferior in their abilities, indecent in their morals, and subjective in their spirituality and worldviews. Instead, Western Europeans, as Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano has pointed out, believed themselves to be the moderns of humanity and its history—the newest and most advanced of the species, the exclusive creators, bearers, and protagonists of a type of modernity specific to an effective model of global power. In her 2015 book Race, Rights and Rebels: Alternatives to Human Rights and Development from the Global South, scholar and activist Julia Suárez-Krabbe explains that coloniality depends upon a death ethic of war, which determines who gets to live and who must die. She thus refers to the exercise of violence in coloniality as the “death project,” which fuels racism, capitalism, patriarchy, and the desacralization of nature.
Indeed, almost five hundred years ago, the amnesty afforded to those who committed atrocities against humans in the name of empire also included conquest of the natural world—mountains, lakes and rivers, and plant, animal, and insect species. What kind of a precedent did such disregard of a living earth set? Today, industrialists and mercenaries destroy swaths of rainforest across the Amazon with relative impunity in the name of national economic advancement. Under coloniality—long-term patterns of power that arose from colonialism—land is a resource, rather than a being whom Indigenous peoples see as our mother, and aligned with a tacit or explicit agenda of modernity, humans celebrate their manipulation of that resource. Yet in the way that Quechua people challenged their invaders’ greed for gold and land, we might ask, what makes up one’s humanity? Is it possible to lose our humanity, and can it be restored? Can an ethic of human kindness transcend the role of the individual—can such a practice assuage global economies? Is it possible to shift the course of unchecked development that works in the name of progress—can people correct harms and prevent further environmental damage in a distant future?
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic reached many Indigenous families and communities, the Colombian band Bomba Estéreo released the song “Déjame Respirar/Let Me Breathe,” featuring Afro-Colombian singer Nidia Góngora. The song begins (Spanish lyrics translated into English),
I am the earth
I am the sea
The sun and the dawn
I am the salt
I am the jungle and the mountain
Thunder and love
I am struggle and stone
River and candor
Let me breathe
I am calling you
Hear my chant
I am Pacific, forest, rain and flowers
I am kettle and jasmine
Reef of colors
Beach, trail and hummingbird
The song’s refrain—déjame respirar/let me breathe, que sigo vivo/I am still alive—is indicative of Indigenous knowledge systems worldwide that center interconnectedness—the embodied knowing that we need, desire, hope for, and are each other—and interrelationality—which for me transcends simply existing with nature to include respect and love of nature and entails a strong appreciation for the cycles of life across this planet. According to Quechua cosmovivencia, the lived daily experience of our cosmologies or understandings of the universe, we comprehend the Andean world as ordered in a particular way—hanaq, kay, and ukhu pacha—the sky world, this present world, and the world inside/within/under the earth. Convivial interaction and conversation among beings involve actors that are human, nonhuman (monsters and other entities), and more than human (animals, mountains, trees, waters), and Quechua peoples recognize our connections to our living and deceased human relatives, as well as to the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and so forth. Because these beings and our different worlds are never separate, we are responsible for living together well. What we do from this place from where we stand, kay pacha, and in this moment in time, kunan pacha, matters to the sky and inner earth worlds.
In recent history for Quechua educators, much of our work has had to do with how our people navigate the world through governance, community structures, ceremonies, and other human interactions and, at the same time, grapple with what it means to confront complex environmental shifts brought on by infrastructure development, industrialized farming, and the extraction of natural resources. We see and feel that our lands are deeply troubled by activities contributing to environmental pollution and climate change. Such activities have resulted in costs of health and life for all species in the Andes, which notably span Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.
The Yupiaq education scholar Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley advocates for nature-mediated education as an educational philosophy and land- and values-based pedagogy for Indigenous peoples. “They believe all plants, winds, mountains, rivers, lakes, and creatures of the earth possess a spirit, and therefore have consciousness and life,” he writes of the Alaskan Indigenous Yupiaq people in a 1998 publication coauthored with Ray Barnhardt. “Everything is alive and aware, requiring that relationships be maintained in a respectful way so as not to upset the balance.” He also proposes that Indigenous education ought to begin with the five basic elements of the universe—earth, air, fire, water, and spirit—and that students should come to understand the gifts of each element along with the human activities that contribute to their perpetuation or destruction.
For Indigenous peoples, our existence relies upon our environment, but our comportment with the earth’s beings determines our humanity. Our human being-ness is not a given—our connection to our earth makes us real, and as we distance ourselves and become more disconnected from our earth, we can become less human.
I recently spoke with a friend from one of the Indigenous Ojibwe bands in the state of Minnesota. We were discussing the range of human responses to environmental pollution and climate change, including ecomodernism. I asked, “Would you still be an Ojibwe person if you didn’t have your lakes and trees, if every inch of Anishinaabe-akiing (the land to which the people belong) was covered with concrete?” My friend’s response: “I don’t know. Probably not.”
The thing about Anishinaabe-akiing and Indigenous conceptualizations of land is that when Indigenous peoples view every being as interrelated, we also view every place as interconnected—lands, waters, and winds communicate with each other. Thus, Anishinaabe-akiing may not solely reference Ojibwe lands but all lands connected to them, to any place where Ojibwe actions in their homelands may have consequences, and to any place that an Ojibwe person might set foot.
In Quechua there is a grammatical-philosophical distinction between an “inclusive we” and “exclusive we.” The inclusive we could imply you the listener and me the speaker along with anyone else who is with both you and me—as in all of us. The exclusive we could imply just me the speaker and you the listener if we are engaged in something together, or it could imply me the speaker and anyone who is with me, but not you, the listener. This distinction is significant when it comes to our lands and our waters. In the regions of Junín and Cusco in Peru where I engage in research and educational design (which envisions and crafts learning and teaching) with Quechua community members, I have only ever heard the inclusive we in reference to our land, ayllpanchis. This is about interconnected land responsibility. Therefore, what Anishinaabe-akiing and ayllpanchis also signify is that Ojibwe and Quechua peoples hold distinct relationships to the places that they have lived for millennia and, as a result, know those places very well. They also hold responsibilities to care for those places in certain ways for the sake of all of us, and those relationships must be secured and those responsibilities protected. Kanaka Maoli scholar Julie Kaomea writes about the relationship between kuleana and education, where kuleana is translated to English as rights, concern, privilege, or responsibility. Similarly, Quechua farmers, for example, will not speak of “rights” without referencing the generosity of mother earth and human responsibilities to care for the land and beings.
What then is the role of education at all levels, from birth and early childhood through adult learning and in all spaces in and out of the classroom, toward good interrelationship and healthy interconnectedness? Right now, most of us are eaters of gold, except for perhaps the uncontacted tribes of the world’s rain forests. If we drive a car, for instance, or take a bus that consumes fossil fuels or a car that uses lithium batteries, live in a house that requires energy, buy food from a grocery store that participates in the global market, or wear manufactured clothing, we are implicated under coloniality. For Indigenous peoples, it will do us little good to promote schooling that continues to assume that a “good life” is achievable through human-centered social and economic mobility, as if those who live more so-called developed lives are the only beings who matter.
Educators from many places and at all levels can instead offer our students lessons that center connection with the universe and the idea that the earth and her beings love us all, as renowned traditional ecological knowledge scholar Deborah McGregor reminds us. Across all learning communities, we can consider the proposal that no educational design is sufficient without attention to our planet and place. Rather, with fellow educators, we might begin with questions that are designed to continually be revisited. For example, referencing the poetry of Mary Oliver, we can ask, what is required for us to understand that we are one of many precious designs on this planet and for this teaching to be remembered not just in our lifetimes but across the rest of human history? How does such a teaching contribute to environmental action—can it affirm an ethic of human kindness shared with our own species and others in perpetuity?
We can also consider environmental pedagogical approaches that creative educators have offered over the past several decades and innovate them according to our needs. Place-based education (PBE) asks us to bring to the fore the links among environment, cultural practices, languages, and ways of knowing and teaching. Māori scholar Wally Penetito reminds us that PBE encompasses ecological literacy, community studies, the specific relationship between place and space, the relationship between place and identity, and the politics involving biotechnology and biodiversity. He offers four essential characteristics of PBE: (1) it emerges from the particular attributes of a place, and its content is specific to the geography, ecology, sociology, politics, and other dynamics of that place; (2) it is inherently multidisciplinary and promotes team teaching among educators and community people; (3) it is inherently experiential; and (4) it connects place with self and community in multigenerational and multicultural ways that integrate community resources. Penetito also notes that, for Indigenous peoples, PBE pedagogy is based on several assumptions—that a sense of place is a fundamental human need, that the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their environments as cohabitors is a formal one, and that Indigenous peoples cannot sustain the embodiment of ways of knowing and being without the conscious union of mind and spirit, known in Māori terms as wānanga.
What Indigenous educators continue to do in our teaching spaces—which are ostensibly everywhere—is to interrogate what might be problematic as we rethink our own desires within coloniality/modernity. For Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators, it is crucial to develop sets of questions with our students that allow them and us to interrogate dominant assumptions and practices rooted in the death ethic of war (who, for both human and more-than-human beings, gets to live and who must die) and to debate these issues with others, inside and outside of classrooms. For example, whose voices are missing—including Indigenous, minoritized, and more-than-human perspectives? How are these voices essential to the ways in which solution-oriented students understand particular phenomena and patterns, from mining to climate change? Are Indigenous knowledges popularly looked to as saving the planet—and why might this be problematic? Just how, when, and where are robust Indigenous perspectives incorporated in coursework for students? What kinds of sources are represented in our teaching and research, how do we cite them, and how might we challenge convention regarding what constitutes a legitimate scholarly source—for example, can we uphold science with and as story? As scholars Sharon Todd and María Elena García ask, how are affect and emotion addressed in teaching and learning, including with regard to environmental and human pain and grief due to planetary suffering?
In my experience as an Indigenous community youth worker, educational researcher, and faculty member, I also offer the following prompts and guiding questions that I have used throughout my work in communities and classrooms.
1. Teach for appreciation of a pluriverse, or the idea that many worlds exist in our universe. How might we recognize that concept and work toward vital and positive human and more-than-human interrelationships? How can every educational process thoughtfully and consistently promote regard for many ways of knowing—through interlinked study of law, policy, science, and narrative?
2. Champion Indigenous languages everywhere, always. If we teach for pluriversal appreciation, the power of emplaced Indigenous languages is immeasurable. Yet like Indigenous places, Indigenous languages are experiencing rapid assaults on their existence, including the devaluation of their daily usage due to the economic and political power of dominant languages. Ask, how will my research and teaching contribute to interventions to these assaults, mitigation of damage, prevention of further harms, and protection for their survival and growth and in connection to the very places where these languages are spoken?
3. Make time for grieving. What do I know at this moment, and how does that knowledge make me feel? Acknowledge your own and your students’ solastalgia—a term used by Glenn Albrecht and other scholars to describe distress resulting from environmental change. Affect in teaching and learning is about love and sorrow. Even social emotional learning—which includes critical inquiry, mindfulness, compassion, and empathy—is a process of learning, teaching, loving, and grieving. However, such learning is incomplete if it is only human-centered and therefore must include how our internal ecologies interact with all our human and more-than-human relatives.
4. Offer opportunities for educator and student reflexivity with hope, intelligence, and agency. In other words, how does each being in every educational process account for our own presence, action, and inaction in our learning worlds? How can we see our own and others’ stories—from creation stories to place-based poetry and song to those narratives that tell of high and low points in life—in all of their wisdom and science, honor their contextualization through our understanding, and do the deep research and advocacy that moves them beyond the anecdotal?
5. Build interdisciplinarity through Indigenous self-determination. What do human and more-than-human societies and leaders need? How do different fields of study complement each other while serving those needs? What are Indigenous knowledge systems, and how does the educational project that I am implicated in serve them—in other words, can my teaching be an effective site for project-based learning?
6. Honor loving thinkers. Ask what it means to achieve not only intellectually, which is linked with the economic motivations of education, but also what possibilities await learners who willingly receive and give love? How can my teaching create the space for loving thinkers to thrive?
I recently taught an interdisciplinary graduate seminar on comparative Indigenous education, and I challenged my students to think about the “significance” of Indigenous populations. In a world in which the population is approaching eight billion people, Indigenous populations are a minority, which often makes us statistically insignificant. How might we rethink the position of Indigenous communities as beneficial to our planetary society, culture, and economy—not to justify our existence as Indigenous peoples but to expand our frames of reference regarding how human life is shaped across the globe? My students, including young political scientists, anthropologists, and environmental scientists, confirmed that we need to reconfigure the meaning of statistical significance so it includes the expanse of land and all beings over time and the ways in which we are not only part of but also the very constitution of land, water, and sky. Thus, what happens in one place is not just about humans living in the moment but about the land’s embodiment of us and our embodiment of it as personal and infinite.
Harm has been done to the worlds of Indigenous peoples, so much so that some may no longer be able to identify how their ancestors may have understood their worlds, the names given to those lands, waters, and skies, or their responsibilities to them. Yet, we as educators at every level of teaching hold ancient and new responsibilities to explore with our students what remains, to recognize teachings offered by our many kinds of relatives who stewarded this planet long before humans emerged, and to learn how to hope. Those of us in higher education must use our privileged roles to rethink how we serve Indigenous communities and peoples—through educational, scientific, legal/political, and environmental means—and regard land that still carries tremendous grief due to colonial usurpations. We must also reconsider how we produce knowledge through research that is accountable to the expanse of place and beings and teach in ways that center the knowledge, skills, and actions of interconnecting and interrelationshipping. It matters tremendously how we live here among the many who are loved and love, until we return to what gave us life in the first place.
Illustrations by Brian Cairns