Joey L. is a fine art photographer and documentary film director from Canada based in Brooklyn. He can frequently be found in remote places the outside world knows nothing of, and seems equally at ease working with celebrities and corporate brands.
His work with tribal peoples and ethnic groups is what intrigues me. Joey says he tends to go back to the same places. In doing so, he’s able to get a deeper and deeper sense of the people, their lifeways and environment—a real connection. I understand this because I’ve done the same over nearly 30 years. You create relationships that wouldn’t happen with the quick dash that satisfies the mainstream tourist. You see and experience things you couldn’t have imagined. Doors open. You are invited in.
Another thing happens that, for me, is heartbreaking to witness. Over time, invariably there’s loss of tradition. In his new documentary The Crocodile Hunters of Ethiopia, Joey talks about the hard life and difficult circumstances many Indigenous peoples endure. You can’t blame them for wanting an easier life. I’ve wrestled with these same thoughts. Would that their sacred practices and lifeways be maintained and, at the same time, they’re lifted out of poverty.
Joey has been working on a book about Ethiopian cultural history for 12 years. Some Ethiopian tribes have maintained their traditions over centuries. The Dassanach tribe is one. Some of the things he photographed 12 years ago are gone, lost to climate change and modernization. His mission is underscored with a sense of urgency.
His obsession started as an 18-year-old when he first went to a Dassanach village. During his visit, there was a tragic occurrence. A child was eaten by a crocodile, which are a ready danger in the region. They can grow 4 times as big as a human and retain gargantuan strength. They’re man eaters. Joey heard rumors of a nomadic caste called Dies whose specialty is killing crocodiles—not with guns but in the old way…with handmade harpoons. For years, he wanted to photograph them. But they are few and elusive. To complicate matters, croc hunting only occurs for a limited time during the rainy season.
Finally, the time was now. He was afraid if he waited longer the crocodile hunters would be a thing of the past. The film covers the search, preparation, tribulations, all the way through the complete hunt, which takes place at night. Joey and his team are among the few outsiders ever to see the hunt. Now you can, too.
This documentary merges uncommon, extraordinary footage of landscapes, tribal peoples, ceremonial blessings, along with what it means to be a working photographer and the importance of respect. Joey talks about the roles passion, curiosity, persistence and risk play relative to his photography. He shows you what happens behind the scenes. But also, what drives him to dedicate his life to pursuing the unusual and cultural truth. He has been in demand since he was a teenager with commissions from celebrities and brands. His work takes him into war zones, remote villages, dense jungles, urban areas, and commercial shoots. Joey L. is a rare breed.
I began following Joey L. a few years ago. I’m particularly taken with the Mentawai collection and his ongoing portrait series of Holy Men. To view more documentaries on the Dassanach and the lower Oma Valley see People of the Delta with accompanying shorts.
The closer I got to the departure date the louder the demands became—if you can relate kinesthetic response to pitch. I do. It started with a niggling feeling at the back of my skull that progressed to sensations of instability in my solar plexus, which I can only describe as shifting sands. It finally felt as though the world was falling away. The accompanying pitch was relative, increasingly louder in my head until I couldn’t ignore it. I found myself taken aback…as it was meant to do.
This I know…
Alchemy can be defined as elements recombined to create new forms. When beliefs are re-formed, arising out of what was, rebirthing takes place.
Resistance is necessary as a form of progression. In order to resist, the mind has to consider something new. Otherwise, resistance wouldn’t happen. Imagining something new begins to create substance. The greater the level of resistance, the more potentially profound the new creation may be—and out of the comfort zone. The more rigid we are in our own thinking, the more inertia we will experience against moving forward.
To create, we must push through the membrane that separates what we’ve preserved as real from the newly imagined reality…
I also knew, and had many times experienced, the closer to profound movement we are, the stronger the impulse to go unconscious at the threshold and allow the status quo to pull us back. If we give in to backward movement, we remain tethered…contained.
Recognize that hesitation, feeling torn, or paralyzed are a natural part of the evolutionary process. Even external blocks can strangely present themselves, colluding with the internal part attempting to hold us back. It’s necessary to acknowledge any level of fear. Honor that part. Check in with intent, and then allow its resident purity to guide you.
But I was curious. I’m usually one of the first in my circle of friends and acquaintances to venture zealously into parts unknown. What made this time somehow different for me?
In late 2020, I received a formal invitation to visit the Matsigenka village of Shipetiari to bring a spiritual travel group to their home located in a remote, pristine rainforest area, the buffer zone to Manu National Park and Biosphere Preserve. This particular Matsigenka community is one of the remaining few who live most traditionally. I considered this an incredible honor. They’ve had few travelers and none like the spiritual travel groups I sponsor.
Of course, the pandemic intervened. At that time, there was no vaccine. The Matsigenka, being so isolated, had no exposure or immunity. Finally, fully vaccinated, boosted, September flight set and COVID rapid test taken a day ahead, I set off for my personal journey to Shipetiari where I would meet the villagers and their jungle home for the first time.
I noticed that, once I turned my attention toward travels and thoughts informed by the larger intent of the time ahead, any objections by that part who’d raised them become quieter until they dissipated altogether.
It occurred to me the pandemic itself had generated my internal objections. Not because I was fearful of infection but for another reason. Like most all of us, my usual world came to a halt. In all that continued expanse of time, I reflected strongly on those aspects most important to me, sorting through how I would live into the future.
At a certain point, I began to wonder when or if I would be able to transition back into the world with my new realizations. I noticed a hint of complacency, lethargy really. Or was it the work of actually wading back into “life” after a long period of contemplation?
Recently, I came across a definition of the fundamental natures of Shiva—the drive being equilibrium—and Shakti—drawn to the “stuff of the world” and change. To illustrate, there was an image of Shiva deep in meditation with Shakti attempting to bring him into the dance. I don’t claim to be a knowledgeable student of Hinduism, but in that moment the teaching reached out and grabbed me…two sides of the same coin. Elements familiar to me inserted themselves in a deeper way.
I had barely arrived in Cusco a few hours when I went to meet with Jack Wheeler. That’s when I learned we would be leaving early next morning for the jungle, barely breaking daylight. Jack is the founder of Xapiri Ground, based in Cusco. We met a few years ago. I discovered our nonprofits had similar missions toward preservation of Indigenous traditions. His work rests specifically with ethnic groups of the Peruvian Amazon. Xapiri Ground is working with the Matsigenka to document their cosmology, held and passed on through traditional songs and storytelling…now becoming lost.
The Storytelling Project was one reason Jack and I were going then. We, Kenosis Spirit Keepers, are helping to support that undertaking.The other was for me to respond to the invitation I’d originally received, begin to develop relationships and make arrangements to return with a small group of travelers respectful of the spiritual landscape and open to learning.
The next morning as I waited for Jack to collect me, I noticed my pervading sense of expectancy for what this journey may hold, what intent may open wide. None of it imaginable really at this juncture, and I never choose to put a box around such things. I had traveled these roads from Cusco to the rainforest many times up to a point. But how useful is it to consider every new time to be divergent from the last time, experiencing all with fresh eyes, attentive ears and otherwise open? Then finally there came the point of departure from what was familiar to me, the last leg of waters and jungle to our geographic destination.
It was clear to me we’d set out on a pilgrimage. Metaphors would arise and accompany us. But I may not consciously make their acquaintance until after the fact. It’s often like that for me. It’s how I save myself so my intellect doesn’t get involved and spoil it all.
The Matsigenka were welcoming. Over the week we spent hours visiting with people happy to engage us with the way they live, in concert with their jungle home, plants, animals and each other. They did so, not by telling us, but by being what comes naturally to them. In their way, all is sacred and there’s no separation between them and the ground underfoot, the trees towering above or the birds or monkeys that fly through the trees…the waterways, frogs, insects and other inhabitants. To be otherwise is not within their reality. I have been with other Indigenous communities who live close to land. Somehow, this was different in a way I don’t quite have the words to express but will begin to write of it soon. They’ve left a mark on me and so has the jungle. There being no way to separate what is integral.
This is the story I want to tell now. One afternoon I decided to stay behind. We’d had an eventful morning, and I just wanted to be still. No matter where we went, the jungle was ever-present. My small bungalow was elevated a few feet with one side open, tall trees and dense foliage began maybe fifteen feet in front of where I sat on the stoop. No one else was around and the village was a twenty minute walk by trail.
I just sat. Not too much flitted through my mind. I did realize how completely relaxed my body felt, how deeply and long I slept each night. Those thoughts vacated and I sat. I watched. Training my eyes up toward the canopy, I saw two macaws fly by. A woodpecker landed on a high branch. Movement at the edge of the brush and a huge lizard slipped by. I listened to the calls of birds, some melodious, others somewhat harsh. Insects made a continuous chorus.
Then I began to feel. Energy. Everywhere. The more I opened that channel, the more there was. So much life. So very much vibration. It seemed to me the world fell away—or I fell into it. I was permeated.
I was in a state of wonderment through the last bit of our stay, all the way back to Cusco and carried all the way home. Something had happened, and I had no words for it. Only now after three months can I begin to speak of it with any coherence.
There’s a sacred Vibration, the constant that holds existence. And there are places where everything readily resonates with that frequency, each expressing it in their own way.
Now I’m left wondering if that resonance is what I sensed in the Matsigenka people, the land and all that inhabit it…
Words are often inadequate to convey an experience or feeling of great depth. The language just doesn’t exist until someone invents it, and it gains use as part of the vernacular. Such is the case with werifesteria, “to wander longingly in the forest in search of the Mystery.”
Once its meaning is learned there must be instant relief for those attuned to it. If the word is in use then there must be others traveling along that pathway as well. The forest can take whatever form you choose to give it—inner or outer landscape, seen or unseen. It’s not linear or logical for sure. By its very nature werifesteria attracts the strong intent it delivers ahead. We need only hold rapt attention, gathering cues that unfold the deeper path.
I must be a werifesterian. It feeds my soul for what may be revealed.
For more information on our August 21-31, 2022 spiritual travel program to Peru, go here.
Many of you know I recently returned from a personal journey – immersion in the little known Matsigenka way of life and time in deep jungle…profoundly transformational for me. The community has graciously invited me to bring a small group.
– Carla Woody
It is a privilege to sponsor this special program focusing on sacred traditions linking the Q’ero and Quechua peoples of the Andes and the Matsigenka of the jungle. I offer you an intimate opportunity, unlikely to be found on your own — with the intent that we are all transformed and carry the beauty home.
We begin in areas outside Cusco wiith Doña Vilma Pinedo and Q’ero paq’os — traditional Wisdom Keepers and mystics — who usher us into the world of the Andes, an alternate reality of life-affirming choices.
Then we transition deep into the rainforest to the pristine, wild surroundings of Matsigenka homelands. We experience how it is tolive harmoniously attuned to the environment, creating natural medicines and traditional arts, consuming foods provided by the rainforest, and taking in oral history informing the Matsigenka world view.
This is a journey of ayni — sacred reciprocity. We sit in ceremony of all these traditions, become an allyu — spiritual community — honoring all that sustains the planet and our own wellbeing. We come together with blessings, prayers and share the daily activities of all pilgrims.
We will be a smaller group than usual with respect to the Matsigenka village capacities. Though small, their hearts are open and wish to receive us in generosity just as our Q’ero friends and Dona Vilma Pinedo do.
Detailed information including itinerary, tuition, bios, and how to register is on the program page. I’m truly honored to bring you this rare opportunity.
I am privileged to bring you such a special opportunity. Join me and accept my invitation for this Adventure of the Spirit…and know that you are supporting continuation of the invisible, sacred threads that hold the world together.
In a time of global movement away from our origins, disintegration of family and disconnection from the natural elements, Spirit Keepers are the true warriors of today. In diminishing pockets throughout the world, in many ways disrespected, they still maintain the invisible threads that connect us to our roots.
We help preserve Indigenous traditions threatened with decimation.
Spirit Keepers are the stewards of our future. The ancient, Indigenous ways instill appreciation for the Mother Earth and all beings. When Spirit Keepers are honored and come together to share their sacred practices, we are all nourished. Our common foundation is strengthened.
We honor traditional Indigenous spiritual leaders, healers and communities who hold the fragile threads of their sacred ways.
We fully believe: If these traditions continue to die, we all lose.
I founded Kenosis Spirit Keepers as the nonprofit extension of Kenosis. I’m pleased to say that we’re now in our 14th year. We continue our work against all odds.
A side note: Although I’ve explored various media in my artwork across decades, the intent of the content remains … those elements most sacred.
The film opens with compelling footage, largely black and white, in first person perspective. We move swiftly, low to the ground, through sagebrush. Suddenly, the perspective alters and we observe a white wolf loping through tangled wilderness and scrubby, twisted trees. It’s then we realize we’d been seeing through wolf eyes. This shift occurs repeatedly, from first to third point of view, as the wolf tears through high grassland, bent on reaching a lone tree in the middle of a field. As she gets closer, strains of haunting music emanate from its luscious leaves.
Beneath the branches, slight movement, a hint of color, and we can almost make out a figure, obscured by shadow. Emerging now, it proves to be a slight, dark-haired girl, braids cascading to the waist. She scans the grasses seeming to know something or someone is out there. But the wolf is hunkered down hidden in tall grass, watching. A breeze finds its path. The sound of wood chimes, the fluttering of ephemera hung in the branches, hardly visible, set as they are against stillness, brings a moment of suspense.
Then the girl returns to her place under the tree. Facing its trunk, she takes up her violin and resumes the lament previously interrupted.
Soon we learn a strand of hair, handwritten petitions rolled into scrolls tied with ribbon, and other treasured things extend from the tree’s branches.
The entire tree is an altar and the violin music is a sacrament.
To give any more detail would intervene in the viewer’s experience. Just know it’s a multi-layered, touching film about loss, intergenerational trauma, hope, friendship—how one young First Nations girl finds her way through with the help of guides.
This German movie was filmed in British Colombia on Scw’exmx Nation land with members of the People of the Creek playing the characters, all first-time actors. Director Nino Jacusso is Swiss, and the film was drawn from the novel by Italian writer Federica de Cesco.
There is an English version available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video.
I had been eagerly awaiting this film by Werner Herzog, even turning over the thought of a trek down to Phoenix to view it. That’s an indicator of the level of my anticipation. Then the pandemic hit, and that potential went out the window. Finally, it’s available streaming.
At a time when I am so constrained from my own usual travel, Nomad has given me much needed relief by living vicariously through Herzog’s romantic documentation of Bruce Chatwin’s wandering life. But he wasn’t an aimless wanderer. I had already read Chatwin’s first book In Patagonia and then The Songlines about Indigenous Australians, their sacred lands and the Dreamtime. I knew he was interested in digging into place, culture and tradition in such a way that celebrated their unique properties and attempted to translate what likely challenge western minds. He would often blur the line between nonfiction and fiction.
Herzog described Chatwin’s mission as a “quest for strangeness”—not unlike his own. They both sought other than what we know from our everyday life, far from it. Given that, the film wasn’t strictly “in the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” but overlapped Herzog’s own.
The film transports us from the Australian Outback, where an Elder speaks of dream tracks, to the standing stones of Avebury—reviving my own memories there—and on to Wales. In the southern Sahara, Wodaabe tribesmen in elaborate attire were engaged in a ritual courtship dance, showing off the whiteness of their teeth and whites of their eyes. I readily remembered them from photographer Jimmy Nelson’s coffee table book Homage to Humanity, a gift I treasure.
A good portion of the documentary was also devoted to passages from Chatwin’s books and testimony from his wife Elizabeth Chanley, friends and colleagues. There’s also footage of Herzog and Chatwin together in different locales.
Chatwin’s biographer Nicholas Shakespeare described him as “a fiery ball of light shedding flickering illuminations on obscure pieces of knowledge connecting countries, people, books and texts.” Some thought him an eccentric and narcissist. Some accused him of misinterpreting and simplifying what he experienced. Others believed he would have grown into his full genius if not lost to this world in 1989 due to HIV/AIDS, still young.
Found in his journal, these are thought to be the very last words he wrote before dying: “Christ wore a seamless robe.” I have to wonder what story Bruce Chatwin might have spun from there. Or maybe it was his documentation.
A quote from Herzog I so resonate with: “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.” But there’s something I’d add. It also changes you. You become revealed to yourself. To me, that’s a clear message from this remarkable film. I remain moved by it.
Streaming on You Tube, Google Play and Amazon Prime.
Another star has appeared in the night sky. Xavier Quijas Yxayotl — composer, master musician, spiritual guide, healer, artist, visionary, resurrector of the ancient ways, life-giver, steward of Mother Earth, friend, lover of life and all beings — has passed. And we have experienced an incredible loss at his departure.
We can be thankful that he leaves a substantial legacy in the way of ancient Mesoamerican music and instruments. He rescued this rich heritage from annihilation, the colonizers having sought to destroy it. Xavier led the way and others then stood on his shoulders. He’s globally acclaimed. Beyond this enormous accomplishment, there is the man. I’m not sure I’ve ever known a man more gentle, kind, generous and — despite his renown — humble.
I first met Xavier in September 2013 when we, Kenosis Spirit Keepers, invited him to Phoenix to share his music, Huichol/Azteca traditions and ceremony. I was so taken by how, through his music, he led us into other worlds and realms entirely. I grew excited when he mentioned a bit of his life’s history to the point that, a couple of months later, he agreed to relay it to me in detail, allowing me to document it. In 2014, Still Point Arts Quarterly, a literary arts journal, accepted Beyond the Dark as a feature in their Fall 2015 issue.
Over the ensuing years, Xavier lent support of his music and presence to other of our Spirit Keepers Series weekends, and in January 2018 he was our invited guest on the Maya spiritual travel program in the highlands and lowlands of Chiapas, Mexico. It was my honor and privilege to know this compassionate spirit…who grew through a difficult childhood, separated from his ancestral traditions…who heard the calling of his ancestors…maintained his sensitivities throughout…to give his gifts to the world. He remains a role model for all time.
To read Xavier’s soulful life story, Beyond the Dark, in its entirety, go here. You’ll discover how he returned to the Huichol roots denied him as a child, and went on to resurrect ancient instruments lost to time through visitations from his ancestors.
Over the last five years, I’ve been periodically working with Don Alberto Manquierapa — Huachipaeri-Matsigenka spiritual leader, master of plant medicines—bringing groups to learn from his teachings of the jungle. I’ve consistently said Don Alberto carries the rainforest in his soul. In November 2019, we were with him again in the high jungle of the Manu Biosphere in Peru. For the first time, he spoke at length of the wise men of the Matsigenka (also spelled Machiguenga) and how they were marriedto Nature but never elaborated directly what that meant.
A few months later I was having a conversation with Jack Wheeler of Xapiri, whose relationships extend to the Matsigenka and ten other Indigenous peoples of the Amazon. He suggested I read The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa to see what I could glean.
I was rewarded in the first chapter when a character called Mascarita, in talking to the narrator, spoke of a wise man then saying, “I’m calling him a witch doctor so you know what I’m talking about.” He also used medicine man and shaman as a stand-in. Additionally, I learned that, while the Matsigenka may practice polygamy, it appears that a wise man sets himself apart from the villages, living in the jungle, or on a riverbank, even more simply than others, distinctly in solitude, communing with Nature.
Much of the book is interspersed with creation stories, tales of survival and beliefs. We know when a story ends because it’s punctuated with, “That, anyway, is what I’ve learned.” That said always before launching into the next monologue. Clearly the discourse is relayed to an audience but not clearly who or even the identity of the one relaying…until much later. Many peoples only know of themselves, their origins and how they are to exist and survive through the keeping of oral histories taken on by a living depository. That person has a special role and designation: Storyteller.
The Matsigenka are peaceful people who hold their world together by walking, being nomadic…nonviolent men who walk. But what happens when Viracochas* begin to intrude and impact the lands always known to them…introduce money and other foreign ways…when missionaries move into their villages? When…”The most important thing to them was serenity…Any sort of emotional upheaval had to be controlled, for there is a fatal correspondence between the spirit of man and the spirits of Nature, and any violent disturbance in the former causes some catastrophe in the latter.”
In such a case, maybe there’s finally a time when only a Storyteller can tell the Matsigenka who they are and where they’ve been.
This may be a familiar tragic tale containing elements we’ve heard all too many times before, but it’s also a mystery. The Peruvian narrator, whose name is never uttered, goes into a small gallery, while in Florence on vacation, and is electrified by what he sees in a particular photograph in the exhibition. And what of Mascarita who appears to have a significant role in the book but then simply disappears without a trace…never to be heard from again?
The Storyteller is a complex novel. For me, it was equally disturbing as it was compelling. I believe Llosa meant it to be so. I’ve promised myself that, in the not-too-distant future, I will reread it, thus allowing its even deeper structure to become apparent.
This book was first published in 1989 and still widely available. I bought my own copy. It’s well underlined.
*I found it curious that the name Viracocha, commonly known as the Inka and pre-Inka creator deity, is used with a capital “V” in The Storyteller to identify outsiders, particularly foreigners having marked consequences on the Matsigenka way of life.
I’d just left the family-run hotel where I stay when in San Cristobál de las Casas headed to Na Bolom. I was paying particular attention to my feet due to the town’s notoriously deteriorating, uneven sidewalks with potholes aplenty. When I glanced up to make sure I was still on track, I saw a painted sign, hung over a doorway enclosed by a gate, of a Classic Maya in full regalia riding a bicycle. Its paint was peeling and had seen better days. A similar image and fanciful creatures were strung out along the adobe wall.
I crossed the street to peer into the courtyard. The long work tables lining the wall were filled with stacks of some kind of material – that I couldn’t readily identify – and wood block prints haphazardly hung on the wall. I didn’t see anyone around. It was just too intriguing. I opened the wooden gate and entered. I was fascinated by all the prints, more now visible on the inside wall, and saw a small room. It was stocked full of handmade books and journals, posters and postcards. I’m enamored of such hidden treasures.
I’d discovered Taller Leñateros. That was probably ten years ago. Since then, I stop by nearly every year when I’m in San Cris and purchase a book, postcard or poster. I have my own private collection of their jewels.
Tree of Eyes. José Luis Hernández, Artist. Printed by Taller Leñateros.
Mexican-American poet Ambar Past started this natural paper and bookmaking collective back in 1975. She’d been living among Tzotzil Maya women in the highland villages of Chiapas, Mexico and, with their permission, began to collect and translate their traditional prayers, spells and poetry, which had never been written down. Her efforts ultimately culminated in a truly unique illustrated book, Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women. One time when I return, I’ll purchase the handmade book. In the meantime, I own a paperback copy.
I absolutely adore one of their dimunitive books containing only one prayer. It has a place on my altar. Sacred to me, its message touches something deep inside. Whenever I read it, I’m uplifted as much as I want to cry.
Magic for a Long Life*
Elder Brother of writing:
Elder Brother of painting:
I’ve come with roses, with lilies, with carnations, with chamomile.
Lend me your ten masks so my years within the corral will grow longer.
My wayhel is suffering in the mountains.**
My animal soul has fallen off the hill.
She’s at the end of the rope, at the last link in the chain.
Lend me your ten toes, your ten fingers.
To guide my wayhel back into her tiger cave.
Back in the green cave where my Spirit lives.
Lift her up with a cloth that smells of roses.
With a rose, lift me up.
Lay me down in the shade of the vine.
Elder Brother who feeds the Souls:
Guardian of the Corral:
Bearer of time:
Spin around in a circle,
Turn around in a square.
Don’t let the tiger out,
The jaguar out,
The wolf, the coyote, the fox, the weasel.
Herd them together,
Don’t let them go.
I’ve brought you turkey eggs.
I’ve brought pigeon stones for the hand and the foot
Of She Who Sees From Far Away Through Dreams.
Thirteen essences of tilil
Make my day longer with the sweat of your legs,
Your hands that glow green as precious jade,
Your green, green blood.
Carry me, embrace me and my tiger, and my jaguar.
This is all I will bother you with in the name of the flowers.
Keep my animal alive for many years
In the pages of the Book, in its letters, in its paintings,
On the whole Surface of the Earth.
Atlas Obscura just published an article on the collective. For more background and photos than I’ve offered, do read it. It brought back to me the sheer magic of the place, the beauty of Taller Leñateros’ mission, and its fragility.
* I attempted to contact Ambar Past to gain permission to use the prayer in its entirety, since to segment it with just a few words would do it a disservice. I have been unable to reach her over time. I was advised that Ambar had withdrawn from the world and is now living in a monastery in Nepal. The suggestion came from a friend of hers to use the prayer listing the Maya woman whose version it is, there being other similar versions in the villages. I intend respect and hope to have done it justice.
**Wayhel is a Tzotzil Maya word meaning animal companion. In the words of Ambar Past, “…associated with shamanism, the portals of the Underworld, communication with the gods and the dead. The wayhel accompanies its alter ego from the moment it is born…” If one suffers, the other suffers. If one thrives, the other thrives.
In October 2016 I sponsored a pilgrimage beginning in Bolivia that culminated in the Hatun Q’ero village of Ccochamocco high in the Peruvian Andes of the Cusco Region.* About 2,000 Q’ero live spread through small villages on the mountains commonly known as Q’ero. They exist as subsistence farmers—their fields some distance below—living in stone huts with dirt floors, no electricity or running water. Their main diet is potatoes. All families have alpaca and sheep herds and live engaged with the natural world, which they consider sacred. The majority of my relationships with these beautiful people going back 20+ years rests in Ccochamocco.
We spent our time with them in ceremony, soaking up the vibrations of sacred mountains and generally hanging out with the community. At one point, we gathered with the weavers who were gladly showing us their textiles, also hoping for sales.
Weaving is integral to Q’ero life. Passed down through generations since Inka times, they make their clothing, ceremonial and other functional items. In keeping with tradition, women weave. Men knit.
Some weaving is like a rite of passage. When a girl comes of marriageable age, her mother teaches her how to weave a man’s poncho. The wife is always the one who weaves the husband’s poncho—a necessary skill. When a young man is looking for a wife, he knits a colorful hat and applies beads. The more beads he applies, the more patience he is said to have—a signal to a prospective wife of good husband material.
Despacho outside Tiwanaku, Bolivia for permission to enter. Photo: Carla Woody.
Mesas or mestanas, woven altars or bundles used for ceremony, are used to hold sacred stones, other objects and coca leaves, and contain healing or divination properties. They are also used as a ground altar upon which a despacho, or blessing/prayer bundle, is created within ceremony. When weavers create these special use pieces, they imbue intent and prayers within the weaving similar to the making of Tibetan singing bowls.
The Q’eros are known for their textiles and authentic traditional designs. But they have little opportunity to sell their weavings except to the occasional visitor to the villages or on the streets of Cusco to tourists when they venture down.
Carmina weaving outside her home in Ccochamocco. Photo: Carla Woody.
After we’d been with the weavers in Ccochamocco, participant Loretta McGrath suggested I look at having Kenosis Spirit Keepers sponsor them at the annual International Folk Art Market (IFAM) in Santa Fe. Loretta had volunteered with them for years and told me about this prestigious market. I’d never heard of it.
Armed with information from Loretta, I checked into it upon my return home. In the meantime, the Association of Weavers Q’ero Inka Design (Asociación de Tejidores Inka Pallay Q’eros) was formally established July 4, 2017. The cooperative was the first of its kind within Hatun Q’ero.
Their purpose was for the weavers to learn from each other and outside resources in the ways of natural dyeing and best practices to produce high quality items and increase their availability to larger markets. Members include those living between Cusco and the Hatun Q’ero villages, and those who do not step beyond their high-altitude homes. This cooperative represents members from Hatun Q’ero villages of Ccochamocco, Chua Chua, Challma and Qolpacucho.
Members using natural dyes with alpaca wool. Photo: Santos Machacca.
In 2018 I began the lengthy series of communications, information and photo gathering, writing, and finetuning until finally submitting the application by the October 2018 deadline. Then we waited. Would they be chosen? How would we raise the chunk of funds needed to pull it off? I was also concerned about the relatively short time between January notification and the need for the weavers to produce a reasonable number of textiles to bring to market.
All weavings are done completely by hand. No machines of any sort are used. The wool is cleaned, spun using a traditional hand spindle, and woven using 4 stake looms. Hats are hand knitted from alpaca wool in the same manner. It’s a very long process.
There were over 700 applications. Of those, 178 artisans from 50 countries were accepted. The Q’ero weavers were one of those. We celebrated. This was huge. I could envision the beginning of something that would immensely benefit the weavers, their families and larger community. Then the weaving began in earnest.
Santos Machacca, my Q’ero liaison and member of the cooperative, kept me updated. He said that many of the women were weaving day after day starting at 4 a.m. and into the night. I could imagine how sore their fingers must be and how strained their eyes.
The next frontier was obtaining visas. Santos and Remigia Salas Chura, his wife and a master weaver, were designated to represent the cooperative at the market. Given the current political climate in the US, it seemed quite iffy whether they would be granted. But armed with formal invitations from IFAM, the major of Santa Fe and Kenosis Spirit Keepers, visas were granted.
Santos and Remigia arrived in Santa Fe on July 9. It was the first time Remigia had flown or been so very far from home. They were thrilled to be there. Their smiling faces were evidence. Aside from being in Santa Fe—first time in the US—they were rubbing elbows with artisans from all over the world: Algeria, Colombia, Cuba, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iraq, Kenya, Pakistan, Rwanda. Too many to name. The artisan processional in Santa Fe Plaza was truly inspirational.
Peek at the processional. Photo: Carla Woody.
During the market I was there with them in the booth. It was a real pleasure. The Q’ero weavers offered a range of textiles from hat bands to ponchos to mesas to table runners. The latter was something I suggested for Western customers along with coasters and placemats. All in traditional designs. Truly the Association of Weavers Q’ero Inka Design outdid themselves. Offerings were 100% alpaca—no blends—all natural dyes or natural wool, all finely finished. They had undertaken this effort to produce the highest quality—and they did.
Santos and Remigia at the Q’ero weavers booth. Photo: Carla Woody.
Remigia weaving at the booth. Photo: Carla Woody.
Q’ero weavings. Photo: Carla Woody.
Q’ero mesas and hatbands. Photo: Carla Woody.
The mission of Kenosis Spirit Keepers is to help preserve Indigenous traditions. I take the outcome of this endeavor as a big win for the Q’eros—a full return to traditional weaving—as well that we could assist in such an important effort.
The plants needed for dyes grow lower than the altitude of the villages. In order to gather them, the artisans must forage distances from their homes. Perhaps due to this reality, it became common for family weavers to use synthetic dyes for their wool when they became available in the markets about 70 years ago. However, the Association members have returned to natural dyes or natural wool as most traditional.
Fine finishing, or binding the edges, had also been let go. It was rare for see a Q’ero weaving like that even though still beautiful. I can imagine much of their time was taken up with childcare and their herds. I had encouraged the highest quality though, telling Santos the elements that were needed for acceptance at the market. He later told me the weavers had forgotten how to finish edges or never knew. They had sought out elder weavers to teach them.
I want to publicly thank Loretta McGrath for her initial urging and support during the application process. I don’t know how we would have survived without Lisa Flynn who was so willingly by our side offering rides, her fine Spanish and calls back to Peru, as well as ongoing hospitality. I’m grateful to Sachiko Umi and her team at IFAM for patiently guiding me in this first-time effort, and their great care for all the artisans. Really, it was amazing how everything came together. But you know…this never would have come about for these Hatun Q’ero weavers without the generosity of donors, some who knew them and others who didn’t. I hope you are reading this, and realize you supported a dream come true.
Now we look to next year…
Artisans of the 2019 International Folk Art Market. Photo: Marc Romanelli.
*The Hatun Q’ero of the Q’ero Nation are known as the Keepers of the Ancient Knowledge and call themselves the children of Inkari, the first Inka. They are widely accepted by anthropologists to be direct descendants of the Inka. They live in isolation at 14,000-15,000 feet in the Andes, as they have for hundreds of years after the conquistadors came, preserving their ancient mystical traditions. The lands of the Q’ero have been declared a cultural heritage site by UNESCO, but that has not brought personal riches to the Q’ero Nation. Some Q’ero have migrated to Cusco and environs hoping for a better life.
I will be sponsoring another pilgrimage in Fall 2020 following along Bolivia’s sacred sites…Tiwanaku, Islands of the Sun and Moon…and into Peru…through Puno, Cusco and once again culminating in Ccochamocco. Check on this spiritual travel page. It should be posted soon.
The Lifepath Dialogues offer an invitation toward embodiment of all that is life-affirming and the deeper meaning of sustainability. Themes are drawn from books "Calling Our Spirits Home" and "Standing Stark" and 20+ years as a conscious living mentor leading spiritual travel journeys with Indigenous Wisdom Keepers serving their communities, group and individual programs. Carla specializes in working with people who seek to live through their deeply held values. For more info see the “About” tab. The author may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow this blog by becoming a fan on the Kenosis Facebook page.
The Lifepath Dialogues Gatherings
Topics here are meant to open conversations and self-reflection. For more information, go to the "About" page.