The Blue Tiger and the Promised Land

September 25, 2007

FINE WORDS AND PRETTY CEREMONIES ARE about to descend upon us: The five-hundredth anni-
versary of the so-called Discovery is approaching. I think
Alejo Carpentier was right when he called this the greatest
event in the history of humankind. But it seems strikingly
clear to me that America wasn't discovered in 1492, just
as Spain was not discovered when the Roman legions
invaded it in 218 B.C. And it also seems clear as can be
that it's high time America discovered itself. And when I
say America, I'm talking first and foremost about the
America that's been despoiled of everything, even its
name, in the five-centuries-long process that put it at the
service of foreign progress: our Latin America.
This necessary discovery, a revelation of the face
hidden behind the masks, rests on the redemption of some
of our most ancient traditions. It's out of hope, not
nostalgia that we must recover a community-based mode
of production and way of life, founded not on greed, but
on solidarity, age-old freedoms and identity between
human beings and nature. I believe there is no better way
to honor the Indians, the first Americans, who from the
Arctic to Tierra del Fuego have kept their identity and
message alive through successive campaigns of extermi-
nation. Today they still hold out vital keys to memory and
prophecy for all of America, not just our Latin America:
Simultaneously, they bear witness to the past and cast the
Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano's latest book,
The Book of Embraces, will be published by W. W. Norton
this spring.
13rnernan our[Ls ULi[uK LIme LaU iII uI i pdedILIng Irom me I luxcalU ruins; Iouay mnouern plraIes carry Torn1
light of fresh fires on the path ahead. If the values they
embody were of only archaeological interest, the Indians
would no longer be objects of bloody repression, nor
would the powerful be so anxious to separate them from
the class struggle and from the people's liberation move-
I am not one to believe in traditions simply because
they are traditions. I believe in the legacies that multiply
human freedom, and not in those that cage it. It should be
obvious, but it can never be too obvious: When I refer to
remote voices from the past that can help us find answers
to the challenges of the present, I am not proposing a
return to the sacrificial rites that offered up human hearts
to the gods, nor am I praising the despotism of the Inca or
Aztec monarchs.
On the contrary, I am applauding the fact that America
can find its most youthful energies in its most ancient
sources: The past tells us things that are important to the
future. A system lethal to the world and its inhabitants,
that putrefies the water, annihilates the land and poisons
the air and the soil, is in violent contradiction with cultures
that hold the earth to be sacred because we, its children,
are sacred. Those cultures, scorned and denied, treat the
earth as their mother and not as a raw material and source
of income. Against the capitalist law of profit, they
propose the life of sharing, reciprocity, mutual aid, that
earlier inspired Thomas Moore's Utopia and today helps
us discover the American face of socialism, whose deep-
est roots lie in the tradition of community.
Halfway through the last century, an Indian chief
named Seattle warned officials of the United States gov-
ernment: "After several days, the dying man does not
smell the stench of his own body. If you continue polluting
your bed, one night you will die suffocated by your own
wastes." Chief Seattle also said, "Whatever happens to
the earth, happens to the sons of the earth." And I havejust
heard this same phrase, exactly the same, from the lips of
one of the Maya-Quich6 Indians in a documentary filmed
recently in the mountains of Ixcdn, Guatemala. This is
how the Mayas explain why their people are hunted down
by the army: "They kill us because we work together, eat
together, live together, dream together."
What dark threat emanates from the Indians of the
Americas, what threat treacherously lives on despite the
centuries of crime and scorn? What ghosts are the execu-
tioners exorcising? What fears?
NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICASTo justify usurping the lands of the Sioux Indians at the
end of the last century, the United States Congress de-
clared that "community property is dangerous to the
development of the free enterprise system." And in
March 1979, a law was promulgated in Chile requiring the
Mapuche Indians to divide up their lands and turn them-
selves into small landowners with no links among them;
the dictator Pinochet explained that the communities
were incompatible with the nation's economic progress.
The U.S. Congress was right. So was General Pinochet.
From capitalism's point of view, communal cultures that
do not separate human beings from one another or from
nature are enemy cultures. But the capitalist point of view
is not the only one.
The official story of the conquest of America has been
told from the perspective of mercantile capitalism in
expansion. It takes Europe as its center and Christianity as
its only truth. This is essentially the same official story,
after all, that is told of the "reconquest" of Spain by
Christians against "Moorish" invaders, a way of dis-
qualifying Spaniards of Muslim culture who had been
living in the peninsula for seven centuries when they were
expelled. The expulsion of these supposed "Moors,"
who had nothing Moorish about them, along with Span-
iards of Jewish faith, signalled the triumph of intolerance
and sealed the ruinous history of the very Spain that
discovered and conquered America. A few years before
friar Diego de Landa cast the books of the Mayas into the
flames in YucatAn, Archbishop Cisneros had burned the
Islamic books in Granada, in a great bonfire of purifica-
tion that blazed for several days.
The official story repeats the ideological alibis of the
usurpers of America, but in spite of itself it also reveals the
reality that it contradicts. That reality, burned, banned and
falsified, emerges in the shock and horror, the outrage and
also the awe of the chroniclers of the Indies when they
came face to face with those beings that Europe, the
Europe of the Inquisition, was in the process of 'discov-
The Church acknowledged in 1537 that the Indians
were persons, endowed with soul and reason, but it
blessed the crime and pillage: The Indians were persons,
but persons possessed by the devil and therefore without
any rights. The conquistadors acted in the name of God,
to root out idolatry, and the Indians gave continuous proof
of their irremediable perdition and irrefutable causes for
condemnation. The Indians did not know private prop-
erty. They did not use gold or silver as money, but to adorn
their bodies or pay homage to their gods. Those false gods
were on the side of sin. The Indians went around naked:
The spectacle of nudity, warned Archbishop Pedro Cort6s
Larraz, causes "much injury to the brain." Indissoluble
marriage bonds did not exist anywhere in America, and
virginity had no value. On the Caribbean coasts and in
other areas, homosexuality was unrestrained, and this
offended God as much as or more than the cannibalism of
the Amazon jungle. The Indians had the unwholesome
habit of bathing every day and, to cap it all, they believed
in dreams. Thus the Jesuits were able to confirm the
influence of Satan on the Canadian Indians: Indians so
diabolical they had interpreters for the symbolic language
of dreams, because they believed that the soul speaks
-two extremes that leave us outside of history, out-
side of reality. These interpretations of the conquest of
America reveal a suspicious veneration of times past, of a re-
splendent corpse whose'brilliance blinds us to the daily
reality of our lands. The black legend invites us to visit the
Museum of the Noble Savage, where wecan weep for the lost
happiness of wax figures that bear no relation to the flesh-
and-blood beings who live in our lands. Symmetrically, the
rose-colored legend invites us to the Great Temple of the
West, to add our voices to the universal chorus, intoning
hymns of celebration of the great civilizing work of Europe,
a Europe that has spilt blood over the world in order to save
The black legend throws onto the shoulders of Spain, and
to a lesser extent Portugal, the responsibility for the immense
colonial pillage, which in reality benefited other European
countries much more, and which made possible the develop-
ment of modern capitalism. The much cited "Spanish cru-
elty" never existed; what did exist, and exists, is an abomi-
nable system that necessitated, and necessitates, cruel meth-
ods to impose itself and grow. Symmetrically, the rose-
colored legend lies about history, praises infamy, calls the
most colossal despoliation in history -evangelization" and
slanders God by attributing the command to him.
No, no: neither the black nor the rose-colored legend. To
recover reality, that is the challenge-to change the reality
that is, to recover the reality that was, the lied about, hidden,
betrayed reality of the history of America. EGI
VOLUME XXIV, NUMBER 5 (FEBRUARY 1991) 15Columbian ouincentenary
Columbian Ouincentenary
the wealth of the lands they inhabit
while the body sleeps and that dreams express unfulfilled
desires. The Iroquois, Guarani and other American Indi-
ans elected their chiefs in open meetings, where women
took part as men's equals, and removed them from office
if they became overbearing. No doubt possessed by the
devil, Chief Nicaragua asked who had elected the king of
"while, but sex is always fun," said, and say, the
Mehinaku Indians of Brazil. Sexual freedom gave off an
unbearable odor of sulphur. The chronicles of the Indies
abound in the scandal of these infernal lusts that lurked in
every comer of America beyond the valleys of Mexico
and Cuzco, which were sanctuaries of puritanism. The
official story reduces pre-Columbian reality largely to the
centers of the two civilizations with the highest level of
social organization and material development. Incas and
Aztecs were at the height of their imperial expansion
when they were overthrown by the European invaders,
allied with peoples subjected by those empires. In those
two societies, dominated hierarchically by kings, priests
and warriors, rigid codes of behavior held sway; their
taboos and prohibitions left little or no space for freedom.
But even in those centers, the most repressive in America,
what came later was worse. The Aztecs, for example,
punished adultery with death, but they allowed divorce at
Reort on
the wish of the man or woman. Another example: the
Aztecs had slaves, but the children of slaves were not born
slaves. Marriage for life and hereditary slavery were
European products that America imported in the sixteenth
In our time, the conquest continues. The Indians go on
expiating their sins of community, freedom and other
affronts. The purifying mission of Civilization no longer
masks the plunder of gold or silver: Under the banner of
Progress, onward march the legions of modern pirates,
without hooked hands, eye patches or wooden legs, the
multinationals that swoop down on the uranium, petro-
leum, nickel, manganese, tungsten. The Indians suffer, as
before, the curse of the wealth of the lands they inhabit.
They were driven toward arid soil; technology has discov-
ered, beneath those soils, fertile subsoils.
"The conquest isn't over," gaily proclaimed the
advertisements published in Europe eleven years ago, of-
fering Bolivia to foreigners. The military dictatorship
held out to the highest bidder the richest land in the
country, while treating the Indians the same as in the six-
teenth century. In the first phase of the conquest, Indians
were compelled to describe themselves in public docu-
ments, "I, wretched Indian...." Now the Indians only
have the right to exist as servile labor or tourist attractions.
"Land is not sold. Land is our mother. You don't sell
your mother. Why don't they offer 100 million dollars to
the Pope for the Vatican?" a Sioux chief asked recently in
the United States. A century earlier, the Seventh Cavalry
had ravaged the Black Hills, sacred territory to the Sioux,
because they held gold. Now multinational corporations
mine its uranium, although the Sioux refuse to sell. The
uranium is poisoning the rivers.
A few years ago, the Colombian government told the
Indians of the Cauca valley, "The subsoil does not belong
to you, but to the Colombian nation," and immediately
turned it over to the Celanese Corporation. After a time, part of the Cauca had been turned into a lunar landscape.
A thousand hectares of Indian land were made barren.
In the Ecuadorian Amazon, oil is dislodging the Auca
Indians. A helicopter flies over the jungle, with a loud-
speaker announcing in the Auca language, "It's time to
leave now...." And the Indians obey the will of God.
From Geneva, in 1979, the United Nations Human
Rights Commission warned: "Unless the Brazilian gov-
ernment alters its plans, we can expect that the largest of
the surviving tribes will cease to exist in twenty years."
The Commission was referring to the Yanomami, in
whose Amazonian lands tin and rare minerals had been
discovered. For the same reason, the Nambiquara Indians
now number fewer than 200, and they were 15,000 at the
beginning of the century. Indians die like flies when they
come in contact with unknown bacteria brought by the
invaders, as in the days of Cort6s and Pizarro-a process
now speeded up by Dow Chemical's defoliants, sprayed
from the air. When the Commission launched its pathetic
warning from Geneva, FUNAI, the official body for the
16protection of Brazil's Indians, was run by 16 colonels and
employed 14 anthropologists. There has been no change
in the government's plans since then.
Quich6s, the largest oil deposit in Central America
has been found. The 1980s were a long slaughter. The
army-mestizo officers, Indian soldiers-has been busy
bombing villages and evicting communities so that Tex-
aco, Hispanoil, Getty Oil and other companies can survey
and exploit the oilfields. Of every ten Guatemalans, six
are Indians, but in Guatemala the word "Indian" is an
When I first arrived in Guatemala City, I sensed I was
in a country foreign to itself. In the capital, I found only
one house that was truly Guatemalan, with beautiful
wooden furniture, native blankets and rugs, handmade
glass and earthenware. Just one house had not been
invaded by Miami-style plastic kitsch: It belonged to a
French teacher. But you only had to travel a little way
outside the capital to find the green branches of the old
Mayan trunk, rising miraculously despite the implacable
axe-blows suffered year after year, century after century.
The ruling class, ruled by bad taste, considers the beauti-
ful indigenous clothing ridiculous disguises appropriate
only for carnival or the museum, just as they prefer
hamburgers to tamales and Coca-Cola to fresh fruit juice.
The official country, which lives off the real country but
is ashamed of it, would like to erase it. It regards the native
tongues as mere guttural noises, and the native religion as
pure idolatry, because for the Indians all land is a place of
worship and every wood a sanctuary.
When the Guatemalan army passes through the Mayan
villages, destroying homes, harvests and animals, it re-
serves its best efforts for the systematic slaughter of
children and old people. Children are killed the same way
cornfields are burned: down to the root. "We're going to
leave them with no seed," Colonel Horacio Maldonado
Shadd explains. And in every old person there lurks a
transmitter for the unpardonable community tradition and
the no less unpardonable tradition of identifying with
nature. The Mayas still ask forgiveness of a tree when they
have to cut it down.
The repression is a cruel ceremony of exorcism. You
only have to look at the photographs, the features of the
officers and their sturdy build: These grandchildren of
Indians, deserters from their culture, dream of becoming
George Custer or Buffalo Bill, and they long to turn
Guatemala into a gigantic supermarket. And the soldiers?
Don't they have the same faces as their victims, the same
skin color? They are Indians trained for violence and
humiliation. In the barracks the metamorphosis is worked:
First they are turned into cockroaches, then into birds of
prey. Finally they forget that all life is sacred and are
convinced that horror is the natural order of things.
Racism is not the sorry privilege of Guatemala.
Throughout America, from north to south, the dominant
culture acknowledges Indians as objects of study, but
denies them as subjects of history: The Indians have
folklore, not culture; they practice superstitions not relig-
ions; they speak dialects not languages; they make handi-
crafts not art.
Perhaps the approaching celebration of the five-hun-
dredth anniversary could help turn things around, so
topsy-turvy are they now. Not to confirm the world,
adding to the self-importance, the self-glorification of the
masters of power, but to denounce and change it. For that
we shall have to celebrate the vanquished, not the victors.
The vanquished and those who identified with them, like
Bernardino de Sahagdn, and those who lived for them,
like Bartolom6 de las Casas, Vasco de Quiroga and
Antonio Vieira, and those who died for them, like Gonzalo
Guerrero, the first conquered conqueror, who ended his
days fighting at the side of the Indians, his chosen broth-
ers, in Yucatin.
And perhaps in this way we could get a bit closer to the
day of justice that the Guarani, pursuers of Paradise, have
always been awaiting. The Guarani believe that the world
wants to be different, that it wants to be born again, and so
the world entreats the First Father to unleash the blue tiger
that sleeps beneath his hammock. The Guarani believe
that someday that righteous tiger will shatter this world so
that another world, with neither evil nor death, guilt nor
prohibitions, can be born from its ashes. The Guarani
believe, and I do too, that life truly deserves that

Tags: Eduardo Galeano, Indigenous, quincentennary

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.