From Kechurewe to Standing Rock: Indigenous Literature in Latin American Literature Today
In 2016, the #NoDAPL movement in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, spearheaded by members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, inspired a shift in perceptions of indigenous presence in the United States. One phrase rang out with particular strength throughout the months-long re-occupation of ancestral Oceti Sakowin lands in the pipeline’s path: “We are still here.”
This message served as a reminder to an American public with a practiced ability to forget its own dark past: a reminder that the original inhabitants of this continent still live on their lands; that indigenous cultures are still alive and well, even when they are ignored by public education and big business; and that native voices can still put up a powerful resistance against the political and economic interests that would rather see them silenced.
The May 2017 issue of World Literature Today, the parent publication of Latin American Literature Today, was devoted to sharing new native writing from throughout the United States in the wake of the renewed interest in native causes brought about by Standing Rock. In this issue, Karenne Wood and Trevino L. Brings Plenty shared perspectives directly from the Water Protector camps, while poets from Sherwin Bitsui to Dan Taulapapa McMullin raised their voices from the Navajo Reservation to American Samoa and beyond. But, of course, indigenous identities cannot be circumscribed by the national borders of the United States: upon reading the selection published in WLT, the editors of LALT decided to expand upon its mission.
Indigenous nations extend from the northern shores of Canada to the southern tip of Chile, and throughout this massive area, native peoples face parallel struggles as a part of the ongoing processes of colonization that has defined this hemisphere’s history since 1492. And recent fights for native land and water rights are in no way limited to the struggle for clean water at Standing Rock: indigenous communities throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America also face conflicts to maintain their rights to ancestral lands against the advance of drilling, mining, and logging interests, not to mention government-led engineering projects that often threaten to flood or stip bare the lands on which indigenous communities rely. Standing Rock served to remind many Americans of the dire importance of the ongoing fight for indigenous rights in the United States, but it is also high time for a reminder of the overarching presence - and the overarching struggles - of native people throughout the Western Hemisphere.
With this goal in mind, and following in the footsteps of WLT, the third issue of Latin American Literature Today marks the inauguration of a new permanent section devoted to native writing from the southern half of the American continent. To celebrate the first edition of this section, we have enlisted the help of outstanding translators Clare Sullivan and Wendy Burk to offer a sample of indigenous voices from Mexico and Chile, spanning generations, languages, and themes to present a panorama of indigenous literature that will continue to grow in future issues of LALT.
The first dossier of this new section includes two young poets from Mexico whose work looks simultaneously backwards and forwards, revealing the trials of maintaining native identity in present-day Mexico while considering the implications of global social and economic trends on their ways of life. Enriqueta Lunez (Tzotzil) recalls a time when “no one wanted to be mestizo” in her native Chiapas, while Hubert Matiúwàa (Me’phàà) evokes the image of “grandparents praying for their children / who live in el Norte / and those who never made it off the road.”
Moving further south, we feature three poets whose work flows from the cosmovision of the Mapuche and Williche peoples of present-day Chile. Elicura Chihuailaf (Mapuche), perhaps the best-known voice of contemporary Mapuche poetry, calls out to the spirits of rain and running water that define the “blue world” of his ancestral home in Kechurewe; Leonel Lienlaf (Mapuche) shares poems that are also songs, in keeping with the ancient Mapuche tradition known as Ül, which seamlessly incorporates music, poetry, and aphorism; and Graciela Huinao (Mapuche-Williche) calls on the memories of her father and grandfather to seek understanding of “the tiny universe in the palm of [her] hand.”
These poets explore different themes from different perspectives, but they share a common commitment to presenting the future as a consequence of the past and to upholding worldviews that the dominant cultures of their countries would rather ignore or eliminate. By sharing their words in Latin American Literature Today, we seek to assist in the greater endeavor to recognize and respect indigenous cultures: cultures that existed in this land long before it was divided into “North America,” “South America,” “Latin America,” or the “United States,” and cultures that help us all to realize that such divisions are not as inherent - or as permanent - as our colonized mindsets might have us believe.
We are proud to present indigenous writing in Latin American Literature Today, and we hope this small effort will help to amplify voices that never deserved to go unheard.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
Claudia Cavallín is a writer and university professor. Author of the books Ciudades de película: Ficciones urbanas del cine, la literatura y la música (Editorial Académica Española, 2012) and Espectros de la palabra. La metáfora en Borges: los juegos del lenguaje que hacen posible la configuración de un universo de imágenes recursivas (Editorial Académica Española, 2012). Between 2012 and 2015, she was director of the academic journal Estudios. Revista de Investigaciones Literarias y Culturales. She has written essays on Jorge Luis Borges, José Revueltas, and Luisa Valenzuela, among other writers. She holds a degree in Social Communication with a focus on Humanistic Development (1996) and a Magister Scientiae in the area of Latin American and Caribbean Literature (2000). She is a professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures of the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela. She is currently working toward her doctorate in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics of the University of Oklahoma.