Home Commentary Echoes of Indigenous voices: Perspectives from Salesian mission field

Echoes of Indigenous voices: Perspectives from Salesian mission field

When reading articles on indigenous pastoral care within our Salesian realm, I feel compelled to share my reflections, particularly as a missionary in Asia since 1999 and as a descendant of South American aborigines. The honor I feel for my roots and ancestral people is profound.

Between January 27 and 28 of this year, we hosted the inaugural Voices of the Aboriginal Peoples of Cambodia meeting, attended by representatives from eight Cambodian indigenous communities. Each delegation comprised a young man and an elder, symbolizing our ancestral ties and future aspirations.

The elder, or chatom, embodied our historical lineage, while the young man represented our forward trajectory. An indigenous youth remarked, “The youth are the bamboo vine of the community,” encapsulating our aim to bridge generational gaps.

In drafting our Voices statement as indigenous peoples, I sought guidance from Father Eleazar López Hernández, revered as the grandfather of Indian Theology and Indigenous Pastoral Care in Latin America. Father López, a member of the Zapotec people of Mexico, provided a profound message, which included insights on a particular expression employed:

They mention the names of voices of the voiceless, and then voices of the indigenous people of Cambodia. The first name, voices of those who have no voice, has been an expression used by Pope John Paul II when he first arrived in Mexico in 1979 and in the region, precisely where I am from, the region of Oaxaca, where He met the indigenous peoples and expressed that the Church is called to be the voice of those who have no voice, of those who have been silenced, to raise awareness of consciences and to promote a new project of humanity. The expression is therefore beautiful and very recognized within the Church. However, the Pope himself, with the contact that he had with other peoples, realized that they are not peoples who do not have a voice, but rather that they have not been heard. You yourselves are now people who are speaking and are questioning the rest of society and now there are conditions for that society, which has not listened to the oldest voice in the world, which are the voices of the people who have been there for thousands of years. So you are speaking and you are not people without a voice. They are people who have not wanted to listen to and now there are people who want to listen, because this word of the people is an inspiration for others. Maybe we should change, after almost 45 years, that we are people without a voice and that we need others to speak for us. We speak and society has to listen to us. We follow our own categories and our own languages, also using the language spoken in each nation.

Our statement addresses pressing issues and urges global attention towards our indigenous communities, their life, continuity, and the dissemination of their knowledge for the benefit of others. A notable comment from a young woman, “Before we were very silent and even avoided contact, but in this time we have to raise our voice and say that we are here,” underscores a critical shift towards vocal advocacy and visibility. This is paralleled by a call for Mother Earth’s protection, achievable only through harmonious coexistence and a deep, intrinsic connection with nature.

Another young man articulated, “Without our ancestral territory, we confront identity crises; the land is our ancestors, our means of sustenance, our spirituality,” highlighting the deep-seated link between indigenous peoples and their land, which is foundational to their identity, sustainability, and spiritual practices.

Similarly, the entire human race must either rekindle or cultivate respect for these territories and for Mother Earth, considered the primeval domain of Adam and Eve, necessitating love, respect, and stewardship. This reverence is evident in the designation of this land as Eden (Hebrew: gan-ʿÉeḏen) or the Garden of Eden, and later as “Paradise” in Greek. To our Quechua ancestors, Mother Earth is Pacha Mama, and in Greek, Gaia, signifying the divine garden, hence embodying a sanctity bestowed by the Creator on humanity: “So the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), emphasizing the duty to nurture and preserve our environment.

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Within our Salesian tradition, Don Bosco exhibited a keen interest in evangelizing the indigenous populations of South America. He envisioned our ancestors in one of his most renowned dreams, which also predicted events like the establishment of Brasilia and the uncovering of mineral-rich mines. As we celebrate the bicentennial of Don Bosco’s prophetic dream in 2024, it’s essential to acknowledge that his visions, though impactful, were tinted with the Eurocentric and colonial perspectives dominant in the 19th and much of the 20th century. These narratives labeled our ancestors as “savages,” implying violence and suggesting that salvation lay only in aligning with European colonial standards of civilization.

Furthermore, the European penchant for resource extraction, which began in the 16th century, has escalated dramatically in the 20th and 21st centuries. This extractivism threatens not only the survival of indigenous peoples but also the vitality of the Mother Jungle and the very resources upon which Western society has built its perceived superiority over other global cultures. This historical context challenges us to reevaluate and adapt our approach to ensure it respects the dignity and rights of indigenous populations, in alignment with contemporary values and the teachings of the Church.

The Salesians have been actively engaged in numerous missions involving indigenous peoples across all continents, a commitment that dates back to the time of Don Bosco himself. This engagement reflects a longstanding dedication to supporting and working alongside indigenous communities, underscoring the global reach and inclusive approach of Salesian missionary work.

It is crucial to reevaluate our historical engagements with indigenous communities in light of the Church’s current direction and Pope Francis’s teachings, particularly in the context of events like the Amazon Synod.

While it is essential to celebrate the positive impacts, such as educational initiatives and advocacy for dignity, which have often involved standing alongside indigenous peoples through their struggles—sometimes at great personal risk—it is equally important to acknowledge and learn from past missteps.

These include actions of colonialism, both deliberate and inadvertent, that have undermined the ancestral rights of indigenous peoples to their identity, language, traditions, natural spirituality, and the free pursuit of their dignity.

This dual approach fosters a comprehensive understanding of our history, ensuring that our future endeavors are more respectful, inclusive, and aligned with the values of indigenous communities and the broader teachings of the Church.

Pope Francis, as echoed by Father Eleazar López, emphasizes a pivotal shift in the Church’s approach to indigenous peoples. He advocates for viewing indigenous communities not merely as recipients of the Church’s teachings but as vital contributors to a dialogue.

The Pope underscores the importance of allowing indigenous voices to lead these conversations, urging missionaries to adopt a posture of listening and learning.

This perspective fosters a more inclusive, respectful, and reciprocal relationship between the Church and indigenous peoples, recognizing the profound value of indigenous wisdom and spirituality in the shared journey of faith. 

Father Albeiro Rodas Inca Moyachoque, SDB, serves as the rector of Don Bosco Technical School in Kep province, Cambodia, and fulfills the role of Social Communication Delegate at the Don Bosco Foundation of Cambodia. Hailing from an Indigenous community in South America, Father Albeiro embarked on his missionary journey to Asia in 1999.

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