Totonac boys attend class in a rural school. Photo by Alejandra Cerdeño


Schooled in nature

There’s a way to teach children without colonising their minds: the lifelong way of the indigenous people of Mexico

by Jay Griffiths + BIO

Totonac boys attend class in a rural school. Photo by Alejandra Cerdeño

In Mexico City, the cathedral – this stentorian thug of a cathedral – is sinking. Built to crush the indigenous temple beneath it, while its decrees pulverised indigenous thinking, Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral is sinking under the weight of its own brutal imposition.

Walking nearby late one night, I was captivated by music. Closer, now, and I came upon an indigenous, pre-Hispanic ceremony being danced on the pavement hard by the cathedral. Copal tree resin was burning, marigolds were scattered like living coins, people in feather headdresses and jaguar masks danced to flutes, drums, rattles and shell-bells. While each cathedral column was a Columbus colonising the site, the ceremony seemed to say: We’re still here.

A young man watched me awhile, as I was taking notes, and then approached me smiling.

‘Do you understand Nahuatl?’ he asked.

Head-shaking smile.

‘Do you want me to explain?’


He spent an hour gently unfurling each word. Abjectly poor, his worn-out shoes no longer even covered his feet and his clothes were rags, but he shone with an inner wealth, a light that was his gift, to respect the connections of the world, between people, animals, plants and the elements. He spoke of the importance of not losing the part of ourselves that touches the heart of the Earth; of listening within, and also to the natural world. Two teachers. No one has ever said it better.

‘Your spirit is your maestro interno. Your spirit brought you here. You have your gift and destiny to complete in this world. You have to align yourself in the right direction and carry on.’ And he melted away, leaving me with tears in my eyes as if I had heard a lodestar singing its own quiet truthsong.

A few days earlier, I’d been invited to the Centre for Indigenous Arts in Papantla, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, 300km east of Mexico City. The centre was celebrating the anniversary of its founding (in 2006), and promoting indigenous education: decolonised schooling. Not by chance, it is 12 October, the day when, in 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the so-called New World. Here, they come not to praise Columbus but to bury his legacy because – as an act of pointed protest – this date is now widely honoured as the day of indigenous resistance.

A few hundred people, mainly Totonac, a pre-Colombian civilisation, cluster together in the centre’s candle-lit, flower-strewn courtyard. From tiny children to old people, everyone is dressed with care, the men wearing white cotton trousers and tunics, the women white dresses. All colours have meaning; white symbolises purity of thought.

Copal incense weaves the breeze. Banana-resin is used to paint shooting stars and flowers on the pottery, which is, they say, a sacred work because it comes from Madre Tierra, the mothering Earth. ‘Every object is charged with thousands of years of knowledge,’ says Salomón Bazbaz Lapidus, the centre’s director.

Laid out on the ground is a hand-tended and mind-attended mandala of what education could aspire to be. A path of huge, waxy banana leaves links exhibits of traditional medicine, storytelling, pre-Hispanic healing saunas, pottery, dance, painting, theatre, cotton-culture, carpentry and – candidly now – tourism. Looked at as a whole, it is a pathway, a camino of pedagogy – ‘because we are following a long path not to be conquered’.

The day begins with long blessings and continues with longer speeches to confirm and celebrate the centre’s work. The camino of pedagogy is walked ‘poco a poco’, they say: little by little, each step involving public consultation, ‘soaked in dialogue and steeped in ceremony’, each word crafted to articulate their cosmovision (their conception of life) without compromise. The camino is walked with an old slowness. ‘Much listening to the grandfathers and grandmothers,’ says Humberto García García, the pedagogist.

Walking towards the ritual pole. Photo by Alejandra Cerdeño

It took eight years to develop the ideas of education now symbolically spread at our feet. Everything has meaning: the green circle showing the natural world, the centre of everything; stars, representing a person’s special gift. Well-rooted trees show how knowledge does not, must not, disappear; and circular designs illustrate how knowledge builds by discussing things in circles. Seeds show the importance of putting concepts into practice: planting an idea so that it grows into its reality.

‘The worst thing you can do is impose,’ says Domingo Francisco Velasco, a traditional healer. ‘This is the main problem with humanity.’ The Spanish word imponer carries strong meanings and a harsh history. The cathedral’s imposition symbolises it perfectly: the subjugation of a continent, the imposition of the Inquisition which tortured and slaughtered curanderos (indigenous healers) because their knowledge was forbidden; the imposition of what I call intellectual apartheid.

Classes were held outdoors; the natural world was honoured as a teacher. Stories, music and art were integral to learning. Exams were not

Like my lodestar friend at the cathedral in Mexico City, Francisco Velasco indicates two places where knowledge comes from: the great within and the great without – the speaking earth will teach the listening mind if we are willing and wise. ‘Knowledge is here,’ he says, his hand across his heart, and his face glowing – at once shy and certain. ‘You have to search deep inside to find it for much is known already in the head, hand and heart,’ while the natural world is teacher and guide. He speaks a river language, clear, constant and clean. ‘In nature there are places where you can find your moment and be revivified.’

This idea of education matters far beyond the (very great) importance of cultural respect for indigenous societies wanting to transmit their unique cultural heritage to future generations. It reaches further, into the heart of the relationship between humanity and the natural world, for the goal of this camino is to align correctly the relationship of people with nature. This is not about ‘environmentalism’ as an optional hobby, but is a matter of survival. Arguably, because of climate change, there has never been a more important moment for the Dominant Society (called the ‘Younger Brothers’ by many indigenous cultures) to learn from older cultures, to pay attention to their ethics, valuing the natural world above all, and to do this through wise education.

The expression of dissatisfaction with imposed imperialist education has a long history. In the early 20th century, Rabindranath Tagore set up Santiniketan in Bengal, to protest at British colonialist schooling. Classes were held outdoors; the natural world was honoured as a teacher. Stories, music and art were integral to learning. Exams were not. Nor was the world of business. Generating art in everything, Tagore’s aim was to regenerate the moment with noticed beauty to turn the meanly quotidian into a daily ceremony.

His ideas of schooling are echoed in Forest Schools, the Reggio Emilia system, and the multitude of fledgling radical schools that emphasise nature and art, and value moral, meaningful learning as much as academic work. Meanwhile, Jiddu Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy began with a revulsion at the ways in which the typical education of his time served nationalism and economics, when he taught ethics: the goodness of the human being.

Radical education has often focused on similar themes: from Devon to the Sierra Nevada, from Bengal to Veracruz, people speak a common sense of mind and body learning in each other’s service.

Take a human being. Lean it gently on the earth and let it listen awhile in the darkness. Ask it then what are the good words, and true. Ask what is the core curriculum for the human heart, the coeur values which children should learn. And, like a fundamental law of metaphysics, the answers seem to come back the same all over the world. Nature. Story. Ethics. Respect. Balance. Creativity. Spirit. Insight. Gift. The art of being human.

It is not just the overtly colonised indigenous cultures that know this; not just the nations that have suffered imperialism or slavery, but any human being who has felt the stress, cruelty, insufficiency or marginalisation of education. Anyone who deplores seeing education manacled to corporations. All who resent seeing children as colonised subjects in the empire of the school, or decry the kind of education that meanly markets children as earners, consumers and debtors-to-be. This cri de coeur can be heard wherever people, in exasperation, anger and bewilderment want to snatch their children away from a toxic ideology that damages nature, and human nature. The Dominant Society, say the Arhuaco people of Colombia, with real bitterness, knows little of the natural world but much about how to destroy it. At the core of Arhuaco education is the sacred duty of maintaining the balance of life: the protection of nature.

If this is the cherished end of the camino of pedagogy, how might those steps be taken in relation to individual children? It is a matter of one’s gift, say Totonac people: the seed that needs to be discovered and nurtured from childhood. In effect, they say, like some of the more gifted educators of the Dominant Society: do not ask if this child is gifted, ask how is this child gifted.

In a traditional Totonac story, the sky-grandmothers merrily hurl stars at young children and the ones that stick are their gifts. So important is this sense of gift that it is inherent in the name Totonac, which means ‘three hearts’. They gloss it thus: we need three hearts – to ask to know one’s gift, to receive it, and to give it in service to the world. Totonac language is scented with metaphor – ‘our speech is full of flowers’, they say.

Gift is a lovely word: it has lightness and lift, it is an open-handed and open-hearted word. And it shines, this word, lighting your path, a lodestar for the camino of your life.

He is saddened by the Church’s persistent separation of people from nature: without that relationship people lose respect, humility and generosity

García García realised that his gift was for pedagogy itself. His first school, he says, was Totonac culture, including learning from the elders through ceremonies, pottery and medicine. He went on to university and to postgraduate study in formal pedagogy, and was invited back to help with this initiative to rethink education. He smiles, part woefully, part proudly: ‘I had to unlearn what I learnt at university. All my academic qualifications were not enough to cope with what I had to do here.’

The healer Francisco Velasco starts to explain to me the Totonac calendar of sacred time but right then a bell rings: a call to Catholic prayer. To be polite, I ask if he wants to attend. Our questions cross in mid-air as he, equally polite, asks me the same. We smile at the perfectly timed interruption. ‘This is it!’ he exclaims. ‘The Catholic religion has broken our knowledge of the natural calendar.’ He is saddened by the Church’s persistent separation of people from nature, for without that relationship people lose three things, he says: respect, humility and generosity.

It cuts them to the heart to confront all that colonialism has done. García García talks of sadness, confusion and fear, but also how the collective pain became a journey of discovery, to open their truths to the world. Willing to let in the glinting words, he says softly: ‘We are sharing something which is both reality and metaphor.’

Francisco Velasco, likewise, bows to the words that matter: ‘It’s a school of life. It makes meaning. What is important is not only what we see,’ he says, emphasising a distinction between knowledge typified by sight, and poetic knowledge, an embrace of the significance of others, the participation of oneself with the world outside oneself, the medieval ‘sympathy’. At our feet lie the visible signs: seeds, leaves, circles, pottery – each one in itself a sympathetic symbol for concepts in the imagination.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning is in the mind of the bestower, filling the world with mystery and metaphor.

There can be few more dramatic examples of schooling in mystery than the education of the Tairona mamos (priests) of the Sierra Nevada in Colombia. The Kogi, Arhuaco, Wiwa and Kankuamo peoples are descendants of the Tairona civilisation and their mamos are educated for their role from very early childhood. The tiny apprentice is taken to live in a dark cave, and forbidden from seeing the daylight or even the light of the full moon. He is taught songs, myths, the ancient ritual language of the mamos. Nine years pass.

Then the deepening training begins – another nine years, still dwelling in darkness, learning the knowledge written in stones, forests, lakes and mountains, hearing about the Great Mother, studying divination, meditation and the sacred duty of maintaining the balance of the natural world. It is the development of insight at the price of sight. The gift of vision given in darkness. The inward eye intuiting the mysterious before seeing the material.

But the Arhuaco people realised their material world was being stolen as the mestizos repeatedly cheated them in transactions that resulted in the Arhuaco losing their land. They decided their education needed something extra. Training in business. Accounts. Purchases. Sales. So in 1915, the Arhuaco asked the Colombian government to send them teachers for maths and written Spanish. In terms of the human mind, it is as if the strengths of the right hemisphere of the brain (including metaphor, intrinsic value, a sense of the divine, the sacredness of life and nature) were emphasised, but the strengths of the left hemisphere (including price, measurement and maths) were not.

The government infamously twisted the request, sending in Capuchin friars who prohibited indigenous language, called their cultural heritage ‘devilish’ and ‘heathenish’, and enclosed children in a school that was called ‘the orphanage’. The friars fined the children for every word they spoke in their own language (the price was 10 cents a word, in the 1930s) and, as if performing the truth of Oscar Wilde’s cynic, taught the children, the Arhuaco said, ‘nothing of value’. The Arhuaco rid themselves of the friars only in 1982, literally drumming them out, surrounding the mission buildings, singing and dancing with accordions and flutes so the priests couldn’t get a wink of sleep. When the Capuchins left, the Arhuaco set about transforming their education systems.

What do you get if you decolonise education? The best of both hemispheres, it seems. One Arhuaco initiative, the Centro Educativo Indígena Simunurwa, set up in 2007, includes numeracy and literacy in its syllabus. They use mobile phones and radio stations to communicate with international human rights organisations. They use their own language, stories, art, rites of passage, spirituality, music and law. The input of the elders is vital, and rivers and fields are ‘classrooms’. Indigenous cosmology is taught alongside Western philosophers, while certain plants are considered teachers, as they are across the Amazon, in diagnosing sickness as well as treatment, and Arhuaco mamos are griefstruck because certain plants have ‘vanished without even leaving us traces of their knowledge, of their teachings, of their healing properties’.

Back in Papantla in Mexico, Lapidus sweeps his arm protectively around his centre – which has been awarded a UNESCO award for Best Practice in Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage. The plaque itself is decorated with stems of vanilla, revered for its healing qualities. ‘Twenty years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible,’ he says. It was made possible by the Zapatistas who, in terms of indigenous cultural self-respect, ‘gave an alert to Mexico and to the world’.

The Zapatista movement (‘For Humanity: Against Neoliberalism’), a left-wing uprising to defend the rights of indigenous Mexicans, armed with poetry, guitars and guns, found its most eloquent spokesperson in the storytelling Subcomandante Marcos. He is not indigenous by birth but has become so by listening: the opposite of the queasy quadroonerie of essentialism, imposing its fascism of blood. Through humility, through humanity, through humus, Earth itself speaks to the indigenous human mind.

When the healer Francisco Velasco speaks of the best kind of education, he applies it widely: ‘This wisdom is not just for indigenous people but it should be universal.’ There is a reason why we live on Earth, says the teacher García García, because each of us has a service to perform, ‘a gift to develop in life, to reach the light and to give it as an offering. It is blessed.’ A green thought in a green shade, true education mirrors qualities of life itself: generous, generative, diverse and creative.

‘Children with colonised imaginations don’t suffer a deficit of attention, but a deficit of images that arrest the soul’

Rabindranath Tagore’s philosophy strongly influences Schumacher College in Devon in the UK, and visiting there recently I met Martin Shaw, its mythologist-in-residence. If I played Fantasy Cabinet, I would make Shaw my education secretary. He calls himself a storyteller, though I would call him a storydoctor, using myths to heal, by psychic surgery if necessary. ‘Story is a sharp knife,’ he says. Stories are revered as teachers of true stature all over the indigenous world; encoding ecological knowledge or ritual significance, they can caution and adroitly admonish, pricking someone’s conscience without shaming, and they can console.

He mentions the Gaelic tradition where educational stories were called the ‘swan-feather cloak’, and ‘every moment of your life should have you clothed in story’. Without that, children feel unsupported and isolated. ‘What I see around me is children with colonised imaginations. They don’t suffer a deficit of attention,’ says Shaw, ‘but a deficit of images that arrest the soul. Once you provide them, you are in the business of real education – to lead out.’

Name me something, I ask, that is important for children to learn.


I smile, leaving a broad pause.

‘They need to learn to be gallant. The kind of education I want results in affecting their relationship, as adults, with the Earth, so that in time we move from a society of taking to a culture of giving, in a society of relatedness. I want them to believe that if they don’t say an inventive prayer, the Moon may not come out. To know that they themselves are a little part of the ecosystem that for a few years glimpses itself through human eyes. Inventiveness is so innate in children: it is not hard to provoke a courting culture, to speak Firebird language.’

I hear it. I know it. I honour it.

The furious tenderness of Romanticism is here, with its fierce kneeling in the presence of the natural world; not a rose-tinted moment of cultural history, but a perennial and necessary aspect of the human psyche – and children are the great Romantics. ‘Romanticism is activism,’ says Shaw. ‘And in children it is essential, it is not an indulgence. This kind of education is so basic, it’s like refinding fire.’

Meanwhile, in the Sierra Nevada, after 18 years of creating a world in the darkness of the imagination alone, one morning dawns like no other as the young mamo is led out to see his first sunrise on the astonished mountain. The image he had painted in his mind, no matter how shining, will be dim by contrast. The world of his thought, no matter how generous, will be meanly bleak in comparison. The picture he had made will be shabby and poor beside the spiralling, splendour-swept world, its transcendence finally and truly beheld. The shock of rapture. Dazed by beauty and amazed by light. This is a sight whose resplendence leaves him awestruck for life: to see the radiance of the divine Earth and to know it holy.