Despite the popular superstition that bad things come in threes, we appear to like that number. The 'qatsi film trilogy is just one example. Larry, Curly and Mo were once popular entertainers. In religion, Christianity posits a Holy Trinity. In politics, the motto 'liberty, equality, fraternity' is invoked to refer to post-revolutionary France. It was once common to classify everything in the world as animal, vegetable or mineral. A 'hat trick' is the achievement of something, like scoring a goal in soccer, three times.
There is also a place for the number in science. Flight is achieved by controlling the three axes of roll, pitch and yaw. In biology class we learn that the human ear has three bones. All scientifically measurable physical quantities can be reduced to just three dimensions — length, mass and time. Race, however, cannot be measured scientifically because it is not a scientific term and, therefore, has no relationship to, for example, skin color. Indigenous North Americans have historically been referred to as 'the red man.' We once thought there might be 'little green men' on Mars. The Blue Man Group is a performing arts company whose members' skin appears blue on stage only due to theatrical make-up and stage lighting. Nobody actually has red, green or blue skin, yet these three primary colors can be combined to produce any color. So, scientifically, every one of us has red, green and blue skin.
The young girl in this month's photo is a Q'eqchi' Maya from Guatemala. Clearly, she is signing; it would be absurd to conclude that she is practicing witchcraft. Yet that is precisely what the Spaniards, who first came into contact with Maya peoples like the Q'eqchi', believed they were doing when they observed something as common as writing. Indeed, they killed many Maya for this 'practice' and burned their books.
As I observed last month's events I saw a place for another 'three' to move the conversation along — the three consecutive letters of the Roman alphabet, R, S and T, and how they represent a framework for relating indigenous knowledge to our present crises. To understand this framework we should turn not to history but to pre-history. There we find that the solutions to all the crises we currently face are a combination of R, S and T.
R is for reformation. Reformation can, of course, sometimes mean replacement. A growing, perhaps critical, mass of people globally are now seeing the need for reformation. Reformation of policing received a lot of attention last month. Some feel we need to reform how we allow ourselves to be policed. That is a mistake. Instead, we need to reform how we police ourselves. The difference may seem subtle but it is critical. Any society that views itself as 'being policed' in a passive role is subjugated from the outset and will fail. The broader issue, though, is reformation of how we choose to govern ourselves as societies. Prehistoric times are so labelled because, for the most part, history was not recorded as it is recorded now. During such times there were only indigenous societies. We are constantly learning about such societies by applying forensic techniques to their archaeological sites. (The discovery of new sites at Stonehenge was announced only a few days ago.) What emerges is clear evidence that indigenous societies adapted by reforming themselves due to both opportunity and necessity.
S is for sustainability. Indigenous people have, by definition, achieved the greatest sustainability of our species if only because they have been around longer than the rest of us. The rest of us are now beginning to realize that our species is not sustainable if we continue our present societal organization. The original stewards of our planet have been replaced by ones who have failed us when it comes to managing natural resources equitably and curbing the domination and usurpation of weaker peoples. Reformation must be achieved according to principles of sustainability. Otherwise it is futile.
T is for truth. As the spread of information has increased, so too has the spread of truth decreased. We are now at a time in history when truth itself is a commodity being hijacked to fuel political gain, greed and oppression. Last month was no exception in the ongoing erosion of journalistic freedoms — even in countries that claim to be democracies. Where they ignored truth, otherwise successful, ancient societies met their downfall. Even sustainable reformation is futile if not informed by truth.
The Spaniards' assumption that the writing of societies like the Q'eqchi' Maya was witchcraft stemmed from their unquestioned presumption of their own supremacy. It sounds familiar but, surely, we might think, that was hundreds of years ago and times have changed. We need to think again. Last month there were multiple reports of brutal, extra-judicial killings of people accused of practicing witchcraft. One was in Ebonyi, Nigeria; another took place in Dowa, Malawi; two were in Odisha, India. A fifth case was a Q'eqchi' Maya man in Guatemala. Domingo Choc Ché was a traditional Maya healer who was tortured then set on fire. He had dedicated his life to the pursuit of truth by reforming traditional Maya medicine to incorporate western scientific methods to make it more sustainable.