A Circle of Sharing

IT was an unforgettable moon, luminous and huge, hanging over the buzzing Ecuadorian jungle that night. And in the small Quechua Indian village of Capirona, the darkened green of the surrounding vegetation was tinged with much silver light. There was enough light to read, to cast sharp shadows, and to see shapes and details. Just below the village, the swiftly flowing Rio Puni River became a spangled ribbon of water in the light.

Around the village, in the humid air, the looming jungle- rainforest was filled with the admonition of insects, all buzzing, drilling, clicking, and humming. This was the sound of insect business: territorial ownership, mating rituals, and the headlong need to establish identity in the jungle.

The combined sounds were louder and thicker than nights I've heard along the Mississippi, the Stanislaus, or the Thames. Here in the jungle, insects are everywhere night and day, including swiftly moving cockroaches the size of an ample thumb.

In the community meeting house, there was the warmth of friendship. With thatched roof and open sides, the meeting house held two dozen Quechua men, women, and children and three Western visitors who had gathered in candlelight to sing and dance. The meeting house was raised above the ground on wooden pillars. Along the edge of the open floor, we sat on wooden benches.

The atmosphere was easygoing and almost languid, a big family coming together just to be together. To the left, a Quechua man wearing shoes and playing a violin accompanied a shoeless man who sang. Another man coaxed a haunting bass sound from an empty turtle shell by rubbing his thumb along the edge.

SUNG in a monotone voice, the songs celebrated food and water, told of strange dreams about good fortune, or of days when a man should not leave the village because he dreamed of a black dog. The shoeless man sang of a wife who cried all the time, and of the hard work we had done earlier in the day at the ``minga,'' a community work project to carry rocks and sand in bags from the river's edge to a construction site.

Then we danced.

In the humid night, I dripped perspiration as I joined the men and women in a kind of shuffling, side-to-side dance that was the basic local style. Quick, but not fast. Supple, but not gymnastic. I added some moves borrowed from Chuck Berry, and the result was laughter from the Quechua women.

In between dances, a young man with a bottle and a cup went slowly from person to person, offering a drink in the hot night, an act of community sharing that had been demonstrated earlier in the day with a thick, bitter, cheesy drink before and after the minga.

Now, at the dance, nearly everyone drank just a little from the bottle. I was disappointed to learn that it was alcohol, because my thirst was huge. I slipped out of the community house, returned to the village kitchen for a bottle of purified water, and drank and drank.

During the evening, the young man circulated a few more times with his bottle. No one drank to excess, and most people sipped only a little, using this time for brief socializing.

It wasn't until more than a year later, at an American Indian pow-wow on the Pawnee reservation in Oklahoma one night, that I saw a young Pawnee man repeating this custom of the Quechua, this time with a pail of cool water and a long-handled ladle.

In between the drumming and chanting of songs, and the circle dances for men and women in Indian dress, the young man moved around the outer edge of the enclosed round house, stopping at the seated clusters of families to talk while people sipped the water. What was remarkable to me is that a continent away, over oceans and the Andes Mountains, the same custom was part of another indigenous culture.

It may be that ``another'' is the wrong word; that in fact, if one could trace the origins of the Quechua and the Pawnee back tens of thousands of years, the roots of their cultures would get closer and become one.

To be sure, their cultures share all the elements that were so alien to the Europeans and Spaniards who conquered the native lands. Indians knew how to use the land, and never considered dominating or developing it.

They lived closer to the rhythms and nuances of nature. How and why they were conquered, and still resist today, is another story.

But at the much bigger Pawnee roundhouse in the middle of the Oklahoma plains, there was the same comfortable gentle welcome that existed at the Quechua community house. Along the Rio Puni River, I had been with peaceful people who had never heard of Disneyland and could take or leave electricity. Many had clearly never worn shoes. To my delight, and to his benefit, one of the community leaders told me through a translator, ``Once I went to a nearby village and the mosquitoes bit me because they didn't know me.''

On the Pawnee reservation, I sat next to a family man named Donny, part Cherokee and Apache, who shared with me the subtlety of Indian languages and explained how references to nature are a source of meaning.

He told me the Indian names of two of his grandchildren and then tried to explain the meaning in English. ``There is a moment,'' he explained about his granddaughter's Indian name, ``just after lightning strikes a tree, when a little puff of smoke appears. That is her name. And my grandson's name is the moment when it stops raining and everything is very still. The translation is something like, `the storm ended easily.' ''

AS the young man moved through the roundhouse with the pail of cool water, I leaned back from my seat and looked out a window. Drifting clouds partially covered a full moon. Along the Rio Puni, the Quechuas would probably be singing and dancing too.

Donny leaned toward me. ``When I was a kid, one of the Indian elders used to tell me stories,'' he said, ``trying to teach me about life. One day a young Indian left camp to hunt for food because his family was hungry. But he couldn't find any deer or buffalo. Finally he saw a big turkey with some hens near a clump of trees. He raised his bow to shoot the turkey, but the tom chased the hens away and then moved behind a tree. The Indian had to wait quietly.

``The turkey stayed behind the tree for a long time. Then the Indian heard an eagle scream. He looked up just as the eagle flew down to strike the turkey. The eagle was off a little, and hit a glancing blow, enough to kill the turkey, but the eagle hit the ground and broke his neck. The Indian took home the turkey and the eagle.''

Donny paused, his grandchildren playing nearby with other Indian children. ``For a long time I wondered what was the meaning of that story,'' he said. ``Now I think it means we should take our time, go slow, or we might miss a blessing.''

Just then the young man with the pail of water approached us. We both drank water from the ladle and thanked him. The dancing and chanting started again.

Out the window, gray clouds muscled in front of the moon, and when I closed my eyes for a moment, the trick was to know where I was, with Quechua or with Pawnee.

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