Q&A: Exploring the Connections Between Environment, Equality, and Indigenous Issues

by Thuy Hang Tran |March 20, 2020
photo of ceiba

Ceiba — a musician, activist, and teacher — emphasizes the importance of listening to and learning from indigenous peoples. Photo: Nina A. Padilla/Vignette Portrait Photography

This Q&A is part of an ongoing initiative by the communications team at the Earth Institute’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity to highlight the work of practitioners, community members, and academics working on sustainability and environmental justice.  

Ceiba is a Texas-based teacher and music activist whose work supports indigenous rights and environmental justice. Her chosen name, Ceiba, comes from a statuesque tree with spiritual significance to native people in tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas, including her home country, Honduras, and tropical West Africa. She graduated from Sewanee: University of the South and started teaching through Teach for America in Texas before turning to music. Below we learn more about Ceiba’s personal journey and her perspectives on music and environmental justice.

Tell us about your current work and how it relates to environmental justice and/or sustainability?

Currently, I am a musician, composer, and band member of Dharma Paax. We play world music with the three original band members: Jesus Reyna, Javier Sánchez, and Marcos Garcia. As advocates through our music, we are intentional about supporting community efforts to raise funds for environmental and human rights issues at churches, local San Antonio sustainability events, and places near the border.

We address environmental inequality in our lyrics, urging listeners to restore their relationship to the land that gives us life. For example, in our cowritten song, “El Mundo” [The World]: “quién le va sembrar sus tierras?” — it asks “who will plant seeds in her, who will water her womb?” Our instruments are from diverse cultures such as the Indian mridangam drum, Andean pan flute, and Mexica (Aztec) ayoyotes help listeners reconnect with the ancient earthy sounds they produce. Combined, the lyrics and instruments express what our community is experiencing locally and internationally, particularly when it comes to indigenous rights.

We link culture and social justice to sustainability because the Earth can only be sustained by understanding our innate connection to everything around us and listening to the ecological wisdom the ancestral cultures have always passed down. They know how to live in balance with the land through their native languages and traditions of reciprocity with nature, taking only what they need and offering something in return, like a song. It is from indigenous people that I’ve learned that what we do to the Earth is what we do to ourselves and each other. Thus, in extracting and destroying our environment, we destroy ourselves.

ceiba playing drums

Photo: Nina A. Padilla/Vignette Portrait Photography

I’m involved in the community with several organizations. One of them is the Society of Native Nations, an organization that is comprised of indigenous groups from around the world. We organize ourselves to protect the land in whichever capacity we can. This includes art projects and advocacy, especially with the youth.

Where can we check out your music?

We are working on releasing our official music, but you can check out our work on social media and YouTube: @dharmapaax.

Can you walk us through this connection between the environment and inequality through some of your lyrics and the meanings behind them?

I wrote “Caravana” for  my community migrating in caravans from Central Americas — “Like a true Lenca Maya telling you this ain’t no invasion, you puttin our babies in cages.” It is a harsh reality that indigenous people migrating north are deemed “invaders,” criminalized; they are being separated from their children as a way to punish them.

The band and I also wrote a song connecting migration and the earth.

“Ando caminando por mi tierra; tierras ancestrales de mi raza,

recordando un tiempo sin fronteras. Fuerza indígena!”

I am walking through my land, ancestral lands of my people,

remembering a time when there were no borders. Indigenous strength!

Although everything is connected, people do not see the correlation between climate change and social issues such as mass migration. I believe these two phenomena are directly correlated. When land is taken for extraction, crops aren’t growing, and cities are unlivable and corrupted. Thus people migrate. Yet, often the people who struggle can’t verbalize this relationship and they would say they need a job or want a better life, like my mother herself would say. While people see mass immigration as an invasion by outsiders, I call us “climate refugees.” Only by seeing things as interconnected can we begin to strategize solutions.

What does the name Dharma Paax signify?

Dharma, which originates in Sanskrit, is our purpose we come to fulfill in this lifetime. Paax is the word for music in the Mayan language, a concept which can’t be translated directly but it is to say that we have a musical duty to create music that brings awareness and promotes unity.

What inspired or motivated you to be an advocate for these issues?

Sometimes the most beautiful art comes from the most painful experiences. My transition into music as a form of activism began when I was teaching at a charter school. I worked with  predominantly low-income students in Texas through Teach for America. Despite challenges, I made progress with my students and I was voted Teacher of the Year. Unfortunately, under conservative politics and stricter hiring processes in Texas, I had to resign my teaching position.

My spirit was crushed. I felt a deep sense of uprootedness. We were already uprooted from Honduras and now in the U.S. Where are we allowed to be? After a dark period of depression, I turned back to music as a way to heal. Through time, I began to gain confidence and began to play many instruments with the help of my friends. I also took time to study my origins and my history. I wanted my music to reflect where I came from, my former home in Honduras.

I started with playing the flutes in the privacy of my home — all types, native American flutes, pan flutes, and others. One day, I decided to support an awards ceremony for local activists that helped to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. Afterward, two strangers invited me to perform with them on stage in their song I’d never heard. I gave it a chance and, without knowing the melody nor the progression of the performance, we flowed so naturally. They welcomed me into their band, Dharma Paax, and encouraged me to incorporate my flutes and lyrics into their music.

ceiba playing flute

Photo: Guadalupe Acuña/Lupito’s Photography

What is one success story or tool that you’re really proud of with respect to music and environmental activism?

I am also a teacher. I teach English and Science for fifth and sixth graders. I feel that the future is painted in such a bleak way that it has affected youth and their motivation. Being in the classroom, I am able to directly learn from and inspire youth and brainstorm solutions with them. Being able to take our music to the youth has been a story of success for us.

I see that there are youth and indigenous groups joining forces across the globe to halt extractive projects motivated by profit. The Sápara and Guaraní and many other Amazonian tribes from Ecuador, for example, have been massively protesting destructive land projects in their territory, known as “the lungs of the earth,” despite death threats and their activist friends getting murdered. Earth Guardians is one example of how youth are mobilizing worldwide to sue their governments for disregarding the future generations by destroying the Earth. As musicians, we are inspired by them and choose to create this music to ignite ongoing actions to protect our sources of life.

With the band, we have collaborated with community youth groups through afterschool programs. We facilitated writing workshops in which the band and I guided students on music and advocacy. We create songs with youth with what they express in their writings and with our shared instruments, we collaborate to find a melody on the spot. We hope to continue moving forward with these projects.

What are some of the challenges that come with your work?

“How can anyone speak for a land and a people without acknowledging the natives and allowing them to speak for themselves and their ancestral territories? We do not need saviors or foreigners to write our histories nor our realities any longer.”

The exclusion of indigenous and other marginalized populations in environmental conversations, especially in academia, is a big challenge. They have to be taken as primary educators because they are the ones living through the realities of climate change, migrating in the masses and being criminalized for it — like the Central American caravans, for example. These indigenous marginalized communities hold ecological wisdom that has been passed down for thousands of years about the waters, the animals, and the spiritual entities that live in those spaces which are pivotal to the continuation of life. Academics and institutions need to take advice from people who have remained here for thousands of years and such stories need to be respected and used as sources of knowledge and understanding of life beyond this realm. This life is composed of more than just the physical realm and they can educate us on that. People with degrees and published texts are not the only “experts;” it is the people in the jungles that have constant relationship and communication with the natural environment that are experts too, beyond academia.

How can anyone speak for a land and a people without acknowledging the natives and allowing them to speak for themselves and their ancestral territories? We do not need saviors or foreigners to write our histories nor our realities any longer. We have been oppressed and silenced long enough. I call to academics and people with platforms and resources to pass the mic to the people on the street protesting to protect, getting murdered, doing the footwork. There has to be further support and communication between us all.

How can we amplify those voices?

First step is for academics to do deep research about the history and the people who have always inhabited the Americas. Often the land outside of the United States is not seen as native land and people are labeled as Hispanic or Latino, which erases the history of ancestral people. Academics should then reach out for guidance on their projects, and quote and cite them… I’m advocating for much needed collaboration. This is the way that we can all make it through the times that are coming upon us. 

Tell us more about your music. What are some influences that are infused in your music?

I was inspired to compose, sing, and play instruments to share untold stories of my Lenca culture through a language that is nearly extinct: Kotik. After learning that indigenous languages hold wisdom about the Earth and are being lost forever, I knew that I wanted to help with my music and encourage listeners to revive, protect, and hold on to those languages. The native instruments I use take listeners to a place deep within the self and I hope it inspires introspection. In the band Dharma Paax, the band members have over 30 years of experience combined; we have been using tribal music and incorporating indigenous languages in our lyrics. To use ancient words is a vibration of strength and love. We all work to make our music very rhythmic and invigorating.

The conflicts we are experiencing in 2020 are heavy, so if we are going to make it through, we need inspiration that motivates us to reimagine what our future will look like. We hope to spark more solutions and unity with our music. Stay tuned.

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