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In November 2015 I boarded a flight to Peru with my husband Simone and a freshly broken arm. The trip was partly in response to a midlife crisis; that I would be doing it while nursing a broken bone felt fitting. I had rarely felt more in need of luck, or so short on it. While queuing in the airport terminal, I had asked the woman behind us if I could offer a sucker to her child. Giving candy to a child before every journey was a ritual I had observed since 1991, when a Senegalese marabout, a healer in Wolof society, told me I would spend a lifetime traveling and that the ceremony would help keep me safe. Call me superstitious, but I wasn’t about to forego it now.
The fact that I’m alive at all, given what my ancestors went through, feels like a statistical oddity escaped from a nightmare full of bleeding bodies in shallow graves.
Breaking my arm only days before we were to leave—roller-skating, of all things—had meant a number of last-minute changes of plan. We scratched the grueling hike along the Inca Trail, and instead I had located a small hotel in T’oqokachi, the artsy San Blas district of Cusco. Still, it was a steep climb above the Plaza de Armas, at the center of town. Like many places in Peru, the Plaza de Armas has two names, one Spanish, one Indigenous: the other, Huacaypata, means “place of crying” in Quechua, which is fitting considering that the great revolutionary leader, Túpac Amaru II, was executed there in 1781.
Injured and not yet acclimated to the altitude, even the walk to the hotel from the bus station in the plaza was difficult. We rested after every block. My lungs burned. My arm ached. Our packs felt leaden. We sat outside the Temple of San Blas, a colonial church built on top of an Incan huaca dedicated to Illapa, the lightning god, for a rest. The view from the mountainside was stupendous, the valley stretching out beneath us in the late afternoon sun.
When we finally arrived at our temporary home, we were greeted by a middle-aged woman who said she was the owner. She spoke to us in rapid-fire Spanish, until she realized I wasn’t keeping up. “I thought you were a local,” she said, switching to English. I was flattered, watching as she flipped through our passports to check us in. After taking down our information, she handed our passports back and doubled down on her impression of me. “Your husband looks North American,” she said. “But your dark hair fooled me.”
I didn’t want to be rude, so I held my tongue and, instead of saying anything, raised my eyebrow at Simone. He is from Milan, Italy, yet I was the one—with a thousand-year family history in the United States—who didn’t fit her notion of what its citizens look like.
“I’m Native American,” I explained, using the vaguest of terms to locate my ethnicity for her. I might have said that I was an enrolled member of the Quechan (Yuma) Nation, but making such a statement would undoubtedly have led to further questions, and once I started explaining, where would it end? Yes, really, I was born on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, but our name for ourselves is Quechan. No, really, we’re not related to the Quechua of Peru, despite the fact that the spelling is very similar. In fact, we’re from different linguistic groups entirely.
There are 574 tribes in the United States alone. Few people realize that each has its own language, traditions, religious beliefs, and lifeways.
Once these facts were established, I would feel the urge to clarify that I am also Laguna Pueblo, because my grandmother was from Paguate, New Mexico, and she met my Quechan grandfather in Indian boarding school. I would explain that the U.S. government only allows Natives to enroll in one tribe, and finish by adding that my mother was born in Socorro, New Mexico, to mixed-race parents: part Indigenous and part Hispanic. My chattiness once I got started could be embarrassing, and it usually ended with me feeling like I had somehow overshared.
But, rather than asking The Question—“What tribe?”—or mentioning the existence of a Cherokee grandmother, the hotel owner said something I had never heard before, a statement that shocked me. She said, “You must be a millionaire! I mean, thanks to your casinos.”
I was too tired to engage, and instead opted to shake my head and give a lighthearted laugh. There are 574 tribes in the United States alone. Few people realize that each has its own language, traditions, religious beliefs, and lifeways. My Quechan ancestors, for example, were water people, fishermen, and farmers, and wore their hair in river dreadlocks rather than braids. They came from the shores of the Colorado River, very close to where it rushed into the Gulf of California in the Sonoran Desert (before the building of so many dams). They were described by early explorers as a family of giants.
My parents walked in silence, a silence that the United States was happy to confirm with gagged oral histories, government erasure, and the violence of assimilation policies.
The Gulf of California divides my desert homeland in half: the states of Arizona (in the United States) and Sonora (in Mexico) to the east, and the Baja California Peninsula to the west. The surface area of the Gulf of California is the same size as the Sonoran Desert itself, which means our territory is half marine. My ancestors were born swimmers in the only North American desert that is also maritime. My ancestors also lost everything during the gold rush, when mining technology grew more sophisticated, and settlers began to prowl the state with greed. Despite federal efforts to uphold the signed treaties and protect Indigenous lands, the gold miners organized Sunday shoots in which white vigilantes would attack villages, killing as many people as they could in order to clear the land. The fact that I’m alive at all, given what my ancestors went through, feels like a statistical oddity escaped from a nightmare full of bleeding bodies in shallow graves.
But I didn’t tell the hotel owner any of this. Instead Simone and I disentangled ourselves from her, took our keys, and headed to our room. Once inside, I sat on a chair while he helped me take off my boots. “Don’t let her bother you,” he said, knowing how a microaggression could spiral into a mood.
Our plan was to see low-lying archeological sites such as Pisac, until we became acclimated and could walk at high altitudes more easily. By the end of the first week we were feeling stronger and made our way to Qorikancha, the Inca’s fifteenth-century Temple of the Sun in Cusco. Once gleaming with 700 gold-plated walls, altars, and statues, it was looted by the conquistadors, and bequeathed to Catholic Dominicans. The Spanish priests built the Santo Domingo convent, a blend of Andean and Spanish architecture, on top of and around Qorikancha. When a major earthquake struck in 1950, the chapel and bell tower of the convent were severely damaged. The 500-year-old mortarless stone of the Temple of the Sun, on the other hand, did not move, so superior was the engineering.
I first became interested in ancient cities in my teens, when I was attending high school in northwestern New Mexico. By then, I was angry, confused, and disgusted by the way my ancestors were spoken of as heathens. Unlike my own children, I was not guided through the thorns of history by educated parents. My mother and father were high school dropouts. They walked in silence, a silence that the United States was happy to confirm with gagged oral histories, government erasure, and the violence—both physical and ideological—of assimilation policies. Notable among these were the Indian boarding schools. Their legacy in my family would be hard to overstate; every subsequent generation operated with blindness at the center of its identity, until we started to do the hard work of recovering what can be.
To this day, I wish that the doors to the past had been opened more empathetically.
Because Native representation was largely absent during my school years—because the truth about my people was not presented in my history classes—I felt ashamed. I hated the images that I did see of my people, sitting dejected and defeated in the dirt. I was alive but I was lesser. It’s amazing what a child intuits even without being told. Terra nullius: the implication that my ancestors’ way of existing on their land was inferior, that, like the bison and wild mustangs, we could be killed and deprived of our home to make room for others, that we were soulless and lacked the intellect or humanity to claim the mountains, valleys, and deserts that we loved.
When I finally did find out about the gold rush, smallpox blankets, and massacres, the wars labeled as “skirmishes,” the fight for civil rights amidst centuries of systemic racism, I was nearly an adult and the information poured in too suddenly. To this day, I wish I had learned it beside better news—that the doors to the past had been opened more empathetically, that alongside stories of calamity I had heard of joy in my lineage, that my people have also been botanists, philosophers, musicians, athletes, soldiers, designers, architects, and builders.
It was too painful to see my ancestors only as victims, and I began taking trips around the Southwest to camp and hike in Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, Aztec Ruins, and other architectural sites, where I could see their accomplishments on a grand scale. It was healing to walk through their ancient cities, and when I started having kids of my own in my twenties, I made a vow: they would learn about the stolen land and forced assimilation, but only in conjunction with visible signs of success.
This vow was the beginning of a long journey. We traveled to Mexico three times as a family in order to visit the Mayan cities of Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba, Yaxchilan, Ek’ Balam, Calakmul, and Palenque. We visited Anasazi ruins in our homeland, and drove to the ancient city of Cahokia in Illinois. We made these trips because I wanted my kids to gain an accurate picture of the skills, resources, and industry present in precontact America. I quoted Assata Shakur: “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.” I made my kids promise to be responsible for their own education, and to do the same if they had kids of their own.
We made trips to ancient cities because I wanted my kids to gain an accurate picture of the skills, resources, and industry present in precontact America.
As a result, three of our children beat me and Simone to Peru. They had returned home the previous summer raving about their experience. It was from them that I learned you could skip the touristic Inca Train to Machu Picchu by getting dropped at a hydroelectric station below Aguas Calientes. From this idea emerged the vision for the whole trip. I wanted to do like our children had done. Even after I broke my arm, I bargained with Simone: it was a short three-hour walk, nothing like the trek we had originally planned. He reminded me that the kids said they had to pass through a train tunnel quickly, and that you had to be ready to run.
Simone wouldn’t back down; we ended up booking seats on the Inca Rail at the last minute. The tickets for the train were expensive, and then we were surprised to discover that our assigned cabins were in different cars despite being sequentially numbered. This is how I ended up sitting with three strangers. One, a young white woman, had come to Peru to heal herself by taking the entheogen plant medicine ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is made from the giant woody liana vine. Brewed with other plants, it is served as a tea that is meant to access the divine within.
“How did you find your curandero?” I asked. My question prompted a whole story. She was traveling with her father, who had also been seated in another car, and she was upset that his experience with the psychedelic medicine had been more fruitful than her own. Part of me felt cynical about her hiring a curandero—a shaman, or medicine man, or whatever she wanted to call him. She was a spiritual tourist. She admitted she had reached out to him online, before launching into a long confession that took the bulk of the trip. Her mother had died, and the loss had damaged her for years. At first her father had tried to discourage her focus on non-Western medicine, but the more she educated him about the healing properties of ayahuasca, the more she could see that he was changing his mind until finally he had agreed to travel with her.
She spoke about the grueling nature of the ceremony, how many of the participants had thrown up and cried. It was challenging, an opportunity for growth, but she had missed it. She had clenched her eyes and refused to open them. She refused to surrender to the medicine, while her father had visions and was praised by the curandero for being a genuine seeker. According to her account, her father had come away from his experience with a feeling of infinite love, while she had felt nothing.
Many people came to the Inca homeland wanting the past to heal present wounds, hoping that some form of ancient wisdom might seep through the cracks of our twenty-first-century existence to make them feel less alone.
Her experience of the ceremony was quite opposite my own experiences in the Native American Church where I had taken grandfather peyote four times in my twenties. It was a profoundly healing experience for me, yet one that I could only imagine partaking in because of my intimacy with cacti and the desert. Reciprocity sits at the heart of Indigenous medicine, and a person’s intent when taking power plants determines the results. As I listened to her speak, I reflected on the West’s poor track record with appreciating Indigenous practices. I wanted to tell her I would never waltz into the jungle and pay someone to provide me with ayahuasca. For me it would feel necessary to see the jungle first, walk through her, and see if she invited me. The ceremonies I have taken part in always involved a chance encounter and invitation I didn’t overtly seek.
Thankfully, I said nothing. She was earnest, visibly wounded, disappointed by her missed opportunity and what she saw as a lack of courage at the ceremony. We pulled into the station, descended the steps of the train, and said goodbye. I stood on the platform by myself until Simone arrived and I told him about the woman and her experience. I heard myself preaching: Westerners had much to gain from Indigenous people, but why couldn’t they see that, for everything received, something had to be given?
As I was speaking, an Incan busker walked by, and in a kind of out-of-body experience, I momentarily saw myself through his eyes, an American animatedly holding forth in a heavily touristed train station.
I saw that many people came to the Inca homeland wanting the past to heal present wounds, hoping that some form of ancient wisdom might seep through the cracks of our twenty-first-century existence to make them feel less alone. And I was one of them, here in this bustling international crowd. In that moment, I felt less Indigenous and more like a tourist with a powerful passport. Meeting the woman on the train—witnessing her eagerness as a wounded tourist—made me consider my own strategy for healing. She was there seeking Indigenous wisdom in a way that centered my cultural lens. At the same time, I was there valorizing Indigenous grandeur, and it somehow revealed the depth of my fracturing. Is “civilized society” synonymous with kings and empires, subjects and vast cities? If the logic of colonization was, “Indigenous people are not using the land, therefore we’re taking it,” what happened in the centuries that followed? Now that the land has been “put to good use,” where do we find ourselves? The land has been abused, and now we find ourselves on the verge of collapse.
I was there valorizing Indigenous grandeur, and it somehow revealed the depth of my fracturing.
I wondered how many of the other tourists churning through the station came, at least in part, because they too were injured and confused and wanted to partake in the wisdom of yesteryear in order to get through today. Could I blame them? Perhaps they needed ancient beliefs, practices, and traditions just as I had needed Western medicine to set my broken arm.
As if to remind me of this, my wrist ached as we hiked from the train station up to the Sun Gate. Yet I felt contentment at my revelation and chatted with strangers who paused to ask what had happened to my arm. I had never felt more united with a crowd in my life. What did I have in common with them? And what did I have in common with ancient Incans? These were questions that ran through my mind for days.
My questioning reached its peak a couple of days later while visiting the regional history museum in Cusco. We would soon be heading to Lima and from there home, and I remained curious about Túpac Amaru II, the executed Incan noble whose death was mourned so profoundly that it still gave name to the square. Of him I knew little, though. I knew that his American Revolution had taken place thirty years before ours in the United States, and that the Spanish Crown, which wanted to continue plundering the riches of its American colony, had viciously killed him in the plaza, as it previously had his great-grandfather and namesake.
In the museum, we learned that he and his wife, Micaela, inspired a three-year revolution that spread throughout Peru and Bolivia, terrifying stakeholders in Madrid. A descendant of both Inca nobility and influential Spanish conquistadors, Túpac Amaru II was born José Gabriel Condorcanqui. Educated by Jesuits, he spoke both Quechua and Spanish and was recognized as a kuraka, or Incan spiritual authority and tax collector. Túpac and Micaela owned land, but they also had many debts. His travels brought him in contact with Indigenous and mestizo peasants. He saw their suffering and strategized with Micaela to help improve their lives. They filed applications with authorities in Tinta, Cusco, and Lima in order to free their poor brethren from forced labor in Peruvian mines. Authorities resisted them, however, and they came to despise the entire encomienda system as a result.
I vowed to never again question whether I had something in common with the Inca, or anyone else who stood for healing against antidemocratic forces. Democracy is Indigenous.
The encomienda system was a Spanish colonial caste hierarchy in which Spanish-born citizens held the highest positions, even if their families back home were uneducated. Being born in America, no matter how important your family, destined you to lower status. Mestizos (people of mixed European–Indigenous heritage) were in the middle, and at the very bottom were Indians and Africans, both seen as expendable laborers.
After repeated failures in the courts, Túpac and Micaela abducted an important Spanish politician, Antonio Arriaga, and hanged him in front of a crowd of Incans, mestizos, creoles, and “good” Spaniards. This act of war began a military campaign in which they demanded the abolition of slavery, the repeal of taxes known as the “king’s tenth,” the restitution of ancestral lands, and legal authority for women. Their goal was ultimately to create an Indian-Mestizo-Creole nation as well as a return to Incan ways. They ransacked haciendas and textile mills, gathering allies as they moved south through Peru. In 1781, after 100,000 war fatalities, they failed to take the city of Cusco and were captured.
Although they did not succeed in taking the seat of power, their politics instilled a new state of mind in South America, encouraging Incans and other tribes to join forces with mestizos and creoles, since they all shared a single oppressor. Thus their war lived on. Because of their fighting efforts, an Indigenous nationalism spread through southern Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.
The difference between an empire and a meaningful community is the mental and physical health of the individual.
Túpac and Micaela never saw the fruit of their liberation ideology, how their story still affects Indigenous people today. The museum emphasized how brutal their deaths were at the hands of the Spaniards. Micaela was forced to watch the hanging of her son. Túpac begged for Micaela’s life, and when his prison guards would not give him paper and a pen to write her a final letter, he used his own blood on his clothing to record his misery. The day after their son’s death, he was forced to watch Micaela be strangled to death before being quartered and beheaded himself, his body parts dumped in loyal villages as a warning. Their family land and gardens were strewn with salt, and documents confirming their descent were destroyed. A law was passed that made self-identification as an Incan illegal, and all Incan clothing and cultural traditions were banished.
Through the pain of their story, I vowed to never again question whether I had something in common with the Inca, or anyone else who stood for healing against antidemocratic forces. Democracy is Indigenous, and against the baseline assumption to think of the history of the United States as a story told east to west (the forward march of a valiant people on their way to tame the wild frontier), I knew that was the wrong axis to tell my story. It was instead my responsibility to see the Americas north to south, to recognize what Túpac had tried to convey with his final breath. After seeing his loved ones die, after losing his wife and revolutionary companion, knowing pain and death awaited him, he defied those in power before the executioner cut out his tongue by saying, both in Quechua and Castillian: “I will be back and there will be millions of us.” My family back home, the tourists at Machu Picchu, Indigenous people around the world, a quarter of the planet in number but too often separated by manmade borders, we were his vision of now.
As we left the museum to head back to our hotel, I thought about the desert people from whom I came. Their houses simple wickups made of palm leaves, the open desert with nary a grand castle except for those created by a superior mirage, and for the first time I felt proud that my ancestors had walked lightly on the land. The difference between an empire and a meaningful community is the mental and physical health of the individual.
To live in this world is to perpetually seek balance from imbalance as we try to heal wounds that result from a cavernous divide.
When I returned home after the trip, I learned that my wrist had set off center. It was a fitting discovery. I have come to know that healing never restores us to the way we were before getting hurt. Being injured leads to permanent changes in our bodies and our psyches. Even the way I raised my kids, so careful to have them avoid the injuries of my own youth, began with a distortion of my own making. To live in this world is to perpetually seek balance from imbalance as we try to heal wounds that result from a cavernous divide.
A citizen of the Quechan (Yuma Indian) Nation, Deborah Taffa’s writing can be found at dozens of outlets including PBS, Salon, The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, Brevity, A Public Space, and the Best American series. Her memoir manuscript won the SFWP Literary Award in 2019. She teaches at Webster and Washington University in Saint Louis and lives on the island of Oahu.
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