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Sna Jtz'ibajom: The House of the Writer

Sna Jtz'ibajom, The House of the Writer, based in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, for the past 16 years, has striven to give a new voice to traditional Mayan beliefs and customs on paper, on the stage, and on the air, to revive and stimulate interest among Mayans, to engender an appreciation among non-Indian Mexicans for their Indian heritage, and to inform the outside world that Mayan civilization did not crumble with the pyramids, but flourishes today.

The cooperative has published two series of bilingual booklets, containing folktales, myths, and descriptions of Mayan customs. Many of the group's plays have been published in Spanish and Tzotzil. Our president, Diego Méndez Guzmán, has become Mexico's first Mayan novelist. His Kajkanantik, los dios del dien y del mal, written in Tzeltal and in Spanish, is an epic account of the creation of the town Tenejapa, and the life of its patron saint and protector.

Our Teatro Lo'il Maxil, the Monkey Business Theater, began as a puppet theater, and then, under the direction of Ralph Lee, turned to live theater. For the past 10 years we have created a new play each year. The plays have placed on the stage Mayan myths, Mayan history, and the contemporary problems of Mayan life.

In October 1998, we took three plays to the U.S.: Trabajadores ell el otro mundo (Workers in the Other World), which was designed to discourage Chiapanecs from crossing the border in search of a pot of gold by presenting a couple who migrate to the U.S.; the dark situation ends with the return home and the death from AIDS of one of the protagonists, who, with his wife, is dressed in outrageously gringo clothes; De todos para todos (From All for All), that described the economic, social, and political circumstances that motivate the Zapatista rebellion, and that also destroys the harmony between man and nature as the rain forest is cut down; and Cuento de nuestras raices (The Story of Our Roots), a chronicle of the life of "Our Lord."

The theater performed in Washington at the National Museum of Natural History and at the Gala Hispanic Theater; in New York City at the National Museum of the American Indian; at Oberlin College, the University of North Carolina, Western Carolina University, A-B Tech, Emory and Henry College, and with the Highlander Center at Knoxville. Our voices reached perhaps 1500 people, arousing lively discussion about native theater, and the plight of Mayans in Chiapas and this country.

Also, four of our actors appeared in the John Sayles movie, Men With Guns, which was released in 1997.

Our Tzotzil-Tzeltal Literacy Project, operating in Zinacantán, Chamula, and Tenejapa, has awarded nearly 3000 diplomas to men, women, and children now able to write in their mother tongue. This is a school where all the teachers want to teach and all the students want to learn. Discipline is not a problem. Our goal now is to teach the brightest students not merely literacy, but writing excellence. Tile directors of the program describe the importance of the school:

"In our Indian communities in the Chiapas highlands there are several reasons for promoting the mother tongue, in accord with the beautiful and wise thoughts of the traditional authorities of each one of our communities. It is especially important to record our cultural elements so as to preserve and develop our Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya culture, to achieve a more just and equitable life for men, women, and children, so that they will be more useful citizens for their town, their state, and their country, capable of successfully confronting the challenges of the future, acquiring at the same time love for their identity, their language, their society, and their ancient culture."

- Diego Méndez Guzmán

"Our true language was nearly killed by the Spanish language because that was all that was taught in the schools. Today, thank God, our language us reviving; now it is respected. Now it isn't the way it used to be when they just wanted to kill our language. Our true language is like corn, like water, that's why they can't kill it."

- Antonio de la Torre López

A half-hour bilingual radio program has been prepared for broadcast on Living Voices of the National Museum of the American Indian.

A photography project, under the direction of Carlota Duarte, has contributed to the publication of two books, Las Creencias, by María Sántiz Gómez, and Camaristas. Three teachers of the literacy project are training selected students photography techniques and darkroom development methods. A modest photography exhibit accompanies the theater on its tours. With the encouragement of the religious officials of Tenjapa, Diego Méndez has recorded many of their ceremonies on video. Three of our plays have been taped in the natural setting on video by Carlos Martínez, and shown on local television.

April 19-24, Sna Jtz'ibajom hosted the Second Native Gathering of the Americas in Chiapas, Mexico: For Natural, Cultural, and Ecological Planetary Diversity. Participants from more than 13 countries gathered and took part in the events.

The Totem Peoples Preservation Project

In April, Cultural Survival added the Totem Peoples Preservation Project to its Special Projects program. Started by Dan Plumley in late 1998, the Totem Peoples project is focused on aiding the Dukha people of northern Mongolia in their efforts to continue their traditional reindeer husbandry.

Plumley was motivated to begin the project after a visit to Mongolia in early 1998. While there, he traveled to the north and met the Dukha, whose reindeer herds were dwindling quickly and whose way of life was threatened. The project intends to purchase new reindeer stock for the Dukha and veterinary care and medicines to keep the herds healthy, and raise awareness of the Dukha people.

To date, nearly $40,000 for the project has been raised, and Plumley has set a goal of $100,000. A challenging figure, but Plumley is confident it can be achieved. A March 15 goal to raise $20,000 was met. Support came from private contributors and several elementary schools, and fundraisers held for the project were successful in raising awareness of and donations for the Dukha.

Plumley has also been very active in recruiting experts in reindeer husbandry and veterinary care for the project. Contact has been made with the University of Alaska's Caribou Research Program, and Dr. Julia Beyins and Dr. Bob Dietrich of the University of Alaska program are looking at linking the project to a procurement of necessary brucelosis vaccine needed to keep the reindeer healthy during their transfer from Russia to Mongolia. Dr. Stuart Badger, of New Zealand, has agreed to travel to Mongolia in August and September of this year to provide veterinary care to the Dukha herds, and Dr. Robert Peck of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia is soliciting donations of veterinary medicines from colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry.

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