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Decolonizing Through Music and Dance: Reflections From Huehca Omeyocan

This post is part of an 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.

Decolonization and decoloniality are terms which assume different meanings across academic disciplines and cultural contexts, and as a result are often rendered ambiguous. To some scholars, decolonization is understood as Indigenous reclamation of land and space, whereas decoloniality is the psychophysical and spiritual liberation from the continued traumatic and systemic legacies of colonialism. Academic scholarship on decolonization and decoloniality is prolific, but there is continued need to understand how these terms are defined by Indigenous voices and to understand the decolonial work being done by Indigenous peoples.

In March 2021, the Decolonization Study Group of Teachers College (TC), Columbia University hosted an event titled Pathways to Decolonizing TC, an inaugural workshop through which students, faculty, staff and alumni explored fundamental concepts in decoloniality and sought to understand the ways in which decoloniality can be applied at the College. A 10-minute interlude during the workshop featured music and photography from the Oregon-based Indigenous cultural group Huehca Omeyocan (Hoo-eh-kah O-mayo-kan), an organization dedicated to promoting cultural practices of the Anahuac (Mesoamérican) people, primarily focusing on Meshica Chichimeca Aztec dance, music, and art culture education based on ancestral values.

Huehca Omeyocan dancers
Huehca Omeyocan dancers perform on the Day of the Dead celebration at the Chehalem Cultural Center, November 2020. Credit: Cole McLester

In the interview below, Eduardo Cruz, artistic director and co-founder of Huehca Omeyocan, shares his views on decolonization, decoloniality, sustainability and on how Huehca Omeyocan contributes to decolonial efforts. The responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell me about the history of Huehca Omeyocan? How did the organization come to be and what has been its mission?

First, I’d like to start by saying how lucky I am to have met my wife Maria as we both have the same level of passion for art, music and history. Maria and I started Huehca Omeyocan five years ago in 2016. At the time we had this idea about teaching, about sharing the knowledge of our ancestors with the community. I’ve always been an artist, even long before I immigrated from Mexico to the U.S., and my wife has been dancing since she was young. Therefore, it was natural for us to decide to use music, dance and art as a medium to share the cultural wisdom of the Anahuac peoples. In our performances we utilize ancestral music and sounds using drums and other instruments. In combining these elements, we created a group that focuses on raising cultural awareness through educating our community.

Eduardo Cruz holding a wood burning of a hummingbird
Eduardo Cruz holding a wood burning of a hummingbird, which represents “the spirit of the warrior” in Anahuac culture. Taken this spring at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Oregon. Credit: Eduardo Cruz

And our target audience is everyone. This is an important principle to us because we believe that all the knowledge of our ancestors that we have inherited must be shared with humanity. The ancestors taught us that we are all brothers and sisters, that we are all related and are all connected. Our ancestors were also very welcoming. This welcoming spirit is demonstrated in their spiritual connection to dance. Dance was seen as a human right, a privilege which everyone deserved to partake in. This is the tradition which Huehca Omeyocan continues.

In addition to Maria and I, we currently have on average 8-10 musicians and cultural dancers working with us throughout the year. Outside of Huehca Omeyocan, we all have full-time jobs, families or other responsibilities, and still we are all very committed to this work and do not expect compensation. Overall, the group’s success has greatly surpassed my expectations!

How do you define decolonization or decoloniality? How does Huehca Omeyocan incorporate decoloniality?

Decoloniality is about learning your own history, because if you don’t know it then you will not have a solid foundation to start decolonizing. Sure, you could start decolonizing by using your own best judgement but without ancestral knowledge the process will be really hard, since most of what we have been taught in life, especially about history, has been the product of altered truths or lies. Most of my own philosophy on decoloniality has been inspired by the works of Mexican historian and philosopher Guillermo Marín Ruiz, who believes people must forget everything they know in order to learn the ways of the ancestors. Only when we discover who we are, what is the purpose of our own story, and what is the purpose of our own existence, can we begin to move forwards. Huehca Omeyocan tries to create a space for music and dance to be used as a resource for all who want to decolonize. Professor Ruiz once said to me that he feels more colonized everyday he wakes up. I feel the same way and I believe that many other people are experiencing the same because colonialism is disguised as materialism, and most of the world relies on material happiness. It truly is a struggle sometimes, but the more people learn about their own histories the easier it is to rid themselves of a colonial mindset.

In terms of how we incorporate decoloniality, the difference between Huehca Omeyocan and some other Indigenous cultural groups is that we are open to sharing all our traditions with the public. Some other groups are quite traditional and limit the amount of access outsiders have to cultural knowledge or resources.

What is your connection to the Nahuatl language?

Well, I should first explain that in the Nahuatl language, ‘huehca omeyocan’ refers to a state of mind for how we can understand our connection to everything in the universe. Translated to English, ‘huehca’ means distant, and ‘omeyocan’ can be understood as the sacred place of center and duality. Its deeper meaning reveals that we cannot let the duality of nature — i.e., light and dark, positive and negative — obscure the path leading us to where the universe wants us to be. We can get there if we focus on seeing things as they are and experiencing them as they are. I also interpret it as, even though our ancestral knowledge seems far away, sometimes it’s right there, even within us. We just have to be willing to embrace it.

woman in indigenous clothing
Maria Elena Cortes Duran, Huehca Omeyocan co-founder and executive director, pays respects to nature at Proxy Falls in Oregon, June 2021. Credit: Eduardo Cruz

None of our members are fluent in the Nahuatl language. I have a friend based in Mexico who is a fluent speaker and I turn to them whenever I need translations. Although there are a lot more Nahuatl speakers there than in the U.S., there is still a huge stigma around speaking the language. It is not uncommon for speakers of Indigenous languages to experience racism and discrimination and because of this, some families do not pass the language on to their children. However, without the language we will lose because the knowledge of the ancestors is passed on through it.

Somehow, Nahuatl is still present in our daily lives as we end up saying Nahuatl words all the time. English words like avocado, chocolate, tomato and chili all originate from Nahuatl.

What comes to mind when you hear the word sustainability? How does Huehca Omeyocan try to create a sustainable future for your community?

Sustainability is about maintaining ancestral knowledge. The ancestors taught us to use ecological resources with harmony and balance. For thousands of years, the Anahuac people lived in complete balance with nature. We need to return to this lifestyle by allowing the Earth to rest and recover. The word ‘Anahuac’ refers to the land surrounded by water where people live and commune together, or some translate it to the land of abundance. Huehca Omeyocan recognizes that in order for us to live in the land of abundance, we must apply ancestral knowledge to find sustainable ways to restore balance.

Obi Eneh is the AC4 communications coordinator and a 2021 AC4 graduate student fellow, pursuing a MA in International Educational Development at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is an active member of the Decolonization Study Group at TC and is interested in the intersections of decoloniality and language.

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