PrologueIt has been over 43 years since I first visited the Lacandon Indians in Southern Chiapis, Mexico, at the urging and direction of an old Hopi healer from northeastern Arizona. I had been making monthly pilgrimages to Hopiland…visiting, talking and trading with a medicine man from Oraibi, as well as several other patriarchs of the Hopi tribe.
Within a very short time we became very interested in some of the old ideas and alleged mythological history concerning the trade relationship between the Native American pueblos and the ancient Maya of the Central American jungles. It was on this basis that my friend, Richard Unger and I set out for Central America to see for ourselves what shreds of evidence still might exist to substantiate the trade connections between these ancient peoples. Little did I know that this trip would spark what was to become a thirty-year quest that would take me around the world.
Learning that the Lacandon Indians of Chiapis were essentially the last full-blooded, and the least acculturated of the Peninsular Mayas, we set out in pursuit of their land. The Maya occupy an area that includes the Yucatan Peninsula, which juts northward into the Gulf of Mexico, as well as part of Mexico to the west, and the rest of Central America to the east. Anthropologically, the Maya area is usually divided into two parts: the Southern Highland Maya and the Northern Lowland Maya (also known as the Peninsular Maya).
After encountering even more difficulties than we expected while preparing for and embarking upon an expedition into such completely unfamiliar territory, we eventually reached the town of San Cristobal de las Casas. A former Spanish Colonial stronghold in southern Mexico, San Cristobal is located amongst the pines at 7000 feet, on the precipice of the tropical rain forest, referred to here as the Lacandon Jungle
The Lacandon Jungle was one of the last areas in Mexico to be charted and explored in depth. This area contains many important Mayan cities; veritable archeological treasures, left undiscovered for centuries. In fact, these areas have been virtually unpopulated by any others beside the Lacandon, since the end of the Classic Mayan civilization around 1300. The only other people passing through have been those desiring to exploit either the people or the forest: chicleros, mahogany loggers, oil explorers and an occasional Fundamentalist Missionary (ignoring local deities and translating the bible into Mayan)
Until the 1960's, the jungles that include both Mexico's Lacandon rain forest as well as Guatemala's northern Peten region, separated by the Rio Usamacinta, was considered "borderless"; a virtual "no man's land". The machete is still the primary implement and weapon of choice, while slingshots and bow and arrows are still being used for hunting.
The primitive existence of the Lacandon Indians was essentially brought to light by Franz and Trudy Blom. In 1953 Franz Blom, published what was considered the first reliable map of the area. I continue to use his map to this day. Trudi Blum mounted an individual effort, lasting almost half a century, to protect the Lacandon and their land…and, when possible, to help in their desired adjustment to the 20th Century. She is loved, respected and considered "Mother to the Lacandones" by all of the indigenous people for whose rights she has worked to protect.
Frans Blom (1893-1963)
Frans Blom, son of a prominent Danish family, attended Rungsted preparatory school, near Copenhagen. He then attended the University of Copenhagen, where he received a philosophy degree. He did his compulsory military service in the Danish Navy, where he learned to tie an excellent hammock knot.
Frans was unable to find either an interesting or suitable career in Denmark. During this period, he stimulated his intellect through extensive travel, spending time in the great museums and libraries of Europe. Eventually, he found himself on the American continent, in Mexico. Here is where he developed his love of the jungle, its ruins and its people, while working for forty months doing exploration for an oil company.
During this time, Frans discovered his great passion for archeology and found himself copying and attempting the translation of Mayan hieroglyphs. He sent some of his work to one of the leading scholars of the time: Sylvanus Morley, Harvard-trained and employed by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Morley was astounded by Blom's accuracy and sent the work along to Professor Alfred M. Tozzer of Harvard, considered the academic "high priest" of Maya studies in America.
To abbreviate the story, Frans then attended Harvard, where he received his Master Degree and before long found himself the unorthodox and non-conformist director of the Department of Middle American Research at Tulane University in New Orleans. He served in this capacity for 16 years, often seeming to be part of the Central American exhibit, wearing a simple white cotton shirt and pants, with a red sash around his waist. Throughout the Harvard and Tulane years, Frans continued to spend as much time in the field as was financially feasible, doing the research he loved.
It was, in fact, the lack of time in the jungles that brought about his downfall from academic life. Frans truly lived for his time in the field. During the Depression, as funds for expeditions grew smaller and smaller, his attitude toward academic life grew more negative. Ultimately, Frans caused his own dismissal through excessive alcohol abuse. Unemployed and academically disgraced, his dismissal allowed him to return to the jungle region that he loved so much. He survived as he could, writing articles and stories, leading groups into the jungle, doing part-time work for oil companies. Frans' story will continue later.
Trudi Duby Blom (1901-1993)
Trudi, from a privileged family in Berne, Switzerland. In 1950, the Bloms purchased an old seminary in San Cristobal de las Casas with $1600, which was left to him by his mother in Denmark. They began to restore the property to establish a permanent library and research center and museum, called Na' Bolom (meaning "House of the Jaguar", taken from a frieze at the ruins at Tula, Hidalgo). Ultimately, their center contained virtually every piece of information in existence that referenced the Lacandon, as well as Maya and Chiapis history.
Visitors to Na' Balom have included scholars and other personalities, including Georgia O'Keefe. Frans liked to point out that San Cristobal de las Casas is strategically located at the center of a "territory inhabited by more than 200,000 Indians who speak seven different languages, six of which are of Maya stock. Those Indians, due to their isolation, have retained a surprising amount of their pre-Spanish ways of life and thinking inherited from the highest culture of ancient America." Na' Balom has been a center of study for internationally known scholars, historians, anthropologists and archeologists for fifty years, as well as home to Frans and Trudi.
It took a number of years for Trudy to truly acknowledge and support my work in the Lacandon community. Eventually, I was invited to stay on her property (that is, to make my camp at the back of her famous garden), and take meals at her table. My fondest memory was of my first interaction with Trudy, in the courtyard of her home. As was her custom with Americans, she spoke only Spanish, which, at that time was still difficult for me. After finally giving us her blessings and agreeing to supply us with her pilot for the flight into the jungle, I innocently asked what I could bring. Her suggestion was that we bring a large supply of animal crackers, her traditional token of friendship to the Lacandon.
This first visit to the Lacandon began a lifelong oddessy, rediscovering the ancient trade routes between the Maya to the south and their Hopi and Zuni cousins to the north. In this context, I traded many of the old items…bringing turquoise and carved animals south and returning with parrot feathers, shells, jade and weavings. Later, this endeavor took me to the Philippine Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean Sea, procuring items needed by the Hopi and Zuni for both their religious as well as their artistic life.
This journey has been a double blessing: allowing me a window into the past…to absorb the essence of two very old cultures, as well as the gift of insight into my own life's mission and self-realization.
The stories in this book are woven together in an unstructured fashion. They are meant to offer you, the reader, a glimpse into the lives and perspectives of the people I have associated with over the years, as well as a few meaningful events that have taken place during that time.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
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