On the Socialism of Indigenous America

Golden UFOs book coverMy personal copy of the bilingual edition of Nicaraguan priest, poet, and revolutionary Ernesto Cardenal’s Golden UFOs: The Indian Poems (English translations by Carlos and Monique Altschul) has been sitting on a bookshelf since I bought it several years ago at a used-bookstore in Bloomington. Published by the Indiana University Press in 1992, it contains an introduction by my former professor Russell O. Salmon, who is sadly missed these three years or so since his unexpected and untimely death.

Back in the ’80s, aside from teaching me a good deal about Argentine literature, Professor Salmon spoke passionately about the Sanctuary Movement that rose up during the era of President Reagan’s anti-Communist adventuring inCentral America. A new sanctuary movement may be necessary in the present era of the Obama Administration’s baffling military support for the murderous regime in Honduras, which overthrew a popularly elected socialistic president and has instituted a reign of terror over every democratic impulse in that troubled land.

I come to this subject, in any case, by virtue of Cardenal’s Indian poems which I have finally started reading. And its opening poem, “Golden UFOs,” has much nuance to lend to the national discussion that we should be having about the cross-pollination of capitalistic and socialistic tendencies that is an essential component of a larger discussion about national values and priorities. It is simply irresponsible to throw around ill-defined bogey-words like socialist and liberal as if their real meaning were devilish and diabolical.

Liberals and commies and socialists, oh my!

Ernesto Cardenal

Ernesto Cardenal

The small-c communism and small-s socialism that Cardenal observes among the Cuna Indians of a small island chain off of Panama have a remarkably lot in common with the early Christians of the second chapter of the Book of Acts, among whom “all who shared the faith owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (New Jerusalem Bible).

Of these Indians Cardenal writes: “I knew of the Communist system / of this unknown Central American nation”; and “They have been socialists for 2000 years.” Further, guided by the words of their teachers:

Among all of them they built everyone’s houses.

The land belonged to the whole tribe.

The deer, the great fish, shared by all.

Perfect interisland harmony.

And further, in response to the disorder and inequality brought by traders, whom they no longer allowed on their islands: “All must be equal.” Then Cardenal quotes one of their teachers: “All united like many arrows. / Like the arrows of Ibele when he went to attack the evil spirits” (pp. 5, 13, 15).

While clearly we in the U.S.A are unlikely ever to go the distance toward such a pure brand of socialism (nor are our variously socialistic Western European friends, who have managed to create supremely livable if imperfect societies without anything resembling Soviet-style totalitarianism), it wouldn’t hurt us to recall that our national history is rife with examples of communitarian experiments such as, in the 19th century alone, John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida Community in New York State; the Rappites’ or Harmonists’ community at New Harmony, Indiana (so wildly successful that they uprooted themselves and went back to Pennsylvania lest they jeopardize their humility and communion with God); and the Mormons’ United Order as practiced in Nauvoo, Illinois and later in Utah – and there have been others of a more secular nature.

But back just briefly to Cardenal, this passage with its allusion to the title that the poem shares with his book:

Turpana had told me inPanama:

There you will find what you like

a Socialist society.

The traditional here is revolutionary

I tell him now in the sand facing the reef.

Turpana had studied at the Sorbonne.

And he tells me now facing the green water:

Before they said Ibeorgun [“their mythological hero or demigod,”

p. xxv] came in a cloud of gold,

now in a flying saucer of gold.

But it is not that they believed in this truly.


They see heaven as a city of light, pure light.

That is why they say of gold,

gold means light.

Or that Ibeorgun did not have a mother,

it means his ideas are eternal.

And come from heaven (pp.23,25).

I like this reflection on the ability of these Indians to extrapolate, to read symbolically and thus with some nuance their own sacred texts, whether spoken or written. I wish that more of our own readers of the Christian Bible could do as well, thus perhaps allowing themselves to live their faith in their own hearts and church communities without so much fear – and without intruding on the private freedoms of others of more liberal interpretation, including fellow religious.

But that is another subject. What interests me most particularly in Ernesto Cardenal’s verse – at least as it pertains to the present meditation – is its  reflection on the concordance of the rampant liberalism and socialism of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles with comparable traditions of the Cuna Indians of Panama and Colombia.


Thomas Merton

It is worth noting too that Ernesto Cardenal, though associated as Minister of Culture with the Sandinista government that in the Reagan era we were taught simplistically to fear and hate, is a devout priest who not only risked his life to defend his fellow Nicaraguans from the murderous regime of the dictator Somoza but took years studying Western European ideas and history as well as the indigenous histories of all the Americas from north to south – and who at the Seven-Storey MountainTrappist monastery of Gethsemane in rural Kentucky became an intimate friend of Thomas Merton, beloved for his own internationalist meditations (the original sense of the word catholic, or catholicity) and for his memoir of spiritual conversion The Seven Storey Mountain.


6 responses to “On the Socialism of Indigenous America

  1. Laurel Johnson

    I enjoyed your thought-provoking comments. Here are my thoughts while reading your blog: The type of socialism practiced by the early Christians and ancient Indian tribes won’t work with current lifestyles and philosophies. Those groups didn’t expect to live in luxurious homes they couldn’t afford. They didn’t have automobiles, didn’t have to pay for gasoline, electricity, water, natural gas, and didn’t get their food and clothing from giant outlets. They didn’t have banks per se. They survived as individuals and family units — all for one and one for all — because they had to and wanted to. AND, they couldn’t compare their circumstances with every single city and country in the entire Earth, every minute of the day and night, through television. Their desires and expectations were simpler then. Life was hard and cruel for them in different ways than it is now.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Laurel. I do agree with what you add, and did not mean to suggest that we adopt the particular socialism of ancient cultures. That is why I spoke of “the national discussion that we should be having about the cross-pollination of capitalistic and socialistic tendencies that is an essential component of a larger discussion about national values and priorities”; as well as alluding to “our variously socialistic Western European friends, who have managed to create supremely livable if imperfect societies without anything resembling Soviet-style totalitarianism.”

    My point, more particularly, is to challenge a simplistic popular hysteria over words like “socialism” and “liberalism” by connecting this indigenous socialism to our own Judeo-Christian traditions; that to trumpet the sacredness of those favored Scriptures is incompatible with a vitriolic rejection of the very impulse that enlivens them.

    I suggest, therefore, that we stop the present misuse and abuse of words and ideas as bogeymen to scare and delude each other; that we begin instead an honest discussion about what those words and ideas mean and what combination and re-ordering and re-imagining of them might really save us.

  3. There is a lot that can be said about socialism which I interpret as Social Democracy (Spain, Portugal, Germany, etc.) but I rather reflect on the absurdity of calling the current USA President a “socialist” with the Stalin ‘socialism in mind. As father Cardenal portraits with his beautiful narrative, socialism is the more effective form of organization when the general well-being is the priority. Unfortunately, many self-nominated socialist are in fact merchants of fantasies that trade a vote for a mirage. I thank you Mr. Sanders for bringing this interesting subject and also for repositioning Cardenal as a significant figure in the struggle for the poor of Latin America.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. I would agree with you that it is a bit absurd to call President Obama a socialist in any deep sense; I am responding to the fact of his political opposition’s using that “S”-word as a way to smear him. It troubles me that we in the U.S. tend to run from that word instead of really getting to know it and bring, as you say, social-democratic principles to bear. I would not want to suggest anything resembling a Stalinist model, considering its totalitarian implications, but somewhere much closer to Cardenal’s general well-being of the masses model would be refreshing. In that spirit I am more than happy to be able to contribute however modestly for raising the issue and promoting the thought of Ernesto Cardenal.

  4. Pingback: On the Socialism of Indigenous America « The Rag Tree

  5. Brett: a thoughtful argument; i’ve reposted… Eric

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