Kickapoo Land and Soul

By Emma/Pato Che

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After several farewells and last minute mechanical adjustments, we’re finally leaving the Saltillo Valley headed towards the Coahuilan border with Texas, in Kickapoo territory.

The real test for Adelita’s “new” engine –now guarded by Mihi’s Volkswagen Sedan (Vocho)– was “The Wall”, one of the highest passes in the Sierra Madre Oriental (Mother Eastern Mountain Range), where we left without our picture of the famous statue of “El oso” (The bear), one more casualty in “the war against the cartels.”

In Sabinas, land of cowboys and the famous clamatos*, we staged the Atrapasueños (Dreamcatcher) Cabaret for the friends and neighbors of the Palacios family, who sheltered us during the days prior to our departure to the United States.

And while we enjoyed the Sabinan cuisine (flour tortillas, barbecue, grilled meat, tamales…) and carpeted Adelita’s interior, we started looking for a way to visit the Kickapoo tribe, characterized by being hermetic with the public.

The Kickapoo, which means “those who roam the lands,” are descendants of the Angloquine tribes which, driven away by the colonization of northern United States, migrated from the Great Lakes of Michigan down to the desert of the Coahuilan Carbonífera Region (Coal Deposits), in the middle of the XVIII century.

The Mexican government granted them the lands on the edge of the Sabinas River, in the Melchor Múzquiz municipality, where they would found the reserve of “El Nacimiento” (The Birth), in exchange for their help in the fight against the Apache, Pawnee, and Comanche tribes.

They are the only indigenous tribes in northeast Mexico, along with the Black Mascogan tribe. That is why we insisted on visiting them, not knowing that the interview with Chief Chakoka Aniko Manta would be one of the last –and probably the most private– he would agree to in his life.

The encounter

005After several failed attempts, what gained us access to the Kickapoo community was Dulce (the “Black Mascogan”), girlfriend of Chito, one of Chief Chakoka’s countless children. We reached her thanks to “El Güero,” who found out about our mission during a Carta Blanca* night with Pato Che.

We left early in the morning, before the ultraviolet rays awaken the vapors of the desert. As we approached “El Nacimiento”, the arid landscape gained in color until it became a true oasis, thanks to the pristine waters of the Sabinas River, currently threatened by the fracking fever.

“Those are the Mexican houses,” said Dulce, pointing at the most modern homes in the community. Out of one of them poked the head of great Chief Chakoka Aniko. His proud walk, sun glasses, cowboy boots and hat, make him look as strong as the roots of the huizaches that cling to sands of the semi-desert.

“Speak slowly, you’re talking to an Indian,” he says, while offering a seat to us.

At first, he seems inflexible and wary towards the camera. He repeats the tribe’s codes over and over again, among which is the restricted access to women during their period.

Nevertheless, he opens up after lunch, for he understands we are travelers, and that “we roam the lands” just like them.

The last interview

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“Here we are, damn it, but perhaps I die, do you understand?” was the first thing he said to us. Months later, his words would make sense. He left this world to go meet Kitzihiata, “the Great Spirit of the Kickapoo,” with whom he will hunt deer forever.

His death on September 16th, 2014 caught everyone by surprise, because the Chief did not like to deliver bad news. “Please don’t be angry at anyone, and don’t give bad news. If you deliver bad news, to hell with ya!… you weigh people down. If you have bad news, keep ’em to yourself, don’t say them aloud. It’s better to talk about something beautiful, so you’re comfortable, and you live well. That’s the way I am. I never deliver bad news to anyone, only good ones,” he said to us that afternoon, sitting in front porch of his house.

Chief of Chiefs

007a There are not many biographies or sketches of Chakoka Aniko. Not much is known about his day of birth, but it is believed to have been between 1931 and 1934, times in which President Lázaro Cárdenas ratified the farming colony of “El Nacimiento,” and their common law to hunt deer, an animal that represents the center of the Kickapoo life.

His name means “he who can face many opponents.” Some say he had four, ten, twenty children, but he told us they were six boys and six girls, who gave him a total of 73 heirs, counting grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Chief Chako lived by them and for them; for his people, and to preserve its culture and traditions. As the moral leader of the tribe, he was in charge of celebrating the births, weddings, funerals, hunting and cleansing rituals.

His work was also political. He fought for the acknowledgement of his tribe as a cross-border indigenous nation, and he established diplomatic links between the governments of Texas and Coahuila.

His means: technology. He never missed the opportunity of attending events or turning up in the media. He had two cellphones that rarely left his belt, one with National coverage, and the other one to stay in touch with Eagle Pass and Oklahoma.

His great charm allowed him to socialize with all kinds of people, from government authorities to musicians, journalists, and travelers like us.

Even if he did not know how to use the internet, he would ask his visitors to type four words in the computer: “Mexico,” “Coahuila,” “tribe,” “Kickapoo.” “You can see many Chakos there riding horses and dancing with drums and crests,” he would say.

“Here in the Kickapoo reserve we stick to our traditions,” he says while a Siberian husky plays around him. “We plant and raise the cattle, our food and clothes come from there,” he says.

The origins

DCIM106GOPRO“Hold on, the puppy’s teasing me,” he points out with amusement before talking about his past. “I’ve been in El Nacimiento my whole life. I started to work as a kid here, not in the United States,” he mentions. “The adults earned 75 cents a day, but I barely earned 30. They paid 10 cents for nearly a pound of wheat; I managed to gather three of them. But with those 30 cents I used to drink soda, buy gum, candy, and cookies,” he recalls.

“In those times work wasn’t well paid. My granny used to make baskets and my grandpa made frill soap, axe handles and mattock tails. We would sell them to make a living, because sometimes it was hard and the harvest was not enough.

“We would plant with nothing but a plow pulled by oxen or horses, and they weren’t ours, they were borrowed. We harvested beans and corn. We bought only a few groceries, flour, coffee, sugar, and cigarettes, very cheap at the time. And now… damn it, I don’t even know what they’re worth now, but maybe about 60 pesos,” he says while loosening up his Texan tie and taking a cigarette to his mouth.

Governor Chako

016Destiny would take him years later to work in the crop fields in the United States. “I speak Tagalog and English as well,” he says proudly, “not by intelligence, but by need,” he states. Unlike his Spanish, his English is perfect.

– Mister Chako, where do you stand on borders? Mexicans need a visa to enter the U.S., what about the Kickapoo?
“Kickapoo have free passage back and forth. Now we have the ID,” he says while drawing a credential from his wallet. “And it’s not our fault, but of the Mexican phonies who came to the border pretending to speak Kickapoo, that’s how many of them used to cross. Then came the requisite of an ID, and now they search you from head to toe.”

– Some people say that in Coahuila there are two governors…
“Oh, my friend used to say that! We were just standing there together, when he raised my hand,” he laughs, recalling that time when former Governor Humberto Moreira*, stated in his fifth report of activities that the state had two governors, him and Aniko Manta.

Chakoka, however, told us that the moment he found out about the mega-debt* incurred by his colleague, he said: “No way, I don’t want to be governor anymore.”

“Who knows where my friend is,” he adds, “but his brother (Rubén Moreira) stayed, and he’s a friend nonetheless. Not long ago he helped me carry materials for the huts.”

That was part of the Chief’s job, to deal with the authorities. “I participate a lot, I have many acquaintances, authorities and governments, senators, congressmen, mayors, the police, they’re all friends of mine, but we’ve run into trouble anyway whenever we want to gather some reed, the material for the huts,” he says referring to the construction of the indigenous homes where they perform their sacred rituals.

“We’ve been here for more than 200 years and nobody used to get upset when we hunted for deer, we had that right since the Cárdenas administration! But now, Governor Rubén helped me. ‘I’ll take care of that,’ he said, because they can’t stop us, it’s part of the tradition. That is why I don’t think it’s fair when they catch our young, and want to put them in prison just for gathering the reed that grows in the river. Even if they put them in, they will get out and keep cutting it, because those two things are very important for us: reed and deer. They’re tradition,” he holds.

To the indigenous brothers

015– And, what would you say to other indigenous communities around the world, Chief?
“Ohh, that’s right! I’d like to know the name of the Argentinian indigenous,” he says to Pato Che, who shuffles some names around: “Wichis, Mocovies, Mapooches… there were also the Comechingones…,” he comments.

“Holy crap! Comechingones, what a beautiful name that is! Maybe the indigenous here, and the ones there speak the same tongue, maybe we understand each other,” he says delighted.

“Hey kid, bring the picture of the little guy on a pole,” he orders one of his grandchildren. He speaks about a framed drawing that reads: “The legacy of disenrollment.”

“Pay close attention,” he points, “someone cut this tree. That little guy on the top has nowhere else to go. That’s how it happens to the indigenous: the little guy cries out ‘help me! My tradition is lost, my tongue is lost.’

“And so the government, which is down there waiting for him to fall down, tells him: ‘Look, I’m innocent, you’re the ones to blame for losing your traditions and your tongue,’” he lectures.

And finally he says: “There are many indigenous in Mexico as well as in the United States, but all of them are losing their traditions and tongue. Well, what’ya gonna do? They’re the ones to blame! Who’s guiltier? We are, of course. If you lose your tongue, you’re fucked. Where do you get it back?

“I say this, because I haven’t lost it yet, the children speak Kickapoo here. Some of them don’t want to and it upsets me, but all my grandkids speak Kickapoo. We’re still very traditional. We still use typical costumes at the ceremonies and dances: the crest, the shirt, the chap. The Kickapoo here haven’t lost it yet. I won’t allow it, but who knows further on the decisions my kids will make…”

Another world is possible

006– Just to finish up, Chako, do you think a better world is possible?
“It depends on how we act. The way we are now, and what is happening… we are the ones destroying the world, do you understand? We all know what’s happening in Mexico. There are lots of missing people, even more so than in the war. I wouldn’t like for it to be like that, right? But well, here we are.”

We said farewell with the promise of revisiting him. That day never came, but this chronicle remains as a legacy of that encounter. Hopefully his wise words will contribute, so that the indigenous cultures in our continent keep treasuring their customs and knowledge.

Kepishe, Chief, au nenia (“Thanks, Chief, and farewell”).

Thanks to:
To “Chief of Chiefs”, Chakoka Aniko Manta and his grandchildren for having us at El Nacimiento.
To Dulce Herrera and El Güero for making this visit possible.
To the Black Mascogans whom we also greeted, but was impossible to interview due to bad experiences with other documentarists. Let’s hope it is possible on our way back.
To the Palacios family for pampering us in Sabinas.

*Clamato: alcoholic beverage made of vodka or beer, lime, English sauce, Tabasco sauce, tomato juice, clams, and spices.

*Carta Blanca: a brand of beer loved by the Sabinans.

*Humberto Moreira and *mega-debt: ex-governor of the state of Coahuila. A public debt of more than 37 billion pesos was incurred during his administration, part of which was caused by false documents. His brother Rubén, currently in office, was his successor.

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