Indigenous Technology by Lynette Yetter

Indigenous Technology

Lynette Yetter

One day my Aunt Elaine called to tell me she had realized her life-long dream. “Oh! I’ve done it!” she said. “I booked my luxury cruise to Mexico!” Then, with great seriousness, “But I’m not getting off the boat. It’s too dangerous. Drug cartels. They’ll cut your head off.”

Perhaps Aunt Elaine watches a lot of crime shows. Maybe she was really going on the cruise just for the shopping. After all, what is a cruise liner if not a seven-story mall floating on the ocean? While everyone else is off seeing the sights and sounds of Mexico, she could have the mall all to herself. I wished her well; whatever floats your boat, Aunt Elaine.

Cruise ships do not appeal to me in any way, shape, or form, but I do love living with families in Latin America. It all started in 1991 when I took a bus from San Francisco to the tippity tip of Baja California, Mexico, to see the total eclipse of the sun. It was my first time outside of the US. I was so impressed by the spirit of the people I met in Mexico that when we stopped to refuel at a remote gas station, I had a sudden epiphany that my life’s purpose was in Latin America.

With each person I met in Mexico—off the beaten tourist trail—even in the briefest of encounters, I sensed a depth of what I then called “soul” and what I now call “indigenous spirit.” Maybe it’s a recognition of my own Algonquian ancestors—who have lived on this land, with this land, in harmony with this land, for tens of thousands of years. Maybe it’s a past life memory of being a Native American old woman whose dignified death I used to dream about when I was little. Whatever it is, it called me to live and work with indigenous people in Latin America. A calling more powerful than the way a carton of ice cream in the freezer sometimes calls your name. “Come. I am calling you to eat me! Now! Yes, the entire carton. Only then will you find peace and happiness.”

So, I followed the call to live with families in Latin America. And despite the fears of Aunt Elaine, so far, my head is still attached.

In the roadless mountains of Nicaragua, as a volunteer with Potters for Peace, I lived with a family in an adobe house with a dirt floor. (You can look it up; I write a bit about it somewhere in my book Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace.) The house was older than my grandmother’s earliest memory. While I was living there with Migdalia, Martha, and Angela, they took me to the river and taught me how to wash my clothes on the rocks.

Instructions: Take your jeans and some soap down to a flat-faced boulder in the river. Step in the water and soak your jeans. Then fold them in half and lay them on the rock face, soap them up, grab the cuffs in one hand and pin down the waistband with the other, then scrub, scrub, scrub. Rinse, fold the jeans the other way, soap again, and scrub, scrub, scrub. My jeans were never so clean! I really wanted one of those handy dandy laundry boulders that I could take home in my backpack.

Back at the adobe house, I found Migdalia’s grandpa sitting on the adobe bench in the sunshine. He had a big stick and a tall cylindrical stone mortar in which he was grinding his homegrown coffee beans. Homegrown coffee beans! The stone mortar he was using looked like a museum artifact from the Stone Age.

“Grandpa,” I said in awe. “How old is that stone mortar?”

He said, “I made it with my machete when I was young and strong.”

That blew my mind. I realized I’d been a silly American, thinking that technology was an evolution, like how we once were slime in the ocean and, over time, evolved into people. And I’d believed the same about Stone Age technology. Over time it evolved into nuclear weapons. And luxury cruise ships.

I prefer hanging out with Migdalia and her Grandpa, sharing a cup of Stone Age coffee.

As we learn in Buddhism, the present moment contains the past, present, and future. The Stone Age is now. Just as much “now” as 3D printers building almost anything, maybe even cruise ships.

Another Stone Age technology I love is the panpipes. The sound. The first time I heard it, it stimulated in me a genetic memory of what it’s like to live in harmony with the Earth and with each other. So, I followed that sound to Bolivia.

About 20 years ago, when I was in La Paz, Bolivia, being with the indigenous people who make this music that stirs my soul, I met Carolina. Carolina Mamani is one of the most traditional people I know. She has her long, long, never-been-cut hair in two braids and wears traditional dress. Carolina made these cool handcrafts that I was going to export to the States so I could have some money and live in Bolivia and help her sell her stuff, too. Because of that, Carolina said, “Lynette, I’m going to teach you how to use a cell phone, so we can keep in touch. I have a spare. Here, take it.” Carolina was a techie! She’s the one who taught me how to push the buttons and charge my phone and put credit on its pre-pay account.

I love how multi-faceted indigenous technology is. I have braids now, too.

Finally, good news: Aunt Elaine survived her cruise to Mexico. She protected herself from those drug cartels that hang around docked cruise ships in hopes of beheading as many passengers as they can get their hands on. Well done, Aunt Elaine!

Embracing stone-age and techno worlds is a beautiful way to live. However, I’m still not interested in sailing anywhere on a seven-story luxury mall—unless it’s a handmade wooden boat with only wind-powered sails that makes laundry stops at river mouths where there is a boulder with a flat face at just the right angle where I can wash my jeans while laughing together with the locals.

About the Author

Lynette Yetter makes music, movies, books, and art to touch your soul and make you think. She is a Pushcart-Prize-nominated poet and panpipe-playing lesbian Buddhist artist who lives between Bolivia and the US. And she translates from Spanish to English! Her next book, Adela Zamudio: Selected Poetry and Prose, is forthcoming. You can find out more at