Source: Cultural Survival
Domingo Choc Che, Maya Q’eqchi’ Spiritual Guide, scientist, and master of traditional medicine, was brutally murdered on June 6, 2020, in a violent attack against his cultural practices. According to Monica Berger, anthropologist at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, he “was a guide committed to preserving and transmitting ancestral knowledge about the protection of Mother Nature and her medicine to new generations and to the world.” After a group of residents from Chimay, San Luis, Petén, Guatemala accused Domingo of “witchdraft” and of being responsible for the death of someone in the town. Four individuals doused Domingo with gasoline and set him on fire, burning him alive, and his body soon succumbed to trauma. The event was caught on film by local residents, and on June 9, 2020, the National Civil Police captured four people who are allegedly responsible for the murder of Domingo Choc Che.
The scientist and spiritual leader was affectionately known as “Tata (Grandfather or Elder) Domingo,” and was known nationally and internationally. In addition to being an Ajq’ij (spiritual guide) he was an Aj ilonel, a specialist in Maya medicine. “An Aj ilonel is, in the Maya medicine model, a person who has a gift that allows him to protect the health of people and family. It is someone who has knowledge of plants, lunar cycles and knows the time to identify, collect, and prepare medicinal plants. His community function and role is to protect the community. He is a person of great respect, and if you need his advice, he can offer it, be it to individuals or to families,” explains Carlos Morán Ical, Poqomchi’ investigator, psychologist, and Ajq’ij.
Alongside 29 colleagues, Tata Domingo was contributing to a project documenting the traditional medicinal plants of the Guatemalan department of Petén. The project is a collaboration among multiple universities, including University College London, Zurich University, and the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. Since he was a boy, Domingo had a relationship with ancestral Maya ethnobotanical knowledge, carrying “the legacy of his paternal grandparents,” explains Héctor Quib, a colleague from the Association of Spiritual Guides. Tata Domingo’s colleague, Mónica Berger, remembers him:
“Only a few months ago, Grandfather Domingo was walking in the forest for an ethnobotanical trip to identify medicinal plant species. He explained to two young students how to do invocations to ask permission from the essence of the plant before cutting it, including every aspect of ancestral Maya wisdom and science about its use, how to prepare it, store it, apply it. We were working on an inventory of medicinal species to be able to document and protect Q’eqchi’ knowledge so that it remains as evidence that all of this is Indigenous knowledge.”
“Grandfather Domingo was helping to write a book that would contain the evidence of Maya Q’eqchi herbal science, as a mechanism to document the intellectual property of his People. He was part of a years-long effort to create the Popol Jay de Poptún, the Great House of the Council, which included the establishment of a botanical garden to preserve the medicinal species that are threatened by the destruction of Petén.”
According to Prensa Comunitaria, Domingo also worked for 10 years promoting mental health in a project started by the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishop of Guatemala. He worked with survivors of the 1960-1996 Guatemalan civil war to treat and heal the emotional and physical pain resulting from the war. This included accompanying them to exhumations and other actions in support of their mental health.
Violence towards Indigenous Peoples for practicing their cultures is not new. It reaches back over 500 years, to the Spanish invasion of the lands now known as the country of Guatemala. In 1996, the Guatemalan Peace Accords were signed after a 36-year civil war and a genocide that killed over 200,000 people, most of whom were Indigenous. The Peace Accords recognized Indigenous Peoples’ right to practice their own religions for the first time since colonization.
Yet religious fundamentalism has grown over the years since the introduction of evangelical churches in the 1980s. The Board of the K’iche Peoples declared in a press release, “The murder of the spiritual guide Domingo Choc makes very clear to us that political and spiritual intolerance still exists, and religious fanaticism has deeply hurt communities. Today, colonial attitudes and behaviors that prevent us from living the Mayab’ worldview remain in force. If we speak of human rights, we run the risk of being murdered, criminalized, and persecuted by groups of people manipulated by religious fundamentalism.”
Carlos Moran Ical also attributes violence against Indigenous lifeways, such as that which killed Grandfather Domingo, to this extremism: “The racism and discrimination in the last 20 years has become more extreme due to evangelical Christianity. [Domingo’s] role [as an ancestral Maya knowledgeholder, scientist, and health practitioner] is what caused him to be looked upon negatively.”
Meanwhile, K’iche leader Sebastiana Par Álvarez expressed solidarity and indignation in a broad declaration about the state and society of Guatemala: “It needs to be clear that this event is the result of a failed state that has not been able to instill in society the value of life, conflict resolution, respect for different cultures and spiritual expressions, and other values. The crime committed against Tat Domingo Choc Che brings to light the face of the invader’s racist, exclusive, and ethnocentric ideological subjugation, repeating the history of the murder of our ancestors in the name of God. Just because they practiced a different culture, our ancestors were considered to not have a soul or deserve to live.”
Update: On the 24 of June 2021 the Court of San Benito, Petén found one man and two women guilty of the murder of Domingo Choc Ché and sentenced them to 20 years in prison.