Indigenous People’s Wisdom
A Living Legacy Don Elijio Ponti The Last Great Maya H’men of Belize
By Kay Walburger
How is the world being helped today by Don Elijio Ponti who died in 1996 at age 103? His wealth of knowledge dates back some five thousand years and was handed down H’men (heh-men) “one who knows” to H’men in the oral tradition. Ponti’s student Rosita Arvigo has preserved his wisdom in books, documents, research projects, and continues his work by teaching others, especially the children of Belize.
Don Elijio Ponti’s life story is a triumph of the human spirit lived in harmony with the spirit of Mother Earth and all life. He was born in San Andreas, a small Maya Village on a steep slope on Lake Petén Itzá in Petén, Guatemala. When only an infant, his father, Nicanor, was in trouble and rather than face justice, he fled. He brought with him his wife, Gertrudes Coóh. Nicanor was known as hechisero, one who practices black magic and would use his powers to harm innocent people. He had used his powers to enchant Gertrudes when she was just fourteen and had rendered a slave to his whims.
Gertrudes carried eleven month-old Elijio in her roboso, the ubiquitous shawl of Central American women. Sleeping by day and traveling by night, they made their way through the jungle trails. After six days they reached the border of British Honduras, now Belize, wading across the river under cover of night. Joining thousands of refugees who came to Central America’s only British colony to escape war and starvation, they resettled with Gertrude’s brother in Succotz, a Maya village alongside the Mopan River. There Nicanor built a simple thatched house and planted corn to feed his family.
Soon Nicanor stopped caring for the fields or his wife and son. Their home life was often cruel and violent. He began to stay out late at night and practice his black arts again. On occasion, he also cured a sick person using medicinal plants from surrounding forests. Young Elijio asked to learn about plants, but his father refused gruffly. “When you are older I may teach you, but not now.”
At age nine, Elijio was put to work helping Uncle Isaac with his milpa, or field of corn, beans, and pumpkins, the staple foods of their diet. He was paid in food that kept his family nourished, and by age 13 had secured his own piece of land from the village mayor, who felt sorry for him and his mother.
Elijio was a good farmer because he had a natural love of plants and tended to his corn as if it were a personal friend. As in the old Maya custom, he showed gratitude to his corn by saying prayers before he chopped down their stalks at harvest. Through plants he found peace and escaped the sadness of his violent home. One night when his father came home in a blind rage and started to beat his mother, Elijio jumped out of bed and stopped his father from beating her. He let Nicanor know he would not allow the beatings to continue and Gertrudes was never beaten again!
Elijio labored to become an expert farmer — his beans were prized, and he sometimes traveled to another village in the mountains to trade for leather, seeds, and chocolate. One day he stopped to trade and talk with Damasio Tzib, a settler and his family. Elijio was fascinated by Tzib’s stories, but couldn’t keep his eyes off a young girl turning tortillas by the hearth. She was Tzib’s fourteen year-old daughter, Gomer-cinda, known as Chinda. Elijio was smitten, relishing her beauty, her fleshy arms, mirthful eyes, and shiny copper face. She wore the white cotton embroidered dress of Yucat’an, and a wrap around her head. She smiled back at him with a coyness that signaled her approval.
As the young man walked back to Succotz that evening, he thought of Chinda, muttering to himself in excitement, “She will be mine. She must be mine.” Tzib was reluctant because Nicanor’s terrible reputation was widespread. After several months of courtship, Elijio’s uncle and the mayor of Succotz convinced Tzib to trust him, although Chinda’s mother warned she would reclaim her daughter if she was mistreated. He agreed, contrary to custom, and moved to their village of San Antonio to protect Chinda from Nicanor’s infamy.
There was never any need for her mother to worry. He felt only joy throughout his marriage to the woman he called the queen of his life. “We started out as children, but we lived together as lovebirds for sixty-five years, and the best part of my life has been loving this woman.”
Elijio’s dream of learning the great healing secrets of the plants at long last was realized when he found a teacher, convincing him he had the patience it would require to master the Healing Arts. The H’men warned there was no rest for the healer. “Night and day they will come to your hut with their sad stories, and their sicknesses. Their troubles are plenty. People do not understand the healer and often mistrust us. When we heal what the doctors cannot, the doctors call us brujos, witches, and whisper lies about us. They say we work with the devil. It is a lonely life, I warn you.”
Don Elijio Ponti, received his training in the healing arts from Jeronimo Requene, a powerful “H’man”. He became a student in the oral tradition that had been passed from H’men to H’men for more than five thousands years. Thirty years old at this time, he learned in the shadow of the great Temple of the Jaguar at Tikal.
After two years of learning about medicinal plants and praying to the Maya spirits, Don Elijio received his sastun. A sastun is a stone or crystal that some healers use to communicate with the spirit world. His was a greenish, translucent stone about the size of a marble. Possession of the sastun marked him as a H’men.
Don Elijio spent most of the next six decades dispensing healing wisdom out of his tiny, ramshackle clinic in the small Maya village of San Antonio, located in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. His practice focused on medicinal plants, bodywork, and physical and spiritual healing. His reputation grew and although his clinic wasn’t easy to reach, people in need made it by foot, mule, and later, car or pickup truck. Don Elijio was 87 years old, had no student and the young people of Belize didn’t realize what was about to be lost.
In 1981 Rosita Arvigo went to Belize, Central America searching for a “H’men.” The H’men is a doctor-priest/priestess who has the ability to heal in both the physical and spiritual realms. After some time, she met Don Elijio Ponti, believed to be the last of the great “H’men” trained in the ancient knowledge.
Rosita saw he had no apprentice and volunteered, but he refused her offer. He said, “It would do no good to teach a gringa.” He explained, “You must go home one day, it is only natural, and what I taught you would be lost.” She was persistent and spent the next year proving her worthiness. Rosita spent the year assisting him and working hard to prove herself by sweeping floors, washing his clothes, chopping plants, and picking corn. She sometimes assisted his patients, and used her skills as a massage therapist to ease his aches.
She listened with enthusiasm for countless hours to his wonderful stories. Eventually she proved herself to have the patience and caring it takes, so he relented and agreed to teach her on the condition that she would never leave his people without a healer. She agreed and spent the next ten years trekking through dense rainforests for the hidden plants so treasured by the healers. She tells an absorbing story of her odyssey in the pursuit of precious knowledge that could help the people of the world in the recent book she wrote with the collaboration of Nadine Epstein, entitled “Sastun”.
Rosita had much to learn about plants, when and how to pick them and how to prepare them. That was expected, but what amazed her was that Elijio was always saying ensalmos, thank you to the Spirit of the plants. He repeated one slowly for her to hear, “I am the one who walks in the mountain seeking the medicine to heal the people. I give thanks to the Spirit of this plant, and I have faith with all my heart that this plant will heal the sickness of the people. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
“Rosita, when you are gathering medicine, never say to yourself, “I hope this works”, or “Maybe this will work.” No, no, you must say with complete confidence in the plants and faith in God that these plants will heal. And they will, I promise you.” instructed Elijio.
The Spiritual connection to healing is often what is missing in many modern medical practices. Today some medical centers are doing studies on the power of prayer for patients and the results are stunningly positive. Here is some five thousand-year-old knowledge being rediscovered.
One unusual ailment Elijio often treated was envy. There are many obvious emotional problems like grief, fear, depression, etc, which are recognized to create ill health. Envy is probably the hidden ailment of the modern world. It has many clever disguises such as ambition, success, self-improvement, security, etc. Ambition is an innocent looking desire, yet what lies behind it? Is it obsession to keep up with the Joneses? Is it trying to please some hidden agenda of a parent, or grandparent, etc? Self-improvement may masque perfectionism, an obsessive-compulsive behavior? Rosita learned from Elijio to treat the whole person — Mind, Body, Spirit. Sound familiar? It’s been known by Indigenous People for thousands of years.
Don Elijio Ponti, the last great Maya H’men of Belize, is helping us all in amazing ways! His wisdom and knowledge is the basis of the research work at the Ix Chel Tropical Research Foundation in Belize. The foundation has sent more than two thousand plants to the National Cancer Institute, five hundred of those were from the memory of Don Elijio Ponti! Ix Chel Tropical Research Foundation hosts a traditional healers’ conference funded by the United States Agency for International Development assisted by the Belize Center for Environmental Studies.
In June, 1993, then Deputy Prime Minister Florecio Marin signed into law the development of a 6,000-acre medicinal plant reserve, perhaps the first of its kind in the world. It is named the Terra Nova Medicinal Plant Reserve.
Ponti received recognition, one from the University College of Belize, awarding him a special certificate for having greatly contributed to the development of the country; another from the New York Botanical Gardens in appreciation for his participation in the search for plants with anticancer and anti-AIDS activity. There are more letters of appreciation from many grateful people who are aware of his life’s work, including the President of the USA and the Queen of England.
Don Elijio Ponti said, “I used to be only a bush doctor, but now I am Dr. Ponti — and I’ve been healing in this way with my plants and prayers for more than forty years. This is my gift, my don. I never went to school, but up to here, my life is full.”
For more information, you may write Ix Chel Farm San Ignacio, Cayo Belize, Central America, e-mail Ixchelherbs@btl.net , or check out www.rainforestremedies.com
Information for this story furnished from excerpts in the books, “Sastun” and “Rainforest Home Remedies”, both written by Rosita Arvigo and Nadine Epstein.
Both books, published by Harper San Francisco, are available at bookstores and on-line booksellers.
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