Stories of Soil & Salt

Stories of Soil & Salt

Nomadic Pigment Lab travels to San Mateo del Mar in Oaxaca, Mexico to learn about Ikoots mythology and create a community mural using local soil pigments.

The following stories and pigments were shared with me by people from Ikoots and Zapotec communities who hosted me during my stay in the Isthmus region of Oaxaca, Mexico. In recent years, the various Indigenous peoples of the region are increasingly polarized over the Corredor Transístmico (Interoceanic Corridor), Mexico’s $4 billion USD investment in an industrial corridor that will span the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest stretch of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The ultimate goal is to connect the port of Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf of México with the Salinas Cruz Port on the Pacific coast, providing a quicker alternative for trans-Pacific shipping to the backlogged Panama Canal.

Two photos: on the left, a piece of canvas stretched between poles with bundles of upright sticks behind it. On the right, a purple bowl of beige sand.
(Left) A make-shift tent in the beach of the Dead Sea (Laguna Superior). (Right) A bowl of chicot iüt (sandy soil).

My first pigment encounter in Oaxaca was with chicot iüt, which translates to “sandy soil” in Ombeayiüts, the language of the Ikoots. Iüt means “soil”, as in the earthy material, and “land”, as in the idea of territory and home. Mikwal iüt, for example, means “citizen” and translates to “offspring of the land.” I was a gifted a blue container full of this soil by a teacher from a local bilingual elementary school. The colour of chicot iüt mirrors the grasslands and sandy lagoons scattered along the coastal landscapes of the Isthmus during dry season. The soil sample is from the nearby community Huazantlán, an area of the Isthmus well-known for its strong winds, which have been known to topple oil trucks.

We were preparing to create a mural with local soil pigments about the relationship of Ikoots women with the sea. To Ikoots women, the sea is their source of life in more than the economic sense: it provides recreation, healing, and a container for ritual. They even refer to the amniotic fluid inside a pregnant woman’s womb as mindek nine, or the “Child’s Sea.” The mural is in collaboration with local leaders that coordinate gender perspective and gender violence workshops and support the preservation of the Ikoots language and culture. If mikwal iüt means “offspring of the land,” then perhaps we might utilize local soil pigments as a means to invigorate younger generations to maintain a sense of ownership and responsibility for their ancestral lands.

Three Photos: top left, a small three-wheeled vehicle sits empty on sandy ground. Top right, a pair of brown hands hold a tool that drips brown liquid into a tiny vessel. Bottom, a long, weathered, wooden boat sits on the sandy shoreline.
(Top left) A red moto-taxi near the beach of the Dead Sea. (Top right) A young Ikoots girl creates a water colour pan on a sea shell with iüp iüt (red hematite rich soil from San Dioniso del Mar). (Bottom) A canoe on the shore of the Dead Sea.

Iüp iüt means “soil rose like guava.” It has the same red colour as cooked shrimp, a favourite local snack and one of the most valuable commercial exports of the area. San Mateo del Mar is located between two bodies of water, each with its own gender association and particular energy: to the North, the “Dead Sea,” or Laguna Superior, which brings in the hot, dry, masculine wind. To the South, the “Living Sea,” or Pacific Ocean, which brings in the cool, moist, feminine wind. The soil we used for the mural is from San Dioniso del Mar, which sits across the “Dead Sea” from San Mateo and is often applied on wood crosses for protection against the heavy rain, salt, and hot air in the area. The intensity of colour reminds me of the incredible heat you can experience in the Isthmus. So hot that dogs burrow holes in the sand or lie defeated on the pavement, contorting their bodies to fit the nearest shadow. One myth has it that the Huave, as the Ikoots are referred to by their Zapotec neighbours, originate from dogs.

A painting in brown tones of 7 dogs lying down.
“Pet” (2023), watercolour created with iüp iüt (sandy soil) on watercolour paper.

A local resident told me the story on our ride back from a visit to the “Dead Sea.” We took a moto-taxi together, the primary means of navigation on these incandescent streets. According to her, there was a dog whose dog-wife would turn human to run errands and perform kitchen tasks. It was her nagual, an Indigenous Mesoamerican term referring to humans who can shape-shift into animals and forces of nature. She would take off the dog skin like a dress and grind corn, make tortillas, clean the house. The dog caught on to her tricks one day and, while she was gone, poured salt on her dog skin dress, leaving it shrivelled and ruined. She was the first Ikoots woman born out of rejection and expulsion from her own home for doing exactly what she was expected to do. I found this story unnerving in the same way most irrationally violent myths are. And yet they reveal clearly who’s always been at the receiving end of that violence.

A wide stretch of land with dark footprints criss-crossing pale dirt.
Dry lagoon full of ndeor near the Live Beach (Pacific Ocean).
Nijmior Kang is still here (ndeor – manganese and goethite rich black mud, Bo. Espinal, San Mateo del Mar)

The day that missionaries and Dominicans stepped on Ikoots land, Nijmior Kang—the Black Stone goddess—ran into Laguna Superior. Some say she escaped to Cerro Cristo and hides underground, inside a hole where she holds the earth on top of her. She often moves and shifts the weight of the load, causing earthquakes and subtle tremors. They say she lives by herself and secretly overlooks baptisms, lying dormant inside every Ikoots woman, waiting for the colonizers to leave. I was handed a plastic bag full of dry ndeor, which means “mud.” It’s a black soil full of shells and residues of life that are found in the waters at the roots of red mangrove clusters. We decide this is the best pigment to represent Nijmior Kang in the mural. Not only does the colour black correspond with her local personification, mangroves and the shore are also places of ritual where offerings are made in her name to ensure the arrival of rains brought in by the feminine “Living Sea.” More rain means deeper waters, abundant shrimp stocks, and a more secure livelihood.

Two Photos. On the left, a dark hand covered in white dust; on the right, two plastic bowls filled with pale dirt—one bowl clumpy and the other a fine powder.
(Left) hand full of pind (white kaolin-rich mud from Laguna Grande, Bo. Espinal, San Mateo del Mar). (Right) Bowls full of pind.

The word pind is rooted in territory and action. It’s a noun for a fine and loamy white soil found in areas where lagoons form during the rainy season. It’s also a verb used to describe the action of rubbing thread against a ball of dry clay. They say the fine powder covers the thread and gives it “a body,” making it easier to handle by absorbing sweat from fingers. It’s also used to dust the comatzal—an underground oven—to maintain and evenly distribute temperature, helping tortillas not to stick. Those who participate in the Dance of the Serpent—a summer ritual that hinders the arrival of hurricanes—also cover their ankles and feet with this white powder. 

One of the teachers at the school jokes that she’ll cover herself in pind one day to look like a güera. I nervously laugh knowing how my presence as a mool, or foreigner, does not go unnoticed. When I walk around town I’m often greeted with a “Goodnight!” or “Hello!”, even though I’m a Spanish speaker from the Caribbean. The Ikoots are wary of who they share their knowledge with and avoid cultural exploitation by foreigners who have historically trivialized and misrepresented them through extractive journalism. Cultural preservation methods are only inclusive to Ikoots who call the Isthmus their home. I was lucky to be allowed to collaborate with the community and listen to their stories firsthand, and I was even able to take notes from a bilingual book on geographical terms in Ombeayiüts. Even so, I was not able to buy the book and take it back home.

A painting in brown tones of lightning bolts between cloud clusters. Pairs of white eyes look out through the dark backdrop.
“Monteok” (2023), watercolour created with chiüp iüt (brown-yellow, Bo. Espinal, San Mateo del Mar)on watercolour paper.

We found a yellow pigment called chiüp iüt, or “flour earth,” in Barrio Espinal in San Mateo del Mar. The yellow dirt had been collected during the process of digging the well. Chiup also means “blonde” or “cinnamon coloured.” I imagine that the monteok—the male spirits that embody lightning according to Ikoots mythology—carry this bright colour on their lightning bolts. The monteok and the müm ncherrek—the female spirits of the Southern winds—continue their work as the mombasüik, “people of the cloud bodies,” from a distance. As masters and directors of local weather, I wonder how they feel about the wind farms built along the isthmus, given that residents of the nearby town of La Ventosa, for example, leased some of their land to the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola to develop wind farms for renewable energy. However, it is multinational corporations like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Walmart, and Heineken that are buying and consuming this “green” energy, denying access to the communities where the wind farms are located.

mural of goddess pouring water on maize
“Nijmior Kang” (2023), mural created with all five soil pigments found around San Mateo Del Mar, Oaxaca.

The yellow lightning of the monteok is summoned during the Dance of the Serpent on the day of Corpus Cristi in June, which marks the beginning of the rainy season. The monteok are summoned to cut the head off the serpent, omal indiük, who escaped into the Pacific Ocean during a flood many eons ago. The Ikoots enact the dance in order to stop omal indiük from coming back in the form of a hurricane. The Ikoots also summon the monteok when they organize against transnational corporations.

They know that there’s another storm at bay: the neoliberal hurricane of the Transoceanic Corridor. The cultural preservation and gender perspective work of local leaders continues to cultivate the will of Ikoots youth to defend their land and cultural practices. May their wills be as bright and deeply embedded as chiup iüt on the land, so as to retain their core identity: mikwal iüt, people of the land.

Filed Under: Photo & Video

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Karla Claudio is a multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and writer living in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. She works primarily with illustration, natural dyes, text and video. Her creative practice is guided by ethnobotanical investigation, oral history, and regenerative practices connected to land and food sovereignty.

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