indigenous peoples

Indigenous Futurism with Grace Dillon: A Dispatch 7 podcast

I’ve just published my latest podcast episode of Dispatch 7, which is an interview with Dr. Grace Dillon about Indigenous Futurism. I’ve known Grace for a long time. She kindly wrote the preface to my own book -Dangerous Spirits- on the windigo, an evil spirit in Algonquian narratives and history. I like to think that this preface captured the enthusiasm, breadth of knowledge and humor that Grace shows in this podcast episode.

It’s ironic that in this podcast I briefly brought up the Indigenous knowledge of how to manage a landscape with fire, in order to avoid mega-fires. About a week after our interview much of the West Coast of the United States went up in flames. I am deeply worried for many old friends and former students. I’ve left that short comment in, because the point is still valid. But I would have spoken differently if I had known what was about to happen.

One of the great things about talking with Grace is that she always leaves me with a long list of novels that I want to read. This conversation was no different. Please see the show notes for a long list of novels, graphic novels and programs that Grace recommended. If you are looking for some reading suggestions, this is the right podcast episode for you.

Shawn Smallman

Meth and Indigenous communities

Last spring I taught a course on the Global Drug trade. For some reason, cocaine is the drug which draws the most media attention, whether it be in television series such as Narcos, or in novels. Certainly in the United States people think of Latin America when they think of the drug trade. But of course our current drug trade is heavily shaped by the opioid and heroin epidemic, which has its base in the golden triangle of Asia. Fentanyl receives a great deal of media coverage, and China may be the major supplier of this drug. While all of this may sound abstract, when my class covers the opioid epidemic each year the impact of opioids is all too clear, as my students relate histories of family loss and tragedy. The drugs that cause the most suffering -opioids and meth- seldom feature in television series. …

Age of Fire

“Global temperature anomalies for 2015 compared to the 1951–1980 baseline. 2015 was the warmest year in the NASA/NOAA temperature record, which starts in 1880. It has since been superseded by 2016 (NASA/NOAA; 20 January 2016).” By NASA Scientific Visualization Studio – https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov / Goddard Space Flight Center – https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We live in an age of wildfire. Last year northern California was devastated. These fires are happening so frequently that it is impacting tourism in places like southern Oregon. Some people are becoming reluctant to plan to spend their summer vacation outdoors, because the air might be filled with choking smoke. In northern Alberta, Fort McMurray was nearly devoured by a wildfire in 2016. Everyone who has experienced recent summers in British Columbia, Canada likely has a story about the smoke, or about someone they know who feared having to relocate. And it’s not just the North American west that has been heavily impacted. In 2017 four separate wildfires killed 66 people in Portugal, while Australia has struggled with massive wildfires. How do we explain the changes that are impacting forests globally? …

Reality and the lost city of Z

British explorer Percy Fawcett. Posted by User Daniel Candido on pt.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.
I have been teaching a course on the Amazon for nearly 20 years. Part of what draws students to the class, I think, is the perception of the Amazon as an exotic world. Perhaps this interest also helps to explain the success of David Grann’s The Lost City of Z. This book tells the story of the explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared with his son and his son’s friend while searching for a legendary lost city in Brazil. This story has interested people for four generations, and has been inspiring authors for nearly as long. For example, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure was published in 1933, and is a humorous recounting of an early expedition’s efforts to find out what happened to Percy Fawcett. There has probably never been a more self-mocking explorer than Fleming, and his troubled efforts to find Fawcett’s trail.

The Lost City of Z is now a movie; you can see the trailer here. The movie’s concept has received a scathing review by John Hemming, who is perhaps the most famous living Amazonian explorer. Hemming’s own book, Red Gold, tells the story how Brazil’s indigenous peoples fought against Portuguese exploitation and conquest over the course of centuries. For Hemming, Fawcett was a dilettante with strange religious ideals, who lost his life due to his own lack of knowledge about the Amazon.

The legend of the Lost City of Z is based upon a document now held in Rio de Janeiro’s national library, which supposedly was written in 1743; the document claims to tell the history of a group of bandeirantes (explorers and slavers) who found a lost city in the interior. As Hemming points out, these men were almost always illiterate, so the fact that such a document exists is surprising in and of itself. It was also the case that other explorers had been working in Amazonia for centuries by the time Fawcett disappeared, with no other discoveries of such a city. …

Why they must flee to the forest

Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman
Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman

I’ve written before about how there aren’t truly “uncontacted tribes” in Amazonia, but rather refugees from a long history of slave-raiding, disease, missionary work, and development. Partly for this reason, the term now used in Amazonia for these populations is “Isolated Peoples.” This term makes clear that these peoples are separated from the dominant culture by choice, rather than only because they live in some pristine environment preserved from contact. For some nation-states, particularly Peru, the existence of these peoples has sometimes been controversial, because they limit the state and corporations’ ability to extract resources from Amazonia. Still, there are Isolated Peoples remaining in Latin America and elsewhere; Amazonia likely has more than any other region of the world.

American Horror Story

Although most of my work over the last 15 years has focused on public policy and epidemic disease, I’ve also written a book about Indigenous religion amongst Algonquian peoples, in particular one evil and old spirit called the Windigo. I recently did an interview for the public radio program Backstory, which is part of their Halloween podcast episode, “American Horror Story.” You can listen to the full episode here, if you are interested in monsters in American culture and history. If you just want to listen to my interview, it is available at the link “Where the windigos are.” Elizabeth McCauley also wrote blog post about the windigo, which has both the interview and a clip from the TV episode of Supernatural that dealt with the windigo. I thought that her blog post did an excellent job discussing media depictions of the windigo, and the issue of cultural appropriation. If you are curious to read more, you might want to look at my book, Dangerous Spirits. Or for an entirely different mystery, please read my account of the ghost ship called the Baltimore, which was found with only a single person left alive aboard. And she was not whom she said. Have a good Halloween everyone.

Shawn Smallman, Halloween 2016

David Groulx, Wabigoon River Poems

David Groulx is a poet of Indigenous and French-Canadian heritage who was raised in Elliot Lake, Ontario in Canada. His recent book of poetry, Wabigoon River Poems, has Canada’s Indigenous experience at its core, but places this history into a global context. A single poem can leap from Algeria to Vietnam, always within the context of a post-colonial viewpoint. The name of the book comes from the Wabigoon River near Kenora, Ontario, which suffered mercury pollution from a pulp and paper plant, with tragic results for local peoples.

The final poem in the first section is a meditation on a picture of the poet’s mother taken at the “St. Joseph Residential School for Girls.” In Canada, perhaps 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in Church-run and government-financed schools, which were designed to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. They failed, but caused immense suffering. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has sought to document this history, and has issued recommendations to address this legacy. Still it remains to be seen whether these findings will be truly embraced by the federal government, educational institutions, churches, and average Canadians. Although Canada is a developed country with a progressive reputation, the nation has always had a curious blind-spot regarding its own history of colonialism, as though colonialism was a European sin eradicated with Confederation. …

Book talk: Dangerous Spirits

Invite to Book Talk
Invite to Book Talk

If you live in Oregon, I will be giving a free book talk at Powell’s bookstore on Hawthorne in Portland this May 7th. Please note that it’s the Southeast store, not the main branch of Powell’s downtown. In this talk, I’m going to talk about my most recent book on an evil spirit in Northern Algonquian belief. I plan to discuss why I became interested in such an unusual topic, and then trace the history of the windigo through time. I will begin discussing the windigo in the early records of the Jesuits, through 19th century murder trials, before finishing with a discussion of the windigo in contemporary popular culture. Throughout, I will focus on how different generations used and adapted the idea of the windigo in response to colonialism, which has become a common theme in recent indigenous literature. I’m looking forward to this event, and want to welcome anyone in Portland who would like to attend.

Are you curious about the book, but aren’t able to attend? The book is available in print from Amazon in the United States now. You can also find the book in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play BooksNookKobo and iBooks.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Video Reviews: Amazon Games

"Amazonian Macaw - Ara Ararauna In Front Of A Blue Sky" by xura at freedigitalphotos.net
“Amazonian Macaw – Ara Ararauna In Front Of A Blue Sky” by xura at freedigitalphotos.net

This fall quarter I taught a hybrid class on Modern Brazil, which had both a History and International Studies section. We spent three weeks during the course covering modern Amazonia, during which we discussed Indigenous issues in depth. One of the videos that we watched was Amazon Games, which was available through the streaming video service at the Portland State University library. The documentary described a modern sporting event in the Amazon River basin that brings together different nations throughout the region for an annual contest. The video (released in 2005) began by showing two different Indigenous nations (Enawanes and Matis) preparing to travel for the games, then followed them to the competition itself.

The selection process for the games was a fraught one, as was the decision to take part in the competition. Some Aboriginal peoples in one nation were concerned what would happen to their people if the plane taking the competitors to the games crashed with all of their best hunters. Obviously, another risk would be that the Indigenous participants might bring back disease. But the Aboriginal people themselves were excited to participate, and clearly discussed the risks of travel. My students thought that overall the games were positive for the athletes, who wanted to engage in the competition and meet other Indigenous peoples. They also hoped to make money by selling handicrafts. There was a great deal of good natured banter about who would go, and the scene in which the Indigenous peoples were seeking to make latex balls -a difficult process- was a funny one. …

Dangerous Spirits now available

Dangerous Spirits, forthcoming from Heritage House.
Dangerous Spirits, forthcoming from Heritage House.

I’m happy to announce that Dangerous Spirits is now available for sale in print in Canada. You can find it on Amazon.ca here. The American launch is set for April 2015, so if you are in the States (or Britain) you will have to wait a little longer for a print version. But the book is already available in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play BooksNookKobo and iBooks. I spent eight years working on this book, which studies narratives told in Algonquian culture about an evil spirit, the windigo. The book traces these narratives through time, from the rich traditions of Algonquian peoples to its modern incarnation in novels, films, and boardgames. How is it that a being from northern Algonquian tradition can be found in movies set in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, and board games created in Britain? I also look at how different outside groups understood the windigo through time, based on the records of Jesuits, explorers, fur traders, missionaries, and murder trials.

I want to thank Sara Loreno, who worked to create the maps for me (and thanks to David Banis who worked with her), Anne Lindsay who tracked down countless archival materials, Robert Brightman, who answered endless linguistic and cultural questions, and Heritage House, which did an outstanding job editing this book. Grace Dillon, a Professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State (and great colleague) wrote a preface that is both insightful and funny.  …

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