indigenous peoples

The folklore of Oaxaca, Mexico

Wall Mural, Oaxaca, 2011. Photo by Margaret Everett. Does it look as if this skeleton has braces, or is that just me?

I love folklore and myth so much that I have written a book about the history of an evil spirit -the Windigo- in Indigenous religion in the United States and Canada. So every year around Halloween I do posts that focus on mysteries.  I first did research in Oaxaca, Mexico back in 2004, and soon afterwards my wife chose it as the site for her anthropological field-work. For years my family and I would travel to Oaxaca. I fell in love with its Indigenous heritage, arts, culture and -perhaps most of all- food. And of course the folklore, which Hilary Morgan Leathem’s captures in her piece “Oaxacan Ruin Lore: When the Stones Come For You”

While it has now been years since I last returned to Oaxaca, this piece brought back memories of Monte Alban and Mitla. While Monte Alban is much better known, Mitla is an evocative (albeit much smaller) site. Although it can be easily viewed in an hour or less, for me the locale had an evocative, eerie feeling.  What I like about Leathem’s account is how it connects these Zapotec ruins to contemporary folklore. As Leathem describes the ruins haunt the local imagination: “Yet what is quite possibly most unique about Mitla are the stories where the landscape—or, rather, the ruins themselves – do the bewitching. There are multiple accounts of Mitla’s ruins haunting locals through disturbing and vivid dreams. . . . .In every instance where the ruins have possessed people through dreams, the individual descends into an atypical form of madness. They are struck with “ruin envy” and cannot rid their minds of the ruins.”

Wall in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Circa 2011. Photo by Margaret Everett

Mexico’s Indigenous heritage is so vast, deep and influential that haunts all aspects of Mexico’s rich folklore. My family and I was once driven through Oaxaca City by a taxi driver, who told me that underneath the city there were networks of tunnels that ran from one colonial Church to many other locations. At the time I thought that the idea was absurd. Now I wonder if this particular legend is not another aspect of this Indigenous legacy. If you want to learn more not only about Mexico’s mysteries and folklore, but also its Indigenous peoples and history, I highly recommend the podcast Mexico Unexplained by Robert Bitto. In the episode, “The Mysterious Tunnels of Teotihuacan” Bitto described how over a century of explorers and archaeologists have searched for an underground network of tunnels and grottos beneath this sprawling Meso-American city. The episode is worth listening to for the sense of wonder that may be evoked by some recent finds. But more particularly, this episode made me question if the folklore if I heard from that taxi driver perhaps had its origins in the stories about the tunnels under Teotihuacan. But then, caves and the underground world have always been important in Oaxaca’s Indigenous traditions (Steele, 1997).

Since the Spanish often built their colonial churches on the temples of the Indigenous peoples, perhaps it was not impossible that there were in fact tunnels under these sacred sites in Oaxaca city. I wonder what might turn up after a flood causes a sinkhole in Oaxaca someday. After all, wasn’t the Templo Mayor in Mexico City uncovered by electrical workers entirely by accident in 1978? There is so much missing and hidden in Mexico. And it is not only ruins that haunt the country’s imagination, but also tales of lost cities and islands. 

Mexican bar sign, Oaxaca City, Mexico. Photo by Margaret Everett around 2013.

If you want to hear about another mystery, please read this post on the Vela Incident. Or if you are interested in hearing more about global topics, please listen to my podcast, Dispatch 7. You can find it on Spotify here, or by searching whichever podcast platform you prefer.

Reference:

Steele, J. F. (1997). Cave Rituals in Oaxaca, Mexico. Conference paper, presented at the Society for American Archaeology conference in Nashville, TN.

Shawn Smallman

Ruined building, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Margaret Everett.

Global fire, fear and the good fire

I’ve blogged before about the emerging fire crisis, which has only become even more worrying over the last years. Recent fires swept through the entire West Coast, where many of my students, colleagues and family were affected. Given the multiple crises in the United States at the moment, I’m not sure how timely it is to address this topic now. But the fires aren’t going away in coming years.

Wildfire smoke in Healdsburg, California in September 2020. Photo by Chiara Nicastro.

To understand these fires better, there are two amazing podcasts that are worth listening too, even during the pandemic. The first is called Good Fire by Amy Cardinal Christianson and Matthew Kristoff. It looks at how Indigenous peoples have used their knowledge around the world to create better and safer environments. While much of that knowledge was lost or suppressed, it’s not all gone, and can still be revived. For me, this podcast emphasized that there is not only one science, and that Indigenous sciences and knowledge are critical to our efforts to address global crises. Grace Dillon recently talked about Indigenous knowledge in her podcast interview with me on Indigenous Futurism, in case anyone wants to dive more deeply into this topic. Good Fire provides a truly global introduction to Indigenous fire knowledge, that reaches from Brazil and Venezuela to Australia.

The second podcast that I want to recommend is CBC’s World on Fire, which itself references Good Fire. The hosts carefully discuss the history, science and global trends that define fire. It’s an engrossing podcast, filled with interviews and first person accounts. I know that during the pandemic people are doom-scrolling on Twitter, but many others are seeking to retreat from the world. But these two podcasts are worth investing some attention when you’re ready. Both podcasts are available on Apple podcasts, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms.

Photo of the California wildfire’s smoke by Chiara Nicastro.

If anyone wishes to read further, I also recommend Edward Struzik’s Firestorm: how wildfire will shape our future. Although book was written from a Canadian perspective -it begins with detailed coverage of the immense 2016 wild fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta- he spends a great deal of time examining why wildfires have become so much more deadly in North America’s recent past. Struzik also covers how Indigenous peoples managed the land, and lessened the risks of wildfires. The book provides a good complement to these two podcasts.

Shawn Smallman

Indigenous burial ground near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The white haze is smoke from the September 2020 fires in California, Oregon and Washington. Photo by Elle Wild.

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

Crazy Book Prices

As authors, the prices that Amazon and other e-stores charge for our books can be mystifying. Today I received an email from a graduate student interested in accessing a book (Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and Legend) that I had written on an evil-spirit being in Algonquian religion. They said that they couldn’t afford over $700 for the book, and asked if I could help them. I was confused and went online to look on Amazon. Sure enough, what I saw was the prices that you can view on the screenshot below. This left me rather mystified. The Kindle version of the book is under nine dollars (U.S. funds), while on Apple books the e-book is selling for just under ten dollars. Why would anyone pay $1,187.50 for the physical book? And why didn’t I save a couple of copies myself to sell on Amazon?

I know that the windigo is a common subject in pop culture, such as young adult novels, television and video games. I also know that a movie on the windigo called Antlers (set in Oregon) is coming out shortly. But these prices are unbelievable. Just to be clear: I certainly receive no share of these inflated prices, and my profits on the book have been quite modest. That’s typically the way it is for academic authors. I spent eleven years researching and writing my first book, and my first (and by far the largest) royalty check was about $220 U.S. dollars. My wife and I used it to go out for dinner to celebrate. You can imagine what the hourly rate for writing that book must have been, especially after spending a year researching amongst dusty papers in Brazil’s military archives. I try not to think about it.

So when you see such elevated prices for a book, please don’t think that this has anything to do with the authors, or that we are somehow receiving a large share of these funds. For anyone who is interested, you can obtain a paperback copy of the book for $19.95 Canadian from my publisher, Heritage House press. If you can afford to buy it from the publisher (and are in Canada), your purchase supports a small, independent house that’s an important venue for books on history.

Want to learn more about the windigo? You can watch a video by PBS’s Monstrum on YouTube here.

Shawn Smallman

Dangerous Spirits on Amazon

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? …

Language and Loss

AIDS prevention tapes in Oaxaca’s Indigenous languages. Photo by Shawn Smallman. Tapes by Frente Común Contra el SIDA, Oaxaca, Mexico; courtesy of Bill Wolf.

When Kim Brown and wrote our textbook, we drafted one chapter on language that just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the text. Still, we’ve included the chapter for free online on this website, in the hope that faculty may use it. I became fascinated with language while researching HIV prevention strategies in Oaxaca, Mexico, one of the most linguistically diverse places in the Americas. How do you do HIV prevention work in rural communities in which the primary language is not Spanish? I knew the co-founder of an HIV prevention organization (Frente Común Contra el SIDA), which produced and distributed audio cassettes that gave information about preventing HIV in a plethora of Oaxaca’s languages. The NGO sent young people back to their communities to interview elders. With their linguistic advice they would create these tapes in their local language. …

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.

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. …

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