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

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. …

Fort McMurray and the Canadian Oil Sands

Years ago I toured the Fort McKay and an Oil Sands production facility. I was struck by the sheer scale of all aspects of the facility: the trucks the size of a small house; the tailings of sulphur, which formed a bright yellow block the size of an apartment building, and the pit, which seemed to stretch to the horizon. The oil company took my group to view some reclaimed tailings, which had been replanted with vegetation, and now had a small band of buffalo. If I remember correctly, the buffalo were cared for by the local aboriginal people.

What the company’s tour guide did not discuss was the issue of water, and the huge pools of contaminated water that no technology can currently clean. While most attention with the oil sands has focused on the issue of carbon, the issue of local environmental destruction is also pressing, and the impact that this industrial scale development has on regional communities. Amongst these communities are the indigenous peoples of the region. Much as is the case with fracking from North Dakota to Texas, how people view environmental issues is often influenced by their economic interests. For this reasons, many aboriginal communities have been divided not only by the Oil Sands, but also by issues of pipelines or mining.

I am teaching an online “Introduction to International Studies” course this quarter, and the most popular course materials have not been articles, podcasts or videos, but rather storyboards. Students love the interactive aspect of these media, which are often also beautiful. The Guardian has an excellent story board on the tar sands, which examines both the environmental and human questions raised by this development, which I highly recommend.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University.

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

Privacy & Cookies: This site uses cookies. See our Privacy Policy for details. By continuing to use this website, you agree to their use. If you do not consent, click here to opt out of Google Analytics.