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Volume 65 / Social Sciences

ANTHROPOLOGY: ETHNOLOGY: Middle America


DUNCAN EARLE, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Wake Forest University

It is a wincing irony of our times that the contemporary indigenous Maya, so much in the vanguard of the indigenous movements for rights, respect, and autonomy in Middle America, have been suddenly thrust into the public eye, by the dubious reputation of their ancestors as purported cosmic predictors of doom. It seems the global imaginary has grasped hold of an upcoming calendar date (a date many centuries after the Long Count calendar fell into general disuse and was forgotten) as the time for the end of everything, Hollywood style. The impending arrival of late 2012 as characterized by the digitalized cinematic spectacle has generated unending questions and theories abound regarding the significance of the Baktun cycle ending for Winter Equinox, 21.12.2012—this number is our calendar's version of the Long Count period ending date for a chunk of time of almost 52 centuries. Not that there is a whit of evidence the ancient Maya thought this date to be the last some of their calendars go millions of years further into the future. Some opportunistic people have seized this date to scare people for fun and profit—usually at the expense of either consulting with specialists in the areas of the claims (astronomers, seismologists, archeologists) or consulting with living indigenous people. In contrast to the disturbing and ill-informed picture painted by the appropriation of Maya cultural heritage for alien and distressing contemporary purposes, Maya endings seem to engender new beginnings, the old cycle dying to bring on the new, based on their cyclical view of time; one era ends, another starts, and the new era brings lessons from the previous one, in a kind of cumulative creation. This explanation is a good metaphor for the following analysis.

Four issues that touch on the Maya and their neighbors, none of them having to do with disasters or outer space, come to mind as being of growing or continuing importance in the recent ethnographic record, and all of them are tied to the notion of endings and beginnings. The first topic is the shift in national and global discourse towards respect for indigenous people and their rights, rights to exist and constitute distinct communities apart from acculturative nationalist projects. The second issue area is a growing trend in the literature for some time, is indigenous voices who alone or in collaboration with (other) ethnographers, have shifted from being subjects of study to being studying subjects, increasing their space within the ethnographic universe. Outsider hegemony ends, and indigenous voices are heard. A third research interest is the complexity of ethnic identity when it meets politics and power, especially with the recent shift towards state and constitutional recognition of indigenous rights. Acculturation is officially repudiated, to give space for policies of diversity.

The last ending and starting issue is the environment and ending the isolation of subfields such that environmental topics now are often woven together with other subjects of more traditional ethnographic activity, reflecting the growing acceptance of green solutions in the face of an impending global ecological crisis. To follow the metaphor, ending would be a wasteful, unsustainable society, in a destructive relationship with nature, and beginning would be a new covenant with nature and a new appreciation for the tribal and traditional wisdom regarding viable, sustainable alternatives to the current situation.

A major sign of momentous change in this region—like a new "sun" or creation in its own right—can be found in the subject of indigenous rights, especially in Mexico, where progress has brought us to the point where indigenous subjects, such as rights to autonomous self-governance, or the right to cultural difference in practices and language, have become official canon, displacing the old paradigm of the cosmic race of mestizaje (item #bi2008000423#). The amount of change in most of the Americas is remarkable, where increasingly as a region the official position (if not all the public perception) regarding indigenous people and rights has shifted, and notions of pluri-ethnic nations, indigenous rights, and respect for cultural difference are real. The gaps between that which is said and done remain substantial, but this change represents a major shift in the way the state conceives of its relationship with a nation's indigenous people, a form of legal recognition that moves towards official acknowledgement of the veracity of their complaints and an acknowledgement of historic wrongs done to them. In ways inconceivable less than a generation ago, there is now the legal right to being Indian in Huayapan (whatever that really is, see below) and this has meant the state no longer backs up the acculturative posture embraced in Mexico since nationhood, which has for generations been the paternalistic position that "our" Indians need to be brought in under the big, Spanish-speaking mestizo tent, leaving their quaint culture behind. Surely many people continue to see acculturation as the solution to the "Indian problem," but tacit government support for this position has largely evaporated, and the implications of this dramatic change are rippling through society at a good clip. For example, the census numbers for the indigenous exceed their rates of growth, as the fence-sitters and prior deniers come back to their indigenous roots by embracing their hidden identity, to re-identify with being indigenous. This reflects and reinforces a change in how notions of indigenous identity are viewed in the social landscape, while complicating identity concerns.

Mexico's complex reaction and response(s) to the indigenous-based uprising in Chiapas in 1994 included legal flurries of multiethnic rights legislation and some constitutional modifications, and many of these are working their way (unevenly) into the larger landscape. Suddenly being indigenous, individually and collectively, raises complicated new legal issues, governance questions, jurisdiction concerns, and more. Constitutional notions of equality under the law confront distinctions in legal status for those considered or not considered Indian. Indigenous identity may also provide an unprecedented kind of social capital and political leverage, making it more difficult to marginalize, repudiate, or silence. Although the reforms of the San Andrés Accords were weakened by the Mexican Senate so as to deny the Zapatistas constitutional backing for obligatory collective rights, other reforms which were approved, and the momentum brought on by such unprecedented events as indigenous leaders talking inside the Mexican Congress, has opened up irreversible political space, similar to the legal situation of the territory the Zapatista movement that still holds in the state of Chiapas. Mexico's response has brought the indigenous rights questions to the forefront of national consciousness, and sent the political scientists and philosophers back to work figuring out what it all means—is this postmodern or premodern, anarchism or Liberation Theology, nationalist, pan-indigenous solidarity, or intergalactic dignity? Arguments abound and no hegemony has arisen.

Guatemala, under intense international observation in the shadow of the monstrous rural massacres, as well as after the ensuing refugee crisis and later, the efforts at official UN-aided return of refugees, signed on to cultural rights language in the 1996 Peace Accords in resonance with some of these rights changes going on next door. The language of these accords has provided a boost for notions of Maya cultural and language rights and animated indigenous voices across that nation, with some even taking up government posts as self-identified Mayas. This shift is reflected in indigenous and "cultural revindication" writings from there, as well as from Chiapas, Oaxaca, and elsewhere in Mexico and Central America. Here appears an opening for a new political engagement across lines of ethnicity, but one where power relations must be profoundly rethought and reworked in light of indigenous rights law and informed indigenous voices.

The legal shift into acknowledging the rights of indigenous people to enjoy respect for their culture and their civil rights, and even some degree of their own political autonomy (hotly debated is how much), reflects a paradigm shift. The Indian who would become mestizo for the good of the nation now is displaced by a pluralist multiculturalism with indigenous difference now as the good, as part of the wealth and heritage of a nation, with the civil right to exercise that difference without prejudice, without derogation. Racism is now a crime. In the past race was not even part of the assimilation project vocabulary, but now it has been thrust into the open—and governments have, under international pressure, embraced diversity with great verbosity: truly a new era.

Some voices in the list below are troubled by the facile shift from erasure to heralding of indigenousness, and are willing to ask, above and beyond the long-awaited official approval for indigenous multiculturalism, what we now mean by "indigenous"—and note how the category evolves and shifts with time, setting, and policy, excluding and including more or less people depending on non-indigenous factors. Once to be Indian was thought of as backward, inferior, and unclean. The new paradigm is to celebrate (while documenting) indigenous culture, but critics claim that this shift has happened without having fully theorized what we mean by Indian, indigenous, native, and so on. Such identity questions are the complaint of Carmen Martinez Novo, in her work, Who Defines Indigenous? (item #bi2008000431#)—following in the line of analysis of her principle professor Judith Friedlander, whose classic book, Being Indian in Hueyapan, has reemerged with updates (item #bi2008002991#). The question these scholars raise becomes complicated by diverse social landscapes onto which identities are now deployed, often self-consciously and strategically, by competing actors with complex and situational identity claims. Now leaders and organizations are in a position to promote their visions of indigenous identity, of who is and is not an Indian, for the criteria of belonging. The same can be said for government and businesses whose interest is in supporting tourism. Some events posing as empowering the indigenous may in fact be the opposite, an opportunity for outside control; and some forms of organization in communities may not work out well by using local cultural practices and customs (for example if those customs are not democratic nor inclusive).

Along similar lines, Virginia Tilley's Seeing Indians examines the new emphasis in El Salvador on identifying and promoting its indigenous heritage, after years of denial and repression, with seeming mixed results (item #bi2006002261#). Also critiquing standard categories of ethnicity, but in a different way, Maria Mosquera Saravia, in her book Logicas y Racionalidades, questions the veracity of linguistic hegemony in labeling ethnicity in Guatemala, claiming one township (Rabinal) is ethnically distinct from other places and people as a whole, based on other, nonlinguistic grounds, a unity which includes its mestizos or Ladinos, and this is demonstrated by the author through an extensive look at the way midwifery operates in the region (item #bi2009000271#). Certainly identity politics are complex and often mutable to match changing social circumstances, but they do find power in organizing during situations and epochs of major displacement, as the social glue. Research on migrants and refugees from indigenous towns in Guatemala and Mexico show how identity can become multiple, situational, segmented, and flexible, where presentation of self varies with each social situation, and certain members of households opt out into other larger social categories.

Like the Civil Rights era in US history, Middle America participates in the renewed efforts at establishing, maintaining, and defending indigenous collective rights recently reaffirmed by the United Nations. The legal basis of this effort rests predominantly upon the International Labor Organization's Convention 169, adopted in Geneva in 1989 and ratified by 17 nations so far, including Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica. ILO 169 and many similar accords emphasize the linkages between indigenous people and their natural resources, as an economic but also cultural basis of their history, their current situation and their future. Some scholars applaud this complexity in terms of political rights vis-à-vis the state, but others do not, finding it ambiguous and even contradictory to the modern nation-state. These are familiar arguments raised in any discussion about the state exercising its authority to protect minorities against the majority, whether on ethnic/racial grounds, or as can be seen in the US today regarding marriage rights. This arena of thought will no doubt continue to produce a rich harvest of work. Take the example of Dissident Women: Gender and Cultural Politics in Chiapas, where indigenous and women's rights are extensively explored by both anthropologists and indigenous women (item #bi2007003373#).

The appearance of ethnoecological studies, both more traditional ethnoscience approaches and ones challenging Western botanical hegemony, are part of a larger emergence of works with environmental themes, from sacred geographies (item #bi2008002968#) to the marvels of "ethnoagroecology" (item #bi2008002986#) and how people in Mesoamerica traditionally fish. Studies that link the environment to local and global change are on the ascent, as issues such as global climate change become harder to ignore. We also see a return to regional studies that are holistic in terms of methods and theoretical focus, incorporating beliefs and worldview along with economics, environment, and technological changes, and that look at land management issues. Other themes represented in this review include studies of migration and transnationalism, the psychological effects of violence, medical anthropological themes, and ethnographies promoted by the local people themselves. Finally a handful of works question how ethnography is done, decrying the distances of the old paradigm and encouraging new forms of subjectivity, a shift from interviews and words to images and sensation, from objective observation to intersubjective relations (items #bi2007002659# and #bi2007002655#).

As the world enters the second decade of this new century, we see in sum works situated within very traditional and nontraditional ethnographic frameworks, resurgences of old ideas such as regional studies and new ones like collaborative ethnographies with indigenous communities, making for a rich and textured postmodern whole. Moreover, the original tenets of ethnography still hold, both of single case studies and team-based or comparative ones: it is of vital importance to collect and assess field data, from what people say and do, to what they make and opine. Indigenous rights is just part of a larger decolonizing project, where the asymmetries of society are no longer reinforced in communication and action, and the unheard indigenous, women, youth, poet voice is able to be heard. Thus the importance of those works listed below that allow many of their pages to be covered with the words of the local people themselves, in small bits and in long bibliographic accounts, stories of love and violence, tales of ancient heroes and animal companions, long journeys and elaborate cures, of Giants and Serpents in mountains, by rivers, by water. Highly abstract notions of law, rights, religion, and so on are exemplified and embodied by the fieldwork and assessments of those who witness these concepts embodied in daily life, and sometimes over significant amounts of time. This old story is given new life by new voices and new ways of presenting that voice and making it heard.


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