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“Without Maize there is no country” (Part 2) Milpa Cosmovision and Food Sovereignty

“Without Maize there is no country”  (Part 2) Milpa Cosmovision and Food Sovereignty

Posted by on Dec 28, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

As we began to explore in the recent post on autonomy, the cultivation of food as a source and practice of autonomy is core to Unitierra.  There are food-orientated workshops at least twice per week, sometimes 3 or 4 times per week, either on the roof of Unitierra, using their urban roof garden area, or within a range of different pueblos (villages – primarily indigenous) or suburb areas that tend to be characterized by material poverty and families that have emigrated from different part of Oaxaca state and Mexico.  We attended (and filmed) one of the workshops that happened to be on tree grafting.  There were 13 people in attendance – men, women, young and old.  The workshop was informal and very engaging with demonstrations and different people helping to plant and manipulate the papaya tree to be grafted and propagated to form new roots and another tree.  At the end of the workshop, juice and cake were passed around that one of the learners had prepared.  This aspect of learning – cooking and eating together (sometimes through the form of community fiesta) is integral to all learning situations at Unitierra.  The purpose is to enjoy the process of learning together, to build hospitable relationships and to build a strength around the cultural importance of foods – particularly those grown on milpa.

Unitierra, fruit tree grafting workshop, still from footage by Udi

Maize is to Mexico (to all Meso-American civilizations actually), what buffalo are to the Blackfoot (see previous post, ‘The Land, the Blackfoot and the Buffalo’).  In Mexico alone there are over 60 breeds of maize and thousands of local varieties – white, yellow, red, blue, purple, black… Mexico is home to the most diverse range of maize seeds and varieties in the world.  Maize, as a core food grown within the milpa, is central to all Meso-American cultural cosmovisions.

Viva la Milpa! poster representing Meso-American cosmovision of maize, organic cafe and cultural center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

As Bonfil explains in Mexico Profundo:

Maize is, in effect, a human creation, a child of Meso-American parents.  Its parents, in turn are children of corn, as poetically related in the Popul Vuh, the ancient ‘Book of Events’ of the Quiche Maya:  Thus they found food and it was what they employed to make the bodies of the people who were made, who were formed; the blood was liquid, the blood of the people; … of yellow corn and white corn they made the bodies, of food were made the arms and legs of the people, of our first parents.  Four people were created, of pure foodstuffs were their bodies (p. 5 – quoted originally from Chavez 1979: 65a)

Stencil sketch of maize/humans, Maize and Maguey Art Exhibit, Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca, Mexico, photo by Kelly

The domestication of maize began anywhere between 5,000 – 7,500 years ago, the oldest archaeological remains were discovered in Oaxaca.  What is significant about this is that maize can only grow with human intervention as the corncob can only spread its seeds with the help of humans.  Maize grows best when it is accompanied with beans, squash, chilies, tomatillos, avocadoes, gourds (in many circles this is known as the ‘three sisters’ – corn, beans and squash) – in a small and manageable area that is nourished by its use during two continuous years (followed by 8 years lying fallow).   The nourishment of these cultivated areas can be understood as a milpa.

Maize and beans growing together in a milpa, photo by Kelly

Maize is the essence of food, of fiesta, of cultural representation, and for thousands of years, of milpa, of cultural sustenance, self-sufficiency and nourishment enabling a sacred and intimate connection with the Earth.  Meso-American civilizations, although vastly different in languages, religious beliefs and cultural practices, are similar in their cosmovision as orientated to learning and obeying the principles of the natural world.  Human being are seen as part of, as deeply connected to the natural world and the entire cosmos – rather than as superior to, trying to obtain a mastery over.  Thus, in sharp contrast to the Spanish conquistadores, agricultural ‘work’ to milpa Meso-American cosmovision is about developing this learning, such as through the design and ritualized cultivation of milpa that incorporates optimum utilization of land and local resources, adapting to local conditions, starting with systems of knowledge and technology already in place – and social organization of work and the preferences and value of the particular group.  Milpas bring together multiple varietes of foods that are grown in small plots that are adjacent to homes.  John Canby, in his brilliant article ‘Retreat to Subsistence’ (The Nation 2010) explains this in the brief dialogue between he and an indigenous Mixtec man:

I asked Jesús León about the ways milpa agriculture seemed to be about improving on nature, on natural processes.  He stopped—with the whole vulnerable world of traditional human agriculture around his feet. “No,” he said, and seemed to care deeply that I follow precisely what he was saying. “It’s not a way of improving nature—it’s a way of getting closer to the processes of nature, getting as close as possible to what nature does.”

Mural of Zapatista woman wearing a balaclava mask made of maize, Oventic, Zapatista Caracole, photo by Kelly

In Spanish translation, milpa essentially means ‘field’ (in English). The term milpa comes from Nahuatl (the widespread Aztec-based language that tied hundreds of indigenous communities together through some form of a common language) which originally meant ‘to the field’ – the term ‘mil’ meaning ‘field’ and ‘pa’ meaning ‘going to’. This difference, though subtle, is profound.  ‘Field’ is a noun, a thing, an object.  ‘To the field’ denotes action, a verb, an intention.  As we wrote in previous postings on Blackfoot knowledges at Red Crow Community College, many indigenous languages are primarily verb-based (rather than noun-based as typical to English and Spanish languages).  The actions ‘to the field’ were based on spiritual and physical nourishment, not only to each human being, but to the broader community, the soil, the local plants and animals and the entire Universe.  A milpa is designed as a miniature version of the entire cosmos, the universe.  Hence, ‘to the field’ indicates intention that is not just to the growing of a crop, but to the tending and nurturing of the entire cosmovision of the community.  For example, the practice of rotating 2 years on, 8 years lying fallow – was so that the soil had a chance to fully recuperate itself naturally, drawing in wildlife that assisted in this recuperation process. Milpa is part of the surrounding ecosystem, not separate from it.  There is an automatic ‘we’ and commons mentality through the language and the practice of nourishing different foods cultivated traditionally with the milpa.

The cosmovision of milpa is first and foremost about self-sufficiency (autonomy) that enables a close relationship with the Earth and the nourishment of community. The role of economic growth and agricultural development plays a much less important role, if not often times being obsolete.  The destruction of milpa as cosmovision and as a highly technical food production process has been sought after for the past 500 years – by the Spanish crown, by the Church, by the state after Independence and currently by MNCs such as Monsanto, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta.  The reason behind the survival of milpa is because how central they are (and have been) to all aspects of cultural life:

…the persistence of those technologies is related to a body of knowledge that represents the accumulated, systematized experience of centuries.  This knowledge and experience are consistent with particular ways of understanding the natural world, and with profoundly rooted systems of values, forms of social organization, and ways of organizing daily life.  Batalla-Bonfil, p. 13

I first encountered the rhetoric and politics of food sovereignty during my time living and working in Pakistan (2004), amongst different social movements – the People’s Rights Movement and the Fisherfolk Forum (both of whom had significant impacts on my life through the political awareness I gained spending brief periods of time with them).   The People’s Rights Movement support landless peasants in their continual struggle for land rights (and continue to face violent conflicts with the military).  The Fisherfolk Forum supports fishermen along the Indus River that crosses Pakistan from North to South and the Arabian Sea along the southern border.  Due to unsustainable and industrial fishing (trawling) by companies that were supported directly by the military (Pakistani government), traditional fishing practices have become increasingly obsolete, forcing many families further into dire economic poverty.  Both of these movements essentially support communities that have and continue to be deeply marginalized because of their lack of access to land, to water, to plants and animals that typically would sustain themselves, their families and their communities through a ‘commons’ – a communal and self-sufficiency orientation toward agriculture and food cultivation.

Zapatista community in their milpa, poster at Unitierra Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Five years after time I spent in Pakistan, I attended the World Social Forum in Belem (Brazil) in 2009.  As the World Social Forum gathers together such a large number of activists and civil society organizations, individuals and groups committed to food sovereignty (Via Campesina – peasant movement – being the largest social movement in the world) I attended as many food sovereignty workshops as I could, to learn more.  I remember, in Belem, engaging in many conversations with people from Latin America about the ‘food crisis’ that many of them were experiencing – the prices of corn, rice, sugar having risen dramatically over recent years, due, in great part, to food speculation in the financial market.  In Mexico, in 2008, because of the hike in maize prices, the country went through a ‘tortilla crisis’.  The Mexican government acknowledges that this has led to at least 28 million people in Mexico to be under-nourished and under-fed – 20 million of these are rural-dwelling and indigenous peoples.

Maiz and tortilla festival advert, Oaxaca, photo by Kelly

The ‘retreat to subsistence’ that Canby writes about is essentially what Unitierra is aiming to strengthen – as identity and as practice. The point is to move beyond the need of having to buy food –  of having to depend completely on the market to access an adequate and healthy food supply.  Unitierra is helping many communities in and around Oaxaca (Gustavo told us at least 25) to re-learn and strengthen milpa cultural and technical practice.  The orientation of food is further supported by learning about autonomy and self-sufficiency as associated with waste, water, architecture and political action, all the while celebrating community through fiesta.

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“Without maize, there is no country” (Part 1) Emotional and sensory encounters with maize and milpa

“Without maize, there is no country” (Part 1) Emotional and sensory encounters with maize and milpa

Posted by on Dec 28, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

Viva la Milpa! Exhibit and media awareness campaign, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

This is the first of two related posts on maize, milpa and agricultural practice that is completely intertwined with a cosmovision (way of seeing and being in the Universe) orientated toward bringing humans and community closer with the Earth.  As the struggle to continue the cultural production of food (as connected to cosmovision) is so central to each context we are visiting, I have no doubts that we will return to food many times throughout our journey.  In the Americas (North, Central and South), there is a primary cultural and economic importance of corn, of maize.  Due to the length of this topic, this post has been divided into two parts (1 and 2).  The complexity of this topic is deep and exhaustive.  I have added in many links toward further reading for those of you who are interested…

Alfredo Aceda tells us in his recent article – The Fight for Corn – the Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz once said that ‘the invention of corn by Mexico is only comparable to the invention of fire by early humans.’  This is due to the incredible cultural and economic role that maize has played and continues to play within the majority of countries around the world.  Maize is the most efficient producer of any grain in the world – for example, the yield per hectare of maize doubles that of wheat.

During our time in Mexico, my senses and emotions endured a steep learning curve about maize (corn).  I tasted maize in many forms everyday – tortillas – with cheese, nopal (cactus), frijoles, in soups… chips (the nacho kind of chips), enchiladas, tamales… How I love tamales.  Hector and Margarita, the warm and generous couple we stayed with in Oaxaca, made tamales several times during our stay with them.  Each time I was lucky enough to have a vegetarian tamale on a plate in front of me, I was suddenly a little girl again, eating tamales with my babysitter, Mrs. Bravo, who had come from Mexico.  It was like coming home… what a contrast to the bland industrialized and ubiquitous manifestation of corn across virtually all US-processed foods in the form of corn syrup (which by the way, is directly related the tremendous rise in obesity).  Yet, aside from these delectable delights, I also found myself becoming angry.  Frustrated. Enormously.  Again and again.  Learning more about Monsanto, the multi-national corporation (MNC) that controls the majority of the international maize market – and the terrible ways they continue to extend their sharp claws into all aspects of the production of food in Mexico, from seed to consumption, manipulating not only economic security, but strangling cultural and ecological longevity as well.  The tight grip of Monsanto’s claws further destroys any promise of equality – deepening poverty, constraining autonomy and self-sufficiency, darkening spiritual illumination that glows from communal agricultural practices in milpas within which, technological knowledge still continues to marvel new learners (such as myself), 7,000 years after the domestication of maize first began.  In essence, Monsanto is poisoning the land, the water, the food and thousands of years of cultural history.

Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca, Mexico – Maiz and Maguey art exhibit, photo by Kelly

It seemed that every time I turned around in Oaxaca and Chiapas, on a bus, in a colectivo taxi (car shares that cram as many people as possible inside to save money and petrol), in a café, in a museum, on a street corner… I came face to face with some formation of maize.  From the front seat of the colectivo taxi as we drove from the city of Oaxaca to the village of Guelatao to visit with Jaime Luna Martinez, I appreciated field after field of golden maize growing tall and proud up the sides of steep hills.

Milpa field of maize, road from Oaxaca to Guelatao, photo by Kelly

On various street corners of Oaxaca city I encountered graffiti art of all kinds – many with an image of a corncob or field of maize, my absolute favorite being the image of the indigenous woman pointing a gun at GMO culprits, sneakily trying to plant trans-genically modified maize (see Udi’s post on Art of Rebellion).

In  Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca (the botanical gardens in Oaxaca) I visited an art exhibit celebrating the cultural significance of maize and damning the intrusion of Monsanto in paintings, sculptures, paper cut-outs and stencils.

An organic café and cultural center we discovered in San Cristobal (Chiapas) was holding a month-long Viva la Milpa! exhibit and series of events to spread awareness of the necessity of blocking the plantation of trans-genetically (GMO) bred maize.

Maiz Nuestro Corazon, exposition against GMO trans-genic maize, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Within this exhibit was a poster showing at least 20 different native types of maize, endemic to Chiapas, multiple black/white posters celebrating cultural nuances and histories of milpa and others again condemning Monsanto through informative and violent imagery.

Viva la Milpa! exhibit at organic cafe and cultural center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, poster of 16 different types of Maize in Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Viva la Milpa! Tierra O Muerto poster, Organic Cafe and Cultural Center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

I was repeatedly surprised to have to request tortillas specifically during many meals out and about in Oaxaca and Chiapas.  The majority of times white bread would automatically arrive at our table in a basket.  Hector and Margarita informed us that tortillas had become too expensive because Mexico was importing so much of its corn (approximately 1/3) — and that 20 years ago 99% of Mexico’s corn was grown inside the country, thus maintaining autonomy of its cultivation and consumption of maize within its own borders.  Aside from the dramatic increase in imports, many rural Mexican families are producing maize for their own subsistence.  The availability of Mexican maize entering the Mexican market is decreasing every year.

Resiste poster, Viva la Milpa! exhibit, organic cafe and cultural center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

The direct impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was beginning to become more clear.  I have read many accounts of the profoundly unjust impacts of NAFTA on Latin American countries (primarily rural and indigenous peoples) and this was just one example.

So where did this dramatic change towards a relationship of dependency and  return to subsistence come from?  The answer is very complicated – an entanglement of historical forms of colonialism, elite power, unforgiving regulations and legislation that are all orientated toward the generation of profit (before and above anything else) through the industrialized expansion of the free market and the erosion of self-sufficiency, where people have lived off the land, nourishing its cultivation, over thousands of years. Trying to write about this entanglement has led me through several drafts of this post – stops and starts… overly strong statements within which I have veered toward the safety of academic-style writing where I notice myself becoming distanced from what I am really trying to say.  Especially when I try to articulate (in a brief and simple way) the details and impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the majority of people living and working in Mexico.  Rather than provide a long, complex explanation of the devastating effects and supposing promises of NAFTA, I mention a few of the related issues and problems.

The decision to throw Mexico wide open to free trade was due to the government’s belief that the geographical and climatic conditions in Mexico favored increase exports in fruits and vegetables to the United States.  Although Mexico is the original producer of maize (there are 60 ‘landraces’ and thousands of native varieties in Mexico which have evolved over thousands of years), the US has a stronger market advantage because of the genetically modified versions of corn they cultivate, which produce greater yields and are greatly supported by government subsidies (and are also completely dependent on huge amounts of fertilizers and pesticides which is poisoning water and land particularly in the Mid-western part of the US and increasing rates of cancer).  Tariffs on corn entering Mexico were also eliminated through NAFTA which has devastated the Mexican market aside from the strength of rural farmers.  In the book, Sin Maiz, no Hay Pais (without maize there is no country) a book on Mexico’s maize crisis published in 2003, from which this post is named, there were statements provided from the government saying that they hoped to remove half of the population of Mexico’s rural areas within five years.

Poster comparing Native and GMO maize, Museo de Maya Medicinal, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Since coming into being in 1994, NAFTA regulations essentially force food to be cultivated for profit-making purposes to enable ‘free’ trading to occur between countries in the Americas.  Yet, as I learned many years ago through visits with social movements in Pakistan, participating in the World Social Forum (2009) and friends of mine in Oregon who are farmers — the ‘free trade’ aspect is prohibited in multiple ways.  For example, farmers from the United States receive vast subsidies from the US government every year which enables them to sell their foods more cheaply on the international market, thus creating a dependency for southern American countries to import foods as they cannot compete with prices (such as maize) that has historically grown very readily on their lands.  This has made it exceedingly difficult for small farmers from Mexico to sell and export their maize and to cultivate native landraces of maize that are endemic to Mexico as they are not as productive (large yields) – and are thus priced higher than American GMO-bred corn.  In addition, the intrusion of trans-genic seeds contaminates native varieites in Mexico.  Although there was a moratorium placed on GMO seeds  entering in Mexico until 2009, contamination was found in remote parts of Oaxaca as early as 2001.  With the moratorium now ended, trans-genic maize seeds are freely circulating, although full planation is still resisted (though barely – legislation allowing Monsanto to plant 2.5 million hectares in Mexico this month almost passed).

The financial constraints that have ensued as a result of NAFTA has forced many Mexican farmers to produce very small amounts of food for their own family subsistence (which more and more are doing).  Many others (hundreds of thousands) migrate to urban areas (where there are often no jobs to be found – or very low-waged jobs) or attempt to cross the dangerous border illegally only to serve as wage labourers on farms (often picking fruits and vegetables in often-times hazardous conditions) in North America.  Whilst the subsistence approach reclaims cultural and agricultural approaches to food cultivation (building food sovereignty), it also puts these farmers into a more vulnerable situation of economic insecurity which makes it that much harder to resist the intrusion of MNCs taking over and producing foods on their lands.  The commitment of Unitierra is exactly about supporting the strength of rural families to produce their own foods on their milpa, building strength of identity and community solidarity, working together to resist government and multi-national corporation pressure.

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Viva Mexico! Viva Oaxaca! Tapestries of geographies, histories and politics

Viva Mexico!  Viva Oaxaca!  Tapestries of geographies, histories and politics

Posted by on Dec 12, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 2 comments

Photo taken by Udi at the Museo Nacional Antropologia (National Anthropology Museum) in Mexico City of a map of Mexico Profundo (continuing existence of deep, original Mexico that continues to shape Mexican national culture and identity)

We arrive at one of the bus stations in the megacity of Mexico City to purchase a ticket bound for Oaxaca.  It is mid-day and we have chosen to travel during the afternoon on the 6-hour journey to Oaxaca to enable a good viewing of the changing landscape.  The bus system in Mexico is impressive.

Photo taken by Kelly – our bus to Oaxaca from the Mexico City bus station

The bus stations are clean and it is enjoyable to sit in the waiting area until the bus leaves.  We climb onto the bus at 1pm and find our seats which are comfortable and roomy.  We sit back, waiting for the bus to leave, excited about the long journey and our impending arrival to Oaxaca city.

We’ve been in Mexico 5 days already.  The first couple of days we explored different museums in Mexico City – the Frida Kahlo Museum, the Trotsky Museum, the Anthropological Museum (see Udi’s post on ‘Politics and Art’). We also spent time with Carlos Flores and Rachel Sieder, the lovely couple we stayed with in the city, in the fabulous Coyoacan region of the city.  Udi has known Carlos for a decade, meeting him at Goldsmiths College where Udi was studying and Carlos was teaching.  Carlos is a visual anthropologist and filmmaker from Guatemala who has focused on a broad range of issues pertaining to Guatemala and beyond.  Rachel is a scholar in Latin American studies and has focused on issues pertaining to human rights and law.  Currently, Carlos and Rachel, are working on indigenous justice systems in the highlands of Guatemala (the region that was most affected by the war in the 1980s).  They have written books and have made films about how particular issues are engaged with and resolved within these Mayan regions – and how this relates to the Guatemalan state.  Rachel also focuses on domestic violence, being a woman she has better access to the women in these communities.  This coming January they will be spending time again in the Guatemalan highlands to show their film and receive feedback from the people within these communities.  We both had a wonderful time with them, seeing some of Mexico City and learning quite a lot about indigenous histories in Mexico and Guatemala.

It takes nearly an hour to leave the boundaries of Mexico City.  Although Mexico City is one of the biggest cities in the world, it feels smaller than it is.  Similar to London, the layout of Mexico City is like a series of smaller towns.  Mexico City currently boasts a population of over 8 million in the city, although the larger metropolitan area is believed to be at least 22 million with estimations closer to 30 million. This makes the city the biggest in the world, a title it has held since before the time of the Conquistadores.

Photo taken by Udi at the Museo Nacional Antropologia of a drawing of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan as it was built in Lake Texcoco

The geography of Mexico City is a valley that was once the massive Lake Texcoco within which the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was constructed (founded in 1325), sustaining the life of anywhere between 200,000 – 350,000 people, the biggest city in the Americas at that time.  The layout of Tenochtitlan and its beauty provided an initial sense of awe for the Spanish when they first arrived.  However, after the city was conquered by 1521, the Spanish drained the water from Lake Texcoco and began to build what has become current day Mexico City.  Udi and I decided to visit the ruins of the Templo Mayor (the Aztec ‘main temple’) in el Zocalo, the center square of the city.  The Templo Mayor was the most important temple to the Aztecs. According to Aztec religiosity, the god Huitzilopochtli provided a sign of an eagle on a nopal cactus with a snake in its mouth, symbolizing the importance of this particular site as the place for the main temple. This symbol appears on the current Mexican flag.

Photo taken by Udi on the grounds of the Templo Mayor – the sacred serpent adorning the front of the main stairs

Excavations on the area of Templo Mayor began in the late 1700s and continue today.  A large portion of the Templo is still to be unearthed as it now lies under several blocks of city buildings.  Excavations were quiet for at least a century before 1978 when electrical workers, digging for the Metro, accidentally discovered monolith of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess.  This prompted the Templo Mayor project and the area has been slowly excavated ever since.  The entire area is a graveyard of people and objects of cultural and spiritual significance.

Photo taken by Udi at the Templo Mayor Museo on the grounds of the Templo Mayor – the goddess

Templo Mayor, or what you can visit of Templo Mayor, is just next to the enormous Spanish church that quite aggressively declares its spiritual significance over that of the conquered Aztecs.  The location of the visitor area of Templo Mayor is about 200 meters from the church.

Photo taken by Udi from the grounds of Templo Mayor

Photo taken by Udi from the ground of Templo Mayor – the Mexico City Cathedral just in the background

Within this area were hundreds of tourists and locals witnessing and interacting with three different groups of Aztec dancers and healers.  There were also heavily armed police as well as an abundance of food, clothing and souvenir vendors.  A colourful mural with Aztec symbolism lined the long wall between the Templo Mayor and the Mexico City Cathedral.

Photo taken by Udi of the space between the Templo Mayor and the Mexico City Cathederal

The Aztec dancers were all wearing different headdresses adorned with colourful feathers and leg bands of shells that made soft, hypnotic sounds as they moved.  There were queues of people waiting to be cleansed by healers using smoke and branches, murmuring songs and covering each body with smoke and a gentle touch of the branches.

Photo taken by Udi of Aztec dancers in front of the Mexico City Cathedral

Photo taken by Kelly (from film we shot) of Aztec dancers between the Mexico City Cathedral and the Templo Mayor

Photo taken by Udi of Aztec healers in front of the Templo Mayor

I could not help but recall primary school memories of learning about the Aztecs.  The practice of human sacrifice is unsurprisingly what I remember the most, horrifying and gruesome as it was, particularly through my eyes as a young child.  There are continual debates of stories and narratives about the frequency and justification behind process of human sacrifice that occurred to please the Sun God that, according to the Aztec cosmovision (view of and way being in the Universe) allowed for the continuance of life on Earth.  These murals below were painted by Diego Rivera (they can be seen in the Modern Art Museum in Mexico City), representing the oppression of each major religion historically in Mexico.

The site of Templo Mayor is a juxtaposition of periods of time, histories, narratives, religious and spiritual practices.  Similar to the complex and violent history of Mexico, the history of the destruction of the Aztec empire is equally violent and complex, with a range of competing stories and accounts.  The different accounts by the Spanish and the Aztecs of a massacre on this particular site of Templo Mayor in 1520 are a key example.  Whilst not denying the slaying of many Aztecs, the Spanish account holds a rationale for the event whilst the Aztec account of the event is far more descriptive and graphic of the extreme violence their people experienced at the hands of the Spanish.  The church being built directly on the ruins of the Templo Mayor is typical of Christian conquest.  The same practice can be found across the UK – many churches were built on former pagan spiritual place.

The air quality of Mexico City is a soup of smog.  With the multitude of people using some sort of auto transport and the factories that have sprung up on different sides of the city it is hardly surprising that smog is constantly trapped in the valley bowl.  After being on the bus for an hour or so, we notice bluer sky, clear white clouds and a particular snow-capped mountain with puffs of gray smoke emerging from its peak.  This is Popcatepetl mountain, affectionately called ‘Popo’.  Popo is the second highest mountain in Mexico, nearly 18,000 feet (5,426 meters).   Earthquakes occur continuously in Mexico, particularly within the regions of Mexico City, Cuernavaca and Oaxaca.  We have already felt several, the biggest one being nearly 5.0 on the richter scale.  People have told us that if they do not feel earthquakes once a week, once every other week, that a much bigger earthquake is coming.  A film has started playing on the 6 different video screens that hang down on different parts of the bus.  It is X-Men:  First Class 2’ and dubbed in Spanish.

We notice field after field of hay that has been thrashed into cone-like shapes along the road.  There are maize fields here and there, but far less than we had assumed.  Udi dozes off while I do some reading.

After another 2.5 hours, the road becomes more tortuous and there are sharp and step hills and canyons as far as we can see covered with cactus forests.  These cacti stand over two metres straight up.  It is a completely different type of fxorest than I have ever seen.  We try to capture it on film but it is difficult with the incredible bends in the road that seem to appear every 100 or so meters.

Photo taken by Udi of cacti along the road between Mexico City to Oaxaca

Photo taken by Udi of cacti and canyons along the road between Mexico City to Oaxaca

The video screens on the bus come to life again and I see Britney Spears entering onto a stage with thousands of screaming fans surrounding her.  The video of Britney goes on for over an hour and as the sun is starting to set and the road becomes ever more tortuous within the hills of cacti forests, I find it more and more difficult to avoid watching her.  That the scene is surreal is an understatement. Udi and I discuss the geographic, demographic and political distinctions that we know about Oaxaca which are in sharp contrast to the video of Britney grinding her way through song after song in shiny and increasingly small outfits.

Oaxaca is one of the most biologically diverse states (after Chiapas and Veracruz) with a diverse number of reptiles, amphibians, mammals and plants.

Oaxaca is also the most culturally diverse state in Mexico.   There are 16 officially recognized indigenous communities, with at least 17 languages and 37 dialects.  Many of these dialects are more like different languages, as different as Spanish and Italian.  These different indigenous groups have survived and thrived to varying extents within an overall environment of waves of oppression and colonialism.   Surviving (and thriving to any extent) has been through incredible struggle that has occurred in various ways (many of which we will be posting about).  It is estimated that during the first 100 years of Spanish colonization, nearly 90% of indigenous people were killed or died due to disease across all of Mexico.  It is said that at the time of independence, two-thirds of the Mexican population was of indigenous peoples.  Now, they make up around 10% of the population (although this is contentious as many people identify themselves as non-indigenous to elude discrimination that often comes with indigenous identification) and are divided amongst more than 55 languages through out the country.  That Oaxaca state holds such a large number of these different languages can be attributed to the rugged and isolating geographical terrain of Oaxaca state, making it impossible for the Spanish to fully conquer.

Photo taken by Udi of a map of Oaxacan linguistic and ethnic groups. The photo was taken in the Museo Nacional Antropologia.

Oaxaca is currently the second poorest state in Mexico with more than half of its population living in extreme poverty, earning less than Mexico’s minimum wage of $4.50 (US dollars) per day. Indigenous peoples account for the majority of Oaxaca’s poor.  In addition to the oppressive legacy of colonialism, the ramifications of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) have been particularly harsh with corporate-led development targeting lands rich with natural resources for their own profit-making benefit, rather than for that of the indigenous peoples on these lands.  What I had not realized before coming to Mexico was that the majority of Mexican migrants into the US are indigenous peoples from Oaxaca who are seeking some stable source of income and freedom from oppression. An important reason for this flight from rural areas has revolved around the struggle for land access, the struggle to resist corporate takeover that is ever-present.  What has resulted for many of these immigrants to the USA is the encounter of a new and different type of oppression once they reach the USA (as illegal alien status) which is continually and hotly debated within all civil and political arenas in the USA.

My first real engagement with Oaxacan history was after I encountered a wonderful book at a Solidarity Economic conference (2009 – Hampshire, Massachusetts)  called Teaching Rebellion:  Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca written in 2007 just after the uprising occurred.  The book provides a tapestry of voices participating within the uprising – teachers, musicians, schoolchildren, elderly, religions leaders, indigenous community activists, radio journalists, union leaders, etc.  Hearing such a diversity of voices provides an excellent introduction into the profoundly complex political history of Oaxaca state.

Photo of the cover of the book ‘Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca’ (2007) by Diana Durham and C. A. S. A. Collective

The uprising began in May 2006 when around 20,000 teachers decided to strike (for the 25th consecutive year), occupying the Zocalo (city center), calling for a living wage, resources for infrastructure repair, free schoolbooks and social services. By June 14th, three weeks later, 3,000 police were sent to break up the occupation with tear gas, clubs, guns and helicopters.  This violence was typical governmental response, the purpose of which is to silence social movements.  This time, however, the people fought back.  The public outcry formed the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (the APPO) that called for the resignation of the Oaxacan governor, Ulises Ruiz, who was believed to gain political entitlement illegally.  APPO organized marches of over 800,000 people in Oaxaca and over 50 city blocks were occupied.  Waves of violence ensued and over 20 people were killed, hundreds were tortured, incarcerated and declared as disappeared.  There was peaceful occupation by Oaxacans of city buildings, setting up barricades throughout the city, painting public art (see Udi’s post on Art and Politics for more information on this) and also hunger strikes by striking teachers.  The uprising culminated with a particularly violent encounter between the APPO and Oaxacan occupiers and the police at the end of November, 2006, over 6 months after the original teachers’ strike.

Photo from http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2006/11/19/18331008.php by Barucha Calamity Peller taken Sunday Nov 19th, 2006

As darkness ensued and the bus entered the city limits of Oaxaca city, Udi and I both felt a sense of anticipated excitement about what we were to learn and experience over the coming weeks.

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Discussing art and identity with emerging Northwest coast artists

Discussing art and identity with emerging Northwest coast artists

Posted by on Dec 7, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

We talked with several of the students at the Freda Diesing school, on and off camera.  I would have really enjoyed engaging in conversation to a much further extent with all of the learners at the school, but those that I was privileged to talk with, I learned a lot from.  Each person learning and teaching at Freda Diesing have inspiring stories to tell – stories of how their engagement with art has helped to inspire a deeper connection with their identity, but this self identity being deeply connected to their larger community of place, land and people, including their ancestors.

Photo taken by Udi of students’ morning practice art at the Freda Diesing school

This posting is meant to provide a sketch of some of the key messages that I learned listening to several students speak of their stories of how they ended up coming to the school as a student and what experiences they have had since their immersion into the program.  I have kept these names anonymous for this blog posting as these conversations were either recorded for the film or were unrecorded informal conversations.  I feel it is imperative to stress that what I write here is not their direct voice – rather, I provide a brief account of what I learned.  I wanted to write this posting because of the deep inspiration I felt from each conversation.  Fuller accounts that were provided through recordings will be provided to the students themselves and the Freda Deising school for their own use over the coming months.  Sections of these and other recorded conversations will be used for a shorter film specifically related to the Freda Diesing school, and for a longer documentary film that we will be producing from our entire journey, integrating moments from each place we have visited and will visit over the next 8 months.

Photo taken by Udi of students at the Freda Diesing school

An older student told me that art, or his engagement with and learning about First Nations art, had saved his life.  I was admiring a design he was drawing as a copy from an old bent-wood box and I asked him about his work – what he was doing, how long it had taken him….  He said that he was in his second year.  And then he looked at me and said that art had saved his life.  This came as a surprise as I was not expecting him to talk with me about this sort of experience as suddenly as he did.  He told me that Dempsey had come to teach a class that he sat in on – while he was in prison.  He said that he had a long sentence and that he had been an alcoholic and drug user like many people from his community.  He also told me that he had been to residential school as a child – a horrible part of his life – similar to many other people from his community.  He said that after being introduced to art through these workshops he decided to stay involved and he ended up coming to the school after he was released.  Art helped him to reconnect to himself, to heal, to be proud of his identity.

Photo taken by Kelly of photos of bent-wood boxes re-enhanced photographically by Bill McLennan

One student we spoke with, a first-year student, spoke to us with a great deal of enthusiasm about the ways in which studying art is helping him connect to his community and identity.  We noticed him on the first day speaking publicly about different repatriated Nisga’a objects (masks, blankets, combs, shaman’s regalia) within each room at the Nisga’a museum, but did not realize until the end of the day that he was also a student.  He was interning at the Nisga’a museum (which he is really enjoying), helping to convey the histories and importance of different repatriated objects in the museum to visitors.  When we asked him to introduce himself in the interview, he spoke to us first in his own language to introduce himself (we found this quite often) – his name, where he was from.  He also introduced himself through his ancestral past and his crest.  He told us about being half-White, that having this identity meant that he was not as engaged with the community growing up as he could have been.  He did not grow up in the dancing, ceremonies, cultural events.  He explained that before coming to the Freda Diesing school, he learned from a non-native how to carve native art (this person also taught him philosophy).  He did not focus on learning more about art or becoming an artist.  He went to study mechanical engineering at university.  He had a hard time with the linear non-creative environment and ended up failing his first term.  He knew that he wouldn’t be happy and so he then pursued art and ended up with a scholarship to come and learn at the Freda Diesing school.  He spoke proudly and confidently telling us that learning at the Freda Diesing school gave him a really strong integration into traditional perspectives towards everything.  For example, he explained that right now, as we spoke, we were in Tsimshian territory – and how when we went to the Nisga’a museum, we went to the Nass and back – to a different territory.  He marveled how this was done in a day, that before the time of contact, this would have taken well over two weeks.  He explained that thinking this way, in a traditional cultural sense – gives more respect towards everything. He loves being at the Freda Diesing school with so many First Nations students – from different First Nations communities and has learned, in his view, that all First Nations cultures are connected – pieces of the same spiritual forms..  He told us that there is so much to learn and that he wants to learn as much as he can.  He is particularly interested in learning about traditional spiritual forms, the stories, language and grammar through which each form has come into being.  He also just really wants to help in his community.  He told us this with a strong sense of energy and passion.  He also told us that he is torn about this – ‘helping’ is easier if you are a shaman – you cannot force these things.   He told us emphatically that art opened the door for him to re-connect – to himself, to his community.

Photo taken by Kelly of the interior of the Long House on the Freda Diesing school campus

Another student came back to the Freda Deising school later in life after other career trajectories.  He introduced himself as Haida and German and explained that art had always been a side interest, but eventually he decided to go back more strongly into it.  He knows now that he wants it to be a full time career.  He loved art as a child, but he did not pursue it in school.  He wanted to work in a logging camp when he was an adult.  He was discouraged from doing art because of money – he explained that most people stay away from art because of income.  His abilities in art waned – he told us how he had lost his edge because of so many years of doing other types of work.  He told us how he used to always tell people that he was an artist and when they asked about his work he would say that he wasn’t doing it now… but he would again soon.  This ‘soon’ took a long time to happen.  Now, however, he is in it properly, learning with other artists at the school and intending to continue with his learning and practicing after.  He then discussed his background and connection with his community.  He told us that the Haida have possibly been on Haida Gwaii for at least 20,000 years.  He talked to us severity of how disease had decimated the population of the Haida and the stealing of the objects by the British.  He also told us how the Haida burnt their objects because of the fear of God through Christianity.  These tragic stories, as well as his own desire to be an artist, helped him to be inspired to learn and engage with Haida art – to help maintain the continuity of the art. He described how inspiring it is for students from different First Nations groups to unite and learn from each other as much as learning about their own cultural past – like they are able to at the Freda Diesing school.

Photo taken by Udi of students doing morning ovoid drawings at the Freda Diesing school

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Learning from Museums

Learning from Museums

Posted by on Dec 2, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Vancouver | 0 comments

 

‘First Nations of British Columbia’ map from Museum of Anthropology, photo by Kelly

We were nearly an hour late for our appointment with Bill McLennan, head of Northwest coast art at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, yet he still gave us a warm welcome, and a generous and intimate tour of the museum. Bill has for many years been researching the art of this region and getting to know the communities who make it. When we were at the Freda Diesing School, multiple copies of Bill’s book The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations could be seen across the desks and were constantly used by students. This book was affectionately, and mischievously, called ‘the bible’ of the course by Dempsey. The black and white photographs of the bentwood boxes whose designs the students meticulously copied in their drawing exercises also came from Bill and his work. Bill stumbled upon this technique of photographing these old pieces with infrared film so as to bring out more the faded designs. Bill also sits on the advisory board of the School and is a regular lecturer there.

Museum of Anthropology, main hall, photo by Kelly

The Museum of Anthropology sits at the far end of the leafy campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The modern concrete building perched on a hill overlooks the Bay that edges the city. Through the museum window we see the cold waters of the Bay glistening in the light of the setting sun – the contours of hills and small islands engulfed by evergreen trees that thrive down to the water’s edge. This was like no other anthropology museum I ever saw. You walk through the entrance into a large hall with a number of different totem poles from this region, both old and some contemporary. Bill guided us through the museum which was about to shut, taking us through the main hall, the contemporary exhibits, the new wing which displays the art of this region in an innovative way and other various rooms.

Restoration and infrared photography, photo by Kelly

In the new wing, in a section entitled ‘multiverse’, objects are displayed in glass cabinets as well as drawing on an interactive online set of catalogues. The notion of ‘multiverse’ As the panel introducing this wing explains provides an explicit valuing of different worldviews, cultural practices and ways of knowing without valuing one over another. The panel also explains the role that First Nations groups have had in helping to curate and tell the stories of the objects displayed. We were thrilled to see this perspective of a ‘multiversity’ so explicitly stated and practiced in the museum. This resonates with the idea of the ‘multiversity’ found in higher education which similarly acknowledges that there are diverse knowledges, ways of learning, teaching, engaging, relating and living. The Multiversity movement internationally rejects that there is and can be a single definition of a ‘Uni’ -versity that, in the movement’s perspective has been colonised by ‘Western’ notions of Higher Education. The multiple ways of valuing in the ‘multi-verse’ section of the museum reflects how Bill and the museum have put into practice this pluralistic valuing of cultural objects as objects to learn from in museums and as artefacts part of living cultures.

Museum practice has come a long way from earlier museum attitudes whereby indigenous artefacts were often seen as ‘deadened’ fossilised cultures, as remnants from a previous age. As Bill explained, here the attitude of the museum is instead one in which it sees its role as that of a caretaker of objects that are part of living cultures. The Anthropology Museum has long running relationships with many of the communities from across Canada where these objects come from. There is an acknowledgement that although they are stored and displayed here for the general public, many of these objects still belong to these communities and that they are entitled to use them when required, such as for certain ceremonies.

Bill Reed Rotunda, photo by Kely

I ask Bill how the curators at the museum, those responsible for the preservation of these objects across time, responded to these changes in practice. Bill replied that they have come around over time. The approach taken is then a pragmatic one acknowledging that the museum is split between two not altogether unreconcilable positions; first, that of a publicly and government funded institution with a role of displaying these objects so that people can learn more about them and the cultures that made them. Secondly; museums also have the role of being the guardians of these objects for the communities that have made them and opening the doors of the museum so that these cultures can tell their stories too.

As we have seen, some Nations such as the Haida and the Nisga’a already have their own museum or heritage centre, whilst others do not have the facility or prefer to house their artefacts in museums and make use of them when needed. The Anthropology Museum also has a number of outreach and participatory projects with First Nations communities such as community arts projects or housing visiting artists who make their art in the museum. Bill told us how sometimes carvers would carve a pole or sculpture in the main hall for the public to see them at work and people describe this as their most memorable experience of the museum.

Museums have come to play an important role in our ‘enlivened learning’ journey, providing us with a multi-sensory learning environment through which we have walked and traced our own paths of discovery. The stories woven together in these places have been significant additions to the other places of learning we have written about such as historical or sacred sites or landscapes. Museums have also provided a historical grounding or context to the various conversations we had and stories we heard across Canada. Adding to the written sources we have consulted, and our own experiences across places, museums have provided further threads through which the mesh of our learning has taken place.

From Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, to Writing-on-Stone, from the Nisga’a museum to the Blackfoot exhibition at the Glenbow museum, these are all examples of museums and displays designed, curated and run by First Nations peoples to tell their stories to their own communities and to others. We learnt much from these exhibitions, from the objects displayed, to the labels and narratives surrounding them, to the total experience they were trying to create. We have over our blog postings used a number of photos from these exhibits to try to convey a sense of the stories and histories being told.

In our travels we also went to several national museums, the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Royal Museum of British Columbia in Victoria, the Northern British Columbia Museum in Prince Rupert and the Fort Museum in Fort MacLoud. In many of these cases we also saw how national museums are trying to deal with and navigate the turbulent history of colonialism in Canada and the complex relationship between settler society and First Nations groups. Here we could see an attempt to represent the dark past of Canadian history, the oppressive Indian Laws, the broken and unjust treaties, the missionary conversions, the spread of disease, residential schools, the destruction of cultures and ways of life. We also saw attempts in these museums to show the cultural resurgence occurring since the 1960s, the contemporary artistic, educational, political and spiritual life of these communities. Many of these exhibitions were also curated in partnership with First Nations peoples.

Museums are an important source of authoritative knowledge in our society and increasingly for First Nations too. They are spaces of learning where this occurs in a multi-sensory way, not only through text, but also through objects, and increasingly through audio-visual and various digital media (see for instance my most recent film for the Pitt Rivers museum, Artisans of Memory). Museums are spaces where stories can be brought alive, that is why they are so popular especially with schools and parents. Behind these multi-sensory environments there are multiple designs, narratives and stories of how the world makes sense as well as through sets of implicit values.

Taking a slight detour and speaking about the use of museum in another context. We had wanted to go up to the Tar Sands region in northern Alberta to see for ourselves this place that is often talked about by First Nations peoples with much concern for the destruction it is causing to the water systems (not only immediately within this region but to much wider areas to connected watersheds across Canada and beyond) and the adverse health effects on neighbouring communities. We wanted to see this region as its development is proving to be the engine of the growth of Canadian economy and also because of its role as an increasingly important source of oil for the US and China. The region is then highly strategic for the oil economy but also of insurmountable significance in the costs to the environment and the process of climate change. I bring this up here because the corporations developing the Tar Sands also have their own museum in Fort McMurray designed to show the public their activities funded by private companies and the Alberta government. We wanted to see what this museum, the Oil Sands Information Center looked like and to experience its narratives and sets of values, but the journey north proved too far for our limited time.

Museums are then important sites of storytelling and conveying certain views of the world. They are also powerful institutions, closely tied with the world of academia and the sciences, which have come to have an authoritative aura for providing a legitimate description of the world. It is heartening to see that some of these institutions are now working much more closely with First Nations to not only include but voice their own view of the world, narratives of their histories, their ways of living, their spirituality and values. It is also significant how First Nations are appropriating and engaging with the institution of the museum, just as they are also doing with the institution of the university, as sites for the communication of their worlds and values, both for themselves and for others.

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