Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Navajo Code Talkers

Travels in Phoenix give insight into Navajo story

        During World War II, the Navajos in the Marines created an oral code using their language, a code the Japanese were never able to break. Their contribution was kept secret for 40 years after the war, during which time they were not allowed to discuss what they had done. A room at the Arizona Capital Museum in Phoenix is devoted to the history of these Navajo "code talkers."
        Two communications bunkers allow visitors to practice the code that had been used in most of the major battles for the Japanese-held islands in the Pacific.
        Pictures of the code talkers as old men are displayed with their comments about their experiences. Noteworthy is the fact that all were assigned body guards, as it was vital that they not fall into enemy hands. Many came back with post-traumatic stress disorder reactions and found a cure in the traditional cleansing ceremonies of their shamans.
        In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded gold medals to the 29 code talkers who developed the code and silver medals to 300 Navajos who followed them in the South Pacific. A somewhat uneven view of their contributions to the war effort was given in the movie "Windtalkers" starring Nicholas Cage.
        The Hopi, who are longtime rivals, were irritated by the attention the Navajo received, because they had also been Marine code talkers. Other tribes had also worked for the Army and Navy, but the Navajos got all the awards. The Kiowa declared war, and a group of aged warriors raided the offices of the Navajo Code Talkers Association and stole the medals. I presume they were returned.
        One evening at the Elderhostel I was attending in Phoenix, a young Navajo man who makes traditional flutes played for us and told us religious stories of his people. He also enlightened us about John Wayne and director John Ford, who are appreciated by the Navajo because they made movies with the Navajos playing the Indians.
        These movies introduced the public to Monument Valley and brought tourists to their reservation, where they proceeded to buy souvenirs, thus helping the Navajos build an industry on their rugs and silver items.
        Only after 1980 did movies come onto the reservation, allowing many Navajos to see these old westerns for the first time. Because locals had been extras, the audience became very emotional when they saw themselves or their parents as young people. On first viewing these movies, people often cried.
        Several of our presenters emphasized that the Navajos have a strong sense of humor. During the making of the westerns, Ford would tell the Indian actors to talk to each other in Navajo. This they did, and what they talked about was how silly white men’s ways were and what a strange person this John Ford was. Watching the movies and understanding the language the Navajos would break out in raucous laughter, to the bewilderment of the whites in the audience.
        Another person much appreciated by the Navajos is Tony Hillerman, who writes mystery novels set on the Navajo reservation with two Navajo police officers as his heroes. His books are written from the point of view of the Navajo and treat the white man as an outsider. He makes much of the fact that the FBI and the government have little understanding of the Navajo way of life and how they often make things worse when they get involved. Hillerman’s characters, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, give insight into the way Navajos look at the world. The author spends time with the tribe, and they have awarded him status as an honored person because of his friendly interpretation of their beliefs.
        The 21 federally recognized tribes in Arizona have different worldviews, and one of the problems has been the ignorance of the government about these differences. For example, 63 percent of the Navajo men and 35 percent of the women have problems with alcohol, but only 3 percent of the men and 1 percent of the women of the Hopi have drinking problems. As a result, the Navajo have many more problems with fetal alcohol syndrome.
        Both groups seem genetically predisposed to alcoholism, but the Hopi live close to each other with much immediate control of social behavior. The Navajo live more independently and are widely separated, so there is less social control.
        At the Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art in Phoenix, a section is devoted to the time when Indian children were removed from their families and sent away to white schools in order to civilize them. The government had figured out how much it cost to kill an Indian and decided educating them was cheaper.
        Museum films indicate that the schools were run like the military. The children wore uniforms, marched to class and drilled regularly. Indian children were taken from their parents at 5 years old and returned at 14, supposedly with skills to make a living in a white man’s world.
        The strongest impact of this history of imposed education was the recordings of people who had been at the schools. They shared what it was like to be ripped from their homes and forbidden to visit with their families. They were force-fed Christianity, beaten when they resisted the Word, forbidden to speak Navajo and fed poorly.
        Dressed in cast-off white man’s clothes, when they returned to the reservation, they were strangers who couldn’t fit in. Many turned to drink. I understand that it is not unusual for visitors to leave that presentation at the museum in tears.
        Despite this treatment, the Navajos were good Marines and made a major contribution to winning the war in the Pacific.
        Navajos as a group did not take to the white man’s ways because our value system was so different from their own. Thus, most have chosen to remain on the reservation.


On July 26, 2001, the original 29 Code Talkers were presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush. This long awaited recognition occurred 56 years after World War II despite the fact that the Code saved thousands of lives. The Code had been de-classified in 1968.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fort Gibson, Oklahoma

        One of the disasters in our treatment of the Native Americans was called the Trail of Tears when 46,000 members of the Five Civilized Tribes, which included the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole, over a number of years were removed from the southern US and marched to reserves in Oklahoma. Of the 13,000 Cherokee forced on the Trail of Tears 5000 died. Indian Territory did not have the welcome mat out as the Osage had gotten there first and they were not happy with the interlopers.
        Fort Smith in Arkansas was considered too far away to control the fighting between Indian tribes that was likely to take place. Fort Gibson was established in 1824 in preparation for the Civilized Tribes’ move into Indian Territory, and the Seventh Cavalry was charged with keeping the Osage and Cherokee from fighting with each other.

Fort Gibson’s role to referee between warring tribes

        The Fort Gibson in Oklahoma I visited was largely reconstructed during the depression by the Works Projects Administration and was intended to be as close as possible to an authentic reproduction Rooms have furniture, cots, desks and other objects to give visitors some idea of what the original was like.
        It would have been hard to find a worse place to build a fort. Colonel Matthew Arbuckle built it on the east bank of the Grand River just above where the Verdigris and Arkansas Rivers come together. The fort served as a supply point for materials intended for the Indians who arrived often at the point of starvation. The area was a bad one for disease, especially malaria, because it flooded regularly. In one period over 500 men of the troops stationed there died of various diseases.
        The problem was more than just Cherokee and Osage conflicts because the Indians in the area were from various tribes that did not get along partly because of different lifestyles, some being hunter-gatherers and some being farmers. Other forts took over the duties of controlling the Indian conflicts.
        Confederate troops captured the fort in 1861, but evacuated the post when a stronger unit of Union soldiers approached. This gave the Union Army control of the shipping of supplies on the three-river complex. The South was never successful in winning the fort back despite attempts. This is one place where they were outgeneraled.
        Fort Gibson was a base for troops moving south during the Mexican-American War in which the US gained much additional territory from Mexico. Later it became a jumping off point for gold seekers during the California Gold Rush. It was vacated in 1890, rebuilt in the 1930s and made a national historic landmark in 1960. It is now a museum that interprets its role in the history of the development of the American West.
        Because of the unhealthy conditions of the first fort, a second fort was constructed on a hill nearby, and here a barracks, magazine, hospital and bake house have been constructed along with a commanding officer’s quarters.
        Although I did not visit the fort during a Living History event, re-enactors do occasionally put on demonstrations involving camp life, the last one being a Mexican War Encampment in early October.

The rooms at the fort have period furniture.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Clovis hunters

When Clovis Indians hunted giant animals

        The Clovis were and early people who left campsites and artifacts showing they were here as early as 12,000 years ago. That means that they overlapped with a very rich collection of marvelous animals that are now extinct. Their hunting parties must have been extraordinary adventures. For a brief period at the end of the Pleistocene ice age, the lives of humans and mastodons, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, horses and camels intertwined.
        Some years ago, I was introduced to the fact that huge mammals once resided in North America. It was only recently, however, when I visited the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, that I began to fully appreciate that my home state of Missouri was also once home to some of these same giants.

A reproduction of a Mastodon

        Several thousand years ago the giant sloth in Missouri could reach 20 feet in height standing on its hind legs. That made the eight-foot sloth in California small by comparison. When hungry, the giant sloth could push over a tree to get its lunch. Can you image what it must have been like to hunt such a creature? In addition, Missouri had animals not found in the California tar pits: giant armadillos, mush oxen, tapirs and peccaries (pig-like animals).
        The best nearby site for seeing a full-sized replica of a mastodon is at the Mastodon State Historical Site, 20 miles south of St. Louis on Interstate 55. The museum holds a large collection of bones, tusks and human artifacts from the Kimmswick Bone Beds, which are located a brief walk from the museum.
        On occasion the museum hosts special events such as a flint knapping demonstration on when artisans will create stone tools and skin deer hides. Visitors also get a chance to throw spears and engage in other activities of early humans.
        Not only did Native Americans kill and butcher mastodons at the Kimmswick Site, they also crafted stone weapons and tools there. These Paleolithic people, we now call the Clovis people, were excellent artisans and skilled big-game hunters.
        Some years ago at an Elderhostel called "Clan of the Cave Bear" at Colorado State University, I visited a site where early hunters had killed a mammoth. Our instructor explained that they would have used throwing sticks to launch their spears hard enough to penetrate the great beast’s thick skin. Clearly, it would have taken many spears to bring down such a giant.
        Thirteen thousand years ago, the Missouri area was much cooler and wetter than it is today, with many swamps and ponds. The forests were made up of evergreens, providing an ideal diet for mastodons.
        Mastodons were a bit smaller than mammoths. They had straighter tusks, longer bodies and were covered with coarse, reddish-brown hair. They preferred woodlands, while mammoths preferred grasslands.
        In 1799, the French anatomist Cuvier realized that bones that had been discovered earlier were those of an elephant-like animal he named "mastodon." Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to find out if mastodons still existed in the West.
        In 1840, a Dr. Albert Koch collected enough bones to build a skeleton that he displayed in a museum near the present site of the St. Louis Arch. The phrase "I saw the elephant," which means "I saw something amazing," was perhaps coined by pioneers who visited Koch’s museum as they passed through St. Louis on their way west.
        Visitors can see a life-scene depicting a Clovis campsite as it may have appeared at Mastodon State Park 11,000 years ago. The Indians, who moved about in search of game, are shown performing common tasks associated with the prehistoric culture.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits Amazing Animals


         Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my! When you enter the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits in central Los Angeles, you know you’re no longer in Kansas, and you’re surely not in the Land of Oz. But you are definitely seeing the remains of a world that was very different from the one we now live in. This is a world that the early Indians would have been quite familiar with. Some even accuse the early Indians of causing the extinction of these remarkable beasts.
        At the Page Museum, one of the most famous fossil repositories in the world, you can take in the well-preserved skeletal remains of beasts and birds that inhabited this part of the world during the late Pleistocene Epoch, from 8,000 to 40,000 years ago. Here, their blackened skeletons rest on pedestals and majestically overlook fascinated audiences. Tourists and school children stand engrossed as guides describe life and death during the last Ice Age.

A mammoth with 15 feet of tusk


        The La Brea tar pits have produced one of the world’s best-preserved collections of Pleistocene vertebrates, including 59 mammal species and more than 135 bird species. The animals that lived here then were different from the animals in modern America in a number of ways.
        First, there were large camels and a western horse, both of which originated on the American continent some 45 million years ago. Both eventually migrated to Asia, Africa and Europe, but they became extinct here about 10,000 years ago.

A saber-toothed cat attacks an eight foot high giant sloth

        The second astonishing fact is that the saber-toothed cats, lions, bears and many other now-extinct mammals were king-size models of their species. For example, the short-faced bear was a foot taller and twice as heavy as a grizzly bear. The saber-toothed cat and the American lion were both bigger than any modern cat. Giant sloths stood eight feet high and weighed 1,500 pounds.
        This was a world in which a normal human would have seemed diminutive. Despite their lack of size in this world of giants, Native Americans hunted even the largest animals: the 15,000-plus-pound, 12-foot-tall Columbian mammoth and its slightly smaller relative, the American mastodon.


        Crude oil seeping through fissures in the Earth’s crust created sticky pools of heavy tar or asphalt. Native Americans used the tar for waterproofing baskets and canoes, and later Westerners used it for roofing.

The great bear was bigger than a grizzly

         In 1901, scientists from the University of California at Berkeley realized that the bones they were finding in the tar pits were not those of unlucky cattle. The unusual circumstances at the pits provides a time capsule from which to study life as it existed in North America during the last Ice Age.
        Strangely, about 90 percent of the bones are those of predators rather than of prey. When a prey animal found itself stuck in the viscous tar, a variety of predators would descend upon it and in turn would find themselves trapped. Over thousands of years, many species became victims, and thousands of intact skeletons have been recovered.
        The bones of 1,600 dire wolves have been recovered from the tar, the largest number of skeletons of any animal. These wolves had a larger head but smaller brain than do present-day wolves, and teeth that could crush bones. They were probably scavengers like modern-day hyenas.
        The second most-abundant skeleton is that of smilodon, the most famous of the giant saber-toothed cats. There are also hundreds of skeletons of condors, giant eagles and other birds of prey.
        Native Americans were present in the area toward the end of the Pleistocene, but researchers have so far recovered only one human skeleton from the tar, that of a small woman in her early 20s. Her 9,000-year-old skull is fractured in several places, leading some scientists to believe she may have been killed and deliberately placed in one of the pits.
        Some researchers believe that humans were responsible for the mass extinction of the giant animals, probably by overhunting. Another theory holds that humans carried fatal diseases as they spread through territory where megafauna lived.
         Despite the considerable evidence presented by these scientists, I find the overhunting theory unlikely because extinction was so widespread and covered so many species. It is just as likely in my mind that these huge hunting animals became so efficient that they killed off their food supply and starved to death.


        The museum’s scientists work behind glass windows in the Fossil Preparation Laboratory. Here, visitors can observe every step of the careful reconstruction process as bones are cleaned, repaired and then fitted together and displayed in large, high-ceilinged rooms. For some displays, fur and feathers get reproduced so you can see what paleontologists think the animals looked like in life.
         At Pit 91, an observation station allows a close-up examination of work in the field. Through Sept. 9, visitors can watch paleontologists recover bones from the tar.
         An atrium contains plants that existed in the area during the Pleistocene.
         A 23-acre park with life-sized replicas of extinct animals surrounds the museum. The most exciting replica is of a male mammoth struggling in tar as a female mammoth and a young mammoth look on. The park landscape also includes plants present during the last Ice Age.

A mammoth sinks into the tar pit

         The Page Museum is located at 5801 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, in the "Miracle Mile" district. It is open seven days a week.

My daughter Debra admires a giant ground sloth.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010



        At Tjapukai, outside Cairns, the North Queensland coastal Aborigines have a center they own, dedicated to educating visitors about their social organization and culture. The tribe appeared to have Maori blood since they are lighter skinned, and have smaller noses than the Aborigines we saw elsewhere.
        When I was at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in northeast Australia with a group an Elderhostel group, we saw a movie about the British treatment of the native population that hit me like a punch in the gut. They were hunted like animals, starved, given poisoned bread, introduced to diseases and generally mistreated. Their sacred places were defiled, and the countryside was ruined by the introduction of cattle and the cutting of trees. This malice reduced the population of aborigines in Australia to about 30,000 individuals.
        We started our day at the center learning to throw spears at kangaroo targets using a spear thrower. Everyone in our party was somewhat short of inadequate. Our instructors in natural lap-laps - loincloths - with appropriate body paint spoke with a distinct Aussie accent. After years of having their native language repressed they are now relearning it and speaking it as a matter of pride.
        Our group also practiced throwing boomerangs. When others were throwing, the rest of us were wisely ordered to stand in an enclosure covered with netting to protect us. Some of the group, including my wife, Carla, showed some talent, but she decided it was too dangerous to bring one back for our 11-year-old grandson. Boomerangs sell for up to $200 if they are handmade by an artist who goes into the woods to cut the special trees needed. Chinese-made plastic ones go for $10.

Our group took lessons in spear and boomerang throwing.

         At one of Tjapukai’s four theaters, besides the movie I mentioned above about how they were mistreated by the British, we saw a marvelous performance combining actors with projected visual effects. I was impressed with how smoothly the actors interacted with the multi-media surrounding them.
         At an outside theater, we saw native dancers and heard their music, mostly banging and blowing on tuneless didgeridoos. Their dances were preparations to hunting animals such as the emu, cassowary and kangaroo.
        The dances the aborigines at Tjapukai demonstrated had elements of the Maori dances we had seen in New Zealand and their aggressive way of greeting strangers to their territory was similar.

Native dancers demonstrate preparation to hunt animals.

        In this area having the opportunity to create museums, relearn their native language, and educate visitors has increased the Aborigines self esteem and the people appear to be doing well. This is in contrast to the borderline adjustment of many of the individuals we saw in the Alice Springs area.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010



        When the British came to Australia, the number of Aborigines was approximately 300,000, with one estimate as high as 700,000. At that time, the English functioned on the principle of terra nullius - that the lands in Australia belonged to no one. Aborigines had no evidence of ownership and no permanent settlements, therefore settlers felt they could take whatever they wanted.
        When I was at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in northeast Australia with a group an Elderhostel group, we saw a movie about the British treatment of the native population that hit me like a punch in the gut. They were hunted like animals, starved, given poisoned bread, introduced to diseases and generally mistreated. Their sacred places were defiled, and the countryside was ruined by the introduction of cattle and the cutting of trees. This malice reduced the population to about 30,000 individuals.
        In recent years, the Australians have admitted their crimes against the aborigines and have been changing their treatment of the native people. This has allowed Aboriginal numbers to grow, and at 460,000, they make up 2.5 percent of Australia’s population - 29 percent in the Northern Territory. With government help, the natives are in the process of rebuilding and rediscovering their culture. Museums and cultural parks introduce tourists to their way of life, arts and myths.

        Alice Springs sits in the middle of the great Outback desert the Australians call the Land of Never-Never. What appeared to us from the air to be thousands of small lakes turned out to be dry saltwater holes. Because this was the driest year in a while, the rivers also were just dry beds.   Little sign of human habitation existed outside the city.
        As I stepped off the plane in February, the 104-degree heat hit with the force of a furnace. My traveling companions from northern states did considerable complaining about the scorching sun, but coming from Missouri, I adjusted quickly.
        I was soon introduced to the Aussie Salute, the constant flipping of hands in front of the face. Soon I was doing the same thing to brush away the flies attempting to get in my nose, eyes and ears. Many of my companions started wearing green netting over their heads.
        Although about 27,000 people live in Alice Springs, the downtown area seemed quite small. The major business is souvenirs, made by the Aborigines and the Chinese to sell to the 300,000 tourists who drop in each year to visit Ayers Rock.
        This was our first contact with Aborigines since getting to Australia. A fair number of them were just hanging around town: They live in communities at the edge of town, but now dress up like Aussies. There are many shops in town; mostly for tourists and their main product is Aborigines art.
        The original telegraph station has been restored as a museum and our guide was an Aborigine who had been taken from his family and raised at the station, which had been the government school for Aborigine children. When we asked him about the experience he seemed quite content with what had happened.
        To get to Ayers Rock from Alice Springs, we drove six hours over land where, if you observed it from high ground, you could see a lot more of nothing. A-bomb tests were conducted there years ago because it was believed nothing could be harmed in the area.
        Since 1995, Ayers Rock, the most famous natural landmark and the most visited site in Australia, has been called by its Aboriginal name, Uluru. The world’s largest monolith, it rises 1,100 feet high and is six miles in circumference. It is the tip of a sandstone mountain that extends far below the surface.
        The local Anangu tribe, believed to have lived in the area for 20,000 years, pushed for the site to be returned to them. The caves at the base of the rock contain carvings and paintings sacred to them. The site was returned to the tribe in 1985 after a 10-year battle, and some of the area is now closed to the public. In other areas, photography is not allowed. Aboriginal guides, available for the walking tour around the rock, explain its importance in their legends.

Ayers Rock area was considered sacred by the Aborigines.

        With the temperature at 104 degrees, no climbers were allowed on the rock when we visited. Aboriginals don’t like people climbing it, but they will not actively resist if anyone wants to. If you climb, you must come early in the morning. If the temperature is expected to be under 100, you will be permitted to start if you are carrying plenty of water.
        As Aborigines are concerned about sacred places, tourists cannot take pictures of the people or of places with religious significance. Our bus driver indicated if we took forbidden pictures, the people might take revenge by breaking the windows of our bus.

        At Ayers Rock, we saw 30,000-year-old rock carvings and rock art made by painting figures and outlining hands with ocher. Aborigines also paint on bark and make totemic poles. Body painting has developed into an art form, with the figures based on the individual’s totem.
        Their art forms are bringing them positive attention, and sales to tourists in the fancy shops in Alice Springs are enriching the community.

Many art shops in Alice Springs carry Aborigine art.

        A lecturer described how Aborigine artists made paintings using symbols, drawing the scene as it would look from above as if traces were left behind by feet and bottoms. Most of the commercially available paintings are done in that form. Also available in tourist shops are baskets woven from natural materials and the large wooden, two-tone horn called the didgeridoo. The musician in our group found it impossible to get notes out of the one he bought.
        After the drive around Uluru, we toured the culture center, where Aborigine art covers the walls. Photos again were not allowed, but reproductions were available in the shop. When artists die, all pictures of them are removed from the center, and black strips are put wherever their names appeared.
        That evening we watched sundown on the rock, the view was impressive. However, 20 buses were in the parking lot, and about 800 people were picnicking and drinking champagne - quite a contrast to the earlier treatment of this as a revered place.
         Another evening we watched a movie on how the Aborigines without training could do mechanical repairs on cars and keep them running. They were very creative is finding substitutes for what they lacked.

        When Aborigines lived in a natural state, the separation of women’s work from men’s was complete. Women dug for roots and gathered grubs and seeds, and men confined themselves to hunting. The community was based on sharing, with definite rules as to who got what. The man who killed a kangaroo got the thighs, and other relatives were assigned parts based on relationship. Because everyone was related, everyone got something.
        When the British arrived, Aborigines lived in small tribes with 500 to 600 languages spoken, some of which seemed only vaguely related. That number is down to 200 languages, some of which are mutually understandable. After many years of having their language repressed, they are relearning it and speaking it as a matter of pride.
         Their languages are different from English in what they allow you to think about. They have no specific words for many things, including numbers above two. Instead, they say there was a mob.
         Self-sufficiency was stressed, and the young men had to do a walkabout to prove they could live off the land. Many Australians still know little about their native people, but several movies have drawn attention to them, including "Walkabout," "Quigley Down Under" and "Rabbit-Proof Fence."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Zealand's Maori



        After the blowing of the war trumpet, three almost-naked Maoris with long clubs strode out of the ancestral house making a series of warlike challenges. The tattoos on their faces, along with their grimaces and stuck-out tongues, had the intended effect of impressing us with their fierceness.
       The chief our New Zealand Elderhostel group elected to represent us in the Maori welcoming ceremony, or powhiri, stood just inside the entrance to the Maori compound. Despite the threats, our leader stood firm. After the warlike display, a warrior laid down a leaf picked up by our chief, indicating we had peaceful intentions.

The Maoris give a fierce welcome to dinner at their community house.

       The Maori women then sang a welcoming song so we could enter the community house. Their chief made a short welcoming speech, followed by one from our chief indicating we only wished to peacefully enjoy their company at the coming feast. The ritual nose-rubbing was skipped because SARS was said to be making the rounds. At this point, our group was given permission to enter their territory.
       Before the feast, the Maoris performed in their intricately decorated community house, where each wall panel represented a family history. The show included dances, the demonstration of musical instruments and a bit of Maori lore.
       One of the dances was the pukana haka, a ferocious display where the dancers slap their thighs, stomp their feet, shout, grimace, bulge their eyes, stick out their tongues and beat their chests. All of this sham violence demonstrates their power as warriors. It reminded me of the behavior of great apes when strangers encroach upon their territory. Sitting in the front row, I found my stomach churning in fear despite my awareness that they really wouldn’t attack me.

One of our Elderhostel members gets a lesson on face making.

       The warrior who can stick out his tongue the furthest, bulge his eyes the biggest and make the most frightening face has special status with the group and is considered its most desirable lover.
       In the Tititorea, dance batons were passed between performers, testing their agility and coordination. The Poi dance featured balls suspended on the ends of rope, depicting the movements of birds in flight.
       Our group then moved to the dining hall, where we were treated to a Hangi, dinner cooked in the Maori manner in pits of hot coals with the food wrapped in wet leaves.


       The Elderhostel tour group my wife, Carla, and I had joined was in Rotorua, New Zealand, where we were visiting the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute.
       The Maoris, who came to New Zealand 1,000 years ago, are working to preserve their native traditions and art forms. One of the ways the institute is doing this by training a new generation of artists in the traditional art forms of carving, weaving and tattooing. An attempt also is being made to revitalize the language and have children learn it. There are just 15 sounds in the Maori language - five vowels and 10 consonants - so it sounds quite different from other languages but a lot like Hawaiian.
        When we arrived in Auckland, Professor Hugh Landray of the University of Auckland gave us an introduction to New Zealand with a heavy emphasis on Maori history and their relationships with the British - or Pakeha, as the Maori called them. While there is tension between the two groups, there was less exploitation of the Maoris than was the usual pattern for English settlers taking over a country.
       The British saw them, as opposed to the Australian aborigines, as being a Caucasian tribe with dark skin. It also helped that they were fierce fighters and gave the British serious trouble. They had developed a form of trenches as protection against attack. The British used what they learned from the Maoris in World War I in building their trenches in Europe.
       In 1840, the British were forced to negotiate a treaty rather than just kill or marginalize them. While there has been much interbreeding, the Maori still keep a separate identity, and you will see men with full facial tattooing and women with their chins tattooed. On the other hand, the performers in the shows use stencils to put temporary tattoos on their faces and legs.
       The Maoris have a good record of dealing with women’s issues and early on allowed women to vote. Many if not most of political leaders are female.


       Maoris have become an integral part of the New Zealand tourist industry. For example, the Auckland Museum contains the world’s largest collection of Polynesian artifacts, including a 95-foot Maori war canoe carved 150 years ago from a single tree.
       The museum highlights the Polynesians’ great skills as boat builders and navigators, which gave them the ability to put settlements on most of the islands in the South Pacific. They came here carrying not only their families but pigs and dogs. Our guide explained how the basic materials for making things on the islands farther north were not here for the Maori when they arrived, so they had to learn to use new resources for making cloth and sails and other things they needed.
       At the Maritime Museum in Auckland, we saw a movie that helped us understand how they got to New Zealand and the contributions they made to the development of the country. The movie shows the storms they weathered to bring whole families, complete with livestock. The large screen presentation is vivid enough that I almost became seasick as the waves washed over the bouncing boat.
       Maoris make up 8 percent of the population but are not restricted by any legal limitations and play a full part in contemporary society while remaining proud of their origins.
       Our exceptionally good guide at the Maori Arts & Crafts Institute stressed how the Maoris are trying to maintain Maori art forms and language at the same time stay active in New Zealand’s on going culture.

The Maoris are traditionally very adept at woodcarving.THERE ARE SOME RELATINSHIP PROBLEMS IN THIS MARRIAGE

       But all is not hugs and kisses between the two races. Mahuta, the son of the Maori King Tawhiso, said in 1903, "When the Pakeha first came to this island, the first thing he taught the Maori was Christianity. They made parsons and priests of several members of the Maori race, and they taught these persons to look up and pray; and while they were looking up, the Pakehas took away our land."
       It was apparent from newspaper stories while we were in New Zealand that the Maoris are not happy with the treaty they signed in 1840, and their discontent has led to tension. They have succeeded in regaining land and raising the legislature’s consciousness to where it is officially seen as a bicultural nation, with recognition of Maoris as a separate group.
       For the traveler, however, there is plenty of opportunity to get a feel for the culture, admire its many art forms and purchase authentic souvenirs.

The Maoris are attempting to restore and relearn their original crafts.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010



       Given the amount of contact the early settlers of the Great Lakes area had with the resident Indians I had expected some sites dedicated to them. Instead we heard stories about the encounters as we visited different centers such as Fort Michilimackinac (founded in 1715) in Mackinaw City and Fort Mackinac (founded in 1780) on Mackinaw Island. (By the way c or w the names are still pronounced naw.)
       We learned that Mackinaw Island was a vacation spot even in the days of the Woodland Indians who came to the area in the summer for the fishing. They called the area “the home of the fish.” Celebrations to honor the Great Spirit took place on Mackinac Island each spring. The winters are long and cold and this was an opportunity for the hunters and fishers to meet and relax and trade and discuss tribal affairs. This was all put into ruin when the Europeans came because the Indians believed their spirit fled the Island and went off to live in the Northern Lights.

Displays at Fort Mackinaw on Mackinaw Island give visitors
some ideas about the life style of the local Indians.

       Because of the meeting of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and the Mackinaw Straits this was an ideal spot for the white man to meet and trade with the Indians. Europeans were led to the spot by Father Jacques Marquette who established a mission here in 1671. At about the same time French missionaries were converting Native Americans, French fur traders were seeking their assistance in the lucrative fur business. For 150 years, through French, British, and American settlements of Mackinac, the fur trade business was active on Mackinac. Europeans would ship canoe loads of their goods to Mackinac to trade for Indian-trapped beaver, muskrat, otter, and fox pelts.

Furs trapped by the Indians were a big attraction for European traders.

       At Fort Michilimackinac visitor’s center a film introduced us to the period of early contacts and we learned why the Indians thought of the French as the good guys. The French paid attention to the ways of the Indians and had established good personal relationships with the Indians. For example on meeting leaders they exchanged gifts to cement the relationship. The French learned Indian ways and respected them and often intermarried.
       The Indians were good at trapping and for the furs the French brought in large amounts of trade goods in a large trading program that benefited both the French and the Indians.
       The British took over Fort from the French in 1761 after beating them in the Seven Years War. There was a problem with the take over; the British didn’t have the same respect for the Indians that the French did. This was very upsetting to Indians. For revenge the Indians pretended to play a game of lacrosse outside the gate of the fort. It was a warm day and British troops should have been suspicious that the Indian women who were observing the game had heavy blankets around themselves. The players knocked the ball over the fort wall and rushed inside as if to retrieve it, at which point the women threw off their blankets and handed the men knives and clubs they then used to kill the soldiers in the fort.

The entrance to Fort Michilimackinac that the Indians used to attack the fort

       The British were kicked out and did not return until the following spring under the agreement that they would trade more fairly with the Native Americans. After that the British decided it was to their and everyone else’s benefit to pay more attention to local customs. The French were allowed to continue their trading and the Indians to bring in their furs.

Two Ottawa Chiefs from Michilimackinac, Lake Huron
by Joshua Jebb (Wikimedia Commons)

       The Ottawa were the main tribe in contact with the French. Ottawa was their word for buying and selling, a term that was also common to Cree, Algonquin, and Chippewa. The Ottawa were famous among the other tribes as traders and barterers, dealing in corn, sunflower oil, furs and skins, tobacco, and medicinal roots and herbs).
       Because it would be hard to defend the British destroyed Fort Michilimackinac during the American Revolution and built a Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island. We Americans got it back after the war and lost it again during the War of 1812 and during the peace negotiation got it back. The second floor of the enlisted men’s building is given over to a history of the island starting with the Indians, military, fur trade, up to today’s tourism.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Peru: Temples, Pyramids and Sacrifices


       Standing on an outer wall of the Huacas del Luna (The Temple of the Moon) outside the city of Trujillo on the dry coastal plain of northern Peru I had a distinct feeling that I was in an evil place. The tour guide was explaining that this high wall had been used by the Moche, predecessors of the Incas, to throw human sacrifices to their death on the rocks below.

Ruins in the area of Trujillo have been carefully restored.

       A team of researchers excavated the plaza in 1995 and found 95 bodies of 16 to 25-year-old men who had been tortured then killed by having their throats cut or skulls bashed in. Breaks in their bones which had started to heal indicated they had been captured in battle about two weeks before the sacrifice. We were shown the murals on the walls and pottery which let us see details of the sacrifice. I shuddered finding the whole concept mind boggling and reminiscent of some things that have happened in the Balkans.
       Much of what we know of the early people who lived around what are now the cities of Chiclayo and Trujillo in northern Peru we have learned from their graves and temples. Many of the kingdoms which arose in this area shared a ideology of power and used human sacrifice for various purposes.
       We saw a further example of this when we visited the tomb where the Lord of Sipan was found. His coffin takes up a central position in a burial chamber that has niches on all sides. In those niches are six other bodies: a nine-year-old child, two robust men and three young women. The burial ritual also included the slaughtering of a dog and two llamas. When found the Lord of Sipan was in full regalia, with ornate necklaces, feather ornaments, silver and gold rattles, knives, golden death-masks and a scepter in his right hand. Fortunately this grave was found by professional archaeologists rather than grave robbers.
Tomb of the Lord of Sipan in Northern Peru

Pyramids and Temples
        The sea level towns of Chiclayo and Trujillo lie on the dry coastal area about an hour's flight north of Lima and were home to the first settled communities in South America. The countryside of the north coast of Peru is studded with the skeletons of the vast pyramids built 2000 years ago. Their size is such that you can't tell until you get close whether you are seeing a small mountain or a large man-made pile of adobe blocks. Over the centuries the recurring El Ninos have eroded the pyramids so that long ditches spread fingers down their sides.

Some parts of the ruins have been reconstructed

       But it is not only the occasional El Nino shrinking the pyramids; other forces have been at work. The huaqueros, the Spanish word for grave robbers and looters, have been busy digging for royal burial sites and they have left gaping holes in the pyramids. Huaqueros are often poor peasants who must do their illegal work by stealth. This means their numbers can only be guessed at, but the collections of gold objects, pottery and textiles in the museums suggest there are many of them searching for sudden wealth by finding another unmarked royal grave.
       In addition to rain and thieves adobe blocks have been taken from the pyramids by later cultures and used to build houses and public buildings. These in turn have been destroyed by El Ninos. But the destruction happens slowly, because most of the time the climate is extremely dry and only a few inches of rain fall a year. That means that for the most part that mud based adobe blocks work well in this area as building material.

The Diversity of Peru
       Peru has some of the most diverse climatic and farming conditions of any country in the world. You can go from the dry desert on the Pacific coast, up the steepest mountains to the highlands where people live at elevations of 11,000 feet with a rainy season six months long, down the other side to thick Amazonian jungle. Each change of elevation and precipitation forces people to grow different crops, wear different clothes and face different hazards. The range of life styles in this South American country may be greater than that of any other country you are likely to visit.
       Because of fortunate climatic conditions this coastal area of northern Peru gave rise around 1200 BC to the first complex civilization in the Americas. This was at a time when much of the rest of the world was still in the Stone Age. Despite its aridity the coast of Peru provided the best environment in the new world for the start of a high level civilization that could support more than a few scattered hunting and gathering tribes.
        Part of its strength as a home for civilization lies in the system of rivers bringing the runoff from the high mountains and insuring a source of water for the many crops which were eventually grown in the former desert by a clever use of canals. The mild climate and ready availability of food from both the Pacific Ocean and irrigated land allowed for specialization of labor. While one person farmed another could make pottery, another weave textiles and still another beat gold and copper into beautiful forms. These products could then be exchanged between villages and accumulated.
        Once there is a flourishing permanent center an area is ripe for the introduction of high priests, royal persons and the wealthy. Next there is a great public building project to show that mine is bigger than yours. Much of the labor that built these monuments was a labor tax; everyone was required to work two months a year for the state. Eventually this led to cluttering up the countryside with the vast pyramids and temples which are now a major tourist attraction of the area.
        For over 3,000 years Peruvians have been using metal, making pottery, weaving cloth, building large edifices and conquering territory. There has been an interesting ebb and flow of kingdoms, small nations being combined into big ones which fall apart into small nations which again combine under strong leadership into a large nation.
        A number of reasons may exist for the ebb and flow. The area is a highly volatile one geologically. The occasional volcano or earthquake would have destroyed their well built irrigation systems which would have led to the breakdown of a striving culture. Another factor was the erratic weather patterns caused by El Ninos and La Ninas which caused either flooding or long periods of drought with a corresponding breakdown in the ability to produce food.

The ruins of Chan Chan in Northern Peru

More Impressive Ruins
       I thought the sheer size of the Temple of the Moon impressive until we visited the remnants of the old city of Chan Chan. It is awe inspiring in size. Now in ruins it is the largest adobe city in the world and covers 28 square kilometers. Once there were palaces, temples, streets, gardens, a canal and storerooms for the agricultural wealth of the kingdom. It was the center of the Chimu kingdom which extended 600 miles along the coast. As at the Huacas del Luna the kings were buried with their women and their treasure. It would seem that the Incas copied much of the Chimu system and transported it to Cusco. There is damage due to recent El Ninos and steps are being taken to protect the area against further destruction.

Other Sights and Sites
       But enough of temples and pyramids, there are other sights to see. There is a large covered market in Chiclayo with the usual collection of any and everything. The everything includes a section called the witches' market. Here you can buy the supplies you need for conducting your magic both black (Bruhas) and white (Curados). There are carved sticks of special woods that when rubbed over your body remove pain, fragrances to improve your love life, bark to cure impotence and prostate problems and candles for removing curses. Many people still prefer these methods to modern medicine for improving their lives and curing their ailments. Besides here in Peru they are more readily available.

The witches’ market in Chiclayo
       Near Trujillo is also found the best ceramics collection in Peru. For 40 years a gas station owner has been buying perfect models from grave robbers. In the basement of his station he displays pots from all of the major pre-colonial cultures. After cleaning with water and lemon juice they look as if they were freshly taken from the kiln. As a sex educator I found the pornographic pots of special interest, but I passed up the copies in favor of ones more mundane.
       Since the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) terrorists have been controlled Peru is becoming a major tourist attraction. At this time Machu Picchu and Cusco are the most popular destinations but I believe that in the next few years the northern coast of Peru will see a major increase in foreign visitors because of its many attractions.

The ceramics collection in a basement of a local gas station

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Iowa's Effigy Mounds


       My mental picture of Indians has been warriors on horseback as shown in movies during my youth. The fact that horses came in with the Spanish and helped create a whole new type of culture markedly different from the original way Indians had lived, was something I was not aware of. In general we were also not aware that once millions of Indians covered the continent and they had trade contact with each other exchanging the copper of Michigan, seashells from the Gulf of Mexico and Mica from North Carolina for the fresh water pearls of the Mississippi.
       The picture most of us had was that Indians were thinly settled across the continent where in fact there were large numbers that were decimated by the diseases like small pox and measles brought in by the Europeans. The Indians did not have the same level of immunity and whole tribes were wiped out. As the settlers came into this newly opened territory they assumed God had prepared it to be this way for them, and the fact it had been settled did not occur to them.
       The National Park Service preserves some of this history at Effigy Mounds National Monument that overlooks the Mississippi River not far from Harpers Ferry, Iowa.

       The visitor’s center is small with displays showing how the Indians who created the mounds responded to the changing of the seasons. Much is made of how the natives followed the seasons to take advantage of when and where food and other resources were available.
       The Indians used this area for over 2200 years from 1000 BC to 1200 AD and were known as the Woodland people. They appeared to be mostly hunter-gatherers and the display cases in the center show arrow points and other equipment used by Indians in the area. These Indians used spear throwers rather than the bow and arrow that had not been invented yet. A brief movie gives as much of the history of the mounds and local tribes as is presently known, which is not much. There are after all no written records and the tribal story tellers are all dead.

        Carla and I took the recommended self guided tour using their Fire Point Trail Guide. While only two miles in length it goes up a winding, demanding steep incline. Along the way you stop at points to view the mounds, which are mostly round, with two larger ones in the form of bears. The ritual purpose of the mounts remains unknown, but some were memorial mounds given that bodies are buried in them. When people were buried in an effigy mound they were buried in the heart or brain area and it is assumed they were leaders or special people in the community. The mounds were built over thousands of years and may have served different purposes for different groups. The view of the river with islands from fire point is striking and the view may have contributed to the mounds being built here.
         These mounds are small enough that a relatively small number of people could have thrown them up over a few days. One suggestion is that these were ceremonial mounts built when groups got together to arrange marriages, cement relationships and bury some of their dead. Although mounds are common across America it is only in the upper Midwest that they are built in the shape of animals. Effigies are related to what animals were found in the area, here they were birds and bears in other places turtles, panthers, and lizards.

The mounds are small compared those at places like Cahokia.

       In the early 1800,s 10,000 mounds were recorded, but now fewer than 1000 survive and 200 of them are in this area. Most were simply plowed over so the land could produce productive crops. Little attention was paid by early settlers to the fact that these may have had religious significance to a large group of people. Many people couldn’t believe Indians had been organized enough to have created the larger mounds such as those at Cahokia and believed they must have been constructed by some other group.

There are great views of the Mississippi and its islands from the top of the Five Point Trail.

       As mentioned above the mounds here are small, mostly round ones that were build between 1000 BC to 400 AD when the Late Woodland Indians began making effigy mounds mostly of bears and birds. The larger mounds such as those at Cahokia begun to be made after groups became more settled and had adopted an agricultural way of life growing corn and squash.

More information at

Monday, June 21, 2010

Peru Indian Sites


Machu Picchu and Inca Ruins
       The big tourist attraction in the area of Cusco in the high Andes in Peru is Machu Picchu, the mysterious city of the ancient Incas. For centuries Machu Picchu was buried under jungle foliage but while looking for something else Hiram Bingham found it in 1911. Yale then sent in a archaeological expedition to explore it. It is famous for the large rocks that serve as foundations for the many buildings and the tight fit of the stones in the walls. The mystery is that no knows for sure why it was built, what purpose it served or why it was eventually deserted. It is however, one of the great structures of the world and is probably on the "must see" list of that group of people who feel it necessary to see the Great Wall of China, the Egyptian pyramids and the Taj Mahal.
       After the trip I learned that archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuki who died in 1472.
       We got there the easy way from Cusco: ½ hour by bus, 1 ½ hours by train and another half hour by bus. More hardy souls take a four day, three night hike that can take them as high as 15,000 feet. Teo our guide told us that Incas were very advanced in the use of herbs medicine. They had a drug store in the bush.
       Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca’s power. It was abandoned 100 years later, probably as a result of smallpox brought in by the Spanish. No evidence exists that Spanish ever visited here.
       A boy offered to beat our return bus to the bottom of the mountain and we could see him sliding down the sides as we made our turns on the curves. He was waiting for us when we reached the bottom to collect tips.

My wife Carla and I in a popular photo op.

       We also visited Pisac, another of many Inca ruins in the area. It faces a wall of a mountain that was turned into a cemetery. Corpses were buried in a fetal position in holes in the wall. Grave robbers have looted most of the artifacts that were buried with them. The question of human sacrifice among the Incas was raised. Our guide explained that it was rare among the Incas and was a voluntary gesture on the part of the person sacrificed. This was in contrast to the sacrifices that were done by earlier civilization in which large number of non-volunteers might be killed.
       We found an example of a Inca sacrifice in Lima at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia. When we visited it was packed with families, school kids and others all of whom were creating much din waiting in a long line to see La Dama Del Ampato. She is a 14-year-old-girl who had been sacrificed by the Incas and whose frozen body, almost perfectly preserved, had been knocked lose from its place in the mountains by a volcano in 1995.
       Juanita, the name given her because she was found by a man named John, was trained to be sacrificed and felt it was an honor to be chosen. She ate only vegetables the five days before she died, drank a mixture of coca and crista before she died. She was killed with a sharp blow to the head. She was displayed in a refrigerated room into which only a few people were allowed at a time.
       At the present time she is exhibited at the Museum "Santuarios de Altura,” run by the Catholic University of Santa Maria in Arequipa.

La Dama Del Ampato when she was at the National Museum of Peru

       One day we took a walking tour of Cusco and were shown colonial homes and churches. The most memorable church was one built on a Inca temple site and it was easy to see the Inca work since it was laid so straight and the rocks were cut to perfection in contrast to the Spanish building where the rocks looked poorly laid with much plaster used to hold them together. The tools and measuring instruments have not been found. One theory is that the Spanish destroyed them not knowing what they were or destroyed them as simple tools of a primitive power.

Peru: A Good Destination for Tourists
       After terrorism was put down Peru became a major tourist attraction. With its many ecosystems, life styles, ancient monuments, and hard working people it has much to offer the tourist for minimal costs. Hotels and restaurants are moderately priced and market prices for goods are very low. Like most tour groups we spent some of our time shopping. Alpaca sweaters, belts, hats, jewelry, pots and assorted articles are priced so low it seemed a shame to do the expected bargaining

We became part of a postcard at Machu Picchu.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Peru: The High Andes

Peru: The High Andes

An Inca Village

       On our way to Cusco, Peru, in the high Andes our tour group first visited some of the Inca ruins which abound in the surrounding area. As we passed by the stone archways into the village of Ollantaytambo I felt as if I had just stepped back in time. This is oldest town built by the Incas that is still inhabited and to my eyes not much has changed in the last 500 years. The stones in the buildings are cut to fit tightly together and the walls lean at an angle to prevent damage from earthquakes. A small stream of water runs in a canal down each street, no longer potable; the water speaks of an age when the Incas were master architects.
       We were followed down the narrow streets of the town by children hawking woven articles. They and their mothers were dressed in gaily colored costumes from another century and they posed for pictures with their hands outstretched for the expected tip. As they sat or walked many of the women were spinning yarn on hand spinners or making belts on hand looms.
       Our tour group of 20 invaded one of the many courtyards which branched off the cobbled streets. In one corner a man sat at a loom weaving a tapestry. Like most mountain people he was short with strong looking legs and a large chest capable of getting the most oxygen out of the thin air. He is evolution's solution to living on steep mountains above 9000 feet. He doesn't bother to look up at us.
       The fifty foot square yard was surrounded by living quarters, large rooms really, in which extended families live. We accepted an invitation to come into one and found ourselves in a large, semi-dark room with a 16 foot ceiling made of rushes and branches with the sun peeping through. Our guide explained that even in the rainy season the water never reaches the floor.
       It was difficult to avoid stepping on the multi colored guinea pigs massed on the floor. There is no refrigeration of food so they were awaiting their turn to be served as dinner some day in the near future. A niche in the wall held the family worship center with flowers, a candle, a small doll and most strikingly, grampa's skull. He is staring blank eyed at what is happening to his posterity.

No refrigeration so the locals keep live guinea pigs around as part of their food supply.

       Back on the street we saw that it was a poor day for business; there were more Incas selling things than there were buyers. There were many persistent children. I asked how big the families were. Our guide said that in this area they are moderately sized since the women have good control over their fertility. He explains that Inca women have a plant they use which works as birth control. They start taking it when they have as many children as they want and if they take it long enough they become permanently infertile.

Street scenes from the village Ollantaytamhbo in Peru’s high Andes.

Peruvian Civilization
       For over 3,000 years Peruvians have been making pottery, weaving cloth, building large edifices and conquering territory. There has been an interesting ebb and flow of states, small nations being combined into big ones which fall apart into small nations which again combine under strong leadership into a large nation. This civilization reached a peak under the Incas who conquered territory that included over a third of South America and rivaled in size the largest kingdoms that have ever existed in any part of the world.
       Unlike the Spanish who conquered them in 1532 the Inca respected the religion of the conquered people and conquered by many means. Sword and shield was the last step. Much of the building we saw was done as a form of taxation in which conquered people were required to perform two months work constructing roads, public buildings and storehouses for food.

Problems at 10,000 feet
       We were at 9000 feet headed for 11,500 in Cusco. At this altitude a number of us were showing signs of altitude sickness; headache, tiredness, insomnia and loss of appetite. Having a head cold didn't help. The Incas when tired and hungry chew coca leaves, from which cocaine is made. It was recommended that we drink coca tea to help adjust to the altitude and most people found it helped them. I found I had to take a Diamox.
       Even at 11,000 feet the crops growing on the Inca built terraces looked green and hearty. The Incas experimented with a wide varieties of different crops to find the ones that were best for each altitude. For example, they had two hundred different kinds of potatoes.

The slopes in the high Andes are often difficult for the Incas to work.

       In the Cusco region there are two seasons, rainy and dry. September to April is rainy the other season has frost so there is only one harvest a year. Because of the altitude the farmers must depend totally on rain and because they can not use irrigation as they can do in much of the country. Slopes are difficult to work. They have few animals, machines can work the steep mountain sides so labor is mostly human as they are using techniques developed by the Incas. For them soil and water was more important than gold and silver.
       They can predict the amount of rain they will get in season by watching such signs as the nesting patterns of local birds. They then set up their terraces accordingly to control for erosion and the amount of water they direct to an area. To avoid drought and frost problems they used only resident plants and plant different varieties of some plants. No chemicals or pesticides are used on their crops and they begin plantings at different times. They learned to dry potatoes by leaving them in the ground while it alternately froze and thawed.

The locals have short powerful legs and large lungs,
 evolutions solution to living at 10,000 feet.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mexico's Tarasco Indians


       Everywhere in Mexico, you will find folk art and handmade crafts for sale - in the streets, in markets and galleries and from vendors who approach people reading on a bench or drinking coffee in a sidewalk cafe.
       I saw some of the best of these crafts when I was spending a sabbatical semester in Morelia, Mexico, a historic city on the high mesa between Mexico City and Guadalajara. I lived with a physician and his family who spoke only Spanish, giving me an opportunity to inflict my attempts at conversation on a compassionate audience.
       At one point after my wife, Carla, had visited me, the master of the casa took me aside to caution me that my marriage would get into trouble if I didn’t learn to use the command voice necessary in talking to women and children. Later, my psychologist wife wryly informed me that some well-intended advice is better not taken.
       Besides taking courses in Spanish language and Mexican cooking, I also was studying Mexican anthropology. As part of the latter course, the class visited a number of the craft villages within easy driving distance of Morelia.
       Craft villages? The concept had been completely new to me. These were towns or villages specializing in one handicraft. For example, Capula, a small town near Morelia, produces a low-fired pottery with designs formed with many tiny dots. Aranza made lace; Huetamo, gold objects; Paracho, guitars and chess sets; Tzintzuntzan, pottery; Santa Clara copper products; and Nurio, woven woolen goods. At least a dozen of these villages exist. How had this come to be? What had caused them to decide to specialize?
       For hundreds of years, the area now called Michoacan had been the home of the Tarasco Indians. They had developed an advanced society, successfully resisting being dominated by the Aztecs. They had developed a number of methods of working with the copper, silver and gold in the area and were already masters of pottery and weaving.
       The Tarascos, however, were no match for the Spanish and were not only conquered but subjected to a reign of terror under Nuno Beltran de Guzman. Many of the Tarascos were tortured, worked to death in the fields and mines or simply hunted down and killed before word got back to Spain about what was happening. Guzman was arrested and spent the rest of his life in prison.
       Salvation for the Tarascos came in the form of Vasco de Quiroga, appointed bishop of the province in 1537. He was interested in developing a utopia and saw this area as the place to establish it.
       Besides religious education, he brought them additional instruction in arts and crafts that built on the skills they had already developed. The bishop then assigned a craft to each village. Those assignments endure.
       The skills they developed in the 1500s have been passed down, and the members of these villages are considered among the most skillful crafters in Mexico. The work is still done with hand tools and techniques handed down through the centuries.
       As I watched them work in various villages, I wondered how often someone who had the natural talent to be a great goldsmith had been born in a guitar-making village or, even worse, one that made only objects of straw.
        To my knowledge, none of these crafters became rich, but it was a living. Now, however, there are problems. Chinese factories can easily make pots, guitars and woven fabrics much cheaper than the Mexicans can with their traditional hand methods. I’m told we might not be able to take advantage of these centuries-old traditions much longer, as many artisans are closing shop and moving to the large cities.
       For those who don’t have time to see the villages, the state-run Casa de Las Artesanías in Morelia has a great collection of reasonably priced pottery and folk art.