Challenging the Fiesta de Santa Fe

entrada_2016

The Fiesta de Santa Fe is a fascinating example of an invented and evolving tradition.  Its historic roots date to 1712, when the Hispanic residents of Santa Fe came together to celebrate the Reconquest of Santa Fe in 1692 by don Diego de Vargas.  A general uprising of Pueblo communities in 1680, famously led by an Indian named Popé, resulted in numerous Spanish deaths and the evacuation of most of New Mexico by Spanish colonists.  De Vargas returned with a military force in 1692.  The first phase of the Reconquest was fairly peaceful, but by 1693 conflicts between Spaniards and Pueblo people had erupted and continued for years.  The Reconquest, in other words, was not nearly as peaceful as advocates of today’s Fiesta assert.  (Details of the Reconquest are available in a summary provided by the Office of the New Mexico State Historian.)

The Fiesta was primarily a religious event through much of its early history, although it went through various changes as control of New Mexico shifted from Spain to Mexico and then to the United States in 1846.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Fiesta had fallen onto hard times and was apparently abandoned in 1912.  In 1919 a revival was spearheaded by SAR’s president, Edgar Lee Hewett.  Hewett’s goals were multi-faceted.  He and other members of the Anglo elite wanted to celebrate all of the region’s cultures while promoting Santa Fe’s commercial aspirations.  Hewett’s efforts to control the increasingly elaborate event generated resistance by Santa Fe’s artist community, who organized counter-events that parodied the seriousness of Hewett’s version of the Fiesta.

In subsequent years Fiesta seemed to have returned to its original roots primarily as a celebration of Santa Fe’s Hispanic heritage.  As Native American militancy intensified, however, local Pueblo leaders began to protest the whitewashed portrayal of the Reconquest.  There protests are voiced in a powerful documentary, Gathering Up Again: The Fiesta in Santa Fe (dir. Jeanette DeBouzek and Diane Reyna, 1992).

The 2015 Fiesta, especially the so-called Entrada or arrival of a mounted dignitary representing de Vargas as he enters the plaza to retake Santa Fe, generated fierce criticism from Native American quarters.  These became much more marked in 2016, when raucous protests forced the horsemen representing de Vargas and his assistants to dismount.

Dignitaries dressed as Spanish conquistadores attempt to ride through a crowd of protesters during the 2016 Entrada in front of the Palace of the Governors.
Dignitaries dressed as Spanish conquistadores attempt to ride through a crowd of protesters during the 2016 Entrada in front of the Palace of the Governors.
Police observers in military camo keep an eye on the Entrada protest.
Police observers in military camo keep an eye on the Entrada protest.

On September 17, an editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican made a case for conversations between Hispanos and Indians that could change the event in ways that would bring the community closer to together.  It remains to be seen whether this will happen.

This year’s protests put a sympathetic outsider in an awkward position.  Fiesta is an occasion when Santa Fe’s Hispanos can express pride in their cultural heritage, which in the case of New Mexico has produced one of the most distinctive and in many ways admirable regional cultures in the U.S.  At the same time, Native Americans can legitimately protest a public ritual that misrepresents the brutality and imperialism of the Reconquest.   The conflict is further complicated by the many threads of history, family, and religion that unite the two communities.  Still, Fiesta has adapted to new realities over its long history, and there’s reason to be optimistic that it can change yet again in response to the vitality of Santa Fe’s multicultural civic life.


Sources on la Fiesta de Santa Fe:

–A short article in New Mexico Magazine.

–Don’t miss a charming and informative El Palacio article by Carmella Padilla that describes a painting by the artist Gustave Baumann that playfully documents the Fiesta parade as performed on the Santa Fe plaza in 1926.

–For details of SAR’s pivotal role in the revitalization of Fiesta in the 1920s, a good source is Nancy Owen Lewis and Kay Leigh Hagan, A Peculiar Alchemy: A Centennial History of SAR, 2007.

–Ronald L. Grimes, Symbol and Conquest: Public Ritual and Drama in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2nd ed., 2013. Grimes has produced an album of seven videos about the fiesta. In addition, two chapters of his recent book, The Craft of Ritual Studies. are about the fiesta. The book discusses Sarah Horton’s The Santa Fe Fiesta, Reinvented, as well as Jenny Debouzek’s 1992 documentary, Gathering up Again: Fiesta in Santa Fe.

–Sarah Bronwen Horton, The Santa Fe Fiesta, Reinvented, 2010.


Update, September 22, 2016:  Distinguished SAR alumnus Estevan Rael-Gálvez published an excellent comment on the Fiesta situation in the Santa Fe New Mexican on 9/17.

Protecting Cultural Patrimony: The Debates Continue

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and NM tribal leaders at a July 2016 press conference held to publicize the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, which has been submitted to the US Congress. Source: http://www.heinrich.senate.gov.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and NM tribal leaders at a July 2016 press conference held to publicize the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, which has been submitted to the US Congress. Source: http://www.heinrich.senate.gov.

Laws, policies, and attitudes about cultural heritage–especially the heritage of indigenous peoples–continue to evolve, largely in the direction of acknowledging past injuries and formulating protection strategies for the present and future.

It’s fair to say that relevant policies are somewhat easier to develop when dealing with material goods such as human remains and objects of religious significance.  These can only exist in one place at a time (unless they’ve been replicated digitally), which means that in principle they can be returned to the control of the communities that created them.  This process is made more complicated by global trade, a problem that has come to public attention as a result of recent attempts to auction Native American religious items in Paris.  These auctions sparked a public outcry in the United States, but thus far efforts to stop such sales have had only partial success.  This unfortunate situation has prompted US lawmakers, with the full support of Native American leaders, to draft S. 3127: Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act of 2016, currently under review by the relevant congressional committees.  If passed, this law would would increase penalties for the exportation of items of Native American cultural patrimony obtained illegally.  Whether this bill will gain traction in a deadlocked Congress remains to be seen.

A couple of recent publications that frame the broader problem of cultural theft and appropriation are worthy of mention. One is the Texas Law Review essay, “Owning Red: A Theory of Indian (Cultural) Appropriation” (2016) by prominent Native American legal scholars Angela R. Riley and Kristen A. Carpenter, which is downloadable here.  Riley and Carpenter attempt to formulate a unitary approach to understanding and dealing with cultural appropriation.  They recognize that this isn’t easy because claims to intangible property are, in their words “particularly fraught.”  Native Americans, they observe, tend to see intangible heritage as indistinguishable from material heritage even though Anglo-American law treats intellectual property differently from real and personal property.

Riley and Carpenter frame their analysis within the long history of appropriation of Indian resources by the United States.  They explore a number of familiar cases, including the ongoing legal tussle over the name of the Washington, DC, football team.  (Although they see the latter as part of a long history of appropriation, it seems to me  more persuasively treated as a case of defamation.)  In the end–and perhaps surprisingly for legal scholars–they don’t see law as the solution to some forms of appropriation.  Native people, they insist, are mostly calling “not for laws, but for understanding and education,” including respect from the dominant society.

A shorter op-ed piece, “The Problem with Heritage,” has just been published in the anthropology website Sapiens by Joe Watkins.  Watkins is a Native American anthropologist with vast experience in the legal and cultural complexities of repatriation, but his approach in this essay is more global, touching upon cases such as the intentional destruction of historic sites in Mali by Islamic extremists. “So when does heritage become a matter of grave concern? When one group uses it as a weapon against another, or possesses it when it’s important to another, or destroys it for political purposes.”  (In March 2016 Joe Watkins participated in a panel discussion about repatriation sponsored by SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center.)


Watkins bluntly states, “Heritage is a property—something that is passed down from previous generations.” This is a defensible claim in the context of his essay.  But exactly what kind of property is it?  Most property is reasonably stable, with well defined limits.  Some elements of heritage may enjoy such stability; others may not.  And what are its boundaries?  Apparently they are whatever the community of origin says they are at any given moment.  To what extent, if any, is heritage “non-rivalrous” in the sense that one group’s identification of an element of heritage doesn’t preclude other groups from embracing it as well?  Which members of a given community are qualified to anoint elements of heritage as cultural patrimony?

Another perennial problem in heritage debates is presentism, the judgment of past actions by the moral standards of a later time.  Looking forward, it’s not unlikely that an object or cultural production considered an item of commerce today will, at some later point in a group’s history, be redefined as “cultural patrimony.”  This is evident in the way that some European nations pass laws to prevent the export of great works of art that despite their commercial origin are now closely identified with British or French or Italian heritage.  Closer to home, developers in New Mexico sometimes find themselves pitted against local preservationists committed to protecting the remnants of Route 66, which to them represents a form of shared American heritage.

I’ve heard art dealers complain that the proposed STOP legislation doesn’t protect them from the possibility that objects legally purchased or sold today will at some point in the future be redefined as the cultural patrimony of the Indian nation that produced them, thus compromising the objects’ market value.  In my view this isn’t a powerful enough argument to warrant opposing the legislation.  That said, it’s not an entirely meritless concern.

The fast-growing field of Heritage Studies needs deep thinking about the essential qualities and limits of cultural patrimony.  The unanswered questions about patrimony shouldn’t stand in the way of progressive policies and legislation designed to prevent further injustice.  Nevertheless, until the field produces a comprehensive theory of cultural patrimony, cultural protection laws will be built on an inherently unstable foundation.

When modernity stumbles: An airline saga

SWA chaosAs many social theorists have pointed out, key characteristics of modernity include the reorganization of space and time, the precise coordination of productive processes, and the rationalizing impact of money.  We take these processes for granted and perceive them as “natural” until the system fails, revealing how precarious these integrated networks are beneath their veneer of order.

I and 250,000 other airline passengers experienced this on July 20-21 when Southwest Airlines’ computer system experienced a catastrophic meltdown.  The source of this collapse and the failure of the company’s backup systems have not to my knowledge been revealed in much detail.  And in reality the why didn’t much matter to me and, I suspect, most of the passengers who found themselves camped out in airports with no flights available for many hours and in some cases days.  What we knew is that the system was in collapse, Southwest ground personnel seemed as uninformed as the rest of us, and the cascading failure spread from the airline in all directions to include car rental agencies and hotels.

Here’s my saga.

Albany (ALB), 7/20,  2100 hrs, ET.   My evening flight to Albuquerque with a connection at Chicago Midway is running late.  No big deal.  Ground personnel in Albany announce that there is a computer “problem” but that most of our connecting flights are running late, too, suggesting that when we get to Chicago, most of us will make our connections.  Some of them may know or suspect that the computer systems are down and that the finely tuned coordination of Southwest’s flight system would most unlikely unravel.  But no one suggests that we return home and fly after the mess is cleaned up.

Chicago (MDW), 7/20, 2215 hrs CT.  Chaos in the terminal.  The list of canceled flights, including mine, scrolls by endlessly.  There’s a long line to a gate desk, and I get in it with a few others from my flight, although there are no Southwest personnel working the halls to explain where we should queue and for what.  Two hours pass and I’m still probably 90 minutes away from reaching a Southwest staff member.  Comments from passengers who make it to the front of the line indicate that it’s pointless to wait because the computers aren’t working well and there are no flights to transfer to, now or tomorrow.  (Later it’s revealed that Southwest has canceled 700 flights that day, which must represent–what?–at least 100.000 passengers.)  Southwest personnel are giving away bags of peanuts and bottles of water but no information.  There are rumored to be cots and blankets available in Terminal A.  My fellow passengers seem surprisingly cheerful or at least resigned. Presumably Southwest flight crews have hit their FAA-determined service limit and are forced to rest.  No other crews are available to replace them.

What to do?  Wait around and hope that something opens up?  Head for a hotel and come back in a few days?  Take a midnight cab to O’Hare and pray that another airline can accommodate me?  A riddle.

swa-passengers

Then I discover, more or less by accident, that a Southwest flight to Denver is departing and that it has a couple of seats available.  To my astonishment, I’m allowed to board even though the maimed system can produce no boarding passes.  What the heck; Denver gets me within driving distance of Santa Fe, my ultimate destination.

Denver International (DEN), 7/21, 0230 hrs MT.  Hundreds of passengers are wandering around like survivors of a zombie apocalypse.  A courteous Southwest employee tells me that there might be a seat on a flight to Albuquerque in 10 hours.  Maybe.  (I later learned that this flight was canceled, along with 450 others on 7/21.)   OK, I think, time for a rental car and a motel room.  There’s one room left at the airport hotel, a Westin.  $575 plus tax, I’m told, which is above my pay grade.  The nice desk clerk at the Westin, who has little else to do at 0300 hrs, tells me that every hotel room within twenty miles of Denver International is booked.  Worse still, every rental car in the airport has been snapped up by evacuating Southwest passengers, a story that I confirm by calling the toll-free numbers of three rental companies, after which I give up.  At this point I feel not like the survivor of a zombie apocalypse but like one of the zombies.

Last ditch strategy: American Airlines has ticket agents in the check-in area at 0400 hrs.  One tells me that there’s a seat available on a United  flight to Albuquerque leaving at 0755 hrs.  The flight, which lasts about an hour, costs considerably more than my entire round-trip ticket on Southwest.  But I purchase it without hesitation.

Albuquerque (ABQ), 7/21, 0930 hrs MT.  On the ground in New Mexico and headed for a shower and sleep in Santa Fe.  My luggage isn’t there of course.  It is delivered to me 36 hours later in Santa Fe on a day when Southwest canceled 250 more flights.

Lessons?  For me the lesson is not that Southwest is an incompetent airline, although it arguably should shake up its IT staff until they can make its systems suitably robust.  I actually like Southwest: its simplicity and democracy and the absence of Mickey Mouse fees and the ability to change flights without penalty and its transparent frequent-flyer program.  It doesn’t promise more than it (usually) delivers, which I guess is consistent with the fact that so far it hasn’t  offered compensation commensurate with the financial harm that I and many other passengers suffered.

To a social scientist the Southwest meltdown is an inevitable expression of capitalist logic, the unceasing effort to squeeze more profit out of operations.  For Southwest this has given its shareholders 160 consecutive quarterly dividends.  How does it obtain these profits?  Among other things, it gins up a high load factor (87 percent average occupancy in June 2016 and close to 100 percent on most of the flights I’ve been on in recent months).  It tightens up its flight turnaround times to keep its expensive planes in the air generating revenue.  All that’s fine until there’s a hiccup in the system, with ripple effects that can last for days.  After all, if your planes are already full, you have a limited capacity to re-book passengers when a flight is canceled.  When you cancel a thousand flights, the system totally seizes up.  This is an inevitable result of designing your system for profit rather than robustness—the ability to adapt successfully to the challenges of a complex, unpredictable world.

Social change (millenarian and otherwise) in Amazonian societies

Depiction of Juan Santos Atahualpa and Asháninka warriors expelling Franciscans, 1740s

A decade ago I participated in a small international symposium focused on indigenous peoples and their strategies for cultural survival.  When someone suggested that it might be useful to undertake a systematic comparison of these strategies, a prominent scholar in the group announced sententiously that comparison is inherently colonialist.  There being no one in the room who wanted to be suspected of colonialist leanings, comparison was swept off the table.

Comparison’s status remains low in cultural anthropology, and yet it is hard to imagine a meaningful or useful anthropology that completely abandons it.  Although comparison may be disparaged in some quarters, anthropologists continue to traffic in generalizing terms (“neoliberal,” for instance, or even “colonialism” itself) that cry out for comparative attention—and sometimes manage to get it.

So it was with considerable pleasure that I recently read “Conflict, Peace, and Social Reform in Indigenous Amazonia: A Deflationary Account,” an essay by Carlos Fausto, Caco Xavier, and Elena Welper (trans. by David Rodgers) published in the journal Common Knowledge (downloadable here).

Fausto et al. grapple with an important question: is there a middle ground between classifications of Amazonian social movements as millenarian or messianic, terminology read by some scholars as implying that social actors are irrational, and strictly political readings of these movements based on the conviction that the people swept up in them must be seen as rational actors?  Fausto and his co-authors shift the focus from dramatic, revolutionary change to what they call “more finely grained processes,” the “deflationary” element in their article’s subtitle.

[Full disclosure: As Fausto et al. note, the contrast between religiously and politically motivated social movements was central to a 2003 article by Hanne Veber that questioned arguments made in a book that I co-authored with Eduardo Fernández, War of Shadows.  WoS traced messianic currents in Asháninka social movements and uprisings over a period of more than two centuries.  Veber contended that studies such as ours exoticize Asháninka motivations, which in her view were strictly political.  Where our book is concerned, her argument is flawed for two principal reasons: (1) We never claimed that the movements were only religious; and (2) Veber’s assertions violate the ethnographic principle that one should take the statements of one’s interlocutors seriously unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary.  So when Asháninka participants in a 1965 uprising said, as they did to Eduardo Fernández on multiple occasions,  “Some of us thought that the guerrilla leader was the Son of the Sun,” Fernández and I felt obliged to honor their view.  This debate is ancient history, and I mention it only to contextualize the essay under consideration, which challenges the notion that religion and politics are always distinguishable categories or frames of reference.]

Fausto et al. attempt to escape the straitjacket of a resistance-focused subaltern perspective that leads to a stripping out of every factor other than the narrowly political: “If one may suspect that a past religious discourse is merely a varnish hiding more fundamental motivations of power, one equally may suspect that our present-day political vocabulary is no more than a varnish hiding more fundamental conceptions about being and agency (which is to say, an ontology).”

Their analysis then reviews in considerable detail several cases of indigenous Amazonian social change in Brazil: among Parakanã of the Xingu-Tocantins; Marubo of the Javari Valley, Amazonas; and Koripako of the Upper Rio Negro.  Two of the cases had strongly religious dimensions, either shamanic or Christian.  But all three were reformist in nature, with results that have served their communities well in later years.

Comparison of these three beautifully documented cases echoes a point that I made some time ago in the context of a similar comparative project: that Amazonian revitalization movements should in some cases be seen as indigenous auto-critique rather than solely as expressions of resistance to colonialism.  But Fausto et al. bring to this observation a more sophisticated and nuanced perspective as well as the benefit of fresh case-study material.  “[W]e need to avoid the Eurocentric illusion that history and social change befall indigenous peoples only when they are subjected to the encroachments of nonindigenous society,” they assert.  Indigenous peoples, in other words, make their own history by asking questions such as “How shall we live?” and then putting the answers into practice.

In works such as this we see the enduring value of comparison and its vital role in countering colonialist assumptions.   If you’re interested in Amazonian history, social movements, or theories of agency, this essay belongs on your summer reading list.



A related article co-authored by Fausto and Emmanuel de Vienne, “Acting Translation: Ritual and Prophetism in Twenty-First Century Indigenous Amazonia” (2014), can be downloaded full-text from the journal HAU.

Ayahuasca update

Ayahuasca_prep
Ayahuasca being prepared with Psychotria viridis.  Source: Wikimedia Commons; Awkipuma, CC BY 3.0, 2010.

Time for contributing to his blog has been scarce in recent weeks.  This post simply catches up on some developments related to the growing use of ayahuasca and related entheogens for religious and therapeutic purposes in different parts of the world.

UDV in Santa Fe.  The União do Vegetal (UDV) Temple in Santa Fe, New Mexico, officially opened a few weeks ago after years of legal wrangling.  Its inauguration is documented by the Brazilian anthropologist Bia Labate in an article in the Huffington Post in late April.  In classic participant-observer fashion, Labate describes herself as “enjoying, alongside the members of the UDV, the pleasant taste of justice, freedom, and victory.”  A story not to be missed.

When ayahuasca lands on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, you know that something is going on.  The article, by Ryan Dube, includes obligatory references to ayahuasca sessions that have resulted in violence or psychological injury, but it generally avoids sensationalism.  As Dube notes, the explosive growth of centers oriented to international ayahuasca tourism in Peru’s jungle cities––Iquitos and Tarapoto most prominently––is both good for the local economy and a happy hunting ground for opportunistic shysters.  Even as I write, doctoral dissertations are being written about ayahuasca tourism and its effects.

Apropos of which, I recently corresponded with Miroslav Horák of Brno University, who has authored a report on a Tarapoto-based drug-treatment facility that uses ayahuasca as part of its treatment regimen.  The report, entitled The House of Song: Rehabilitation of Drug Addicts by the Traditional Indigenous Medicine of the Peruvian Amazon, is available for full-text download  (4.7 MB) from Horák’s Academia.edu page.


On a completely different note, don’t miss Indian Country Today‘s extensive coverage of a recent series of SAR public talks on the future of repatriation 25 years after the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

UPDATE TO THE UPDATEI was contacted by Ricardo D’Aguiar, a freelance videographer and producer, about his documentary about ayahuasca therapy in Tarapoto.  Most definitely worth a look!

Here’s Ricardo’s description of the video and relevant links to view the trailer and the complete documentary:

The film presents the work of the research & treatment center Takiwasi based in the High Amazon region of Peru. Founded in 1986 by French, Japanese and Peruvian doctors, Takiwasi uses Traditional Amazonian Medicine combined with Western psychology to achieve a high success rate in the treatment of severe drug addiction, depression and other psychological ailments. Patients from around the globe as well as from the local community seek Takiwasi which also offers seminars for self-exploration and spiritual research. Takiwasi relies on a interdisciplinary, multinational staff of both western-trained professionals and traditional healers from around the region which is notorious for producing some of the greatest curanderos of the Amazon. The center has developed a unique approach of integration and articulation between Western science and traditional methods to produce a therapeutic protocol focused on long term, sustainable results for its patients.”

Trailer
https://vimeo.com/149336882

Full film
https://vimeo.com/146340483


ANOTHER UPDATE, 9/5/2016

Now in distribution: The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies.  Edited by Edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Clancy Cavnar,  and Alex K. Gearin.  An excerpt from Glenn Shepard’s forward is available here.

ayahuasca_changeyourlife

Digital Awajún

NuwaThe rapid improvement and falling price of electronic equipment have put video in the hands of indigenous peoples worldwide and made it easier for film crews of modest means—whether indigenous or not—to document native  music, stories, rituals, and political aspirations.

In Amazonia, work on this front was pioneered by the late Terry Turner, who introduced video equipment and training to the Brazilian Kayapó, who use it to document their culture and fight for their rights to land and a voice in Brazilian politics.

The Awajún of Peru have been uploading videos to YouTube for at least a decade.   Based on my admittedly unsystematic survey, I’d say that a solid majority of these are music videos showcasing Awajún rock bands specializing in música tropical, especially cumbias.   (See this one from the Alto Mayo community of Shimpiyacu, for example.)  None of these are strong candidates for an MTV video award, and I’m not sure that they provide much reassurance that the Awajún are protecting their traditional heritage—but then young Hopis of Arizona have long been fans of reggae, which hasn’t prevented their Indian nation from being one of the most religiously conservative in North America.

In the last few years, however, some video material focused on other aspects of Awajún life has begun to emerge.  The production quality varies but appears to be improving.

The 30-minute video Awajúnti Takatji, “Awajun Style,” includes songs, myths, and views of everyday life in the community of Chipe-Cuzu.  A shorter video entitled Yumi (“Water”) focuses on the environmental threat to Awajún territory posed by government-approved mining activities.  For hard-hitting indigenous political messages, it’s hard to beat this raw but effective video that draws on rap music and images of violence taken during and after El Baguazo (2009).


A recent Paris Review interview of Sarah Thomason, a linguist on the faculty of the University of Michigan, focuses on “language leakage”—how words move from one language to another, or don’t—as well as the factors that cause languages to persist or respond positively to efforts to renew them.

I’m no longer close enough to the pragmatics of spoken Awajún to comment on how the language is dealing with new lexical demands (names of car parts, say, or terms used when working with computers), but I remain cautiously optimistic about prospects for continued use of the language in general.  The Awajún were among the earliest groups to work with missionary-linguists of SIL/WBT, and bilingualism has been central to Awajún primary education since the late 1940s.  Their cultural pride and large population bode well for the language’s viability in the immediate future.  It’s harder to say how the language will fare farther along, however.  Even large Indian nations in the United States—notably, the Navajo—struggle to ensure that young people continue to speak their native language.

IdiomaAwajunA short video demonstration of spoken Awajún, part of a series called “Todas las voces,” is available here.  Among the increasingly educated Awajún there is ongoing debate about whether the Awajún alphabet developed by SIL effectively represents the language’s sound system.  Fermín Tiwi Paati, a young Awajún intellectual whom I interviewed for Upriver in 2012, discusses proposed alternatives here.

It wouldn’t surprise me if within the next five years or so there begin to emerge Awajún videos with higher production values and more ambitious goals.  Like many expressions of modernity, the rise of globally accessible media is a double-edged sword for Amazonian peoples.  It exposes them to powerful outside images and ideas that may lead young people away from traditional values and modes of expression.  At the same time, it potentially offers small indigenous communities the opportunity to communicate their experience and aspirations to a global audience.


Minor Awajún-related media footnote.  A 54-minute feature film about the life of Church of the Nazarene missionaries Roger and Esther Winans, The Calling, is now available on YouTube thanks to the Oklahoma Historical Society.  Roger Winans established the first Protestant mission among the Awajún in the 1920s.  The video was made from worn 16mm film, and everything about it is low-budget.  Still, it expresses a particular moment in Awajún (and U.S.) history.  The Awajún portion begins at about the 30-minute mark.

Is your attention span too short to get you through this blog post?


Short Attention Span Bar & Grill...Happy moment, 5ish!
Short Attention Span Bar & Grill…Happy moment, 5ish!

There’s a point at which political communication speeds past the last stop where democratic deliberation, the genuine consent of the governed, is possible.  An instant poll, of that sort that pops up on your screen while you’re attempting to read debate coverage, encourages snap and solitary judgment, the very opposite of what’s necessary for the exercise of good citizenship.--Jill Lepore, “The Party Crashers,” The New Yorker, 2/22/2016.

If you’re an American, you’re probably tired of the incessant nattering about presidential politics that is all one can find on  CNN, MSNBC, and Fox during this season of party primaries.  And we’re still months away from the actual election.  At the same time, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off the slow-motion train-wreck that U.S. politics has become.

A quick glance at serious journalism reveals a long list of explanations for why this is happening: the corrupting influence of moneyed political-action groups; the fragmentation of media, which invites people to pay attention only to those sources of information that pander to their prejudices; the hyperbolic End Times rhetoric of the 21st century Republican party; the anxiety or simmering rage of working- and middle-class Americans who feel, with considerable justification, that they are being abandoned by our social system, and so on.  All of these theories have a degree of merit.

Our current political reality is, as the mandarins of social theory like to say, “overdetermined.”  Still, I often cycle back to the allegation that promoting much of this chaos is our declining attention span, which produces an unwillingness  to ponder and assess the claims that politicians of both parties make during their campaigns, to think slowly and deeply about the character of the men and women who are asking for our votes.  No one seems to care that the tax-cutting schemes pitched by candidates on the right are, when appraised carefully by economists, judged certain to increase the national debt far beyond its present lamentable state.  However much one may admire Bernie Sanders, how plausible is it that the policies he advocates can provide a free college education for every American who desires one?

Aspects of the claim that new media are changing human cognition were explored prominently in Neil Postman’s prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) and in a somewhat different way by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2011).  And it’s not just the Internet: cinema studies have shown that since 1930 the average shot length has declined from 12 seconds to 2.5.   This process attracted public attention (for only a nanosecond or so) with the publication of a study purporting to show that goldfish have a longer attention span than humans.


I was obliged to think about this recently when the organization I direct undertook a revision of its mission statement.  The statement I inherited ran to nearly 120 words and consisted of long, boggy phrases that were mostly lists of things we did and for whom.  To be fair, the organization has an unusually complicated mission that reflects a complex history.  We run academic seminars, manage anthropology’s biggest book award, steward a spectacular collection of Native American art from the Southwest, offer resident fellowships for scholars and Indigenous artists, etc., etc.  It’s thus not easy to come up with a concise statement of the mission that would be suitable for the legendary “elevator pitch.”  The elevator pitch, I gather, emerged from Silicon Valley and refers to the thirty seconds or so in which entrepreneurial supplicants must convince a venture capitalist to provide them with millions of dollars to turn an idea into a viable business.

With the help of several board members, I drafted a punchier version of the mission statement that was about half the length of the original.  It was duly approved by the full board.  Yet even before the digital ink was dry, a visiting team of investment consultants had scornfully dismissed the new, shorter statement as unacceptably long.  A study of mission statements insists, based on a review of 50 prominent non-profits, that their average length is 15.3 words (“excluding brand references”) and that the top 20 examples average only 9.5 words.  The winner is TED, whose mission statement consists of two words, “Spreading Ideas.”  OK, but what kind of ideas?  To whom are they spread and how?  Does anything happen after these ideas are disseminated, or does TED simply move on to the next?  A mystery.

Reflecting on this comparative work, I’m prompted to ask, Why should a complex institution be expected—indeed, required—to account for more than a century of history in ten words or less?  The main reason seems to be the brevity of attention spans in a noisy world of competing claims.  Persons and institutions are now reduced to “brands” not unlike breakfast cereals.  Attention must be captured quickly before the consumer/potential donor moves on to the next shiny box on the shelf.  Failure to formulate a pitch capable of grabbing this attention is now seen as evidence of institutional disarray or incompetence.

No surprise, then, that politics and many other arenas of modern life have been reduced to a marketplace of slogans that have powerful emotive force (“I’m a true conservative.”  “Make America great again.”) without evoking deeper questions about the why, the how, the when.

Which suggests that I’ve got work to do to improve this blog.  My honest if unstated mission statement would be something like “Stuff I write to amuse myself at 5 a.m. before another day of strategic planning meetings and reviewing fund-drive spreadsheets” (20 words).  That clearly won’t do.  How about “Making anthropology great again!” or “Traveling upriver to profound truths”?  Not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.


On the ecology of attention, don’t miss a smart essay published in the Pacific Standard on February 23, 2016:  Caleb Caldwell, “A Better Way of Talking about Attention Loss.

This site offers information about the book UPRIVER (Harvard UP, 2014), other books by Michael F. Brown, issues related to Amazonian peoples, events at the School for Advanced Research–Santa Fe, and occasional meditations on anthropology and human social life in general.

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