Twice I have gone on tours of ancient sites that were led by the descendants of the original people, and both times it was a much different experience than tours led by earnest park rangers who talked about history as if it was in the past.

We were in Belize and took a tour of some Mayan ruins. Our guide talked about what we were going to see and the importance of preserving these sites. At one point he remarked on the mysterious vanishing of the Mayan people and their great civilization and you could feel the energy in the group, yes so sad and mysterious. What happened to them?  He then pointed at a nearby construction worker and said “Oh look! I found one. Mayan people are still building things.”  And what happened to them and their great civilization?

The Spanish. The Spanish happened to them.

On another trip we had stopped at Mesa Verde, a national park in the southwestern US filled with cliff dwellings, also mysteriously empty. Abandoned by the long passed Anasazi people whoever they were. Our guide, Ute and Navajo, similarly played up the mysterious vanishing of these people and then broke character and asked if we’d ever been to Detroit. People move, he said, and directed us to the next location.  He later explained that these people were his ancestors. That the sites showed signs of being abandoned and then returned to over several periods of time and that in a desert climate you went to where the water was. And what happened to them?

It’s the southwestern US. The Spanish happened to them too.

I don’t know a lot about the history of Central and South America. I know that the Spanish colonized them while the English and French (and Dutch and others) colonized most of North America. On the same trip that we had stopped in Mesa Verde we travelled through Colorado and Utah as well as northern Nevada and I was surprised to find a Mexican restaurants and cultural artifacts so far north, so I googled it and turns out that the Spanish colonial power had actually reached quite far north, much farther than I had known.

We forget sometimes that Spain was also a colonial power. So much anti-Mexican rhetoric and racism in Anglo America has lumped everyone into one Latin context and in her book Fresh Banana Leaves, Dr. Jessica Hernandez takes us through that history and the way that settler colonialism works differently in the global south. Similarly, because settler colonialism is a particular framework that destroys in order to replace, but it doesn’t look the same across the board because it depends, as she points out, on who settled there. It depends on who colonized that space.

And hierarchies work differently in different places too. Aurora Levins Morales writes about this, how she is positioned in a place of privilege in Puerto Rico but not in Chicago. In Puerto Rico she has white privilege because of where she sits in the racial hierachy but in Chicago she is just another Latin migrant. She hasn’t changed, but that’s how bordering regimes work. They change who you are to suit the needs of those in power.

Which brings me to The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere by Dr. Paulette Steeves which I had the privilege of reading ahead of publication.  I’d seen somebody mention it on Twitter and since my own book deals with creation stories and pre-history, and since my only sources for pre-history were white academics I needed this book. Fortunately having a podcast that interviews authors comes with a few perks and I was able to get an advance copy which allowed me to rewrite some of my first chapter.

I’ve talked before about the Anishinaabe word for north, giiwedin, which contains the idea of going home. And not just snow or winter retreating north. Our oral history that is connected with this work teaches that it refers to the glaciers, those great sheets of ice that covered so much of what is now Anshinaabe territory. They went home. We knew that they left, and we knew that they had not always been there. We knew because we had been there. All language carries with it remnants of the deep past, that’s how language works. Sometimes the meanings shift, like the word nice used to mean a stupid person and now you’d only use it that way if you were being sarcastic. So it isn’t simply an artifact of an ancient language, our oral history brings it up into the present. We knew what it meant and we still thought about our relatives who haven’t been here for over 11,000 years. Relatives who went home.

Steeves’ book contains stories about oral histories and their connection with archeological finds. The legends of thunderbirds which are a part of so many Indigenous stories find footing in the skeletons of the giant teratorns, giant birds from the late Pleistocene. Terratornis had a wingspan up to 3.8m, larger than the Andean Condor and Aiolornis, an earlier relative, had a wingspan up to 5.5 meters. Thunderbirds. The Osage have a story, a fantastical story about a battle between huge beasts that seemed more myth than history. That is, until archeologists located mammoth bones exactly where the Osage said they would be.

Our histories are colonized spaces, whoever controls that story controls the present. White academics tell the histories that suit them, contemporary colonizers who shape hierachies and narratives to suit what are fundamentally statist and capitalist needs.

Like tourism. Hernandez writes about the cenotes, underground water openings that connect caves with the ocean and are seen by the Mayans as entry points to the underworld. They are an important part of Mayan ceremony, but with so many tourists swimming in them it’s not possible to perform these ceremonies. Over and over both Steeves and Hernandez talk about the way our ceremonial places are paved over or dismissed, dug up and dug out. Our artifacts and histories disconnected and displaced so that they can sit in museums, in basements catalogued but uncared for.   Imprisoned just as we are, because Indigenous peoples are disproportionately imprisoned. Our artifacts and monuments are protected, but we are not. Hernandez writes about the national parks, places that displace Indigenous people so that tourists can have somewhere to go without needing to develop relationships with the land or the people. Just passing through, collecting park stickers like notches on a bedpost.

They also talk about the importance of centering Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous knowledge of place and history. If you are going to live in a place, Hernandez writes, you need to develop a relationship with the land and the people of that place. That informs her work in ecological restoration.  You can’t just go in there armed with good intentions and knowledge, you need to develop relationship with the people and the place.  Steeves’ practice is also to listen to the descendants of the ancestors she is investigating as an archeologist. What are their stories? What do their histories tell us about the past we will unearth. What do they want to know.  It’s a bottom up approach to research that runs counter to most academic settings. We need to develop relationships.

And we need to stop swimming in graveyards.

(ps, if you subscribe to the Medicine for the Resistance podcast our interview with Dr. Steeves will be releasing shortly along with a transcript of that conversation)

Swimming in graveyards

We are still here