There is almost always something reticent about a ruin: a ruin is a retreat, a fading away. What was once foreground starts to melt into the background as the built environment cedes to the natural environment. Nature takes the place of culture as weeds start to push through cracked stones, wood rots away, or solid rock sinks into the sand. There may come a point at which it is hard to discern the ruin from the jungle or the desert. At some point the ruin may disappear altogether as it becomes one with its surroundings.

The disconcerting thing about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO-designated site in southern Alberta, is that from the outset it was already fully part of its surroundings. Figure was already ground. For the ruin is simply a cliff (and a relatively slight one to boot) that briefly interrupts the long descent from the Rockies to the Great Plains. It was here that, for several millennia, native Americans enticed buffalo to their death, again precisely by blurring or dissimulating the distinction between human activity and natural environment.

Indeed, it is hard to locate the site of the Buffalo Jump itself. You have to be told or shown. Head-Smashed-In depends upon the pedagogical work of demonstration, explanation, and interpretation without which it would hardly even come to light. Or more precisely, Head-Smashed-In highlights the role of imagination in the construction of the ruin: it’s no accident that archaeologist Jack Brink’s book about the site is entitled Imagining Head-Smashed-In. As he puts it, “capturing people and events that disappeared from our world centuries ago requires a judicious helping of imagination.” But never is this more true than with those “many ancient cultures that [. . .] managed to survive in demanding environments for extraordinary lengths of time without leaving towering monuments to themselves.” Brink’s task is “to show how simple lines of rocks stretching across the prairies are every bit as inspirational as rocks piled up in the shape of a pyramid” (xii). He has to sell us the idea that this is a ruin.

Hence at Head-Smashed-In it is the interpretive center that is the focus of the visit experience. Many ruins have some kind of signage or attached museum, but usually they can be appreciated well enough without resort to such ancillary explanation. Here, however, the interpretation overwhelms the ruin itself. The museum is built into the cliff alongside the Jump, and it is impossible to see the archaeological site from within its galleries. Though you can access a gallery from which to view the cliff-face at the top of the building, the majority of a visitor’s time is necessarily spent in the enclosed space of the museum through which you have to pass twice, both on the way up and on the way down. And this interpretive center, while dedicated to explaining what is just outside, in fact looks in on itself and the multiple reconstructions of the site that it contains. For all intents and purposes, this museum could be any place whatever.

The reconstructions of the site within the museum include scale models, images, and video. Three full-size replica of buffalo at the top of a fiberglass cliff dominate much of the interior space. Staff direct you to a fifteen-minute filmed reconstruction of the indigenous buffalo hunt (made by a company called “Myth Merchant Films”) in which computer-generated imagery aids a spectacle that aims at considerable realism. In helping us imagine the buffalo jump, the interpretive center leaves little to the imagination.

But whose imagination is at work here? The museum’s problem is that it has to negotiate between multiple modes of interpretation: deductions based on archaeological evidence, readings of historical texts left by European travelers, and memories passed down through oral history among the First Nations. Often there is a tension between these different narrative strategies, and the museum tries to maintain a counterpoint between some fairly standard displays and, for instance, the text of indigenous legends that is projected upon those displays.

So in some ways the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is peculiarly detached from its ostensible object, both because it reproduces that object within a space that is literally to one side, and because the multiple interpretations that the object generates are allowed more or less free reign. The visit experience becomes all about the creative vagaries of imagination. And yet the notion that this is a physical site is also clearly of vital importance, in that it is to anchor these otherwise drifting narratives, to help us re-read the natural environment as shaped by cultural and historical processes. In the end both the scientific and the mythic narratives come together in the indigenist claim that native Americans have a particular relationship to the landscape, and indeed to the land itself.


Freya Schiwy’s Indianizing Film is an important and ambitious book. Its subject is indigenous media, by which Schiwy means specifically the video and DVD programming made (mostly) by and (mostly) for indigenous groups, above all in Bolivia and Ecuador, but also to some extent Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.

This programming is sometimes broadcast on television, but more often is screened directly in villages and other indigenous communities, usually in the presence of a facilitator from the organization that has produced the material. If necessary, the facilitator will bring the TV or projector and screen, and even a generator so that the presentation can be staged even in the most remote areas. The show may well be accompanied by commentary, translation, or interpretation, and be designed to foster debate and discussion at the end of the screening. What is shown is usually (at least in the Bolivian case) a package that may include short documentaries or docudramas, news briefs, video letters or memories, and dramas. The shorter pieces tend to be no more than ten minutes long; the dramas may run for half an hour or more.

Though her focus is on the Andes and the Amazon, or rather more particularly on the Bolivian case that straddles high and lowland, Schiwy is clearly thoroughly familiar with indigenous media production from across Latin America, and also with the comparable material from New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. This book takes its place alongside Eric Michaels’s Bad Aboriginal Art as an indispensable reference point for any consideration of indigenous media.

The topic is important because it revises our understanding of what it means to make politically committed or radical art. Schiwy compares at some length the new indigenous media with the Marxist experimental film of the 1960s and 70s (again, above all in Bolivia). She notes that though the new media is less formally adventurous, it has perhaps greater impact than the rather highbrow cinematic efforts it effectively replaces. At the same time, there are important continuities between the two movements, and it’s significant that one of the leading lights on the Bolivian scene is the son of renowned sixties director, Jorge Sanjinés.

Perhaps more importantly still, Schiwy’s examination of indigenous media cautions us against seeing the indigenous as simply the relics of the past, or even as some kind of romantic essence that persists beyond and despite time and history. It reminds us that there is no necessary contradiction between indigeneity and modernity or technology. Indeed, ironically some of the most persistent and romantic images of Native Americans are in fact the result of indigenous people’s interaction and adaptation of European technologies: the Plains Indians’ mastery of horsemanship, for instance, could only come about once the horse had first been introduced to North America. Moreover, Schiwy suggests that indigenous media reveal the possibility of alternative modernities that would enable what she variously describes as “decolonizing the soul” (28) and (more often) a decolonization of knowledge.

Here, however, I start to take issue with Schiwy’s approach. Her stress on what towards the end of the book she terms the “politics of knowledge” (212) or “knowledge politics” (213), which she throughout signals in terms of “epistemic privilege” (139ff) and “epistemological hierarchies” (13), is unhelpful. For a start, it is a strange reduction of indigenous politics–and indeed, politics as such–to issues of epistemology. Yet, as the UN Report Schiwy cites in her Afterword reveals, “the major points of contention” in recent indigenous mobilization have been “sovereignty (and the implications this may have for the coherence of nation-states) and, perhaps most important, the control over natural resources on indigenous lands” (217-18). Trying to force such struggles into the framework of knowledge politics, or for instance to talk of “epistemological and economic border[s]” as though they were one and the same (210), is strangely depoliticizing.

Further, what is meant by “knowledge” in these instances is quite undertheorized and too often (despite Schiwy’s occasional protestations) devolves into mere representation. So in practice the video programming is treated as a conduit of pre-existing native knowledges which are otherwise in danger of disappearance. Indeed, it seems that very often this is also the explicit theme of the programming itself, which is dedicated either to preserving and disseminating the memory of traditional beliefs and practices, or (in the dramatic pieces) to warning of the dangers of letting them be forgotten. Schiwy’s analysis loses sight of the productive aspects of the technology, the ways in which it produces new forms and modes of subjectivity and indigeneity rather than merely preserving the old. She invokes the networks that such technology traces yet subsumes them under the strange notion, simultaneously totalizing and essentializing, of a “pan-indigenous social ethos” (84).

The problem is the theoretical tools with which Schiwy is working, which are not up to the task she sets them. The reduction of politics to an undertheorized version of epistemology, and the romantic conception of subaltern otherness, is the hallmark of Schiwy’s reliance on the work of Walter Mignolo. Indianizing Film tries, often heroically, to put some of Mignolo’s slogans to good use. We read of the “coloniality of power,” the “colonial difference” and “border gnosis,” but they remain as unenlightening here as they are in their original context. I will give a prize to anyone who can even parse the phrase “coloniality of power,” let alone explain what it is intended to mean. What, for instance, is intended by the claim that “the coloniality of power constructs the idea of modernity as a projection of European economy and epistemology” (40)? Schiwy tries to do justice to such concepts, but in the end they fail her.

In short, Schiwy’s material is much more interesting that the theoretical slogans that have been imposed upon it. I would have liked to have heard, by contrast, more about the reception of this programming, the ways in which local facilitators interact both with the programming and with audiences in the debates that follow. For a project that is, we are repeatedly told, collective and communal, we hear overwhelmingly from the film-makers and activists, who travel to and fro between one film festival or another, and far less from the communities themselves. Schiwy consistently questions, often with good reason, traditional anthropological approaches to indigeneity, but a little anthropology here might have gone a long way. It would have meant she could have dispensed with the North American champions of indigeneity such as Mignolo, as well perhaps as their Latin American spokespeople.

Indigenous media are clearly a fascinating and important interface between indigeneity and technology, in which both elements are transformed by the encounter. Unfortunately, the guiding metaphor of Schiwy’s book suggests that only technology is affected as the video-makers “integrat[e] what is foreign into traditional cultural and economic forms” (13). This notion of indianization as simple integration or appropriation is but the reverse of the traditional notion of assimilation, the idea that one culture can be unproblematically folded into another.

Yet as Schiwy’s own analyses indicate, everything about both the technological processes at work here (the creation of new networks, the filmic montage that allows new connections and so new conceptions of indigeneity) and even the content of the videos themselves goes against this idea. One film, Angels of the Earth, for instance, is described as “a story of shifting ethnic identification” (43) that is also surely an intervention into the “unsteady category” that is indigenous identity (44). If this is indianization, the technology is not the passive object of indigenous uses and desires, but an active agent that is to redesign and retool those desires. The notion that film is more about teaching us how to desire than about informing us what to think is familiar from film theory and is, for instance, the entire thesis of Slavoj Zizek’s A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema. In this sense, the indigenous are perverts, too, and there is no harm saying so.

Freya kindly agreed to respond to this review of her book, here.


Last night I finally got around to seeing the Brian Jungen show here, just a few days before it closes. Jungen’s a local boy made good, but I had worried somewhat that I wouldn’t like the exhibition, thinking him perhaps just a one-trick pony. And indeed he is. But what a trick.

And the “Prototype for New Understanding” series, all 23 of which were in the show, is justly renowned. Here, Jungen takes Nike Air Jordans, cutting them up and reshaping them to resemble indigenous masks. From a distance, they could very easily be taken for “authentic” native art. From close up, the doubletake.

Jungen has added human hair to some of these pieces, in order to enhance the illusion. And some are more complex than others. But I liked best the simplest, the ones that were still recognizeable as a basketball boot, albeit topologically transformed, soles cut away, other incisions made, and reshaped. For what you realize is just how odd these shoes actually are. The decor, the little gnarls and buttons, the swoosh, the stitching. They are of course in their own way totems of contemporary consumer culture.

Prototype for New Understanding
Or as Cuahtémoc Medina puts it in his interesting catalogue essay:

Implicit in [Jungen’s] Prototypes is a crucial sociological observations: shoes (and particularly designer trainers) are the contemporary consumer’s mask, a tool for the Western ritual of impersonation [. . .]. That shoes are a shamanic tool of sort can be easily attested by advertisements, which usually portray them as quasi-magically transforming their user, fusing the phantasm of the sport’s idol with the consumer. (34)

More here.


indigenous womanAlicia Velásquez Nimatuj offers a stirring defence of Guatemalan indigenous dress or traje. She opens with an anecdote of how she was refused admittance to a Guatemala City restaurant solely (she tells us) because she was wearing K’iche dress. She argues that wearing traje “is not just a matter of standing up for our cultural rights. Since 1997, in post-war Guatemala, it has become a political challenge: that of breaking the various ideological, legal, colonial, and contemporary racist structures that exist in all spheres of the Guatemalan State” (“Ways of Exclusion” 158).

But if the survival of traje is an instance of both “historical resistance” and “everyday resistance,” indeed if in the history of Mayan resistance to colonialism “women’s regional dress has played a leading role” (159), then what to say of the fact that increasingly, and especially in the cities, it is now replaced by “fashionable jeans and jacket” (161)? For Velásquez Nimatuj, the shift from regional to conventional Western dress shows “how racism is internalized for some Maya women [. . . they] have come to accept what the dominant ideology has repeated over and over again, that our regional dress stands for ‘backwardness,’ ‘underdevelopment,’ ‘poor hygiene,’ ‘ignorance,’ and ‘living in the past'” (160).

On the other hand, the role of “Maya intermediaries” in “the folkloric exploitation and abuse of Maya women and their traditional dress” is equally “reprehensible” (162). Velásquez Nimatuj notes that “sadly” even “a few Maya” are involved in organizing Cobán’s annual folk festival that features a beauty pageant for indigenous girls in ceremonial costume (162).

In short, both wearing traje and not wearing it properly, treating it as semi-archaic folklore rather than as living resistance, are equally damned as something very close to ethnic betrayal.

Indigenous dress threatens both betrayal and counter-betrayal: in so far as it constitutes the performance of ethnic authenticity and resistance, it “betrays” the fact that its wearer will never be fully ladinized, that she is always treated as stubbornly subaltern to be banished to the margins of Guatemalan society; but by contrast, when the dress is put centre-state as the fetishized image of national identity, for instance in airport shops or tourist brochures and boutiques, another betrayal is afoot in this improper performance of authenticity.

In other words, though Velásquez Nimatuj wants to tell us that dress somehow expresses the intimate essence of ethnic identity, “the visible proof and cultural marker that locates us in the category of ‘Indians'” (160-161), not only does she therefore collude with the restaurant doorman who likewise interprets clothing as ethnicity, but she is also forced rather futilely to police the evident fissures between the two. She insists that studies focussing only on the material aspects of indigenous weaving are insufficient, but this is surely because now traje has become for her a political style on which she, like any other self-appointed arbiter of fashion, has set herself up to judge.

By contrast, then, I find Carol Hendrickson’s more nuanced analysis to be also more persuasive. For Hendrickson, wearing regional dress is best understood as strategy rather than essence, allowing “Guatemalans acting within a given social moment [to] contemplate and adjust their own appearance (if only momentarily and on an extremely small scale) and hence the social role assigned to them” (“Images of the Indian in Guatemala” 303). As a strategy, then, the consequences of traje are never fully predictable. It is an always uncertain risk, which may bring rewards as well as stigma, benefits as well as losses. “This is particularly true when the situation is anything more than routine and when it is not obvious which image of the Indian will come into play for any particular circumstance” (304).

Velásquez Nimatuj prescribes pre-destined resistance, whose limits she claims to legislate as native anthropologist/informant. But Hendrickson presents dress as a terrain of corporeal experimentation and investment, which may or may not lead to politically significant incorporeal transformations, in a contested field in which identity traits are at least partially dislocated and so still up for grabs.

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez PenaGuillermo Gómez Peña and Coco Fusco

Codex Mendoza

the highest rank of warriorThe sixteenth-century Codex Mendoza is an extraordinary document, for aesthetic, formal, and historical reasons.

Most likely commissioned by Viceroy Mendoza, with its images produced by indigenous scribes and informants, then annotated by the Spanish, the document is a key source for our understanding of Aztec culture and society, not least because so few codices survived the conquest, but also because this one was specifically produced as what Mary Louise Pratt would term an “autoethnography”: an attempt by the indigenous to record and describe their own way of life and translate this understanding for outsiders’ benefit.

Formally, therefore, the document is a fascinating hybrid of pictorial representation, glyphic or symbolic visual codes (from the curlicues to depict speech to the stylized images of dwellings or the multiple eyes that are to signify “night”), annotations of these same images, and then prose interpretations of image sequences or entire pages. It’s a collaborative work, arguably perhaps the first Latin American testimonio.

Aesthetically, what’s striking is above all the colour and vibrancy of the images, particularly the depictions of the various ranks, honours, and wardrobes of warriors, priests, spies, and so on, all of which indicate a fantastic aesthetic sense that must have permeated Aztec society itself. The various patterns employed on clothing, shields, and headdresses indicate a desire to differentiate between functions and achievements as spectacularly as possible.

spies and warriors
No doubt some of this formalization is misleading just as, one would expect, is the extreme rigour and mechanism of the section on child-rearing. As with the Popol Vuh, our knowledge of pre-Columbian America is hostage to the desires of those who were best-placed to present themselves as its legitimate representatives, and who also had most to gain from the perpetuation of pre-existing hierarchies. It’s significant how much of the text deals with discipline and punishment: of recalcitrant children (“a 9-year old boy is pierced in his body with maguey spikes by his father, for being incorrigible”), of wayward apprentices (“if the youth roamed about as a vagabond, the two masters punished him by shearing him and singeing his head with fire”), or of rebel caciques (“summoned to war for his rebellion against the lord of Mexico”). Imagine if the only texts that survived to attest to Western cultural achievement were Doctor Spock, Debrett’s, and the Southern Baptist Church’s rulings on moral degeneracy.

What’s interesting, too, but somewhat undecideable, is the extent of the mistranslation or misinterpretation in the constitution of meaning from indigenous codes to Spanish narrative. Its noticeable, for instance, that the prose interpretation uses the term “mezquita” or “mosque” to describe Aztec temples, so demonstrating the extent to which the Spaniards understood their encounters with indigenous civilization within a framework determined by their lengthy interaction with the Arab world.

The document’s concluding annotation admits to the limits of European knowledge: “The reader must excuse the rough style in the interpretation of the drawings in this history, because the interpreter did not take time or work at all slowly.” Its author goes on to provide a series of errata, and an indication of Spanish dependence upon native informants. The comment also, significantly, alludes to disagreements among these informants as to how Aztec society should be portrayed: “he interpreted it carelessly because the Indians came to agreement late; and so it was done in haste and he did not improve the style suitable for an interpretation” (my emphasis).

Finally, it’s worth saying something about the codex’s convoluted material history: seized by French corsairs (pirates!) who intercepted the Spanish fleet, it was first taken to the French court and then sold to Richard Hakluyt, the English writer whose work was used by Shakespeare as the source for his own colonial fable, The Tempest. Eventually it ended up in Oxford’s Bodleian library.

So this colourful work of indigenous scribes fed Europe’s (still) voracious but also unsettling appetite for images and approximations of indigeneity. It remains a vehicle for translation, but also a marker of the fissures that necessarily attend all (auto)ethnographies. The colour endures, standing in for and obscuring the social conflicts that didn’t survive transfer to representational form.


wood s lot points us to Jeremy Ravi Mumford’s “The Inca Priest on the Mormon Stage”, an interesting essay on Mormonism, nineteenth-century indigenism, and images of Inca society. Mumford shows how the early Mormon leader Brigham Young acted out his religion’s claims to respectability through a performance of Incaism.

This in the context not merely of familiar elegies for the vanished noble savage, but a more particular construction of Inca society befitting US (and Mormon) self-imagination:

An Enlightenment revival of Hispanic scholarship had made English-speaking readers familiar with the Inca Empire as a profoundly alien society, yet one that was in many ways admirable. The Inca, according to much of this literature, were authoritarian in their politics but that authoritarianism produced admirable order and happiness. The success of Sheridan’s Pizarro in 1799 created a new wave of interest in the Incas among English speakers. The next year saw the publication of a children’s dialogue about the Incas, with lines such as: “Excellent people! Who can avoid respecting them?”

Of course, it should come as no great surprise that the Incas have also been eulogized, not least by the great early twentieth-century Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, as incarnating a form of primitive Communism. Indeed, of all pre-Columbian societies, the Inca Empire offers most ideological malleability: I don’t think that quite the same range of claims has been made for the Aztecs, for instance.

What struck me about Mumford’s essay, however, is that there really is something to the comparison between Incas and Mormons, in this if no other regard: both are groups upon which social parables are played out with remarkable frequency.

Take Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a book for which a murder in American Fork, Utah, provides the canvas on which to assay quasi-philosophical conjectures about “violent faith” and, indeed, the nature of life itself:

If I remain in the dark about our purpose here, and the meaning of eternity, I have nevertheless arrived at an understanding of a few more modest truths: Most of us fear death. Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why–which is to say, most of us ache to know the love of our creator. And we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to live. (341)

As befits a writer on mountaineering, Krakauer has long “yearned” to say something about death, violence, and sublimity, and it’s in Mormonism that he feels he’s found a suitable subject, whereas for instance the autobiographical reflections framing Into the Wild were rather forced onto a tale of Boy’s Own anomie gone wrong.

Gary GilmoreBut Krakauer’s book pales beside the granddaddy of them all, Norman Mailer’s epic The Executioner’s Song, which tracks the movement from petty thievery to careless murder to the point at which judicial execution became once again enshrined as apex of the American way of life (and death). Mailer shows how, despite the best efforts of liberal organizations such as the ACLU, Gary Gilmore summoned forth the new authoritarianism, a new “admirable order.”

The thousand and more pages of Mailer’s door-stopper cast this drama of, first, robbery and killing and, then, lawyering and killing, as “Eastern voices” responding to “Western voices.”

And the West to which the East responds, the West that shapes the neo-conservative constitution of order through firing squad, electric chair, and lethal injection, is the West of Provo, Spanish Fork, and Salt Lake City, the West of Mormonism, the West to which Brigham Young led his people in transcontinental Exodus.