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The Way of Kinship, Part 2 of 2: The Anthology’s Early Beginnings
Thursday, December 16th, 2010

In translating and editing the works in The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) Claude Clayton Smith worked closely with Alexander Vaschenko, another leading scholar in Siberian literature who is based in Moscow. Yesterday: Alexander Vaschenko, chair of comparative studies in literature and culture at Moscow State University, discussed how Native Siberian literature is similar to Native literature from North America.

Today: Claude Clayton Smith, professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, discusses how the anthology came to be:

How did you and Dr. Vaschenko begin working together?
I am glad to be asked this question, because the answer is a matter of serendipity and fate.

Yeremei Aipin, born in the Native village of Varyogan in West Siberia, has spent much of his career working on behalf of the Khanty people, as well as on his writing. His work is included in the “The Way of Kinship.” He visited New Mexico last spring as part of a creative cultural exchange with North American Native writers. Photo by Susan Scarberry-Garcia.

In October of 1989 an international Hemingway conference was held at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, where I was a professor in the English Department. The conference was directed by my friend and colleague, Dr. Charles “Tod” Oliver, editor of the (then) fledgling Hemingway Review. One of the topics at that conference was “Native Americans in the Works of Ernest Hemingway,” and one of the scholars in attendance was Alexander Vaschenko, the Russian authority on Native American literature and folklore. Dr. Vaschenko had come with a contingent of six professors from the A.M. Gorky Institute of World Literature of the Russian National Academy of Sciences.

My book Quarter-Acre of Heartache had been published by Pocahontas Press in 1985. It details the successful modern struggle of Chief Big Eagle of Connecticut’s Paugussett Indian Nation to preserve the oldest (1659) continuous Indian reservation in America. Tod Oliver thought it would be an appropriate gift for Dr. Vaschenko, and I provided a copy, signed by Chief Big Eagle with a lavish inscription about our two nations walking in peace. In Quarter-Acre of Heartache Chief Big Eagle stated that one of his goals for the future was to create a dialogue between Native Americans and Native Siberians, since Native Americans are thought to have emigrated from Siberia to the Americas.

After receiving his gift, “Sasha” stayed up all night reading, and in the morning he came to me with two proposals. First, he wanted to translate the book as the fourth and final (contemporary) text in a series that he was editing about the long struggles of Native Americans. Secondly, he wanted the Chief and me to come to Russia that summer to address an audience of scholars and other interested parties. Three weeks later the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia opened up to the world.

The Chief and I visited Moscow and Leningrad during the chaotic summers of 1990 and 1991, adventures later detailed in my book Red Men in Red Square (Pocahontas Press, 1994). I returned in 1993 for a conference at the Gorky Institute, but unfortunately the Chief was too ill to accompany me. During that visit Sasha proposed that we collaborate on some translations of Native Siberian writers.

Our first effort was a chapbook called I Listen to the Earth by Khanty author Yeremei Aipin, published by Ohio Northern University in 1995. Sales of that book helped to bring Dr. Vaschenko and Aipin to the university in 1996 for a program called “The Russian Connection.” Subsequently we added new Siberian authors to our translation efforts, and in 2003 the North Dakota Quarterly dedicated a special issue to The Way of Kinship. We expanded this interim anthology to the current volume by the same title, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010.

So the new text is a long labor of love, the culmination of a personal and professional collaboration of more than two decades, inspired by the spirit of Chief Big Eagle, who, with the help of noted civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, won the right to preserve the Paugussett reservation in Connecticut in perpetuity. Chief Big Eagle passed away in August of 2008 at the age of 92. His obituary and photo appeared in the New York Times.

In the foreword, N. Scott Momaday writes of the kinships between North American and Siberian Native writers. What are some of the divergences?

Yuri Vaella, born in the village of Varyogan in West Siberia, has written and published folktales, poems, essays and recorded folksongs in both Nenets and Russian. In addition to writing, Vaella also owns and herds reindeer. His work is included in the “The Way of Kinship,” and he was a member of the group of Native Siberian authors who visited New Mexico last spring. Photo by Susan Scarberry-Garcia.

This is a good question because it is the similarities between North American and Siberian Native writers that immediately stand out when one reads The Way of Kinship. But I think a definite point of divergence is simply the Siberian climate, which is certainly more harsh and hostile for nine months of the year than that experienced by most North American tribes. As I recall, snow was expected during the first week in September, a few days after we departed Siberia in 2003. This difference in climate means a difference in material culture, which results from different ways of coping with the environment. In an entirely different vein, Native Siberians didn’t suffer the devastating epidemics that North American Indians did following their initial contact with Europeans. These differences are naturally reflected, to a greater or lesser degree, in the literature of both North American and Siberian Native writers.

Dr. Vaschenko has written that one of the goals of the volume is to move beyond “first acquaintance” so that Native Siberian literature can be an invaluable comparative teaching manual. In what kinds of coursework could you envision incorporating the writings in this anthology?
The Way of Kinship will provide a cogent and comprehensive university text for Arts & Science courses in Third World Literature, World Literature, Comparative Literature, Ethnic Diversity, Ethnic Literatures, and Cultural Understanding. Due to the many cultural interconnections among Indigenous writers, it will be an excellent supplement to courses in Native American literature. I have used it in my own course in Great Works of Literature to meet the course requirement for literature from a third-world country. I also feel strongly that any general reader interested in Native American literature will be rewarded by the contents of this unique anthology, the first ever in English.

Claude Clayton Smith is professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University. This post is also available on the University of Minnesota Press blog here. [link] The Way of Kinship is available from the University of Minnesota Press.


The Way of Kinship, Part 1 of 2: Anthology Triggers Dialogue Between Native American and Native Siberian Literary Traditions
Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

This month, the University of Minnesota Press publishes The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature, the first anthology of Native Siberian literature in English. This stunning volume showcases a diverse body of work that chronicles ancient Siberian cultures and traditions and a dynamic and current literary movement. The works were translated and edited by Alexander Vaschenko and Claude Clayton Smith, leading scholars in Native Siberian literature.

Today: Alexander Vaschenko, chair of comparative studies in literature and culture at Moscow State University, discusses how Native Siberian literature is similar to Native literature from North America. Tomorrow: Claude Clayton Smith, professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, discusses the anthology’s early beginnings.

What were your goals with this anthology?

I had three main goals for The Way of Kinship. First, as a specialist in American Studies, I have always been dissatisfied with the one-sidedness, misinterpretation, or lack of knowledge of Russian cultural and literary phenomena in the United States. One reason for that is the gap between the primary material in the texts and what is chosen—if at all—to be translated into English. As time goes by, this gap only widens. With The Way of Kinship I wanted to acquaint American readers with one of the lesser known, but important, Russian language literary traditions—that of Native Siberian literature. Second, through my specialization in Native American Studies, I have studied, translated, or otherwise introduced Native American writings to Russia. There are so many similarities between Native Siberian work and that of the Native American/First Nations Canadian writers. It is high time to begin the process of comparative studies between the two traditions. Finally, by publishing this anthology, I wanted to trigger a direct dialogue between Native American and Native Siberian literary and cultural traditions.

Can you give us a sense of the place that these stories are coming from?

Anthology contributors and supporters, including (from left to right) Susan Scarberry-Garcia, Alexander Vaschenko, Claude Clayton Smith, and Yeremei Aipin, enjoy a meal at a fish camp in Siberia in 2003. Photo contributed by Susan Scarberry-Garcia.

The Native seats behind the stories are scattered across the entire expanse of Siberia, from the Ural Mountains in the west to the Chukotka Peninsula (at the Bering Strait) in the east. A huge part of this is called the “Russian North,” the natural environment being taiga and tundra, with many rivers and their tributaries in between. From time immemorial this has been the ancient home of about twenty Native groups belonging to several language families, the larger of these being Nenets and Khanty, the smaller being the Yukagir and the Nivkh. Traditionally, people migrated seasonally with the deer and other game; others, like the Nivkh, fished.

In the Introduction, you explain that Native Siberian literature began in the 1930s, much like contemporary North American Native writing movements. What are other striking parallels between the two literary movements?
Indeed, there are many striking similarities between the two cross-oceanic cultures. The first one that comes to mind is the value system. This springs from the way of life caused by the environment. For example, Nature is sacred and primordial, and animals are viewed as older brothers of mankind, central to the Aboriginal way of life. Certainly, oral and mythological traditions exert a strong influence upon Native literature, and there are strong external factors as well. But these traditions are poorly understood by the authorities at all levels. Bilingualism— sometimes trilingualism—is a characteristic feature of such traditions.

How is Native literature viewed today in Russia? Where is it going? What obstacles are there?
Here, I believe, are more similarities. Native literatures are poorly understood and, currently, not very visible in Russia. They are considered regional and are still finding their audience. In the Soviet era, Native authors were cared for financially, as well as any author in the USSR. Slowly, by sheer luck, some of the writers would gain national importance—then as well as now.

Native literatures are slowly but steadily developing. The primary obstacles currently are high levels of bureaucracy and lack of money. However, some oil barons have lately begun to support the Native writers.

Last spring, you and some of the writers included in this anthology came to the United States for a creative cultural exchange with writers Sherwin Bitsui, Evelina Zuni Lucero, and N. Scott Momaday at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Will you share some memorable moments from that exchange with us?

Maria Vagatova lives in Khanty-Mansiisk. Her poetry is included in the “Way of Kinship.” She visited New Mexico last spring as part of a creative cultural exchange with North American Native writers. Photo by Susan Scarberry-Garcia.

Although I have tried to bring together Native Americans and Native Siberians for two decades, this was the first literary cross-cultural meeting. As to impressions, I was fascinated by the IAIA as an establishment. It has recently obtained new grounds and new facilities. The students seemed eager to exchange, and I think that this meeting left a deep trace in their souls, as in ours.

I was happy to see a lot of my dearest friends, such as N. Scott Momaday, whom I have known since his visit to Russia in 1974. I have translated many of his writings into Russian. Professor Susan Scarberry-Garcia has been a long time friend, helping with cross-cultural visits and exchanges. Professor Claude Clayton Smith has been a friend of many years, and has many times shared his creative soul with Russia; and professor Andrew Wiget is my friend and alter ego in the Southwest, with whom I have a lifelong connection.

All in all, it was a fabulous time for both sides. We hope the tradition will continue, fostering a better understanding of each other’s cultures. One of the IAIA students, Nathan Romero from Cochiti, wrote a moving triptych of poems in our honor, asking “Shall we meet again?”  With this anthology, we feel that the conversation is just beginning.

To learn more about last year’s creative cultural exchange and to hear Professor Vaschenko and some of the Native writers included in The Way of Kinship, listen to this interview Threads of Kinship: Dialogues with Native Siberian Writers at IAIA” from Santa Fe Radio Café.

This post is also available on the University of Minnesota Press blog here.

M. Bianet Castellanos: Tourism’s Deep Impression on Indigenous Communities
Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

From Creative Commons

As a free trade zone and Latin America’s most popular destination, Cancún, Mexico, is more than just a tourist town. Maya migrants make up more than a third of the city’s population. In A Return to Servitude (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), M. Bianet Castellanos presents an ethnography of Maya migration within Mexico that analyzes the foundational role Indigenous peoples play in the development of the modern nation-state. Today on our blog, she discusses how Cancún’s popularity impacts Indigenous communities.

The Transnational Reach of Tourism and Its Affect on Maya Communities
By M. Bianet Castellanos

M. Bianet Castellanos will discuss her book on Tuesday, November 30 at 4 p.m. at the University of Minnesota Bookstore.

How does Cancún’s popularity among tourists impact Indigenous communities?

With more than 3 million visitors annually, Cancún is one of Latin America’s most popular tourist destinations. Tourists are drawn to Cancún not only because of its beautiful beaches and warm climate, but also by the ancient remnants of Maya culture. Although tourist visits are brief (typically no longer than a week), they leave a deep impression on the Indigenous communities surrounding Cancún. By their sheer numbers, these visits translate into service jobs, many of which are occupied by Maya migrants who make up approximately a third of Cancún’s population. Indigenous workers interact with tourists in hotels, on the street, and in airports. These encounters produce ideological shifts that transform local cultural practices. I offer two examples here.

First, to capture tourist dollars, rural communities have altered traditional gender roles in which men migrated in search of work and women remained at home. Prior to 1991, only two women left Kuchmil (a pseudonym for a rural Maya village studied in A Return to Servitude) to work as domestic servants in private homes because unmarried women who worked outside the home placed their reputations at risk. Today, the stigma once associated with migration has disappeared. To fill the demand for Indigenous domestic servants, unmarried Maya women migrate to Cancún in almost equal numbers to that of men. Their earnings have granted these young women a greater decision-making role in the household and this earning potential has convinced them to postpone marriage for a few years. Twenty years ago, women were married by the age of twenty-five. Otherwise, they were considered old maids.

Second, ideas of leisure in rural communities that previously centered on spending time with family and attending religious festivals have been expanded to include local tourist consumption. Modeling themselves after the trope of the universal tourist (as sightseer and always at play) portrayed on television programs and visible in Cancún, Indigenous migrants spend their leisure time visiting national tourist sites like Chichén Itzá in Yucatán and the Agua Azul waterfalls in Chiapas. Car ownership, a recent phenomenon, has made this type of leisure possible and affordable. Families also join group tours organized by their friends, neighbors, and work colleagues to places like Mexico City. But travel is not just confined to road trips. One young couple took a vacation without their children—a practice that is practically unheard of in village life—to visit the city of Puebla. They happily recounted their experience flying for the first time and shared photographs with friends and neighbors of the tourist sites they visited. Not surprisingly, they relied on the same practices (e.g. visiting historical sites, traveling on a guided tour bus, staying at hotels), and technologies (e.g. cameras and video cameras) to “consume” tourist places. For many Maya migrants, this type of leisure is associated with modernity and marks their transformation from peasant to cosmopolitan citizen. However, this type of leisure was not available to most migrants, given their tenuous economic circumstances.

How do threats to Cancun’s tourism industry — such Mexico’s drug war and last year’s swine flu scare — impact these rural communities?

Cancún depends on the labor of the rural indigenous communities. Conversely, after land redistribution ended with the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and as agricultural production has declined, rural communities have also come to depend on tourism. This interdependence has been highlighted over the past few years as Cancún has faced hurricanes, a flu pandemic, a global economic recession, and the drug war’s escalating violence. After Hurricane Wilma devastated the city in 2005 (more than two-thirds of the hotels were shut down), many indigenous migrants lost their jobs or took a pay reduction. Hotel and restaurant workers depend on tips from tourists to supplement their minimum wage salaries. Tips can double and sometimes triple monthly salaries. Migrants’ reduced income had repercussions for the countryside because they could no longer send remittances to their rural families. It took migrant families approximately one year to recover economically from this disaster, only to then face another drastic reduction in tourism beginning in April 2009 when the swine flu pandemic broke out in Mexico City.

Few cases of swine flu were documented in Cancún, but the panic that ensued kept tourists away. Since the pandemic occurred during the low tourist season, Cancún’s economy could have recovered quickly with the onset of the high tourist season in December. Hotel workers put aside funds to get them through the low season. Then within months, the global economic recession followed. Tourists stayed away because they could not afford or were afraid to spend money on a vacation. Mexico lost over $2 billion in tourist income in 2009. It was an especially difficult year for Cancún’s Maya workers. Like everyone else, they were dealing with the fall out of the banking crisis, but given their already marginalized economic existence, the lack of tourism left many people unemployed and with few options to find work. They quickly depleted their savings before the end of the year. Many returned home to their rural communities to seek financial help or eke out a living on farm work.

Further compounding these problems is Mexico’s escalating drug war. Since 2006, more than 28,000 people have died as a result of drug-related violence. According to the media, Cancún remained untouched by this violence until recently. On August 31, 2010, a local bar in Cancún was bombed, leaving eight people dead in what investigators have said is a drug-related attack. In spite of international media coverage of this incident, tourism has not declined and is showing signs of recovering from the flu pandemic and economic recession. Although the drug violence has tempered tourism to other parts of Mexico, Cancún has been spared because the bar attack occurred in a working-class neighborhood located far from the tourist zone. Given the Mexican government’s and transnational corporations’ dedicated efforts to police people’s movements in and out of tourist zones, urban violence usually takes place beyond tourist zones, making local residents, not tourists, its targets. Tourism, in spite of its seasonal flows and vulnerability to economic and natural disasters, remains central to the Mexican government’s plans for economic recovery. For example, after Hurricane Wilma, the Mexican government stepped in immediately to provide aid and help businesses re-open within six months. This is a good thing for indigenous communities because it means that tourist centers like Cancún (and the jobs they provide, even if they are minimum wage jobs) will continue to be bolstered during tough economic times by government funding.

M. Bianet Castellanos is assistant professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota. She will discuss her book A Return to Servitude: Maya Migration and the Tourist Trade in Cancun on Tuesday, November 30 at 4 p.m. at the University of Minnesota Bookstore.

This post is also available on the University of Minnesota Press blog here.

University of Minnesota Editor Jason Weidemann Reflects on NAISA 2010
Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Today our partners at the University of Minnesota posted a reflection from editor Jason Weidemann on last month’s meeting of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) in Tucson, Arizona. He wrote:


“In May I had the opportunity to attend the annual Native American and Indigenous Studies meeting in Tucson, Arizona. Always an energetic and passionate gathering, this year’s was even more so given that the meeting took place against the backdrop of Arizona’s recent passage of a stringent new immigration law and a measure banning ethnic studies courses in public schools….”

Read the complete post

Challenging the Myth of Native Extinction: Q & A with Historian Jean M. O’Brien
Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Historian Jean M. O’Brien (Ojibwe) is an associate professor of history and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England, which will soon be published by the University of Minnesota Press. She took a moment to answer our questions about her forthcoming book.

In your new book, you examine New England histories from 1820 to 1880. The Euro-American authors of these local histories sought to write about the founding and growth of their cities and towns, and in the process they depict the original inhabitants, the Indians, as extinct. Do you think the authors intentionally minimized the Native presence? If so, what motives would they have had to do so?

I don’t think the myth of Indian extinction in New England emerged as a deliberate plot on the part of nineteenth-century authors of local histories so much as that the intellectual climate of the time predisposed writers to construct Indians and Indian histories in particular ways. Ideas underpinning Scientific Racism and Romanticism in particular profoundly shaped impressions about Indians. The notion of Racial Purity, separating races in a stark hierarchy deeply influenced their thinking, and the fact of Indian intermarriage over more than two centuries of colonialism suggested to non-Indians the Indians were “degenerating” —their racial calculations prompted them to only count “full-blooded” Indians AS Indians. They also believe in cultural purity and insisted that Indians retain their “pre-contact” cultures intact in order to qualify as Indians. New England Indians had embraced change, selectively incorporating new ideas, cultural practices, and material culture over the centuries. In other words, Indians embraced modernity, and non-Indians could not think of Indians as modern peoples because of their own cultural assumptions and romantic lodging of Indians in the past.

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