[00:00:00] Why did I get interested in anthropology? You know it probably goes back to when I was a little kid and I was always interested in other people. In particular, after reading Bible stories in church, I was most interested not so much in the moral message of the story but in how other people lived. I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist, although I went to a school that did not have an anthropology department. I ended up majoring in history and sociology, which were fairly close. In the summers I would work in the Merchant Marine, and also I did this before I went to college, so it was a way for me to pay for college. And one of the things that happens on ships is that you are way out to sea and there really is not much communication. There is, you know, no television. One of the ways people would entertain themselves at night was by telling sea stories. I would take notes on what people said and try to record the stories, and I ended up writing a paper on it, “The Sea Story of Modern Oral Tradition.” Then I went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania . I knew I wanted to work in Latin America . I ended up going to the Mixteca in southern Mexico and doing my dissertation work [there], where I lived almost three years in a small village called Nuyoo. It has about 2,500 people. I have been back quite a few times since then, 1989, ’91, ’93. I’ll probably go back again this summer . Now that there are a number of Mixtec people coming to the United States , I am in pretty regular contact with people from the town. There is a small colony now in Texas and another group that has just been trying to get across the border in Arizona .
[1:38:00] Social organization—it’s an old topic for Mesoamericanists. In anthropology it was really one of the founding concepts, particularly in the British School . Basically, what it deals with is: How do people mobilize themselves? How do people come together and form groups? How do people organize themselves? One of the things that struck me, when I was working in Nuyoo, is that while we talked about community a lot in Mesoamerican ethnology, we did not have any notion of what indigenous models of community were. Even thinking about the whole question in terms of finished models of social groups was probably the wrong way to go because if you listened to the way people talked about their life together in Nuyoo, they would often use verbs or nouns of process or motion, or give you a much more active sense of how relationships were created and maintained. If I was going to look at “community,” that’s what I needed to look at: how people mobilized one another. What were the patterns of association or forms of relatedness that people used to accomplish the goals that they had set for themselves? And so, instead of having this model of the “community,” it turned out that what people were actually much more concerned with were these typical forms of relatedness that they used in their daily lives. And it was really only the anthropologists that were concerned with these formal models.
[3:00:30] Gift exchange, as it came into anthropology, has been defined in a very ahistorical sense—that it is something that exists in opposition to market exchange, in the face of which it would eventually disappear; and that once you get into a certain period of evolutionary development, these things would give way. This kind of formulation led us to essentialize what gift exchange is, to see it as a sort of archaic way of life. One of the things that I tried to do is to look at gift exchange or gifting over time in this community, and I found that as the Nuyootecos became more involved in the market and the world around them, it [gift giving] actually expanded and grew. This made me think that what we are dealing with here is not something that is going to disappear in the face of capitalism, but that it is actually a practical form of solving problems that people continue to employ. So, far from being something that is outside of history, or something that will disappear as societies modernize, here is a case where it definitely changed over time. The practices of gifting the people used in the nineteenth century were not the same as those in the twentieth century, but it also was not disappearing or decaying.
[4:11:00] In Oaxaca you have a landscape that is amazingly complex. You have numerous mountain chains meeting in Oaxaca . And what these create are all these different microclimates. In addition, you have interior valleys. You have a coastal plain. Each area in Oaxaca developed its own systems of agricultural intensification. In the Nuyoo area you have a very steep environment where the municipal territory ranges from three thousand meters to around six hundred meters, and what people do is they use this steepness in order to produce more by farming at all different altitudes. What will happen is that, say, the crops that are planted at two thousand meters will do badly that year because of hail or rain or whatever, but then the crops down below at six hundred meters will do well. So each Nuyoo farmer will have lands at different altitudes. In the 1920s there was a great plague of locusts that came up from the coastal area, and the people on the coast talk of how it was a major disaster because [the locusts] ate everything in sight. However, in the upper reaches of Nuyoo, as the locusts tried to climb there, they flew into a colder environment and this killed them. They were falling by the hundreds of thousands out of the sky. And people in Nuyoo talk about what a great bonanza that was to them. They eat insects there, and this was a time of great abundance. So you can see how having land in these different environments can turn a disaster into a real bonanza.
[5:50:00] I started reading Jill Furst’s dissertation, which was published on the Vienna Codex, one of the few extant Precolumbian books. It struck me that I knew what some of the stories were. Remembering the narratives that I heard in Nuyoo, I could fill in the meat of what the story was actually about. One of the first myths that I was told when I arrived in Nuyoo was the covenant with the Earth. It explains why people live the way they do, the origins of agriculture, where people come from, and then why they have to die. It is not just this esoteric myth that only a few storytellers are familiar with, but it is something that everyone in the town knows about. Now when I was looking at the Vienna , I noticed that Jill Furst’s description followed the main incidents that occur in the covenant with the Earth and Rain. They talk about having disasters befall them in the covenant. In the story that is told in Nuyoo, two men come together and they pray to the Earth. And, again in the Vienna , you see two men coming together: one makes an offering to the Sky, another makes an offering to the Earth. After the men make this plea to the Earth, saying that “we will go no other place but into the Earth when we die if we are permitted to sow corn,” the fields start to bloom. Again in the Vienna , it is starting to rain again, and then corn is produced. Nuyootecos cite this story when they explain all kinds of ritual performances. And, you know, it was not surprising to me, then, to see it recorded also in this book that was produced before the Conquest.