May 11, 2008

Innovators with Native connections

In the fall of 2007, Smithsonian magazine published a special issue titled 37 Under 36:  America's Young Innovators in the Arts and Science. Whenever I see a roundup like this, I wonder how diverse it is. Specifically, does it include a Native component?

I'm glad to report that this roundup did reasonably well. There was one Native and several non-Natives with a Native connection. Here they are:

Making the Grade

Yurok Indian Geneva Wiki is helping other young Native Americans "develop their best selves"Geneva Wiki is fighting the flu. "You're seeing me at only about 75 percent of my normal energy," says the director of the Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods, in Klamath, California. It's a formidable 75 percent. Two of her teachers are absent, so Wiki, a 30-year-old Yurok Indian, darts between the school's three classrooms, her bobbed hair swinging. She counsels a student struggling with an essay; murmurs "language!" to a boy who has just shouted an expletive; puts out plates and plastic utensils for lunch; and tells two other students they can't eat potato chips while walking and call it PE. Since there's no school bus, Wiki, who is married with a toddler at home, began the day by driving several students to school.

More than half of the 30 teens attending this public charter school are Yurok and more than two-thirds are American Indians. As young as 13, they have all taken college placement exams and are co-enrolled in high school and the local community college, working simultaneously toward high-school diplomas and college credits. The idea behind this innovative project, part of the Early College High School Initiative, largely funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is that low-income, minority and otherwise disadvantaged young people at risk of dropping out are encouraged to stay in school and get a free, non-intimidating taste of college. There are now 147 such schools in 23 states and the District of Columbia, 11 of which are specifically for American Indians.

"This is the front line of our civil rights movement," says Wiki. "Past generations struggled first over rights to fish and hunt, and then to govern ourselves. Now we need to work on reclaiming ourselves through education."

Down to Earth

Anthropologist Amber VanDerwarker is unraveling the mysteries of the ancient Olmec by figuring out what they ateBetween 1999 and 2002, while she was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she examined plant and bone remains that Arnold and another archaeologist uncovered from two small sites in the volcanic Tuxtla region that was on the outskirts of Olmec territory but north of the city centers. "I hit pay dirt," VanDerwarker recalls.

What they found suggests that the Olmecs differed from early peoples in Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, where the growth of urban centers was closely tied to a single grain—wheat, barley and rice, respectively—and central powers coordinated vast networks of fields and farmers. Most researchers had assumed that it was the cultivation of maize that made the Olmec prosper.

On the contrary, say VanDerwarker and her colleagues, who identified an astonishing array of foods in the Olmec diet—from deer, ocelots, rabbits and turtles to beans, avocados and tree fruits. For several centuries, because the Olmec lived with what she calls "an abundance of resources," they even managed plots of fruit trees. Animals drawn to such forest gardens would have been easy to hunt.
According to the standard theory, civilizations develop a centralized government and religion because large-scale agriculture gives them surplus wealth that requires administration. But VanDerwarker implies the Olmecs may have chosen a different model more in keeping with their Native values. Namely, living closer to and in harmony with nature, with a flatter social structure and less top-down control.

Even if this was true only in the outlying regions of the Olmec civilization, it's still significant. In cultures such as ancient Egypt and medieval Europe, the central authority (the pharaoh or pope) reached into every corner of the realm. Almost every aspect of life was controlled by rules and regulations from above. Even with a central government, the Olmecs may have been less rigid and authoritarian.

Flower Power

Studying ancient botanical drawings, Daniela Bleichmar is rewriting the history of the Spanish conquest of the AmericasHistorians are apt to regard images as second-class sources—a means to underscore a point developed through analysis of a manuscript or, worse, a way to pretty up a paper. But for Bleichmar, drawings and prints are the keys to the kingdom. "What I'm trying to do is treat images as seriously as text," she says.

From them, Bleichmar has pieced together how naturalists and artists working for the Spanish Crown surveyed flora in America and took what they learned back to Europe; how their images helped the empire in its search for supplies of coffee, tea, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and medicinal specimens; how their keen observations earned them favor with rulers and their ministers; how their omissions—of indigenous people, of wider landscapes—reflected the colonizers' attitudes toward the colonized.
In other words, all those pictures of plants as specimens--as isolated things with no context--helped to objectify the "New World." They gave viewers the impression that the Americas were full of goods for the taking and empty of inhabitants who owned them. Even if Europeans understood intellectually that Indians were present, the lack of pictures conveyed the idea that the natives were an insignificant part of the landscape.

Crossing the Divide

Novelist Daniel Alarcón's writings evoke the gritty, compelling landscape of urban Latin AmericaAlarcón inhabits a bridge between the Americas, a place whose denizens are not entirely of one continent or the other. His fiction evokes the dust and grit of urban Peru, conveyed in gracefully nuanced English. He is, as he describes himself, "un norteamerincaico"—a North Amer-Incan—citizen of a highly mutable, interconnected world.

Also, there's Matt Flannery, a software engineer who "pioneers Internet microloans to the world's poor." His organization is named after the religious centers of the Pueblo people. I don't see any real connection between the name and the mission, but "kiva" certainly sounds low-tech, Third-World, and people-oriented.

Of course, we could come up with hundreds if not thousands of young Native leaders as innovative as these people. But these choices give us a fair sampling of what today's generation are doing to change the world.

Moreover, it's good to see Native values seeping into the mainstream--into the work of non-Native innovators and into bastions of the establishment like Smithsonian magazine. Five of the 37 innovators have some connection to Native Americans, and more are linked to minorities and indigenous people around the world.

P.S. There's no truth to the rumor that "Geneva Wiki" is also a website run by the United Nations. ;-)

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