March 28th, 2009

Lifelong Thing

Stories about islands

A couple of stories about islands, one of them old, which I thought of interest to anthropologists.

The first is crossposted to cahistory, which I've just created.

Eighteen years of solitude: The lone woman of San Nicolas Island

About Juana Maria, the Nicoleño woman left behind on San Nicolas when the rest of her tribe -- the last six others who hadn't been massacred by Inuit seal hunters in the employ of the Russians -- were brought to Mission Santa Barbara. An interesting article, primarily because I knew very little about the case beforehand. Just about the entire second page could be done without. (Psychologists say being abandoned and stuck alone for 20 years on an island is hard? No shit!) It also shows remarkable ignorance of the state of the missions at the time. You could have called the missionaries heartless if this had taken place in 1815, but not in 1835. In 1835 the missions were struggling for their lives -- a struggle they would lose fast. At that time most of the missionaries were viewed with hostility by the Mexican State who saw them as agents of Spain, and every day they expected to be deported. Fr. Antonio Peyri, the head of the missions, had already been deported several years earlier, despite taking an oath of fealty to Mexico and begging for the missions. It was already a year after the missions had been secularized, and Pico was already dividing up the mission lands among his cronies. If the missionaries invested the money to hire a ship in 1835 to bring a handful of Indians to the mainland, it was a feat of generosity, because the missions were no longer allowed to possess lands on which the Indians could work! This article ignores two possibilities about why no second mission was undertaken to San Nicolas: 1) Juana Maria ran away and they decided it was her choice to live on the island and 2) It was too damn expensive for the missions, who were having their wealth seized, to pay for another ship to go out there. Judge whether the missionaries were misguided based on their actions and their intents, rather than jumping to conclusions out of ignorance.

"Wallowing off the Coast of Tristan"

Simon Winchester on being banned from a small island community off the coast of South Africa. I've long enjoyed Winchester's writings -- The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything were both charming books, each of which provoked in me a brief and minor obsession with the Oxford English Dictionary, and I keep meaning to go back to The Map that Changed the World. In this article Winchester is describing the problem a lot of anthropologists have had -- answering to beliefs that they've betrayed their subjects. Of course, for us it goes beyond what we ourselves have done, as we're reaping the heritage left to us by anthropologists who were creatures of times past. When I read of a Reservation which won't allow archaeologists on their land, I have to remember Frank Hamilton Cushing pulling a knife on Zuñis who were trying to throw him out of their dances. Part of me wants to say it's a matter of freedom of speech, but more of me is glad that there's a place in the world where at least a few people can live as they wish and can keep the riffraff out if they choose.