Thought and Language On the River: A Pandemia Chronicle

I was surprised to learn that my thoughts about New Mexico and its troubled relationship with its “Hispanic” heritage begin with my memories of a psychology class during my graduate studies in special education. In Oregon. About a Russian dissident before dissidents were uncool and, you know, thrown onto a Siberian tundra (come to think of it, still true). Trips have a way of tripping you into early lights fantastic. But it’s worth it.

Shaman at Gran Quivira Pueblo confronting Friar Alonso Benavides when the entire pueblo agreed to become Christian [You’re] “so crazy . . . whipping each other like madmen spilling blood . . .and that’s the way you want it, so that these people would also be fools!” Sadly, everybody laughed and the Friar felt vindicated. They shoulda paid attention.

Here I was circa 1987. Or so. I was mildly interested in the psych class, in the middle of a 6th life with yet another personal crisis . . . .yeah, let’s just go on. I don’t remember the instructor, which is a true tragedy because she really changed my intellectual life by making us read a somewhat obscure book about a somewhat obscure early Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygotsky and his seminal work Thought and Language (translated from the Russian, “Myslenie e Rech”, which actually means “thinking and speaking” an important distinction) and introduced by a Russian scholar, Alex Kozulin (who now resides in Jerusalem. Won’t hold it against him). All those caveats are really important if you are to avoid some of the later more distorted versions. . . .

Yes, I know, so what has that got to do with the price of tea in China? Not much, but it does have to do with the price of European erasure of multiple peoples and their languages in the early Southwest. Words like “Christian” can seem so appealing until, well, some friar starts whipping himself and asking you to emulate him (see photo above).

How Language and Culture are Synonymous

You see, Vygotsky’s singular essential contribution was that thought (thinking) and language (speaking) are intimately tied directly to each other. That our intellect is governed by our experiences as we learn to talk, projecting inward; outer speech begets inner speech begets, well, thoughts–intellect, it’s all a product of action.

I remember almost literally devouring Vygotsky’s words. It led me to other theories regarding culture and language, which I will just suffice to state: language and culture are synonymous. Yes, they are the same thing. Language is a product of experience, culture is a product of experience. When you experience something, eventually you or someone who already knows, will tell you what to call it, how to say it, when to use it, and most important, how to remember it.

In the Americas long before Europeans, people here were finding ways to help each other do all kinds of things, hunt, gather, tell a friend that she likes somebody and then they giggle. Humans, we not only have a need to live, we need to tell somebody about it because we don’t really live alone. This was certainly true of the deserts, plains, and forests across what is now Texas, northern Mexico, Al-buh-kirkee (see previous post). They lived along rivers mostly but it was a long way from each other’s habitaciones, so, when they talked to each other, it had to make sense to those around them. Communication wasn’t initially meant to be built from a common binary numeric logic but to tell somebody else where the deer are as opposed to bringing home some sage along with the meat. . . among other things.

A Zone of Proximal Development: Or, Telling ’em What They Want to Hear

Which is why when Europeans, well, first, Spaniards but then all the others, were so impressed–dismayed–that there were hundreds of languages abounding all around what they believed was now their land. So, imagine poor Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, let’s say Frankie for short (he won’t mind now or, you know, it won’t matter). Here he is searching for the Seven Cities of Cíbola, the lost cities of gold and he comes up to the folk that had told Markie Mark Niza (Friar Marcos de Niza) from an earlier “expedition” in unintelligible proto-Tanoan speaking through a translator in early Keres that, “yeah, I think you’ll find Cíbola over there across the great ‘ocean of . . . .’ except only someone who speaks Towa knows about it, so, you should go down the river and talk to them”. . . . Long story short, Frankie and kids end up in Kansas (maybe) looking for some great city called “Quivira” after losing themselves across the Llano Estacado, the great “ocean” being a sea of seemingly endless prairie that all of a sudden descends into canyons along rivers.

Oh, and killing the poor schmoe who agreed to take them, “taking one for the team” so these nasty guys in armor, leather, and horses they wouldn’t even eat for food would get out of their village hair. Yes, probably not all that comical and likely really more dire, but this part of history really sucks, so, it’s best to tell it this way.

Suffice to say that the well-spoken singularly Spanish speakers really didn’t know what to do with all those languages and cultures, so, they decided that, for census and recordkeeping purposes, “let’s just say they’re all pueblos. ‘Cause they all live in adobe huts and settlements.” Maybe not enough said, but it helps. You know, for Chuckie’s sake back in Spain (that’s King Carlos V).

Hidden Languages, Hidden People

There were hundreds of pueblos all along the Rio Grande and other rivers, the Chaco, the Puerco, a lot. And and equally lot of languages/culture. In the recent past, there are 19 extant pueblos in New Mexico, comprising language groups of Tano-Kiowa (Tiwa, Tewa, Towa) and Keresan. However, each of these pueblos have distinct languages, the farther from each other, the less common they are to each other. In addition, are the “Ancestral Puebloans” along the Chaco Canyon; who were known earlier as the “Anazasi”–itself a Navajo name for them, “ancient enemies” (you can see the problem with the term). Many of the earlier peoples, including those in the direct area of Albuquerque are simply lost and the languages spoken, therefore, their specific cultures gone.

It wasn’t a simple process of attrition. Earlier this week, I went to a nature preserve called Bosque del Apache, which is not a preserve of the Apache but which is situated on the land of the Piros people who inhabited that part of the Rio Grande River. Eventually, this people were forced by Spanish disease and Apache raids to leave their homes and join other pueblos. With the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680 where all the different peoples along the river coordinated attacks that destroyed the hated missions built atop their ancestral homes and drove the Spanish out, the Piro were forcibly taken with the defeated Spanish to what is now El Paso. They never returned.

This kind of destruction happened even more acutely when the Spanish eventually returned in 1692 and re-conquered the region putting to death many leaders and destroying many pueblos in their eventual establishment of both Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In Santa Fe, the central downtown plaza was the site of executions for leaders of the subsequent revolt after the Spanish returned. In Albuquerque, land grants were issued, Estancias and later Plazas created where pueblos were once present. In other places, earlier pueblos, were subsumed into later ones such as the Pecos people who became a part of the Jemez Pueblo. Or how many Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Keres along the Rio Grande joined other peoples including the Diné (Navajo), Zuni, Apache, and Kiowa west and east on the plains and deserts. Different languages/cultures eventually became, well, different and newer languages/cultures. New experience begets new language, which begets new thinking. It just doesn’t always happen for good reasons.

I also visited the ruins of pueblos of the Salinas Missions, Abó and Gran Quivira (seems Frankie should have stayed put a little longer). These two, part of a trio with Quarai village were sites of salt trade before the coming of the Spanish and which were then usurped into Spanish missions.

In these “pueblos”, trade and sharing of ideas and experiences occurred across centuries that likely made the people increasingly open to possibilities. Although they of course had their conflicts (largely poorly understood and only accessible through the minds of Catholic friars or conquistadores), it is likely that when the next “trader/medicine man”, like Alonso de Benavides, Portuguese Friar of the Spanish Crown came to pueblo it’s not surprising that the people of Quivira, Abó, and Quarai were impressed enough to convert to Christianity and laugh at their trusted shaman who thought they were fools. And, thus, began the slow unfortunate, never inexorable, but deliberate descent into . . . heaven.

The term “Pueblo” acutely erases much history and the eradication of many people who spoke to each other and used cultural traditions described in their languages. Today, “Puebloan” becomes alternately a call to unity and to the acquiescence to accept lost identities subsumed into a “native population”. Some may consider this unifying principle a positive opportunity to bring peoples together in an otherwise atomizing existence. And, yes, there is an advantage to it albeit born of centuries rooted in oppression and eradication by continuous waves of European layering over the sherds, sands, adobe blocks, and bones of dead or dying cultures. . . .languages. Many are beginning to reassert that unity born of oppression is not as advantageous as unity born of recognition not just in common histories but alternate and diverse experiences. The unifying center now becomes a rejection of the past as represented by the warriors and “shamans” of the Catholic church who forcibly subsumed whole peoples and their languages/cultures.

What Was Didn’t Have to Be And It Doesn’t Have to Follow

In some ways, it is too bad that the road to finding more democratic and liberational solutions (as opposed to “liberal”, which may or may not liberate depending on what it describes) should have to come in upending centuries of oppression when it comes to the children of rape and slavery (that’s Brown and Black people in case you didn’t already guess). Even the myopic version of “progress” didn’t have to come by so many people dying and their thinking–words, languages; cultures–destroyed. That what we have today came by that road is not an argument but an observation.

Historically, it was unnecessary except to those who believe progress is measured in developing multiple ways to obviate natural experience. We simply do not know if “technology” had to arrive on silicon and in binary numbers converted into bits that result in the type you are reading and not in some organic medium based in bio-electricity for instance.

Here’s a word you should emblaze in your psyche, teleology. And, while you’re at it, inscribe reification too. When we say that “American progress” had to come through the eradication of Indian people, we are engaging in a teleological argument, it happened, therefore, it had to happen, or what happened next wouldn’t have happened. . . .Self-serving, huh?

And, when we speak of, say, a two-party system or, you know, White-based cultural standards as being “American”, we are reifying what exists and comparing every other actual American experience by an arbitrary standard rooted in, well, who won. Up to now, anyway.

I think Douglas Adams put it well,

“Anything that happens, happens. Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen. Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again.
It doesn’t necessarily do it in chronological order, though.”

(From Mostly Harmless, Book 5 of his best-selling trilogy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

In the Beginning Was the Word

I bet you think I got that title from the Bible, huh? No. It comes from Vygotsky (see? You shoulda known I’d get back to that). In speaking about words, Vygotsky thinks of them not as teleological or reified objects; cat isn’t just Tabby or, you know “Vygostsky” (the name of a friend’s pet I used to know) nor is it some greater thing as “feline’ denoting a more biological speciation. It is, was, ok, will be too, a sign. A signal upon which actions occur and which describe earlier actions (who knows what those are, we weren’t there when it was first “denoted”).

For example–to get back to the subject here–Anasazi was a longtime word naming people who are now called “Ancestral Puebloans” centered around the Chaco Canyon “pueblos”. The Diné, whom we used to name “Navajo” called these people Anasazi, which the Spanish adopted glossing over the translation meaning “ancient enemies”. Get it? See? A word connotes much more than a name. Another example, Comanche is a word taken from the Utes by the Spanish to mean “People who are always fighting us”. The beginning of a word is not its name; but its deed. It’s implication. Its reason for existence. And it is based in every single element of action and perception–prejudice and bias–that we imbue it to tell the world what it is we’ve experienced and, therefore, finally, think.

So, my word–my bias–is to describe myself as Chicano; a politically based term rooted in my experiences. It leads me to inscribe the world with a commitment to uphold neither my European nor my Indian roots, but my existential roots traversing multiple worlds; accepted in some manner and rejected in others.

It reminds me a bit of that scene in Young Guns the movie with Emilio Ésteves as Billy the Kid where he and Doc (Kieffer Sutherland) are behind a rock outnumbered by a posse and he says grinning, “excitin’ ain’t it?” Exhilarating in the glory of your moment, ignorant of the real danger that lurks around you. Or, you know, when Edward James Olmos in the movie Selena complains to his daughter that “the Mexicans hate us ’cause we’re too Anglo and the Anglos hate us ’cause we’re too Mexican. . .it’s exhausting!”

Walls in Glass, Rivers Telling Lifetimes

My journey through Al-buh-kirkee and Niew Mex-uh-Co has been a study in words I’ve always taken for granted, Pueblo, Anasazi , parks, nature preserve, Rio Grande. . . .Manuel. When I look at the river, it’s no longer about how polluted it is nor how tame it’s become against flooding. It’s a highway through multiple histories, forgotten lives, unknown tragedies; inexorably streaming to a sea absorbing all the blood and pain, love, and exultation. They–the river and all the people that it met–make me different somehow even though I only lived upon it for a short time, just two lifetimes. And met her once again–for the first time–during my ninth.

The sun shines opaquely through warped glass this Sunday afternoon, a bit like the enlightenment you think you see when you look deep into your history. You see the brightness, feel the warmth in the afternoon sheltered by Lime Green walls and desert prints. Knowing that so much is yet to learn once you walk out the door into the sun.

“Excitin’, ain’t it?”

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