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Emerging Scholars: Navigating North and South for Native Knowledge

Navigating North and South for Native Knowledge

Erich Fox Tree

Title: Carolina Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Education: M.A., Ph.D., Anthropology, Stanford University; M.A., American Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania; B.A., Social Anthropology, Harvard University
Age: 35

Dr. Erich Fox Tree didn’t plan to study linguistic anthropology, but fieldwork in Guatemala prompted him to examine the intersection of language, identity and politics. Fox Tree spent more than two years in Guatemala to observe how its rural peoples have become living examples of historical and comparative linguistic theories.
It’s a line of inquiry that seems natural for an anthropologist whose grandparents were the last speakers, as far as he knows, of the language of the Lesser Antilles.

“My family was from the Caribbean,” Fox Tree says. “My indigenous group used to occupy at least 20 countries in the Caribbean, from south Florida to the north of South America, and there are still people in South America who speak related languages.”

The wide distribution of this indigenous group reinforced an awareness of pan-Native cultural identity that began in childhood and led him to Harvard, where he was awarded a Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship in his junior year. After graduating, he traveled and studied informally in Europe for more than a year before entering the graduate program in American civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania.

“My goal had been to study hemispheric pan-Nativism in the United States by examining the interactions of North American Natives and Native American immigrants from Latin America,” he says. The closure of the academic department prompted Fox Tree to apply to Stanford University, which he called “a life-changing decision for the better.”

Fox Tree chose Stanford for its innovative program in anthropology, which included a wide range of traditional and contemporary specialties, such as Mesoamerican and Maya studies, feminist anthropology, political ecology, ethnicity and nationalism and language ideology. Also, Stanford did not require traditional fieldwork. But one of his professors told Fox Tree that fieldwork, especially outside the country, would benefit his career.

“Ironically, I fell in love with fieldwork in Guatemala,” Fox Tree says. “I was living in a town that had no phones, no e-mail and intermittent electricity. Buses out of town were unreliable, and I ended up spending a lot of time walking up and down mountains to get places. But it offered wonderful opportunities to talk with people and hear their stories.”

From 1997-1999, Fox Tree studied the indigenous populations of Santa María Visitación and Santa Clara la Laguna, two small Guatemalan towns that have been in conflict for more than 600 years. They were on opposite sides during the 1980s civil war, although their town squares are only 500 meters apart. In the 1990s, a consciousness of being Maya began to change the nature of the conflict.

“The word Maya wasn’t the name that any of the groups in the highlands of Guatemala were using until they borrowed it from linguists and anthropologists,” Fox Tree says. “I’ve been trying to show how people are taking advantage of these linguistic ideas for local political purposes, not just the larger dyadic conflict between indigenous people and non-indigenous people in Guatemala.”

For example, the people of Santa Clara speak a Mayan language, K’ichee’, while the “Visitecos” of Santa María Visitación speak primarily a closely related Mayan language called Tz’utujiil, as well as Kaqchikel and K’ichee’. Until recently, Fox Tree says, the residents of either town would not have named their language, calling it simply “our language” or “the language of our town.” Last year, when the Visitecos erected a sign reading “Welcome to the Tz’utujiil town of Santa María Visitación” on the road that leads to both towns, the people of Santa Clara la Laguna retaliated by taking siege of Santa María Visitación for two months.

Fox Tree learned to speak K’ichee’ and Tz’utujiil, as well as some Kaqchikel. “I’m now working on a new language which has been
hitherto unidentified,” he says, “a Mayan sign language which is, I
believe, part of an ancient family of sign languages.”

Guatemala has a large deaf population in certain highland towns, and it is primarily these people who use the sign language, called Meemul Ch’aab’al, or “language of the mutes.” Virtual slaves, they work from sunup to sundown grinding corn, making the local moonshine, or weaving, for nothing more than food and a place to sleep. The outside world is slowly becoming aware of their situation, but when charitable organizations tried to donate money to the deaf community, the money ended up in the pockets of the people who employ the deaf workers. Fox Tree is passionate about trying to help these people, who have been overlooked by scholars, in part because neither the deaf slaves nor the landowners they work for speak Spanish.

It’s a challenge for Fox Tree to balance research and activism, to ensure that scholarly integrity is not compromised by the need to promote pan-Native political aims. He believes that showing the sign language’s connection to the 2,000-year-old Maya culture may be a way to change people’s attitudes toward the deaf slaves.

“The only way to help these folks is to document the language and popularize among the Mayas the idea that this is an old language,” he says. “This language will help Mayas to understand ancient Maya
culture, and in so doing, perhaps inspire Mayas to not only want to
preserve and document this language, but also not to enslave the folks who are using it.”

By Patricia Valdata

* Due to Fox Tree’s religious beliefs, no photograph was included in this profile.

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