Lessons from a pre-Columbian phone


It looks like one of those string and paper cup phones -- the kind you might have made after watching a "ZOOM" episode on public television circa 1975 -- except that it's over 1,200 years old. The receivers are made of gourds coated with resin and stretched animal hide, and the 75-foot-long cord is fashioned from twined cotton. Writer and historian Neil Baldwin calls it "a marvel of acoustic engineering" that arose out of the Chimú Empire at its height. He explains that the "dazzlingly innovative" Chimú culture, centered in the Rio Moche Valley in Northern Peru, was conquered and subjugated by the Incas around 1470, several decades before the Columbian Exchange radically hastened the flow of ideas between East and West. It is the only example of this kind of phone ever discovered in this part of the world from this time period.

Anthropologists guess that it was made only for elites in the rigidly hierarchal Chimú society. Ramiro Matos, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian who specializes in cultures of the central Andes, speculates that the phone may have been made for executive level communication between a lower level assistant and someone of superior status. But, honestly, we'll probably never know why it was invented. The importance for me, as someone who earned one of my master's degrees in Native American history, is that it demonstrates ingenuity and inventiveness -- qualities we often deny to indigenous peoples.

Culturally, politically and emotionally we imagine native peoples in a sort of suspended animation -- unchanged by the exchange of ideas between societies and individual people. We often think of them as stuck in time -- not allowed to adapt new technology to their purposes or adopt and refashion others' ideas and traditions. Like any human beings the world over, native cultures are -- and have always been -- resourceful, imaginative and practical. It is unfortunate and so very limiting to our idea of human ingenuity when we insist that native groups stay "museum quality," as if they themselves were artifacts.

This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. While in graduate school, a professor told me of a fascinating documentary another grad student made about German attendees at Native American pow wows. In the film, the tourists approached native people to critique their style of dress and complain that it wasn't "authentic" enough. In one exchange, a German man insists that a Native American man's ceremonial clothing is not genuine because it is a mixture of old and new styles. He felt entitled to define true "Indian-ness" and tell this man he fell short.

Once I traveled up to the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming -- an ancient sacred site to native peoples throughout the Big Horn basin. On that day, a group of local Native American women gathered for a religious ceremony. Although it is classified as a National Historic Landmark and managed by the park service, when Native Americans wish to use the sacred space, the site is temporarily closed to tourists. We waited about an hour before we were allowed to hike up to the holy site on the edge of a magnificent vista. Later, describing to a Caucasian acquaintance our experience at the Medicine Wheel, she exclaimed, "Isn't it cool that we still have real Indians out here? Not like back East where there are none."

It was a remarkable comment for so many reasons. First, glaringly, there was the "we" she used that implied ownership of an entire people. There was also that unmistakable tone of pride that "their" Indians were somehow more legitimate because many still lived on reservations and had not intermarried with non-Indians to the extent of the Eastern tribes. I pointed out that Eastern tribes still very much exist -- despite 400 years spent in survival mode. Following the Pequot War that ended in 1638 -- a war in which hundreds of Pequots were burned alive by the English and many of the survivors were sold into slavery by their English and Native American enemies -- their tribal name itself was made illegal. For many Eastern groups, survival meant going underground.

But even when survival is not immediately at stake, all people must be afforded the right to adapt and transform aspects of modernity. Prize-winning writer and historian Philip Deloria -- son of renowned Dakota writer, scholar and activist Vine Deloria, Jr. -- has written several influential texts about the persistent attempts of non-Native people to dictate what is true and valid "Indian-ness." His 2004 monograph, "Indians in Unexpected Places," challenges stereotypes of Native American people which restrict them to an unchanging past in which they are not allowed to adapt and repurpose modernity to their needs.

In one section of the book, "Expectation and Anomaly," Deloria deconstructs one of his favorite photographs from the 1940s. In it a native woman in traditional buckskin beaded dress sits under a large salon hairdryer while she receives a manicure. Deloria asserts that the reason why so many people still chuckle at this image is because we believe subconsciously that "Indians live in the hinterlands, strangers to the urbanity of the manicure. They practice barter or gift economies and are, thus, unprepared for the cash exchange of the beauty parlor." When we laugh at such images and label them as "anomalies," it is because it is easier to imagine them as exceptions rather than as an absolutely normal aspect of Native American culture -- indeed, all culture. We all dabble, adapt, transmute, and borrow. And in the process, we neither automatically lose our identities nor our histories.

Someday we may discover more clues as to the inventor of the ancient cup phone. But for now I am grateful for both the reminder about the elemental drive to innovate and for the opportunity to imagine the cultural exchange and personal ingenuity that led to the clever invention.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.


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