Gordon Brotherston, "Native America in the Americas," excerpt from "Seek the Thought of Native America," interview by Fernando Gómez Herrero
FGH: Let us go to the section called the aboriginal or the native dimension of the Americas in the Americas. You are teaching with Lúcia de Sá a course entitled “American Genesis: Indigenous Texts and Their Resonance.” What arguments could you put forth to your students, and perhaps you already did, as to why they should bother with this indigenous dimension”?
GB: Well, let me start with things they have said, and I have this in writing, which is exactly what we had initially hoped. As you know, all first-year students at Stanford must take one course in the “Introduction to the Humanities” sequence, and we’re told ours is the only one which, at least in the students’ perception, does not start off from or build on the usual Western premise. That, in their view, is very good and it encourages us to keep doing the course. In planning the course, in thinking about it, in one of the first discussions about it with the people who run the program, this question came up: here you are with your American Genesis, but can you be sure that US students know what the Biblical Genesis is in the first place? You know, obviously a few will, but many might not, so what are you going to do about this, in order to make your implicit comparisons meaningful? So we began to think maybe we should after all start off with the Biblical Genesis and the Book of Daniel, Hesiod’s account of his world ages, and perhaps a bit of Ovid and Virgil. But then, surprise. They very ones who were asking the question suddenly supplied the answer: no, you mustn’t do that, you must hold on to your premise. Otherwise, we realized, we would be walking into the territory of the Other and alterity and all that. So we held our ground, resolving to say at the start: “ You know, you may or not like what we have to say, you may think it’s all untrue, a myth, or alternatively that it was all made up ultimately by western intelligence; we’ll handle these feelings and questions as they come up. But there’s more to it, stated in texts that are undeniably native, saliently our logo, the Aztec Sunstone, which everyone agreed dates from before the European invasion, and which records the paradigm of the world ages. If you want to make comparisons, then why not let us help you start from the other side, start with what we are learning here and making it the norm against which then to measure Old World belief: this looks like a bit the Biblical Genesis but this has a different feel, etc.” This was a simple enough maneuver but it cost us a bit of effort because this Western thing is so powerful, obviously it is, it’s so deeply ingrained in western logic and everyday language. So, it’s been an interesting exercise, anticipated a bit in the Book of the Fourth World, in the sense that the only authorities I would use were native American, certainly preferring them to those consecrated European chronicles and treatises at every stage. It is of course just this intellectual fact of America that one might wish were at least noticed by those philosopher- theorists who claim to expose the “exhaustion of Latin American difference” (Moreiras’s terms): who is it who differs from whom and in truth which is the imaginatively exhausted party, one might irreverently wonder.
FGH: The student keeps asking, so Prof. Brotherston, is this about the comparative game, or maybe not, between the aboriginal and native dimension in the Americas side by side with the West? If so, what is the point?
GB: I suppose implicitly it will always be. In the first quarter, not really. If comparisons are made, it is first of all within the Americas, in an effort to resist centuries of suppression that at first was pretty deliberate, the burning of “libraries” – as they Christians themselves called them – of codices and Inca quipus, in the great metropolitan centers of Mexico and Peru. We operate as bona fide Amerikanisten here, striving to uncover those paradigms of creation, and once undertaken, the task proved not impossibly hard, with adequate chosen texts to hand, the Sunstone of course, the Popol vuh, the Legend of the Suns, Watunna, the Huarochiri manuscript, Guaman Poma, the Emergence dry-painting of the Navajo, and so on. Some are even available in paperback. One of the joys of the course is having native Americans in it who enjoy the comparisons made on the continental scale while holding firmly on to what they learned at home – and clearly knowing a lot more about this last.
And this leads me to another simple point. If you listen to experts in say architecture, agriculture, and to a lesser degree, mathematics, or philology, especially in the heyday of nineteenth century diffusionism, those who make comparisons between the Old World and the New do so to the disadvantage of the latter. They take isolated examples from different parts and times of the New World in order to compare them with what is considered to be central, essential or sound in the Old – you must be familiar with this [way of operating] – and of course it generates a necessarily balkanized America. Needless to say, when some phenomenon or other of significance to these academic disciplines is discovered to have occurred earlier in America than in the Old World, as in fact happens increasingly, then diffusion is promptly forgotten. It’s clearly an ideological matter, with psychic roots so deep that they have been rarely examined. During the McCarthy era, Sauer, then Professor of Geography at Berkeley, suffered directly from this; he was ostracized for arguing against the then orthodox (and diffusionist view) that maize was an Asian import, saying it was rather the triumph of aboriginal American plant science, which of course Radio Carbon 14 soon conclusively proved it was. In the 1980s I spent some time working on calendrics, the articulation of time, not least in the calendar instituted in revolutionary France and why socially it was doomed to fail; but most of all of course my focus was America. For me, the most urgent thing was to compare like with like, so you compare Aztec and Maya, systems different in some respects yet also with a lot in common, and then both with Inca, or Sioux. The number of people who have done just this is rather small. Most will have something to say about the Maya or something to say about the Aztec, or other cultures, but consistently trying to work through to ground common to all is rare. Even the Mesoamerican system common to Aztec to Maya is ignored more often than not and in this respect the brilliant mathematical restitution offered in Munro Edmonson’s Book of the year (1988) is completely welcome, as for that matter is his learned translation of the Popol vuh, that bible of Mesoamerica (and America) which he was the first to translate into English directly form the Maya-Quiché. The northern extension of this Mesoamerican system has scarcely ever been examined as such, although the arithmetical and even textual norms are readily comparable: the nine-night cycle, the seventy-year cycles of human and star life, shifts through dimensions of time (days, years etc) by means of chosen ciphers, history that emerges from the epic and the world-ages, and so on. Indeed, only when we respect the continental frame of things do we begin to see not just the shared paradigms but the categorical differences. Perhaps the most striking of these is the pastoral economy of the Andes – nowhere else did appropriate animals flourish as the llama did there – and the pastoral ideology that grew from it. This particular regional difference not just throws light on why Inca theology differed from, say, Aztec; it puts into broader perspective root choices made in old world belief, between pastoralist Abel and agriculturalist Cain and so on, that profoundly affect philosophy up to and even after Rousseau.
All this to indicate the context and purposes of our efforts at intra-American comparison.