Cosmovision, Symbolism, and Mythology: Issues Concerning Interpretation, Meaning, Politics, Law, and Global Affairs (2014)

Date: May 20, 2013, 2:00pm – 3:30pm

Moderator: Cecilia Sercan, Cornell University

Rapporteur: Christine Hernandez, Tulane University


  • Cosmovision, Indigenous Knowledge and Subsistence among Mesoamerican and South American Cultures — James J. Sheehy, Pennsylvania State University, Altoona
  • Land, Children and Politics: Native America and Aboriginal Australia 1900 – 1930 — John Maynard, University of Newcastle
  • Indigenous Law in the Americas — Teresa M. Miguel-Stearns, Yale University Law School

Dr. James Sheehy initiated the session with his presentation titled, “Cosmovision, Indigenous Knowledge and Subsistence among Mesoamerican and South American Cultures.”  He begins with a brief anthropological definition of cosmovision as a component of the broader domain of cultural ideology.  He notes that a people’s cosmovision can be manifested in and studied via its material culture.  An example he cites is that an analysis of certain artifacts can reveal aspects of ancient Maya cosmovision.

Cosmovision constitutes one form of indigenous knowledge that exists in human cultures.  Forms of indigenous knowledge differ across the various domains of culture.  Sheehy focuses on a specialized form of indigenous knowledge that concerns ecology and modes of subsistence production called Traditional Ecological Knowledge or TEK.  He notes that in modern Western European cultures, humans are considered apart from Nature which contrasts with the view held in many traditional cultures that humans play a vital role in daily and long term interactive processes with Nature that are essential to keeping the world and broader Universe going.  Studies of TEK are popular in the field of ecology studies at present though much of the data collected is qualitative rather than quantitative.  This is because TEK knowledge is derived from practice and experience over time.

As Sheehy explains, the conceptual framework used to study TEK in any one society is three-part and includes:  a people’s knowledge of nature (the environment in which they live); the cultural beliefs about the environment and humans’ place within it; and the everyday practices and experiences that people have as they extract and process food resources from their surroundings.  These three components of TEK overlap resulting in what Sheehy describes as a “cognized landscape or ethnoscape” which is an integration of a people’s observations of Nature, their beliefs regarding Nature, and their everyday experiences when implementing traditional knowledge and processing new knowledge acquired about their environment.  Sheehy continues commenting on the fact that TEK knowledge must obviously change across varying forms of landscape and terrain, and so must it change diachronically because different individuals with different daily experiences cause changes in conventional behavior and therefore future practices.

There are multiple levels of analysis in TEK.  They include:  1) a people’s local knowledge, 2) local forms of resource management implemented, 3) the social institutions that coordinate and regulate behavior regarding the environment, and 4) their cosmovision which is the belief system that shapes people’s perceptions of their environment.

The final half of Sheehy’s presentation is devoted to showing how an analysis of cosmovision can help explain the logic of TEK in two cultural examples.  He begins each case example with a review of pertinent creation mythology from each culture that specifically relates to the relationship of people with subsistence resources in their respective environments.  Afterwards, he explains how a particular cultural activity or set of activities reflects a people’s cosmological beliefs and how that knowledge and relationship between ideology and behavior is transmitted to future generations.

Sheehy proceeds to his first case study.  Here he looks at TEK as it relates to traditional maize agriculture as practiced by the Huasteca living in north-central highland Mexico.  He gives a quick and cursory review of Mesoamerican creation myths related to corn.  He uses schematics to illustrate the cycles of birth and rebirth as it relates to the maize agricultural cycle.  His discussion moves to an explanation of the Huastec “milpa” script which is a routine set of activities and decisions that a Huasteca farmer engages in when doing maize agriculture.  Children begin learning the milpa script early on by accompanying and helping their parents in the fields which is further reinforced by their interactions with other community members who transmit traditional knowledge and put it into practiced on a daily basis.  Sheehy reviews Mesoamerican creation myths and uses schematics to help illustrate how maize farming repeats creation myth episodes and thus, the growth of corn becomes a metaphor for the human life cycle.

Sheehy’s second example comes from Tukano-speaking people living in Amazonia.  He reviews the pertinent creation mythology of Tukano speakers and uses a schematic to illustrate the relationship of humans to the supernatural and their contract with the gods.  Tukano people have a reciprocal arrangement with their gods.  Humans must return to the earth those resources they take to sustain themselves.  Shamans manage this relationship by communicating and making offerings of other organisms to the gods in place of humans themselves.  When Tukano speakers become sick or suffer accidental death it is the reciprocal payment being made to balance the relationship.  Sheehy offers the example of the peach palm ritual as one culture form that expresses the Tukano peoples’ notions of renewal or repayment of their contract with their gods and the spirits of the rainforest and its creatures.

Dr. John Maynard followed Dr. Sheehy with his presentation entitled, “Land, Children and Politics:  Native America and Aboriginal Australia 1900-1930.”  The focus of Dr. Maynard’s talk was to present the results of his ongoing research project funded in 2011 to compare the histories of Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians during the first three decades of the twentieth century.  Dr. Maynard strongly makes the point that this period has all but been ignored by historians and scholars for both indigenous communities.  To better explain his stake in this research, Dr. Maynard gives us a brief personal background.

Essentially, Dr. Maynard describes himself as a high school drop-out who entered University at the age of 39.  He was drawn to studying the history of aboriginal activism because his grandfather was a well-known aboriginal activist during the 1920s.  His grandfather founded the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Organization and much of Dr. Maynard’s scholarly work has been dedicated to documenting his grandfather’s activism.  His more recent research was inspired by his experiences as a dock worker interacting with African Americans and West Indian men working on the freighters coming into port in Australia.

In 2011, Dr. Maynard won a grant to do research on the common experiences of Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians between 1900 and 1930.  As he notes, African American activism during the 1920s to 1960s was very visible to Australians, but the historical record regarding experiences of Native Americans during this same period was essentially unknown.  The same is true for aboriginal people.  He comments that in Australia, there is no acknowledgement of aboriginal people in the national history taught to school children.  They are either members of a “dead race” or people lost in the “Stone Age.”  As Dr. Maynard explains, his current work is to write the “missing histories” of both people during this thirty year period.  The remainder of Dr. Maynard’s presentation is devoted to a brief summary of some of his results providing examples and stories culled from archival sources on six points of comparison between the two communities.  These points include the following:  1) land, for both groups, Caucasians found ways to dispossess indigenous people of their lands; 2) children, aboriginal people would revolt when the Australian government took children away from their families while the Bureau of Indian Affairs has a well-documented history of doing the same among various Native American nations; 3) pan-indigenous movements were begun among both peoples after World War I; 4) Aboriginal and Native American men participated as soldiers in World War I and they were equally disappointed to find that the social situations of both communities were little changed when they returned home; 5) self-determination and activism became important goals for both groups at this time; and 6) control of and equal access to water became important sources of conflict and land loss for both groups.  In his concluding remarks, Dr. Maynard makes the important point that there are “indigenous voices buried in archives” and research like the kind he is doing is bringing those voices back to the present teach both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples their stories.

The final presentation, “Indigenous Law in the Americas,” was given by Dr. Teresa Miguel-Stearns.  She begins with a declaration that much of what has been written about indigenous law is often done by non-indigenous, legal scholars which often leaves it ethnocentric, even biased in its views.  The aim of Dr. Miguel-Stearns’ talk is to discuss how indigenous legal regimes in the Americas interact with national and international legal systems.  When a state or society allows the simultaneous use of two or more legal systems in a single state this situation is recognized as legal pluralism.  This may take the form of state and civil law being used side-by-side with traditional indigenous law or in other cases with religious law.

Using data from an Ottawa database on plural legal systems, Dr. Miguel-Stearns creates a color-coded chart of the globe showing where plural legalism exists.  Central and South America are indicated as having no plural legalism and Miguel-Stearns uses this to show how understudied this cultural phenomena is in Latin America. Legal pluralism from a socio-legal approach does not really define what “law” is, but attempts to bring indigenous law up to the same level as a Western legal regime, yet indigenous citizens would still be subject to civil and international law regimes; transformative legal pluralism aims to bring indigenous law up to the same level as a state legal system.  Miguel-Stearns notes that as indigenous communities see themselves as different they begin to exert their self-determination.  When states pursue a policy of non-interference in indigenous legal affairs, this tends to lead to increased claims of sovereignty, self-governance, and eventually autonomous legal authority on behalf of indigenous communities.

Indigenous law differs from Western legal regimes.  As Miguel-Stearns explains, norms and procedures in indigenous legal regimes are guided by world vision; they tend to be blended with religious and social mores lending indigenous law some measure of legitimacy.  This goes hand-in-hand with efforts to encourage indigenous justice.

The characteristics of indigenous justice include:  1) an accumulation of historical practices that are locally defined and applied to the entire community; 2) it is organized holistically rather than by subject and it is non-linear; 3) everyone in the community is involved in legal proceedings; 4) there exists a restorative principle with the goal of healing the victim and yet allow the offender to regain dignity and remain in the community; and 5) there exists a reparative principles where the offender makes amends and restitution.  Some of the advantages of indigenous legal systems for people are that they are quick, dynamic, free, and have the force of customary law.

There have been international efforts to recognize and encourage legal pluralism through conventions and declarations, though not by treaty.  Several countries (Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru) in Latin America have constitutions, constitutional amendments, or laws that recognize indigenous law or allow it to co-exist.  Some examples listed by Miguel-Stearns include the 1991Convenio 169 by the International Labor Organization; the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples passed in 2007 by the United Nations; and an American declaration of rights for indigenous people drafted by the Organization of American States ongoing as of 2012.

Dr. Miguel-Stearns finishes her presentation with a discussion of two case examples of legal pluralism in Latin America.  The first is in Colombia.  Colombia has a progressive constitution and is very active in granting rights to its indigenous people.  Indigenous laws can be in force internal to indigenous communities and in certain cases, individuals may be extradited back to a community for local trial.  Miguel-Stearns’ second example is Bolivia.  In general, the Bolivian government exerts much less state intervention in indigenous communities.  For example, witchcraft accusation and expulsion is a very popular means of settling disputes in Bolivian indigenous communities.   Indigenous law often imparts the death penalty to witches.  Expelled witches do not often seek civil authority to right their cases and they are less likely to want to return to their home communities.

Bolivia has enacted many reforms impacting indigenous peoples including its constitution enacted in 2008 which made indigenous law equivalent to the national legal regime, though it must remain within constitutional legal limits.  This means that there are some points of conflict between the two systems that need to be worked out.  These conflicts include:  1) the right to life common to state legal regimes versus the death penalty invoked by indigenous law; 2) laws written by national congresses favorable to indigenous people, should they be territorial or open to areas only outside of local communities; 3) reconciling the definition of crime in indigenous communities versus national communities; and 4) punishments vary between the two regimes as indigenous law often imparts death penalties, corporal punishments, and forced labor.

Dr. Miguel-Stearns finishes her presentation with a clip on the “circle of justice” from a YouTube video on indigenous justice in Potosi, Bolivia and a useful reference resource for scholars, the Inter-American Development of Indigenous Legislation databank that is current up to 2010.


Peter Johnson (Princeton University) poses a question to Dr. Maynard:  the Prime Minister of Australia issued an apology about the loss of traditional lands and before that several Supreme Court decisions leading to a significant return of land to traditional owners, how do you see these two law cases and apologies going to do to both different communities and diverse communities in Australia as well as the economic and political elite? Dr. Maynard responds, well the Marbay Decision (1980) affects a very small percentage of the aboriginal population to recover their traditional lands.  It affects only those who lived on traditional lands living in a traditional way unbroken, so there was miniscule benefit from the Land Rights Act.  People are still fighting.  As for Rudd’s apology, for older generations it was a major event.  The reality is that it was symbolic; there’s nothing coming out at the end of it.  The reality is that in all other ways the aboriginal [people] have very poor statistics in employment, housing, health, education, incarceration, any statistic one can name, aboriginal people will have shocking statistics.  That is where we are.  An apology is something we were hoping for, for a long time, but nothing has come out of it in the end. That is the reality of where we are today.  There are great differences in the aboriginal population from urban centers in se Australia to rural centers elsewhere. The reality is for aboriginal people in all of those locations [they] suffer equally in all respects and they are at a shocking disadvantage because the government’s gaze is to the north and central portions of the country.  The reality is that domestic violence, youth suicide, and substance abuse are all a national problem, but it is always the government [saying] “we know what’s best for you” rather than speaking with aboriginal people on the ground which is the major mode of operation for most governments.  I hope this answers your question.

Paula Covington (Vanderbilt University) questions Dr. Miguel-Stearns:  I notice there are a few books on lynching and indigenous practices.  I was wondering if you had run across anything in your research. Dr. Miguel-Stearns replies:  I did.  I have spoken to a couple of people about lynching.  And, in the clip right before the piece I showed you there is an interview with an indigenous leader who insists that lynching is not part of our [indigenous Bolivian] legal justice, and this is a new epithet.  My graduate student from Guatemala informed me that these lynchings are mob justice and has nothing to do with legal traditional justice despite what is portrayed by the national media as traditional justice.  They are getting short shrift on this. This is a good question because before I began my research that is what I had read in the media.

Wendy Griffin (Universidad Pedagógica Nacional de Honduras) makes an open statement toward Dr. Miguel-Stearns:  I’ll be talking about the INO convention 169, how it got started, and was written.  [The reason it] exists at all was because an anthropologist took a Canadian Indian to visit the Maori in New Zealand and when they got back to Canada the experience encouraged Canadian Indians to form a brotherhood and to ask for UN status and that led to the world council on indigenous people being founded and they worked with indigenous people to get the world council to write the ILO convention written and this has everything to do with the benefits being gained by Latin American Indians.

Christine Hernández (Tulane University):  I enjoyed all three of the presentations very much.  I wanted to say to Dr. Maynard that at the end of your talk you made the comment that you found indigenous voices buried in the archival materials that you were researching and I just loved to hear that because I am a curator of Special Collections and I love it when students and researchers can come in and do work with our collections and they can come at them from a different perspective and find new “stuff.”  They can work on different kinds of questions that you wouldn’t normally look for in a particular collection.  I was wondering if you, or any of the others, could comment afterwards a little bit about your process of how your finding or how you were determining the collections you looked into and if you were discovering new things, how you were able to do that or if you think there was something managers or curators like myself could do to help you find this kind of information that seemed to be buried or not quite obvious?

Dr. Maynard answered:  I’d just like to say that at the archives in the states that I have visited, I’ve gotten incredible assistance and help even before coming, on line I could pick things out ahead of time and just name the day and time to come see them .  To begin, looking at the histories of aboriginal and Native American people, for the time period I’m interested in, nobody has even bothered looking into, historians are interested in the battles and Little Bighorn and then go directly to Alcatraz.  I just came back from spending six days looking at records in Kansas City mainly because the Pine Ridge records are there.  There are some great stories there.  (Dr. Maynard summarizes the story of a boy in the Pine Ridge boarding school being beaten by a teacher in front of his father and the father summarily beats the teacher down afterward as an act of defiance.)  These are uplifting stories.  People think that Aboriginals and Native Americans as being assimilated; they are fighting for their culture and to protect their families

Christine Hernández replies:  from a curatorial process, I see you were able to make good use of newspapers and photographs.

Dr. Maynard:  Yes, especially in Australia.  Newspapers give the sentiment of the day.  This hasn’t changed but they are backed up by lots of documents.  The refreshing thing is that there are so many indigenous voices.  This is the driver for me.  I’ve had lots of connections over the last ten years with indigenous centers and visited many indigenous centers in the Dakotas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Anonymous person in the audience remarks:  Carlisle?

Dr. Maynard:  No, but my wife has a good friend of mine who is a curator at the Smithsonian and took her to visit Carlisle.  There are lots of materials from the BIA about [boarding] schools and from the Human Rights Association that I’ve been looking at over the last two years.

Peter Johnson (Princeton University) then asks an open question to the panel:  In the last couple of years the European Union has been diligently working on legal instruments to assure the protection of intellectual property that is transmitted orally and its special importance in terms of medicinal plant use and related functions that involve oral traditions.  What extent in terms of your own research on different communities and areas, should this legislation be approved within the EU that the communities that you research would be able to pick it up and push it in terms of national agendas?

Dr. Maynard answers:  Certainly, with missing histories there is so much embedded in there that people are not aware of.  Even the people themselves do not know much about the first three decades of their own history.  So I’m sure the stuff that I’m putting together and I’m sure those who follow will produce stuff that communities can use.  First and foremost is the sense of inspiration, but whether they can get anything more from it, I’m not able to go there.

Dr. Miguel-Stearns asks Dr. Maynard about the accuracy of a particular documentary film about a national event in Australia related to Aboriginal people.  Dr. Maynard answers that the film was basically accurate about the horror of that period in Australian national history.  He notes that documentary films reach out to audiences.  He says, “I write for indigenous peoples; I don’t write for the Academy.  I get published widely in the Academy and that’s a bonus.  I want them to read it and enjoy it, but my audience is indigenous.  Second I want non-indigenous people to read it and learn about the history of their countries and what has happened to indigenous people.  Film documentaries are a way of reaching audiences that can be further explored.