Academic journal article MELUS

Indigenous Nationhood and Intertribal Kinship in Todd Downing's the Mexican Earth

Academic journal article MELUS

Indigenous Nationhood and Intertribal Kinship in Todd Downing's the Mexican Earth

Article excerpt

As Todd Downing led tourists from the United States through Mexico during the summers in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he studied their views of Mexico and developed his own acute understanding of the Mexican land and its people. Downing incorporated this knowledge and experience into ten mystery novels and The Mexican Earth (1940), a history of indigenous Mexico and an unequivocal assertion of indigenous nationhood and anti-racist, anti-colonial nationalism disguised as a travelogue about modern Mexico. (1) Downing was born in Atoka in the Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, in 1902, and his interest in Mexico has its origins in his intellectual life in Norman at the University of Oklahoma, where Downing earned a BA in 1924 and an MA in 1928 with a thesis on the Uruguayan dramatist Florencio Sanchez. He also taught Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and reviewed books in Spanish and French for Books Abroad, which was founded at the University of Oklahoma and eventually renamed World Literature Today. In The Mexican Earth, which received a laudatory review from the archaeologist and historian Philip Ainsworth Means in the New York Times, Downing adopts an explicitly indigenous authorial perspective by identifying himself as Indian and narrating a map of the Americas that foregrounds an indigenous nation to indigenous nation relationship within Mexico and between Mexico and the United States. (2) Downing highlights the varied histories, worldviews, and landscapes that define indigenous nations, but also he emphasizes the shared experience of originating and continuously residing in the Americas that establishes and sustains a kinship between all indigenous American people. In a reading of the histories of the Americas he privileges tribal nation specificity and encourages indigenous solidarity against colonial dominance.

Downing's view of indigenous Mexico in The Mexican Earth anticipates late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century coalitions between indigenous people in the US and Mexico as well as the current disciplinary interest in American Indian literary nationalism, which encourages the foregrounding of indigenous creative and intellectual traditions in readings of indigenous literatures and histories. For example, in March of 2006, a month prior to the "Native American Literature: Nationalism and Beyond" conference sponsored by the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia, twenty-five citizens of the Hopi Nation ran 2,000 miles from Hopi to Anahuac, the Valley of Mexico, for the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City. (3) The run was organized by the Black Mesa Trust, which was founded in 1999 to educate people about the devastating environmental impact of the Peabody Coal Company's daily pumping of millions of gallons of water from the Navajo Aquifer. (4) The runners, who ranged in age from twelve to seventy-five years, arrived at the Otomi Ceremonial Center in Temoaya and, then, completed their journey at Teotihuacan, a 2,000 year old urban center of Mesoamerica prior to the rise of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1325 CE. Roberto Rodriguez reports in the April 6, 2006 edition of Indian Country Today on the welcome that the Hopis received from their relatives throughout the journey and in Anahuac:

   Everywhere they went, the runners were treated with utmost respect
   and great reverence, particularly the elders. Many of those with
   whom they met acknowledged that they are related and that the Hopi
   represent memory. The people do not need linguists, archaeologists
   or anthropologists to affirm this. The stories, the common
   languages, the water and the maize communicate this same message:
   San ce tojuan. Ti masehualme, okichike ka centeotzintli: We are
   one. We are macehual, made from sacred maize. (1)

This meeting of relatives only nominally separated by colonial borders illustrates at least two ways that indigenous peoples practice their nationhood in an international context: through a local movement that roots itself in an indigenous nation's land and worldview even as it travels between other native nations (Zuni, Isleta, Otomi) to a global conference on water policy, and through the recognition of indigenous nationhood by other indigenous nations. …

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