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Anthropologist works with Guatemalan leaders to preserve a town’s history and culture

BOONE—Timothy J. Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Appalachian State University, has developed a special relationship during the past 17 years with the predominantly indigenous town of Sololá, Guatemala.

View larger imageTimothy J. Smith, an assistant professor at Appalachian State University, speaks at the January inauguration of Sololá, Guatemala’s new indigenous mayor and local government representatives. He was an invited guest due to his long-standing relationship with the town. (Photo courtesy of Timothy J. Smith)View larger imageNative dress, such as this being worn by a resident of Sololá and Timothy J. Smith from Appalachian State University, and an interest in learning and producing traditional crafts is declining among the young, especially males. The local customs and practices help draw tourists to the Guatemalan town. (Photo courtesy of Timothy J. Smith)View larger imageTimothy J. Smith

Fluent in the local language, Kaqchikel Mayan, Smith was invited in January to speak to nearly 5,000 citizens attending the inauguration of Sololá’s new indigenous mayor and local government representatives.

Smith has been conducting research and field work in Sololá since his days as an undergraduate student at Tulane University. He recently led a project to publish the first social science text written in Kaqchikel Mayan, which is being distributed to indigenous leaders, school officials, teachers and students in Sololá. The textbook focuses on Sololá’s history, customary law and local government structure.

“I talked about what we are hoping to accomplish with the textbook as a way to revitalize and strengthen the culture and, more importantly, to teach the younger generation about local traditions,” he said of his speech to the newly elected leaders. “This is a way to try and help those groups interested in sustaining and revitalizing certain aspects of their culture.”

Globalization, changes in the local economy and a declining focus on religious ceremonies have weakened many of the local traditions that have come to give Sololá a unique identity in Guatemala. For example, interest in wearing local traje (native dress), which consists of brightly colored pants and shirts for men and skirts and blouses for women, and learning and producing traditional crafts is declining among the young, especially males.

“The mayor has made it his mission to grow the local economy and revitalize local traditions by focusing on tourism with plans to expand a gateway/kiosk and museum where foreigners, as well as Guatemalan tourists, can learn more about the town and local handicrafts and keep travelers from just passing through Sololá on their way to nearby Lake Atitlán,” Smith said. “Tourists from other countries expect to see individuals in their indigenous dress and learn about the local customs. If these no longer exist, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which the unique image of Sololá is lost as it becomes just another of the many other towns in Guatemala, one without its own visual identity. This is a concern of local leaders.”

While he was in Sololá, Smith also helped government officials access information related to a long-forgotten cemetery that was recently unearthed during excavation for a new market near the town center. The cemetery, which has since been relocated, held the remains of nearly 6,000 individuals.

Smith was part of a research team at Tulane that translated a collection of documents written in Sololá in the 16th and 17th centuries by the town’s elders. From those documents, collectively called The Kaqchikel Chronicles, he was able to cross-reference information with studies by archaeologists, medical historians, and forensic anthropologists to propose that many of the skeletal remains were most likely those of individuals who died from what might have been the first major outbreak of measles in the town in the mid- to late- 1500s.

“Later, in the late 16th century, two more events happened that scholars believe included a horrible trifecta of small pox, measles and typhus,” he said.

“I talked with town leaders about what their ancestors had written in the Chronicles and what anthropology can do to help the community recover its history by working with historic documents,” he said. Smith also gave the new indigenous mayor a copy of the Chronicles, written in Kaqchikel and with English translations. The book was written by Judith Maxwell and Robert Hill of Tulane University and published by the University of Texas Press.

“As an anthropologist and one who is committed to an applied project, it was incumbent upon me and really a great honor to be able to repatriate the knowledge that I had gained by reading through the documents of their ancestors. This is a responsibility instilled in me through my training in anthropology and global studies,” Smith said.

However, his helping Solola’s leaders and residents reconnect to their history does not prevent the town from changing on its own terms.

“The generations that were responsible for these traditions and government structures that have survived since the Colonial Period are getting older, but as an anthropologist, I would never even hint at the idea that a culture dies. Culture doesn’t die – it changes, shifts and transforms into something new,” Smith said.

“It’s exciting to see what future generations might choose, but at the same time there is going to be some feeling of nostalgia and loss on the behalf of some local leaders and citizens and the foreign researcher, perhaps misguided, but I think that this is a sentiment that comes with a great caveat, which is that this is their culture, they are the owners and we should do nothing to stand in the way of that.”