You can see Part One of my conversation with Amadeo Rea at the Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado in April last year here.
Amadeo Rea is a taxonomic ornithologist and ethnobiologist whose work is focused on the greater Southwest of the USA. His life’s work deals with the taxonomy and distribution of birds, avian paleontology, and zooarchaeology. His 1983 work, Once a River: Bird Life and Habitat Changes on the Middle Gila, documents avifaunal changes in River Pima country.
Bob Gosford: Tell me about how birds and other animals bring people power through the agency of the Namkam.
Amadeo Rea: Yes, namkam is an important Piman concept. A namkam is a meeter – someone who meets some power animal, a spirit helper some other cultures would call it. I don’t know what the Australian Aboriginal people call it. Its an animal or sometimes a plant (Peyote in particular) that will come to that person in daydreams or real dreams and bring that person spiritual power in the form of songs, dreams, perhaps running skills (racing was very big with the desert people) or gaming or war skills.
But principally the power involved diagnosing illnesses and usually involved songs. So your dream-helper might give you, the namkam, a series of songs that you could use to heal some particular kind of sickness. If Coyote came to you in a dream, you might receive songs to heal Coyote sickness. The shaman diagnoses you “Oh, you have Coyote sickness and you have to find someone who knows the Coyote songs.”
If you are a Coyote namkam then you would have those songs and you would sing them. You don’t have to be a shaman. You are the person who has met with the animal. The shaman may have met that animal – Coyote or Turkey Vulture or whatever – but he may not have. It is an important spiritual concept, this whole thing of power and I think it has some really good parallels. Not knowing Australian Aboriginal culture all that well, but I think it has some good parallels with what you were talking about today in your lecture.
BG: Your book Wings in the Desert shows “an intimate set of relationships between a people and many species of birds, involving hunting, rearing, catching, ceremonial use, internal and external anatomy … .”
I think we sometimes get too fixated on the “ethno” tag and forget that non-indigenous societies also have a lot of knowledge. It may not be as rich or as fine-grained as the kind of knowledge that you have worked with, but it is still there.
I try to impress on people that the important thing is how all peoples and cultures relate to birds. Birds are the most common living thing that we interact with and most people would see and hear them every day. They are the first sounds we wake up to and they are an essential part of the land and soundscapes we live in.
Do you have any thoughts about this place of birds in our lives?
AR: Well, yes, I do. It is a perception of reality. Let me just back up and look at the general for a minute. People in our (western) societies have some big problems with religion and science. There should be no problems between religion and science – if there is any validity in either one of them they should be telling you the same answer.
Some of the theologians are working – the left wing, not fundamentalist creationists – they are saying all windows to reality – all of our knowledge must be seen through these windows and every window that you look out gives a different viewpoint – but the reality is the same outside.
But the culture is … cultures give us a window to reality. Who is ever going to look at birds in the desert the same way as the Pimans looked at that avifauna and metaphorised about it?
BG: That’s the window …
AR: That is the window and that is the reality out there. The Pimans had a unique window – and it is a wonderful window – and it also has some very wonderful folk knowledge and natural history knowledge that we westerners are just starting to find out about.
I love to tell the story about the Poorwill and its hibernation that is embedded into the Piman creation story – you’ve read that in my Wings in The Desert. Until the 1940s, western scientists never dreamed that there actually was a bird that hibernates.
But the Pimans knew about this and they used it as a major metaphor in telling about their conquest of the Gila River area. They also used metaphorically the Verdin, a small desert bird whose nearest relatives are in Africa. The Verdin builds a globular nest and it will even build nests in the wintertime. It will roost in those nests but it goes to bed very early.
Well, in the Piman creation story the Pima were invading the Phoenix basin where a pre-existing people resided. The Pima needed magic help to overcome the residents, a technologically superior people.
So they used the Poorwill Shaman and the Verdun Shaman, that is a Poorwill mankam and a Verdin namkam, to put these people, the enemy, to sleep. So the enemy people went to bed really early and slept very soundly, so it was easy to conquer them, especially if they stayed asleep (laughs).
But who else knew this stuff? The Pimans metaphorised about the natural history, the behaviour of these two bird species.
BG: I was talking to Amazonian researcher Kevin Jernigan earlier today in our session – in Australia we have this wonderful seven volumes of the Handbook of Australian New Zealand and Antarctic Birds, known as the HANZAAB, which is a wonderful reference book that I use all the time.
But for every species there will be huge gaps in the information in the Handbook. Now we don’t know if the Spotted Nightjar hibernates – like the Poorwill in your deserts. I know they disappear for a time each season. Maybe that is a question I have to ask?
AR: Have you ever asked tribal people if they know? They may just say what to them is obvious – “They go in the cracks in the rocks”. The other thing that amazes me is that the folk taxonomic knowledge was universal in these communities – the old people that I worked with – born before or around World War I – knew everyone of these birds. After that, people started spending more time inside the house – particularly women.
And it got to the point that they didn’t know so much. But where I work with the Mountain Pima in Mexico, the people still see these birds. The Mountain Pima are still doing subsistence farming. But it was once universal knowledge.
In our culture “Oh, that is a bird person” or “That is a bird watcher, that is they know the names of things.”
I had some people out to the ranch for Easter. There was a bunch of White-crowned Sparrows and a Scrub Jay eating in my front yard. (That Jay has me trained: as soon as I drive up I am supposed to throw some seed out for it.) Some people looked and said “What is that big blue bird there?” And some wondered about the smaller birds.
I said “What do you think those little brown birds with the white on the head should be called?” So how do we live in southern California with Scrub Jays all over the place and White-crowned Sparrows in every back yard but people don’t know what they are. But with Piman culture, everybody knew everything.
It was just common knowledge, it wasn’t specialised knowledge.
BG: I think that is true with most people who live in an outside world – rather than inside walls. There is an observation that I didn’t get into my talk today. An Australian explorer made an observation about Nightjars, saying “These birds are so common, they are everywhere.”
They are still common today but people don’t put themselves in the place and time when the birds are there and there is an impression that they are rare or decreasing in numbers. That brings me back to the “Well, you never asked” response.
AR: Yes, I’ve had that before – “You never asked” (laughs). You know, indigenous people appreciate someone who is interested in their knowledge – maybe not the young people for whom every thing can be secret and the young people who no longer know and they don’t want anyone else to know.
But the old people – “Oh yeah, you want to talk about birds, we’ll talk about birds.” And in this video I did last evening, I was talking about this Pima man, a cowboy. I went to his house early in the morning and he was frying some eggs.
And he turned off the stove and we started our interview. About ten o’clock I said – “Your eggs are getting cold. Don’y you want to eat them?” And he said “No, we are busy. I’ll eat the eggs later.”
And it got to be noon and he still hadn’t eaten his breakfast.
We were recording and that was what was important to him. Incidentally, I got a new plant name during that time that i didn’t know before. He told me what it was in Spanish and in English and when it grew and said it was s-moik vashai. It was too late to get it into the ethnobotany book, already published at that time. I don’t know when he got to eat his eggs. (laughs)
BG: Another concern I have is that mainstream scientists say that ethnobiology is not science – it is a quite chauvinistic view – and a friend of mine, Nicholas Peterson in Australia wrote a paper many years ago about these views by scientists and he tried to unpack those views – he found that it is repeatable …
AR: and verifiable …
BG: Yes, you can confirm ethnobiological data from other sources and it can be just as rigorous as “western” scientific data.
Often it is based on repeated observations made over time. Just because those observations were not written down or entered into a spreadsheet doesn’t mean they are any less valid. I think it is a lazy and convenient cheap shot to make.
AR: Well, you know this is what is happening in the whole academic world with biological studies.
If you are doing natural history studies, you are not really doing science. And we are teaching that way: we are not educating people to have a real intimate love and knowledge and appreciation for natural history.
Students learn the Krebs cycle and biochemistry and cellular activities and respiration and all that. But they don’t know anything about the environment.
The bottom line is that our society is ignorant – and that ignorance is not being addressed at the University and college level. Where can you go to take a course anymore in just natural history and learn about plants and animals – just the basics?
BG: Some Australian environmental philosophers who talk about the hyperseparation between people and nature – it is way beyond “milk comes from cows not bottles” It is a real problem.
AR: Hyperseparation – I like that …
Amadeo Rea, PhD, is a taxonomic ornithologist and ethnobiologist whose work is focused on the greater Southwest. His papers deal with the taxonomy and distribution of birds, avian paleontology, and zooarchaeology. His 1983 work, Once a River: Bird Life and Habitat Changes on the Middle Gila, documents avifaunal changes in River Pima country. His work in ethnobiology includes two published volumes on the O’odham, a Southwest Uto-Aztecan group: At the Desert’s Green Edge: An Ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima, (1997) and Folk Mammalogy of the Northern Pimans, (1998). All three were published by the University of Arizona Press. The third in this series, Wings in the Desert: A Folk Ornithology of Northern Pimans, was published in 2010. Rea is a past president of the Society of Ethnobiology and served as Curator of Birds and Mammals for 13 years at the San Diego Natural History Museum.