Californios Verdes and Your Public Purpose Project

Can young people change the world, or are they stuck with the messy one that adults are planning to hand to them?

“Adults, in their dealing with children, are insane, and children know it too. Adults lay down rules they would not think of following, speak truths they do not believe. And yet they expect children to obey the rules, believe the truths, and admire and respect their parents for this nonsense. Children must be very wise and secret to tolerate adults at all. And the greatest nonsense of all that adults expect children to believe is that people learn by experience. No greater lie was ever revered. And its falseness is immediately discerned by children since their parents obviously have not learned anything by experience. Far from learning, adults simply become set in a maze of prejudices and dreams and sets of rules whose origins they do not know and would not dare inspect for fear the whole structure might topple over on them. I think children instinctively know this. Intelligent children learn to conceal their knowledge and keep free of this howling mania.”
― John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez
This lesson was reported from:

The Californios Verdes – in English, the Green Californians – are a group of environmentally conscious young people based in La Paz, Mexico, on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. They explain, “We are a new generation of young leaders united by love of nature and interested in working for the conservation of the environment and a better quality of life.”

They are alumni of environmental education programs run by the nonprofit Ecology Project International, which works to educate students about their connections to local and global ecosystems. Inspired by what they have seen and learned, these young people, aged 17 to 25, wanted to apply that passion and those lessons to their own community.

They formed the Californios Verdes in 2011 with the mission “to be agents of change, collaborators, and generators of local conservation projects” and the vision to “create a sustainable and participatory community where young people have an active role in conservation.”

What does that look like?

The Californios Verdes meet weekly to organize and plan. They have advocated successfully on behalf of a statewide ban on single-use plastics – the cups, straws, bags, and utensils you get in stores and takeout places that then end up in oceans, killing animals, or as microplastics inside of you! These single-use plastics are bad news! Getting lawmakers and business onboard to eliminate them in Baja California Sur is a big deal – the Californios Verdes helped to change the law.

This albatross died from the large quantities of plastic waste it ate and then could not pass. It effectively starved to death, even though its stomach was full. This is the exact kind of waste that the Californios Verdes are working to eliminate in their community. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

One of their favorite projects involves community outreach – they regularly stage events to educate citizens of La Paz about the ecology of the surrounding area, including at the nearby beach Balandra. They help residents – and young people in particular – to understand: Why should we save that mangrove forest, instead of letting developers turn it into a beach resort? Why is the whale shark worth protecting?

Conservation of your local wild spaces has to start with a local love and understanding of those spaces. If you and your neighbors aren’t going to stand up for your community and its ecosystems, why would anyone else?

The Californios Verdes are online and in the streets, helping their neighbors see the value in protecting the natural world around them. They are ground zero for a grassroots movement that aims to change the world, starting with their own city block in La Paz and radiating outward.

The Californios Verdes at Playa Balandra, widely regarded as one of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches. The Californios Verdes routinely work to educate the surrounding community about the importance of protecting this valuable ecosystem.

Look, I hear you – life is hard. With homework, parents, maybe a job – it’s busy. And you’re a kid.

But so are the Californios Verdes… So the only question left is —

What have you done this week to make the world a better place?

Public Purpose Project

Most Fridays for the rest of the year, you will be working on your very own Public Purpose Project. Your PPP should be something you care deeply about, and it’s something you’re going to be spending a lot of time with – so be thoughtful in your selection. Your main goal is to produce something that leaves your community nicer than you found it.

Projects could include (but are not limited to):

  • Identify a need in your school or community. Develop and carry out a service project to address that need
  • Design and create a mural in your school or community
  • Research, develop, and share a historical or ecological walking/driving tour of your community
  • Produce a documentary video about your community – an aspect of its history, its ecology, or some exemplary charity/activist group working to make it a better place
  • Produce a work of environmental storytelling (a video, a published article, a photo exhibition, a social media feed with original content) about a species, park, ecosystem, or ecological issue in your region
  • Research, design, and produce a sustainably-sourced line of products that raise awareness of an environmental issue related to your region – think of T-shirts or reusable shopping bags that feature local flora and fauna, reusable water bottles, etc.
  • Implement a composting or recycling program at your school
  • Develop and implement a plan to make your school more green
  • Volunteer for a minimum of 20 hours with a local organization and tell the story of your experience

Consult with your teacher for questions on topics like group sizes, as well as on specific due dates.

Timeline:

End of First Quarter: In communication with your teacher, develop a detailed proposal for your project. This proposal should identify a specific need in your community and state a goal. Your proposal should answer basic questions about how you plan to fill that need and achieve that goal. It should set out a detailed timeline for achieving your goal by the end of the school year. Your proposal should also describe resources necessary to carry out your goal, estimated costs of those resources, and any other relevant issues or challenges that you will need to surmount. You should point to other similar projects that have been carried out elsewhere, answering the question: What lessons from that project can I apply to my own? Your report should be delivered in the form of a Google Slide presentation, shared with your teacher and presented to the larger class. Your teacher and peers will offer feedback on your plan.

End of Second and Third Quarters: Add new slides to your original presentation. These new slides should update your instructor and peers on the status of your project – How far along are you? What new challenges have presented themselves? How have you addressed those issues? What have you learned? What new questions do you have? How can the group support you? Has your timeline or goal changed in any way? Be sure to include photos, videos, or other documentary evidence of your project in progress.

End of Fourth Quarter/School Year: Your goal should be achieved, your project finished. Update your presentation with new slides taking your teacher and peers through the final months of your project. Reflect by addressing the following questions: Were you successful? What did you learn? What would you have done differently? If you were to continue developing this project, how would you extend it?


THIS LESSON WAS DEVELOPED WITH SUPPORT FROM ECOLOGY PROJECT INTERNATIONAL.

If you value the free resources we offer, please consider making a modest contribution to keep this site going and growing.

A female sea lion sleeps on a small, rocky island near La Paz, Mexico. Her fate is connected to yours – she competes for food in the same ecosystem where humans fish extensively. She swims in water where currents carry our plastic waste. Populations of animals that she loves to eat are threatened by oceans changed dramatically by human-driven climate change. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)
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Where do you fit into Earth’s Ecosystems? (Even the Ones You’ve Never Seen with Your Own Two Eyes)

Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away […] shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.” – John Steinbeck
This lesson was reported from:

In 1940, the author John Steinbeck joined an expedition to the
Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, with his friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Their purpose was scientific – they wished to document and understand the ecology of the Sea of Cortez. They traveled with a small crew aboard a 75-foot boat named the Western Flyer, collecting scientific samples and data of the fauna they encountered, all with the goal of writing a scientific guidebook – one part species catalog, one part travel adventure – entitled Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. (1941)


John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters,” and many of his works – Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl – are considered classics of Western literature. (Wikipedia)

First edition of The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck, 1951.

The book describes the complex ecosystem of the Sea of Cortez, its islands, and shorelines. An ecosystem is a community of living organisms interacting with the nonliving components of their environment. Steinbeck describes the wildlife – in particular, the marine invertebrates – in colorful detail, but Sea of Cortez is perhaps most notable for placing humans and human activity firmly into his poetic take on ecology. After all, humans inhabit the Sea of Cortez, they fish in it, they mine the surrounding mountains, their carbon emissions and plastic waste from thousands of miles away effect it – humans should not be considered apart from its ecology.

Humans engage in complex interactions with ecosystems – both those in their immediate surroundings, where they live and work, and those on the other side of the planet, in areas that supply commercial goods that they consume or that are effected by greenhouse emissions. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)
(Enlarge and open in a new window.)

In fact, human activities are a significant factor in almost all of Earth’s ecosystems. The cumulative effects of their impact are large even enough to influence the planet’s climate, or patterns of weather over long periods of time.

Ecosystems provide a variety of goods and services upon which people depend. Ecosystem goods include food (fishing, for example), construction material (lumber from forests, sand, stone from quarries, metals from mines, plastics from petroleum pumped from deep under the Earth), and medicinal plants (aspirin, quinine, marijuana). Ecosystem goods also include less tangible items like tourism and outdoor recreation, staples of the economy in many communities around the globe.

Ecosystem services, on the other hand, are the many and varied benefits that humans gain from the natural environment and from properly-functioning ecosystems.  These include clean air and water (thanks to plants which capture CO2 and aquifers which filter rain water) and crop pollination (by insects and birds). Even things like beauty, inspiration, and opportunities for scientific research, which help humans to better understand our world.

In addition to providing a home (habitat) for a great variety of other species, mangrove swamps protect coastal areas from erosion, storm surge (especially during hurricanes), and tsunamis – a great example of ecosystem services in action. (Florida Everglades at low tide, 2018.)

While ecosystem goods have traditionally been recognized as the basis for things of economic value – they are property and goods that one can own – ecosystem services tend to be taken for granted – available to all,
whether one “owns” the forest or not. Ecosystem services are what an economist might call a public good – something shared more or less equally by everyone for free. Since they do not cost money, our capitalist system has traditionally placed little value on protecting them – even though they are vital to life as we know it.

In Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck connects the dots between ecosystem goods, ecosystem services, and human activity. While he was not the first to connect humans to the ecosystems they inhabit and exploit, his writing on the subject is both eloquent and persuasive. Early in the book, he writes:

“Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away […] shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.”

The Earth can seem huge on a cross country drive that takes days, but it is actually finite. Its natural resources are vulnerable and limited. As human population and per capita consumption grow, so do the demands imposed on ecosystems and the effects of the human ecological footprint – that is, the impact of humanity on the global ecosystem in terms of carbon released, energy used, water consumed, and waste created.

Ecosystem services are not only limited but also that they are threatened by human activities. Problems for all ecosystems include: environmental pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss. For terrestrial ecosystems, additional threats include air pollution (chemicals released by manufacturing and power generation, emission of greenhouse gases), soil degradation (erosion from farming, salinization from irrigation, conversion of ecosystems for human construction projects), and deforestation (especially in tropical and coastal regions). For marine ecosystems threats include unsustainable exploitation of marine resources (overfishing of certain species), marine pollution (from deep sea oil drilling or spills), microplastics pollution (plastic takes thousands of years to biodegrade and too often ends up floating in the ocean), water pollution (from urban runoff and industrial manufacturing), and building on coastal areas.

Scientists have been conducting research for decades to help us better understand long-term ecosystem health and its role in enabling human habitation and economic activity. In a capitalistic democracy like the United States – where the priorities of both corporations and government are responsive to the will of the majority of people – it is important for all citizens to understand the findings of these scientists. Each of us must begin to recognize the way our habits of consumption impact on the ecosystems in our region, as well as – in a globalized economy threatened by climate change – ecosystems on the other side of the planet.

Downtown La Paz is beautiful, just like the downtown of your city, but human development shapes ecosystems as well. Earth, rock, and sand are paved over, waves and tidal action are broken, buildings and pavement reflect or trap heat and rain, runoff from roads after a rain can carry oil, plastic wastes, and other pollutants into otherwise clean waters. (La Paz, Mexico, 2019.)

Humans have the unique ability to shape our environment. This is one thing that distinguishes us from our fellow animals and plants.

Alongside this ability to shape, we also have the ability to ask and answer complex questions through careful observation of the world around us – this is what we can science. Elsewhere in Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck said, “It is not enough to say that we cannot know or judge because all the information is not in. The process of gathering knowledge does not lead to knowing. A child’s world spreads only a little beyond his understanding while that of a great scientist thrusts outward immeasurably. An answer is invariably the parent of a great family of new questions. So we draw worlds and fit them like tracings against the world about us, and crumple them when they do not fit and draw new ones.” 

As we begin to better understand the world around us, we find ourselves confronted with the uncomfortable truth that some of our activities as a species have damaged – and continue to damage – the ecosystems on which all life depends.

Modern technology has only enhanced these abilities to shape and to understand – just as it has enhanced our responsibility to create a sustainable future for our species and all others on this planet.

A handful of sand from the bottom of Candelero Bay on Isla Espíritu Santo reveals an entire ecosystem of marine worms living underfoot and, for most people, out of mind. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

For Writing or Discussion

1. What is an ecosystem? What goods and services do humans extract from them? What negative impacts do human activities have on them?

2. Describe an ecosystem in or near your hometown – name species of plants and animals, identify the substrate and topography, the temperature, rainfall, etc. How have humans shaped this ecosystem and for what reasons?

3. In your own words, what does Steinbeck mean when he says “None of it is important or all of it is?” Do you agree with this sentiment?

4. Amongst life on Earth, human beings possess a unique level of self-awareness, as well as an unparalleled ability to shape every ecosystem on the planet for better or worse. Does that power come with any responsibility? Defend your answer.

Calculate Your Ecological Footprint

  1. Trace your impact outward into the environment — list and categorize all of the (a) trash (paper, plastic, metal, recyclable or not), (b) carbon emissions (from electricity use, transportation, ordering things off of Amazon, etc), and (c) food/water (including showers, toilet flushes, and the sprinkler on your lawn) you consumed today. Be thorough and precise.
  2. Quantify each of these impacts — weigh them, measure them, use information from the internet to estimate them. There are many tools online that can help you to calculate these numbers. Represent this information in charts or diagrams.
  3. Incorporating information compiled in steps one and two, create a world map infographic or poster showing the origin points and impact points of your ecological footprint. Also, plot and illustrate the ways in which those points will effect you. For example: Where does your food come from? How is it transported to you? Is it refrigerated on the way? What is the carbon impact of these activities? What kind of biomagnification (plastics, pesticides, antibiotics, etc) is present in your diet? Was the tuna you may have eaten farmed or caught wild? Where? Is the current population of that fish in the wild sustainable? How many MPG does your car get? How far do you live from school? How long did your mom idle in carline? What temperature is the AC in your how many square foot house? Where do the plastics you trash end up? Where does the water in your toilet go after you flush? What effect does carbon have on the ice caps? Sea level? Acidification of the ocean? Where does your waste water go? What does your clean water come from? How will rising sea levels due to increased greenhouse activity impact your hometown? etc
  4. In a reflective essay: Which of these impacts can you reduce through personal choices? What challenges or barriers to change will you encounter? Which of these impacts can only be reduced through government or corporate action?

Take It Further

Identify three concrete steps you will take to reduce your ecological footprint. Describe exactly how you plan to take these steps. Resolve to carry them out for the next month.

THIS LESSON WAS DEVELOPED WITH SUPPORT FROM ECOLOGY PROJECT INTERNATIONAL.

If you value the free resources we offer, please consider making a modest contribution to keep this site going and growing.

John Steinbeck visited Isla Espíritu Santo, an island in the Gulf of California, off the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Wikipedia describes ecosystems in the surrounding reefs as being home to parrotfish, angelfish, trumpetfish, Moorish idols, and rainbow wrasse, with many other species passing nearby including sharks, rays, turtles, dolphins, and whales. Birds who call the island home include brown pelicans, great blue herons, snowy egrets, turkey vultures, and hummingbirds. A large sea lion colony resides nearby. By the 1990s pressure to develop on Isla Espiritu Santo was intense: a real estate developer wanted to create a resort casino on the island. Tim Means, a conservationist based in nearby La Paz, formed a coalition of activists who were able to purchase part of the island from the ejido (farming commune) that wished to sell it to the developer. One third of the funds came from Mexican funders, another third from American funders via the Nature Conservancy, and the rest through an anonymous gift to the World Wildlife Fund. Today,Isla Espíritu Santo is protected as part of the Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna – Islas del Golfo de California. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

How to Teach Like A Traveler

“The best thing would be to take your students on a field trip every day – a world tour that throws light on experiences that most of your class can scarcely imagine. But of course, for so many reasons, that isn’t possible.

In the meantime, we educators have a duty to report the world back to our students – in all its unvarnished wonder. The great Mark Twain wrote, ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely…’

Are you teaching with the spirit of a traveler?”

Thomas Kenning, the creator of Openendedsocialstudies.org, has written an article which appears in this month’s issue of Teacher Plus magazine entitled “How to Teach like a Traveler.”

Check it out now, and check out our library of lessons designed to help you do just that!

Ideas for Teaching About Nicaragua

Openendedsocialstudies has a unit for teaching middle or high school classrooms about the history of Nicaragua, the Sandinistas, and controversial leader Daniel Ortega.  Find free readings, guided questions, and lesson plan ideas on the following subjects:

  • A Basic History of Nicaragua: A basic overview of Nicaraguan history and culture through the end of the modern period, with a focus on the post-colonial period.
  • William Walker, the Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny: William Walker was an American  who organized several private military expeditions into Latin America with the intention of establishing English-speaking colonies under his personal control, an enterprise then known as “filibustering.”
  • Augusto Sandino, National Hero: From 1927 until 1933, Gen. Augusto César Sandino led a sustained guerrilla war first against the Conservative regime and subsequently against the U.S. Marines, whom he fought for over five years. He was referred to as a “bandit” by the United States government; his exploits made him a hero throughout much of Latin America, where he became a symbol of resistance to United States’ domination.
  • The Sandinistas: The Sandinista National Liberation Front – also called the Sandinistas – are a former guerrilla army and ruling party of Nicaragua. Following a decade of single party rule, they submitted to free and fair elections in 1990, ushering in Nicaragua’s current period of period of peace, democratic stability, and relative prosperity after decades of corrupt dictatorship, civil war, and domination by the U.S. and its corporations.

One great way for students to develop a deeper understanding of a concept is to have them teach others.

  1. Choose any section from this unit and develop a lesson – in the form of a presentation, a storybook, or a worksheet – that teaches younger students about some aspect of Nicaragua’s history.  Make sure the material is age appropriate in content and approach, and create some simple questions to check your audience’s understanding.

Find more free lessons on Nicaragua at Openendsocialstudies.org.  

There are also plenty of free lessons featuring other peoples from world history.

“The Goal of Capitalism:” Soviet Anti-American Propaganda

Examine the Soviet propaganda posters on this page and answer the following questions.

  1. What were the primary Soviet critiques of the United States, and what symbols did these posters use to communicate them?
  2. Do you find any of this criticism of the United States convincing?
  3. Is there value in studying a rival’s propaganda against your own country?
  4. Is there danger in studying a rival’s propaganda against your own country?
  5. Propaganda like this shaped the Soviet people’s view of the United States. Imagine you are an American – how would you explain the criticisms leveled in these posters to a Soviet citizen?
  6. Often, the qualities we criticize in others reveal something about how we see ourselves.  What do Soviet criticisms about the United States reveal about their own national self-image?

“Orchestra.” E. Gelms, 1953.

Dollar
“Dollar.” E. Gelms, 1953.

Peace
“Peace.” E. Gelms, 1953.

According to the Old Fascist Road
“According to the Old Fascist Road.” V, Briskin, 1953.

The Goal of Capitalism
“The Goal of Capitalism.” B. Semenov, 1953.

US Diplomats
“U.S. Diplomats.” V. Briskin, 1953.

Washington's Pigeon
“Washington’s Pigeon.” B. Efimov, 1953.

In the Soviet Union - in the United States
“In the Soviet Union – in the United States.” V. Briskin / M. Ivanov, 1953.

Soviet anti-American posters. Friendship, American - style. Soviet poster,
“Friendship, American-style.” V. Briskin, 1954.

Freedom Is Not for the People
“Freedom is not for the People.” K. Vladimirov, 1957.

US Deputy Career
“U.S. Deputy Career.” V. Slychenko, 1958.

Remember Hiroshima
“Remember Hiroshima.” B. Prorokhov, 1959.

Georgiev
“Untitled.” K. Georgiev, 1963.

First Lesson
“First Lesson.” K. Georgiev, 1964.

Stop the Killers
“Stop the Killers.” E. Arcrunyan, 1965.

Jail
“Jail.” V. Koretsky / Y. Kershin, 1968.

In the Concrete Jungle
“In the Concrete Jungle.” A. Zhitomirsky, 1970.

American Freedom - 70
“American ‘Freedom – 70.'” B. Efimov, 1970.

The Birth of Huitzilopochtli and the Mexica World – A Comic Book Lesson

 

The Birth of Huitzilopochtli and the Mexica World

This lesson was reported from:

The Mexica – more commonly known in the English-speaking world as the Aztec – are today remembered as fierce warriors, conquerors of a great Mesoamerican empire still in ascendancy when the Spanish arrived to upset the balance of power in Central America.  The Mexica themselves were upstarts in the chaotic and ever-shifting world of central Mexico some five hundred years ago. Until the early 1400s, they were an unremarkable and put-upon faction among the Nahua, the larger linguistic and cultural group to which the Mexica belonged.

Through a stunning reversal (to be covered in future issues) the Mexica came to dominate the Nahua world.  Though they had once toiled in the mud to pay their mightier neighbors humble tribute, within the space of a single generation – and under the direction of a great warrior and politician named Tlacaelel – the Mexica now commanded a tributary empire of their own, the likes of which ancient Mexico had never seen.  In this newly constituted Mexica empire, people were taught to remember their place in the strict social hierarchy, which extended from the lowliest laborers all the way up to the emperor Tlacaelel and beyond.

This was a time and place in which a people’s particular gods were thought to demand a cut of any good fortune, from a harvest to the spoils of war – for services rendered, as benefactors to the lowly tribes of mortal men who depended on such gods for their very survival.  Like all of the Nahua people, the Mexica believed that the current world – existence as we know it, which they referred to as the Fifth Sun – would end in violence and destruction, just as the gods’ previous four doomed attempts at creation had ended.

It was the new emperor Tlacaelel who credited the god Huitzilopochtli, long their patron, with the meteoric rise of the Mexica people.  In a sweeping reformation of the traditional Nahua religion befitting the stunning realignment of power in the Nahua world, Tlacaelel elevated Huitzilopochtli to the same level as other ancient gods such as Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc.

Huitzilopochtli became of the Mexica god of war, sun, human sacrifice, and the patron of their grand capital city Tenochtitlan.  Every day, relentlessly and without mercy, Huitzilopochtli – in his role as the life-giving sun and champion of the Mexica people – vanquished the abyssal night that threatened to consume the world.  The daily sunrise was viewed as another victory in the celestial war against darkness, the moon (Coyolxauhqui), and the stars (centzon huitznahua).

But his success was no foregone conclusion.  Under Tlacaelel, the Mexica came to believe that it was their duty and obligation to give strength to Huitzilopochtli and thereby postpone the end of the Fifth Sun.  This favorable outcome could only be ensured through the sacrificial offering of human blood.

This blood came in two main ways.  First, on a daily basis priests and the Mexica emperor himself would prick themselves ritually with tiny cactus needles, driven into their own ears, tongues, and chests.  Second, and most spectacularly, on sacred festival days during the year, humans were sacrificed on the Templo Mayor in the ritual center of Tenochtitlan, their beating hearts extracted from their living bodies by expert priests using sharp obsidian knives, before their heads were decapitated in a ritual patterned on Huitzilopochtli’s murder of his sister, Coyolxauhqui.

For the Mexica, war and the empire they gained through conquest was an important source not just of material wealth, but of human tribute to be offered up in this way to Huitzilopochtli.  For this reason, the capture of prisoners of war was typically prized over the killing of enemies in battle. Similarly, in addition to the material wealth paid annually to the Mexica by conquered peoples – quetzal feathers, gold, chocolate, coffee, seashells, and other valuable commodities – the Mexica typically required a set number of human offerings to be sent to Tenochtitlan from subject nations.  

The pyramid-shaped Templo Mayor at the center of Tenochtitlan was a symbolic representation of the mountain of Coatepec, where, according to Mexica myth, Huitzilopochtli was born.  Here, Huitzilopochtli had emerged from his mother Coatlicue fully grown and fully armed to battle his sister Coyolxauhqui and her brothers the Centzon Huitznahua who intended to kill him and their mother. Huitzilopochtli was victorious, slaying and dismembering his sister. Her body was then thrown to the bottom of the hill.   

Just as Huitzilopochtli triumphed at the top of the mountain while his sister was dismembered and fell to pieces below, so Huitzilopochtli’s temple and icon sat triumphantly at the top of the Templo Mayor while a carving of the dismembered goddess lay far below at the pyramid’s base.  Nearby, a large skull rack held the decapitated heads of hundreds of sacrificial victims, recalling the way Coyolxuaqui’s head had been cast into the sky and remained on display as the moon.

When the Mexica sacrificed people to Huitzilopochtli, the victim would be placed on a sacrificial stone at the summit of the Templo Mayor. The priest would then cut through the abdomen with an obsidian or flint blade rivaling a modern surgical knife in sharpness. The heart would be torn out – still beating – and held towards the sky in honor to Huitzilopochtli.  The body would be carried away, down the steep steps of the temple, and either cremated or given to the warrior responsible for the capture of the victim.  This warrior might then cut the body in pieces and send them to important people as an offering, or use the pieces for ritual cannibalism. The warrior would thus ascend one step in the hierarchy of the Mexica social classes, a system that most keenly rewarded successful warriors.  

Who knows?  If that warrior were successful enough in battle – bringing back to Tenochtitlan enough captives for sacrifice at the Templo Mayorhe might be inducted into such knightly orders as the Jaguars or the Eagles.  He would then know true honor and prestige.

For he had played a part in saving the world; keeping it spinning upon its axis; in ensuring that the sun would rise another day.  It is tempting to call the Mexica brutal, and maybe it is true that in the name of Huitzilopochtli they relished war and reveled in the shedding of blood… Would it have been nobler to let the Fifth Sun – the very world as we know it – come to some cataclysmic end?  

Knowing that you could have prevented the end of life on Earth – and failing to act, whether from weakness, or squeamishness, or dereliction of duty – that would have been the true definition of brutality.

Most great civilizations have an organizing myth – a story they tell themselves to explain their way of life.  For example, in the modern United States, Americans tell themselves that their country exists as a selfless champion of democracy – as maybe the best thing that has ever happened to the world, even if the cost preserving that democracy is violence and war.  For the Mexica, if their civilization did not conquer and sacrifice in the name of the sun god Huitzilopochtli, the world itself would come shuddering to an end.

Thus, the story of Huitzilopochtli became one of the driving beliefs of Mexica civilization.  This powerful imperative gave rise to one of the great Native American civilizations, the mighty Mexica Empire, who used it to rationalize their dramatic rise and dominance over their neighbors in Central Mexico.  

But that’s a story for next issue…

Activities

 

  1. For discussion and research: What are some of the stories associated with the founding and history of your country?  Find out which ones are based on fact, and which ones are based in myth? Are the myths ever presented as fact in your society?  To school children? Why would myths be represented as truth? Who would benefit from this misrepresentation?
  2. Research and plan a realistic one week travel itinerary in and around modern day Mexico City that focuses specifically on its Mexica, pre-Mexica, and colonial histories.  Explain the historical or cultural relevance of your choices. Present the final itinerary with photos and estimated costs for the whole trip.
  3. Create an illustrated glossary of English loan words from Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica.  Consider the following questions: Why have these particular words come over into English and not others?  Examine the history of this language in general – where did the written form of this language come from? Is Nahuatl still spoken, and if so, by whom?
  4. Create a short comic book illustrating a story of one of the Mexican gods such as Quetzalcoatl or Huitzilopochtli.  Much of what we know about life in Tenochtitlan comes from the so-called Aztec Codices. These are heavily or entirely illustrated works – in a sense, similar to modern comic books – dating from before and just after contact with the Spanish in the 16th century.  Study the lush, colorful art in these codices and try to imitate this style in your retelling. Consider the following questions: How does this fit in with what I’ve already learned about Mexica culture and belief? How does this story compare with the myths and legends of other world cultures?

 

The Pristine Myth: How Native Americans Shaped Their World

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

The Pristine Myth

  1. What is the pristine myth?
  2. Aside from fire, what other examples of indigenous Americans shaping their environment does Denevan cite?  Follow one of the links in the relevant portion of this passage and explain one of these techniques or accomplishment in greater detail.
  3. Why did so many Europeans and their descendants fail to recognize the ways that Native Americans purposefully shaped the land? 
  4. How did Native Americans use fire?
  5. How did Europeans achieve the same or similar goals using different techniques?
  6. Could any of these Native American techniques be applied today?
“There were not really very many of these redmen … the land seemed empty to invaders who came from settled Europe . . . that ancient, primeval, undisturbed wilderness . . . the streams simply boiled with fish … so much game . . . that one hunter counted a thousand animals near a single salt lick … the virgin wilderness of Kentucky … the forested glory of primitive America.” –  John Bakeless, The Eyes of Discovery, 1950.

In fact, Bakeless’s portrayal of Native Americans as passive in their environment – as little more than wild animals inhabiting a niche in an ecosystem – couldn’t be more wrong.  Various groups of Native Americans shaped North and South America for millennia before modern Americans started paving the forests to put up parking lots.

Historical ecologist William M. Denevan was one of the first scholars to recognize and describe the ways in which Native Americans, just like Europeans, shaped the environments in which they found themselves.  In a seminal book, he called the idea that Native Americans had not significantly impacted the landscape of the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans “the pristine myth.”  To support his case, Denevan cited the many mounds, causeways, roads, terraces, and cultivated forests in both North and South America – as well as ample evidence that Native Americans used fire as a versatile tool to control and shape their environment.

Purposefully set fires helped promote valuable resources and habitats that sustained indigenous cultures, economies, traditions, and livelihoods. The cumulative ecological impacts of Native American fire use over time has resulted in a mosaic of grasslands and forests across North America that was once widely perceived by early European explorers, trappers, and settlers as untouched, pristine wilderness.

It is now recognized that the original American landscape was already humanized at the time that the first Europeans arrived.

The Indian’s Vespers by Asher Brown Durand was painted in 1847.  As part of the so-called Hudson River School of romantic painters, Durand often portrayed the American wilderness as a primeval state of nature, untouched by the hands of man.  Here, in keeping with the idea that Native American lived in harmony with nature, accepting its bounty while leaving almost no footprint on the land, a Native American prays toward the rising sun.

Eleven major reasons for Native American ecosystem burning:
Hunting The burning of large areas was useful to divert big game (deer, elk, bison) into small unburned areas for easier hunting and provide open prairies/meadows (rather than brush and tall trees) where animals (including ducks and geese) like to dine on fresh, new grass sprouts. Fire was also used to drive game into impoundments, narrow chutes, into rivers or lakes, or over cliffs where the animals could be killed easily. Some tribes used a surround or circle fire to force rabbits and game into small areas. The Seminoles even practiced hunting alligators with fire. Torches were used to spot deer and attract fish. Smoke was used to drive/dislodge raccoons and bears from hiding.
Crop management Burning was used to harvest crops, especially tarweed, yucca, greens, and grass seed collection. In addition, fire was used to prevent abandoned fields from growing over and to clear areas for planting corn and tobacco. One report of fire being used to bring rain (overcome drought). Clearing ground of grass and brush was done to facilitate the gathering of acorns. Fire was used to roast mescal and obtain salt from grasses.
Insect collection Some tribes used a “fire surround” to collect and roast crickets, grasshoppers, Pandora Pinemoths in pine forests, and collect honey from bees.
Pest management Burning was sometimes used to reduce insects (black flies, ticks, and mosquitos) and rodents, as well as kill mistletoe that invaded mesquite and oak trees and kill the tree moss favored by deer (thus forcing them to the valleys). Fire was also used to kill poisonous snakes.
Improve growth and yields Fire was often used to improve grass for big game grazing (deer, elk, antelope, bison), horse pasturage, camas reproduction, seed plants, berry plants (especially raspberries, strawberries and huckleberries), and tobacco. Fire was also used to promote plant structure and health, increase the growth of reeds and grasses used as basket materials, beargrassdeergrasshazel, and willows.
Fireproofing areas There are some indications that fire was used to protect certain medicine plants by clearing an area around the plants, as well as to fireproof areas, especially around settlements, from destructive wildfires. Fire was also used to keep prairies open from encroaching shrubs and trees.
Warfare and signaling Indians used fire to deprive the enemy of hiding places in tall grass and underbrush, to destroy enemy property, and to camouflage an escape. Large fires (not the Hollywood version of blankets and smoke) were ignited to signal enemy movements and to gather forces for combat.
Economic extortion Some tribes also used fire for a “scorched earth” policy to deprive settlers and fur traders from easy access to big game and thus benefiting from being “middlemen” in supplying pemmican and jerky.
Clearing areas for travel Fire was used to fell trees by boring two intersecting holes into the trunk, then dropping burning charcoal in one hole, allowing the smoke to exit from the other. This method was also used by early settlers. Another way to kill trees was to surround the base with fire, allowing the bark and/or the trunk to burn causing the tree to die (much like girdling) and eventually topple over. Fire also used to kill trees so that it could later be used for dry kindling (willows) and firewood (aspen).
Felling trees Fire was used to fell trees by boring two intersecting holes into the trunk, then dropping burning charcoal in one hole, allowing the smoke to exit from the other. This method was also used by early settlers. Another way to kill trees was to surround the base with fire, allowing the bark and/or the trunk to burn causing the tree to die (much like girdling) and eventually topple over. Fire also used to kill trees so that it could later be used for dry kindling (willows) and firewood (aspen).
Clearing riparian areas Fire was commonly used to clear brush from riparian areas and marshes for new grasses and sedges, plant growth (cattails), and tree sprouts (to benefit beavermuskratsmoose, and waterfowl), including mesquite, cottonwood, and willows.

Image result for controlled burns
Many plants have seeds that open only in the extreme heat of a fire.  Other plants thrive once the ground is cleared of dead matter, freeing up resources like sunlight and returning nutrients to the soil.  Game like deer and rabbits are attracted to this fresh green growth, both increasing their population and attracting them to the location of a Native American’s choice.  A controlled burn can also reduce the risk of an out of control wildfire like those seen recently in California. (Photo Credit: Pennsylvania Gaming Commission)

Changes in Native Indian burning practices occurred as Europeans settled across the continent. 

Some settlers saw the potential benefits of low intensity, controlled burns, but by and large, they feared and suppressed them as a threat to their homes, farms, and towns.

Meanwhile, as Native American populations collapsed due to disease, violent conquest, and forced removal, the once-cultivated and sculpted green spaces between European settlements became truly wild.

In fact, the “primeval” forest observed by the romantic and transcendentalist writers of the early Nineteenth Century was the product of a catastrophic disruption of Native American society over the previous century by European settlers and conquerors.  In other words, the state of primeval nature – the overgrown forests with thick underbrush, overrun with wildlife – as described by such ostensibly perceptive men as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Henry David Thoreau existed because European-style civilization had supplanted Native American-style civilization, and their carefully cultivated wilderness landscapes had fallen into disrepair.

As Denevan puts it, “The pristine image of 1492 seems to be a myth, then, an image more applicable to 1750, following Indian decline.”

Asher Brown Durand’s The First Harvest in the Wilderness is impressed with the majesty of what he saw a untouched nature.  However, his painting might more accurately (if less poetically) be titled The First European-style Harvest in the Wilderness.

By the 1880’s, impacts of colonization had devastated indigenous populations, and fire exclusion became more widespread; by the early 20th century fire suppression had become official U.S. federal policy. Understanding how Native Americans used fire pre-settlement provides an important basis for studying and reconstructing subsequent fire regimes throughout the landscape and is critical to correctly interpreting the ecological basis for vegetation distribution.

Read more about how specific indigenous Americans groups shaped their world.

A section of Everglades National Park that is maintained through periodic controlled burns, which helps rangers consume dead plant material and clear invasive species. (Shark Valley, Florida, 2018.)

Further Reading

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.


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The lush product of controlled burns. (Everglades National Park, Florida, 2018.)