Professor of Russian Jane Knox‘s sabbatical research on the survival of post-colonial indigenous cultures and languages has taken her this spring to southwestern Mexico, specifically the mountainous state of Oaxaca, Oaxaca City, the Central Valley villages and farms, and the ancient archeological sites in the surrounding mountains.
Earlier research brought Knox to the remote Kolyma region of Siberia and the Kazakhstan Steppe. She has found that in such remote areas indigenous cultures and language have understandably had a better chance for survival.
“The Zapotecs, the major indigenous culture of Oaxaca, stem from an ancient civilization that thrived in this mountainous state of Mexico (Oaxaca) – the common were people as nomadic farmers in the Central Valley, while the high priests lived on their elaborate sites at the top of the surrounding mountains where they built their pyramids and ball courts for the upper 10 percent of this society,” says Knox. “These high priests wanted to be nearer to the gods with whom they communicated and to whom they sacrificed themselves in these ball games.
“Fortunately, the masses in the valley survived but today but form the economical lower strata of society. Still the most important part of their culture – their indigenous Zapatec language – is intact.”
Oaxaca is the poorest state in Mexico and there continues to be strong unrest and communist influence. In fact, on the day Knox arrived, she observed a massive teachers’ strike during which public school teachers occupied city buses and blocked access to the center of the city.
Those of Spanish decent, not knowing the indigenous language or culture, constitute a smaller percentage of society but hold both power and wealth in their hands. They do not integrate with the rest of the Zapotecs who continue to live in the Central Valley and on the edges of the city.
The children of the upper class attend private Catholic schools. Because of the strong division between the wealthy and the poor, unrest is not likely to end any time soon.
“But at least the Zapotecs can proudly claim the survival of their heritage here,” says Knox. “Similar conflicts occur in Siberia between the indigenous peoples of the North – the Sakha – and the Russians who colonized their land over centuries and particularly in the Soviet era.”
Knox will present a photography exhibit of her work on the walls of the Smith Union cafe in May.