Saturday, July 05, 2014

Bruges Welcomes You, Provided You Don't Wear Grey

In the Monty Python song “Finland,” Michael Palin referred to that luminous and chilly country as “A poor second to Belgium / When go-ing abroad.” If this is actually true, I suspect Belgium's possession of the city of Bruges has much to do with its comparative attractiveness. Recently, your humble narrator was lucky enough to visit this medieval port and UNESCO World Heritage site, in the company of my petite amie and some of the three million tourists who descend on Bruges each year. I of course enjoyed the city's well-known charms: its gabled and brightly-painted houses, the narrow canals and the swans that nest by some of them, the cool green isolation of the Minnewater, the beautiful Church of Our Lady, the looming Belfry containing Bruges' medieval charter, and the Groeninge Museum, with works by Van Eyck and Bosch and James Ensor. Somehow I avoided sampling any Belgian chocolate, a peculiar omission given that every other store in Bruges is a chocolate shop. My gustatory adventures I limited to trying a glass of local lager, which was palatable enough, and a plate of spaghetti bolognese, which was filling. The local specialty is moules frites – fried mussels – but I suspect many tourists choose to dine on Belgian waffles instead.

Bruges's story is a typical one in our post-industrial age, though the city went through its stages of decline and revival much earlier than most. It was a medieval cloth-making center whose merchants steadily built up their capital and connections between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. By the late medieval era the port had become a leading destination for ships from Italy and the Hanseatic cities, and by the 1400s its merchants had acquired so much wealth and influence that, according to Fernand Braudel, Bruges and London and Venice formed an axis of commercial power dominating western Europe. Bruges suffered, however, from two geographical problems: the river connecting it to the North Sea had silted up by the late Middle Ages, and the city lay within the domain of the Duke of Burgundy, whose principality fell into civil disorder in the late fifteenth century. Political turmoil allowed the merchants of nearby Antwerp, which had greater political stability and a better harbor, to grab Bruges' trade after 1500, just as northern Europe began to benefit from commerce with the Americas and Africa. (Braudel, The Perspective of the World: Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century [Harper & Row, 1984], 99-101, 124, 143-44.)

Local investors tried to turn Bruges into a lace-making center in the seventeenth century, and lace remains a prized souvenir for tourists (imported though it now is from southeast Asia), but the economy remained depressed into the 1800s. It was during that era of commodified nostalgia that European and American travelers discovered Bruges, its medieval buildings untouched by industrialization, and helped reinvent it as a tourist destination. Not all foreign sojourners came with good intentions, however. During the First World War, when Germany occupied Belgium, the German Army impressed laborers from Bruges and other cities. The German Navy built a U-boat base in Bruges, presumably because its inland location made it less vulnerable to shore bombardment, and opened a canal connecting the base to the North Sea. In 1916 the Germans brought the captured Captain Charles Fryatt, whom they had condemned for piracy after he rammed a U-boat the previous year, to Bruges and shot him. (Larry Zuckerman, The Rape of Belgium [NYU Press, 2004], 158, 171-72.) During the Second World War the Germans returned and, as the film The Monuments Men recounts, tried to plunder the city of some of its artistic treasures. Time and a couple of hundred million tourists have no doubt effaced most of these memories, but I wouldn't want to venture into Bruges speaking only German.


(Images above are of the Minnewater, with the Sashuis [Guard House] in the distance; the Memling Museum; and the Belfry, a familiar landmark to viewers of the film In Bruges.)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Beringia and Geopolitics

While in graduate school I learned, via the then-new H-AMINDIAN mailing list, that Europeans had begun developing the Beringian theory of Native American origins as early as the sixteenth century. Jose de Acosta and Daniel Gookin, among others, had posited a land bridge or narrow strait between Siberia and North America well before Vitus Bering's second voyage, and had asserted Siberio-Indian kinship based on linguistic similarities and other evidence. More recently, I was surprised to learn, from Claudio Saunt's intriguing new book West of the Revolution (W.W. Norton, 2014), that eighteenth-century Europeans used this hypothesis to advance geopolitical agendas. In the 1750s the Franciscan Jose Torrubia used “Aztec tradition” and colonial documents to argue that the Indians of Mexico came from Siberia and that very little distance separated that chilly wasteland from the northwest coast of America. When he learned of Bering's discoveries (which the Russians had kept under wraps for twenty years), Torrubia wrote a long essay warning that the “Muscovites” would shortly move into California if not checked (pp. 52-53). In the early 1770s, Spanish Ambassador Antonio de Lacy noted that the Russians were using not only geography but the Beringian-origins hypothesis to promote colonization: Russia, according to one of Catherine II's advisers, had a clear claim to North America “because that country was once peopled by Siberians” (73-74).

Such reports exaggerated Russia's intentions. It would take another quarter-century before Russian traders established a settlement east of Kodiak Island, and several decades before some built a small trading post in northern California, on the river that a younger Saunt thought must be the “Rushin' River” (12). Spanish officials of the 1760s and '70s did not have the benefit of this hindsight, and their alarm caused them to approve the colonization of California, with, as Saunt observes, devastating consequences for Native Californians. That fear of Russian expansion drove Spain's colonial venture in California is well-established. Saunt's new contribution to the history of that venture is to note how the Beringian-origins theory changed the way the Spanish thought about geography: it made Siberia, the putative homeland of Native Americans (with whom the Spanish were quite familiar), a much more immanent reality, and helped eliminate the mental distance between Russian Siberia and Spanish America, just as Bering's discoveries were erasing the physical distance between them. For all its ivory-tower trappings and pretenses, sometimes intellectual history has a very immediate impact on political history.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

What I Learned at the Leiden AIW

Since the 1980s a consortium of European scholars has been running an annual conference on American Indian Studies, and your Humble Narrator was fortunate enough to attend the thirty-fifth meeting thereof, held last month in Leiden, Netherlands. Many Europeans are fascinated with Native Americans, or at least with stereotyped pop-culture versions of them, and Germany has a thriving “Indian hobbyist” culture, whose adherents dress up in Indian costumes and learn “real” Indian crafts and dances. The American Indian Workshop took pains to avoid or critique this kind of play-acting and stereotyping. The organizers invited numerous Native scholars, like keynote speaker Henrietta Mann (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College), to attend, and made this year's conference themes language and communication. Linguistics is a specialty of the University of Leiden, and language is a key determinant of how people really think and live. Language is also much harder to master than quasi-authentic craft skills, a point made by Avelino Esteban (Universidad Autonomica de Madrid). Esteban gave a presentation on behalf of the Honoxease Project, a group of European scholars trying to help preserve the Cheyenne language, which demonstrated to your narrator that Cheyenne, with its complicated verbs, multiple pitches, and other complexities, is not a language for the faint of heart.

Approximately one hundred people gave presentations at the workshop, and your narrator was only able to attend about 15-20 papers and addresses. From these I learned what I should probably already have known, which is that Native North Americans approach inter-cultural communication with different priorities than whites. Ukjese Van Kampen (Athabascan/Tutchone), whom I first had the pleasure to meet two years ago in Helsinki, noted that one of the most well-known forms of Indian communication, story-telling, can be hard for outsiders to follow because story-tellers use characters that they assume are already familiar to their audience. Judith Burch, curator of a visiting exhibit on Inuit cloth-making, noted that these stories could take the symbolic form of woven patterns and images, also potentially difficult for outsiders to understand. Anne Grob (Univ. of Leipzig), who has studied indigenous peoples in both New Zealand and Montana, observed that while Crows and Maoris are glad to discuss their cultures with outside scholars, those scholars must take the time to build a reciprocal relationship with their informants, and remember that to Native Americans the process of building and maintaining that relationship is more important than publishable results. Nadia Clerici (University of Genoa), in an extensive survey of American tribal websites, argued that modern Indians can and do make an effort to reach out to non-Indians, and that as part of that effort they challenge stereotypes of Indians as militaristic or hyper-spiritual, focusing instead on peace-making, democracy (an important issue for the Iroquois), women's rights, and sovereignty.*

Apropos of challenging stereotypes, several presenters proved that, contrary to what many Europeans and white Americans believe, Native Americans have a well-developed sense of humor. Sonja John (Humboldt University), in a paper on Lakota cartoonist Marty Two Bulls, argued that Indians used humor to critique their own society in a non-confrontational way. Bobby Wilson (Dakota), a member of the comedy group The 1491s, showed in video clips how he and his colleagues use humor to undermine white stereotypes, such as the ultra-spiritual Indians of kitsch artwork and the hyper-masculine Indian men (and uber-feminine Indian women) of romance novels like Lakota Surrender. Susan Livingston (Univ. of Illinois) analyzed the work of the Cree artist Kent Monkman, showing how he used humorous and shocking imagery to “re-appropriate” Indian images from popular artists like George Catlin and Frederic Remington, and to challenge both racial and sexual power dynamics. Audience members at John's, Livington's, and Tria Andrews's panel saw connections between humor and
Two-Spirited-ness - the assumption of a cross-gender identity by
some Native American men and women – insofar as comedians and Two-Spirited people both go “against the grain” of their societies and challenge apparently fixed rules and identities. One of those commenters, Henrietta Mann, pointed out that the Cheyennes regarded humor, like language itself, as sacred, and that clowning and joke-making were culturally similar to the practices of the Cheyenne Contraries, whose elaborate subversion of social norms gave them great prestige.

I should note that the audiences at the panels I attended were much livelier than their counterparts at American conferences; rare was the paper that did not generate at least several questions or comments from the audience. I am not sure of the reason for this, but perhaps it lay in the multi-disciplinary nature of the conference itself, and attendees' assumption that they would necessarily have to reach out to scholars from other nations and disciplines. Perhaps western Europeans are more intellectually assertive than Americans. Or perhaps historians, who dominated the stateside academic conferences I've attended, are just more naturally reticent and passive than cultural-studies scholars, linguists, and anthropologists. I suspect answer #3 is closest to the truth: we historians can be a pretty dreary lot, even when we're liquored up.      

* On the matter of sovereignty, Julie Reed (Univ. of Tennessee) argued that the post-Removal Cherokees used American-style institutions like prisons, schools, orphanages, insane asylums, and disability pensions to maintain their national sovereignty. If the nineteenth-century Cherokees could punish their own criminals or declare them criminally insane, they wouldn't have to turn them over to white authorities; if they could take care of their own orphans and disabled persons, they could turn away white reformers who wanted to do that job themselves.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mound Builders Playtest Update

Your humble narrator recently attempted to play-test Mound Builders, the new solitaire game of Mississippian-era exploration and survival. After two hours of set-up, re-reading (and re-re-reading) the rules, and slow, methodical play, I managed to make it into the early Mississippian era, the game's second epoch. My cultural empire extended deep into Shawnee and Caddo country, generating regular surpluses of hides and mica, before enemy war parties – notably the Cherokees, whose homeland I never managed to incorporate – began battering Cahokia's palisades.

Then I noticed I'd made it through the Hopewell era without remembering to trigger the revolts specified on the game's first set of history cards. I apparently misread a paragraph on page 9, column two of the rulebook (like you do). Well, so much for being methodical! And so much for trying to write a legitimate session report. I'll make another attempt to play the game correctly, but it will have to wait until June, as I'll be traveling and Mound Builders requires more play area than the average hotel table or airline tray-back provides.

(The image at right shows the game board at the start of the first [Hopewell] era, shortly before I began to screw everything up. Not sure where I placed the fifth peace-pipe marker; I suspect it's out-of-frame. The mug on the right edge of the board, used to hold chiefdom counters, was one I picked up at the 2012 meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory.)

Friday, May 09, 2014

Everything's Relaxed and Groovy on Helluland

I've always assumed the relationship between the Norse colonists of medieval Greenland and Newfoundland and the local Native American (Indian and Inuit) was stand-offish at best and violent more often than not. Alfred Crosby (Ecological Imperialism (1986), 48-52) noted routine skirmishing between Norsemen and Beothuks on Newfoundland and repeated Inuit raids on Greenland settlements. Jared Diamond (Collapse (2005)) argued that the Greenlanders' hostility toward the Inuit and their cultural isolationism helped doom their colonies, since it prevented them from copying the Inuit Arctic toolkit (parkas, kayaks, toggle harpoons) and learning their neighbors' survival skills. Something about this story, however, never quite rang true: the medieval Norse were as much traders as warriors, and it seems unlikely that their remote Arctic colonies would have survived for more than four centuries in a state of constant warfare with more numerous neighbors. Within the last decade, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland, formerly of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and now of the University of Aberdeen, has confirmed that the standard account of Norse-Native relations is flawed, and has usefully complicated the narrative of Norse American colonization.

In 1999, studying fibers found in an early 14th-century Dorset-culture (Paleo-Inuit) site on Baffin Island, Sutherland determined that the remains were yarn woven by Greenland Norse. A follow-up study of artifacts from four Dorset-culture sites on Baffin Island (or Helluland, as the Norse called it) and Labrador revealed wooden spindles, whetstones, and tally sticks of the kind used by Norse traders, along with Dorset carvings of what appear to be Europeans. These led her and a Canadian team to a Dorset village site in Baffin Island's Tanfield Valley, where several years ago they located what is almost certainly a Norse trading post: a large structure with a stone-lined drain, a latrine that still stank after centuries (must have been a boys' bathroom), remnants of augur holes and a shovel, and scraps of fur from black rats, which apparently accompanied the Norse voyagers. Sutherland has not yet determined how long the site was occupied, but believes there the Norse and Dorset Inuit conducted a lively commerce, swapping walrus ivory and fox furs for wooden artifacts and metal. However poor the Greenland Norse relationship with other Native Americans may have been, it is now evident that at least one nearby indigenous culture was more than happy to trade peacefully with them. They had, if you will forgive the expression, taken a liking to a Viking.

(The National Geographic story on Sutherland's excavation mentions, incidentally, that medieval Norse mariners made it as far as Ellesmere Island, where evidence of a Norse shipwreck was found in the late 1970s. Ellesmere Island is NORTH of Baffin Island; its northern shore fronts the Arctic Ocean. Either the sailors were brave or drunk.)


(Image above is of Norse tally stick fragments in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History; original can be found here.)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A First Look at Mound Builders

My copy of Victory Point Games' Mound Builders arrived a short while ago, and having just dug my way out of a pile of editing I thought I would give my readers my initial impressions of the game before working on a more detailed review or session report.

Victory Point Games' motto is “The Play's the Thing,” which refers to their production of games with interesting rules or settings and inexpensive components. Mound Builders, however, represents a significant improvement in the physical quality of VPG's products. The event cards (or “history cards”) are sturdy, trading-card sized, and well-illustrated; the counters are nearly twice as thick as those in previous VPG titles; the rule book has a glossy cover and is formatted like an actual book; and the board is large – 11 by 17 inches – and adorned with images and icons that immediately set the tone for the game. I can't imagine what the deluxe boxed edition must be like, though I suspect the counters are of gold-pressed latinum.

As in other States of Siege games, the game board of Mound Builders features a central city, Cahokia, that the player must defend from adversaries who advance against it on numbered tracks, or warpaths. These adversaries are the Shawnees, Cherokees, Natchez, Caddos, Ho-Chunk, and, eventually, the Spanish. One might quibble with some of the names here: the Shawnees were actually the Fort Ancient culture in the pre-Columbian era (they didn't acquire their historic name till later), the Natchez didn't coalesce as a nation until the seventeenth century, and the Cherokees were a pretty minor nation until the eighteenth century (though the designers note that they use the word as a catch-all for the southeastern Indians). There's something to be said, though, for using historic tribal names, which remind players of the continuity between pre- and post-Columbian Indian cultures.

The game tokens include six markers representing hostile armies, each of which has a stand to keep it upright on the board, indicating that VPG is moving away from its strict devotion to flat cardboard counters. Most of the other game counters represent the chiefdoms that the player can exploit or conquer during the game, chiefdoms identified by an exotic trade good they produce – copper, mica, feathers, seashells – and a numeric battle value. Once the second phase of the game, the Mississippian era, begins, the player can flip the chiefdom counters to the side displaying a mound, indicating they've been incorporated into one's civilization. As a whole, the counters indicate that Mound Builders is an unusual offering for VPG, with both military and resource-management elements. We will see whether or not these make for a rewarding game; I suspect they do.

Gamers identify those elements of a game that establish it in a particular setting or historic era as “chrome,” and Mound Builders has lots of it, particularly on its event or History cards. In the States of Siege game series, these indicate how many actions the player may perform on a given turn and which enemies' armies move up (and, in MB, which chiefdoms might revolt). In Mound Builders, all of the cards are beautifully illustrated with color images or photographs, displaying the Aztalan palisade, Hopewell pottery, an artist's reconstruction of Cahokia, and the like. Each also contains a paragraph of text describing the archaeological site or culture or development featured on the card, and I think they contain a fair amount of information that would be news even to seasoned American historians. Were I to use MB as a teaching tool, these History cards would be one of the principal reasons.

The only thing discouraging me from using Mound Builders in the classroom is the rulebook, which is very complex – less so than for a game like Advanced Squad Leader, but more than other States of Siege titles or “gateway” games like Ticket to Ride. MB covers three historic periods, or eras, and is almost a different game in each. In the Hopewell period, the player focuses on exploring and trading; in the Mississippian era, the emphasis is on empire building and defense; in the Spanish era, the player will be struggling just to survive. Players also need to keep track of a large number of action options: building mounds, improving Cahokia's palisades, powwowing with the Great Sun, engaging in diplomacy to acquire chiefdoms, and attacking hostile armies, and that's not including the additional options in the advanced game. I suspect, though, that it is easier to keep track of these options once one has actually playtested the game, which I plan to do shortly.