Category Archives: Guest Post

Gifts from Their Grandmothers: Megan Smetzer on “Painful Beauty”

A common thread running through the contemporary artworks included in my book, Painful Beauty, is the deep respect for the tangible and intangible gifts received by the artists from their mothers and grandmothers through the beadwork they created. Two ephemeral fragments—a family snapshot of a mother and daughter beading moccasins and a paper beadwork pattern stored in a fruitcake tin—inspired the poignant and powerful artworks by Larry McNeil and Tanis S’eiltin that are critical to my own consideration of the histories of Tlingit beadwork.

Tlingit mothers and grandmothers in Southeast Alaska and elsewhere have known the power of beadwork to feed their families and also affirm thousands of years of connections to the land and its bountiful resources. Yet throughout the twentieth century, their beading has been dismissed by many scholars and collectors as derivative and inauthentic. Tlingit communities, however, have long recognized the strength and resilience of these women through the overt racism and discrimination brought to bear by the institutions of settler colonialism. Through the generosity of the descendants of these beaders, who are telling their stories through contemporary artistic production, the historical significance and impact of these powerful Indigenous women is being shared more widely with the public.

I was first drawn to Larry McNeil’s photographic collage, Once Upon a Time in America, because of the 1943 snapshot at its center depicting his mother Anita McNeil (kaajee seidee) and grandmother Mary Brown Betts (kah saa nák) holding and sewing beaded moccasins. Here was a beautiful illustration of the intangible intergenerational knowledge that fueled so much beading in the mid-twentieth century. I knew, from archival research, that around five hundred women had beaded moccasins and other work for sale through the Alaska Native Arts and Crafts Cooperative from the 1930s to the 1970s. Many contemporary artists I have spoken with shared memories of watching or helping their grandmothers with beaded work. In this print and in his writing, McNeil foregrounds the power of these women through a seemingly mundane activity, which, in fact, was central to their fight for equal education as well as perpetuating intangible Tlingit ways of knowing in a difficult and discriminatory era. I am deeply grateful to Larry McNeil and his sisters, Helen and Patty, for sharing stories of their mother and grandmother with me.

Larry McNeil, Once Upon a Time in America from Fly by Night Mythology series, 2002. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Over the years Tanis S’eiltin and I have discussed octopus bags—distinctive pouches with four pairs of “tentacles” made from wool and beaded with seaweed and floral designs—and how they express historical trade relationships with interior peoples as well as the ways in which Tlingit women transformed them aesthetically to better represent local knowledge. When I first saw photographs of S’eiltin’s untitled armor-like floor-length coat featuring an oversized beadwork pattern depicting an octopus, I was thrilled to see how she had transformed the idea of an octopus bag into a life-size work celebrating Tlingit women.

During my visit to see her coat, Tanis mentioned that she had a fruitcake tin filled with beadwork patterns that dated to her great-grandmother’s era. I was nearly brought to tears when she brought it out. I had been told of these tins filled with patterns, but this was the first time one was shared with me. We pulled out hundreds of delicate pieces of paper, cut from old envelopes and cookbooks, and Tanis shared stories of the women, including her great-grandmother Mary Barries and her mother Maria Ackerman Miller (Ldaneit), who filled the tin over the years. These patterns and others like them adorned hundreds, if not thousands of pairs of moccasins made for sale throughout the twentieth century. The oversize octopus pattern on the coat foregrounds those powerful Tlingit women and their centrality to trade in all its forms, including the relationships that brought octopus bags and other treasures to Southeast Alaska. S’eiltin has drawn inspiration from this battered “box of treasures” to create work for her own children and grandchildren to teach them about their matrilineal legacies. I am so grateful for the opportunity Tanis has given me to write about her work.

Tanis S’eiltin, Untitled, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author.

Tanis S’eiltin’s fruitcake tin holding three generations of beading patterns. Photo courtesy of the author.

Tanis S’eiltin, Untitled, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author.

I extend my gratitude to all Tlingit people, past and present, who have always expressed longstanding cultural practices through the incorporation of new ideas and materials in innovative and creative ways. The histories and stories shared in Painful Beauty are a testament to the power of their art and the strength of their resilience.


Megan A. Smetzer is lecturer of art history at Capilano University.

A Gift of Peace and Quiet: Judy Bentley on the West Seattle Greenbelt and “Hiking Washington’s History”

Armed with more than two hundred white plastic bags, neon-clad neighbors gather at the West Seattle Greenbelt trailhead on a cold, sunny morning in late February 2021. Their mission is to make a trail visible from more than five hundred feet above. At precisely 8:45 a.m., a helicopter will circle the greenbelt with Jean Sherrard’s camera peering out, photographing the bright white squares revealing the trail through the overhanging branches. Sherrard and Clay Eals are preparing a Now & Then column for the Seattle Times.

Photo by Christine Clark.

The bags are the brainchild of Paul West, a member of the West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group, who brings an ample supply from Puget Ridge Cohousing. (With only a few splotches of mud, the bags will be carefully collected and folded for reuse.) The volunteers start down the trail in small groups to drop their “bread crumbs” ten feet apart. As the temperature climbs above the mid-thirties, the white helicopter circles three times against a clear blue sky, above the waving Hansels and Gretels.

Looking south over part of the West Duwamish Greenbelt. Photo by Jean Sherrard.

In the resulting aerials, the people are mostly invisible and the bag trail is faint, but the views of the ridge on the highlands between the Duwamish Waterway and Puget Sound are stunning. The green fields of South Seattle College and the Riverview playfields frame the greenbelt. Industrial companies hug the river, colorful containers park at port terminals, the First Avenue South Bridge spans the river, and a belt of late-winter brown separates commerce from neighborhoods.

Looking west to the West Duwamish Greenbelt. Photo by Jean Sherrard.

Glacier action that left rocks resistant to erosion created the greenbelt ridge more than sixty thousand years ago. A conifer forest of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce grew on its slopes.

The Duwamish people lived below the greenbelt along the Duwamish River and its tributaries for centuries; the earliest archaeological record places a village on the river as early as AD 500. As settlers and land developers moved in, the Duwamish were dispossessed, but the spirits (and bodies) of their ancestors live on in the soil and the trees.

A 1920 aerial photo shows the same ridge but with fewer trees. Puget Mill Company extracted what they wanted from the ridge before donating twenty acres to the City of Seattle in 1912 for a park at the north end. The same photo shows Boeing Plant 1 sitting at the foot of Highland Park Way. The newly straightened and dredged river is visible below the tip of an airplane wing. A streetcar line, which ran from the tip of the Duwamish Peninsula south to new communities, shows faintly on the ridge. The green line indicates trails in the 2021 greenbelt.

An aerial photo taken in 1920. Courtesy the Boeing Company.

In the decades after 1920, a brickyard dumped kiln dust on the hillside, neighbors dumped trash, a gravel company mined sand and gravel, and the Seattle Department of Engineering acquired property to build Soundway, a proposed freeway from the First Avenue South Bridge to suburban areas of Burien and southwest Seattle. The state located one of three Seattle community colleges at the top of the ridge in the late 1960s.

“There is no place in the city of Seattle where a buffer between industry and residences is more badly needed,” wrote the unnamed author of a 1970s report advocating the ridge’s preservation under the city’s Urban Greenbelt plan. “It should be left to the following generations as a gift of peace and quiet in our busy, noisy, polluted city.”

Through gradual property acquisitions and the activism of citizens, the greenbelt became that gift—at five hundred acres, it is the largest contiguous forest in the city. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department and countless volunteers have replanted and restored the forest and created a few good trails and more than a few social trails pounded by hiking boots and running shoes.

Trailhead at Fourteenth Avenue SW and SW Holly Street. Photo by Judy Bentley.

One of those trails is featured in the expanded second edition of Hiking Washington’s History by Judy Bentley and Craig Romano. Although this trail was not in use as an indigenous trail for thousands of years, it crosses an ancient landscape in the industrial heart of the state’s largest city. That makes it historic.


Judy Bentley taught Pacific Northwest history at South Seattle College for more than twenty years and is an avid hiker and author of fifteen young adult books. Her latest book, co-authored with Craig Romano, is Hiking Washington’s History, Second Edition.

The Most Noble Estuary: David Williams on the Making of “Homewaters”

Homewaters began with a simple idea: Write a book about the human and natural history of Puget Sound. I didn’t know exactly what this would encompass but knew that I wanted to focus on the landscape where I have lived for most of my life. I had a few vague ideas: the three forts (Casey, Flagler, and Worden) at the Sound’s northern entrance; something about Albert Bierstadt’s ferocious painting of Puget Sound at the Seattle Art Museum; the ferry system and the mosquito fleet; and, of course, geoducks.

I knew that more stories were out there, so I began to reach out to friends and colleagues. Over the next six months I interviewed scientists, tribal members, and historians. My standard opening was that I was working on a book about the cultural and ecological history in Puget Sound, and I wanted to know what stories they thought were important.

What stood out for me in these interviews was the passion everyone expressed for this lovely body of water: It is a “beautifully complex ecosystem.” The Sound is a “unique waterbody whose beauty is hardly rivaled.” It is a “microcosm of ecological issues everywhere.” The abundance of the Sound made “us some of the most complex and wealthy people; we didn’t need to migrate.” I also learned that six-gill sharks will eat anything on the bottom, that as herring go so goes Puget Sound, that salmon are narcissistic, and that no one has a handle on kelp slime.

Based on these interviews and my interests, I put together a proposal to address people, plants, and animals and how history could help modern residents understand the present and think about how to pursue a future Puget Sound that is healthier for its human and more-than-human inhabitants. My interviews also impressed upon me the idea that I should focus on overlooked species, such as herring and kelp, which are critical to the ecosystem.

The press accepted my proposal, though they were less than enthusiastic about my title “The Most Noble Estuary.” Two and a half years later, in June 2019, I turned in my manuscript. It totaled 76,184 words with 14,054 words in endnotes. And it had a new title, “Breaking the Surface,” which once again was met with a less than enthusiastic response. Not until another round of editing did we come up with Homewaters.

The main highlight of working on Homewaters was the field time I spent with researchers, which resulted in me filling seven five-by-eight-inch notebooks, by far the most for any book I have written. During my writing journey, I was treated to five types of fresh oysters, some harvested just hours earlier, and given a geoduck pulled up from water sixty feet deep in Agate Passage. (The other geoducks harvested that day traveled more extensively, being overnighted to China.) I crisscrossed Admiralty Inlet, luckily on a calm-water day, in a fourteen-foot Zodiac searching for herring; tagged along as researchers pulled up invertebrates from the Sound’s deepest location (930 feet off of Point Jefferson); and rode all of the Sound’s ferry routes, including several I hadn’t known existed. I also dropped a notebook in the water, was brutally pinched by a mean old Dungeness crab, was confronted by machine-gun-toting nuclear-submarine-protecting Coast Guardsmen, and got stuck on a sandbar with three biologists for several hours when we failed to notice how rapidly the tide was ebbing. I enjoyed every moment.

The other exciting aspect of the book was my dive into history. The Sound has a relatively short written story; not until 1792 did Europeans reach the waterway. But the x̌ʷəlč, as it is known in Lushootseed (pronounced as whulge in English), has a very deep record of human habitation, which stretches back at least 12,500 years, only a couple thousand years after a great ice sheet had rewritten the landscape and then retreated to the north. One of my goals was to weave together these story lines and to explore how the different people who called this place home have responded to the landscape and the more-than-human inhabitants, as well as to each other. 

Of all the books I have written, I am most proud of Homewaters, in part because of its themes of connection and caring. My primary goal is always to write in ways that allow people to develop better connections and relationships to the place they call home. In Homewaters I added a call to act by writing in a manner that I hope encourages people to think more carefully about their actions and their impacts on the health of Puget Sound. I wouldn’t call the book an activist manifesto, but it sends a message that it is up to the residents of the Sound to continue working to improve the waterway for everyone. And based on the people I met and the stories I learned, I truly believe that we are ready to work toward this goal.


David B. Williams is a naturalist, author, and educator. His many books include the award-winning Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography and Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City. Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound is available now.

A Short Discussion on the Zuo Reader with Editors Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li, and David Schaberg

To celebrate the recent release of the The Zuo Tradition / Zuozhuan Reader: Selections from China’s Earliest Narrative History, editors Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li, and David Schaberg had a virtual conversation about the guide to the study of early Chinese culture and thought. Below is their conversation.

Wai-yee Li: Our intention in putting together the Zuo Reader was to emphasize that Zuozhuan is not only a valuable source of historical understanding but also an indispensable source of information about early Chinese culture and thought. Consequently, rather than organize the passages selected for it in chronological order, we have organized them according to fifteen topics or themes. As we explain in the introduction, our selection of topics is somewhat arbitrary, although we do believe they cover issues that recur and illustrate the variety and richness of the full text.

David Schaberg: This topical organization of the reader is not meant to obscure Zuozhuan’s importance as a work of history. In fact, it can give modern students a keen sense of how important historical memory and historical writing were to the early Chinese and can convey some of what they aimed to accomplish in their historical writing. Beginning in the eighth century BCE, the work already shows a fascination with details of social and cultural change and the continuous unfolding of new challenges. The text also conveys a strong sense of how governing practices and rituals helped define the early Chinese world and laid the foundation for a broader set of East Asian political debates and institutions. The Zuo Reader can also convey a sense of China’s role as one of several historical cultures to have defined itself in part around an early set of texts and religious practices.

Stephen Durrant: Not only does the Zuo Reader convey an understanding of an ancient culture and history but it also reminds us how many problems and issues broached remain relevant. So often as we read about the past, even the deep past as in the case of Zuozhuan, we suddenly realize that we are also reading about ourselves. This was brought home to me just recently while reading papers written by men at the Oregon State Penitentiary who were using the Zuo Reader in a class on Chinese narrative. Their papers discussed such issues as the passages concerning “Succession Struggles” (ch. 2) and what they might tell us about the recent controversy over presidential succession here in the United States. They struggled with the complex personalities of Chong’er (ch. 4) and King Ling of Chu (ch. 10), comparing some of the character traits and life experience of those ancient Chinese personalities with their own problem-fraught pasts. And they argued as they read “Laws and Punishment” (ch. 9)—men who have all had direct experience with our legal system—whether or not Shuxiang was right in saying, “Why should there be any penal codes at all? When the people have learned how to contend over points of law, they will abandon ritual propriety and appeal to what is written.”

DS: These kinds of personal responses highlight the advantages of being able to read Chinese history through a translation like the reader rather than a summarized overview. A summarized overview would be effective in relating historical facts, but it would omit something that the materials in the Zuo Reader do exceptionally well: they convey historical actors’ individual responses to facts, often quoting conversations and long speeches. Both in reading quoted remarks and in reading the historical narratives themselves, students encounter the attitudes and emotions of the ancients and learn to experiment with seeing the world through the values that are written into the text. The difference is something like that between giving someone a fish and teaching them to fish. By reading the narratives gathered in the Zuo Reader, students will get a direct sense of the kinds of historical stories Confucius and other thinkers knew and took into account in their arguments.

SD: Moreover, a handy one-volume collection of these narratives facilitates using it in comparative courses. For example, a course on comparative early historiography would use it alongside portions of the Hebrew Bible and the writings of classical Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. In fact, we believe from a pedagogical perspective, the Zuo Reader is highly serviceable.

DS: Not only might it be used in comparative courses but it also could be used as the main reading in a class on early Chinese historiography, paired with supplemental materials from other early Chinese texts, or it could be used in a course on the history of Chinese prose narrative. Moreover, the topical arrangement is particularly suitable to a course on early Chinese thought, perhaps by pairing chapters on subjects with especially relevant “Masters” texts: “Law and Punishment” with The Book of Lord Shang or Han Feizi, “Ritual” with Xunzi’s “Discourse on Ritual,” “Confucius” with Analects. Whatever the course, there are a variety of ways a teacher might use the Zuo Reader in the classroom: organize weekly discussions around one or two chapters, using the chapter topics to introduce the discussion and steadily building the interconnection of themes each week; break students up into small groups for close reading of narratives, then bring them back together to share their readings; have students identify a theme or character in it and investigate it further in the complete translations; have students examine the use of poetry citation and recitation in speeches; have students write a speech or narrative in the style of Zuozhuan; and so forth.

WY: The Zuo Reader is wonderful for the classroom also because the narratives are condensed and often provocative. Because of its long and complex process of formation, Zuozhuan often contains multiple perspectives on the same issue. For example, we find arguments both for and against the right of the people to protest unjust policies, both praise and suspicion of centralizing power, both idealistic and cynical views of ritual propriety, and so on. In our choice of passages, we have made sure to bring out these differences. In a classroom scenario, students can be easily organized to debate the different positions and processes of reasoning underwriting various passages. Those who have some knowledge of later Chinese history may be surprised by the more varied views of loyalty and political hierarchy in the Zuo Reader. Unlike the elevation of imperial authority and glorification of the subject’s absolute loyalty in some later materials, students will find in it lively debates on whether the expulsion or even assassination of a ruler can be justified or questions on the proper balance of power between the Zhou king and the lords. Some of the moral precepts readily associated with the “Chinese Tradition” take on different contours in the Reader. Also, because Zuozhuan is both interested in offering judgments and committed to “respecting the facts,” it ends up with stories of surprising moral complexity. Dissecting such nuances will be really fun in the classroom.


Stephen Durrant is professor emeritus of Chinese language and literature at the University of Oregon. Wai-yee Li is professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University. David Schaberg is professor of Asian languages and culture and dean of humanities at UCLA. Their joint translation of Zuo Tradition / Zuozhuan: Commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals” was awarded the Patrick D. Hanan Book Prize for Translation, sponsored by the Association for Asian Studies.

Opening Access to Scholarship: Stevan Harrell on the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China Series

UW Press books on ethnicity and ethnic relations in China are now open access—freely available online to anyone who can get on the internet. Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers led off the UW Press series Studies on Ethnic Groups in China (SEGC) in 1995. At the time, it was among a few pioneering volumes in English covering the lives and history of China’s 120 million ethnic minority peoples. Since then we have published twenty-three more books—the newest offering is Jarmila Ptáčková’s Exile From the Grasslands (2020). Scholars now widely consider SEGC to be the most prestigious series concentrating on ethnic groups and ethnic relations in China. We’ve kept the books reasonably affordable, at least for North American and European professors, but as with most specialized academic books, those who can’t afford to buy them often can’t find them in their local library. This is particularly true for readers in China, where libraries often don’t have much of a budget for English-language books, as well as readers in countries where libraries have little budget for specialized monographs at all.

It was thus welcome news when in 2017 the University of Washington Libraries invited the press to participate in a pilot project to make some UW Press books open access, meaning that anyone anywhere with an internet connection could read them online. This joint project was funded by a grant from the Transformation Fund of the Kenneth S. and Faye G. Allen Library Endowment. I asked the series’ authors if they would be willing to participate, and nearly all of them replied enthusiastically, agreeing that any small amount of book royalties lost by people reading their books online rather than buying print copies would be more than balanced out by greater exposure to their scholarship.

There are a variety of formats for online books or digital editions (often called e-books), many of which can be used for either open access or restricted access. For example, there are a lot of books on the UW Libraries website that you can read if you have a UW NetID as a student, staff, or faculty member—reading these books online is like checking out a print copy from the library. Open access is different—anyone with internet access can read an open access book or article. This model of open access is also very different from the one certain journal publishers employ. A respected journal published by one of the big journal publishing houses recently accepted an article I had submitted, and they offered to make it open access if I would pay a modest fee of around $2,800. No thanks. Our model is not like that. It is, for now, grant-supported, meaning that authors contribute nothing other than, as my late aunt used to say, “applying of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” for the years it takes to make a book.

To host the books, UW Libraries and the press chose Manifold, an innovative platform developed by the University of Minnesota Press, the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, and Cast Iron Coding. Reading a book on Manifold is really a manifold literary experience. You can, of course, just read. But you can also do more. If you are the author, you can add all sorts of material that is not part of the physical book: updates, really geeky footnotes, color photos, even audio recordings or videos.

Resources are available for readers as well. Create a Manifold account, and after you’ve logged in, you can add annotations or comments for your own use, and if the author agrees, you can make those public. Otherwise you can just use them yourself, rather like marking up a print book with marginalia or a yellow highlighter, only not so naughty. You can even use the handy online yellow highlighter pencil, but on your own copy so it doesn’t bother other people.

For teachers, the possibilities are even greater. Use a book as a text for your class without requiring students to buy it. Annotate passages in the book, making them visible to students only, and ask students to make annotations as class assignments or to facilitate class discussions. Students can annotate for their own private use, or for the use of the class, at theirs or the instructor’s discretion. And it’s all free. We know that some of our books, like Jenny Chio’s A Landscape of Travel, have even been used in class projects by high school students.

Manifold is not the only way to find Studies on Ethnic Groups in China in open access format. The press has also worked with Project MUSE, a platform developed at Johns Hopkins University for e-book publication, and with JSTOR, the granddaddy of all online book and article publishing platforms, to make our books openly available there too. They are available from the UW Libraries’ ResearchWorks repository, HathiTrust, and other sites as well.

We now have exciting statistics on the actual usage of the JSTOR and MUSE online editions of the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China books. They are rather spectacular: in 2020, for example, our JSTOR editions were used by readers in 123 countries. We would of course expect a lot of readers in China, given the topics, and indeed our books were accessed by thousands of readers there. And we would also expect readers from European countries, since many of our authors are European. But who would have expected readers in (just to take the Es) Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, and Ethiopia? Or, to sample the Bs, in the Bahamas, Belarus, Belize, Bhutan, Bolivia, and Botswana? Clearly, there is global interest in our books.

Comparative research on use brought even more impressive results. Comparing “hits” or views and downloads of our books on Project MUSE during the period before and after they became open access, the press found that use increased dramatically. In a selected sample of twenty UW Press books on similar topics that are not open access but available as e-books through JSTOR and MUSE, in 2020, the open access books were used about thirteen times as often as books accessible only via library passwords.

Series authors were enthusiastic about the news. Emeritus Professor Thomas Heberer from the University of Duisburg in Germany, commented on the statistics for his Doing Business in Rural China:

I am really impressed about the wide online readership on a global scale as well as almost 100 readers from Germany! This is specifically important and helpful with regard to the visibility of both the books and the authors, and signifies the excellent position of the University of Washington Press in a globalized world! Congratulations!

Professor Susan McCarthy, from Providence College, was equally pleased about the global reach of the series:

I am gratified—and to be honest, a bit stunned—to discover that since being made open access, my book Communist Multiculturalism has been downloaded or read online in sixty-three countries, from Uganda to Ukraine, the Netherlands to Nepal. I am especially pleased that so much of the interest—55% of the “hits” in Project MUSE—appears to be coming from China. . . .  In a ten-month period after open access was enabled, hits on my ebook increased more than eighteen times over, compared to the prior year and half. Enabling open access has allowed my book, published in 2009, to continue to inform debates about the politics of ethnicity, religion, and national identity in China, at a time when such issues are increasingly, globally salient.

Fifteen years ago, e-books were the wave of the future, but now they are commonplace. Five years ago, open access was a radical idea, and whether it can become the norm in the next few years will depend on funding models. But projects like the pilot with Studies on Ethnic Groups in China are an important step toward that goal of equal access regardless of country or social class. We’re proud to be pioneers in this area.  


Stevan Harrell is UW professor emeritus of anthropology and of environmental and forest sciences, and editor of the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China series.

The open-access editions of the books in the series are available on the UW Press Manifold site, among other platforms.

Behind the Book: Robert Chaney on “The Grizzly in the Driveway”

I got to know grizzly bears from the wheelhouse of a fifty-seven-foot tour boat in Glacier National Park. While I had to learn about charismatic megafauna as a floating tour guide, I didn’t anticipate how much conning the ship would affect my writing.

The lesson came clear on July 8, 2020, as I was printing the final copyedited draft of The Grizzly in the Driveway, in which I’d poured thirty years of experience and reporting on North America’s biggest land predator. That morning the to-do list consisted of items like confirming the academic discipline of a biologist, rethinking the proper chapter for a favorite anecdote, and wondering if there was room on the acknowledgments page for a few more shout-outs.

And then the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in. In my day job as a newspaper reporter, the arrival of an appeals court opinion was a front page opportunity. It required a lot of close reading of twenty-five or thirty pages of legalese to glean who won and who lost and how extensive the result might be. Next came a flurry of phone calls to involved sources and knowledgeable observers. Then I’d boil the ingredients down to plain language and good grammar, hit Send, and see the published result online a few minutes later (and in the print version the following morning).

From my perspective as an author, everything in chapter 10—all seven thousand words—was suddenly suspect. The Grizzly in the Driveway explores how humans relate to wild animals both as living creatures (that weigh five hundred pounds, can outrun a horse, and occasionally eat us) and as features of our imaginations and policy. Chapter 10 was all about the latter—the legal world of Endangered Species Act wording, hunting rights, best available science, and standing to sue in court. Real-life grizzly bears were reduced to mortality trends, incident reports, and political action group mascots. And the Ninth Circuit judges had just announced a new version of reality for that abstract domain.

Journalists joke that they write the first draft of history. But when you’ve spent years writing a book chronicling decades or centuries of historical action and something historic happens right now, it’s the authorial version of an out-of-body experience. The world you constructed, with its precisely ordered constellations of logic and occurrence leading to well-fortified conclusions, suddenly wobbles on its axis.

I chose to write about the return of grizzly bears to a crowded American West in 2018 because the topic felt ripe. This keystone predator was reaching self-sustaining population numbers after a century of poisoning, trapping, and persecution. Its journey through the legal machinery of federal Endangered Species Act oversight was nearing a resolution, and the factors that would determine its future—growing recreational and industrial pressure on its habitat, climate change kinking their food supplies, and political and social divisions riling their human neighbors—stirred public conversation.

The risk of taking on a current-events subject is those events might get swept into a current you didn’t account for. The federal government had been trying for years to remove the grizzly bear from the Endangered Species List and celebrate the recovery of a threatened animal. But advocates for continued protection consistently found vulnerabilities in the government’s plans and derailed them in court. The most recent attempt at delisting had failed at the district court level, and I had bet it would stay dead on appeal. In my book I framed my closing arguments around the protection advocates’ strategy, assuming they had the stronger logic and evidence.

Back in 1982, while I was piloting the DeSmet around Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald, a tourist asked me what kind of duck was floating in the water ahead of us. I looked at the black speck and realized it was the nub of a branch attached to a tree trunk floating below the water’s surface. A fifty-seven-foot boat has no brakes and takes a long time to turn; sudden action can send toddlers and their grandparents crashing to the deck, if not over the rail. Ramming a log below waterline at 10 knots doesn’t make a good alternative, and cursing like a sailor has no effect. All you can do is throttle down, adjust course, and warn your shipmates to brace for impact.

As it turned out the DeSmet thumped the log without spilling a single tourist’s soda. And my chapter on the grizzly bear’s legal fate got a last-minute update with little rewriting. Most of those edits went something like “the court of appeals ruled” instead of “the district court ruled.”

The double-vision of writing for a daily print newspaper and writing for a library bookshelf remains bewildering. I think back on how many news stories I filed that neglected the context of decades of social momentum and how many books I’ve laughed at for envisioning a future that failed to materialize.

Those summers I spent in the DeSmet’s wheelhouse served me well. It takes a long time to turn a big thing. Obstacles occur in real time. Cussing won’t help. Steer. 


Robert Chaney is a reporter for the Missoulian. A lifelong Montanan, he covers science and the environment. His new book The Grizzly in the Driveway: The Return of Bears to a Crowded American West is available now.

Holier Than Thou: Banu Subramaniam on Science and Democracy in COVID Times

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. A new vocabulary for our daily lives has evolved. As people “self-isolate” in their homes, daily schedules have embodied disembodied living. In contrast are those who have no choice but to work because they are “frontline workers.” People practice “physical distancing” by “zooming” throughout the day, then exhibit “zoom fatigue” by the end of it. If anything, life has become decidedly surreal. The unprecedented onslaught of COVID-19 has also revealed striking global patterns, such as the stark differences in leadership styles, economic inequities, unequal power structures, poor social and health infrastructures, and social cohesion. Like many, I have become obsessed with tracking the global pandemic, and in the recent past, a stable pattern has emerged—first in the United States and second in India. Together these two countries are regarded as the world’s oldest and the largest democracies. And in both, COVID-19 numbers are rising at alarming rates.

My book Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism was published by the University of Washington Press in 2019, in the midst of the Indian national election. Results were announced on May 23, 2019. The elections were significant and served as an important test of the success of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its charismatic leader, Narendra Modi. Modi and the BJP’s success in 2014, when the BJP won enough votes, allowed them to form a majority government for the first time in the nation’s history. As some feared, the divisive politics of Hindu nationalism and its virulent anti-minority sentiments grew during its term. Additionally, due to various actions of the government, such as its failed demonetization scheme, the economy remained sluggish and job growth middling. Many wondered if the BJP would win again and, especially, if it would keep its majority. In 2019, the BJP not only won but expanded its majority, giving it a decided mandate.

One of my key arguments in the book is that at the heart of Hindu nationalism is the idea of Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” and the imagination of India as a Hindu nation. Characterizing previous governments as “minority” appeasers, Hindu nationalists boldly (re)claimed India as a Hindu nation. Much of Hindu nationalism is grounded in a politics of injury borne out of the memories of migration and colonial rule. With Hindu nationalists now at the helm, the politics of injury and grievance has been harnessed into a powerful political movement to reclaim India’s great Hindu civilization. Hindu nationalists invoked the grand Vedic past as a prelude to a future India as a Hindu nation, reclaiming its rightful place as a global superpower. More strikingly, Hindu nationalists have selectively, and strategically, used rhetoric from both science and Hinduism, modernity and orthodoxy, Western and Eastern thought to build a powerful and potentially dangerous vision of India as a Hindu nation, what I have called an “archaic modernity.” COVID-19 has acutely revealed how an archaic modernity functions—the movement has mobilized its Hindu majority with authoritarian decision-making and powerful rhetoric and slogans, but overall it has failed to launch an effective response to the global pandemic.

I was born and raised in India but now live in the United States, where I have been tracking the viral drama in both nations. It will be many years before the definitive history of the pandemic can be written, but here I offer some reflections as the pandemic continues to unfold. There are many theories on what characterizes the countries at the top of the list—authoritarian regimes, capricious leadership, ambivalence toward expertise and science, and an inadequately responsive health infrastructure. Both the United States and India fit the bill in this regard, and in both cases, there is much to fault in their leaders and their actions. Narendra Modi and Donald Trump were awarded the 2020 Ig Nobel Prize for Medical Education (along with seven other world leaders) for “using the COVID-19 pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.”[1] While Trump remained unpopular through his presidency and lost the recent election, it is sobering to note that over seventy-four million people voted for him despite the alarming death toll and his seeming disregard for the suffering of Americans. Although he contracted the virus, his claim that the virus is a “hoax” continues to be chanted by his faithful followers. The experimental treatment he received is beyond the reach of most Americans, yet he seemed untouched by charges of elitism. In contrast to President Trump, Prime Minister Modi remains immensely popular, and in fact, his popularity has grown during the pandemic. It is striking that both leaders are supported by the majority of their communities (white Americans in the United States and upper-caste Hindus in India). Both leaders are charismatic figures who have great social media savvy and hold large public rallies. In discussing the large events the two have hosted for each other, a recent article summarized: “The events offered Trump and the Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi a chance to win political points domestically while cementing their bond as right-leaning nationalist leaders.”[2]

Something is hauntingly familiar in the unfolding patterns of these democracies, and yet they are very different. President Trump has no national plan to contain the virus and has continued to travel maskless and host large gatherings, while Prime Minister Modi has consulted medical experts and doubled down on Western protocols of lockdowns. President Trump has ignored science and expertise; Prime Minister Modi has embraced it.[3] Yet what is “science” in archaic modernity? The blurring boundaries of the contestations of “science” are all around India’s COVID-19 response. The government’s Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy) has issued various advisories during the pandemic that include dubious prevention measures and prophylactics to the virus, such as cow urine, ginger, and turmeric. And the melding of Vedic and modern sciences has led to some very anachronistic moments—from symbolic offerings and the drinking of gaumutra (sacred cow urine) by the All-India Hindu Mahasabha to the worship of new religious deities, such as Corona Mata.[4]

Prime Minister Modi has tried to present himself as a strong and decisive leader, often bordering on the imperious and autocratic.[5] For example, a particularly consequential action involved his imposition of a three-week national curfew in late March 2020 that was dramatically announced with four hours’ notice! This fateful action was particularly significant for millions of India’s migrant workers left stranded in cities and for India’s informal labor market (80 percent of India’s workforce). For many, physical distancing meant hunger, and in innumerable instances, the lockdown was enforced with great brutality.[6] Indians applauded this quick and brave action, and there was an upbeat and congratulatory tone in many newspapers in the early days of the virus. Of course, the rest is history. The three weeks that were meant to help put in place national and local plans to deal with the pandemic were squandered. As predicted by many epidemiologists, once the curfew regulations were lifted, COVID-19 numbers soared. Newspapers and television news chronicled the horrendous plight of the migrants who returned to their villages, many walking, hungry and dehydrated, some dying on the way. With migrants reaching home, the virus settled in every corner of India.

Mr. Modi’s speeches, while motivational, remained opaque and evasive on important details, such as the government’s preparedness and response.[7] In the meantime the government had turned a blind eye to violence against minorities and those speaking out against the government. To challenge the government in Indian democracy today is to be deemed “antinational,” and some individuals have been arrested and imprisoned. The submission of the media, civilian infrastructure, and the judiciary are striking. In sum, the pandemic has served as an important backdrop for a greater consolidation of Hindu nationalism.

But there are signs of resistance. In India, the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, by farmers against the neo-liberalization of agriculture, and against the state response to the rape of a Dalit girl by upper-caste men in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, are all heartening but small signs.[8] The United States, in some ways, presents a more heartening story. The Black Lives Matter protests that spontaneously arose across the country captivated the nation and the world. An engaged citizenry came out to vote in the largest numbers in recent history. Most importantly, President Trump was convincingly defeated. But the weeks after the election have proved sobering, dashing any hope that the United States has turned the page on its recent history. As the country faces its second impeachment proceedings, the future still remains unclear. What has been unleashed will have an enduring significance. What is resoundingly clear in both nations is that despite bold claims as the oldest and largest democracies, fundamental democratic institutions have proven to be far less robust than many imagined. Both leaders have unleashed a specter of majoritarian grievance that powerfully haunts public life and its citizens. We need to contend with the imagined victimhood of the majority, address the gross inequities that undergird that grievance, but, most importantly, mobilize around a vision of justice for all. It is no easy task, but all of our lives, quite literally, depends on it.


Banu Subramaniam is professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity, winner of the 2016 Ludwik Fleck Award from the Society for the Social Studies of Science. Her book Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism is available now.


[1] Sumit Arora, “PM Modi Awarded 2020 Ig Nobel Prize for Medical Education,” Current Affairs, September 22, 2020.

[2] Joanna Slater, “What the U.S Election Means for India,” Washington Post, October 29, 2020.

[3] Banu Subramaniam and Debjani Bhattacharyya. “A Viral Education: Scientific Lessons from India’s WhatsApp University,” Somatosphere, May 31, 2020.

[4] Nandini Sen, “Corona Mata and the Pandemic Goddesses,” Wire, September 25, 2020.

[5] Debjani Bhattacharyya and Banu Subramaniam, “Technofascism in India,” n+1 Magazine, May 13, 2020.

[6] Maria Abi-Habib and Samir Yasir. “For India’s Laborers, Coronavirus Lockdown Is an Order to Starve,” New York Times, March 30, 2020.

[7] Ruchi Kumar, “To Tackle a Virus, Indian Officials Peddle Pseudoscience,” Undark, April 19, 2020.

[8] Namit Arora, “Talk Less, Work More,” Baffler, November 23, 2020.

Latinx Photography in the United States by Elizabeth Ferrer

I undertook the writing of a comprehensive survey of Latinx photographers from the nineteenth century to the present day to address a single issue: by and large, Latinx photographers have been excluded from the documented history of photography in the United States. Remarkably, there has been no single book on this subject before this one, no comprehensive museum exhibition, and no institutional collection, even though Latinx people number some 52 million people–18 percent of the US population. And while we are a vast and diverse population, whether with respect to race, region, language, or cultural heritage, we share the legacy of Spanish colonialism, bicultural outlooks, histories of immigration, and experiences with social, political, and economic marginalization. This latter fact has been a motivating force for generations of photographers to work with a deep sense of social and political commitment and to direct their creative efforts toward affirming the autonomy and values of their own communities.

Latinx Photography in the United States offers an introduction to photographers active in the late nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, but my primary focus is on the 1960s onward, beginning with the civil rights era, when an early generation of Latinx photographers were approaching their work with a sense of ethnic consciousness and pride. This is when politically motivated photographers documented the labor-organizing activities of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the high school walkouts and demonstrations against the Vietnam War in East Los Angeles, and the protests and political actions against the inequities faced by citizens of Spanish Harlem and other economically marginalized neighborhoods in New York in those years.

As I studied images of social activism made across the United States I was struck by the parallels between the ways Latinx photographers on opposite sides of the continent chronicled movements that may have been aware of each other but had limited means to communicate and provide mutual support. The photographs here express the solidarity, perseverance, and resistance shared by newly politicized communities across the United States. This body of work also became a model for future generations of photographic artists. Even as the medium has evolved in later decades, as those working with photography began to manipulate or stage imagery, experiment with conceptual approaches, and eventually turn to digital tools, Latinx photographers have continued to manifest this deep sense of purpose, deploying their talents toward constructing and imagining a broader view of American identity.

Justo A. Martí, A Protest against Dictator Trujillo outside Rockefeller Center, Justo A. Martí Photographic Collection, 1948–85. Courtesy of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library & Archives, Hunter College, CUNY.

Working as a studio photographer as well as for New York’s principal Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario La Prensa, Cuban American photographer Justo A. Martí (1920–1990) documented the city in an era when Puerto Ricans and other Latinx people were arriving in the city in record numbers. His rich archive includes scenes of Fidel Castro in New York, parades and beauty pageants, and this early image of protest, a demonstration against the dictator Rafael Trujillo held by Dominicans in New York.

Cris Sanchez, strikers at the Paso Ranch, May 1973. Supporters of the UFW gather in the fields outside the Paso Ranch to wave flags during a strike. Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs.

Cris Sanchez was one of many photographers–Chicanx and others–who extensively documented the activities of the farmworkers’ labor struggles in California in the 1960s and 1970s. These photographers portrayed the daily activities of United Farm Workers leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, organizing meetings, migrant workers in the field, and protests across the state. Although Sanchez was a ubiquitous chronicler of the UFW, much of his archive was lost when he died in 1993.

Ben Garza, photograph of a female striker holding a UFW eagle flag and covering her face to hide her identity during the 1974 San Luis strike, Arizona. Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs. 
La Raza photographic staff, East LA high school walkouts, 1968. Courtesy of the artist and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center

The social justice newspaper (and later magazine) La Raza was published in Los Angeles from 1966 to 1977. A key early outlet for the dissemination of photographs made with a consciously Chicanx perspective, it operated with a volunteer staff of young activists. This photograph is part of the publication’s extensive documentation of the East Los Angeles high school walkouts, an early mobilization of Chicanxs and a protest against the substandard public schools in their neighborhoods. La Raza’s archive of over 25,000 negatives and slides is now housed at the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA.

Hiram Maristany, Procession, undated. Courtesy of the artist.

I was struck by the similar expressions of defiance in this and the final photograph, made within a year of each other in Los Angeles and New York. Hiram Maristany (b. 1945), born and raised in East Harlem, was the official photographer of the activist political party the Young Lords. He documented their demonstrations, rallies, working meetings, and the activities they carried out to improve access to education, healthcare, and better housing in their community. Here, Maristany captured the fervent expressions of young people taking part in the funeral of Julio Roldán, a member of the Young Lords who was arrested on trumped up charges and found hanging in his cell the following day. A victim of police brutality, Roldán became a martyr in the eyes of Puerto Rican nationalists.

George Rodriguez, LAPD arresting a Chicano student protestor, Boyle Heights 1970. Courtesy of the artist.

The Chicanx photographer George Rodriguez (b. 1937) played a central role in documenting the civil rights movement in his native Los Angeles. Once a Hollywood celebrity photographer, Rodriguez eventually gravitated to the city’s east side, where he photographed the 1968 high school walkouts as well as the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. This massive demonstration against the draft and the Vietnam War ended in violence, as heavy-handed police tactics resulted in numerous injuries and arrests, as well as the killing of four persons including Rubén Salazar, a prominent journalist and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.  


Elizabeth Ferrer, a writer, curator, and arts activist, is vice president of Contemporary Art at BRIC in Brooklyn. Her book Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History is available now.

COVID-19 and the Khora of Migration: Himalayan New Yorkers Respond to Crisis by Sienna R. Craig

In the first days of April 2020 I texted Nawang. One of my core research collaborators, Nawang Tsering Gurung is someone whose presence and insights are woven through my new book, The Ends of Kinship: Connecting Himalayan Lives between Nepal and New York. As forms of kinship go, he is “younger brother” to my “elder sister.” Like many from his home region of Mustang, Nepal, Nawang now lives in Queens, New York, not far from Jackson Heights–one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, if not the world. At that point in early spring, this part of New York had become the epicenter of the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

Haven’t heard from Dolma, I wrote. Worried. Will call her tomorrow.

Two minutes later, my phone rang. It was Nawang. We’ve weathered a lot together: mutual family upheavals, the death of his father, destruction in his natal village during the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, as well as quieter moments of kyi-dug,this twinning of happiness and suffering that for many Tibetan and Himalayan people describes the nature of existence. But on this spring evening I could tell that something was desperately wrong.

Didi, I have some bad news to share,” he said after initial greetings. “Uncle died today.”

“At Dolma’s apartment?”

“Yes, didi.The very same. The rest of the family is there. With him. They are very scared.”


Over the ensuing hours and days I came to learn the details of how this man I will simply call Uncle–someone I have known in Nepal and New York for twenty-five years, a person in whose household I lived in the walled city of Lo Monthang, up near the Tibetan border, and in Kathmandu, a loving and responsible husband and father to a wife and two children he had not seen in person in twenty years but whose labor at restaurants and grocery stores in New York had made their lives in Nepal possible, a man with a streak of shyness and a broad smile–had died of the novel coronavirus in a tenement walkup in Woodside. 

I spoke with Dolma’s daughter the next day. My dear friend from Mustang was too distraught to talk. I was told that cough and fevers had passed through Uncle in waves for a couple of weeks, but they were never enough to keep him from work at the grocery store, a Manhattan establishment where he restocked want as if it were need and worried about what his boss would say if he didn’t show up. You see, unlike some of the other employees and the rest of his family, he was undocumented.

On Monday in the week of his death, Uncle seemed weak. Nobody in the household felt like eating–all five people living in the two-bedroom apartment had lost their senses of taste and smell–but everyone except Uncle forced themselves to drink hot water and tea, to slurp dal,andto stay home. Uncle reported to work onTuesday. He spent Wendnesday and Thursday searching for care, but the hospitals and clinics turned him away: Not sick enough. Not the right langauge. No space. By Friday morning he had succumbed.

A few days later, the family’s son-in-law forwarded a recording of the conversation he had with the coroner’s office. I listened to language strained on all sides by exhaustion and imperfect English, and learned that the cause of death was a “sudden influenza-like illness, most probably COVID-19.” Tests were in too short of supply to use on someone who had already died, to offer confirmation.

Despite this family’s descent into fear and grief–enfolded as it was within the much larger vortex of public health crisis and economic disaster–a translocal community of care encircled Uncle’s family. Cremation expenses were paid in New York. Tibetan Buddhist funerary rituals were arranged in Nepal. A lama close to this family beamed virtual practices of purification from Kathmandu into the Queens apartment where Uncle died. Voice memos sent through Messenger and WeChat moved around the world, offering love and lament, prayer and song. In so doing, people from Mustang tied the ends of kinship together once again, braiding their senses of duty–to culture, language, history, place–with their collective desires and individual aspirations for change as manifested by what I call the khora of migration.

Khora bespeaks both the (often daily) act of circumambulating sacred space and turning the wheel of life, abiding with our fellow sentient beings through samsara,cyclic existence. It is an imperfect English gloss for these two interlocking Himalayan concepts. It is a word that helps to theorize mobility and belonging and allows us to think about how such movements at once rely on and work on kinship. The Ends of Kinship weaves short fiction with narrative ethnography to tell stories of migration and social change between a small Himalayan kingdom and the heart of the American immigrant experience. These are stories told with devotion, in recognition of learning and friendship that span a quarter century. They are also told with the recognition that Mustang has experienced one of the highest rates of depopulation in contemporary Nepal–a profoundly visible emptying that contrasts with the relative invisibility of Himalayan migrants in hyper-diverse, populous New York.

Uncle’s death was a single tragedy that occurred within an urban sea of loss. For those from Mustang who now make their homes in New York–like so many marginalized and vulnerable Americans, many of them performing essential labor as healthcare workers, childcare providers, grocery store clerks, drivers–COVID-19 has caused sickness and death as well as brought into stark relief the tears in our social safety nets and the deeply uneven terrain on which we build our lives. This landscape of suffering is revealed not only through mortality and morbidity statistics, but also through language: some of the New York neighborhoods that have been most heavily impacted by the coronavirus are also the city’s most linguistically diverse spaces.

Over the past eight months, I’ve worked with Nawang, along with colleagues at the Endangered Language Alliance and the University of Britsh Columbia, building on past collaborations to help members of the Himalayan and Tibetan New Yorker communities document in their own languages and on their own terms the impacts that COVID-19 is having on their lives. For many Himalayan and Tibetan New Yorkers the pandemic has upended the assumptions upon which the khora of migration is based: ideas about economic stability and educational opportunity, the continued capacity for people and resources to circulate between Nepal and New York, the possibility of at once honoring and reimagining culture. It has brought into stark relief the epidemiological invisibility and structural inequality that affect Himalayan and Tibetan New Yorkers. As the city braces for a third wave, the toll that the virus is now taking on Nepal continues apace, not only through illness but also through dwindling remittances, labor curtailments, food shortages, derailed schooling, limits on travel, and limits to primary health care. Still, in and through forms of virtual khora, acts of compassion and senses of connection persist.


Sienna R. Craig is associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College and author of Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine. Her latest book The Ends of Kinship: Connecting Himalayan Lives between Nepal and New York is available now.

Pigs and People, The Other “Missing Link”: Thomas Fleischman on “Communist Pigs”

In February of 1922 Henry Fairfield Osborn, world-famous paleontologist, conservationist, and director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, received a package in the mail from Nebraska. Inside Osborn found a note and a carefully wrapped molar. A rancher and amateur geologist named Harold Cook had discovered the ancient tooth in a ten-million-year-old layer of rock bed in the Snake River near his home. Believing it to have “human type” features, Cook sent the tooth to Osborn to verify his assessment. Osborn was thrilled. The man who had christened the Tyrannosaurus Rex believed he now had evidence of another epoch-making discovery: a “missing link” fossil, evidence of man’s descent from apes. Studying the shape, size, and wear of the molar, Osborn determined the tooth belonged to a third genus of extinct hominids—and the first found in the Americas. He named this new primate ancestor Hesperopithecus, or “Ape of the Western World.” The press dubbed it simply “Nebraska Man.”

That same year Osborn published his findings in several prominent periodicals. Lest anyone doubt his claims, he also sent casts of the molar to museums and universities in the United States and Europe. It didn’t take long, however, before skeptics began to poke holes in his case. In response, Osborn sent crews back to Nebraska in the summers of 1925 and 1926 to scour the same riverbed deposits for more fossils. In the dry heat of summer they found fossils and bone fragments of numerous mammals, but none belonging to Nebraska Man. The expedition concluded that the molar belonged not to a hominid, but instead to an extinct species of peccary called Prosthennops, a primeval relative of the modern pig, Sus scrofa. Osborn was not the first person, nor would he be the last, to go looking for humans in the past and find a pig instead.

Osborn’s mistake can be forgiven. Pig bodies and human bodies have a great deal in common. Similarities include their teeth (like all omnivores, pigs and humans share a similar array of molars, incisors, and canines), but also much more. Pigs’ internal organs are nearly identical in ability and form to our own. When the first experiments in heart transplants began in the 1950s, researchers looked not to the ape but to the pig, whose heart was strong enough to pump blood through a human body. Today porcine valves and skin grafts are used regularly in surgery on people. Scientists have used stem cells from pig fat to grow human jawbones. Pig eyes have similar ocular power and see the same color spectrum as humans, and relative to other members of the animal kingdom pigs are remarkably nearsighted. People and pigs also share many ailments, including cancer, rheumatism, and arthritis. And most infamously, infectious diseases like H1N1 spread easily between our species and theirs. Osborn was right to intuit that his molar belonged to a genetic cousin of modern humans—he just chose the wrong family.

Even more significantly, people and pigs have lived closely alongside one another and in various degrees of cooperation for millennia. While not the first animal to give up its freedom in exchange for domestic living (dogs beat all animals there some twenty thousand years ago), pigs were never far away, lurking just beyond the reach of campfire lights, rooting through midden heaps for scraps. And when domestication of Sus scrofa began around nine thousand years ago, pigs proved so amenable to human society that they were domesticated over and over again. Paleogeneticists have pinpointed not just one site or moment for pig domestication, but multiple locations and dates, stretching over thousands of years and from what is now modern Turkey to southeast Asia. Pigs, it seems, were just as willing to live within human society as they were to cast off the human hand and live on their own in the wild.

Historians have also have homed in on this special relationship to raise new questions about the past. They have used pigs to explore the cultural and economic lives of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English small-holders, or as a synecdoche for medieval antisemitism among French peasants in Languedoc. They have identified pigs as agents of imperial conquest and dispossession, from the Columbian Exchange in North America to the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe. They have shown how the rise of scientific pig breeding in the nineteenth century inaugurated an ecological succession in the US Midwest, from old-growth forest and prairie grasslands to landscapes defined by corn and dotted with whiskey distilleries, piggeries, and slaughterhouses. And in the age of the factory farm, the lives, labor, and deaths of millions of pigs reveal that people remain ensnared in the same system of exploitation and degradation. In each case, pig bodies, behaviors, and diets provide clues about the human past.

My book Communist Pigs builds on these insights to tell the story of agricultural development in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, during the Cold War. It uses the pig’s propensity for adaptation and change to narrate a history of East Germany’s rise and fall. It analyzes three predominant archetypes of Sus scrofa in the GDR—the industrial pig, the garden pig, and the wild boar—to connect the complex environmental history of European communism with the industrial development of rural spaces around the world. Communist Pigs shows how this animal came to occupy a commanding place at the center of industrial agriculture. It explores how East Germans struggled to overcome the ecological constraints and obstacles of industrial hog farming. And it uncovers the surprising mixture of small-scale pig farming and boar hunting that emerged in response to environmental pollution and the limitations of a planned economy. Together, the GDR’s three pigs reveal how a communist regime was drawn rapidly into capitalist markets for cheap grain, meat, energy, and capital. This shift precipitated an ecological and political crisis that culminated in the collapse of East Germany and the end of the Cold War.

Pigs, like people, make their own histories. These histories are specific to the environments in which they occur and their moments in the past. Pigs can open new ways of considering the rigid frameworks—say, the divide between communism and capitalism—through which we interpret human histories. In the specific case of the twentieth century, pigs show us how industrial agriculture has physically remade the entire earth and all the things that live and die upon it to promote the production of meat. But just like any relationship, the one between pigs and people can be undone and remade anew. The pig may even survive us as the dominant species on the planet, if the resurgence of wild boar populations is any indication. And if in ten million years this porcine descendent species decides to excavate the rock bed formations of the Anthropocene in search of clues to their own prehistory, it may very well mistake the fossilized remains of Homo sapiens for its own “missing” genetic ancestor, which, as we know, is a very human error to make.


Thomas Fleischman is assistant professor of history at the University of Rochester. His book Communist Pigs is available now.

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