From his earliest work as an undergraduate anthropology major at Tulane University, Timothy J. Smith has been particularly fascinated with the predominantly indigenous town of Sololá, Guatemala — a community that offers anthropologists a multitude of research opportunities into indigenous cultures, their languages, and the interchange of tribal and modern customs. Now an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Appalachian State University, Dr. Smith has come develop a deep relationship with the town of Sololá and its inhabitants, having spent much of the past 17 years of his professional career studying the community as the basis for his anthropological observations and theories.
According to an article published on the Appalachian State University news site, given his numerous trips to the town and region, Dr. Smith has become fluent in the local language, Kaqchikel Mayan, and his close ties with Sololá’s elders and leaders has led to a two-way exchange of ideas and friendship between himself and the people of the town. His position as an honorary member of their community even led them to invite Smith in December to speak to nearly 5,000 of the town’s citizens for the inauguration of Sololá’s new indigenous mayor and local government representatives.
Perhaps the crux of the relations between Dr. Smith and Sololá is his willingness to document and present the fascinating features of their society. His most recent project has been to draft and publish the first social science text ever written in Kaqchikel Mayan — a powerful gesture on Smith’s part that endears him to the community in significant ways, as his text will now be distributed to indigenous leaders, school officials, teachers and students in Sololá. The textbook, which is an authoritative account of Sololá’s history, customary law and local government structure, serves as a powerful affirmation of the community’s cultural identity and heritage.
In the original article, Dr. Smith explained recently that when he gave his speech to the town, he “ . . . talked about what we are hoping to accomplish with the textbook as a way to revitalize and strengthen the culture and, more importantly, to teach the younger generation about local traditions. This is a way to try and help those groups interested in sustaining and revitalizing certain aspects of their culture.”
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Due to the effect of encroaching globalization and the recession of traditional and indigenous cultures throughout the world, Sololá, like many other precious, unique communities, have seen their local customs, religious identities, and microeconomic systems replaced by modern political, economic, and societal fixtures that are rarely compatible with communities such as these. The result is often a total loss of the rich history and tradition associated with indigenous people, while at the same time forcing tribal and indigenous people to adapt to more modern social constructs that rarely succeed. These shifts often lead to increased poverty, displacement, and the destruction of communities.
According to the recent news release on the Appalachian State news page, this is a very real effect in Guatamala: ” . . . changes in the local economy and a declining focus on religious ceremonies have weakened many of the local traditions that have come to give Sololá a unique identity in Guatemala. For example, interest in wearing local traje (native dress), which consists of brightly colored pants and shirts for men and skirts and blouses for women, and learning and producing traditional crafts is declining among the young, especially males.”
Dr. Smith acknowledges that the globalized world is spreading so quickly that indeed Sololá will have to adjust. However, he sees an opportunity for the town to leverage its rich culture and heritage while growing the local economy and identity of the town: “The new mayor has made it his mission to grow the local economy by focusing on tourism with plans to expand a gateway/kiosk and museum where foreigners, as well as Guatemalan tourists, can learn more about the town and local handicrafts and keep travelers from just passing through Sololá on their way to nearby Lake Atitlán,” Smith said. “Tourists from other countries expect to see individuals in their indigenous dress and learn about the local customs. If these no longer exist, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which the unique image of Sololá is lost as it becomes just another of the many other towns in Guatemala, one without its own visual identity. This is a concern of local leaders.”
Sololá: A Gateway To Antiquity
While present-day Sololá is in itself a gateway into ancient culture, Dr. Smith has also discovered and helped translate significant artifacts that are helping anthropologists and archaeologists fill in historical gaps for the region. Working with government officials, Smith was able to “access information related to a long-forgotten cemetery that was recently unearthed during excavation for a new market near the town center. The cemetery, which has since been relocated, held the remains of nearly 6,000 individuals.”
Additionally, when he was at Tulane, Smith helped to translate documents from Sololá that had been penned by town elders in the 16th and 17th centuries. Known now as The Kaqchikel Chronicles, Smith cross-referenced information from the texts together with “studies by archaeologists, medical historians, and forensic anthropologists to propose that many of the skeletal remains were most likely those of individuals who died from what might have been the first major outbreak of measles in the town in the mid- to late- 1500s.”
“Later, in the late 16th century, two more events happened that scholars believe included a horrible trifecta of small pox, measles and typhus,” he said in the original article.
Much like his efforts to chronicle Sololá’s culture and history into a definitive text, smith was able to advocate for the field of Anthropology, and show how these studies not only enrich those who follow Anthropology, but also help to preserve and rekindle traditional cultures rich with history: “I talked with town leaders about what their ancestors had written in the Chronicles and what anthropology can do to help the community recover its history by working with historic documents,” he said. Smith also gave the new indigenous mayor a copy of the Chronicles, written in Kaqchikel and with English translations. The book was written by Judith Maxwell and Robert Hill of Tulane University and published by the University of Texas Press.”
For Smith, the work that he has done in Sololá is something akin to a vocation: “As an anthropologist and one who is committed to an applied project, it was incumbent upon me and really a great honor to be able to repatriate the knowledge that I had gained by reading through the documents of their ancestors. This is a responsibility instilled in me through my training in anthropology and global studies.”
It’s worth noting that traditional cultures and communities have been at particular risk of extinction since the rise of the industrial revolution — not only in developing countries, but also in the United States. For example, in the Appalachians, home to Boone, North Carolina and Appalachian State University, communities have struggled to keep the rich heritage and tradition of the music and culture alive over the past century — a struggle that continues even today. In other parts of the United States, such as in sections of once French-speaking Louisiana, cajun- and creole-based communities have seen the evisceration of local dialects, all in an attempt to homogenize into a wider culture and community.
Fortunately, there are typically a handful of passionate revivalists and committed culturalists in every community that are passionate about keeping their traditions alive. Together with the Anthropoligcal spirit, these valuable communities will continue to retain their heritage and identity.