When Michael Vásquez began visiting the Hopi Indians 20 years ago, the Northern Arizona University (NAU) anthropology professor ran into a serious obstacle: generations of anthropologists before him had thoroughly alienated the tribe.
“Anthropologists published books, got tenure, while native communities haven’t gotten anything,” he says.
That’s no longer the case, thanks to Vásquez and a new wave of anthropologists who have redefined the study of the ancient past by rejecting their own past.
Rolling up his sleeves, Vásquez embedded himself in a Hopi village, working in the dirt and dust with residents and eventually developing inter-active programs at the village and at NAU, where a Hopi student recently earned a Ph.D.
Over the years, Vásquez has also waded into the fields with farmers in Norway, Mexico, Guatemala, the San Joaquin Valley, and in Navajo and Havasupai villages – an unusual career arc for a city boy from San Francisco.
But his contributions hardly end there. Currently, Vásquez is helping develop public achievement and other culturally engaged curriculum pro-jects for Latino children in Arizona. He chairs the Coconino County Hispanic Advisory Council and was elected to a spot on the Flagstaff Unified School District governing board in November.
In 2009 Vásquez received the University’s President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow Award at NAU, his academic home for 21 years.
“One of the things I’ve really come to appreciate about working here is that we graduate the highest number of Native American students in America in a school that isn’t tribally run,” he says. “In our department, we do things quite differently.”
What makes a good anthropologist? A sense of alienation from the mainstream culture helps, says Vásquez.
“As I tell my students often, I think to be a good anthropologist you have to be marginal to your own culture. By that I mean you have to have questions about it and look at it in a critical way,” he says. “In my case, I was sort of on the margins of several cultures. My grandparents on one side were from Mexico; one of my grandparents on the other side was from Italy; and the other, from Puerto Rico.
“So I grew with a blending of all those cultures, which gave me a perspective on America and each of those cultures that isn’t very common. It took me a while to figure out that anthropology was the discipline that dealt with those kind of cross-cultural and diversity issues.”
A respect for education seems to be part of the Vásquez family’s genetic makeup. His father was among the first Hispanics to earn a degree from Stanford; both he and his wife taught at a Bay Area community college. Each of their five sons is a teacher.
“We were raised to value education. I spent a lot of my time reading,” he says.
It was as an undergrad at Cal Berkeley that Vásquez’s interest in anthro-pology was piqued. “I took a class from Ralph Nader’s sister back in the late ’60s. It seemed like something I wanted to do, but it took me a couple years to take the next step,” he says.
Next Vásquez moved to a Mayan village in Guatemala, where he met his wife, became a woodcarver’s apprentice and spent countless hours in the fields.
“A lot of what I learned about anthropology and the world in general I learned there,” he said. “A friend, who also was a kind of mentor, told me: ‘Miguel, you got two ears and one mouth: use them proportionally.’ In other words, shut up and listen. I did that.
“A lot of my [anthropological] work was with farmers. They don’t have a lot of time for people who stand around with clipboards and ask a bunch of ridiculous questions.
“But if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, they’re willing to sit down and share what they know. And what they know is considerable. It’s that kind of traditional knowledge that’s being lost to the world at a time when we can most use it.”
After living in the U.S., Vásquez and his wife returned to Guatemala, living in a remote mountain village where only a
handful of Mayan residents could afford shoes.
But violence was in the air.
“We were working with the people to improve their situation,” he says. “But the country was on the brink of civil war. The mili-tary built a garrison nearby; these people sup-ported a guerrilla movement. They said: ‘Look, it’s going to get dangerous around here. You have a wife and a little boy. We can’t protect you. You need to go home.’
“But we still go back periodically to Guatemala. My wife’s family still lives there.”
Back in the U.S., Vásquez entered graduate school at Cal Davis, earning a master’s in inter-national agriculture and a Ph.D. in anthropology, at age 40.
“My four brothers were up in the balcony at the graduation ceremonies. When they called my name to give me the degree, they yelled out in unison: ‘It’s about time.”’
At Northern Arizona, Vásquez found a hospitable place for his interest in agricultural anthropology. The Hopi have lived in the Southwest for more than 2,000 years, many of them on three mesas topped with ancient villages built of stones. A motorist northbound from Phoenix toward Flagstaff on I-17 can make a short detour and drop down to the past in a matter of 30 minutes.
But initially, the distance seemed much farther to Vásquez. Not long ago, archaeologists remained in their remote trenches, cataloging artifacts and focusing on the material remains of past civilizations while paying little heed to native people.
“The natives didn’t really have a voice, and anthropologists wouldn’t –or couldn’t – speak for them,” he says.
With his Batavia Terrace Project, which physically restored 700-year-old terrace gardens, Vásquez engineered a change in the relationship with the Hopi.
“They’re some of the oldest gardens in existence in the U.S. Every summer over nine years, I had students from Northern Arizona who worked on the project. And we got grants to hire young people from the (Hopi) village to restore the terraces. It provided their kids with the chance to get their hands in the dirt and earth and to experience growing things,” he says.
As ties between the department and the Hopis developed, Vásquez helped develop a Ruins Preservation Training Workshop for unemployed Hopi youth, which has generated careers in cultural preservation and a new interest in the relevance of anthropology for the Hopi. NAU students and the Hopis have transcribed tapes for tribal archives, developed a cultural curriculum with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, conducted research in cultural affiliation, developed media materials on health and nutrition for the Hopi Health Center, and created the HCPO website, which won the national student award of the Society for Applied Anthropology.
The past isn’t Vásquez’s only passion. In an anthropology class called Peoples of the Southwest, the conversation often turns to illegal immi-grants, a topic of pressing interest in Arizona. Students frequently claim immigrants take jobs from Americans.
“So I do a little experiment and I tell them, ‘OK, I’m a watermelon grower in Yuma, Ariz. I’ve got 500 acres of watermelon that I need to har-vest in summer. I’m willing to pay them more than minimum wage – $10 an hour to pick my watermelons. But it’s 110 degrees, and they have to work until the harvest is in,”’ says Vásquez, whose grandparents came to the U.S. undocumented.
“I ask: ‘how many takers?”’
Contemporary political issues prodded Vásquez to run for a spot on the school board, a post that consumes a good chunk of his time.
“But I’m actually having a good time at that,” he says. “The state legis-lature here and the governor have no regard whatsoever for education. I think we’re No. 49th or 50th in the amount of state funding per pupil. Everyone on the school board realizes we have no choice but to think out-side the box. And so what to some people would be dramatic or radical ideas, in other places or times, well, we’re considering those types of things. And I’m not even the one in some cases who has to bring them up. For example, we’re talking about how in 12 years we’re going to have all the schools in Flagstaff solar.”
In the end, though, Vásquez never strays far from his academic roots.
“Part of my education was in graduate programs here in the United States, but a substantial part of it was working with folks in Guatemala and here with the Hopi,” he says.