25 Interviews for the FNP’s 25th Anniversary: Justyna Olko, PhD habil., who studies the Nahua Indian culture, talks to Patrycja Dołowy

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25 Interviews for the FNP’s 25th Anniversary. The Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, we have invited 25 beneficiaries of our programmes to tell us about how they “practise” science. What fascinates them? What is so exciting, compelling and important in their particular field that they have decided to devote a major part of their lives to it? How does one achieve success?

The interviewees are researchers representing many very different fields, at different stages of their scientific careers, with diverse experience. But they have one thing in common: they practise science of the highest world standard, they have impressive achievements to their credit and different kinds of FNP support in their extensive CVs. We are launching the publication of our cycle; successive interviews will appear regularly on the FNP website.

Pleasant reading!

Research with Communities

Assoc. Prof. Justyna Olko,  who studies Nahua indigenous culture, talks to Patrycja Dołowy.

PATRYCJA DOŁOWY: The culture of the Nahuas, i.e. the Aztecs. Mexico. Why such interests?

JUSTYNA OLKO: I was still a child, I must have been 10-11 years old, when for very romantic reasons I became interested in pre-Columbian cultures. In the light of the literature available at the time, these were poorly studied, exotic cultures. Throughout my years at secondary school and university, I remained resolved to study the pre-Hispanic cultures of America.

And after graduation you went off to work as an archaeologist in Maya cities.

I completed an inter-faculty programme but obtained my master’s from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Warsaw. After graduation I went to excavations out in the jungle and very quickly realized that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, that these research methods were limiting the questions I could ask and, even more, the range of answers I’d like to obtain.

Was this the first turn on your scientific path?

From the beginning of my studies I was fascinated by the Aztec language: Nahuatl. When I started, I took an introductory course in the language, freshly organized at the university and taught by Stanisław Iwaniszewski. Later I learned German for the sole purpose of getting a scholarship to Germany, to what was then the only centre in this part of Europe offering a systematic Nahuatl course. After that I continued learning on my own, worked with students, analysed sources. Archaeology was left far behind while I started studying the Nahuas , their written texts. No other indigenous culture left such an extensive and rich corpus of written sources. They were produced from the moment the Europeans arrived (e.g. we found the oldest dated document in Nahuatl: a decree against idolatry from Tlaxcala from 1543) all the way to the early 19th century. The literary tradition flourished for several centuries. The indigenous people quickly learned the Latin alphabet in order to develop their own written culture. But during work on my doctorate I reached a point when I knew this, too, wouldn’t be enough.

Another turnaround in your academic career?
I was fascinated both by pre-Hispanic civilization and by the clash of very different cultures and its long-term consequences. From this clash there emerged a mixed world, a world of very drastic changes but also continuity. Usually researchers analysed either one period or the other. I decided to find out how it continued. The Spanish conquest seemed an artificial dividing line to me and I decided to ignore it, so to speak, as a time limit for my research. In my doctoral dissertation, which concerned the anthropology of costume, insignia of power before the Spanish conquest and afterwards, my aim was to show it without a borderline, of course being aware of the consequences of, for example, the introduction of Spanish elements of clothing or cultural changes. This kind of methodological approach was rare before then. Meanwhile, the Spanish conquest in itself did not have such a big impact on the indigenous people as was believed (compared, for example, to long-term colonization or Christianization processes). It was exaggerated by Europeans. Indigenous traditions survived in the form of mundane sources that didn’t interest researchers for a long time.

It was a very bold approach. Did you have any mentors?

I worked from a distance with James Lockhart, an American ethnohistorian, founder of the New Philology school studying the colonial Nahuatl language and the everyday history of the Nahuas as seen through their own eyes – focusing on indigenous rather than Spanish sources. The professor passed away in January 2014. During the years from my dissertation until his death, he was a very important consultant and academic authority for me. Lockhart revolutionized our discipline in the 1970s and 1980s by introducing an indigenous perspective, exploring sources that had been held in contempt before: court documents, wills, bills. He studied microhistory, but with an understanding of deeper, broader rhythms and processes. That was the greatness of his thought. Many of his followers cannot find a balance between the micro and macro scales in studying the indigenous world. This was fascinating about the way he worked. A discussion with him led to the Clash of Languages project. It was the year 2009. From the very start we did our best to take into account the fact that cultural exchange occurred in both directions and that these processes shouldn’t be studied separately. It wasn’t only Spanish that affected the language of the Aztecs. The Nahuatl language also influenced Spanish. The discovery and colonization of the New World deeply changed European thinking and culture. That was the first team project, a really big undertaking.

So you studied language change?

But James Lockhart wasn’t a linguist, he was a historian. He studied language change in the colonial period from a historian’s point of view. I decided to do it systematically: to explore various regional, local trajectories, attempting to reconstruct those micro-rhythms and macro-rhythms over a long period of time. Lockhart worked exclusively on colonial sources, he didn’t know modern Nahuatl and knew little about contemporary Nahua culture. He believed that the modern language was doomed to extinction and wasn’t worth studying as much as its colonial version was. We differed on that.

We held many heated disputes about it, but he ultimately acknowledged the legitimacy of my approach to combine research on early and modern Nahuatl into one cohesive project. Luckily, thanks to the fact that I had been teaching Nahuatl at the University of Warsaw since 2000, by this time I already had a group of students with very good colonial Nahuatl skills who were capable of working with sources. I focused on studying language change, despite not being a linguist. I’d never worked on a team before, unless you count my participation in archaeological projects.

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Prof. Justyna Olko

Yet another bold step!

I applied for a grant. That was my first contact with the Foundation for Polish Science. Frankly speaking, with such strong competition I didn’t expect the application to be approved. From the finals, where the competition was about whether you would actually get the subsidy or not, I remember one question in particular: What are you doing here with a degree in archaeology?[1] It was very invigorating because it made me aware of a mechanism present in research, not just in Poland, that prevents people from going outside their own discipline, although interdisciplinary research is promoted at the same time. It’s as if we assumed that once you obtained a degree, you could never learn anything more in your life, that only a degree could sanction encroachment on a given area of research. And since at that point I thought I stood little chance of winning the contest, I replied with a smile that I had a lot to say on the subject, that I knew the language, that I had evolved significantly as a researcher and was seeking methods that would satisfy my research curiosity. For me, academic development involves reaching for the kind of tools I need. I think researchers have the right to select methods for a particular problem instead of being restricted by disciplines. Which doesn’t mean we should ignore the achievements of any discipline and methods that are important for solving a specific problem. I received the grant. It was a very important moment for me. My first team. The core of the team working with me today is formed by the people who started working back then thanks to the FNP’s FOCUS programme.

So that was the beginning of the Research Group “Encounters between the Old and New World” at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales” of the University of Warsaw, which you head?

Our whole structure, the office, the space where we work, was set up thanks to the FNP’s support. We use it to this day. Though you can find many different research grants, it’s not easy to find such comprehensive assistance that takes into account infrastructural, equipment needs as well. The team evolved over subsequent years, and the project evolved. We learned to work as a team and try new methods. New research questions emerged. I realized rather quickly that I couldn’t limit myself to the colonial period, that I had to question the perspective of my mentor who believed that an ethnohistorian shouldn’t go beyond the past. In the end I got what I wanted and managed to convince him. He endorsed the idea and recognized its worth. He was curious to see the results. For me it was another breakthrough. That was when I decided to learn to speak modern Nahuatl.

Is this language very different from the original Nahuatl?

It’s a similar case to Latin. The colonial version of the language, which you can find in written sources, developed a few hundred years ago. It’s not the language that is now spoken. I taught students translation based on the rules of the colonial Nahuatl, but I was aware of an enormous barrier between that language and living culture. However, at that time I didn’t yet question the paradigm that the old Nahua culture no longer existed, that cultural continuity had been broken. At some point I decided to check for myself. I left the safe haven of archives, the world of beautiful documents, and saw what the reality was like. I realized it was now that the language was struggling with its biggest problems and facing the greatest challenge in its history.

Why is that?

Despite liberal laws on minorities and ethnic languages in Mexico (all the native tongues have enjoyed the status of “official” languages since 2003), there is horrendous discrimination. Instead of protecting an indigenous language, bilingual education is a very efficient way of exterminating it. At best, native children can “learn” their tongue as an additional (second) language while other subjects are only taught in Spanish. The possibility of expressing yourself and developing intellectually in your own language is effectively blocked by government policies pursued since the 1950s. Parents receive a strong message not to harm their children by talking an indigenous language to them. Over recent generations, continuity has been broken in areas of key importance for the Nahuatl language. Today in most communities the people who speak it are from generations aged 50 and over. Working earlier comfortably as a historian I hadn’t realized this, nor that cultural and language continuity was a fact that a researcher shouldn’t ignore. Language and culture evolved, changed, but preserved their integrity. The core of Nahua culture continues to be transmitted and replicated in the language. Many old notions and concepts to which we don’t have the key are still there. This was a breakthrough for me not only academically, it also brought another challenge. You cannot study the culture by treating it as an abstract entity, because there are living people there who were and still are the object of multifaceted discrimination, who face cultural and linguistic annihilation. As a researcher, I could neither remain indifferent nor continue to treat them as nothing more than objects of research.

So it’s an academic challenge but also a social one?

I was able to find research partners in Mexico who thought like me. We decided to include indigenous researchers in projects being carried out as a collaboration between institutions in both Mexico and Poland. This enabled us to give native students and researchers an opportunity to start developing methods for conducting research on their own culture. This was another important and also difficult step. We experienced the clash of cultures first-hand. We erred. It was like open-heart surgery. It’s only today, looking back from the perspective of several years, that I can see what mistakes we made. Today we know we don’t want to turn our Nahua associates into clones of Western researchers but to create a space for the development of indigenous methodologies and methods of generating and processing knowledge. These are often completely different research methods. It’s part of the process of the decolonization of research. Today I know how greatly we can be enriched by the fact that deeper, creative dialogue between different tools and perspectives is possible.

It sounds like a research evolution accomplished during a project born thanks to the FNP’s support.

To my next project I managed to win over the history and anthropology panel of the European Research Council (ERC). I received a grant for the project Europe and America in Contact, in which one of the key elements was that indigenous people weren’t informants but researchers and participants. Not only students but also members of the communities. We adopted a rule that we would only conduct field research in partnership with local communities. They have an agentive role, the final say on how to respect local customs, how to conduct interviews and how the research is to benefit the communities themselves. Ethnology and ethnolinguistics have gone through various stages regarding how to approach the reality under investigation: research on communities, research for communities. What we want to strive for is research with communities. To achieve this we need deep self-reflection on what role we play in this process, that we are not invisible, that our research has significant consequences. We exert an influence and cannot fully predict what it will be. A sense of responsibility is born.

That’s a very serious approach.

We reached a point when carrying on would have been impossible without responsibility and engagement. The problem we are studying determines the methods we choose in our search for a solution. To me it’s also important for this not to be “applied” research. What I mean is, it shouldn’t be that we, enlightened researchers from the West acquire knowledge and then graciously pass it on to “the natives”; the research should create a space for indigenous reflection, it should have a real-term social impact, leading to change, empowerment, provoking discussions, enriching and stimulating potential in groups that are discriminated against, reducing their isolation. Last year for the first time, and this October again, we held workshops for the speakers of Nahuatl on reading the texts of their ancestors – colonial texts – because they don’t get that at school, it’s not taught at Mexican schools. It is knowledge locked away in an “ivory tower”, reserved for researchers. The result is that today’s indigenous people don’t even know that their ancestors used an alphabetic writing system for their own needs, for example in order to defend their rights in the colonial period. They are often convinced that writing was a tool of Spanish domination. Together we discuss and interpret these old records in modern Nahuatl. The participants are moved  because they can read texts by their ancestors for the first time. They grow up with an awareness of a dividing line between the great cultures of the Aztecs and Maya and the “dirty Indians” who speak no real and legitimate language, because what they speak is a mixture of Spanish and local dialects and not a language – this is what they are effectively led to believe. Our joint work gives them a sense of pride in who they are. We publish books for children, literature and dictionaries and distribute them for free in Mexico. The latest picture dictionary, produced by two indigenous researchers, Abelardo de la Cruz and Eduardo de la Cruz, and our PhD student Joanna Maryniak, has a historical part meant to show native children their roots. We really want to help them develop the tools and awareness they don’t get in Mexico, so that they can work on a grassroots level. We cannot save their language for them.

Which brings us to the next stage in your academic career.

I got involved in a field that was alien to me before: endangered languages and language politics. It turned out that the situation in Poland wasn’t much better than in Mexico. For example, Lemko and Kashubian children in Poland, like indigenous children in Mexico, learn their own language at school as an additional language, it’s not the language of instruction. Thanks to support, this time from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education under the National Programme for the Development of the Humanities, together with the relevant communities we started working on a strategy for revitalizing three languages: Wymysorys (Vilamovian) and Lemko in Poland and Nahuatl in Mexico. We enabled the members of these groups to get in touch and exchange experiences. Under the project it was possible not only to launch a series of publications in Nahuatl and support grassroots initiatives in Nahua communities, but also to set up permanent support for the community of Wilamowice, especially the local revitalizer, Tymoteusz Król. The local school and authorities joined in the work. Thanks to this it has already been possible to school new users of the language and have a positive influence on language attitudes. Besides participants from our Faculty, the revitalization field school we organized this September in Wilamowice was attended by people representing linguistic minorities from all over the world: Kashubians, Lemkos, people from the Isle of Man where the Manx language is being revitalized, from Guernsey, Mexico, the Antilles, Scotland, Spain, Buryatia, an expert on the revitalization of the Saami language from Norway, experts and students from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and from Leiden University. This is made possible by further support for the project that we received under the European Commission’s Twinning Programme for capacity building in language revitalization and engaged humanities. In this competition our proposal received 14.5 points out of 15.

What’s happening now, what are your plans?

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is a very progressive document, but it doesn’t protect the languages of migrants, for example, or users of many local tongues. The problem of multiculturalism is growing in Europe today, and language and cultural politics isn’t coping with it. We need to look for new methods and change social awareness and attitudes towards linguistic and cultural diversity and linguistic rights. We will work on this in a large international team for the next three years. We plan to organize a European linguistic and cultural diversity week in November 2017.

How did it all come off so well?

If I were to sum things up, I’d have to consider many planes. Different institutions decided to trust me and my team. Projects that go beyond research alone, that also involve a social mission, are usually funded with lesser confidence or fail to fit into standard financing frameworks. Trust was essential. Academic freedom at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of “Artes Liberales” was necessary. The key thing is that we were able to develop research projects that won support and understanding. But we need to remember that no freedom is given once and for all, and we always have to consciously respect, develop and shape it.

Such a large team isn’t something you see often in the humanities, is it?

Our team is very heterogeneous. Each person sees their mission a little differently. This diversity leads to discussions and mutual support, exchange, dialogue. I think the most highly of those associates who don’t tell me what I want to hear. They don’t always agree with me and I appreciate that. This team was built right here in Warsaw, but it also has its branches in various local communities and at other universities. That’s what underlies our potential. I am an advocate of team research, though I fully respect the work of those researchers who don’t find this type of work fulfilling. The important thing is, we are a dynamic team. New people join us, others leave to pursue their mission elsewhere. They travel abroad, expanding our activity. Our team comprises a dozen or so people in Poland, a similar number of regular collaborators in Mexico and at the SOAS in London, in the Netherlands and in Spain. We are building all kinds of networks.

Was your approach from working on your dissertation, to eliminate dividing lines, important?

Yes, and we continue to apply it. We are taking down more dividing lines. Just recently, for instance, with Dr. Julia Madajczak who is a researcher on our team, we were able to show that the term which the academic community unquestioningly accepted as the word for Nahua soul, was a colonial neologism, a translation of the Spanish concept of anima. The core of local beliefs is turning out to have been completely different than the one reconstructed so far, but this can only be proved if we conduct interdisciplinary research on historical sources as well as whatever survived in that hard core despite centuries of colonization. We do our best to combine research with practical, engaged and decolonizing activity, we open up to alternative ways of generating and transferring knowledge, such as indigenous methodologies. I’d like both these components to develop harmoniously in future, to complement and support each other. That’s what gives meaning to my work.

Associate Professor JUSTYNA OLKO (born 1976 in Kraków), heads the Research Group “Encounters between the Old and New World” at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of “Artes Liberales”. A beneficiary of FNP programmes: FOCUS (2009) and IDEAS FOR POLAND (2013).

[1] This call for applications in the FOCUS programme had a predefined research area: the linguistic categorization of the world