Barney Q. Nietschmann
Winner of the 2000 Robert McC. Netting Award
Barney Nietschmann was one of the early leaders of geographical cultural ecology in the United States. In cultural geography seminars in Madisonin the 1960s, during the rush of the quantitative revolution, we were looking for a more rigorous and systematic approach to the study of traditional livelihoods. Geography graduate students in those seminars included Barney, Roland Bergman, Barbara Williams, and Bon Richardson, plus Bill Davidson and Mario Hiraoka visiting from Milwaukee, and some anthropology, archaeology, and history grads who were later to become important scholars.
Our approach was interdisciplinary, and the anthropologists drew us to their developing field of cultural ecology. We read Julian Steward, Andrew Vayda, and Roy Rappaport in anthropology and looked for parallel but distinctive approaches in geography, with some guidance from Wagner and Mikesell (1962) with their emphasis on ecological processes. We found inspiration in the early work of Jim Blaut (1953-1964) on both Southeast Asia and tropical America, with insights on microgeography, agricultural intensification, environmental perception, behavioral explanation, and critiques of carrying capacity and agricultural potential. Jim talked about cultural ecology as early as 1959, if not before. Harold Brookfield was particularly influential for his New Guinea research in the 1960s, with calls for localized study, detailed data gathering, comparative method, and consideration of the “the inner workings of culture.”
These influences led Barney to his study of the Miskito Indians at Pearl Lagoon on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. He had come from California, with a BA from UCLA, with a great love of the ocean and ocean life. After a Master’s at Wisconsin on haciendas in highland Mexico, strongly influenced by visiting professor Robert West, Barney turned back to the ocean, to the Miskito people, and to their primary resource the green turtle, with some guidance from Jim Parsons who had been to the region. The resulting dissertation (1970) was published in 1973 as Between Land and Water: The Subsistence Ecology of the Miskito Indians, Eastern Nicaragua, along with related articles in Human Ecology (1972) and The Geographical Review (1979), plus additional articles and an edited volume on sea turtles.
What Barney did was to study a single village, Tasbapauni, in depth, which would not have been possible for a large region, the more common methodology of geographers. In emerging cultural ecology the focus was on systems analysis, especially energy inputs and outputs. Barney obtained data on crop, marine, and game productivity, labor, time and energy efficiency, consumption, nutrition, seasonal and spatial patterns, income, marketing, and he related it all to subsistence strategy, adaptation, and stress. I still have a photo on my home bulletin board of Barney weighing a hunk of turtle meat on a scale in Tasbapauni.
But Barney also looked at the land and the water and the people and told us about them in ways that brought to life the numbers in his tables. And he did this even more so in his second book on the Miskito Coast, Caribbean Edge: The Coming of Modern Times to Isolated People and Wildlife(1979) and in a series of articles for Natural History, in which he tells stories about doing research in a remote area. One article, “When the Turtle Collapses, the World Ends,” was reprinted in eight books and journals. Caribbean Edge, now mostly forgotten, is perhaps the finest account of life in the field by a cultural geographer.
Between Land and Water was very favorably received by both geographers and anthropologists. And while Barney did not directly collaborate with anthropologists, his work had considerable influence on anthropological cultural ecology. His Miskito study is given prominent attention in the cultural ecology texts by Emilio Moran, Donald Hardesty, Michael Jochim, and Roy Ellen. In cultural geography he was equally influential. Although cultural ecology was soon to move away from systems analysis, it was studies such as Barney’s that gave cultural ecology a firm foundation. Barney did publish two short conceptual articles in 1971, “The Substance of Subsistence” and “The Study of Indigenous Food Production Systems,” but clearly he was not interested in pontificating about the rationale of his research.
Barney undertook a second major marine resource project in 1976-1977 on the dugong and sea turtle hunters in the Torres Strait between Australiaand New Guinea. A few articles resulted, but the big book was never completed.
Barney was hired out of Graduate School in 1970 by the University of Michigan, and was there during the turbulent finality of that Geography Department. Barney’s classes at Michigan are still famous. One, on “Future Worlds,” had some 1,000 students enrolled. After seven years he moved on to Berkeley.
In the 1970s, Barney was an active defender of threatened marine life, particularly sea turtles. In the early 1980s at Berkeley, and I am not sure of the timing and specific influences, Barney became a crusader for the human rights of not only the Miskito Indians but indigenous people all over the world, what he and others called “Fourth World Nations.” His personal experiences with the people of the Miskito shore and the Torres Straitundoubtedly helped turn him in this direction. For the next decade most of his writings were in newspapers and magazines, dozens of them, with very little in professional journals. He took up the cause of the Miskito against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, including direct reporting of military engagements. There are some amazing stories to be told about Barney and those times. Out of this came a short book, The Unknown War: The Miskito Nation, Nicaragua, and the United States (1989). His advocacy for indigenous people took him to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Morocco, Burma, various Pacific islands, Central America, the Caribbean, the Shoshone, and elsewhere (see his reports and essays in Cultural Survival Quarterly and Fourth World Journal).
In the 1990s Barney concentrated on research about and support for indigenous resource rights and conservation in Central America, a return to a dimension of cultural ecology but very different from that of his dissertation research. He became active in establishing a Miskito Coast Protected Area and in attempting to create a transborder protected zone (SIAPAZ) along the Rio San Juan between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. He helped the Miskito people defend their turtle, shrimp, lobster, and fish resources from international “resource pirates,” including mapping (to better claim) the coral reefs within Miskito waters. He helped demonstrate the interdependence of biological and cultural diversity. He was Environmental Advisor to the Nicaraguan government, and he worked as advisor to environmental protection NGOs.
In 1995 Barney was instrumental in establishing the Maya Mapping Project, for which he worked with Indian communities in Belize to map their lands and resources in conjunction with cartography and GIS grad students at Berkeley. This resulted in the unique Maya Atlas: The Struggle to Preserve Maya Land in Southern Belize (1997). Barney was clearly the project director and editor, but full credit of book authorship is given to the Maya communities involved.
Barney Nietschmann did not go to many professional meetings or write a lot of journal articles, but he spoke to and wrote for many people – in classes, through the media, and in numerous public presentations. As result, I believe he was much more influential than most of us, both as a cultural ecologist/geographer and as a person concerned about injustice. He always spoke his mind, the way he saw things, even when addressing hostile audiences.
Barney died of esophageal cancer at age 58 on January 22, 2000. His final two years were an ordeal endured with great spirit, courage, and cheer, as he continued his research and writing, made trips to Central America, taught his classes through most of the fall of 1999, and had good moments with family and friends. I last saw him in Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley a couple of weeks before he died. He could only whisper, but he talked enthusiastically for an hour about Wisconsin and Berkeley geography and about his next trip to the Caribbean.
So, here’s to you Mr. Barney,
Somewhat out there at Pearl Lagoon,
Or in the deep blue offshore waters,
At the Caribbean Edge,
Where the Trade Winds blow,
And the green turtle swims,
And the Miskito Nation rules.
You were one of a kind!
For the The Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group, I am very pleased that Bernard Q. Nietschmann is the posthumous recipient of the Year 2000 Robert McC. Netting Award for “distinguished research and professional activities that bridge geography and anthropology.” Barney earned this award through his interdisciplinary, innovative research in cultural ecology and through his defense of the lands, resources, and rights of indigenous people.
-William M. Denevan, 2000.