American cultural anthropologist and San (“Bushman”) expert Dr. Robert Hitchcock of the University of New Mexico began his career working with the Chumash while in College at the University of California Santa Barbara and later with Navajo in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, when he worked for the Chaco Center, a research group of the National Park Service.
The Chumash are Native Americans who live in the central and southern coastal regions of California on America’s west coast. Indigenous peoples have lived along the California coast for at least 11,000 years. The name Chumash is said to mean “bead maker” or “seashell people” referring to their origins near the Santa Barbara coast.
(The Navajo Tribe in particular have been impacted heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because of remoteness and lack of access to good quality water, laments Hitchcock. However, the strategies employed by the Navajo, now the largest in the US, have included lockdowns, mask mandates, and high vaccination rates which have brought down the coronavirus-related morbidity and mortality.)
At the Chaco Center, Hitchcock was part of the Remote Sensing Division where he mapped prehistoric roads.
“These roads in some cases connected Chaco communities and sometimes went to shrines used by Ancient Puebloans,” says Hitchcock. “They were often straight, had curbs, and were sometimes as wide as 30 meters. According to Pueblo descendants and Navajo who live in the region today, the roads had material, social, and cosmological significance. We also used satellite, aerial and ground-based imagery to look for settlements, agricultural fields, and irrigation facilities.”
However, it was the San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa that would come to occupy his professional life as an anthropologist.
The San are traditional hunter/gatherers and are one of humanity’s oldest communities according to a variety of genetic studies. Currently, there are over 130,000 people who see themselves as San in southern Africa. San are found in Angola, Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
According to Hitchcock, some San groups have experienced involuntary resettlement from their ancestral areas because of the establishment of protected areas, agricultural projects, commercial livestock ranches, and mines. Many San have also had to deal with the criminalization of their livelihood strategies, notably hunting and gathering.
In recent years, the San have achieved some success in organizing themselves both locally and internationally, Hitchcock mentions. Notably, they have filed successful legal cases aimed at regaining their land and resource rights in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. As a result, San have gained a degree of control over the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa, along with rights to park gate receipts. In the case of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, San and Bakgalagadi who sought the rights to return to the reserve after having been removed in 1997, 2002, and 2005, have been successful in doing so. The people of the Central Kalahari also were able to get the right to water in the Central Kalahari, setting an international legal precedent. In Namibia, !Kung, !Xun, and Khwe San have been successful in challenging illegal cattle-owning immigrants who had entered the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy in what used to be defined as West Bushmanland.
DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU FIRST BECAME INTERESTED IN HUMAN DIVERSITY AND HUMAN CULTURES?
I first got interested in cultural diversity while living in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, where my father worked for the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). I used to accompany oil company personnel, both American and Saudi, into the desert in Al-Hasa Province to look at archaeological sites and historical places such as the old Portuguese forts at Tarut Island and Hofuf. We often came across Al-Murrah Bedouin who at the time were mobile, moving with their goats, sheep and camels from place to place. Later on, the government of Saudi Arabia began to establish places for the Bedouin to live permanently. I always felt that the Bedouin should have the right to move their camps as they chose and to pursue the lifestyles that they wished.
WHAT WERE THE PORTUGUESE DOING IN SAUDI ARABIA?
As part of their expansion in the 1400s, the Portuguese established trading locations and forts throughout the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, and over to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). They also had small trading stations along the African coast and Zanzibar.
DID YOU EXPERIENCE OR OBSERVE WHAT THE SOCIAL LIFE OF THE ORDINARY SAUDI WAS LIKE AT THE TIME?
Not to any great extent, though I did visit Bedouin communities, and on occasion was invited to Saudis' homes along with my dad.
REGARDING THE BEDOUINS, IT IS ODD HOW MOST LEADERS IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES WHO ARE FROM NOMADIC OR SEMI-NOMADIC HERITAGE APPEAR UNABLE OR UNWILLING TO IMPLEMENT PRO-PASTORALIST POLICIES.
You are absolutely right - this is true in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, among other countries. The Israelis have their own sets of policies vis-a-vis Bedouin. Few, if any, Middle Eastern and North African countries have pro-pastoralist policies.
EARLIER IN YOUR CAREER, IT SEEMS YOU WERE HEADING DOWN THE PATH OF A YOUNG T.E. LAWRENCE AND GERTRUDE BELL. DID THEIR WORK INFLUENCE YOU IN ANY WAY?
Absolutely, I began reading about T.E. Lawrence and his archaeology and activities in the First World War early on, and I did my high school honors' essay on T.E. Lawrence in the Near East in 1914-1917. I also read Gertrude Bell extensively because of her work in southeast Arabia -- she wrote about places in Yemen, for example. Interesting that she was working for the British Secret Service through much of her career. She did fascinating archaeology and anthropology, and was a superb observer.
IN YOUR OPINION, HOW MUCH ARE BELL AND LAWRENCE DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR SOME OF THE TURMOIL IN THE MIDDLE EAST TODAY?
Both were hugely responsible, but the British government did not accept their various recommendations, thus leading to much of the turmoil. The British sold Lawrence and the Arabs down the river, much to their chagrin, setting up a lot of the potential for conflict. One example is some of the boundaries, e.g. between Iraq and Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War.
APART FROM THE DISCIPLINE ASPECT OF THE SUBJECTS, DID YOUR BACKGROUND IN MIDDLE EASTERN ARCHAEOLOGY AND HISTORY ASSIST OR PREPARE YOU IN ANY WAY FOR AFRICAN ETHNOGRAPHY AMONG THE KALAHARI SAN?
It did, especially in terms of appreciating cultural diversity - though there are few or no hunter-gatherers in the Middle East to speak of today. The historiography training and reading about Middle Eastern societies certainly established a foundation upon which to build. I never thought I would end up in Southern Africa working with San, but that was the way it worked out, and I am glad that it did. Working in the Middle East would have been much more challenging for a variety of reasons.
HOW DID YOU BECOME AN EXPERT ON THE SAN?
My involvement with the San of southern Africa was fortuitous. As a result of courses I took in the anthropology of Africa at the University of New Mexico with Patricia Draper and one on modeling with Henry Harpending in 1974, a group of fellow graduate students and I did a grant proposal with them as part of our class assignment.
We aimed the proposal at potential work among the Ju/’hoansi of the northwest Kalahari (Ngamiland) in Botswana. We submitted it to the National Science Foundation and received a substantial grant of $250,000. As it turned out, however, the government of Botswana, whose Bushman Development officer was in the Ministry of Local Government and Lands, required that we seek a change of venue and that we work in the Central District in the eastern part of the country. This area was relatively unknown from an ethnographic perspective. So after having worked on Middle Eastern archaeology and history for much of my high school and college career, I ended up working in Africa among foraging and agropastoral peoples, something I have done ever since. I never realized at the outset that much of my career would be dominated by efforts to seek land and resource rights for indigenous and minority peoples in Africa.
HAVE THE SAN CHANGED?
Definitely. Yet in many ways, San traditions, cultural values, and belief systems have remained the same in spite of the enormous challenges that they have faced. While the vast majority of San today are sedentary and have mixed economies, there is still a strong stated commitment to sharing, helping each other, and taking care of the lands where they live. At the same time, changes have occurred in their social systems, inheritance and descent patterns, leadership, and economies. Today San socioeconomic systems are such that there are a few wealthy or well-off people and a large number of people who are struggling economically.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MAJOR CHALLENGES FACED BY THE SAN AND HOW DID THOSE SITUATIONS AROSE?
The biggest challenges facing the San are poverty, dispossession of their lands and resources, hunger in many communities, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has affected southern Africa beginning in March 2020, and prejudicial treatment by governments. Many San feel that they are marginalized and are not able to participate directly in decisions that affect them. They have sought to address these challenges in a variety of ways, forming San non-government organizations, seeking international assistance, and filing legal cases aimed at getting their lands back and ensuring rights to water and other natural resources.
HOW ARE YOU HELPING THEM?
I help San in a variety of ways. From the time I got to in the field on the Nata River at the village of Manxotae in 1975, I have worked on behalf of the Tshwa community that resided there. Community members came to the group of us who were camped on the Nata River in August, 1975, and asked if we would help them to obtain a bridge over the river, and to [ assist them to] get education for their children. In addition, they also wanted help to stop a government plan to turn their area into a set of commercial cattle ranches which was being implemented with World Bank funding. Since that time, with community support, I have sought to help them reach those goals. All of the work I do is participatory and collaborative, and the goals come from the people themselves.
While we were there in Manxotae, at the request of the community, we paid a teacher to teach the children, first under a tree, and later in a school provided by the Central District Council.
Over the years, we have visited Manxotae and have provided assistance to the community, helping provide scholarships (bursaries) for students to attend the secondary school in Nata. We also helped provide books and other materials for the primary school. We have made funds available for local community projects and meetings.
Another way that I have helped San communities is through working with lawyers and community members who are seeking to obtain secure land rights or to reverse governmental decisions that removed them from their ancestral lands. We have filed legal cases, a number of which have been successful. I have also given depositions and testimony in legal cases brought by San against governments in Botswana and Namibia.
In addition to this, I also] document San societies culture, traditions, and belief systems, which I have been doing for over 45 years. I have shared that information with educators who have incorporated the knowledge in schoolbooks, some of them produced in mother tongue San languages. The government of Botswana has finally agreed to teach mother tongue San languages in the schools beginning in February 2022
I also work with and support the efforts of the Kalahari Peoples Fund, a 501(©)(3) non-profit organization formed in 1973 for the benefit of the San and other peoples of the Kalahari Desert region of southern Africa. This organization provides assistance, funds, and technical advice to Kalahari communities.
Evaluating San organizations for donor agencies funding them, providing recommendations on how they can improve their effectiveness, and collaborating with them in writing grants for funding from international donors
for their projects and programs. In addition, I have served as a negotiator between San organizations and communities and the governments of the countries where they reside.
Finally, I have given lectures around the world at universities, schools, churches, and community meetings on issues facing the San. These lectures are aimed at raising awareness about the challenges facing San and their neighbors and hopefully have had the effect of obtaining support for San causes.
WHY SHOULD THE MODERN WESTERNIZED WORLD CARE ABOUT INDIGENOUS SOCIETIES LIKE THE SAN?
The San and people like them have much to offer the developed, modern, westernized world. Some areas of importance include their indigenous knowledge of healing, sharing, environmental management, child care practices, equitable treatment of other people and resilience, all of which are much needed in the western world today.