Miguel Astor Aguilera you are a professor at Arizona State University in the Religious Studies Department and your scholarship concentrates on Mesoamerican ethnography, material culture, archaeology, and socio-religious theory. We're so pleased to have you with us in this series discussing Indigenous religions and ecology. Miguel, I wanted to open with a broad overview question. Is it possible for you to give us some broad sense of Mesoamerican Indigenous peoples and their environmental concerns and how religion is interacting in those concerns? Sure. I specialize specifically in the Maya area of Mesoamerica but throughout my work and it's going to show up with my discussion here, is that there's core similarities throughout what's generally referred to as Mesoamerica. Meso meaning middle and this typically is, although we have this geographic region called Central America. It's actually Mesoamerica extends from Central America like El Salvador Honduras all the way up until close to the border of Mexico and the United States. Now, that's an academic term for this particular area that has to do with particular characteristics of what's seen like a grand civilization in Mexico. But these borders obviously didn't exist prior to European contact. Those core similarities are still present especially with very conservative elders, although there is because of their acculturated factors, there is a great deal of Catholicism involved but that depends from area to area, because there's a great deal of ethnic nations, the first peoples here. There is great differences but at the same times, there's great similarities. Part of it is interlinked with the language, of course, there's a great deal of variation with the languages. With regarding to your question, most of my work regards what others before me have called the behavioral ecology or behavioral environment which to Western US sounds weird that the environment would behave but it actually does behave. Even us if you're dealing with science, if you squeezed lemon juice on salt, well, how is this reacting to this? This is the way we talk if I hear chemists. How is this reacting? How is this behaving? Well, this actually comes from language before pre-enlightenment Europe where we have these odd ways of thinking. They seem odd now but they're not really that odd because something is certainly happening. When I started doing my work in the Maya area this is one of the things that just came front and center. When I was an undergrad and even in my master's studies, I understood part of this but it's not until I was actually hanging out with the Mayan, see it right in front of my face. My grandmother is from Purepecha ancestry which is in the Michoacan Central Mexican area. Well, she's now passed, but she didn't speak Purepecha but she would do what I would consider things kinda weird. My grandfather, he smoked cigars, cigarettes, a pipe, he drank heavily on tequila. That's not what killed him, but he was always doing this and my grandmother would sometimes go over to his little desk and she would get a cigarette, light it up and she would walk around the house and she would start puffing on the walls. I would ask her in Spanish [¿Abuelita que estas haciendo?] Grandma what are you doing? and she's like, [Mi hijo estoy limpiando la casa] I'm cleaning the house and I'm like what? What kind of cleaning is that? But this is a very Indigenous thing to do and this shows up from the Northern most states, you even go into Canadian areas and dealing with Indigenous people all the way to South America toward the tip and these are customs that have to do with cleansing out of things that we can't see. If you're dealing with things that you can't see as living things around you and these are imminent. These are not transcendent things. Once you go and you're dealing with your environment where the food comes from, you're dealing with it day in and day out. If we have those type of sensibilities still then going into these areas where you have conservative Indigenous peoples in the Americas, the broad theme is that everything around you is alive. In English we can say the living Earth but to us it's, even though we're cognisant of the fact that it is living it becomes like a metaphor for many of us, but not so in the areas that I'm dealing. But it's very obvious that it's living because you're paying attention to the plants growing every day. Miguel, I wanted to follow up with a more personal inquiry also, because I'm fascinated with the title of your most recent book The Maya World of Communicating Objects. Quadripartite, Crosses, Trees, and Stones and I wanted to ask if you could make a segue from the conversation we've just been having about the living Earth to this very interesting phrase of communicating objects. Could you unpack that for us a bit? Sure. In our way of thinking, the way I was taught. I was born in Mexico, I grew up until I was three years old there was a particular way of thinking from my grandmother. Even though she didn't have the completely Indigenous part anymore in terms of her thinking but it was still there. One of the things I had to get accustomed to really quickly working in the Maya area is that, you can communicate with things that are not human. You can communicate with things that we would consider inanimate that we call material objects. Sometimes I teach a graduate seminar on material culture and religion and one of the things that's very difficult to pound into the students is what had to get pounded into me through my research on that is that, we're material. It's like the flesh and bones we're material but when we talk about studying material objects and it's something out there, it's something beyond us. But we're embodied beings and we sit so right here I'm interacting through the computer, through this technology, but we're embodied. It's like when I deal with the environment I'm out there. I'm breathing it, I'm walking it, I'm feeling it, and somehow we've gotten away from this. Once you go into areas with Maya culture and what I referred to as the behavior environment, behavioral ecology is that, again, because these things are sentient when we build things or if we just get them out of where we're at, they're not disattached from anything else. These ideas that I'm talking about in Mesoamerica and throughout the Indigenous Americas are also present and that is that you deal with things that we consider inanimate or material, as if they're sentiment. Now it's not that everything is sentient but that everything has the potentiality to be that. Coming back to the Miguel part is that Miguel is supposed to be composed of three essences. We tend to call it soul but it doesn't exactly fit. Miguel and other humans are composed of three essences that make them. One of these things can actually inhabit anything that's material. Well now here I just grabbed the first thing that was next to me. If you see that green cross, that cruciform thing, it's supposed to be a tree it represents a tree. I have it here in my office but if it were in the Maya area their rituals would be being done to it, offerings, food, smoke, drink, and spoken to, communicated to. The same thing gets done with rocks. Just to make clear in case it gets misunderstood by some students, then I always refer that these things are not really benign. They're like human persons where they can be nice to you or they can be bad to you, so it's not outright worship it's more like veneration like a venerable elder or ancestor but that also means that you can get mad at that thing or it can get mad at you. You don't communicate with every object otherwise the Maya wouldn't be able to get a few steps beyond their hut. This is one of the misconceptions that Indigenous peoples like the Maya think that everything around them is sentient and alive and right like the rocks but if I start counting the pebbles where my father-in-law walks by. Most of that time they're interacting with the environment just like you and me, but there's something along there that they have to pay attention to. This is where the daily thing comes in because there are things that they have to pay attention to whether that be a tree or the odder things are more like rocks. My mentors have crystals which they call seeing stones that they feed. You have to feed them, sometimes you clothe them, you put them in a little sack, or you shelter them and this is throughout the Americas. Every single thing has the potentiality that something is there but it's because of these essences. They may have one or more. The more they have the more powerful they are. The Sun has innumerable of these type of things. This is what makes it so strong. The Maya will say, k'uh that it has that, so they'll say Yu-K'iin Father Sun. They're not talking in metaphor the way we would think of it. This is not metaphorical. Miguel, I also find in the academic world in our conceptual language, we have ways of shaping concepts that relate to this living world, this storied world that we're talking of and we use these concepts to talk about the manner in which Indigenous people meet the world today. Say the incentive environmental resistance or a protection of this kinship with the Earth and so the idea of Cosmovision is a conceptual turn on this storied world or living world and then when we put it with cosmopolitics and the religious activism that's resisting extracting projects or damaging projects. The terms make rational sense but it can miss the point you're making. I think about a living world and how we stand by and stand with a living world in many Indigenous settings. From religion to me seems more, it boxes in certain things whereas cosmovision is more extensive. I know quite a few quite a few people who prefer those terms. We're still all talking really about the same thing but we get so caught up with, it has to be this or it has to be that, so that particular cosmovision, cosmology is what fits into this. The manner in which many Indigenous leaders now are beginning to make that connection of cosmovision and particular images in cosmovision to religious environmentalism incentive bringing it to the struggle to respond to extractive industries that are very harmful to the storied world as well as the people. Again, because you have different ethnicities within all these groups and stuff but there's some folks that lean towards what you just described and then there's middle. There's a variety of viewpoints so within the nation sometimes they're at odds with each other exactly how to deal with because there's no easy answers but what's clearly understood even within the differences is that, if you harm Earth, Earth is going to harm you. Again, they don't tend to speak of it as a metaphor. What they're talking that is, if there's an ultimate reality in these traditions because we like to use the term ultimate reality. If there's an ultimate reality is that you're engaging with something that can do you harm if you do it harm. In other words, again, because it's not benign. Again, coming back to where I work, it comes right up front. The word Hurricane comes from Hurican, Kan means serpent in Maya. Hurricane is a Mayan word. Basically what it means is swirling serpent. If you're in an area like this or because the way we understand earthquakes and everything else is that, Earth is doing something. It has to do with causality. In other words, if you do something to Earth, Earth is going to do something to you. In the Maya area there's no better example of this than the hurricane which will just come in and wipe everything out. They're very powerful things. The Earth is very beautiful and it gives you everything but at the same time if you don't treat it correctly, it'll come right at you. It makes perfect sense, because you're at Earth's mercy in many ways. That doesn't go away despite the differences that come up in these religious and communities. Let me just shift a bit Miguel and for my final question, I wanted to ask about your Indigenous students today. Are they curious about bringing a traditional understandings to environmental issues that they encounter or do they tend to see the environmental issues largely in a secular or scientific manner? That's a question that might make me cry. Here in Arizona, well, this is all Indigenous land obviously. Thanksgiving just passed and there's things that make it jump in our faces. ASU is on ancient ruins, Arizona State University. There's a particular areas that are very important to some of the peoples here. With the students, I wouldn't say that is so much of a conflict. Some are some are not. I wish more of them were more interested in what we're discussing but I think it's an unfortunate. You can probably tell how emotional I'm getting with this because it's so difficult to talk about. They're not as interested for the most part as I wish they would be but I think it's because of the political circumstances that their communities find themselves in and they find themselves in and what they're thinking about, the ones that I interact here at the university is business. It's not that different from other students. It's the science, it's the business, it's the engineering. All the universities, all the humanities, religious studies have to be dealing with this all the time and it's very detrimental. It's not just about the environment and their traditions, it's just about understanding the world on a humane humanitarian level to be a good global citizen. In every village that I go to now there's at least eight or nine right off the cuff that I can point to that are beginning to be very active regarding the environment. There's deers still in the rainforests where I'm at, but they're starting to dwindle. Coming back to the objects things on the offerings, the rationale, it doesn't seem to be it is. That if in order to be able to hunt more deer and this shows up with caribou and different animals throughout the Americas, is that you make offerings to the environment and you make offerings to the deer the caribou, to give themselves. But by that rationale is that as long as you do it there's going to be deer, there's going to be caribou for you. This used to be the same way with the bison. They will always be there. These younger folks that I'm talking about are watching Discovery Channel, they're going to colleges now and so their concerns are starting to be like yours and mine. But it's coming from the outside and then they have to relate to what their community does and how they perceive things. This is a phenomenon that I only started seeing recently and part of it is towards the end of as I already hinted in that chapter that I have in your fabulous book, which I'm going to end up assigning whole one of these times with these classes because the rightness is just so good. But within that chapter that I have right at the end, I start talking about this and I'm seeing that develop more and more that it's becoming beyond the local, because the perspective within many of these Indigenous communities is, this is where they're at, this is where the Sun comes right over at zenith. You have this personal relationship with the Sun because it's right overhead at zenith and this is it so it's like, this is what's important. These youngsters are seeing beyond that. They're understanding these global impacts that have to do beyond the Maya.