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Unintended Discoveries

A visit with Christine VanPool, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology

By Sean Powers
Published: - Topics: labor children women ethnography pottery

As a child growing up in New Mexico, Christine VanPool remembers visiting museums and state parks with her family. By all accounts, VanPool was a normal kid who loved to ask questions. Living on the edge of the Mescalero Apache reservation, VanPool developed an appreciation for the rich cultural history of her Native American friends, which led naturally to her interest in anthropology.

“When I was really young, I wanted to find an arrowhead,” VanPool recalls digging around in her backyard, but never finding one. The museums on the Apache reservations took her breath away. While at one of these museums in middle school, VanPool saw a cradleboard historically worn by some Indian mothers, who would strap small children to the board while they worked. At first, the young VanPool thought this practice seemed strange and unusual, but she eventually realize it was more similar than different from such modern practices as a car seat with a five-point harness. “I know now that there are many ways to take care of children, and that was probably a very adaptive thing to do,” VanPool explains. “It kept the baby from getting hurt or burned, and it allowed the mother to process food.”

VanPool’s curiosity about anything and everything was the launching pad for an even greater journey. As an undergraduate student at the Eastern New Mexico University, she studied different birthing practices among Native American tribes, and she discovered some shocking things that helped her develop a deeper respect for these cultures. For example, when women of the Huichols conceived, they pulled on chords attached to a man’s scrotum. While this might seem unpleasant for an expecting father, the Huichol believed that redistributing the mother’s pain to the father would reduce her pain. VanPool learned that each tribe used different strategies to aid the mother during her birthing process. Some Apache women, for example, were tied to a tree without any medication in order to let gravity help with the delivery. “There are a lot of ways people do things,” VanPool says with a look of vicarious intrigue. “Gravity works.”

Now, as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at MU, VanPool uses ethnographic records and cross-cultural comparisons to aid her archaeological interpretations. VanPools research primarily focuses on shamanic religious practices. The rituals of shamanism often include narcotics to open up a gateway between the natural and spiritual worlds. Those with a divine connection travel as another spirit, often as a macaw-headed bird: “They travel to the world of the unknown and return.”

Shamanism is often attributed to hunters and gatherers, but VanPool explains that rarely do anthropologists study the ritual in more complex societies and chiefdoms. As such, her current research takes a closer look at shamanism in these multifarious societies, especially the role of women in shamanistic societies. “Women are in engaged [in shamanism] in different ways, at different levels, and at different ages,” says VanPool.

In Western societies, nicotine is recognized as dangerous, yet many people continue to smoke tobacco. VanPool explains that members of these tribes also knew of the dangers associated with the mind-altering drugs. Only certain people were allowed to use these drugs. The Aztecs, for instance, prohibited children and pregnant women from using tobacco. They recognized that “what’s considered bad for many is good for some” and benefits the larger society.

VanPool has made room for science within the humanities. For example, science is crucial to ceramic analysis, the study of pottery. In VanPool’s office, a shelf lines one of her walls with sundry clay pots crafted by individuals ranging from Navaho Indians from New Mexico to Mexicans from Chihuahua. She considers each pot’s details—from its clay molecules and its shape to the engravings and painted ionography. The pots range in size, shape, and purpose. VanPool explains that the creators of these pots, going back hundreds of years, understood the pots’ mechanics, “knowing when to mix what materials to get what output.” There is a science behind each pot’s stamina to heat, pressure, and rough conditions. “People have always had science,” VanPool says. “They have always done experiments where they refine, they try, they test, they do. And that’s a form of science.”

While most of her interpretations are anthropologically driven, VanPool also works in the field trying to find artifacts. She frequently travels to Janos, Mexico, with a group of students to study the remains of pots, stones, and houses. Her observations help her develop systematic comparisons between different cultures: “Archeology affords us all these great variables of time and space with so many more cultures. We’re understanding the development of humanity through archeology.”

Beyond the archeological records, it is through her interactions with native speakers on her travels, VanPool has developed an appreciation for language. She says once a language is understood, it is easy to generate an array of terms stemming from one word. The Mayans, for example, use many words for ‘maize’ to describe a spirit, maturing crop, or the green leaves of a plant.

Learning the language opens up a “shopping list” of possibilities. VanPool alikens it to going into a grocery store in Mexico, and asking for different foods made from the same ingredients: “We like to talk about how language organizes itself. Once you understand a few key things, you can go shopping and cook many different meals with a handful of ingredients,” she says.

The inquisitiveness of VanPool’s childhood was carried with her throughout the years. She loves having a career that requires her to constantly ask questions and look for answers by digging deeper into history. Since her days as a child searching for arrowheads, VanPool’s fervent interest has chipped away at her initial assumptions about other cultures and replaced them with a more sophisticated appreciation and wonder for all cultures.