professor Bernard Nietschmann, a champion of indigenous people
around the world, has died of cancer at age 58
Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
Crusading geographer Bernard O. Nietschmann, a professor at
the University of California, Berkeley, who studied and advised
numerous indigenous groups around the world, died Saturday,
Jan. 22, at his home in Berkeley after a two-year struggle with
esophageal cancer. He was 58.
an academic, Nietschmann was very active in helping indigenous
peoples chart their own fate.
had carved out a philosophy about what he called 'the fourth
world' - indigenous people in rich and poor countries alike
who have been economically and politically marginalized,"
said colleague David J. M. Hooson, professor emeritus of geography
at UC Berkeley. "He got native peoples involved in doing
their own work."
the late 1960s, while a graduate student at the University of
Wisconsin, Nietschmann immersed himself in the life and culture
of the Miskito Indians living along the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua.
He eventually wrote several books about the area and peoples,
including "Between Land and Water: The Subsistence Ecology
of the Miskito Indians, Eastern Nicaragua," (1973) and
"Caribbean Edge: The Coming of Modern Times to Isolated
People and Wildlife" (1979).
book 'Between Land and Water' was a classic study of cultural
geography, in which Barney tried to understand the environmental
consequences when communities get drawn into market relations,"
said Michael Watts, a former student of Nietschmann's and now
professor of geography at UC Berkeley and director of the Institute
of International Studies. One of the main threats at the time
was the commercial exploitation of the green sea turtle, upon
which the Miskito and other Indian groups relied.
the 1979 Sandinista revolution, the Miskito Indians began fighting
the government for control of their own resources, and they
invited Nietschmann to visit and witness their struggle. In
1982 and 1983, he surreptitiously entered Nicaragua and traveled
around with rebel Indian fighters, later returning and spreading
word of their resistance.
weathered criticism for his political involvement, much of it
from local activists incensed at his criticism of the Sandinistas.
They accused him of being in the hands of the right wing at
a time when the U.S. government was engaged in a covert war
against the Sandinista government.
subsequently advised the Indians during talks with the Nicaraguan
government that resulted in a measure of self-determination
for the Miskitos. He also fought to establish a protected homeland,
which came to fruition in 1991 when President Violeta de Chamorro
created territorial boundaries for the Miskito people and set
aside a 4,000-square-mile Miskito Coast Protected Area as a
refuge for the people and the diverse flora and fauna of the
area, much of it mangrove swamp.
you're interested in cultural diversity, you have to be interested
in biological diversity, because nature is the scaffolding of
culture - it's why people are the way they are," Nietschmann
said in a 1992 Audubon magazine article. "If you're interested
in environments, you have to be interested in culture."
the 1990s, he established the Maya Mapping Project to involve
Indians from southern Belize in the production of a Maya Atlas
to document their homeland and to promote demands for recognition
and legalization of their rights to the land. A "Maya Atlas:
The Struggle to Preserve Maya Land in Southern Belize"
was published in 1997 by North Atlantic Books. In 1996, he founded
GeoMap, a Bay Area organization to help other indigenous communities
protect their biological and cultural diversities.
also studied the marine resources of the Torres Strait islanders
off the coast of Australia, and argued for the rights of the
Shoshone Indians in Nevada, whose lands were being used to test
nuclear bombs. He later took to the media the story of exploited
Indian divers in Honduras and Nicaragua who were forced to dive
for lobster with little training and poor equipment, often sustaining
was an exceptional teacher who won a Distinguished Teaching
Award at UC Berkeley in 1996 and a similar award at the University
was really a remarkable teacher, always eager to involve his
students in field work," Hooson said.
of the students who started working with Nietschmann as an undergraduate
was Tegan Churcher, now a graduate student completing her doctoral
thesis on coral reefs in the South Pacific.
was an amazing and inspirational mentor," she said. "He
challenged me to pursue my dream of working and living in the
was born in Peoria, Ill., on April 9, 1941, and attended UCLA,
where he earned a BA with honors in geography in 1965. After
five years at the University of Wisconsin, where he obtained
his MA (1968) and PhD (1970) in geography, he joined the faculty
at the University of Michigan. He advanced to associate professor
before coming to UC Berkeley in 1977.
addition to his work in cultural geography, he had been a member
of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research
and Exploration since 1993 and, in 1984, was a founding member
of the board of directors of the Center for World Indigenous
Studies. He was a Pew Foundation Fellow in conservation and
environment from 1993 until 1997.
is survived by his wife, Angelina, of Berkeley, a Miskito Indian
activist from Nicaragua whom he met during her exile in Costa
Rica; their three children, Carlos of Oakland and son Kabu and
daughter Tangni, both living at home; a son, Bernard Nietschmann
Jr., from his first marriage; his father, Bernard Nietschmann
Sr., and mother, Elizabeth Quinn Wolf, both of Illinois; two
brothers, Edward Nietschmann of Madison, Ill. and Gregory Wolf
of Texas; and a sister, Sharon Nietschmann of Illinois. He also
is survived by three grandchildren: Harry Kris of Australia
and Oliver Nietschmann and Ayla Marie Nietschmann of Albany,
campus memorial service is planned for sometime in early May.