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  • Writer's pictureKevin A Codd

Shrunken Heads

Just a few blocks from my little house here in Cuenca, there is a very large museum, set atop a substantial hill, terraced and green with natural grass. The whole place is actually an extensive pre-Columbian archeological site. I have walked past it numerous times and wondered what there might be to see within. Finally, today, I had my wonderings answered; my friend, Kathy, invited me to join her in visiting both the Pumapungo Museum and the surrounding archeological grounds this morning.

The museum is a massive building in the "brutalist" architectural style with various floors displaying all manner of pre-Columbian artifacts, many of which were discovered right here. We didn't have a guide to lead us around and explain things to us, so left to ourselves, we did our best to get the most out of the museum's offerings. Most of the explanatory signage was in Spanish, ordinarily not a problem for me, but sometimes the use of indigenous vocabulary or place names left me scratching my head. There were plenty of clay pots, arrowheads, and head-dresses to take a look at. Both Kathy and I were amused that so many of the clay pots had little "happy faces" etched into them. Further on, there were walk-through exhibits of typical houses and lodges, and even further on, tributes to the existing tribes that continue to live as much as they are able the traditions of their forebears, often mixed with Catholic rituals and imagery.

Once outside, we were able to walk among the restored walls of the ancient civilizations that inhabited this mound, including taking a good look at a tunnel carved deep into the hillside that served as the entrance to the underworld where the people's deceased forebears lived on. Below, there were gardens and a few lazy llamas to chat with as we walked on under the noonday sun.

Like many people, I am sure, I found myself with mixed emotions upon encountering the most macabre exhibit in the museum: the shrunken heads of long-dead enemies of the Incan tribes who inhabited this region of South America. It is hard to look at them. One feels rather embarrassed for the poor person whose head is on display. I found myself glancing, then moving on. I certainly wasn't interested in taking pictures of them. To us, this can't be anything other than a strange and altogether gruesome practice of a culture now mostly gone. But as the signage strove to explain, for those who lived here before the Spanish came and conquered, a practice like this was meaningful and normal. That the spirit and talents of one person, victoriously killed by another, could be taken over by the victor in battle and memorialized in the dead person's head being shrunk and preserved...well, its beyond our ken. But it does show us how diverse human cultures are and it reminds us to take a look at some of our own cultural rituals and practices that might be no less troublesome for those who come after us. I recently finished reading a book on the Comanche tribes of the Great Plains and the Southwest, and the Americans who fought them (Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. Gwynne); the Comanche practice of scalping the defeated seems repugnant to us, but it was normal for them, just how war was fought. Not so surprisingly, it wasn't long before the Americans also did it to the Comanches when they could. The more recent practice of "enhanced torture" that our country inflicted on prisoners in Guantanamo, Cuba, or the separation of children from immigrant parents on our southern border, should make us no less queasy than the practice of shrinking heads, and maybe more so since, in principle, we should know better.

After spending a couple of hours in the Pumapungo Museum and grounds, Kathy led us to a sandwich shop down the street for lunch and a drink. As we ate our pork sandwiches, we chatted about many things, but not the shrunken heads we had just seen. What's to say? Did they give us the creeps? Sure, well, at least to me they did. But on the other hand, I'm not an Inca from a previous century. I am a North American in this century and when I look at my own culture from the distance of a several thousand miles, I also see things back home that give me more than the creeps.

I'll just mention one: the hair-trigger meanness that has crept into so many social encounters. It is now okay to be angry and display that anger in a torrent of nasty words and vile threats. It happens all the time now, road-rage, or bar-rage, or neighbor-rage. I got a good taste of it two summers ago when out for some exercise on a rainy weekday. I was walking briskly along a small paved road near the Spokane River popular with cyclists, joggers, and walkers like myself. I was having a fine walk and making good time when a big boy in a Big Black Truck came around a corner and was startled by me on the road. He roared past, then braked, then did a six-point turn...and came after me in that Big Black Truck of his, chasing me down at high speed until I clambered over a park barricade that stopped him and his Big Black Truck in their tracks. He got out and began screaming at me, and oh, the vile things he shouted across the field as I headed for the cover of bushes and trees near the river and out of sight as fast as I could. I was pretty sure he would have beaten me silly had he caught me. I was relieved he didn't shoot me. It left me shaking for hours.

That such meanness and violence is now part of our cultural milieu and we accept it as just the way things are these days...concerns me far more than a baseball-sized shrunken head in a museum. Living at home, one doesn't register just how bad it has gotten, I suppose, because we get inured to it since it is now just about everywhere; but here in Ecuador, where patience and kindness towards others, including foreigners like myself, are the norm, that bilious new American reality stands out in a frightening manner. That meanness, now general about the land, is our own version of another culture's shrunken heads.

Shrunken heads in a museum may give me the creeps; but American meanness really scares me, precisely because it is not on display in a museum, but is now on display in our streets and our stores and our public squares.

Ecuador reminds me it doesn't have to be this way.

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