Understanding “Cultural Understanding”: Julie Gibbings and Jacob Tropp follow the concept from coffee plantations to Indian reservations, counterinsurgency campaigns, and the careers of international development experts

CSSH has a longstanding tradition of juxtaposing essays for comparative effect. Our readers enjoy this ritual, but we often wonder what our authors think of it. Under the Rubric gives CSSH authors a chance to respond directly to each other’s work, drawing additional insight and inspiration from their arguments.


“Their debts follow them into the afterlife”: German Settlers, Ethnographic Knowledge, and the Forging of Coffee Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Guatemala

“Intertribal” Development Strategies in the Global Cold War: Native American Models and Counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia

Add power differentials to projects of “cultural understanding” and one immediately encounters (or creates) problems – of representation, access, benefit-sharing, and implementation. Throw in the irony that “cultural understanding” is commonly posed as a good solution to these problems and the result is a Mobius strip of complications.

In our Spring 2020 issue, Julie Gibbings and Jacob Tropp guide us through several telling cases of cultural, or intercultural, understanding. Our editors saw “expediency” as a theme that unites the essays, but there are many others. We’ve invited Tropp and Gibbings to compare and tell us more.

Here’s a quick sketch of their papers, from the editorial foreword:

EXPEDIENT ETHNOGRAPHY  In “‘Their debts follow them into the afterlife’: German Settlers, Ethnographic Knowledge, and the Forging of Coffee Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Guatemala,” Julie Gibbings shows how tightly bound were the commercial and ethnographic interests of Guatemala’s German coffee planters cum ethnographers. Relying on a close analysis of plantation records read in relation to ethnographic production of the same period, Gibbings uncovers a series of striking relationships between distinct domains of knowledge production. Ethnography was enlisted for, among other objectives, the maintenance of the coffee labor force, comprised of indigenous workers. But Gibbings goes further to show that the German ethnographic tradition of the period also helped to shape the nature and view of capitalism in Guatemala, in ways that endured well into the twentieth century.

Meanwhile, in “‘Intertribal’ Development Strategies in the Global Cold War: Native American Models and Counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia,” Jacob Tropp disentangles the extraordinary web connecting Native American history and U.S. foreign relations development projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Indian country development projects and Native Americans themselves were enlisted in counterinsurgency projects in Laos and Thailand. Laotian and Thai village leaders were brought to the United States to observe Apache, Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo life. Agencies from the CIA to the USAID pushed Native Americans into an overseas mission of political disruption and transformation in Vietnam—all under the shelter of pleasing monikers like “intertribal” and “tribe-to-tribe assistance.” Tropp’s story stands clear of the genre of Indian victimhood. Rather, he shows how Indian communities’ interests in development support collided with the CIA’s cold war anti-communist agenda, to generate a surprising series of transnational encounters in which the real interests were never revealed to the indigenous and villager protagonists.

CSSH: The first thing we noticed when reading your papers is how a fairly basic idea, “cultural understanding,” brings together an incredibly complex set of actors, interest groups, and places. Some of the people you write about are middle managers in Cold War counterinsurgency campaigns, others are planning village development schemes or running plantation economies. A common idea linking these cases is that Indigenous people can be (and ought to be) enlisted in larger economic and political projects by documenting, preserving, or building on distinctive aspects of local cultures.

You emphasize in both papers that “cultural understanding” is a policy/governance tool and an end in itself, a moral good. Understanding culture will solve problems, people think, and this message seems to be endorsed by almost everyone you write about. There’s also a pervasive sense of manipulation. Not all elements of indigenous cultures are valorized, or understood. Stronger parties act out strategies that are not shared with weaker parties. And vice versa! The key analytical breakthroughs in your papers come at the moments when those tensions rise to the surface.

We’re curious to know more about these moments of tension. Did they help you realize things about your subject matter that weren’t already “there” in the archival and other historical records? Are there ways to get at this material more quickly, to spot it even before it rises to the surface? Obviously, working through moments of tension can improve our analyses of culture (and the politics of culture) in colonial and imperial systems. But how can we do that work effectively when the priorities of “cultural understanding” keep certain kinds of evidence from accumulating? 

Julie Gibbings: Thanks for asking these questions. German coffee planters-cum-ethnographers in nineteenth-century Alta Verapaz exploited (quite explicitly) the notion of intercultural understanding to, in their hopes, forge a more reliable and compliant labor force out of the local Q’eqchi’ Maya population. They were attentive to the need to learn the Q’eqchi’ language, and to broad sociocultural norms and practices, which they actively sought to incorporate into plantation life and management. Such notions of intercultural understanding are prevalent even today. In 1991, for example, a priest named Ricardo Terga Cintron wrote a book called Almas Gemelas (Twin Souls) that describes in great detail the cultural similarities and affinities between German settlers and Q’eqchi’ Mayas. The author points out common cultural traits such as a love for nature and hard work, and then he discusses how these became the basis for intimate relationships of abiding affection between German settlers and their Q’eqchi concubines, as well as their laborers. The romantic notion of intercultural harmony and connection has deep roots in the Bartolomé de las Casas’-inspired mythology of the peaceful conquest of the region, in which priests used their knowledge of Maya languages and religion to inspire Christian conversion among a population known for its fierce resistance to Spanish conquistadores. As I suggest, the whole representation of the German coffee planter as a “good father” mirrored romantic colonial tropes of peaceful conversion and harmonious civilizing projects. Reading Jacob’s article, I was struck by how U.S. officials harnessed notions of common “indigenous” experiences in contexts of local resistance and counter-insurgency campaigns.  

While persistent across time, the mythos of intercultural understanding and harmony tends to obscure the broader interests such ideological moves serve and the struggles over power and racial hierarchy they engender. Indeed, some historians have bought into the notion that German settlers treated their workers better than Guatemalan ladinos (non-Mayas) did because the Germans were more attentive to cultural difference. Such work tends to accept at face value German planters’ self-representation as successful entrepreneurs whose wealth derived from their ability to understand the local population. This overshadows the very real ways that Germans forged partial sovereignties on their plantations, where they could enact often-violent policing and produce gender, class, and racial hierarchies.  When, as historians, we uncritically accept the stories Germans told in their personal memoirs, diaries, and ethnographic writings, we might miss that racialized violence. Even more, we might miss the moments of tension you allude to, when the logics of intercultural understanding break down as subaltern actors give voice, often through their actions, to different motivations and interests. At times, these other logics emerge with explosive power. In the 1920s, for instance, as German coffee planters published their ethnographic writings in popular Guatemalan journals, Q’eqchi’ burned coffee plants and planted milpa, a symbol of reproduction and sustenance, on German plantations. Since we so infrequently have access to the unmediated words of rural, illiterate Mayas, such actions might be read for their symbolic and political meanings.

In part, accessing subaltern understandings, motivations, and appropriations requires reading archival sources against the grain for their unintended meanings and thinking speculatively about alternative interpretations of words and actions. While my article focuses mainly on Germans’ efforts to build plantations and how they understood cultural difference to be the basis of good plantation management, we might also look for those moments when Q’eqchi’ motivations and interests emerge. At times, they emerge from the romantic ethnographic texts themselves. For example, we can inquire into other meanings about Karl Sapper’s ethnographic observation that Q’eqchi’s imagined the Christian God as a white person who runs a plantation in the afterlife, and how Q’eqchi’ debts follow them into the afterlife where they must work to pay them off. From this observation, we might imagine how Q’eqchi’ informants were also commenting to Sapper on the inescapable realities of debt servitude and their aspirations for a different kind of world, in the afterlife but also perhaps in this one too. Of course, we cannot know whether they did or not, but by offering these plausible alternative interpretations we open windows, however cracked and foggy, into different worlds.

“Eadweard Muybridge, Setting out a Coffee Plantation at Antigua de Guatemala, 1875, albumen print, published 1877,

At other times, alternative commentaries emerge from oral histories, which can give us access to how subaltern actors over time have remembered and interpreted their experiences of plantation life, including mythologies of intercultural understanding. In striking contrast to German self-representations of good fathers who nurture their workers in harmonious plantation worlds, Q’eqchi’s were ready to discuss being haunted and taunted by a half-man, half-cow who guarded the plantation and stole from them. El Q’eq (the black one), as this hybrid figure was called, is said to have been created by German coffee planters, when a German planter had sex with a cow. A product of deviant sexual activity, el Q’eq was born to serve the interests of the German planter. Most Q’eqchi’s discuss el Q’eq with great fear; he is an inversion of Q’eqchi’ cultural and political norms of solidarity and reciprocity.

El Q’eq was also known to steal from poor laborers and give the bounty to the coffee planter. He consumed copious amounts of eggs, which are symbols of fertility. Figures like El Q’eq offer a completely different window into plantation life, one at odds with German representations of cultural harmony and understanding. But such interpretations require, I think, that we speculatively read rural Maya actions and oral histories for symbolic and even philosophical content. Then we can slowly unearth the immense and violent power of mythologies of intercultural understanding, exposing the racial, class, and gender hierarchies those mythologies sustain. In this sense, Jacob’s analysis of intertribal development policies that tied the U.S. Southwest to Cold War Southeast Asia is even more intriguing. It can tell us how subaltern agency and collaborations take shape not only within cultural and geographical boundaries, but across them.

Jacob Tropp: Yes. It’s been fascinating to read our two articles together and to see how discourses of “intercultural understanding” have been used to legitimize and mystify strategies of coercion and violence, whether in the context of plantation exploitation in Guatemala or in the counterinsurgency ambitions of USAID and CIA officials in Southeast Asia. In many ways, American officials and their collaborating government actors in Laos and Thailand felt they were waging a local arms race of “intercultural understanding” with communist insurgents in their battle to “win the hearts and minds” of rural ethnic minorities. There are obviously significant tensions inherent in these dynamics, and a deeper exploration of local community perspectives on US-funded development-as-counterinsurgency campaigns (which other scholars in the field might have access to) could expose in more specific terms the problematic cultural premises and development prescriptions of the “intertribal” schemes I’ve highlighted in my article.

Another point of comparison between our stories is how leading actors in each case utilized “intercultural understanding” not only to achieve specific political economic goals among target populations but also to enhance their own professional reputations as “experts,” and the tensions embedded in such processes. Si Fryer is an interesting character in this regard. Julie describes how David Sapper used his later memoir to emphasize “his ethnographic sensibilities and keen intercultural awareness” as key to his successes in managing Q’eqchi’ coffee laborers (p. 389). In similar ways, Fryer highlighted the significance of his accrued intercultural “expertise.” In public addresses to American civic and business organizations and in multiple biographical statements and press releases he authored in the 1950s, as he moved from government positions in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and international development agencies to the private sector, Fryer repeatedly brandished his credentials as an individual with field-based experience and cultural sensitivity to “underdeveloped” peoples that equipped him to respond effectively to their developmental needs. In particular, Fryer stressed how the knowledge he had gained as Navajo superintendent during the New Deal era enabled him to secure positions and achieve continued successes among similarly “underdeveloped” societies across the globe. One doesn’t have to look far, though, to find the “tensions” surrounding these claims. While Fryer advertised his intercultural credentials, Navajo memories of his tenure on the reservation – particularly his central role in forcefully implementing the government’s notorious livestock-reduction scheme – often emphasized popular resentment, resistance, and trauma. As Fryer himself would later confide in an interview, he had heard that on the reservation “when the name Fryer was mentioned, it promoted memories of all the bad problems the Navajo had ever had. A Navajo once told me that as a small child his mother had used my name to frighten him: ‘Fryer will get you.’ That kind of thing” (E. Reeseman Fryer Papers, Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College [Durango, Colorado], Box 17, folder 15). 

 I think this example is related to your questions about “spotting” the tensions at play as discourses of “intercultural understanding” are created and deployed and then utilizing this recognition to hone our analyses of cultural politics in different historical contexts. In the case of Fryer, Sapper, and the other prominent individuals in these two articles, certain dominant voices were able to use their influential positions to make their renderings of “intercultural understanding” heard – both in their own moment and in the historical archive – and to serve particular agendas, while differently situated actors were less able to do so. Thus the challenge we face is not only to pursue, as Julie suggests, creative interpretive strategies for accessing these less dominant voices and perspectives, such as “reading against the grain” of archival sources and incorporating oral histories, but also to interrogate the historical power dynamics that structure the relative visibility and influence of certain narratives over others.

I’d also like to slightly reframe the question. In addition to the value of spotting and investigating these tensions, I find it equally fascinating to explore the conjunction of moments of tension and disruption alongside moments of alignment and connection. Thus, as I suggest in my article, artisans in the Zuni Pueblo community during the Thai officer Manas’ visit expressed concerns over threats to their livelihoods that contradicted USAID and CIA officials’ ambitions for intercultural exchange and understanding, while at the same time these government officials and Native American leaders like Apache tribal chairman Ronnie Lupe found some common ground in promoting notions and programs of “intertribal” cooperation. One the one hand, this conjunction underscores the unstable, malleable, and negotiated meanings associated with “intercultural understanding” in particular historical situations. Perhaps as significantly, it suggests the importance of closely examining how different perspectives on “intercultural understanding” lead to reconciliation and alignment in some instances and tension in others, as well as the larger landscape of power dynamics and relationships that explain the simultaneity of such divergent outcomes.

CSSH: You’ve come up with several good ways to enhance the already-rich accounts of intercultural understanding you offer in your articles: oral history, analysis of myth and folklore as forms of political critique, additional study of experts, and closer consideration of how culture-talk privileges some forms of difference, and some varieties of expertise, over others. You’ve also left us with two indelible images: a monstrous, egg-stealing creature that does the bidding of German landowners and torments Mayan workers, and a US government official whose name is used to frighten Navajo children. Collaborative ventures undertaken with indigenous peoples require compelling languages of mutual recognition. El Q’eq, or something like him, is built into the grammar of these languages, whether the message is one of inclusion or marginalization. It’s probably wise to track these creatures as they travel in and out of our analyses: another useful method your conversation suggests.   

Thanks for sharing this extra round of insights with us.

About the Authors

Julie Gibbings is a Lecturer in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of two forthcoming books: Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala(Cambridge University Press, 2020) and (co-edited with Heather Vrana) Out of the Shadow: Revisiting the Revolution from Post-Peace Guatemala(University of Texas Press, 2020).

Jacob Tropp is Professor of History and John Spencer Professor of African Studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. He is author of Natures of Colonial Change: Environmental Relations in the Making of the Transkei (Ohio University Press, New African Histories Series, 2006) and is currently working on projects exploring the entanglement of international development and Native American histories.

By ltwstu

Lecturer of Anthropology University of Michigan Associate Managing Editor Comparative Studies in Society and History