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Geographer Bernard Nietschmann, Champion of Indigenous People Around the World, Has Died of Cancer at Age 58

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
Posted February 2, 2000

Crusading geographer Bernard O. Nietschmann, a professor 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.

Though an academic, Nietschmann was very active in helping indigenous peoples chart their own fate.

"He 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. "He got native peoples involved in doing their own work."

In 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," and "Caribbean Edge: The Coming of Modern Times to Isolated People and Wildlife."

"The 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 and director of the Institute of International Studies.

After 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.

Nietschmann 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.

He subsequently advised the Indians during talks with the Nicaraguan government, which 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.

In 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.

He 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 permanent injuries.

Nietschmann was an exceptional teacher who won a Distinguished Teaching Award at Berkeley in 1996 and a similar award at the University of Michigan.

"He was really a remarkable teacher, always eager to involve his students in field work," Hooson said.

One 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.

"He was an amazing and inspirational mentor," she said. "He challenged me to pursue my dream of working and living in the tropics."

Nietschmann was born in Peoria, Ill., in 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 M.A. and Ph.D. in geography, he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan. He advanced to associate professor before coming to Berkeley in 1977.

In 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.

Nietschmann 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, Calif.

A campus memorial service is planned for sometime in early May.

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February 2 - 8, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 20)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
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