Bernard Nietschmann; UC Geographer


Bernard “Barney” O. Nietschmann, UC Berkeley geographer who studied and aided native tribes in war-torn Nicaragua and other nations, urging them to take control of their own natural resources, including the green sea turtle, has died. He was 58.

Nietschmann died Saturday at his home in Berkeley of esophageal cancer, university officials said.

A prolific writer and dedicated ecologist as well as cultural geographer, Nietschmann had worked with the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast since his graduate school days in the 1960s.


Over the decades, Nietschmann earned their respect and persuaded them to work with him in preventing the extinction of the green sea turtle. He helped secure the 4,000-square-mile Miskito Coast Protected Area, approved by the Nicaraguan government in 1991.

During the Sandinista revolution, the Miskitos invited Nietschmann to see the Indians’ military struggle for control of their own habitat. The professor surreptitiously entered Nicaragua in 1982 and 1983 to travel with rebel fighters and later wrote articles for major American newspapers about the Indian resistance. His political commentaries garnered criticism from activists who were incensed by his critiques of the Sandinistas and accused him of playing into the hands of American right-wing politicians.

Nietschmann wrote a number of books about the Miskitos, including one in 1993 about his travels with the rebels, “A Fourth World Revolution: With Yapti Tasba Guerrillas Fighting the Sandinista Occupation.” Others were the 1973 “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” in 1979.

Ever the geographer, Nietschmann organized Miskito Indians and scientists to map the tribe’s off-shore terrain, describing the project in an article he wrote for the Cultural Survival Quarterly in 1995:

“On the far western edge of the Caribbean, within the wide marine shallows of coral, sand and sea grass, in the communal sea territory of indigenous coastal communities, Miskito--the traditional sea knowledge specialists--are working with invited marine scientists, Miskito environmentalists and lobster divers to map the Miskito Reefs and surrounding waters. The Miskito Reef Mapping Project is being done by the communities for three reasons: 1) to document that these vast waters and reefs are theirs; 2) to justify community defense of their sea territory against international lobster pirates, drug traffickers and industrial fishing fleets; and 3) to provide baseline geographic and biological information for future comparison of coral reef diversity and health.”

More recently, Nietschmann worked with Mayans in southern Belize to document their homeland, resulting in the 1997 publication of “A Maya Atlas: The Struggle to Preserve Maya Land in Southern Belize.”


In 1996, Nietschmann founded GeoMap, a Bay Area organization to help other indigenous peoples work with international scientists and modern mapping equipment to protect their habitats and cultures.

During his career, Nietschmann also studied marine resources of the Torres Strait islanders off the coast of Australia and aided Native Americans by protesting nuclear testing on lands of the Shoshone Indians in Nevada.

He served on the board of the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers from 1978 to 1981, was a founding board member of the Center for World Indigenous Studies in 1984, and since 1993 had been a member of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration.

Born in Peoria, Ill., Nietschmann earned his bachelor’s degree in geography at UCLA and his master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. He taught at the University of Michigan from 1970 to 1977 and then moved to UC Berkeley, earning distinguished teaching awards at both schools.

He is survived by his second wife, Angelina, a Miskito Indian activist he met in Costa Rica; a son from his first marriage, Bernard Nietschmann Jr., and three children from his second marriage, Carlos, Kabu and Tangni; his parents, Bernard Nietschmann Sr. and Elizabeth Quinn Wolf; two brothers; and a sister.