Posted by: Johan Normark | May 19, 2009

The Maya movement: a mirror image of Mayanist arborescent culture models

The last century has brought considerable changes and transformations of the localized identities of the Guatemalan indigenous population. They are now developing the national and international identity of a “pan-Maya culture”. A thirty-year-long civil war, which officially ended in 1996, has to a greater extent than anything else formed these new identities. Indigenous leaders have in this process created a movement which emphasizes the pre-Hispanic cultural heritage. In the search for and creation of an independent and unaffected “Maya culture”, they have turned to archaeological remains, the vigesimal number system and the calendars. The hieroglyphic writing has gained a central position in this movement, since it is believed to give “authentic voices” of the past (Houston 2000:141). Often they use the results from archaeological and epigraphic research, which is dominated by Americans and Ladinos. Thus, there is a conflict of interests between the Maya leaders, the Maya commoners, the Ladinos and foreign researchers.

A discussion of what the Maya were and are has partially its origin in the colonial and the post-colonial environment, since the discussion of the relation between the Maya and the Ladino is unavoidable in Guatemala. Ladinos consider themselves to be a biologically distinct group. In reality, they are a mixture of “Europeans” and “Maya” (Fischer & Brown 1996:9).

The long civil war in Guatemala had profound ethnic and racist currents. It created a wave of revitalization in several communities and led to the formation of the Maya movement. The long road towards a more rightful treatment of the indigenous population was noticed in 1992, when the K’iche’ woman Rigoberta Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize. An agreement on the indigenous population’s rights was signed in 1995. This document states that the contemporary Maya are descendants of an ancient people who speak different but historically related languages. Further, the Maya languages are supposed to be taught in schools, the syncretic religion of the Maya is recognized and the indigenous population should participate in the administration of archaeological sites (Warren 1998:53, 56). Maya people are still underrepresented at universities in both Guatemala and Mexico. One percent of the Maya population gain university education. These universities do not teach Maya history or glyphs, so they have to study abroad (Grube & Fahsen 2002:218).

Undoubtedly, there will be more archaeological researchers who are indigenous themselves in the future. The question is how the Maya movement, which was formed during the civil war, will affect archaeology and anthropology, since they want researchers to adapt to their objects of study. To make things good after centuries of oppression, archaeologists are urged to interpret the result according to contemporary political and social needs. Requests are being made for artefacts that are now in foreign collections to be returned and the activists want the lowland archaeological sites to be declared as sacred sites (Houston 2000:140).

Although I support the Maya movement’s political agenda I cannot help viewing the movement as a mirror image of contemporary arborescent culture models in archaeology and anthropology. I therefore do not side with anyone. My aim is rather to abandon the humanocentric view of the past and look at how materialities affect and have affected agents and even how they have formed agency. Materialities and human agents as one of several assemblages defined and formed the identities of past people. There is no such thing as an essential Maya culture, just assemblages of heterogeneous parts connecting, opening up, and dissolving.

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