Maya Archaeology and the Political and Cultural Identity of Contemporary Maya in Guatemala

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By Avexnim Cojti Ren

History of colonization left Maya People in an unequal position of power in the economic, social, political and cultural arenas in the different states we reside. Our People has also a strong history of resistance that develops new strategies to overcome this disadvantaged position.

During the process of peace between the Guatemalan Government and the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), the Maya organized sector fought for the recognition of our historical reality as a People with no political representation, with the highest rates of poverty, and target of continuous state discriminatory policies. As a result, the Accord on Indigenous Peoples Rights and Identity was signed in 1995 as part of the Peace Accords in Guatemala.

In such accord it is recognized that the Maya Indigenous People have historical distinct culture, identity and languages. It is also recognized that Maya have been historically at the bottom of the social strata, have been victims of exploitation and discrimination and that this historical reality affected and continues to affect our People by denying the right to political participation and cultural self-representation. Based on such recognition, the Government of Guatemala compromised to promote reforms to the political constitution of our country and promote Maya Indigenous organizations and projects.

The signing of the Peace Accords which include the Accord on Indigenous Peoples Rights and Identity is a positive step for our people, although we know that the implementation of the accords will take longer time and much more effort.

The notion that Guatemala is a multicultural, multiethnic and multilingual society has only five years of existence. Although the Peace Accords recognize the ethnic and linguistic reality of the Peoples in Guatemala, the political system of government has maintained and wants to maintain the assimilation policy of Indigenous People by converting the Maya into ordinary Mestizo Guatemalans. This homogeneous national culture as in the phrases "We are all Guatemalans, We are all Chapines" aims to maintain the power of the Ladino State and continue the oppression of our People.

In Guatemala we have responded to the situation of internal colonization and assimilation with a movement of resistance that seeks to affirm our cultural and political identity and the right to them. We are looking for common aspects that can unify us in a national culture. It has been a difficult task since our culture is varied and undergoes constant change as in any other society. Yet, is something that unifies us as a People, as a community in the Guatemalan state, in the other states in which we live, and even with other Indigenous nations around the world - that is our common history, millennia of independence and sovereignty followed by 500 years of resistance to colonization. History shapes our present cultural and political identity individually and collectively. The history behind our individual experiences is in the end our collective history. Our historical identity is then the common identity we need.

Sadly and unfortunately, the HISTORY of our People has also been colonized. That is, the history of the Maya has been distorted and is told by others. The colonial system guaranteed the continuation of its legitimacy by erasing the records (written, material, cultural, oral) that could be used to support claims of historical legitimacy and cultural distinctiveness of Indigenous People. (Wyllie:1995:260). As a result, our unequal position of power in Guatemalan society and other states is explained variously as a result of the colonial and the capital systems. As Victor Montejo writes, the last five centuries of Maya history is a history of racist discrimination and degrading colonial representations of our people. Such racist and colonial history was used and continues to be used to justify land expropriation, relocation and assimilation of Indigenous people today.

As Indigenous people generally we are blamed and even blame ourselves for the lack of progress, poverty and violence of our countries, communities, families and our own selves. Other effects of this historical colonial continuity of blaming the oppressed at an individual level are low self-esteem, self-alienation (regarded as our natural passiveness), and the practice of discrimination against other fellow indigenous people and their culture. While at the same time, the non-indigenous culture, that is, the ladino and western cultures are seen as naturally superior and their modern model of life is the one to embrace if Indigenous people want to progress socially and economically and be acknowledged as true people and true citizens.

In order to unite as people who share a common identity we must celebrate our common history, but in our respective countries our history and heritage is appropriated and exploited as 'national patrimony'. Maya sites, artifacts, documents and so on have been constructed as characteristic of Guatemalan identity rather than the identity of the Maya. For instance, while the repatriation of archeological remains and artifacts in North America means returning them to the Indigenous community, in Guatemala repatriation of archaeological remains go to the ladino state rather than to the Mayan communities (Cojti: 1995:48-49). We do not have a say in our material culture nor the history that is embedded in it. State governments deny us the right to our cultural heritage and the history that represents. As a People, we need to recognize and understand both the historical basis and the continuing practices of colonization that attempt to rob us of heritage, identity, self-esteem and agency. But more important, is our reconnection to Maya history prior to European invasion and colonization, that is the history of sovereign nations, with own systems of government, with their own literature and writing, their own languages practiced at all levels of society, spirituality, leisure practices, family life, art, music, food, and so forth just as in any Western developed society.

In the last century, the fields of Archeology and more recently Epigraphy have been participating in the writing of Maya history. We acknowledge that in the interpretation of Maya calendrics, mathematics, and astronomical science and making these available to the public, Archeology and Epigraphy have contributed to create a positive image of our people. Furthermore, these elements have been adapted to present Maya publications, guipil designs, individual names, art, jewelry, and so on, which also positive to our people identity.

However, there are also serious drawbacks to the ways that Maya history is being written and presented to an increasing large public.

Today the Classic Maya are being portrayed as a great ancient society with achievements in astronomy, mathematics, architecture and other sciences that existed for a certain period of time until for unknown reasons their civilization collapsed and the people disappeared. Such image of our people as civilized and great appears to be positive, but such characteristics pertain to Western ideology of progress, that is, social complexity, technology, science, cultural sophistication. Even pre-contact Maya history has been divided into levels of civilization: pre-classic, classic, and post-classic. The classic period is considered the most important because it is where there was more production of writing, art and architecture. The other two periods are not considered as important as the classic and therefore the people that lived during those periods were not thought to be as sophisticated as the classic Maya. This civilization inferiority is also applicable to contemporary Maya. That is, we might also believe that if current Maya do not produce the magnitude of art and architecture as Maya did in the classic period we cannot achieve the same greatness. In addition, to be considered 'authentic Maya' we must conserve the cultural practices and traits of our great past such as the rituals, the cosmovision, the art, and agriculture. Even dress and physical traits must be maintained as the traits of 'The real Mayas of the Past', otherwise our identity is questioned.

Theories of the Maya collapse have varied. Warfare and invasion, elite's guilt, superstition, environmental destruction altogether with population growth are some of them (Wilk: 1985: 315-16, Montejo 1999:). But in the end, the result will be the same, the notion of a collapse is the notion of a failed civilization and it separates present Maya people from their past. Collapse denies our continuity as the original people of countries in which we reside and our possible claims to that historical continuity. The result of that discontinuation of our history is that Maya are denied a true identity; we are regarded still by the general population and even ourselves as just "Indios", with no history nor culture but customs and traditions, no land title, with dialects, and so forth. In this view, the past Maya civilization deserves to be honored but not the present "Indios", our people is dehumanized and devalued and any discriminatory or even ethnocidal policy against Indigenous people is thereby justified.

Another image and description of Classic Maya society today focuses on the twin themes of rulership and violence exemplified in academic literature, popular media, including television documentaries such as the recent Nova episode called "Copan, Lost King of the Maya".

Maya Kings are represented as agents in history for ruling a society and making war, yet such rulers appear more like autocrats rather than true leaders of a nation. We learn about rulers and their relations with other rulers, their conquests, the sacrifices made to them but we do not learn about their family relations or festivities or how they governed our people. Their lives are considered as based on violence and ruling and sacrifice.

As Victor Montejo noted, the image violence, and sacrifice of our people in the past reinforces the justification for violence and oppression in the present. These interpretations lead us to believe that in pre-conquest times our People was already in a state of oppression from our governors leading to the notion that our present situation as targets of violence and national policies is just the continuation of the past; we have just changed oppressors. Another possible interpretation from such violent past is that we have been saved by the Church and now we enjoy if not perfect, at least a better governmental system that came with the Spanish invasion.

As a people, we do not deny the fact that warfare, violence and human sacrifice were practiced as this information is well documented by Archeology and Epigraphy. But the emphasis made in this part of our past is so exaggerated, as if no other society was or is as violent as the Maya. Archaeologists seem to forget that all past and present societies have warfare, torture and violence, many in dimensions never practiced by our ancestors, and which are very well documented in daily newspapers.

Our past society is composed of a variety of social, political, economic and cultural processes just as societies are today. The lives of the Kings and Spiritual leaders, warfare, sacrifice, and rituals cannot enclose what a whole Maya society was, no society actually can be narrowed to some separate aspects of life or individual agents.

The ritualistic image positions past and present Maya as a continuation of the past with minimal changes. This image of ritualistic contemporary Maya is what to archaeologists defines the identity of present Maya as Maya. In this sense, contemporary Maya are used to bring the dead past to the present and the changes in our as a culture are ignored. (Hervik, 1999: 180). People from my own community Chichicastenango are represented as the true continuity of the Great Mayas when doing their rituals and sacrifices, when, in fact, the expressions of spirituality also evolve while people still consider themselves Maya.

Past practices, events, objects, had their own meaning for our people at a certain point in time. The knowledge of spiritual and social practices and our past ways of government have been known and shared among our people in the present, although with obvious changes over the past two thousand years. Archeologists know this fact and have used Maya present knowledge to describe the past. We have become good informants to reconstruct the language, spirituality, and cultural practices, but our views are not treated as equal to those of archaeologists when it comes to reconstructing our history. The information given by present Maya sources is selected and appropriated to fit the image and interpretation that archeologists want to create, rather than considering Maya interpretation of past history as truthful, and starting from it as the basis for further study.

Speaking about the past of other societies becomes an issue of who has the right to speak for whom, and who has the right to write whose history (Hanna 1997: 74). Archaeological research reports are taken seriously as scientific investigation and receive positive media coverage and public acceptance with no questioning. Because archeologists have legitimate authority from academia and governments to interpret the facts of the past, they are considered the scientific experts to share such historical knowledge with all humankind. The Maya past is considered a common good to be shared with the international community rather than a cultural right of Maya to decide how our past will be shared with other non-Maya people.

The distribution of historical information is usually aimed at a white middle class public, ignoring that Maya themselves are getting more access to sources such as computerized media, literature, museum displays, or television documentaries in their original countries and other countries around the world. Thus, our representation becomes the description of 'the other' to western society through our mysterious, exotic, ritualistic and violent life while westerners affirm their own identity by being a society with modernity, a culture with logic, true history, good moral values and so on. In short, our past and present life is sensationalized and sold to western consumers as a newly discovered property (Echo-hawk 1997: 107). The archeological image of Maya constructed as the culture of the other affects how non-Indigenous populations, corporations, and government institutions perceive us and treat us, as well as how we perceive ourselves.

Control of the Maya past is equal to the control of our power in the present, for history is the basis for demanding respect for our political and cultural rights as a People. The reconstruction of our past history by archaeology has to do much to benefit the interests and needs of present Maya. We are still excluded from archaeological research management, and from the interpretation of our own past. Access to the Maya past through various media is becoming more available to Maya, and we want to relate to our history rather than being treated as objects, historical resources for the public and for the market. We want to speak on our own behalf, we want to tell our own history.

In this sense, it needs to be recognized that archaeology and epigraphy have been and will be political, for they have repercussions on the cultural and political identity of the people whose history is being studied. As Maya we want and need to reconnect with our past, an alive rather than a dead past that empowers our present struggles for decolonization and allows us to have more agency in the making of our own future. History is power for our people; history is the basis for Maya land rights, historical patrimony, education, language recognition, leadership and so on.

Archeologists can help to decolonize the Maya history by being more ethically responsible to contemporary Maya people needs and interests when reconstructing our past lives and the images of our lives. Anne Pyburn in 1995 stated that there is already a body of theory and guidelines in applied anthropology that could be adapted for a responsible Archaeology. Similarly, Larry Zimmerman proposes that Archaeologists must be anthropologists first, meaning that Archaeologists must consult with Maya people and get Maya involved in every level of the research, and acknowledge Maya alternative knowledge for Maya past interpretation. (Zimmerman 1994a:66)

Archaeology as a science must acknowledge that it is greatly influenced by the culture of its practitioners and such culture (western culture) influences the perception of what is appropriate as subject of study and interpretation (Hanna: 1997:72).

One set of guidelines applicable for a more ethical and scientific archeological research and interpretation of past cultures is the guidelines for ethical biology (Bioethics) drawn from the conclusions of the UNESCO Ethics on science in 1994.

  1. There is freedom to do research, but scientific progress must have as a priority the respect for the dignity integrity and liberty of the human being.
  2. With the fast scientific and technological advances, it is necessary a fast and precise action of participation of all parties affected. National committees of Ethics and derived organizations have the right to call for accountability from decision makers about issues and implications of eventual decisions regarding scientific advances.
  3. Governments and respective legislature have direct responsibility in the decision making process regarding scientific advances. There shall be a conscious participation for all citizens through public and pluralistic debates. In addition, it is necessary to take into consideration different opinions, historical and cultural contexts, value systems, philosophies and religious beliefs existent in different societies.
  4. Biotethics trespass borders. The essential principles of Bioethics which are human dignity, liberty, justice, equity and solidarity now internationally recognized can be a basis for different states legistation or regulations.
  5. Science and the future of humanity are strongly related, and the world balances depend upon such inter-dependent relationship. International law and its application must play a key role in this arena. The states must reinforce international agreement about ethical and judicial interpretations of science and its applications to reinforce necessary accords on crucial matters that pertain to all humanity.

These guidelines for Bioethics can be applied to the field of Archaeology for its principles intend to do no harm to the dignity of the human being. Archaeology can continue doing research and interpretation but with the essential principle of not to harm those cultures studied and the public of its research.

The World Archaeological Congress, as well as the archaeological association of several nations, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand have developed codes of archaeological ethics for dealing with Indigenous peoples.

Similarly, the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAPGRA has changed the unequal position of power of Indigenous peoples and Archaeologists. For Rebecca Tsosie NAPGRA is primarily a 'human rights' legislation designed to remedy the inequality of treatment of Caucasian remains and Native American Remains; a history of inequality that treated Indians as inferior. (Tsosie: 1997:70) With the passage of NAPGRA, Indigenous property rights to cultural patrimony have become more respected (Ferguson et al 19997: 243). Opportunities for equal Indigenous involvement have also increased in Archaeological research and interpretation of artifacts and human remains. NAPGRA is an example for Archaeological responsibility to the living Indigenous communities and their relation to their past.

The World Archeological Congress Code of Ethics and the Canadian Archaeological Association were drafted by Indigenous Peoples. These codes of Ethics are therefore representative of he needs and interests of people whose history and identity is in question and the subject of investigation (Lilley 2000b:106).

Following is a Summary of Ethical Principles of Archaeology towards Indigenous Peoples covered in the Canadian Archaeological Association and World Archaeological Conference (By Marvin Cohodas)

    1. Property ownership vs. Human Rights

      WAC notes that while Indigenous peoples often have had the lands taken away that support heritage sites, and thus cannot claim legal property ownership, they have a moral or human rights title to control of our own heritage, especially since that heritage is still alive for them and important in their spiritual, political, and emotional lives.

    2. Politics of Identity

      Both statements of principle recognize that control over the excavation and interpretation of the archaeological heritage of today's Indigenous Peoples remain essential for their well-being and cultural survival.

      These issues involve identity as it is constructed in several different spheres such as:

      • How they feel about themselves in relation to each other, the individual belonging to a nation.
      • How others view Maya people as a group, which affects how they deal with Maya people. This includes not only touristic travelers and consumers but also state governments, IGO's, multi-national corporations, etc. This is a crucial political issue involving Indigenous rights to tell our own stories, versus the stereotyped characterizations produced by those who have colonized and exploited them.
    1. Informed negotiation and consent

      Collaboration in Maya people has been addressed primarily by negotiation with nearby communities over the labour of excavation, and over potential subsequent development of touristic infrastructure, which are positive for local economic benefits but do not reconnect present communities with their historical past.

      However, the WAC goes farther in requesting collaboration with Indigenous peoples, communities, or their representatives before excavation begins, in order to agree on questions, goals, procedures, and they require that the community (or representatives) be kept informed at every stage of investigation

    2. Training Indigenous Archaeologists as Equal Partners

      The training of Indigenous archaeologists as partners is a vital pre-requisite to so that both sides can engage in well- informed negotiations concerning excavation questions, goals, and procedures.

      We would like to have Maya Archeologists of the Maya past, but we don't want foreign institutions to produce archaeologists to be just physically representative. Rather, we want conscious archeologists that can help Maya to reconnect to our past as and our present needs.


    The WAC insists that interpretations be with deference and respect to Indigenous descendants. Their main point is respecting Indigenous oral traditions.

    Respectful interpretations can only be accomplished if it is understood that Maya are part of the audience reading the interpretations, and have the political power to reject degrading stereotypes (Pyburn).


    The WAC begins by noting that archaeologists have obligations to Indigenous Peoples, and these moral obligations determine the principles and rules of their ethical behavior. Speaking and writing ethically about the past of Indigenous Nations in general and specially the Maya past, is a political act that can repair the historical injustices towards Indigenous people and can benefit the needs and interest of Maya in their current struggle against colonialism.

In conclusion, History plays a key role in our people in resistance to colonization and discrimination. We have an interest in reconnecting to our past because history can empower our present and our future. Archaeology and epigraphy as sciences reconstructing the past of Maya people need to be aware of the implication of their excavation and interpretation work since Maya are the subject of their study and part of their audience. In this sense, archaeology and epigraphy are accountable to the Indigenous Maya in the countries where we reside including the countries were we have immigrated. The implementation of already existing archaeological ethics codes is a starting point to decolonize Maya history not only in the field of excavation but also in the field of interpretation.


Acuerdo Sobre Identidad y Derecho de los Pueblos Indigenas. Gobierno de Guatemala y Unidad Revolutionaria Nacional Guatemalteca. Suscrito en Mexico 1995.

Cojti Cuxil. 1995: Waqi' Q'anil: Configuracion del Pensamiento Politico del Pueblo Maya: (2da. Parte). Guatemala: Iximulew.

Cojti Cuxil, 1997: Waqi' Q'anil. El Movimiento Maya. Editorial Cholsamaj. Guatemala.

Roger Echo-Hawk. 1997. Forging a New Ancient History for Native America. Pp. 88-102. In Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to a Common Ground. Edited by Nina Swidler, Kurt E. Dongoske, Roger Anyon, Alan S. Downer. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press. E98 M34 N37 1997.

Margaret G. Hanna. 1997. We Can Go a Long Way Together, Hand-in-Hand. Pp. 69-84 In George P. Nicholas and Thomas D. Andrews edited, 1997, At Crossroads: Archaeolgoy and First Peoples in Canada. E78 C2 A82 1997.

Montejo, Victor D. 1999. Becoming Maya? Appropriation of the White Shaman. Spring 1999. Available at

K. Anne Pyburn, 1999. Native American Religion versus Archaeological Science: A Pernicious Dichotomy Revisited. Science and Engineering Ethics 5:355-66.

Alison Wylie. 1995. Alternative Histories: Epistemic Disunity and Political Integrity. Pp. 255-72 in Schmidt, Peter R. and Thomas C. Patterson, editors. 1995. Making alternative histories; the practice of Archaeology and history in non- Western settings.

Rebecca Tsosie. 1997: Indigenous rights and Archaeology. Pp. 64-76 in Native Americans and Archeologists; Stepping Stones to a Common Ground. 1997. Edited by Nina Swidler, Kurt E. Dongoske, Roger Anyon, Alan S. Downer. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press. E98 M34 N37 1997.

Larry Zimmerman. 1997. Remythologizing the Relationship between Indians and Archaeologists. Pp. 44-56 in Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to a Common Ground. 1997: Edited by Nina Swidler, Kurt E. Dongoske, Roger Anyon, Alan S. Downer. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press. E98 M34 N37 1997.