Mayan Priests Denied Access to Ceremonial Places in Guatemala

Guatemala, the heart of Mayan culture, has started their festivities for the 13 Baktun – the last cycle of the Mayan calendar, due to end on Friday, December 21, 2012. But sadly the celebrations were dominated by staged government shows which were neither led nor shared by indigenous communities or spiritual leaders.

On stage, non-indigenous peoples were wearing indigenous clothes in a folklore show while non-indigenous attendees from the Guatemalan elites were in the most important ceremonial Mayan center, Tikal, waiting for the new era to arrive. Indigenous peoples were left outside, were they were demonstrating, playing the traditional instrument marimba.

Tikal Gran Jaguar Temple by Graeme (under a Creative Commons Attribution License)

The Guatemalan Federations of Mayan Radios [es] reported early in the morning of December 20 that authorities from the Mam – Mayan council were not allowed to enter the central plaza of the National Park Tikal, one of the places for 13 Baktun celebrations. Authorities from the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism denied them access, arguing that the area of ceremonies was cut off for the stage show.

Men and women coming from each corner of the country arrived early to start their traditional ceremonies but were left out until 11:45 pm when the religious authorities were allowed to practice their ancestral ceremonies. Indigenous attendees were in minority as they were neither invited nor allowed inside the main area. The audio can be downloaded here [es].

This is not the first exclusion Mayan people have suffered. Concerns were expressed earlier by the Western Peoples Council:

Oxlajuj B'ak'tun is the time to strengthen ancestral wisdom and the practice and never-ending search for balance; it's a moment in which we must transcend, raise the consciousness of human beings and recognize ourselves as such in order to reach a collective understanding. This means we must ensure that human beings be “truly human in balance with the cosmos and Mother Earth”, through interweaving and respect between cultures and the valuing of identity in every community. Lacking this, the link between the individual and their own reality is already impossible.

It is offensive for the Maya people to see the economic power and government institutions promote the FOLKLORIZATION of Oxlajuj B'ak'tun, commodifying this important event, creating a political image out of tourist promotion and the presentation of spectacles, in a way that does not appropriately interpret the Maya cosmovision.

It is shameful on the part of the Guatemalan government to make the international community believe it is promoting the Maya culture, when it continues to develop an aggressive policy of appropriation of our natural resources. This manifests itself in hundreds of concessions and imposed mining projects, hydroelectric dams, oil extraction, monoculture crops for transnational companies, all in the name of false development as a method of domination and racism in Guatemala.

Racism is rampant in Guatemala State – institutionally, interpersonally, and structurally.  And it adopts new forms, such as the exclusion reflected in the new Mayan era celebrations. Let's hope the Mayan priests will be allowed in and celebrate according to their traditions and beliefs in the following days, as the festivities end on December 30 and that their voices and demands are finally heard by the international community.


  • This post is misleading. Think about it – is it racism when Joss Stone covers a soul hit? I am a long term resident of Guatemala and the truth is that there were plenty of Mayan ‘spiritual guides’ at almost every significant ancient ceremonial centre last Friday, some of them frankly talking about as much sense as you would get out of a random contemporary Athenian asked to explain Aristotle’s ethics. I did notice a substantial contingent of not-fully-indigenous actors in the Tikal extravaganza, but that is partially explained in that it was a piece of kitsch put on for the international audience and Guatemala’s indigenous peoples had no real reason to think of this as an ‘appropriation’ of their culture. Indeed, there was a clear demarcation between this supposed re-enaction of ancient rites and those which reflected the traditions now prevalent in the modern communities. All over Guatemala these were performed as the sun rose on Friday, whereas the stage event was put on the night before. Anyway, I see no compelling reason why Guatemala’s mixed-race population should not be made to feel it has a stake in the nation’s pre-colombian heritage. It cannot but help further integration and nation-building. Look across the border at Belize, where the majority population is of African descent and many of the same issues surface and yet would be altogether less easy to characterise with the same sort of vitriol. And look northwards at Mexico and how it has handled the same issues of race and heritage. There are surely longer term benefits to be had from this ‘inauthenticity’, just as when a black man plays any lead role in Shakespeare other than Othello. And if truth be told, there are no incontrovertibly authentic claims to cultural ownership of the meaning of the Baktun transition. Those of the ‘spiritualists’ and the Guatemalan state may seem easy to dismiss, but one must not forget that archaeologists mark the cultural expiration of the ancient/ elite Mayan civilisation from the moment each city state inscribed its last Long Count date, so any sense of unbroken intellectual (as opposed to ethnic) bond binding the ancient Maya with their modern descendants is also at best suspect. The sociological underpinnings of the Long Count remain a mystery to one and all, except to say that it formed part of the ancient cult of Mayan kingship, which would possibly not create much in the way of warm fuzzy feelings in many of the people witnessing the stage show last week, having very little to do with the balance of cosmos and Mother Earth. Indeed the behaviour of the Mayan elite of that era is almost a textbook lesson in how not to treat Mother Earth. As a consequence, Tikal was covered in foliage until half a century ago. I am all for a resurgence of indigenous rights and cultural pride in Guatemala, but not if it propelled by the sort of bogus druidic nonsense that greets the solstices at Stonehenge twice a year.

    • “kitsch” by definition is an appropriation of culture, even if it is innocent or unintentional. Non-native Guatemalans wearing “indigenous clothing” which was most likely not accurate, and performing “indigenous ceremonies” again most likely not accurate is the same as the English monarch wearing plaid and being crowned on the rock of Scone. It is an affront to, and a symbol of the domination of Scotland, and by extension all Celtic peoples. It doesn’t matter how kitschy or tacky it is, it’s still insulting. Of course the Guatemalans should be allowed to participate in and feel connected to the region’s rich cultural heritage, but they can do that without appropriating it for their own nationalist agendas. I live in New England, and I feel a connection to the Iroquois heritage, and the French-Canadian heritage that I grew up with. But I have not appropriated these cultural symbols for my own agenda. Nor have I sought to use those symbols to disenfranchise others. It is the usage of Mayan traditions and ceremonies for Guatemalan nationalistic purposes to which the author of this article, and I as an Anthropologist object.

      • What about ‘non-native’ Guatemalans dressing as Romans and Israelites during Semana Santa? To whom is that an affront? My point is that none of these ceremonies are actually performed or those costumes worn by any ‘natives’ here at any other time. The Tikal show was akin to what the Greeks did for their Olympic opening ceremony in 2004, purely and simply a bit of historical-mythic nonsense akin to a nativity play. At no point did anyone attempt to draw blood from their penis using a stingray spine. This is not the US or indeed Chile or Argentina where the racial line is more clear-cut. There are very few Guatemalans with NO Mayan blood. Indeed if you cheek-swabbed the current President, you would probably find that he had a more substantial indigenous biological heritage than a European one. Tikal is a fragment of a lost society we barely understand, and I would agree that it can easily become the focus for modern political agendas, but these work both ways. Guatemala has 20+ indigenous groups each with their own language and culture. None of them are located anywhere near Tikal and the forested lowlands of the north known as the Peten, so one could just as easily suspect ‘nationalist agendas’ in the appropriation of ancient Mayan sites by the modern indigenous rights movement. Half a century ago these groups had little sense of being ‘Maya’ at all. They were Quiche, Cak’chiquel etc. In the end, the stage show at Tikal was actually a minor event in the overall scheme of things. Where ceremonies were held in the parts of Guatemala where indigenous groups actually reside in number, such as my own, much more authentic and sensitive ceremonies were conducted and crucially, Guatevision the state-owned TV channel, gave far more attention to these. So I do believe that the overall effect of the Mayan calendar event here in Guatemala was nation-building rather than nationalistic, bringing people together rather than forcing them back into ethnic interest groups. But of course I am not so naive as to think the historical problems associated with race and ethnicity here in Guatemala can be solved overnight. Our President is ‘white’ because he and the wider culture has decided it is so, just as yours is ‘black’. (PS: One surely has to take even more affront at this! )

      • On a separate note, being a lapsed Brit with some knowledge of his own DNA ancestry I can’t let your comment about the ‘English’ monarch go. First up, you might say that the only English person to ever rule England was Oliver Cromwell. The Romans were from all over – Hadrian was from Spain, though Constantine was actually born in York. We then had a line of Saxons and Danes, followed by Normans (French-speaking Norwegians), Plantagenets (mostly French), Tudors (Welsh), Stuarts (Scots) until finally settling on the German dynasty that now rules us. My own paternal ancestors were Celt-Iberians that reached the British Isles from the area around the Basque country sometime after the end of the Ice Age. Most ‘native’ Britons are descended from this massive influx, because the land was empty at the time. Yet the abiding myth of identity in Britain is that everyone was Celtic until the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the 6th Century. Indeed, in France and America the term Anglo-Saxon is rather loosely used to describe all English-speaking people, yet the DNA evidence on this is categorical – modern native English men can only trace 2% of their heritage to the Angles and the Saxons and in the female line there is almost no trace at all. This should not be surprising, because the various Germanic groups that made the crossing after the Roman Empire crumbled, arrived – like the Spanish here – as predominantly male warriors intent on marrying locally, while the earlier migrations had occurred when the island was only recently defrosted. So where does that leave your ‘domination’ of all Celtic peoples? Well, although the notion of the subjugation of the Celts by the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ is easily debunkable, there really are two separate genetic/ethnic groups underlying modern British identities, but these took shape even before Julius Caesar set foot on the island’s southern shores. Bronze-Age ‘England’ was divided roughly down the middle, West and East between my father’s ancestors – your so called Celts – and people that had crossed the North Sea from Scandinavia and northern Germany. The latest research suggests that Stonehenge was constructed as a symbol of constructive unity between these two competing language-groups/communities. Unfortunately, subsequent history has seen some hard-coding of these age-old identities along nationalistic lines. As for your German lady affronting the rock of Scone, Malcolm III of Scotland (1058-1093) married Margaret the great-niece of Edward the Confessor, and was was eventually succeeded by his fourth son Edgar (1097-1107, nice Anglo Saxon name), who fought the Normans on behalf of both his lineages. British history and identity, like Guatemalan, is not a binary thing….

  • And I have to add, what I witnessed in Guatemala on Friday was not so different from what happened in the UK over the summer – people from different ethnic backgrounds coming together around a shared national heritage, albeit a kitschy one. There are Sikh families now in London that have erected Xmas trees in their front rooms this December. This is the sort of thing Guatemala needs. If you had actually been here for ‘doomsday’ you would have seen something truly extraordinary for anyone that has any long-term experience of this country and you would not be so quick to mock the ‘white’ people in Mayan feathers, most of whom were students rather than government stooges anyway. There is a famous local TV presenter, Spanish born, who attended one of the Mayan morning ceremonies and consistently referred to OUR history, and his pride in Guatemala’s heritage. The country still has some way to go to overcome centuries of distrust and exploitation, but the events of the past week have not been a retrograde step…except in as much as they have shifted perceptions of the ancient Maya back to those prevalent in the days of British archaeologist Eric Thompson, who regarded them as strikingly fey star-gazers. The new era was a much bigger event here than the rather embarrassing cabaret laid on by the government. It was marked at many levels of Guatemalan society including schools and universities…and this ought to be recognised!

  • […] Mayan Priests Denied Access to Ceremonial Places in Guatemala  (Renata Avila, December 22, 2012). […]

  • rwscid

    Mayan cosmovision = Christian Christmas = I believe in hobgoblins

    Perhaps when we stop taking seriously the superstitions of our poorly informed ancestors we can start taking each other seriously.

  • C D L

    …the sun never sets
    imperialism of non-inclusion
    faux feathers flap
    trinkets to mark
    it all belongs to us
    you are not needed here
    the show has already started
    step aside
    you are blocking the light…

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